The vagaries of the WNBA schedule left us with three blank dates after the Memorial Day excitement, then a triple-header last night. Time for a Bullet Point Breakdown to cover it all:
- Even before the tip-off, Indiana earned praise from this small corner of the WNBA world by raising a championship banner reading ‘WNBA Champions’ rather than ‘World Champions’. The latter term tends to annoy those of us who recognise that basketball is played outside the United States (especially in the women’s game, where some European superteams actually have more talent than most WNBA squads). So well done, Fever organisation.
- Injury news, as ever: Indiana are still without Erin Phillips, Jessica Davenport and Jeanette Pohlen (although all three were present, and none of them were using crutches or wearing heavy braces, which are good signs). Rookie guard Layshia Clarendon was available for the first time after missing their opening game to attend her graduation ceremony (which meant Jasmine Hassell was waived again after a brief emergency signing). Atlanta were down a player with Armintie Herrington staying home due to illness. Tiffany Hayes started in her place.
- The first half of this game was pretty even throughout. Indiana were the team finding points in transition – Atlanta’s usual trick – but the Dream were on top on the glass and effective in the halfcourt, keeping it close.
- As with last season, having a ballhandler and scorer like Tamika Catchings at power forward creates problems for opponents. Atlanta were switching big/big screens, so if Erlana Larkins set a pick for Catchings, Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle would swap assignments. Faced with Erika in front of her, Catchings’s eyes lit up and she attacked repeatedly. The Fever ran a lot of those 4/5 screens.
- Atlanta will be happy with how their point guard situation is playing out so far. Losing Lindsey Harding hasn’t slowed them down, and the combination of Jasmine Thomas and Alex Bentley is coping nicely. Thomas likes to drive to score, and Bentley isn’t remotely afraid to fire up her own shot, but they’ve been effective so far. Atlanta have lacked outside shooting for years, so if the new guards can be outside threats it’ll be a big plus for the Dream, even if their distribution skills aren’t necessarily top of the line.
- Angel McCoughtry has a high reputation as a defender, but some of her defense in the first half was awful. Multiple times she lost track of her man, randomly gambled into double-teams or space in the vain hope of a steal, leaving wide open shots when Indiana rotated the ball. Some freelancing has always been part of Atlanta’s defense, because steals and breakouts create cheap points via the fastbreaks they love, but there’s gambling and then there’s just running around at random because it’s easier than playing proper defense.
- Things got ugly in the third quarter for Indiana. Their offense got bogged down and static, they coughed up far too many turnovers, and they were still getting killed on the boards. Fever possessions repeatedly saw the shot clock ticking down before something low-percentage was thrown up to beat the buzzer. Credit the Dream’s defense for extending and cutting down Indiana’s space, but primarily the Fever seemed to have run out of ideas.
- This is where the limitations caused by Indiana’s injuries begin to show up. Last year, Lin Dunn had enough options on her bench that if some players or combinations weren’t working out, she could flip to viable alternatives. With three missing rotation pieces, there isn’t much of a Plan B when A starts breaking down. Sasha Goodlett and Karima Christmas both saw minutes in the third quarter, but matters only got worse while they were in. Christmas was handling the ball far too much, which led to turnovers and Atlanta buckets. A 10-0 Dream run to close the third quarter, led by rookie guard Bentley, gave Atlanta a 71-61 lead heading to the final period.
- That proved to be the crucial sequence. Four times in the final period Indiana had a chance to cut their deficit below six, but Catchings and Briann January missed layups, before Shavonte Zellous missed a pair of jumpers. That kept them from ever making it too interesting in the fourth, and Atlanta held on.
- One interesting quirk in the final minutes – Indiana played the first possession of zone defense from any team this season. It was a fluid 2-3, avoiding the threat of a defensive three-seconds violation by having Larkins (at center in the middle) constantly shifting and looking for someone to guard. It worked nicely, and forced a shot clock violation from the Dream. So Indiana proved that you can play zone despite the new rule – only to immediately give up another turnover and a fastbreak basket to ruin all their good work.
- Indiana won’t be too worried about the performance or the result – games on the day you receive your championship ring are always a little strange, with the emotions of the night playing into the performance. But they are going to need something from someone beyond their starting five. They’re playing heavy minutes with very little help so far, and the injured pieces aren’t coming back for a while yet. The likes of Clarendon, Goodlett, Christmas and Jessica Breland need to offer a little more.
- Atlanta are reminding everyone that they were a pretty good team before Lindsey Harding, and they might well be pretty good after her. McCoughtry led the scoring with 29 points (on 23 shots) but Thomas and Bentley played key roles in the backcourt. Aneika Henry also had a nice night collecting offensive boards and putbacks against Indiana’s undersized front line. The Dream are off to a 2-0 start and picked up a tiny amount of revenge against the team that dumped them out of the playoffs last season.
- Two teams looking for their first win of the season faced off in New Jersey. The Liberty had Plenette Pierson back, after she’d missed their first game with knee pain. She slid straight into the starting lineup, replacing rookie Toni Young. Another rookie, guard Kamiko Williams, replaced Leilani Mitchell as the starter in the backcourt. Cheryl Ford was still out with her own knee issues. Tulsa had Candice Wiggins back from the ankle sprain which led her to miss one game, and she took her starting spot back from Angel Goodrich. Nicole Powell was available for the first time as a Shock player after missing their opening two contests. Neither Goodrich nor Riquna Williams played in this game, despite both being on the bench in team tracksuits. There was no information given as to whether that was due to injuries, some kind of disciplinary measure, or simply a coaching decision.
- This wasn’t a particularly pretty basketball game. Both teams are still working out the kinks at this early stage in the season, and that was frequently evident.
- Tulsa center Liz Cambage had some problems dealing with Kara Braxton in the post. Braxton was simply standing strong, refusing to buckle under Cambage’s heft, and making it difficult for Cambage to get around her for anything easy at the basket. Late in the first half, the Shock finally started running some low screens for Cambage, putting her in motion a bit more and creating a little more space for her. That led to free throw trips, because the Liberty couldn’t body her up as easily as they could on straightforward post-ups. And it was a good thing the Shock were making visits to the line, because they weren’t hitting much else.
- Despite the talent and creative abilities of Cappie Pondexter and Essence Carson with the ball, New York were running most of their offense through their bigs in the high-post. The ball would go to one of their posts just above the elbow, and then a variety of curls and off-ball cuts would float around the floor looking for space. It often didn’t work all that well, and most of their best scoring opportunities came when they pushed the ball and found gaps in transition. With Tulsa’s lack of offense, that was enough for a 37-29 halftime lead for the Liberty.
- Tulsa discovered late in the first half that they could give New York problems with full court pressure. They utilised it several times as the game progressed – and perhaps should’ve tried it more – leaving the Liberty struggling to bring the ball up the floor. That’s part of the problem with using players like Williams and Katie Smith to run the offense – they aren’t natural point guards, or great ballhandlers, and that can make things difficult.
- The Shock are still firing up an avalanche of threes, just as in previous seasons. They hit enough in the second half, along with their continued march to the free throw line, to remain a threat to win the game. A rare drive from Candice Wiggins found Glory Johnson for a layup with under a minute to play, giving the Shock a 69-67 lead; only for Essence Carson to hit a quick low post-turnaround over Roneeka Hodges to tie things back up. Both teams had good looks in the closing seconds – Powell missed a wide open three, then Pondexter was tied up on a drive before missing a step-back jumper at the buzzer. So we were heading for an extra period – Tulsa’s second overtime game in their three contests so far this season.
- New York went small for the majority of the OT, with Smith and Alex Montgomery in for Williams and Pierson. It left them more mobile and allowed Pondexter and Carson to move off the ball. The Shock were rarely able to capitalise in the paint, bar one wide open layup for Cambage.
- But it was still tight as the overtime period wore down. Down two with under a minute to play, Cambage passed out of a double-team to a cutting Glory Johnson, only for Cambage to turn her ankle badly as she landed. It left her writhing in agony on the floor, while Johnson missed multiple layup opportunities just to compound the pain for Tulsa. Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer was understandably upset when his team were ready to break down the floor, only for the officials to stop play so Cambage could receive treatment. Considering how rarely referees stop play due to injuries, he had a point. Cambage had to hop off the floor in clear distress, and might be out for a while.
- Pondexter missed a jumper, but a Braxton offensive rebound forced Tulsa to start fouling to stop the clock. When Carson went 1-of-2 at the line, the Shock were down 76-73 with 15 seconds left. That final 15 seconds saw some nice play design from the two head coaches. First up, Gary Kloppenburg sent Skylar Diggins on a wide loop that looked like she was coming up to receive the inbounds pass. Instead, Powell passed in to Kayla Pedersen, while Diggins kept coming and set a screen on Powell’s defender Katie Smith. That left Powell wide open to take the return pass from Pedersen, and knock down a three to tie the game.
- Then it was Laimbeer’s turn. He ran a screen-the-screener action down low with Essence Carson setting a pick to give Pierson some room, then Pierson came up to set a screen for Pondexter. Cappie curled down off that, stopped, and got her mid-range jumper over Powell to roll in off the iron. With just 0.5 seconds left on the clock, New York were back in front.
- Finally, ludicrously, there was one more chance. A simple backscreen from Wiggins left Johnson wide open under the hoop to receive a looped inbounds pass from Diggins. It was a dismal defensive mix-up from the Liberty, who were probably supposed to be switching everything (making it Pondexter’s fault – although help could also have come from elsewhere). Fortunately for New York, 0.5 seconds is not a large amount of time. It was incredibly close, but on review the officials decided that catching, landing, and releasing the layup had taken Johnson slightly too long, and the bucket didn’t count. Game over, Liberty win.
- It was ugly, but it’s a win for New York to get their season started. It was strange to see so much of the offense run through the bigs in the high-post, when simple penetration has given the Shock so much trouble in their first two games. They ended up with a high percentage from the floor, but a massive deficit in free throw attempts compared to their opponents. On the bright side, Braxton had a solid game (something they need from her with Cheryl Ford still out), and Carson was aggressive and successful at finishing the chances the offense provided. With a new coach, new system and several new players, the Liberty are still a work in progress just like the Shock.
- It’s an old story for Tulsa, who had trouble finishing games off in previous years as well. Shooting 29% from the floor, it’s a minor miracle that they were so close in the first place, although shooting 29 free throws to New York’s 12 played a major role in that. On another day, they’d have hit more from outside and maybe gone home with the win, but it would also be nice to see the perimeter players get to the rim occasionally. It’s either forcing it inside to the bigs, or bombing away from outside, without a great deal else on offer. Diggins is still working out when to press and when to fire away on this team, and Wiggins looks a lot like the quiet and fairly passive player we saw in Minnesota in recent years. But give them time. 0-3 isn’t how they would’ve wanted to start, but it’s not the end of the world.
- Finally a game without the need to open with an injury report: both teams had 11 players in uniform and ready to play.
- Whenever teams face Elena Delle Donne for the first time, it’s going to be interesting to see how they expect to defend her. Connecticut started with Kalana Greene on her, and the Sky immediately looked to Delle Donne down low. Greene did a nice job denying the entry pass on that initial possession, but it highlighted the mismatch Delle Donne always creates – guards and wings are awfully small up against her; bigs can’t keep up.
- Against Connecticut, the Sky also have the advantage of Greene and Kelsey Griffin posing very little offensive threat. It allowed Delle Donne to expend very little energy at the defensive end, and to help wherever necessary. This is going to be a problem for the Sun all season unless Griffin can become a consistent scorer from somewhere on the floor – teams will virtually ignore her to add pressure on Tina Charles and Kara Lawson.
- However, without needing that much help, Courtney Vandersloot was doing a solid job on Lawson. One of the side-effects of the Sky needing to use their other forward (Swin Cash or Tamera Young) to compensate for Delle Donne defensively, is that there’s less defensive help for the diminutive backcourt of Vandersloot and Epiphanny Prince. Last season, someone like Young could take the major perimeter threat on the other team, while Vandersloot hid on a less dangerous player. Now Sloot’s going to have to take those players on herself. She did a good job sticking tight to Lawson and keeping her relatively quiet for much of this game. Prince, on the other hand, was abused by Allison Hightower for several easy baskets in the first half. You typically expect better from Piph.
- Regardless of all that, the matchup everyone wants to see when these two teams clash is Charles vs. Fowles in the low-post. The battle between the two best centers on the planet was dominated by Fowles early on, finding easy finishes inside (and even padding her rebound numbers a little by missing some bunnies before dropping them back in). It’s already evident that both passing and driving lanes are more open for Chicago this season because defenders can’t stray far from Delle Donne. There’s simply more room, and less help from additional defenders. Or, if the help does come, players like Prince and Vandersloot are more than willing to kick to Delle Donne for wide open shots.
- Chicago led by as many as 13, but Charles found her range late in the first half with a couple of fadeaway jumpers and a mini-hook. That cut into all of Chicago’s good work, and left the Sky with just a 44-39 halftime lead. It probably should’ve been more.
- However, without ever blowing Connecticut out, Chicago maintained a relatively comfortable lead throughout the second half. At times, both Delle Donne and Fowles drifted out of the offense, but the Sky made enough plays to hold the Sun off. Connecticut could never string together a significant enough run to really make it a contest.
- Two games in, Chicago will be decidedly happy with how their season has begun. Vandersloot looks aggressive with her newly found space, and the offensive triangle of Prince, Delle Donne and Fowles is going to be tough for anyone to handle as long as they stay healthy. They finished this game with 17, 20 and 24 points respectively, while Fowles added 22 boards. Most of the ballhandling is still in Vandersloot’s hands, and a lot of the sets start with Delle Donne receiving entry passes in the high post, but more complicated options should be inserted as the season progresses. With Prince leaving shortly to play for Russia in EuroBasket Women, maybe they didn’t want to put too much of the offense in her hands just yet. When she returns, the 2/4 pick-and-roll between Prince and Delle Donne, with Fowles waiting just off the rim for an easy layup if help rotates over, should be absolutely deadly. They’re pretty damn scary already.
- After beating New York in their opener, more of Connecticut’s potential problems showed up in this game. On a basic level, you simply wonder if they have enough offense with Asjha Jones sidelined for the year. They were led by Allison Hightower with 20 points on 9-14 shooting, and while the developments in Hightower’s game continue to be very impressive, you can’t expect that every night. Charles and Lawson will be productive on most nights – even if Fowles won this particular battle of the bigs – but that might not be enough when you’re starting Griffin/Greene as your forward pairing (with very little behind them on the bench). Time for another desperate phone call to Sandrine Gruda.
- Just to limit Connecticut’s offense further, Renee Montgomery went down with what looked like a nasty ankle sprain early in the fourth quarter. She’s been reported as being day-to-day, so initial signs are that it isn’t too serious, but the Sun can ill-afford to lose more weapons.
Tina Thompson announced a couple of days ago that this will be her final season in the WNBA. The first pick in the initial WNBA college draft in 1997 has become a legend in this league, so it’s nice that she’s announcing it beforehand and giving everyone a chance to say goodbye. She deserves all the plaudits she’ll receive. Her departure also isn’t just about losing one player, but the maturation of the league from its initial beginnings to the next stage. With Katie Smith also moving on after this season, and the likes of Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie already gone, we’re into the second generation of the WNBA. And they said it wouldn’t last.
Saturday June 1st (tonight):
Los Angeles @ San Antonio, 8pm ET
Connecticut @ Minnesota, 8pm ET
Huge spreads tonight, with Minnesota favoured by 11 and LA by 10.5 on the road. I’ll take both the Lynx and Sparks to win by enough to beat those figures.
Sunday June 2nd (tomorrow):
Atlanta @ Washington, 4pm ET
Tulsa @ Chicago, 6pm ET
Phoenix @ Seattle, 9pm ET