WNBA Today, 10/09/2012: Wild finish forces decider for Eastern crown

After Minnesota assured their spot in the WNBA Finals by completing a sweep over LA on Sunday, the Connecticut Sun had the chance to follow suit last night. But it was never going to be easy against an Indiana Fever team that clawed back from 1-0 down in the previous round and is led by the WNBA’s ultimate competitor, Tamika Catchings. If the Sun wanted the extra time off before the Finals begin on Sunday, they were going to have to hold off a Fever team fighting for its life in front of their own raucous fans. It turned out to be a hell of a battle.

There were no immediate, dramatic changes from the head coaches, as both Connecticut’s Mike Thibault and Indiana’s Lin Dunn stuck with the same starting lineups. The early minutes went Connecticut’s way, as the Sun broke out to a 13-2 lead. They’d opened the scoring with Tina Charles throwing up a three-pointer to beat the shot clock that dropped in, and kept the momentum going by knocking down jumpers and completing three-point plays at the rim. There was a quick pace to the game and the Fever were creating some opportunities in the paint, but failing to convert under pressure. It wasn’t a promising start for the team whose season was on the line.

However, as the first quarter progressed, Indiana settled down and started to ease their way back into the game. Big center Jessica Davenport saw her first minutes since the opening first-round game against Atlanta, coming in as the first post off the bench instead of Tammy Sutton-Brown, and provided a different look. She offers a big target for the offense to work around, and a soft touch when her shot’s falling. Then Tamika Catchings started drilling jumpers, with one from mid-range and a pair of threes to follow. Considering the number of poor shooting games Catchings has had in the playoffs – admittedly while driving the team in every other area – it was a significant positive for the Fever to see her start hitting early. Katie Douglas was looking sharp as well, and closed out the first quarter with a finish through traffic at the rim. Kara Lawson was already looking scarily hot from the perimeter for Connecticut but Indiana were right back in it after 10 minutes, trailing just 24-20. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 10/08/2012: Parker explosion not quite enough as Lynx advance again

After enduring a comprehensive defeat in a Game 1 that many felt they had a chance to steal, the Los Angeles Sparks were left in a ‘win or go home’ situation for the rest of the series. But that was also the one key advantage they had for Game 2 on Sunday afternoon – this time they were at home. Not just in the city of Los Angeles, but unlike the first round actually at Staples Center where they belong, where the Sparks were 16-1 over the course of the regular season. It was time to step up, or their season was over.

The signs from Game 1 hadn’t been good for LA. Minnesota picked their defense apart, unsettled the Sparks constantly with their defensive pressure, and responded impressively when LA briefly threatened a comeback. If LA produced the same kind of performance, the venue wasn’t going to make much difference.

Unsurprisingly, at this late stage in the year, there were no changes to the starting lineups. Minnesota have been riding the same group successfully for two years, and LA has a very limited bench, so personnel changes were never likely. However, there were some noticeable alterations from LA once the game began. Alana Beard was taking on more of the point guard duties, taking Kristi Toliver away from the ball where she’d struggled painfully in Game 1. Defensively, the Sparks started out with a combo-defense that looked a lot like a ‘triangle and 2’, where the bigs are in a zone down low and the guards play man-to-man on the perimeter. A reasonable idea in principle, except that it left Toliver trying to guard Seimone Augustus – and that never seemed likely to end well for LA.

The Lynx were the team on top in the opening period, playing with more speed and confidence to their offense and slicing through whichever defense LA threw at them. They were finishing well on the break, Lindsay Whalen was getting to the rim, and Rebekkah Brunson was already all over the glass. They were also the only team drawing whistles and heading to the free throw line – which unfortunately left you with the feeling that the officials would notice the discrepancy and end up ‘evening the score’ later in the game. Referees really shouldn’t do that, but it happens far too often to be a coincidence.

While there were some other, smaller contributors, LA began the game offensively as they’d continue most of the night – with Candace Parker carrying them on her broad shoulders. She had some outstanding finishes around the rim in the opening period, helping keep LA within 25-17 at the end of the first quarter. Her steady scoring rolled straight on into the second period, and it became even easier when the referees began evening up the foul count. Minnesota couldn’t buy a call in the second quarter, LA started getting all the touch fouls, and two quick whistles against Brunson sent her to the bench. That opened up extra room for Parker, who was already scoring the vast majority of her points on moves deep in the paint. The Sparks went on a run in the closing minutes before halftime, Parker leading the way with her obvious desire to keep the Sparks’ season alive, energising the crowd in the process. A final fastbreak bucket for Parker closed the half by dragging LA within a point, down just 40-39 at the break. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 10/06/2012: Sun cool off Fever to strike first in Eastern Finals

While the first round of the 2012 WNBA playoffs in the Eastern and Western Conferences mirrored each other in many ways – one team came through with ease, the other had a hell of a fight – there was one key difference. Los Angeles may have made it through to opening round comfortably, but they then had to go on the road to open the Conference Finals. Connecticut had a similarly straightforward first round, but they got to open the Eastern Finals on their own floor. While that gave them an extra comfort level that the Sparks didn’t have, it also made the game even more crucial. Dropping the first game at home would’ve dug a big hole that would”ve been tough to climb out of.

The Indiana Fever were their opposition, a team happy to still be alive after salvaging their first-round matchup against Atlanta. Indiana opened Game 1 against Connecticut with the same lineup that turned the Dream series, with Erin Phillips and Erlana Larkins starting the game. The Sun were also unchanged, featuring the same starting five that they used whenever possible in the regular season.

The opening quarter went well for Indiana, although in very different ways from how they battled past Atlanta. While they were keeping the pace high and pushing the ball down the floor as they had against the Dream, the first period saw a return to the perimeter attack that the Fever relied upon for much of the regular season. Either on penetration and kicks, or on simple ball rotation and passing, Indiana were finding wide open shots around the outside and knocking them down. While you’d typically prefer more of your shots to come from nearer the rim, Lin Dunn’s team weren’t going to turn down the kind of open looks that Connecticut’s defense was giving up, and Indiana were capitalising.

At the other end, Connecticut were firing up a lot of shots from similar range, but without the space Indiana were finding. For the Sun it was more a matter of settling for outside shots and being kept out of the paint by the Fever, rather than taking jumpers because they were open. Tina Charles and Asjha Jones were being double-teamed if they attempted to post up on the low block, and were beginning to simply stop bothering to venture down there. Indiana were already 4-10 from three-point range after 10 minutes of play, and led 22-14.

The Fever double-teams on the low block have been a feature of their defense all season, so Connecticut should’ve been ready for them. Rather than coming from the high defender on the same side of the floor as the ball, the extra defender comes from the baseline. The initial defender overplays the high side, knowing where her help is coming from, and then the attacking player tries to turn into the space on the baseline – only to run into the second defender. It’s especially effective because the player it leaves open is on the opposite side of the floor, in the deep corner, who is hard to rotate the ball to before the defense can recover and jump back out. In the opening stages of this game Connecticut rarely managed to find anyone open or create anything useful against the pressure of those double-teams. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 10/05/2012: Lynx tear Sparks to shreds to open Western Finals

The WNBA’s Western Conference Finals began last night, in the same arena where barely 45 hours earlier Minnesota had required a Lauren Jackson miss at the buzzer to keep their season alive. With several extra days of rest, you might’ve though that the Los Angeles Sparks would come in and take advantage of a Lynx squad that had needed to fight tooth and nail merely to make it this far. You’d have been wrong.

The starting lineups for both teams were as expected. Lindsay Whalen’s left wrist injury, which forced her to play most of Game 3 against Seattle with one hand, was wrapped securely with a splint and she was ready to play. It had been diagnosed as a bone bruise, but nothing short of amputation would’ve kept her off the floor for a game this important.

Just to mess with LA, the Lynx came out in a zone defense for the first possession of the game. I believe that’s the first time they’ve done that all season, although we’d have to ask Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve to be sure. Candace Parker hit a desperation shot as the shot clock was expiring, but it set the tone for how disruptive Minnesota’s defense could be to the Sparks.

It was a high-paced, end-to-end game in the first quarter, nothing remotely like the games against Seattle that the Lynx had just finished with. Minnesota had more flow, with Seimone Augustus shaking Alana Beard for a bucket at the rim before Whalen illustrated just how healthy she was feeling. Whalen went right into Kristi Toliver for a score at the rim, knocked down a jumper when Toliver flopped in an effort to draw a foul, then drove the baseline against lackadaisical LA defense and finished with the reverse. Apparently, she was getting a little tired of all the questions about her wrist before tip-off. This was the best possible way to answer them.

However, the Sparks were enjoying the speed of the game as well. They had a couple of baskets in transition by simply outrunning the defense, and a couple more by passing out of Lynx double-teams and finding the open man. The Lynx had, as expected, started with Augustus on Toliver, but Parker, Beard and Nneka Ogwumike were the primary offensive weapons in the early going, without needing anything from Kristi. Taj McWilliams-Franklin was already struggling a little to deal with Parker, who was happy to fire away from outside if McWilliams-Franklin sat back to protect the paint.

Continue reading

WNBA 2012 Playoff Previews – Eastern Conference Finals: Connecticut Sun vs. Indiana Fever

Connecticut Sun (#1 seed, 25-9) vs. Indiana Fever (#2 seed, 22-12)

 

Regular season series: Sun won 3-1

06/08 @Ind: Sun 89-81

06/19 @Conn: Sun 88-85

06/21 @Ind: Fever 95-61

09/19 @Conn: Sun 73-67

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While Atlanta always threatened a late run, these teams have been the top two in the Eastern Conference all season long. So it’s only fitting that they should be fighting it out for a place in the WNBA Finals. As with the West, the two contenders had contrasting paths through the first round. Connecticut finished off New York in two straight games and were done by Saturday night. Indiana dropped the opening game at home, shook up their starting lineup, and fought their way back to win a deciding game on Tuesday night. Now they travel to Connecticut for Game 1 of this series, where the Sun have been lying back and waiting for their opponents to show up all week.

Despite Connecticut finishing higher in the standings, most of the statistical categories gave Indiana the edge over the course of the regular season. Not by much, but the Fever were ahead in both offensive and defensive efficiency, among others, across the year. But these aren’t going to be quite the same teams that we saw in the regular season. Connecticut spent the second half of the year muddling through with fill-in options in the post alongside Tina Charles, while she also battled injuries. Now regular starter Asjha Jones is back from her achilles problem, and looked impressive in the series against the Liberty. Charles still has those injuries, and she’s had a few shaky rebounding games which the pain has likely contributed to, but most of the time she’s her typical MVP-level self both in the paint and with her mid-range jumper. Dealing with those two is going to be the highest priority for Indiana.

However, the Fever aren’t the same either. Indiana head coach Lin Dunn will likely start out the series with the lineup which served her so well against Atlanta, which isn’t quite the same as the group she relied on through the regular season. Erin Phillips came in at shooting guard for Shavonte Zellous, which added a little extra ballhandling to the mix (plus Phillips used to play for the Sun and took a while extricating herself from the franchise, so she might be particularly energised for this opponent). But the key change came at center, where Erlana Larkins replaced Tammy Sutton-Brown. That move gave Indiana energy and activity in the paint, along with a natural rebounder who makes up for her lack of height with effort and positioning. If Larkins plays the same heavy minutes again in this series, Connecticut will undoubtedly try to attack her and utilise their size advantage in the paint. But Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle had several inches on her as well, and couldn’t accomplish anything much once the Fever started using Larkins heavily inside. This could be where the series turns – Indiana need Larkins’s activity and rebounding on the floor, but if Connecticut can exploit her it could force Dunn to go bigger. Sutton-Brown or even Jessica Davenport may have to take up minutes at center to offer true size. Continue reading

WNBA 2012 Playoff Previews – Western Conference Finals: Minnesota Lynx vs. Los Angeles Sparks

Minnesota Lynx (#1 seed, 27-7) vs. Los Angeles Sparks (#2 seed, 24-10)

 

Regular season series: Tied 2-2

05/24 @Min: Lynx 92-84

07/05 @L.A.: Sparks 96-90

09/04 @Min: Lynx 88-77

09/20 @L.A.: Sparks 92-76

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It seems like we’ve been heading for this clash in the 2012 Western Conference Finals for a while. From the start of the season, Los Angeles looked reenergised by a healthy Candace Parker, their new rookie stud, and a new head coach. Minnesota looked just as good as last year, when they swept their way to a WNBA championship. When San Antonio fell off a little after the Olympic break this matchup became even more likely, but their paths through the first-round differed significantly. While some lapses in concentration meant they had to fight it out in the closing minutes of each game, the Sparks finished off the Silver Stars 2-0 and were finished by Saturday afternoon. The Lynx, on the other hand, had a battle royale with Seattle and needed a last-second Storm miss on Tuesday night to secure their spot in this series. Minnesota were the favourites heading into the playoffs, and they still are in the eyes of the bookmakers. But a little extra doubt has been cast on proceedings since the crunch games began.

However, this will be a very different task from the first-round for both teams. Minnesota faced a Storm squad built on its defense, which kept them out of the paint and broke their rhythm offensively. While first-year Sparks head coach Carol Ross arrived from Atlanta with a reputation for defense, this LA team doesn’t have the defensive solidity of the Storm. They’ve often struggled to rotate and recover to fill gaps created by pick-and-rolls or basic off-ball movement. The problem for the Lynx is that those aspects of their offense seemed to disappear against Seattle. They were endlessly settling for perimeter jumpers, rather than trying to penetrate the defense. Sometimes that works out fine, because players like Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore are some of the best shooters in the game, but even for them a 15-foot jumper is a lower percentage shot than a layup. Minnesota need to appreciate quickly that they’re facing a less competent, less cohesive defense, and get back to picking it apart with their usual smooth passing and off-ball movement. They need quicker, easier offense than we saw throughout the Storm series.

LA were dealing with San Antonio’s quick, small perimeter guards and limited inside presence in the first round. Now they’re up against a team that plays far more solid interior defense, and has a hell of a lot more size and physicality to throw at them on the perimeter. The LA backcourt of Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard was facing diminutive players like Danielle Robinson, Becky Hammon and Jia Perkins, and Toliver/Beard shot 32-54 (59%) combined across the series. Now they’ll be trying to score over or around Lindsay Whalen, Augustus and Moore, which should make things rather more difficult. While the Lynx switch freely on the perimeter, we’ll have to wait and see how they target and attack LA on the defensive end. Augustus was tasked with tailing Sue Bird in the first round, and may well get first crack at slowing down Toliver in this series. Her size and length could trouble the Sparks gunner, and unlike San Antonio it doesn’t create an awkward mismatch elsewhere on the floor. Whalen can handle Beard if she has to. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 10/03/2012: Crucial deciders produce heartbreak and elation in equal measure

It’d be nice if the WNBA’s playoff series could be longer, purely because this is where the basketball becomes truly exciting. But the one benefit of playing best-of-three is the increased likelihood of games like the encounters we saw last night. Deciding games for all the marbles, where everything’s on the line, and it’s win or go home. These are the truly gripping contests, the games that leave the lasting memories after the season is long gone. This is where the spotlight truly shines brightest, and it’s time to step up.

The evening began back in Indiana, after two road wins had forced a Game 3 between the Fever and Dream. Atlanta had failed to close out the series in their own building, but they had the confidence of knowing that they’d won here only four days earlier, and pulled off a string of playoff upsets over the last couple of years. Indiana were still buzzing from the victory they managed to keep the series alive on Sunday.

The starting lineups were as for Game 2, which meant the Fever were sticking with Erin Phillips in the backcourt and Erlana Larkins at center. Hardly a surprise, considering how effective the lineup changes had been in Game 2. It continued straight through into the early sequences of Game 3. Atlanta were primarily throwing up jumpers, the sort of shots that Indiana would be happy to let them take all night long. Meanwhile Indiana were slicing into the defense via drives or solid ball movement, and creating far higher percentage shots. This was how the Fever came out on top in Game 2, and it led to a quick 9-2 lead.

After the improved rebounding from Indiana and superb performance of point guard Briann January in Game 2, Atlanta head coach Fred Williams had a couple of twists to his defense for Game 3. He switched his posts defensively, letting Erika de Souza take Tamika Catchings in the early minutes while Sancho Lyttle was on Erlana Larkins. It put a big, bulky defender on Catchings, who hadn’t been shooting well for much of the series (meaning the Dream weren’t too worried about her simply firing over de Souza before she could get out to challenge). It also, theoretically, should’ve allowed Lyttle to freelance a little more and disrupt all over the floor, because Larkins poses less of a direct offensive threat than Catchings. There was also a change on the perimeter, where Armintie Price slid over to guard January and hopefully slow her down, moving Lindsey Harding on to Phillips and Angel McCoughtry over to guard Katie Douglas. Price is a longer defender than Harding, so had more chance to make life difficult for January, plus it should’ve helped save Harding’s energy to contribute more offensively. They were reasonable moves.

The problem was that, despite her high reputation as a defender, McCoughtry couldn’t restrict Douglas the same way Price had in the first two games. Douglas shot 5-18 combined in the previous two games, and only played 18 minutes in Game 2 because other options were more effective for Indiana. Game 3 saw her get off to a much better start, with a couple of threes and some points in transition in the first quarter. This wasn’t going to be another invisible performance from Catchings’s usual key sidekick. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 10/01/2012: A night of drama forces deciding games

I have a long-standing theory that the NFL has become the most popular American sport because every game means more. People in the modern world, where there are so many other options begging for our attention, don’t want to waste their time with 82-game or 162-game regular seasons, where each individual contest is almost meaningless. Even with just 34, the WNBA became a bit of a slog this year, because most of the important matters were decided long before the end. But Sunday offered up two examples of why we all watch these wonderful sports. This is what we wait for through all those dreary games. Crucial contests where everything’s on the line, and no one’s ever going to quit.

We opened up in Atlanta, where Indiana had made their lives very difficult. After dropping Game 1 at home, the Fever needed to steal back Game 2 on the road just to keep their season alive. Indiana head coach Lin Dunn made a brave move, because the easy option for any head coach in the playoffs is just to keep riding what worked in the regular season. Instead, she shook up her starting lineup, going with the group that had almost pulled off a remarkable comeback in Game 1. Erin Phillips came in for Shavonte Zellous in the backcourt, and Erlana Larkins replaced Tammy Sutton-Brown at center. It made them smaller, but quicker and more aggressive. It also put a natural rebounder in the paint to join Tamika Catchings in the fight on the glass. After losing the rebounding battle 40-29 in Game 1, that was obviously a concern. Larkins is undersized for a post, but she makes up for it with pure hustle and boundless energy. Atlanta, of course, had the same starting five as in Game 1. Why change a successful formula?

From the very early moments, Indiana had more energy and drive to their play than in Game 1. They were pushing the ball down court with speed, driving into the paint and forcing the action far more. Catchings, inevitably, was the initial spark, but the speedy backcourt of Phillips and January was right there with her. Dunn still took two timeouts inside the first six minutes of the game, concerned about her team’s rebounding, and Atlanta were hanging right with Indiana on the scoreboard, but this was how the Fever had needed to start the game. The Dream were hitting jumpers to keep even, but that wasn’t likely to last.

The game remained surprisingly close in the second quarter – surprising because it felt like the Fever were in charge. They were penetrating and creating contact, forcing their way to the free-throw line. They had January curling around ball-screens and knocking down jumpers or slicing to the basket. They had both Sutton-Brown and Zellous providing nice energy off the bench, rather than pouting about being relegated from the starting lineup. In fact, the only things that weren’t working out were their stars and typical scoring leaders. Neither Catchings nor Katie Douglas could get a shot to drop, and by halftime they were a combined 2-14 for 8 points. Douglas hit the opening basket of the game on a Catchings kick-out; Catchings hit the final shot of the half with a pull-up three over Sancho Lyttle. That was all they had. Good thing their teammates were 14-16 for 39 at the half. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 09/30/2012: Sweeping into the Conference Finals

After holding serve in the opening games, two higher seeds had the chance to close out last night and maximise their rest before the Conference Finals. But with the 1-1-1 format the WNBA now uses, both would be trying to finish things on the road. The lower seeds were just trying to keep their seasons alive.

The action started in San Antonio, although thanks to a Red Hot Chilli Peppers concert at the AT&T Center, the Silver Stars and Sparks were playing next door at the Freeman Coliseum. Game 1 was tight and could’ve gone either way in the final minutes, so San Antonio would’ve been confident that they could extend the series against a team they beat three times in the regular season.

Both teams stuck with the same starting lineups, although Becky Hammon began the game defending DeLisha Milton-Jones rather than Alana Beard. Despite Milton-Jones having an even bigger size advantage, that had proven a much safer matchup for San Antonio in Game 1. It worked out fine, and Milton-Jones had a fairly quiet afternoon.

However, San Antonio still struggled to stop Los Angeles from scoring throughout the first half. LA were pushing the ball down the floor, looking for quick offense, and Candace Parker wasted no time in attacking Jayne Appel in the low post. They kept driving right around the edges of the San Antonio defense, and the help wasn’t there quickly enough to cut anything off. LA were already up 17-8 midway through the opening quarter, when Silver Stars coach Dan Hughes made his standard move to bring Danielle Adams and Jia Perkins off the bench.

While Adams and Perkins offered extra offensive options for San Antonio, they didn’t make much difference to the direction of the game. LA were still knocking down shots with ease, and finding too much space against the Silver Stars defense. San Antonio tried switching to zone, but LA were playing smartly enough to find the holes, or they had Kristi Toliver to just shoot over it. They even played heavy minutes with bench players Jenna O’Hea, Jantel Lavender and Marissa Coleman on the floor, and two regular starters were enough to help carry that group along. Continue reading