Through an odd quirk of the WNBA schedule, Sunday saw two matchups that offered quick opportunities to avenge losses. After losing on the road on Friday night, both the New York Liberty and Chicago Sky were back home 48 hours later facing the same opponents again. It might be a dish best served cold, but sometimes it can be nice to get your own back while the feelings are still warm in the memory.
The Liberty had a little extra motivation, but a more limited roster than they started with on Friday. Essence Carson went down during that game, and by the time the rematch tipped off she’d been officially diagnosed with a torn ACL that ends her season. Still without Cheryl Ford due to her persistent knee issues, New York were down to nine players for this one. Veteran Katie Smith moved into the starting lineup for Carson. Atlanta were unchanged.
Both of these teams have star wing players who’ve been struggling to hit shots in their early games this season. Angel McCoughtry’s been successful in other areas, and her team’s been winning, but she came into this game shooting 37% from the field; Cappie Pondexter was just a tick lower at 36%. Both of them spent the vast majority of this game tossing up bricks that dropped those percentages even lower. It led to some ugly basketball at times, because neither of them is going to stop shooting. McCoughtry in particular tried her best to get to the rim – something she always needs to accomplish to be effective – but struggled to get there. Katie Smith and Alex Montgomery shared the defensive assignment, and with lots of help from their teammates they managed to keep her away from the basket. McCoughtry looked more and more frustrated as the game went on, expecting calls from the officials when she created contact and not drawing anywhere near as many as she would’ve liked.
New York also did a better job keeping their turnovers under control in this game than they had on Friday night, giving themselves a chance to compete. Atlanta are always desperate to create opportunities to run and speed up the game by overplaying passing lanes and generating steals, but after seeing what they were up against just two days earlier, the Liberty were more careful. There were fewer live-ball turnovers, keeping the speed of the game down and the fastbreak opportunities to a minimum. The Dream posts, especially Sancho Lyttle, also like to defend entry passes while reaching around looking to poke the pass away before it reaches its intended target. New York did a much better job of avoiding the hands of Lyttle and Erika de Souza, which often left an open lane to the hoop for recipients like Plenette Pierson.
All of that allowed the Liberty to keep the game close through three quarters. Neither team could find a way to pull out a significant lead, and even when Lyttle unexpectedly knocked down a pair of three-pointers – a shot she took far too much last year which she’s been avoiding so far this season – New York continued to hang around. Rookie forward Toni Young helped by coming in late in the third quarter and offering some signs that she can contribute, knocking down a couple of mid-range jump shots. She’s looked out of her depth in brief appearances so far this year, but with Carson out the bench gets shorter and everyone has to move up a spot – passengers become less of an option. Especially if Ford continues to miss games, Young’s going to need to be productive for at least a few minutes a night.
The decisive stretch came midway through the fourth quarter. Lyttle had a couple of turnovers and a pair of missed jump shots, while Pondexter finally came alive. She went to the rim in semi-transition for a three-point play, then spun past Tiffany Hayes for another layup. Then she curled around a staggered screen, before skipping a cross-court pass to Leilani Mitchell for an open three. Then Pondexter finally made a jump shot, breaking her string of countless misses from outside. That push took New York ahead by six points with five minutes remaining, and forced a timeout from Atlanta so that they could get McCoughtry back in the game. While she’d been given a brief rest, the game had started to get away from the Dream. She couldn’t change the momentum, and after a couple of Kara Braxton finishes inside it was Pondexter who iced the game with a pull-up three-pointer inside the last two minutes. That created the first double-digit lead of the night; more than enough for New York to hold on for a morale-boosting 76-67 victory.
On their first night without Carson, who’d probably been their best player in the opening games of the season, the supporting players stepped up for the Liberty. Smith and Montgomery were important defensively; Mitchell worked her butt off to grab boards and make hustle plays before eventually hitting that one big shot; Kara Braxton and Plenette Pierson were both productive in the paint (Bill Laimbeer appears to be doing an impressive job handling Braxton so far in New York); and the rookies provided solid minutes. It wasn’t always pretty, but they kept fighting and pulled out the game in the fourth quarter. What they really need is for Pondexter to step up her game. She produced in the fourth quarter, going 4-6 for 10 points in that final period, but it’d be nice if we could see anything like that for a full game. The role players are doing what they can – this needs to be the first step in Pondexter performing like the star she’s supposed to be.
Old problems reared their heads for Atlanta in this one. When they can’t get to the rim, sometimes they just don’t hit enough shots over the defense. McCoughtry has always been streaky at best from outside, Lyttle wasn’t quite as good as she’s been in their early games, and that made the difference. The absence of head coach Fred Williams, who stayed back in Atlanta due to a dental issue, probably didn’t help. Winning games is also going to be more difficult for the Dream over the next couple of weeks, because this was Lyttle’s last appearance before leaving to join the Spanish national team for EuroBasket Women in France. She’ll likely miss Atlanta’s next six games, and they’ll need backups like Aneika Henry and Le’coe Willingham to step up in her absence. On the bright side, five of the six games she’s away for take place in Philips Arena back in Atlanta.
Our second rematch was in Chicago, where the Sky had an immediate opportunity to avenge their loss in San Antonio on Friday. Epiphanny Prince was out once again, but news trickled out that her recent injury had been diagnosed as a second-degree ankle sprain. Further reports today stated that Russia have ruled her out for EuroBasket Women, so she won’t have to make any more transatlantic flights. The two or three weeks she’ll be out due to her ankle mean she’ll probably return for Chicago right around when they expected her back from international duty anyway. Assuming everything goes to plan, the only ones missing out are the Russians, and the international fans who would’ve liked to see Prince play in France.
When two teams face each other again in such a short space of time, it’s always interesting to see what tweaks have been made to try to change the result. But the primary difference for Chicago for much of this game wasn’t particularly complicated – they made some shots. After shooting a miserable 3-17 from three-point range in the previous game, which allowed San Antonio to collapse their defense on Sylvia Fowles in the paint or on Elena Delle Donne drives, the Sky were hitting their threes on Sunday night. They were 6-9 from beyond the arc in the first half, with Delle Donne and Allie Quigley the primary weapons. They also found some joy by penetrating first, then dropping the ball off to Fowles inside – rather than trying to enter the ball to her from the perimeter. It allowed Fowles to collect the ball deeper in the paint and finish quickly, negating the double teams.
San Antonio also had a little trouble offensively in the first half because speedy point guard Danielle Robinson wasn’t as effective as she had been on Friday. Courtney Vandersloot did a better job of staying in front of her defensively, plus a little foul trouble left Robinson spending time on the bench. Rookie backup Davellyn Whyte replaced her and fired up an ugly barrage of bricks that didn’t help San Antonio’s offense. Their only consistently effective weapon in the first half was Danielle Adams, who creates a fascinating mismatch with Delle Donne. They weren’t always defending each other, but when Adams shifted to power forward rather than center they had to cope with one another. Both have a soft touch from outside, but Adams’s bulk and willingness to bang inside is in direct contrast to Delle Donne’s speed, agility, and raw length. Even if the Sky rookie isn’t the quickest defender – that’s the aspect of her game many were worried about in the pros – she’s just so damn long. Opponents think they can go past her, but she sticks out those long arms and comes up with blocks from behind or tighter challenges on shots than you expect. It makes her at least a serviceable defender most of the time.
Between the production of Adams and a couple of unlikely finishes by rookie center Kayla Alexander, San Antonio managed to keep the deficit to 45-34 at halftime. The third quarter was back and forth dependent largely on whether San Antonio could make jump shots. Apart from the occasional Adams foray down low or when Robinson streaks to the rim, perimeter shooting makes up the majority of their offense. They got hot for a couple of minutes to narrow the lead; then went cold and it went back out again.
The game really tightened up late in the third with an ugly sequence for Chicago. Pokey Chatman was trying to buy a couple of minutes of rest for Fowles and Delle Donne, and Vandersloot was sitting as well. The Sky coach got away with a similar lineup in the first half, but not again. A jumper and a transition layup for Shenise Johnson, followed by a trademark deep three from Shameka Christon, trimmed a double-digit lead to just five in under a minute. Chicago were just repeatedly turning the ball over without their stars on the floor, and Christon even had yet another chance as time expired, only for her long runner to rim out. A smarter rotation that keeps a star or two on the floor at all times might make more sense than expecting a collection of backups to survive on their own.
The swings in momentum continued in the final period. Vandersloot and Cash hit consecutive long jumpers that appeared to have wrestled control back for Chicago, only for San Antonio to claw back into what was becoming a very physical game. Dan Hughes was mixing things up, going from a defense that switched constantly, verging on a matchup zone, to a more traditional man-to-man. They even hid Adams on Swin Cash for a while, to allow them to defend Delle Donne with someone more mobile but keep Adams on the floor for her offensive threat.
Vandersloot hit a clutch jumper with barely a minute left when Robinson went under a screen, daring Sloot to take the shot. That gave Chicago a four-point edge. Robinson answered by arcing round a staggered screen and slicing to the rim for a layup. After Vandersloot went 1-of-2 at the line, San Antonio had the ball back with 27 seconds left, trailing by three. Adams got a decent look around Fowles but missed, and the rebound resulted in a jump ball between Cash and Whyte with eight seconds remaining. Cash had the size advantage, and tried to bat the ball towards safety at the opposite end of the floor. That backfired when Robinson plucked the ball out of the air and had the court-sense to whip the ball cross-court to Jia Perkins, who drilled the three to tie the game. It looked like we might be headed for another overtime game.
But Chicago had 4.3 seconds to win it. The inbounds went to Delle Donne, who backed Christon down briefly and turned into a 12-foot jumper in the lane. There wasn’t a lot of contact, but Delle Donne made sure she faded into Christon, and drew the call. She’s already one of the best free-throw shooters in the league, and made both without a problem. The Silver Stars had 1.8 seconds to answer, but Perkins was drifting to her right and trying to shoot over Fowles for the win. The effort came up well short, and Chicago completed a narrow 72-70 win.
As Jeff Van Gundy is fond of telling us on NBA broadcasts, “it’s a make-or-miss league”. Often that’s just as true in the WNBA. The Sky made more shots, despite creating largely the same quality of looks they had on Friday night, and it made a key difference. Fowles continues to snare a ridiculous number of rebounds while Delle Donne was much more effective in her second clash with San Antonio, finishing 7-12 for 23 points. Turnovers were a huge problem for Chicago, as they’ve often been in the past for this team, with 24 on the night. They obviously miss having a ballhandler like Prince in the backcourt, but that’s a ridiculous number with or without her. If they can take better care of the ball, they won’t have to make quite so many shots to sneak home.
On a night when they shot 31% from the field, in some ways it’s impressive that San Antonio gave themselves a chance to pull this one out. Adams gave them a base inside for a few minutes in the first half, but otherwise it was the old reliance on jumpers for the Silver Stars and not enough fell in. Robinson was disappointingly quiet as an offensive force, and without Becky Hammon or Sophia Young they’ll always struggle to win when that’s the case. There’s more on the young point guard’s shoulders now, and she has to get to the rim consistently. Their defense gave them a chance to hang around, but the offense couldn’t get them over the line.
The Connecticut Sun made a couple of roster moves today, trying to kick-start their lagging offense. They waived guard Natasha Lacy in order to sign Brazilian wing Iziane Castro Marques, while also signing point guard Sydney Carter via a hardship exception granted due to the injuries to Renee Montgomery and Tan White. Bizarrely, the Castro Marques for Lacy swap is the exact same switch Washington made last season – at this point, Lacy probably isn’t Izi’s biggest fan. Castro Marques is a wildcard, and this move seems to illustrate a level of desperation from Ann Donovan and the Sun. Izi was awful last year in brief appearances for the Mystics, after a dreadful season the year before in Atlanta. It’s hard to know if she has anything left. At her best she’s a speedy scorer who can create points in bunches; at her worst she just takes terrible shots while offering nothing in any other aspect of the game. It’s a shot in the dark, but Donovan had success with Castro Marques back in her Seattle days, so maybe it’s one worth trying. Connecticut could use some quick offense. Carter is a young point guard who’s been looked at by a couple of teams and never managed to stick. She was cut by Atlanta in training camp this year, and will likely be no more than an emergency stop-gap in Connecticut.
Washington’s Ivory Latta and Minnesota’s Rebekkah Brunson were named the WNBA Players of the Week in their respective conferences.
Tuesday June 11th (tomorrow):
San Antonio @ Minnesota, 8pm ET
The Lynx are 12.5-point favourites, and I expect them to rebound back on their own floor after a poor performance in Washington. I’ll take them to beat that spread.