Only one game in the WNBA last night. The solitary contest started just an hour before Game 1 of the NBA Finals tipped off, which seemed like an unfortunate bit of scheduling, but our game in Minnesota was over as a contest in plenty of time for fans to switch focus. Which tells you everything you need to know about how uncompetitive this game turned out to be.
We haven’t seen much of the Lynx so far this season. They’d played just one game in the opening 13 days, although that glimpse resulted in a dominating win over Connecticut. Their visitors, the Phoenix Mercury, had dropped both their games so far and looked pretty awful in the process. A visit to Minnesota is rarely the best way to reverse a losing slide in the WNBA.
The Lynx lined up for the opening tip as expected, with Janel McCarville joining the remaining four regulars, but there was a change for Phoenix. Second-year point guard Samantha Prahalis, who’s had a rocky start to the season (although that’s true of most of the Mercury roster), was benched in favour of wing Charde Houston. That slid Diana Taurasi over to the point guard spot, somewhere she can play but not her most comfortable position. She’s such a key part of their scoring punch that you don’t really want Taurasi bringing the ball up the floor and trying to initiate the offense on every possession. It’s also a switch that can’t help Prahalis’s confidence. The move by Mercury head coach Corey Gaines was essentially singling her out, when the whole team had performed poorly in their opening games.
It’s possible that the change in opening lineup was connected with the change in defensive approach that the Mercury tried in this game. They were attempting to trap on ball-screens – a move where both defensive players try to challenge the ballhandler aggressively when she goes around a pick. It’s not something Phoenix have done much of in the past, and certainly not something they were doing a few days earlier in Seattle. Using Houston instead of Prahalis put a longer player on the floor, who theoretically would have more chance to disrupt the ballhandler and block passing lanes on those traps. But obviously, aggressive double-teaming like that leaves a 4-on-3 behind the trap if the offensive player can pass off to a teammate, and in particular it leaves the original screener wide open unless help rotates over quickly. The Mercury have been a terrible defensive team for years, and they especially struggle to ‘help the helper’, i.e. making the secondary rotation to cover open gaps. Plus they were trying this new strategy against one of the smartest and most unselfish teams in the league. Unsurprisingly, the Mercury got torn apart, as passes beat the traps and Minnesota exploited the space.
There were also plenty of possessions where the Lynx didn’t even use the high ball-screens which led to those unsuccessful Mercury traps. One set Minnesota ran over and over again all night long – because the Mercury never showed any sign of being able to stop it – was a simple pin-down screen from one of their posts for either Maya Moore or Seimone Augustus. One of those two supreme wing scorers would curl up from the baseline around the screen and cut in towards the middle of the floor, take the pass from the point guard, and then either keep going to the rim or simply pull up for the open jumper at the free throw line. And with Moore and Augustus happening to be two of the deadliest jumpshooters in the women’s game, they just kept hitting them over and over again. It was beautiful for the Lynx, and absolute carnage for the Mercury.
Even with a new starting center and several new bench pieces, it was just so blindingly apparent from the opening minutes of this game that the Lynx are tightly drilled and know exactly what their jobs are at both ends of the floor. Obviously, they have some exceptionally talented players. Augustus and Moore in particular are essentially unguardable when their jumpshots are falling (and that’s frequently the case). But it’s more than that. The chemistry is there, and the principles are built into the system so that they attack and defend as a unit. Phoenix are a vivid contrast. We all expected it to take some time to work Brittney Griner into their team – introducing an outstanding young 6-8 center into your squad is always going to lead to some changes. But they’re a moribund mess. The offensive sets frequently aren’t going anywhere useful, and the defensive ‘system’ just looks nonexistent. Blitzing ball screens is a perfectly acceptable tactic – you could watch the Miami Heat doing it all season in the NBA, and they were playing a Finals game last night – but it felt like just another random “throw this against the wall and see if it works” move from the Mercury. The best teams have rules that are repeated and learned and executed consistently game after game, with only minor alterations for the specific opponent (especially during the grind of the regular season – playoff series can see more significant changes). The Mercury don’t seem to have any rules.
Even the one thing Phoenix used to live by – once you get the ball back, run, and look for quick offense – seems to have drifted away. They took more threes in this game, something that seemed to have disappeared from their attack against Seattle, but they were largely standard jacked shots in typical halfcourt offense. There was still very little pace to their game. And without that pace, it feels like there’s very little life in this squad. That’s where they generated their energy, their enthusiasm for the game, their swagger. It’s just not been there in their opening three games of 2013.
But back to the more pleasant aspects of the game. Minnesota were enjoying the action, even if it would’ve been a stretch to call it a ‘workout’. They’ve undoubtedly had more taxing scrimmages against each other in practice. Moore and Augustus were ridiculously good offensively, knocking down shots with ease, but we’ve come to expect that. The particularly pleasing sight for Cheryl Reeve and the Lynx will have been another positive outing for Amber Harris. The third-year big finally seems to be starting to illustrate why the Lynx took her #4 overall in the 2011 draft. She stood up to Griner defensively, including two blocks from behind that reminded the rookie center she’s not the only giant athletic post in this league. Bet that didn’t happen too often in the NCAA. At the other end, Harris happily set many of the screens that broke her teammates open, and stretched the defense with her shooting ability. Griner didn’t know what to do when her man confidently stepped out to the three-point line and started knocking down shots. The heralded rookie instinctively wants to sit in the paint and offer help defense to her teammates, but against opposing posts who can shoot, that’s a problem. That’s always been part of the tantalising potential within Harris – her all-round offensive game can threaten from anywhere, if she’s confident, focussed, and under control. She was outstanding in the first half last night.
And the first half was about all that was worth paying attention to. The Lynx led 60-33 at halftime, after an absolute demolition. They shot 65% from the floor to the Mercury’s 37%, outrebounded Phoenix significantly as well (a trend which would continue as the night wore on) and turned this one into a laugher. For those who skipped the second half, there were two attempted dunks by Ms. Griner. The first was prevented by a McCarville foul – the Lynx post took a painful hit to the face in the process, and didn’t return to the game afterwards, but hopefully that was just precautionary – and the second crashed off the back of the rim and bounced away. It was that kind of night for the Mercury. The final scoreline of 99-79 actually flattered Phoenix – the chasm between these teams last night was more than 20 points.
It’s been an incredibly comfortable yet still impressive start to the season for Minnesota. Two home games against struggling teams is a nice way to ease into 2013, but they’ve utterly dominated both encounters. Moore and Augustus are hitting jump shots for fun, Lindsay Whalen’s running everything as smoothly as ever, McCarville’s fit in without any problems and Harris has been a huge bonus. There’ll be much tougher tests to come, but you can’t start a season much better than this.
Meanwhile, the Mercury are a mess. There are already rumblings of unrest among the fanbase, and you wonder how long Corey Gaines can maintain his position while this team keeps losing, with few signs of a turnaround. The fact that their locker room was closed for 50 minutes after the game, and Gaines didn’t speak to the media at all, suggests that the Mercury are distinctly concerned about their current level of performance as well. The fans sat through last year’s shambles without too much complaint, well aware of the potential prize, but with the arrival of Griner and return of Taurasi, expectations were raised dramatically. Even with Penny Taylor continuing to work back from her ACL injury – she warmed up before the game last night, offering hopes of a return, but still stayed on the bench – this team was meant to win a lot of games. Many people picked them to win the championship. Through three games they’ve been terrible, played like a shadow of themselves, and showed little indication of becoming that dominant force people were expecting.
Of course, there’s a long way to go in the 2013 season. Three games decides nothing. But I suggested a while ago that the worst-case scenario for the Phoenix Mercury in 2013 was the path trodden by the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers. Add a super-hyped center to a team led by a legendary shooting guard and enter the season with everyone predicting countless wins and a championship challenge – only for injury, chemistry and coaching issues to lead to a dreadful season and barely making the playoffs. Head coach Mike Brown only lasted five games for the Lakers, before they made a change (not that Mike D’Antoni ultimately did any better). How long does Corey Gaines get?
According to the Associated Press, Epiphanny Prince is on her way back to Chicago to have her ankle checked out by the doctor who operated on it last year. After injuring the same ankle that required surgery less than 12 months ago, you can understand her being cautious, but that’s a long way to fly for a sprain. She’s reportedly hoping to rejoin the Russians for EuroBasket Women if she’s able (it starts in 8 days), but the transatlantic flight to visit a doctor suggests at least a severe sprain to me. Of course, if it just means she’s out for about three weeks, she’d return for the Sky right around the same time she’d have made it back from international duty anyway.
Indiana’s Katie Douglas has been diagnosed with a bulging disc in her back, and will miss their nationally televised game against Phoenix on Saturday. She’ll be listed as ‘day-to-day’ after that, which as we know from past experience, could mean absolutely anything.
Friday June 7th (tonight):
Washington @ Connecticut, 7pm ET. Line is Sun -7.5: Give me Washington to cover on Thibault’s return.
New York @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET. Line is Dream -10.5, which seems too high to me. Another road cover pick.
Chicago @ San Antonio, 8pm ET. Line is Silver Stars +4.5, and with the Sky in their first game without Prince, I’ll take the home underdog.
Tulsa @ Seattle, 10pm ET. Line is Seattle -7.5, which is probably more than the Storm expected to give to anyone this season. Not sure either of these teams is capable of blowing anyone out, so give me Tulsa to keep it close and cover. Yes, that’s all four underdogs.
Saturday June 8th (tomorrow):
Phoenix @ Indiana, 3.30pm ET
Minnesota @ Washington, 7pm ET
Tulsa @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET