WNBA Today, 09/19/2012: Playoff Picture continues to clear, as Sky fade meekly away

Most of the important issues in the WNBA playoff race (and a lot of the unimportant ones) were decided a long time ago, which has made it a struggle to retain interest in the closing weeks of the regular season. However, technically, last night’s three games all still had some relevance to either playoff qualification or home court advantage in the postseason. Which isn’t bad with only six days left. On to the Bullet Point Breakdowns.

 

New York Liberty 66 @ San Antonio Silver Stars 77

  • The night kicked off with the only game where both teams had something to play for. Mathematically, at least. New York were the team who needed it more, with a ‘magic number’ of two heading into the night. They still needed a combination of two more Liberty wins or Chicago Sky losses just to sneak into the playoffs. San Antonio still had faint hopes of stealing home court advantage away from Los Angeles in the first round, but it was going to take wins in their last three games, and LA losing their last two, to get there.
  • Throughout the contest, San Antonio’s best player was second-year point guard Danielle Robinson, who’s had a very impressive season. She’s lightning quick, which both helps her get to the rim and pester opponents defensively. It also means that if she pokes away a steal or breaks out in transition, no one’s catching her. She’s also worked hard on her mid-range jumper, which has been falling consistently all season long. You can’t just leave her open to take that shot any more, because she’s shooting 55% from the field and it’s not just layups. In fact, she’s shooting 47% from both 11-15 and 16-20 feet, way above the league averages. Her control of the team as a point guard has improved as well. Since being drafted she’s benefitted from playing alongside Becky Hammon, who takes on a lot of the creative responsibilities, but she’s not just standing on the wing and watching Becky work any more. She’s legitimately the point guard on significantly more possessions, and has increased her assists while lowering her turnovers this season. The PG spot in San Antonio should be in good hands for years to come.
  • Robinson’s primary partner in crime early in the game was Shameka Christon, who seems to have rediscovered her three-point shooting touch recently. Which is a good thing, because she doesn’t do much else. The Silver Stars run plays designed purely to get her open from her favourite spots for three (diagonal from the rim out on the wing, on either side), and she was converting. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 09/18/2012: Lynx fight past Fever again

When you cover the entire WNBA, you come to treasure Mondays, in a way. For whatever reason, the League typically goes dark on the first day of the working week, and it almost feels like an extension of the weekend. It’s an extra day of rest for us poor writers. There’s only been one other Monday game throughout the 2012 WNBA regular season. You probably don’t remember it – the Los Angeles Sparks blew out the Washington Mystics back in June. This time, giving up my Monday night was much more palatable.

For the second time in four days, the Indiana Fever faced the Minnesota Lynx, this time back in Minneapolis. While the Fever still held slim hopes of catching Connecticut for the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference, the main interest in this game was simply based around seeing two of the best teams in the league face off. There was also the added spice that each team would respond to what worked and what didn’t in Friday’s 66-64 Lynx win, and the possibility that these teams could meet again in a month for the WNBA title. This was never going to be your typical end-of-season walkthrough kind of game.

Minnesota were boosted by the return of Seimone Augustus from her sprained foot, and she immediately went back into the starting lineup in place of Monica Wright. However, they were without backup post Amber Harris due to illness. The Fever had their usual starting group again.

From the opening tip, this was an intensely physical game, and the officials let a lot of contact go. There were players complaining on both sides in the early minutes about not getting calls on drives. That’s hardly unusual in any professional basketball league, but it did seem rather haphazard all night long as to whether you’d draw a whistle in the paint. And as ever, it felt like someone would get mauled on one play without a call, and then the whistle would blow for the tiniest touch on the next. With the playoffs coming, these officials are going to be under even closer scrutiny, and we can only hope that we’re talking about them as little as possible throughout the postseason.

Tamika Catchings took center stage early on, hitting two threes inside the first couple of minutes, leading to Rebekkah Brunson being benched for Devereaux Peters. Brunson’s been exceptional for Minnesota this season, especially since the Olympic break, but she’s struggled in these two games against Indiana. Typically, you’d expect her to have some difficulty defending Catchings, but be able to compensate by dominating the glass. In practice, that hasn’t happened, and Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve increasingly went with Peters instead over the two games. Hopefully that’s just a matchup issue for Brunson, and she’ll bounce back against other opponents. Minnesota need her at her high-flying best for the postseason. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 09/17/2012: Sunday, bloody awful Sunday

Welcome to the new, little-publicised WNBA event: Unwatchable Sundays! Oh alright, that’s a touch harsh. We had an impressive upset to start, and an exciting finish to close, but wow was there a load of dross in the middle. The 2012 WNBA regular season isn’t so much limping to its conclusion as it’s crawling there on its hands and knees, begging for mercy. The playoffs are now only 10 days away, thankfully.

 

Tulsa Shock 80 @ San Antonio Silver Stars 70

  • San Antonio came into this game with lingering hopes of catching the Los Angeles Sparks for 2nd spot in the West and home court advantage in the first-round (although those hopes have been fading since LA started winning a few games). Tulsa have been playing for nothing but pride for quite some time now, but some decent performances have illustrated that they’re still fighting for wins, not ping-pong balls.
  • The central issue in this game all afternoon came down to our old favourite cliché: “it’s a make or miss league”. Tulsa shot well from outside, racking up threes consistently; San Antonio fired away just as often, and kept missing. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.
  • I had the benefit of watching this game via archive rather than live, so having already seen the boxscore and noticed the significant discrepancy in three-point shooting, I kept a close eye on that aspect of the game. There really wasn’t one particular way that Tulsa created their three-point shots. There were a few on drive-and-kicks, which you’re always going to give up occasionally in San Antonio’s typical defensive schemes, where the wing defender is expected to shade in and help protect the lane if necessary. There were a few where defenders went under ball-screens, and the Tulsa shooter simply fired away with the space that created (arguably preventable by the defense if the post shows harder or if you fight over the screen, but they were hardly major breakdowns). And there were a couple which just came off solid ball movement or players moving well off the ball and finding space. There wasn’t one horrible, noticeable failing in the Silver Stars’ defense. They just got lit up.
  • Although this game did send me off looking for team stats on opponents’ three-point shooting percentage, and San Antonio are the worst team in the league in that category. So maybe there is a more systemic issue – all the help necessary to contain opponents in the paint and somewhat fix their rebounding issues may have led to too much room on the perimeter. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 09/14/2012: Led by stud rookie, Sparks slip by the Sky

Just the one WNBA game last night, but it was an intriguing encounter. Chicago had the most to play for, coming into Thursday half-a-game behind New York for the final Eastern playoff spot. With the season series between the Sky and Liberty tied at 2-2, if they finished with the same record it would go to conference record to decide. New York were at 9-12 (with one Eastern game left in Washington on Sunday) and Chicago at 7-13 (two Eastern games left, against Atlanta and Washington), giving the Liberty the upper hand. An upset win in Los Angeles to pull them level in the standings would’ve been huge for their postseason push.

However, LA had their own reasons to fight for the victory. 1.5 games clear of San Antonio in second place in the West, they still need wins to make sure of home-court advantage in their first-round playoff series against the Silver Stars. But more importantly, the Sparks had lost 4 of their last 5 games, several of them with fairly pitiful performances. This was the start of a four-game home stand for LA to close out the regular season, and they needed to start finding some form before we hit the postseason.

The Sky were still without star center Sylvia Fowles and veteran point guard Ticha Penicheiro, but having broken Minnesota’s 11-game winning streak on Tuesday night without either of those players, they should’ve been confident that they could survive without them. Courtney Vandersloot continued at the point, with Carolyn Swords in the paint.

As we saw when these teams played each other a couple of weeks ago, the way each team tries to set up their perimeter defense creates immediate interest. Both teams want their defensive stopper on the other side’s most dangerous perimeter scorer, which means Tamera Young guards Kristi Toliver for Chicago, and Alana Beard tracks Epiphanny Prince for LA. That’s fine for the Sparks, because the shooting guard is simply taking the shooting guard, allowing Toliver to defend Vandersloot, and DeLisha Milton-Jones to cover Young. But for Chicago, their small forward is sliding over to cover LA’s point guard. It leaves the Sky’s small backcourt of Vandersloot and Prince to cover Beard and Milton-Jones. Even on the official rosters (which tend to be generous), Chicago’s starting guards are listed at 5’8” and 5’9”. Beard and Milton-Jones are officially 5’11” and 6’1”. Basic size was going to be an issue for Chicago all night.

However, defense wasn’t the Sky’s main problem early on. Rather than just switching on practically every screen, which tends to be LA’s modus operandi defensively, they were trapping Prince and Vandersloot off ball screens with hard, active double-teams. And Chicago were absolutely atrocious at handling it. Multiple times they simply gave away the ball under LA’s pressure, unable or unwilling to make the pass out of the trap. It’s a pretty basic defensive tactic, which can be negated by quick ball movement, setting screens off the ball instead of on, or simply breaking down your defender without bringing a screen over to begin with. But Chicago didn’t manage any of that for much of the game – certainly not in the opening quarter. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 09/13/2012: Four blowouts and a windbag

It’s fair to say that last night was not exactly an evening of WNBA basketball for the ages. Four games, all ending in double-digit margins, three of them featuring teams who would love the 2012 season to just end. While the fourth game involved a team missing its entire starting backcourt. It was a night of blowouts and minimal excitement, and Carolyn Peck. Yeah, if you missed it, I wouldn’t worry too much.

 

Washington Mystics 62 @ New York Liberty 75

  • This game was yet another repeat of countless other Mystic appearances over the last couple of years – enough fight in them to make it competitive for a while, but not enough quality or composure to play a full 40 minutes.
  • For the first three quarters, Washington were in this. They spent most of the first half trailing by 5 or 6 points, with Cappie Pondexter dominating the ball even more than usual for the Liberty. Monique Currie was aggressive going to the rim, constantly creating layups or free throws, and Noelle Quinn hit a couple of shots from outside. Against a New York team that looked a little anxious, and was sometimes playing too quickly for their own good, that was enough to be within 37-34 at halftime.
  • It was still all Currie for Washington in the third quarter – by the end of 30 minutes she had 22 points with only one bucket that wasn’t either at the rim or from the foul line. Fortunately for New York, Currie’s opponent at small forward – Nicole Powell – was having one of her rare effective scoring nights, with 15 points of her own on a perfect 5-5 from the floor. Considering Pondexter was receiving little help from anywhere else, it was a good thing for New York that Powell’s offense had decided to show up for once.
  • In fact, the recent additions to New York’s starting lineup – Essence Carson and Kara Braxton – who’d been moved into the starting unit precisely to provide more offense, were benched for virtually the entire fourth quarter. Braxton played less than 9 minutes all night. Instead, it was Leilani Mitchell and Kia Vaughn given the opportunity to help New York home.
  • And despite a 55-55 tie heading into the fourth quarter, it was ultimately very comfortable for the Liberty. Vaughn kept knocking down her mid-range jumper (and the Mystics kept leaving her wide open to take it), Plenette Pierson was linking up with Pondexter and sliding to the rim to finish (Washington struggled to cover the pick-and-roll and slip-screens all night long), and that was enough. Currie cooled off in the fourth quarter, and no one else could buy a basket for the Mystics. That was it. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 09/12/2012: Dream stomp Storm yet again, while Sky excel to leash Lynx

Sometimes, history can be a wonderful indicator of upcoming basketball results. Sometimes, paying too much attention to the past leaves you looking like an idiot. Last night’s two WNBA games helped illustrate that nicely.

The first game was in Atlanta, where Seattle were the visitors. Since being swept by the Storm in the 2010 WNBA Finals, Atlanta have absolutely dominated this matchup, winning the previous three clashes by a combined 57 points. The Dream’s speed and athleticism on the perimeter, combined with their endless driving to the rim, has consistently proven too much for Seattle to handle. That said, this was the first time since those 2010 Finals that Lauren Jackson had been in uniform against Atlanta. This was Seattle’s chance to show that the two comfortable wins over Tulsa last week were down to their own development, not just the Shock’s weaknesses.

Both teams stood by their regular starting lineups, with the league’s leading per-game scorer Angel McCoughtry continuing to come off the bench for Atlanta. However, the two sides set up their defensive matchups differently from the start. The Dream were using Armintie Price on Sue Bird, while sliding point guard Lindsey Harding over onto Katie Smith. That allowed them to keep the pressure up on Bird, without tiring out Harding too much. Inside, Sancho Lyttle was on Lauren Jackson, while Erika de Souza started on Camille Little – Atlanta wanting their more mobile post defender on the player who’s more likely to shoot from anywhere. At the other end, Seattle were far more standard, with Bird on Harding, Smith on Price, Little on Lyttle and Jackson on de Souza. Both teams, as is their standard style, were perfectly willing to switch assignments when it made sense.

It’s interesting that Seattle rarely try to hide Bird on a lesser offensive threat. She has a reputation as a weak defender – and it’s pretty well-earned – but she’s gotten smarter over the years, and at least knows how to funnel opponents towards her help. Maybe they’d be more worried by what Price’s speed could do against her than Harding’s driving and distribution.

The early stages of the game were reasonably tight. Seattle were looking to Little and Jackson inside, and after firing an ugly three as her opening effort of the game, Jackson made sure her following efforts were from much closer. Without too many early turnovers or long misses from the Storm, Atlanta’s running game was being kept in check, and most of their scoring was coming from de Souza in the low post. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 09/10/2012: Sunday afternoon’s for basketball too

Paying no heed to the opening Sunday of the NFL season, there were five WNBA games on the slate yesterday. But we’ll get to those in a moment – unusually, there’s been some moderately worthwhile news emerging from our league over the last 24 hours.

Firstly, as announced by Cindy Brunson at the WNBA’s Inspiring Women Luncheon (and then first reported by Mel Greenberg via @womhoopsguru), the WNBA draft lottery will be televised by ESPN for the first time on September 26th. That’s much earlier than they’ve held the lottery before, but it should help build some buzz for the league heading into the playoffs. The extra interest this year obviously surrounds the 2013 graduating class that’s led by Baylor center Brittney Griner, with Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins considered pretty nice consolation prizes. It’s good to see both the League and ESPN showing that they’re invested in coming up with new ways to draw people into the WNBA, and get them talking about its potential.

The WNBA also announced today that they’re bringing back the concept of involving fans in the Most Valuable Player Award voting. It’s something they tried in 2008 when Candace Parker won the award, but there’s been a little more thought (and significantly more sense) put into the idea this time. Four years ago the fan voting was weighted as 25% of the overall vote, with the media balloting accounting for the remaining 75%. This time, the entire fan vote will count equal to one media member, with the results sliding in alongside the 41 individual voters. So rather than 25%, the fans’ opinions will be worth about 2.4% this time around. That’s a much better idea, if they really want to give the great unwashed a hand in the MVP award. Many of the media who are given a voice may not actually watch enough games for my taste, but the MVP shouldn’t be allowed to become just a popularity contest. Even I will take the media over the general populace in a vote like this. If you want to join in, you can vote daily here.

In less pleasing news for the WNBA, Mechelle Voepel at ESPN.com published a piece last night revealing that Kayla Pedersen and Temeka Johnson have both missed games recently due to yet another staph infection hitting the Tulsa Shock. It’s the third time in three years that Tulsa players have suffered from staph issues, and it’s not something that paints the franchise or the league in a nice light. It’s also slightly disappointing in the way it highlights the obvious lies that get spouted by teams and the league in relation to injuries. Pedersen was out with ‘flu-like symptoms’, and then just out with no explanation; Johnson had an ‘ankle/abdominal injury’. All of that might be true, but it’s also obviously an attempt to fudge reality.

While Voepel was revealing that unsavoury news on ESPN’s online portal, the TV branch was messing around with their schedules. In case you were expecting to see the Seattle @ Indiana game on ESPN2 on Wednesday night, be aware that you’ll now need either NBA TV or LiveAccess to see that game. Instead, ESPN2 will now be showing the far less interesting Connecticut @ Phoenix game several hours later. The Sun have also already stated that star center Tina Charles will be staying home from that game to rest hip and groin injuries, and recover from general fatigue.

And having got all that out of the way, let’s take a look at the basketball that was actually played yesterday.

 

Minnesota Lynx 81 @ San Antonio Silver Stars 62

  • While San Antonio are back in one piece after center Jayne Appel returned on Friday, Minnesota began this game with star guard and leading scorer Seimone Augustus in street clothes. She was out due to a sprained foot suffered against Atlanta a couple of days ago (although she had been ready to go back into that game, so it’s unlikely that it’s particularly serious). Monica Wright replaced her in the starting lineup. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 09/09/2012: Déjà vu for Storm and Shock

As mentioned in the past, as a rule I typically enjoy single-game nights in the WNBA. It provides a slightly more relaxing evening, and allows you to focus in on the matchups and development within one contest. However, most rules have occasional exceptions.

The problem with last night was that we’d seen it all before. And it’s not like you had to cast your mind back very far. Seattle faced Tulsa – in another single-game WNBA night – only two days earlier, and blew the Shock out in Key Arena. The only difference last night was that the venue had switched to the Shock’s own BOK Center back in Oklahoma.

Still, sometimes these quick-turnaround home-and-home games can be interesting, because you see what improvements either team has made to counteract what went wrong in the previous encounter. The first switch for Tulsa was to reinsert Kayla Pedersen into the starting lineup in place of Chante Black. Considering how the Shock had been ripped apart in the paint two nights earlier, you couldn’t blame Gary Kloppenburg for changing things up. Of course, Pedersen came off the bench in that game and was just as ineffective as the starters, but it was worth a shot. Tulsa also had veteran point guard Temeka Johnson back in uniform after missing a couple of games due to ankle and abdominal injuries, although Ivory Latta continued to start at the point. Seattle were unchanged.

Okay, enough with the pretense, this game was ultimately very, very similar to the encounter two nights earlier. The Shock couldn’t remotely handle Seattle inside, with Lauren Jackson’s size and strength, and Camille Little’s outstanding footwork and slippery movement far too much for them. In fact, having reminded themselves of their superiority over this team in the paint on Thursday, Seattle went inside far more in this game. They’d relied on an outstanding shooting night to pull away in the previous game – this time the base for everything came from the posts. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 09/08/2012 (Part Two): East meets West, while the Sky keep hope alive

So while we’ve already looked at the standout game from Friday night, there were four other games of varying levels of interest as well. Three were cross-conference matchups, which are always more intriguing purely because the teams play each other far less frequently. The squads don’t know each other quite as well, and players clash with different opponents for a change. The fourth was the vital matchup between the two teams still squabbling over the only playoff spot yet to be decided. So let’s get to it.

 

Los Angeles Sparks 96 @ Washington Mystics 68

  • We’re getting this one out of the way as quickly as possible, rather than giving it pride of place at the top of the column because it deserves it. The starting fives were the same again for both teams.
  • There were actually a few positive signs for Washington early on. They were creating points by being aggressive off the dribble, and exploiting the flaws in LA’s pick-and-roll defense (which had been highlighted for them in several recent LA losses to better opponents).
  • Unfortunately for the Mystics, Candace Parker opened the game actually scoring in the paint. Yes, Parker was posting up, looking for feeds down low, and running for finishes in transition as well. That’s what we’ve needed to see from her for a while.
  • LA started to take control towards the end of the first quarter, when Alana Beard was on the floor with a bunch of Sparks backups. It was Jenna O’Hea’s second straight impressive outing, and her arrival looks to have given the LA bench the shot in the arm they were hoping for. She knows her role, she can consistently hit that corner three, and she doesn’t try to do too much in other aspects of the game. So kind of like what Marissa Coleman was supposed to be offering all year, but has largely failed miserably to provide. Continue reading