WNBA Today, 09/15/2012: Two potential Finals previews, two mismatches, and one running (unfunny) joke

There were five WNBA games last night, but we’re going to split them into three very distinct categories. Firstly, there were two matchups that could’ve been previews of the WNBA Finals coming up in October. Then we’ve got two games which were won by playoff teams against squads that were either seriously understrength or just aren’t very good. Then there’s a final game which I refuse to waste more than a few words on seeing as one franchise is taking the concept of quitting on a season to a whole new level. As you might expect, the level of detail in the coverage is going to decrease significantly as we progress through this column.

 

Minnesota Lynx 66 @ Indiana Fever 64

  • For the third straight game, Minnesota were without star shooting guard Seimone Augustus due to a sprained right foot. It still seems like a precaution more than anything to worry about. The Lynx have virtually everything sealed up in terms of home-court advantage, so there’s no need to rush her back. Monica Wright once again deputised, while Indiana had their regular starting unit in place.
  • Indiana have been rolling lately, winning 10 of 12 since the Olympic break, but they’ve beaten a lot of poor teams or sides mired in losing streaks over that stretch. This was a chance to really test themselves against one of the best. The opening minutes didn’t look good, as jump shot after jump shot clanked off the iron for the Fever, and even on rare drives they were failing to convert. Point guard Briann January attacking Lindsay Whalen was the only option offering any success.
  • Meanwhile, Minnesota started quickly behind transition baskets and Rebekkah Brunson’s mid-range jumper. This was the first time we’d seen Indiana face the Lynx since Tamika Catchings’s full-time move to power forward, which created a direct matchup between her and Brunson. Each obviously creates problems for the other – Catchings has perimeter skills that make it hard for Brunson to cover her; Brunson is a bruiser inside and frequently a demon on the boards. Early on Brunson had the edge.
  • Indiana finally started to make some shots as the opening quarter progressed, with January and Catchings both connecting from outside. Katie Douglas was still ice cold, which allowed Minnesota to maintain their lead. Once again, this has become the fear for Indiana – if their shooters go cold for a night from outside, can they create enough offense via any other route to survive?
  • The defenses were active and dangerous for both teams, but Indiana’s continued to break down slightly more frequently as the first half progressed. They were switching constantly, but also pushing into passing lanes and trying to cut off entry passes. A team like Minnesota was smart enough to use that against them, and reverse passes or backdoor cuts found gaps behind the Fever defense on several occasions.
  • Minnesota also got another nice stretch from rookie post Devereaux Peters, who looks like she might’ve punched her way through the rookie wall.
  • Minnesota were on top, but between Catchings and January Indiana did enough to be within 41-33 at halftime.
  • Part of the reason Tammy Sutton-Brown played so little in this game – besides the usual reasons Tammy Sutton-Brown’s minutes are limited – was that Minnesota were just giving her any shot she wanted from 15-feet and out. They were barely guarding her at all out there. She took it a couple of times, and bricked both, with the extra post defender simply sitting in the paint clogging up the lane instead.
  • Inevitably, on their own floor with a decent crowd behind them, Indiana came out of the locker room with energy and tried to make a push. The defensive pressure was even higher, and there was more concentration on attacking the rim rather than firing away from outside. But the Lynx answered. Their own defense was strong, Maya Moore made a couple of nice plays offensively both for her own offense and to create for teammates, and at least initially they staved off the Indiana run.
  • On a per-possession basis, these are the #1 and #4 teams in the WNBA this season, but the second half highlighted the fact that they’re also #2 and #3 defensively. There were no easy buckets in the closing stages, with everyone having to fight tooth and nail for every opportunity to score. The coaches were clearly intent on trying to claw out the win as well. Indiana’s Lin Dunn played the same five for the entire fourth quarter, riding January, Douglas and Erin Phillips on the perimeter, with Catchings and Erlana Larkins inside. There was no sign of the dreaded fourth-quarter no-Catchings, no-Douglas lineup for this game. Minnesota’s Cheryl Reeve gave heavy minutes to Moore, McWilliams-Franklin and Whalen, although Candice Wiggins was the choice ahead of Wright, and Devereaux Peters had played well enough to keep a quiet Brunson on the bench.
  • Indiana’s Catchings/Larkins frontcourt is small, relatively speaking, but damn they’re fun to watch. Unlike the true centers on Indiana’s roster, Larkins is constantly in motion, and like Catchings will fight for and chase after any remotely loose ball. It was their rebounding, and the steals that the similarly active defense generated, that really made this a game in the fourth quarter.
  • With Katie Douglas finally discovering a little accuracy, Catchings going to the rim and the steals generating some transition points, Indiana kept pulling within a couple of points, only for the Lynx to hold them off. Larkins had a strong move inside to cut it to 63-62 with 50 seconds remaining, then Peters badly missed a jumper for Minnesota – only for Moore to beat Catchings to the rebound. Catch fouled Moore immediately afterwards – possibly because she still thought she had a chance to snatch the ball away, possibly because she thought Indiana were running out of time. With 31 seconds left they hadn’t needed to foul, but when Moore went 1-of-2 at the line, it worked out okay. When January used a hesitation dribble to go past Whalen and hit a left-handed layup, tying the game at 64, it looked even better for Indiana. That was the first tie since 0-0 – Minnesota had led since the opening basket.
  • With just under 24 seconds remaining when they inbounded after a timeout, Minnesota naturally ran down the clock. With 8 seconds left, McWilliams-Franklin came out to set a high pick for Whalen. The Lynx were anticipating the switch, seeing as that was how the Fever had defended all night, and that was what they got – January stayed with McWilliams-Franklin, while Larkins was left to defend Whalen. Minnesota’s point guard drove by Larkins, and hit an 8-foot bank shot off the glass. Whalen had clattered into January as she pulled up for the shot, but the referee decided it was half-charge/half-flop, and called nothing. Indiana had 1.6 seconds to pull the cat back out of the bag.
  • It didn’t happen, but they came very close. A back-screen from January broke Larkins open under the rim, and the inbounder Douglas bullet-passed the ball directly to her. But McWilliams-Franklin recovered in time, and put Larkins under enough pressure to force the miss. The pass had also led Larkins just far enough under the basket to make the finish tricky.
  • The 66-64 final scoreline makes this look like a slow, defensive slugfest of a game. But while the defenses were on top, it was the kind of encounter that left you feeling a Finals series of 5 games just like it would be a lot of fun. The Fever couldn’t get on track from outside all night, but they managed to compensate by forcing 17 turnovers which led to 20 points. 12 offensive rebounds, and only a 30-27 defeat overall on the glass is an impressive outing for the Fever, considering the typical difference between how these teams perform on the boards. Credit Minnesota’s defense for forcing them into difficult shots and making them miss, but on a different night Douglas and Catchings shoot better from outside, and the outcome could easily have been switched.
  • It was a tough, hard-fought win for the Lynx – just the sort of game you want to prepare you for the postseason. Brunson was shockingly quiet compared to recent games, and will be hoping to bounce back when these teams face each other again on Monday, but Peters stepped up to fill the void. Yet another little-bit-of-everything game from Moore, and another piece of last-second magic from Whalen did the rest. Finals preview? You never know.

 

Connecticut Sun 82 @ Los Angeles Sparks 93

  • You’d probably get similar odds on this being the Finals matchup in October as you would on Indiana-Minnesota (although maybe a little longer, due to Minnesota’s strong form and Connecticut’s injury issues). The Sun had Tina Charles back after she was given a game off to rest hip and groin pain, and she started alongside Mistie Mims in the Sun frontcourt, moving Kelsey Griffin back to the bench. Los Angeles had their usual group out to start, coming off a solid win against Chicago the night before (although they almost gave it away in the final minutes).
  • There was none of the cross-matching defensively that had been a constant part of the Chicago game. Everyone was defending the same person who was guarding them, with Mims up against Candace Parker, and Charles taking Nneka Ogwumike.
  • It was an incredibly tight first half, and from beginning to end no one led by more than 4 points.
  • After an 0-5 shooting night while being swamped by Tamera Young (and plenty of help) against Chicago, Kristi Toliver was immediately aggressive against Allison Hightower. Toliver had two drives inside the opening 90 seconds, the first resulting in a pair at the line, the second in a nice layup. That set the tone for her first half.
  • Not for the first time, Parker played some awful defense in the opening 20 minutes. Mims doesn’t have a thousand post moves, but she’s smart and solid enough that she’ll hurt you if you don’t pay attention or work hard. Both of those issues came into play at times.
  • However, inevitably, most of what Connecticut did effectively on offense ran through Charles. She had several nice finishes inside, looking mobile and healthy. In fact, Parker looked fluid as well, when she was on the floor. If they weren’t having the occasional poor performance, sitting out the odd game or getting visible treatment on the bench, you’d barely know the two superstar bigs were fighting through pain. Which is a credit to them both (even if, given LA’s situation, Parker might be better off getting some rest).
  • Even with Asjha Jones still out, Sun forward Kelsey Griffin barely played in this game, and when you look at the rosters you can see why pretty easily. Who can she guard? This is the curse of the college power forward, forced to convert to a 3 in the pros or forever be undersized inside. As it turns out, Griffin’s ended up better off as an undersized-4 in the WNBA, but only because she was such a disaster as a 3.
  • Connecticut had a couple of mental breakdowns late in the first half which allowed LA to take a lead into the locker room. Ogwumike slipped in untouched for an offensive rebound and putback off a missed free throw; an attempted pass from Kalana Greene was picked off easily by Alana Beard; and Kara Lawson backed away from Parker at the other end, allowing her to finish at the rim. Toliver closed out the half with another jumper, giving LA a 43-39 lead at the break.
  • Intriguingly, LA switched up their defensive assignments in the post for the second half. From the very first possession, Parker was on Charles, rather than Mims. I haven’t found any quotes from after the game which give an indication as to whether Parker asked for the assignment, or if Sparks head coach Carol Ross made the move for some other reason, but it definitely happened.
  • On the face of it, that defensive change was a dangerous move, given how many times Parker’s defense is distinctly less-than-spectacular. LA were also contending with the memory of several horrendous third-quarters in recent games. But starting with a Parker block of Charles on the opening possession of the second half, it flat out worked. It was like Parker was energised by the extra responsibility of being asked to cover Connecticut’s best player. Parker was firstly doing a solid job defending Charles, then turning that energy around and pushing back the other way.
  • The energy spread throughout Parker’s teammates, and LA started running and gunning, turning several Sun turnovers and misses into transition baskets for the Sparks. From 48-47 early in the third quarter, LA ran off an 18-0 streak to go up 66-47. All five of the Sparks’ starters made contributions, with Toliver actually the quietest after scoring 13 in the first half. Multiple Mike Thibault timeouts could do nothing to slow the momentum.
  • Connecticut finally stopped LA’s run by heating up from outside. Renee Montgomery started it, with a four-point play and another pair of triples, before Danielle McCray joined in. That at least had the Sun within 75-60 at the end of the third quarter.
  • Desperate for better ballhandling, fewer turnovers, and more long-range weapons, Thibault went to his small lineup for the entire fourth quarter, with McCray as the nominal power forward. Obviously, this was dangerous against LA, because once their starters are back on the floor you have to handle the Ogwumike/Parker frontcourt. But Thibault was out of alternatives.
  • Ross had Jenna O’Hea, Jantel Lavender and Marissa Coleman all on the floor for the start of the fourth, resting Parker, Toliver and DeLisha Milton-Jones simultaneously. By the time they came back with 7:31 remaining, the gap was down to 10. Ross’s rotations sometimes leave something to be desired, especially considering how her bench has performed for most of the season. She has to find time for her key players to rest, especially with far more important games coming up in a couple of weeks, but that was a dangerous time to take so many out.
  • The three-point barrage continued for Connecticut, with Tan White joining the party. LA were making pathetically little effort to plant Parker in the post and attack McCray, who was trying to guard her. Parker did touch the ball a couple of times on the perimeter – including one where McCray stripped her and turned it into a layup the other way, cutting the score to 79-77 with 5 minutes left.
  • Finally, we saw some post attack from LA. Ogwumike slashed through and finished. Lawson cut the gap to a point with yet another three. Then LA ran the exact same double screen on the left wing that we’ve seen from Atlanta – clearly something Ross brought with her from the Dream. It turned into a nice feed from Toliver to a cutting Parker for another layup. A minute later, Parker actually posted up on McCray down low, and was rewarded with a soft, soft foul call against McCray when Parker tried to turn into her patented turnaround fadeaway jumper.
  • In amongst all that, there were some horrible turnovers from both teams. Toliver had two, one forcing a pass into a space that didn’t exist, then trying a ridiculous and unnecessary lookaway feed that careened off the glass after being tipped. Sometimes you feel like Kristi would be happier playing for the Globetrotters. The Sun had a particularly ugly giveaway where White picked up her dribble, took a couple of steps, and realised she had nowhere to go with the ball – so she just kept going and travelled.
  • After firing their way back into it with threes, it felt like Connecticut had forgotten how to run anything else in the closing minutes. Charles barely seemed to have touched the ball. With a minute left and a three-point lead, Parker faced up McCray, and drove past her for a nice reverse at the basket. Then Montgomery missed badly from outside. LA followed with a simple high pick-and-roll between Toliver and Ogwumike, Toliver made the simple pass, and Ogwumike finished for a 7-point lead. That was the ballgame.
  • It was a crazy game. A first half where neither team could create any kind of gap was followed by a blowout third quarter and then a big comeback. The Sparks look a lot more confident back on their own floor, which is part of why home court advantage in the first round against San Antonio is so important to them. The entire Sparks starting five finished in double-digits, but for once Parker was back to being the star. That’s been a rare occurrence since the Olympics, but she ended up 8-12 for 23 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks. And her defense in the second half, both on Parker and when LA’s switching forced her to stay in front of guards, was better than we’ve seen for months. With the version of Candace Parker that we saw in the second half, they’re a threat to anyone.
  • Still missing Asjha Jones – who would make Connecticut one of the few teams with a frontcourt that can go head-to-head against Parker and Ogwumike without needing help – Connecticut did what they could. Ultimately, the build up of turnovers, especially in the third quarter, hurt them a little too much. Charles played nearly 37 minutes and finished 9-17 for 21 points and 13 rebounds, but only scored 6 in the second half. The hole they dug in the third was just a little to big for them to clamber their way out of. Fortunately for the Sun, Indiana’s earlier loss means they still hold a 1.5-game lead at the top of the East. The teams play each other for the final time in the regular season on Wednesday night.

 

Atlanta Dream 82 @ Washington Mystics 74

  • So we move on to the games that very much aren’t potential WNBA Finals previews. The interesting pre-game news from this one was that Atlanta had finally decided to give Angel McCoughtry her starting spot back, as she replaced rookie guard Tiffany Hayes in the lineup. It had been working pretty well with McCoughtry coming off the bench, but you can hardly blame them for putting the league’s leading scorer on the court from the opening tip-off.
  • Atlanta got off to a horrendously slow start. As is often the case late in the season against teams who’ve been as consistently poor as the Mystics, sometimes the opposition thinks all they need to do to win is show up. And Washington are a little better than that.
  • In fact, through the course of the first half, it almost felt like the uniforms were the wrong way round. Washington were the team creating steals and turning them into transition points, in typical Atlanta style. In Monique Currie, the Mystics had the most aggressive and productive perimeter player on the floor (although McCoughtry was right there with her – just without much help). The Mystics had 11 offensive rebounds and 21 second-chance points in the first half, for a 42-32 lead at the break.
  • Of course, no one in their right mind expected the first-half momentum to hold up for 40 minutes. Led by Lindsey Harding on the perimeter and Erika de Souza inside, Atlanta had the gap down to 3 by the mid-point of the third quarter. Not helping Washington’s cause was the fact that Crystal Langhorne, generally their best player, was out of the game due to a foot injury after seeing just 10 minutes of action.
  • Washington kept fighting, but everyone else watching likely felt the same sense of inevitability about the second half that I did. Even when Currie free throws and a Jasmine Thomas three tied the game for the Mystics at 65 with under 4 minutes left, you were still just waiting for the hammer to fall. McCoughtry threw the key blows with a pair of pullup jumpers over Currie, while the Mystics were driving into traffic and coughing up the ball, or missing wide open shots from the perimeter.
  • Despite leading by 9 with 53 seconds left, Atlanta contrived a way to give the Mystics a little hope. Matee Ajavon converted a runner in the lane, then was fouled – ridiculously – on a three-point attempt. She made all three free throws, cutting the score to 76-72, but that just gave Washington a chance to blow it again. In a hurry to create another quick shot from outside, Thomas made a blind pass which was easily picked off by McCoughtry, leading to another Atlanta layup. That really did finish matters.
  • Although Monique Currie did still have time to slap the ball out of Hayes’s hands (long after the whistle had blown), earning herself her second technical foul of the night, hence an ejection. She was given a rousing ovation from those in attendance, purely because they were happy to see someone care enough to pick up two techs.
  • There’s nothing much left worth saying about Washington, even when they play well enough to run a solid team like the Dream close.
  • For Atlanta, Fred Williams might’ve been second-guessing his lineup change in the early minutes. Even with the solid basketball that Cathrine Kraayeveld’s been playing lately, that bench looks a lot thinner with Hayes down there rather than McCoughtry, putting extra pressure on the starting group to produce. Eventually they pulled it out, led by McCoughtry with 26 points on 10-18 from the floor, along with 8 assists. The good news for Atlanta has been that the impressive ball movement and unselfishness that really started to show itself during the games McCoughtry missed (when injured, suspended, or whatever), has continued with her back on the floor. As always, she’s the primary scoring option, but the ball doesn’t always come to a grinding halt when it reaches her hands. Indiana and Connecticut are fighting for that #1 seed primarily in order to avoid this team in the first round, not just to secure home court throughout the Eastern playoffs.

 

Seattle Storm 66 @ San Antonio Silver Stars 90

  • Good news for the Storm! Tanisha Wright was back, after missing a game due to a groin injury. Bad news for the Storm! Sue Bird was still out (hip), and Lauren Jackson joined her on the sidelines (hamstring). After 28 turnovers in a miserable 24-point loss to Indiana last time out, this one wasn’t looking too promising either.
  • The Storm had four turnovers inside the opening two minutes, including three credited as Becky Hammon steals. Yep, definitely not promising.
  • But then, amazingly enough, Seattle got a grip on the game. They were still capable of playing some decent defense even without their missing stars, and San Antonio had trouble scoring points once the Storm stemmed the tide of turnovers. With Ann Wauters actually catching and converting a few times inside, then Tina Thompson coming in and adding some offense, Seattle had a surprising 25-20 lead after the opening quarter.
  • The one very, very good sign for San Antonio, was that Hammon was alive and kicking to start this game. It was her outside shooting, combined with some of her trademark crazy finishes inside, that quickly wiped away the Seattle lead. Then she started firing in threes, with Shameka Christon joining in, and San Antonio were on top. Seattle did a solid job of keeping the pressure on and hitting a couple of shots to stay within 38-36 at halftime.
  • There wasn’t quite the air of inevitability about it that the Washington-Atlanta game exuded, but I think most of us knew where the second half was heading. Seattle hung around in contention for as long as they could, but the offense couldn’t really keep up with San Antonio. Especially once Sophia Young decided to remind us all that she was on the floor, joining Hammon as a central part of the offensive attack in the second half.
  • Another plus for the Silver Stars was that rookie Shenise Johnson provided some solid minutes in the second half. She played her part in the active defense and the increased speed of the transition game that San Antonio used to pull away. Johnson’s rather faded as the season’s progressed, which has affected the depth of San Antonio’s bench. If she’s found some new reserves of energy, it’ll help this team in the playoffs. Depth could be one of the Silver Stars’ key advantages against LA in the first round.
  • San Antonio pulled out to a double-digit lead in the third quarter, although they didn’t kill the game off entirely until the fourth. Young finished 6-10 for 19 points and 9 boards, but the real star was Hammon. 10-15 from the field, including 5-7 from beyond the arc, for 25 points – this was the first offensive explosion like this we’d seen from Hammon in nearly a month. Hopefully for the Silver Stars, that was the bubble bursting on her slump, and now she’ll use their final four games to tune up for the postseason.
  • Seattle’s hope at this point is that the rest their key players are getting is going to benefit them in a first-round series against Minnesota. Because they’re obviously not building the chemistry or rhythm that was supposed to be developing over this closing stretch. Also, hopefully, these injuries aren’t too serious, because their chances against the Lynx look pretty slim even when healthy. On the bright side, just the 21 turnovers this time.

 

Tulsa Shock 92 @ Phoenix Mercury 84

  • I mentioned on Twitter a couple of hours before this game that Phoenix would virtually clinch the third-worst record in the league with a win – it would’ve given them a 2-game lead on Tulsa, 3-games over Washington. So obviously, given how Phoenix have approached this season, I also joked that DeWanna Bonner should quickly sprain an ankle. Imagine my utter surprise when it was announced just before this game started that Bonner would not be playing. They went with ‘back soreness’ – presumably from carrying the Phoenix offense all season and heaving up all those shots – rather than the ankle, though.
  • So if Phoenix have actively quit on the 2012 season, I’m not going to waste my time writing much about them. Suffice it to say that rookies Dymond Simon and Lynetta Kizer came off the bench and produced enough offense to scare Mercury coach Corey Gaines in the first half. His team was in danger of challenging to win the game.
  • I’m really enjoying this strange-looking post move that Shock rookie Glory Johnson has developed. She spins away from the defender, takes off from one-foot, and puts up a soft shot while fading away. The spin and leap creates lots of room, with the front leg holding off the defender, and the shot generally seems to fall. I’m not sure if it’s pretty or ungainly – it somehow manages to straddle both – but if it works, keep using it.
  • Tulsa pulled away in the fourth quarter, largely behind the scoring of guards Ivory Latta and Riquna Williams.
  • So Phoenix got what they wanted. For all I know, Bonner was in agony (although she was popping up and down off the Mercury bench to cheer on her teammates). But after shutting down Diana Taurasi before their last game due to nothing more than ‘needing rest’, and going into a game that they desperately needed to lose in order to keep ‘fighting’ for lottery balls, it certainly seemed an awfully big coincidence that Bonner finally succumbed to injury. Congrats Phoenix, you fell into a tie with the Shock for second-worst in the league with this loss. I don’t know a single non-Mercury fan who wants you to end up higher than 4th when the ping-pong balls come out.
  • Tulsa played okay, and pulled out the win. They’ve continued to use everybody available, and play as hard as they can through the whole season. Which is nice.

 

Notes

Alexis Hornbuckle played in the above game for Phoenix, so presumably there’ll be no suspension for her Flagrant 2 foul in the previous game against Connecticut. The ruling typically comes down from the league before the team’s next game.

 

Upcoming Games

Sunday 16th September (tomorrow):

Tulsa @ San Antonio, 3pm ET

New York @ Washington, 4pm ET

Chicago @ Phoenix, 6pm ET

Connecticut @ Seattle, 9pm ET

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