Three games on Sunday in the WNBA, but for once they were generous enough to spread them out for us and avoid any overlap. Bullet Point Breakdown time for all three:
- For once, both teams involved in a WNBA game were essentially healthy. Tiffany Hayes continued to start for Atlanta, but Armintie Herrington was available off the bench after missing their last game due to illness.
- There was sloppy basketball from both teams early on, with misplaced passes and blown layups on either side. Crystal Langhorne won the early skirmishes at the power forward spot over Sancho Lyttle with hustle rebounds and a nice backcut, but that was about all that worked for Washington.
- Barely five minutes into the game, the pattern for most of the afternoon began to take hold. Washington were so desperate to push the ball and find quick offense that they were making mistakes and turning the ball over. It’s a cardinal sin against Atlanta, who desperately want to force turnovers and ignite their running game. Even off Mystics misses they were simply beating Washington down the floor for easy opportunities – an unforgivable failing in transition defense. Atlanta were up 9 at the end of the first quarter and led by as many as 15 in the second.
- The silver lining in the first half for the Mystics was the performance of Belgian rookie Emma Meesseman. She made some hustle plays on the glass and showed off her range by hitting a couple of jumpers from mid-range. At barely 20 years old, Meesseman would still have a year or two of college development left if she was American. As long as she keeps showing up, she could be a useful part of Washington’s future. That said, Thibault seemed reluctant to play Meesseman with Langhorne, presumably worried about the defense they’d put up without a true center. So giving Meesseman extended minutes kept Langhorne off the floor. And this team is rarely going to win games without Langhorne playing a key role for most of the game.
- Atlanta had 12 points off 14 Mystics turnovers in the first half, a ridiculous and suicidal number for Washington. The Dream also had a 16-0 advantage in free throw attempts. Hence the 13-point Atlanta lead.
- Washington finally put a little run together in the middle of the third quarter. With Angel McCoughtry and Sancho Lyttle on the bench the Dream offense hit a few snags, and the Mystics finally managed to string together a few solid defensive possessions and some offense that didn’t involve passing to the other team. With two minutes left in the third quarter, a Langhorne 18-footer pulled them within 48-44.
- Only for Atlanta to take control again. McCoughtry and Lyttle came back in, and Angel stopped the rot by finding Erika de Souza under the hoop for a layup, then hitting a pullup in transition. It was still a contest heading into the fourth, but the Dream scored the first 10 points of the final period to essentially kill it. Even more than they had been earlier in the game, Atlanta’s defense was collapsing into the paint, protecting the rim and challenging Washington to beat them from outside. The Mystics couldn’t, and that was just about all she wrote.
- The Mystics are going to have games like this. You don’t transition from a terrible team to a good one overnight, especially with a new head coach, new system and a lot of new players. It’s going to take a while. They’ve had problems with turnovers in the past, and once again they gave up far too many balls to a team that thrives on those opportunities. It’s a process that’s going to take a while in Washington.
- It was a pretty scrappy, ugly win even from Atlanta’s perspective, but they all count for 1 in the win column, however you get there. The halfcourt offense was a bit stagnant at times, and the perimeter shots weren’t falling – which has been the Dream’s primary issue for years – but they played tight enough defense and attacked well enough on the break to win relatively comfortably. 3-0 is a nice way to start the season, and at this early stage they’re one of only three remaining undefeated teams.
- With Tiffany Jackson-Jones’s stress fracture already limiting their post options, Tulsa were down another big for this game after Liz Cambage’s nasty ankle sprain on Friday night. The commentators said Liz “could be out for as many as 10 days”, which would essentially mean missing Tulsa’s two games next weekend. If that’s accurate, it’s a pretty fortunate result from a fall that looked like it could’ve easily involved ligament damage. Both Angel Goodrich and Riquna Williams played in this game after being glued to the bench on Friday night (which suggests it might’ve been some kind of unannounced disciplinary measure to sideline them on Friday).
- Cambage’s replacement in the starting lineup, Kayla Pedersen, got the first crack at guarding Elena Delle Donne. Those combo-forwards may well be most teams’ first option against Delle Donne during the season, as long as there’s a serviceable one on the roster.
- It was a much tighter game than most expected through the first half. Delle Donne was kept reasonably quiet by Pedersen, Jen Lacy and lots of help, while Sylvia Fowles was barely part of the offense at all for Chicago. Fortunately for the Sky they were knocking down some shots from beyond the arc, even when they were fired up as essentially a last resort after the offense went nowhere. That kept their offense alive, along with the individual brilliance of Epiphanny Prince.
- At the other end of the floor, Tulsa were surprisingly effective against the Sky defense. Pick and rolls were resulting in open jump shots as the Sky failed to rotate quickly enough to cover the open shooter, and the Shock were knocking down shots from midrange.
- Tulsa also got a nice boost from tiny backup point guard Angel Goodrich off the bench. Courtney Vandersloot had considerable trouble coping with Goodrich’s speed, the Shock guard going straight past Sloot to the rim on several occasions. In fact, Sloot fared much better against the far more-heralded rookie point guard Skylar Diggins, who doesn’t have the same pure speed as Goodrich.
- Unfortunately for the Shock, Goodrich was clattered by Fowles after hitting a floater in the lane for the final points of the first half. Goodrich was still down and in need of treatment at the buzzer, and didn’t make it back on the court in the second half.
- The first half also saw the return of Pokey Chatman’s point guard meddling. Vandersloot’s defensive woes led to minutes for Sharnee Zoll, Prince, and even Allie Quigley as the primary ballhandler. It won’t be the last time this year we see Chatman cycle through her options looking for someone who can run the point to her liking.
- After holding a mere 40-38 lead at the break, Chicago finally began to assert their superiority in the third quarter. The defense tightened up, and Tulsa’s offense became a series of forced jumpers caroming off the iron. Chicago’s offense still wasn’t running with smooth efficiency, but they were making more than enough shots to pull away. The threes were still dropping at a solid rate, Delle Donne created a little room for herself to join the offense (including one particularly gorgeous Nowitzki-esque fadeaway) and even Fowles found some space. The talent gap was becoming clear, and Tulsa’s heads began to drop.
- Tamera Young also had one of the most effective offensive games in her WNBA career off the Sky bench, hitting a series of midrange jumpers. Her season could end up illustrating the concept I mentioned in preseason, where a player you never want featuring for 30 minutes a night as a starter becomes a distinctly effective 15 mpg backup.
- It was also nice to see Swin Cash knocking down a few shots, after a couple of years where she’s shot horribly from the perimeter. With the players around her, Cash is going to be very open on many occasions this season, so she’ll have time to set herself and take aim. Hopefully that’ll result in percentages approaching those she put up in Seattle’s championship season in 2010, rather than the ugly numbers of 2011 and 2012.
- The Shock are a little unfortunate to be 0-4 after four games (two went to overtime, and they’ve had key injuries), but there are some troubling signs. The defense is still a work in progress at best, especially with Cambage on the sidelines removing their only big presence in the paint (although her lack of mobility can create other defensive issues). The new backcourt of Diggins and Wiggins hasn’t looked effective at all in the early stages. It’s hard to come into this league and play the point effectively – you have to go back to someone like Temeka Johnson or Lindsay Whalen to find a player who was legitimately successful as a rookie PG in the WNBA without an enormous amount of help. So Diggins’s struggles can be understood and she should be given time.
- Wiggins is a little more worrying. Questions always surrounded whether she was capable of stepping up her game when given a more significant role than the backup combo-guard spot she’d settled into in Minnesota. It was never entirely clear if she was playing the part asked of her by the Lynx, or if that was just the limit of the player she’d become. The early signs in Tulsa suggest that what we saw in Minnesota the last couple of years might be about all Wiggins can offer, although she has at least tried to penetrate a little more than she did for the Lynx (even though it’s resulted in little success). However, she did suffer an ankle sprain a couple of games ago, so maybe that’s affected her start in Tulsa. She’ll be given more time to produce alongside her near-namesake.
- Chicago will obviously be delighted with their 3-0 start, even if this performance wasn’t quite as convincing as the first two. The question now is whether they can keep it rolling without a big piece of their puzzle. Epiphanny Prince is off to join Russia to play in EuroBasket Women, and will probably miss their next seven games. It’s part of the reason they kept Allie Quigley on the roster, and that Quigley’s been getting some minutes under her belt in their last couple of games. They’ll also need players like Young and Shay Murphy to step up on the wing, alongside the regular starters. The Sky’s season went into a tailspin last year after Prince got hurt, although with Delle Donne in the fold they ought to be better prepared to survive without her this season. But it’s obviously going to make things more difficult.
Phoenix Mercury 72 @ Seattle Storm 75
- The injury report for this one was old news: Sue Bird out for the season for Seattle (along with Lauren Jackson back in Australia), and Penny Taylor still sitting out for Phoenix while she rehabs from her torn ACL (with no meaningful information offered as to when she might return).
- The Storm were tentative in the early minutes, looking as worried by the mental threat of Brittney Griner under the rim as her actual physical presence. Nearly four minutes had elapsed before Brian Agler took a timeout with his team trailing 8-0, and they immediately ran a play which sent Tanisha Wright into the paint to finish while shielding off Griner. It’s a thin line many teams will have to walk this season – you have to be aware of Griner’s defensive talents, and plan for them, but you can’t play scared.
- With double-teams and help coming to stop drives or challenge Griner whenever she touched the ball down low, Seattle were helping off second-year Mercury point guard Samantha Prahalis with impunity. With the weapons around her on the floor this season, Prahalis is going to see that open 15-to-18 footer a lot. If she takes a couple of steps back, she can likely have the open three if she wants it as well. The question is whether she can actually make that shot. Her percentages were up and down in college, and horrible last year on the shambolic 2012 Mercury. As an inexperienced point guard in this league, her playmaking skills aren’t really good enough to keep her on the floor if she can’t hit that open jumper.
- Griner made some nice plays offensively in the first half. A few pretty finishes inside over Tina Thompson, Camille Little or Nakia Sanford showed off her arsenal of post moves, and then she stepped out and hit a free-throw line jumper that illustrated her range. The player Griner has the potential to become is a truly frightening prospect for anyone who’ll be trying to stop her.
- That said, the 2013 Mercury still have a long way to go. With her size and athleticism, Griner should be a dominating force on the glass at both ends of the floor, but she doesn’t look sure of her role yet when she isn’t directly involved in the play. In fact, the Mercury offense as a whole seems caught between two stools. They’re not playing their old, free-flowing run-and-gun offense at the moment. It’s all rather pedestrian, with little energy and practically no fastbreaks. Vanilla basketball, essentially, for a team that’s always played Rocky Road. And yet this team doesn’t know quite how to play half-court basketball, because that’s never been their forte. Obviously, it’s very early in the season and they’re still working things out, plus they miss Penny Taylor as both a scorer and facilitator, but they’re not themselves. Griner was supposed to add an extra dimension to this team at both ends – not lead to a complete transformation of how they played.
- After their slow start in this game, the Storm fired themselves back into it from long-range, more than anything. After a tongue-lashing from Agler, Shekinna Stricklen reentered the game and provided quick, effective offense that the Storm needed to get both the crowd and her teammates more involved in the game. It drew the Storm within 38-35 at halftime.
- Seattle had some success in the latter stages of the first half and on into the second by putting Griner into pick-and-rolls. This accomplishes a variety of things that opponents want to happen against Phoenix. It draws Griner away from the basket, which creates more room for both drives and potential offensive rebounds if shots miss. It forces a young rookie to deal with a play that wasn’t anywhere near as big a part of the game in college. It involves other Mercury players in the defense with her, which can lead to miscommunications and breakdowns – especially as this has always been a poor defensive team in the past, with players who’ve always made errors. It’s something the Mercury still need to work on, and need to improve on dealing with. The plays tended to result in either an open shot for the Storm guard as Griner faded back into the paint and the other Mercury defender was still struggling to get round the screen; or a wide open shot for the Storm screener when the ball was returned after Griner and her teammate both tracked the ballhandler. Seattle were starting to take control of the game.
- There was also a key flashpoint in the third quarter involving Griner. Tanisha Wright was chasing down DeWanna Bonner after a Storm turnover, and intentionally fouled her to prevent what could’ve been quick offense for the Mercury. The hip check Wright used to stop Bonner was a little physical, but clearly intended just to stop the play. Bonner didn’t appreciate it, but was quickly calmed by teammates and coaches. Seconds later, Griner stepped up to set a screen on Wright, and intentionally threw her body into the pick to knock Wright to the ground. In the normal run of play, it probably would’ve been a standard offensive foul and the game would’ve simply continued. But because it was clearly retaliatory for the foul by Wright moments earlier, the officials took it more seriously. They reviewed the tape, and confirmed it as a flagrant foul, then proceeded to call the game more tightly for the next few minutes. Standard operating procedure for referees looking to calm down any possibility of trouble.
- The Storm fed off the energy from that brief clash, and ran off a 10-0 push starting with the free throws resulting from Griner’s flagrant. The Storm are smart enough to know that the officials were going to call everything in the minutes after an event like that, so they attacked and got right into the heart of the Mercury defense for easy shots or drawn fouls. Phoenix just fired up jump shots, which didn’t fall, as Seattle moved into the lead.
- Both Griner and Taurasi picked up their fourth fouls in the third quarter, limiting the minutes they could spend on the floor and the aggression they could show when they were out there. Taurasi was actually desperately quiet all night long, playing the relatively passive role that we saw while she was in Russia with UMMC during the offseason. Hopefully, this is just Diana trying to get everyone else involved and facilitate, rather than a permanent change in her game due to a mental switch or a physical step back. Phoenix need more of the old Taurasi who liked to dominate.
- Even when performing well, Seattle don’t really have the talent to take over games this year, so the Mercury continued to hang around. Candice Dupree was probably their most effective offensive weapon in the second half, finishing inside or knocking down shots from midrange. But the Storm kept clinging to a narrow lead.
- Griner had another moment of immaturity in the fourth quarter, slamming a ball into the press table after a pass had gone just beyond her grasp. It wasn’t a big deal by any means, but an automatic technical foul hurts when you’re in a two-point game with under four minutes remaining.
- Alexis Hornbuckle was getting minutes in crunch time for the Mercury ahead of Prahalis. With neither able to make a shot, Hornbuckle at least offers a better defensive option. However, she’s often a liability on the offensive end, and the Mercury might’ve been better off rolling with Charde Houston. With her you sacrifice any kind of defense, but she was having a nice night making shots and dropping off passes at the right time (six assists for Charde Houston! There were games in the past where she’d play 30 minutes without even making six passes).
- The dagger came with just under a minute to play. Hornbuckle drove and barreled through Camille Little for an offensive foul (after dropping the ball off to Griner for a dunk that didn’t count). Then Seattle ran another of those high screens that forced Griner into defensive decision-making. She slid over to prevent Temeka Johnson from penetrating, Johnson kicked it back to Camille Little lurking beyond the three-point line (Taurasi either chose not to rotate over from Tanisha Wright or couldn’t be bothered) – and Little drained the wide open three. That sealed the victory for Seattle in their home opener, over a Mercury team that remains winless after its first two games.
- This is how Seattle are going to have to win games this year. Play hard, play tough, and fight. Offense isn’t going to come easily some nights, but they’ve still got some talented players. They’re still working a few things out themselves – Temeka Johnson looked for her own shot a lot last night, rather than running offense, and Agler will likely stamp much of that out – but if Tanisha Wright can reproduce that kind of performance it’ll be a big boost (7-11 for 20 points, 5 boards and 3 assists). Tina Thompson referred to her team as ‘blue collar’ after the game last night, and she’s right. They’re not going to overpower you, but they’ll fight you every inch of the way.
- The Mercury just don’t know quite what they’re doing yet. It always seemed like the defense would take time, after years of poor performance and with a big new piece in the middle, but they have other problems as well. The offensive identity they’ve had for years has slipped away, either through a season where most of the meaningful pieces were absent, or due to the efforts to incorporate Griner into their gameplan. And even with Griner, they’re not a good enough defensive team to win without their typical overwhelming offense. There’s a long way to go, and a lot of games to work things out, but it’s been a distinctly rocky start.
- Oh, and defensively it doesn’t seem like the Mercury perimeter players have quite realised that they have Brittney freaking Griner behind them. There’s a reason that Eddie Jones pushed his steals totals through the roof when Shaq started playing behind him in the NBA. Opponents don’t want to drive, because they know what’s waiting for them at the rim, so you can extend the defense and challenge perimeter shooters more tightly. Seattle’s effectiveness from three-point range was a key part of their victory last night, and they often had far too much room. The Mercury can afford to overplay and force opponents to try to drive by them.
There will be WNBAlien content going up in the next couple of days (even without games being played), so do check back.
Wednesday June 5th:
Indiana @ New York, 11am ET