WNBA Today, 09/22/2012: Lottery positions cemented with trio of tepid contests

It was hard to find many meaningful implications in yesterday’s WNBA games. The playoff matchups and schedule were already decided, almost anyone with the slightest injury or sniffle was being given the night off, and much of the basketball was less than scintillating. But when you’ve stood firm through the first 93 days of the WNBA season, it would be frankly ridiculous to quit on the antepenultimate night. Especially when it gives you an excuse to use the thoroughly pointless word ‘antepenultimate’.

 

Indiana Fever 66 @ Washington Mystics 53

  • Amazingly enough, this game actually had a little meaning for both sides. Washington still needed one more loss to confirm themselves as the worst team in the WNBA this season, thereby securing the best odds in Wednesday’s draft lottery. Theoretically, with two games left, they still had a shot at catching Phoenix. For the Fever, while home-court advantage within the conferences has been decided, home-court in certain potential WNBA Finals matchups was still up in the air. They went into the night tied with San Antonio.
  • Of course, none of that really meant much. Six players who might well have started in this game if they were healthy – and it really meant anything – were missing. Washington had Crystal Langhorne out again due to her left foot strain, Noelle Quinn missing due to her shoulder, and Michelle Snow out due to either her back or her knee (depending on where you found your information). Indiana were still missing Briann January and Shavonte Zellous, who went home to be evaluated for concussion symptoms after hits taken in the game against Minnesota on Monday. Fellow starter Katie Douglas was also out, having gone back to Indiana already due to illness. With Erlana Larkins sliding into Douglas’s spot in the lineup, it was the first time all season that Tamika Catchings was back in her old small forward spot to start a game. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 09/21/2012: Playoff ‘race’ concludes with a whimper

So last night brought the 2012 WNBA playoff chase to a conclusion in an entirely appropriate way, considering how the final two contenders have played for most of the year. Not with a bang or an explosive victory, but with the faint whistle of the air finally being sucked out of a wrinkled balloon. Or, if you prefer less flowery language, someone had to fill the spot, and finally a team was shoved over the line.

There was also a nightcap game between the teams which may well contest the Western Conference Finals, but unless you’re an optimistic Los Angeles Sparks fan, that was equally uninspiring.

 

New York Liberty 66 @ Tulsa Shock 78

  • New York had their destiny in their own hands. A victory over Tulsa would’ve stamped their ticket to the postseason. After missing the final 7 minutes of their previous game for no obvious reason, Plenette Pierson began this one on the bench, with DeMya Walker starting in her place. With Tulsa providing the broadcast, there was no information as to why, but presumably Pierson’s either carrying an injury or there was some kind of disciplinary reason. She was in the game after less than five minutes. Tulsa’s starting lineup was unchanged.
  • New York didn’t look much like a team fighting to confirm their playoff spot in the first half. In fact, most of their play looked half-hearted and aimless, with plenty of sloppy turnovers and a host of jacked up jump shots. The only effective offense was when they found Kara Braxton in the post, who took advantage of Tulsa’s lack of interior presence to provide some buckets.
  • Meanwhile, Tulsa fired away from long range and sank a host of threes, often left wide open by the lackadaisical Liberty defense. There was the occasional drive from the likes of Ivory Latta, but the perimeter bombing made up the bulk of Tulsa’s offense, and carried them to a 45-30 halftime lead. Temeka Johnson was 5-6 overall, 3-4 from beyond the arc, for 15 points in the opening 20 minutes. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 09/20/2012: Injury question marks linger as Eastern leaders complete season series

Just one WNBA game last night, and sadly it would’ve been a lot more interesting if it had taken place a few weeks earlier. It was the final clash of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, and the first time Connecticut and Indiana had faced each other since June. However, at this stage, the game meant virtually nothing. The teams were already locked in as the #1 and #2 seeds respectively in the East, so the only thing left to play for was home-court advantage against certain Western opponents in theoretical WNBA Finals matchups next month. Plus any small mental edge a win over your closest Eastern rival might create.

Indiana were the more cautious team, although they probably didn’t have much choice. The starting Fever backcourt of Briann January and Shavonte Zellous both took hard knocks in their previous game against Minnesota, and had gone home to rest and be assessed for concussion symptoms. Hopefully that’s precautionary, and they’ll both be available for the playoffs. Erin Phillips and Jeanette Pohlen moved into the starting lineup. Connecticut had Danielle McCray missing due to a sprained MCL, but continued to use even some banged up players, with both Tina Charles (groin) and Allison Hightower (wrist) playing through pain. They also had Asjha Jones back from her achilles injury and ready to play for the first time since the Olympics, although Mistie Mims continued to start at power forward.

While there was some limiting of minutes as the night wore on, especially by the Fever, neither team seemed to hide any quirks of their systems for a potential Eastern Conference Finals. Presumably they feel like they know each other so well by this point that there’s little point in keeping things under wraps. Rather than staying pure vanilla, both team used multiple defenses within the first quarter. Indiana opened in their standard man-to-man, switching constantly, and including the baseline double-teams which Tina Charles would have to deal with throughout a playoff series. Then we saw their 2-3 zone, which is flexible enough to sometimes look like a 3-2, when one corner defender rotates up high enough to challenge on the wing. Connecticut had their base man-to-man (which tries not to switch as often as Indiana’s), but also showed their bizarrely flexible defense where everyone seems to float, which is hard to define as a man-to-man or zone. They’ve used that mostly when going small with McCray at power forward in previous games, but tried it with standard lineups against Indiana. Both teams spent a lot of time in basic 2-3 zones as the night wore on, saving energy and keeping things simple. Continue reading

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