With one WNBA game played virtually as late as possible yesterday, followed by another as early as they could plausibly schedule it today, we bring you an oddity in WNBAlien coverage: two days in one column. Wednesday night and Thursday morning, all in one go.
The Phoenix Mercury went into last night’s contest having rediscovered some form in recent games. After a horrible start that had many wondering about head coach Corey Gaines’s job security, they’d run off three straight wins with a return to their all-offense, free-flowing attack. But after road wins against two weakened teams and a home victory over an LA Sparks squad that barely showed up, last night promised to be a sterner test. The Minnesota Lynx hadn’t been at their best in their previous few appearances, but they’re still the Western Conference champions of the last two seasons, and regardless of all the preseason hype surrounding Phoenix – the title of Best in the West still goes through Minnesota.
The injury news was the same for both teams as in recent games – everyone available for Minnesota; Brittney Griner restricted to limited minutes for Phoenix, plus Penny Taylor and Alexis Hornbuckle still sidelined. A rotation change for the Mercury was announced initially, with the odd move of replacing Briana Gilbreath with Charde Houston on the original lineup sheets, but when the teams went out for tip-off Gilbreath was on the floor. So just a red herring.
The Mercury had some success early on with Diana Taurasi and Candice Dupree running pick-and-rolls, but that quickly dried up. The kept firing away from outside throughout the first half, but with virtually no transition opportunities they were largely kept in check by the Lynx. Taurasi continued her impressive return to form, but there wasn’t a lot of help out there for her.
However, at the other end of the floor, Minnesota’s offense wasn’t as successful as they often are against the Mercury either. Maya Moore was their one effective weapon, but as a team they missed a lot of decent looks and some sloppy ballhandling led to unnecessary turnovers. They managed to be slightly more successful in transition than the Mercury, but even with a high pace to the game there wasn’t much effective offense. Minnesota held a slim 40-37 lead at halftime.
Central to the Lynx limiting Phoenix’s offense was their rebounding effort. Part of the reason Gaines has benched point guard Samantha Prahalis in favour of sliding Taurasi over to ‘lead guard’ is that it makes them big at every spot on the floor. After getting beaten on the glass in their three losses to open the season, the Mercury had come out on top on the boards in their subsequent three wins (despite less of a contribution from Griner). The taller lineup helps for the basic reason of ‘size matters’ – put more height on the floor and you’ll probably grab more rebounds. It’s helped them with the return to a fast-paced running game as well, because efficient rebounding makes it much easier to get out on the break. But with Moore’s activity and pure athleticism leading the way, the Lynx were winning the battle on the glass 23-17 at halftime, and it was a key part of their lead.
One other moment to note in the first half – Taurasi picking up yet another technical foul for running her mouth off for longer than a referee could stand. From one perspective it had a chance to be a good thing – the Mercury had won the three games this season where she’d picked up a tech, and lost the three where she’d avoided it – but there’s a bigger issue. Beyond the fines that come along with the calls – $200 each for techs 1-3, $400 each for 4-6, $800 each for 7 and onwards – the suspensions start kicking in at technical #7. From that point, a one-game suspension is attached to every second tech (so 7th, 9th, 11th, 13th etc. all bring a one-game ban). She hit the limit a couple of years ago, but got away with it because apparently a couple had been rescinded by the league after the fact (the league doesn’t announce these things, so no one knew until questions were asked about why she hadn’t been suspended). She has to get herself a little more under control, because she’s currently on pace to miss at least four games via piling up technical fouls. Which would be ridiculous. The officials do have a quick trigger with her, but she’s made her own bed. Years and years of screaming at them over practically every call or non-call that goes against her means she’s always on a short leash. And the Mercury need her on the floor, not banned from the arena.
After an awful first half, Seimone Augustus discovered a little accuracy on her shot out of the locker room, and Minnesota’s lead was as much as nine early in the third period. But from there on, the third was all Phoenix. Taurasi was breaking down the defense and getting to the rim, Griner finished a couple of plays inside, and there were even a couple of opportunities for the Mercury on the break. Cheryl Reeve cycled through every option she could think of in her rotation, but there was far too much space inside the Lynx defense and far too many breakdowns whoever she put on the floor.
But everything changed when we hit the fourth quarter. Reeve went back to a standard lineup, after trying her small-ball options with Moore at power forward late in the third. She had her starters out there to open the final period, with the exception of Monica Wright replacing Augustus. While Moore’s a supreme athlete, and Augustus’s defense has progressed dramatically from her early years in the league, Wright has become their ‘stopper’ on the perimeter. She was out there to produce what she could offensively, but primarily to chase Taurasi around the floor and make her life miserable. Meanwhile Lynx as a unit had raised their effort again on the boards, and were absolutely dominating in that area. Every Mercury offense was one-and-done, while the Lynx found second-chance opportunities whenever they needed them. There was finally some penetration to their offense, creating chances to score nearer the rim, and the Mercury were falling to pieces. Griner’s minutes were limited to about five per-quarter, and Gaines had used her at the start of the first three periods, but he was trying to save her for the final stages in the fourth. By the time she got in with 5:50 left in the game, a 13-2 Lynx run had them up 69-62.
And that was that. Minnesota were utterly dominant in the final period, outplaying, outexecuting, and outworking the Mercury. Griner’s return made no difference. The Lynx were an insane 15-1 on the glass in the fourth, leading to a 24-9 advantage on the scoreboard, and an overall 80-69 victory. After some promising moments earlier in the evening, it was an abrupt end to Phoenix’s winning streak.
Diana Taurasi was really the only Mercury player who found any consistent offense throughout the game, with brief contributions from Griner, Dupree and Gilbreath. DeWanna Bonner, who’s looked refreshed since Phoenix returned to their run-and-gun ways, set a new WNBA record for futility by going 0-13 from the field (the most shots ever taken by an individual without hitting a single one). That was ugly. But the most obvious problem was on the boards. A 48-26 deficit over the 40 minutes is an awful lot to overcome, and a lot of it comes down to effort. Moore and Rebekkah Brunson, with some help, simply outworked the Mercury for a lot of those loose balls. So on a night when Phoenix actually did a halfway reasonable job in restricting the Minnesota offense, they lost out anyway.
This was a bit of a struggle for Minnesota, but their success in recent years has never been just about talent. They missed a lot of shots in this game – shots they usually make – but they didn’t get down on themselves when they fell behind in the third quarter and played some pretty deplorable defense. They dug in, stepped up their work rate, and dominated the final period. The Mercury wore down, but give credit to Wright for her effort on Taurasi in the fourth. After going 7-13 for 25 points in the first three periods, the Mercury star was just 1-3 for 3 points in the fourth, when Wright was constantly on the floor as her shadow. We also saw how useful someone like Janel McCarville can be in helping to neutralise Griner in this game, with McCarville’s ability to pass the ball and initiate the offense from up high dragging Griner away from the paint. But the Lynx star on the night was Maya Moore, who finished the game 9-17 for 26 points, 5 assists and a career high 16 rebounds (7 offensive). With Augustus struggling, and the offense stalling at times, she kept finding ways to corral loose balls or create points. Her continued development is one of the things that makes this Lynx team as scary as ever.
The next day, in Oklahoma…
The joy of Camp Day reached Tulsa earlier today, as the Shock hosted lots of screaming kids along with the Chicago Sky. Tulsa’s 1-7 record coming into this game was disappointing, but four overtime losses within that record illustrates a team that’s competing, even if the wins haven’t been coming. They were still without center Liz Cambage and forward Tiffany Jackson-Jones, although Cambage’s walking boot has apparently been removed, so she may be nearing a return. Jennifer Lacy kept her starting spot ahead of Kayla Pedersen, while Nicole Powell made her first start in a Shock jersey, replacing Roneeka Hodges on the wing. Chicago were back at full strength after Russia’s early exit from EuroBasket Women 2013 allowed Epiphanny Prince to return home sooner than expected. She ultimately only missed three Sky games, and came straight back into their starting lineup.
There was some pretty miserable defense played in the early stages of this game, at both ends of the floor. Epiphanny Prince and Candice Wiggins gave far too much room to each other for open threes, and the wide open looks from around the arc continued flowing. Chicago had the quick early lead behind Prince, but then the Shock kept finding glaring holes in the Sky perimeter defense via simple pick-and-pops. Chicago weren’t closing out well enough, and if they switched or tried to rotate they were arriving far too late. Powell and Wiggins both benefitted.
The defense improved a little in the second quarter, although much of the decreased scoring rate came down to a few more misses on the same open looks. Riquna Williams was a sparkplug yet again for the Shock, coming off the bench and immediately looking to score. Sometimes it feels like she’s just insanely greedy – it’s almost a surprise on the rare occasions that she passes the ball – but she’s an electric offensive player when the shots are falling. Her percentages are up this year, and if she can keep improving her efficiency she becomes a very useful player. Every coach loves to have someone who can score for their second unit.
Tulsa had a narrow 41-39 advantage at halftime, and the game remained close through most of the third quarter, before a late Shock run. Pokey Chatman has a strange tendency to rest all her star players at the same time. It was a bad idea when there were only two in Chicago, and Fowles and Prince sat together. It was a bad idea when Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas kept being subbed out together in Indiana Fever games last year. It’ll be a bad idea tonight if Eric Spoelstra thinks “y’know what, I’m gonna try a lineup without LeBron, Dwyane or Chris”. There’s really no good reason why Fowles, Prince and Delle Donne should ever be sat next to each other on a bench, unless they’re in a park on a sunny day having lunch. But there they all were in the closing stages of the third quarter, while the likes of Michelle Campbell and Tamera Young tried to produce offense on the floor. Didn’t work, shockingly enough. All three Sky stars were thrown back into the fray before the end of the period because it was such a mess, but the Shock had taken over the momentum, and yet another Williams triple gave Tulsa a 68-61 lead going into the final period.
There were some odd lineups in the fourth as well, a period Chicago never managed to get a grip on. Prince, Delle Donne and Fowles played all 10 minutes, but Allie Quigley got minutes at the point and Campbell was frequently kept in ahead of Swin Cash. Quigley really isn’t a point guard – she can hit a few shots, but you don’t want her handling the ball or trying to run your offense. Also, Chatman’s offense lacks movement (of the ball, or of people) at the best of times, and Quigley just gives them yet another player who mostly wants to look for her own shot. Fowles is working off scraps in the paint, Delle Donne is often hanging around on the wing waiting for the ball – and looking to do nothing besides create her own shot once she touches it – and Prince has always been primarily a scorer. There isn’t enough sense that this is a team yet, with a unity of purpose. The Sky offense just ground to a halt, as Tulsa continued to cling to a narrow lead throughout the fourth quarter. Skylar Diggins hadn’t scored a bucket all day, and found herself glued to the bench in favour of Angel Goodrich during some of Tulsa’s more successful sequences, but even she managed to exploit Quigley’s defensive failings and slice in for a layup with two minutes remaining that iced the game. The remaining moments of an 83-74 Shock win were a mere formality.
Games like this are what many of us were worried about with Chicago prior to this season. The pure talent of their stars has been enough to build a winning record to open the year, but this was another game where problems from previous years recurred. The offense can be so slow and stilted, which just grinds everything to a halt. Remarkably, Fowles has just 3 assists for the entire season through 7 games, which is both a reflection of how rarely they successfully enter the ball to her down low, and her own desperation to shoot every time she touches it (plus her limited passing ability, to be honest). Delle Donne, despite the amount of attention she draws, is averaging barely two assists per game herself. They’re still working things out, but apart from Delle Donne the core of this team has been together for quite some time now. Improvements should already have been made. Their ‘Big Three’ might be enough to get them to the playoffs through sheer force of talent, but there’s much greater potential within them than we saw evidence of in this game. The defense wasn’t great either, but that’s one area where needing time to integrate Delle Donne is understandable. Even if repeated failings to close out on three-point shooters isn’t.
Credit to Tulsa for closing a game out, even if it was a scrappy game against an opponent who performed poorly. They’re keeping the offense simple – a lot of pick-and-pops and quick ball rotation for threes, and plenty of pick-and-rolls to try to get Glory Johnson heading to the hoop – but when they hit their shots from outside that can make them dangerous. Powell, Wiggins and Williams combined to do enough in this one, along with the yeoman’s work from Johnson inside, still doing most of the heavy lifting in the paint on her own. Maybe they should play more of their games early in the day in front of particularly youthful audiences.
Only hours after they completed the win above, Tulsa played a part in the first trade of the 2013 WNBA season. They sent forward Kayla Pedersen to the Connecticut Sun for a 2014 second-round draft pick. After a useful start in the opening weeks of her WNBA career back in 2011, Pedersen has often struggled to produce. She’s variously looked like a backup who was being asked to do more than she was capable of, a round peg in a square hole, or just someone whose confidence had disappeared. A fresh start probably isn’t a bad idea, although she had produced a few moments this season where it looked like she was rediscovering some form (a nice performance in Seattle comes to mind). Jen Lacy has stepped into her starting role in recent Shock games and filled it adequately, plus the open roster spot will likely allow Tulsa to bring back Courtney Paris again, who can give them some much-needed interior presence when used against the right opponents. Getting a second-round pick is better than just cutting Pedersen for nothing.
It’s not the Tina Thompson move I suggested a while ago, but Connecticut get another option to help fill the minutes at power forward alongside Tina Charles. They cut Ashley Walker to make room, and will be hoping that Pedersen at least gives them someone taller than Kelsey Griffin who can enter the post rotation and help out. It’s another stop-gap measure, and Sun fans can only hope that it isn’t a sign that Ann Donovan heard from Sandrine Gruda’s camp that she’s not coming to the WNBA in 2013. Pedersen might help a little, but she’s not going to be the impact player at the 4 that Gruda or Asjha Jones could be.
Friday June 21st (tomorrow):
Seattle @ San Antonio, 8pm ET. San Antonio -5.5 is the line, and that’s more points than I expected to have to give up while backing Dan Hughes to draw a response from his team after the miserable loss in LA last weekend. But I’m still taking the Silver Stars.
Washington @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. Mercury -8.5 is another signal that Vegas still doesn’t believe in Thibault’s Mystics. I’ll take Washington to at least keep it closer than that.
Minnesota @ Los Angeles, 11pm ET. Sparks -2 suggests the bookies don’t think there’s much of a gap between these teams (you typically get about 3 points for home-court), but I still think the Lynx are better. I’ll take Minnesota.