After the single relaxing blowout on Saturday, the WNBA threw another quad-game slate at us on Sunday, with matchups staggered throughout afternoon. Once more, it’s a Bullet Point Breakdown to take a look at the key moments and topics raised by all four.
- It never rains but it pours. With Katie Douglas, Erin Phillips, Jessica Davenport and Jeanette Pohlen all still sidelined for Indiana, rookie guard Layshia Clarendon joined them due to an ankle injury suffered late in their previous game. Karima Christmas moved into the starting lineup, and the Fever were down to eight healthy bodies again, with emergency addition Erin Thorn the only perimeter backup. Washington had everyone available.
- It wasn’t a pretty first half. Both teams shot mid-30% from the field – which isn’t good in anybody’s book – and both fouled far too often on jumpshooters. Ivory Latta hit a couple from deep, while Crystal Langhorne amazingly didn’t take a single shot in the opening 20 minutes.
- Indiana are still fighting, despite being understrength. Their smaller players were repeatedly hitting the deck as they dropped down on switches and fought with far bigger Mystics posts. Christmas isn’t a particularly skilled offensive player, but she’ll make little glue plays and come up with hustle stats that you don’t get from everyone. But they’re so thin, and the offensive weapons just aren’t there. It’s a little sad, after the fabulous playoff run just eight months ago.
- The Fever double-teams were hassling Langhorne whenever the ball found her down low, but there was a clear effort from the Mystics to get her involved offensively in the second half. In her early years it would’ve been easier to keep her quiet, but these days she can step outside and hit a mid-range jumper or drive from the elbow. That at least got her into the game in the second half.
- Neither team led by more than four points in the entire second half, and it was tied with two minutes to play. Michelle Snow and Tamika Catchings both barely beat the shot clock buzzer with finishes to keep it tied, before an outstanding wrap-around pass from Tierra Ruffin-Pratt found Snow to put Washington in front again. The mere fact that Mike Thibault is using an undrafted rookie in crunch time – ahead of options like veteran Matee Ajavon or #4 overall pick Tayler Hill – is impressive enough. Her confidence to make plays in these late-game situations has been the cherry on top.
- Catchings tied it up again with another fantastic play, snaring an offensive board at the end of a messy Fever possession and flipping it in with 37 seconds left. Latta tried to drive on Briann January and tossed up an airball, but Langhorne read it and grabbed it out of the air, before being fouled on the putback attempt. She hit both free throws for another two-point Washington lead.
- Indiana had 24 seconds to answer. Catchings faced up Langhorne from the perimeter, sized her up – and then passed off to Christmas. Maybe Catchings was expecting to get it back, but it was strange to see her give up the ball like that on a crucial possession. Christmas got a step on Monique Currie, went by her to the rim, but Langhorne got across in time to challenge the shot and make her miss. After Langhorne ran down the rebound and made two more free throws, it was all over.
- The misery continues for Indiana, who drop to 1-5 on the season. They’re already three full games outside the playoff spots, amazingly enough. The lack of depth is obviously hurting them, with limited weapons a problem on offense, and fatigue combined with a decrease in chemistry hurting them on defense. The super-small frontcourt of Catchings and Erlana Larkins is also no longer a surprise to anyone, and Larkins has had a minimal impact so far this season. January continues to be desperately underwhelming as well, without shooters to spread the floor around her and draw defensive attention. The grit and determination we’ve seen from Lin Dunn squads over the years means we know they won’t quit, and this franchise hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2004 – but the turnaround has to start at some point, and there haven’t been many signs of it yet.
- Meanwhile, the turnaround in Washington is remarkable. They won five games last season, and just six the year before. They dropped to #4 in what everyone believed was a three-player draft. They made just one free-agent signing of note. And yet Mike Thibault has them at 4-1 to start the season. Latta’s doing just what they wanted, giving the team energy and drive from the primary ballhandler spot, and generating considerable offense from there as well. They’re getting contributions and worthwhile effort from all their complimentary pieces. They’re playing as a team. In fact, the only player in the rotation who hasn’t really worked out so far is that #4 pick, Hill, who’s barely made any impact at all. And they’re rolling anyway. Even when they weren’t getting blown out, remember how many tight games they failed to close out under Trudi Lacey? Their four wins this year have come by 5, 4, 5 and 4 points respectively. They’re gutting games out. Thibault’s your early favourite for Coach of the Year.
- No Epiphanny Prince for Chicago, and no Sancho Lyttle for Atlanta, due to their EuroBasket Women commitments (one of them is already on her way back, however – see the Notes section at end of this piece for details). Tamera Young and Le’coe Willingham were again the replacements.
- The first quarter was all Atlanta, as they immediately raised the pace of the game and turned it into their kind of contest. Willingham was doing a surprisingly successful defensive job on Elena Delle Donne; Angel McCoughtry’s jump shot was falling once again; and the Dream were just flying from one end of the floor to the other while Chicago had no answer. It was 16-2 before the Sky knew what had hit them.
- Fortunately for Chicago, Allie Quigley came off the bench and kept them alive. She tossed in 12 points before the end of the first period on a series of jumpers, to at least keep the Sky vaguely in touch. They still trailed 34-18 when Dream rookie Alex Bentley dropped in a floater at the first-quarter buzzer.
- Then began the long road back for Chicago. With McCoughtry resting on the bench, and Delle Donne starting to attack Willingham off the dribble a little more or just shooting over her, the Sky found some traction. By halftime they were down only 51-47 in a game that had become an end-to-end shootout. A Tamera Young finish two minutes into the third quarter pulled them within a point, and drew an early timeout from Dream coach Fred Williams.
- Then Fred made a key move. He pulled Willingham for Tiffany Hayes, going small with four perimeter players alongside center Erika de Souza. That pushed McCoughtry into the pseudo-power forward spot, and into defending Delle Donne – although Armintie Herrington and even Hayes took turns in that role as well. The rest of the game was basically a story of how successfully that switch played out. Atlanta were swarming defensively, switching freely, and the speed and athleticism of their small lineup was giving Chicago lots of problems. They forced steals, they ran the floor, and they generally outworked the Sky for the win. The advantage their small lineup should’ve given Chicago on the glass never really materialised, with the work rate of de Souza and the wings combining to keep Atlanta pretty even despite their size disadvantage.
- Quigley went cold, and all the help Atlanta sent at Delle Donne kept her quiet. Sylvia Fowles had a terrible afternoon, to the extent that she was benched for Carolyn Swords down the stretch. Erika can give opposing centers fits at times, but Fowles looked more out of sorts than even that could justify. Maybe she was ill, or maybe she got up on the wrong side of bed, but without Prince and with Big Syl off her game it was surprising this stayed a contest as long as it did. Atlanta blew it out again midway through the final period.
- The Dream must be absolutely delighted at how their season has begun. McCoughtry’s jump shot has looked like it might be coming around in their last couple of games, and if that’s the case she’s essentially unguardable. It’s already pretty damn difficult to cover her, and she’s been filling up the stat-sheet in other categories as well. The transition at point guard from Lindsey Harding to the combo of a Mystic misfit and a second-round rookie has been so smooth you’d hardly notice, and they’ve even kept winning in the absence of Lyttle. This has always been a team that thrives on momentum, and right now they’re rolling right along and gathering wins as they go.
- Phoenix had Brittney Griner still on restricted minutes as she works her way back from a knee injury, and Candice Dupree back from her one-game suspension for making contact with an official. In a slight surprise, given head coach Corey Gaines’s moves in the past, it was second-year guard Briana Gilbreath who retained her starting spot, while the more experienced Charde Houston went back to the bench. Tulsa were yet again without Liz Cambage and Tiffany Jackson-Jones due to injuries and made their own starting lineup change – demoting Kayla Pedersen in favour of Jennifer Lacy.
- This was a wild, helter-skelter game, as you might expect when these two teams face each other. Phoenix have rediscovered their identity in recent games, returning to the run-and-shoot offense that they’re known for. Tulsa were more than happy to run right back at them and exploit the usual flaws in the Mercury defense, especially without Cambage to throw it to in the low post. Why slow it down when you’ll get better shots keeping the pace high?
- Phoenix were switching so freely on ball screens in the early going that Tulsa could essentially create any matchup they wanted. You want Riquna Williams with Krystal Thomas defending her? Okay, bring Thomas’s man over to set a screen, and hey presto, Thomas will switch onto Williams. That becomes a problem when the guard goes flying past her new defender to the rim (easily ahead of any help defenders) or just shoots over her. Thomas and Lynetta Kizer saw very few minutes in this game after the first quarter, largely because neither could keep up with Tulsa’s guards on those switches.
- When they weren’t using that method to score, Tulsa were running repeated pick-and-rolls to send Glory Johnson to the rim for layups. When either one defender was too slow to switch, or the Mercury tried to semi-trap the ballhandler, there were repeated gaps for the ball to find Johnson rolling to the rim. She was already 8-12 for 18 points by halftime.
- At the other end of the floor, Phoenix were even more successful in piling up points. Taurasi’s enjoying the return to high-octane basketball immensely, and is happily firing away and creating offense. Alongside her, DeWanna Bonner may be even happier about the new-old style. She’s tossing up shots in rhythm and generally looking far more comfortable than she did in the Mercury’s early games. This is how this team likes to play.
- Little changed in the second half. Tulsa kept getting close, with Williams and Candice Wiggins raining in threes, Johnson attacking the boards, and Diggins utilising the space Phoenix afforded her to have her most successful game so far as a pro. Phoenix kept hitting big shots to just about keep their noses in front.
- The Mercury defense seemed to get increasingly confused in the second half. Many of Tulsa’s chances came in semi-transition, when anyone’s defense can be scrambled, but in halfcourt sets Phoenix were messing with things. They were switching everything – except when they weren’t. It seemed like when Samantha Prahalis or Griner were involved in the picks, they were trying harder to avoid switching, but occasionally giving in to the temptation. It led to some confusion, and some of the open looks that kept Tulsa in the game.
- Trailing by five with under two minutes left in regulation – just after the requisite Diana Taurasi Technical of the Day – Williams hit yet another ridiculous three, before Johnson converted yet another layup off the pick-and-roll (the commentator kept calling it a ‘give-and-go’ – please ignore him). That tied the game up with under a minute to play. Taurasi got something of a superstar call on a drive and made both free throws. Tulsa coach Gary Kloppenburg drew up a nice play to answer, but why it was designed for Nicole Powell you’d have to ask him. Powell has hit plenty of big shots in her time, but Williams and Wiggins were the hot hands yesterday – Powell had barely hit a shot all day. She got a good look, but predictably missed, and Taurasi hit two more free throws after Tulsa fouled intentionally with 15 seconds left. Now trailing by four, Klopp didn’t even have Williams on the floor for his next play, which Diggins managed to turn into two points with a drive and double-pump finish off the glass.
- Taurasi gave the Shock some hope by finally missing a free throw, keeping the Mercury lead at three with just 6 seconds remaining. At least this time he put Williams back in. With no timeouts left, Williams took the inbounds pass, went the length of the court, used a screen and calmly drilled a three over Dupree’s outstretched arm to tie the game. With only 0.3 seconds left, the buzzer might as well have sounded while the ball was in the air. Tulsa were headed to overtime for the fourth time this season, in just their eighth game.
- After three losses in those three previous OT games, Shock fans probably weren’t high on optimism heading into the extra period. And maybe neither were the team. Apart from a Williams jumper off the opening tip that gave them a brief lead, they struggled to score in overtime, as fatigue and some bad luck worked against them. The number of Shock shots that just barely rimmed out was becoming excruciating – as was the damage inflicted by Taurasi’s perimeter gunning. The Shock hung around for most of OT through a combination of grit, determination and free throws, ultimately trailing by just four in the final minute, but when a Wiggins three hit nothing but air in the last 15 seconds they were done for. They’ve now tied the WNBA record for overtime losses in a season. And still have 26 games left to play.
- Remember these games? All offense all the time, career scoring marks for opposing players, and the Mercury coming out on top. We used to see a lot of those. Griner still doesn’t look totally comfortable with pro concepts – how to handle picks, where to position herself to help without leaving the defense lopsided, how to help the offense when she doesn’t have the ball etc. But she’s got a lovely touch around the rim, she scares people out of the paint, and she’s still managing to rack up blocks. There was one sequence very early in this game where Phoenix got out on the break and Taurasi probably should’ve just taken the layup, but instead she fed Griner alongside her who tossed in a soft hook off the glass. It wasn’t picture-perfect by any means, but it illustrated how Griner can run with this team, not just be a sideline element that they go to outside of their system. This Mercury team is still more potential than fulfilled reality, but they’re a lot more fun to watch now. And they’re winning.
- Poor old Tulsa. It feels like we keep saying that, year after year, game after game. Williams and Johnson were both outstanding, while the Diggins/Wiggins backcourt thrived against the Mercury brand of defense, but it still wasn’t enough. Without Cambage and Jackson-Jones, this looks a lot like last year’s team, just with a younger backcourt (who haven’t shot anywhere near as well until this game). They didn’t win much last year, either.
- It was the expected injury report for these two – Renee Montgomery and Tan White still missing for the Sun, Sue Bird the only roster member not in uniform for Seattle. Bird was on the sidelines for the first time this year, however.
- The most effective offensive player for Connecticut in the first half was Allison Hightower, who deserves her own bullet point. I’ve talked about her here before, but you’re especially aware of my fondness for Hightower if you follow me on Twitter. The improvement in her overall game in the last couple of years has been absolutely outstanding, as she’s developed an offensive arsenal that includes the ability to create off the dribble and finish in traffic, and a significantly more consistent outside shot. For at least the last two seasons she’s also essentially been playing co-point guard, even though all the attention goes to Kara Lawson. Hightower’s ability to initiate the offense and run things for Connecticut has played a part in allowing Lawson to be so successful in recent times, because the pressure is taken off Lawson to handle the point guard responsibilities. Plus, of course, Hightower generally guards the best perimeter player on the opposition squad for most of the game. She’s one of the more underappreciated players in this league.
- Unfortunately, if Hightower’s your most effective offensive weapon, that probably means Lawson and Tina Charles aren’t performing particularly well. Charles was being kept under wraps by Tina Thompson, whose physical defense in the paint was enough to lead to another example of the endless stream of jump shots and fadeaways that Charles has been throwing up this season. Charles’s varied offensive skills have always been impressive, and those fadeaways look awfully pretty when they go in, but that’s rarely been the case this season. It feels like she’s taking the easy option too frequently, settling for trickier shots while shying away from opponents, rather than going at the rim looking to create contact and find better looks. If you remove that one apparent breakout game against Indiana, she’s 44-131 for the season, for 33.6% from the field – and she’s gone to the free throw line just 14 times in those 6 games. That’s horrible.
- Thanks to a focus on feeding Thompson so that she could attack Kelsey Griffin, and a burst of scoring off the bench from Shekinna Stricklen, Seattle led 40-33 at halftime.
- The Storm offense looked like it might be falling into one of its frequent lulls early in the second half, as multiple possessions were just seeing a guard use one screen and then toss up a shot that clanked off the rim. But when the shots started going in on those exact same types of possession, it pushed their lead back out again.
- Surprisingly, Seattle’s lead was put under very little threat in the final period. Charles continued to struggle, Lawson was a non-factor – maybe her back is still bothering her? – and Connecticut didn’t know where else to turn. A Storm team that have typically been horrible on the road in recent years eased home for a comfortable win on Connecticut’s own floor.
- This was yet another weak performance from the Sun, led by another ugly shooting night for Charles. She finished 5-18 from the field for 15 points and 6 rebounds, which isn’t good enough if Connecticut are going to win games. Hightower was 8-11 for 17 points, but you can’t expect her to carry your offense. There was also far too much space within their defense, allowing Seattle to cut through them to the rim or fire open efforts from outside. Maybe they’re expecting Montgomery and White to ignite the offense once they’re healthy, but while those two are useful pieces they’re really not good enough to expect a huge turnaround to result from their return. Recent addition Iziane Castro Marques isn’t seeing much floor time, and when she has it’s been the usual Izi-style low-percentage shots. The only way is up for this squad, but it’s going to be a tough climb.
- For Seattle, this is probably about as good as they can be expected to play this season, especially on their travels. They moved the ball well, hit shots from the perimeter, worked nicely through Thompson and Camille Little in the post, and disrupted Connecticut with their physical defense. It was a very solid win for a team that needs these sort of all-round performances to pull out victories. Now they have to try to string a few together, rather than allowing it to be a flash in the pan.
There was a hilarious shambles at EuroBasket Women 2013 today, with Russia beating Italy by six points and neither team seeming certain at the finish whether they ought to be happy or not. Those who’d done the maths beforehand knew that Russia needed to win by at least seven to confirm their place in the next round, and when the result of the later Spain-Sweden game went against them, Russia were out. It was a ludicrous miscalculation by the Russian coaching staff, who clearly hadn’t drilled into their players that seven was the crucial figure.
It leaves the Russians as the most high-profile team to exit the tournament in the first round, joining Latvia, Ukraine and Lithuania (it’s not been a good tournament for former Soviet states, apart from Belarus). It also means that the Russians cannot qualify for the 2014 World Championships in Turkey. Of relevance to the WNBA, Epiphanny Prince is finished with her European responsibilities for the summer, and can head back to the US. Presumably, she may well be in Tulsa on Thursday afternoon for the Sky’s next game.
Avery Warley was confirmed today as New York’s replacement for the waived Cheryl Ford, as mentioned in yesterday’s column.
Angel McCoughtry and Diana Taurasi were named as the WNBA’s Players of the Week in two of the easiest decisions the league has ever had to make to those awards.
Tuesday June 18th (tomorrow):
Washington @ Seattle, 10pm ET. The line is Seattle -3.5, a classic “we don’t quite believe in the Mystics yet, but Seattle aren’t much good either” hedge. After the solid performance in Connecticut, I’ll take the Storm to pull it out. Guess I don’t quite believe in the Mystics yet, either.