Four games in the WNBA last night, but it wasn’t exactly a feast for the basketball fan. A couple of blowouts, a losing streak broken more by will than skill, and a messy slugfest to close out the evening. But there were still plenty of moments of interest. On to the Bullet Point Breakdowns.
- Indiana came into this contest looking to break a seven-game losing streak, and their chances were given a significant boost before tip-off with the news that Tamika Catchings was ready to play. Their leader and star player had missed two games due to lower back pain, but she was in the starting lineup for this one. Tulsa had the same starting five they’ve been working with lately, with a bonus of their own available off the bench. Big center Liz Cambage was in uniform and available for the first time since the end of May.
- The game opened with Tulsa jacking endless threes – mostly bricks – while Indiana blew a series of layups. Neither was a surprise. Tulsa have taken far more threes than any other team in the league this season; Indiana are the only team in the WNBA shooting under 50% from inside 5-feet (the league average from that range is 56%).
- While injuries have been the major factor in the Fever’s horrible start to the season, they also haven’t been helped by the introduction of the defensive three-seconds rule. As much as any team in the league, Indiana’s defense expects players to float towards help positions and bring double-teams whenever the ball goes down low. They aren’t committing a significant number of violations – it’s just that you can sometimes see the hesitation that the new rule has implanted in their minds. Playing ‘on a string’ defense where everyone shifts into the right position has become more difficult – or at the very least, distinctly different – with the new rule. And the Fever are still adapting.
- Nicole Powell had a great start to this game, going 6-6 for 14 points in the first quarter alone. She’s doing more than just spotting up in the corner for Tulsa, actually looking to create points off the dribble and make things happen more than she ever did in New York. But we’ve seen hot streaks from Powell in the past. We can get excited about a real renaissance if she keeps it up for more than a week or two.
- Most of the first half was reasonably tight once Indiana recovered from Powell’s hot streak. Catchings looked like the rest might’ve done her some good, throwing herself into the action at both ends of the floor as always. Fever point guard Briann January, who’s struggled all season as one of their few remaining healthy starters, even hit a couple of shots, which allowed Indiana to go in at half time up 39-33.
- Not counting Powell, Tulsa shot a dire 5-24 in the first half, so Shock head coach Gary Kloppenburg decided to start Cambage in the second half to offer up a different option. She gave them a target inside, and produced a couple of decent finishes, but she also had some difficulties. She was sloppy with outlet passes after grabbing rebounds, expecting to be able to make simple handoffs until the Fever showed her that wasn’t the case. Indiana were also doubling-down on her hard whenever they could in the post, which led to turnovers as well as the occasional open shot when she kicked the ball out. It was a promising return for the young center, just with a few signs of rust.
- Behind the dribble-drive attacking of Catchings and Shavonte Zellous, Indiana pushed their lead as high as 17 points late in the third quarter, and it looked like their losing-streak was at an end. But with Catchings and Zellous resting to open the fourth, the lead was already down to 8 points when they returned with seven minutes left in the game. Cambage had found a little rhythm inside, and Riquna Williams had offered some help to Powell on the perimeter. The starting backcourt of Skylar Diggins and Candice Wiggins had been completely useless all night, so it wasn’t a surprise that Angel Goodrich and Williams were the guards when Tulsa’s comeback gathered some steam. There’s still no consistency at all from Diggins and Wiggins, and limited offensive production even on their good nights. The Shock were hardly hoping to contend for a title this year, but the growing pains can still be tough to suffer through.
- The reintroduction of Catchings had helped Indiana steady the ship, but a three from Williams in transition cut the gap to just 6 points with four minutes left in the game. Then the Fever went to something they’ve barely used all season – a ‘big’ lineup, featuring Catchings at her old position of small forward. Williams went right past Catchings for a layup to cut the gap even further, but from there it worked nicely for Indiana. Jessica Breland – the power forward that allowed Catchings to slide over – had a couple of finishes inside, January hit another jumper, and Catchings had a huge block on a late Williams drive that iced the game. The Fever – and Catchings in particular – looked determined to finally bring an end to their losing run.
- This is what Tulsa look like when they can’t hit shots from outside. So much of their offense is geared around perimeter shooting, and apart from Powell and a little from Williams, they didn’t hit much all night. Diggins and Wiggins were a combined 2-13 for just 4 points, with Diggins’s only score coming with 30 seconds left in the game. The Notre Dame fans who’d made the trip to see their idol gave it a cheer, but even they’d virtually given up by then. The performance from Cambage, who played nearly 14 minutes in the second half, offers hope for a more varied offense. Now they have to find a way to integrate her post game with Glory Johnson’s activity around the rim and the shooters around the arc. And they have to shoot better, obviously.
- In her first game back, Catchings finished 9-18 for 28 points, 5 boards, 3 assists, 6 steals and 4 blocks. Exactly the kind of dominant all-round performance that the Fever needed to finally break this ugly streak. They still had moments of offensive anaemia, but they got the job done. Now they have to try to piece together a few more wins until some help arrives for Catchings and Zellous from that lineup of players still attending games in street clothes.
- The starting lineups were as expected, and while it was Washington playing the second half of a back-to-back, it was Atlanta who got off to a horrible start. There was a defensive three-seconds violation called against Erika de Souza on the opening possession of the game (I counted 12 seconds in the paint without guarding anyone, so she couldn’t really complain), and the resulting technical free throw began a 10-0 run to open the game for the Mystics.
- Angel McCoughtry forced up some ugly long jumpers in the early minutes, but as the first half wore on she started to make the extra pass to better placed teammates. Combined with rookie guard Alex Bentley coming into the game and knocking down a series of shots, Atlanta were quickly back in the game and then in front.
- The Dream took charge once they woke up and played themselves into the game. Washington had trouble piercing the active and long Atlanta defense, leading to a lot of misses from outside. The Dream were also completely dominating the glass, leading to several extra looks and a 39-28 halftime advantage.
- Atlanta were rarely troubled in the second half, extending their lead to as much as 20 and never allowing it below 12 until the final shot of the game. The Mystics, weary from chasing Phoenix around the night before, were much more successful offensively in the second half, but could never force enough stops to make a run. Le’coe Willingham took an elbow to the stomach barely three minutes into the third quarter, and didn’t return for the rest of the night, but the Dream compensated well enough to cover for McCoughtry as the power forward. Atlanta shot much better from outside in the second half, and when this team is hitting their shots they’re very tough to stop.
- Facing Phoenix and Atlanta in a back-to-back, Washington head coach Mike Thibault probably didn’t expect to have much chance of winning this one. The bright spots were another solid offensive outing for Monique Currie, and some positive production from rookie forward Emma Meesseman, but they never really threatened a comeback. They’ll be hoping to break a five-game losing streak after grabbing some rest and heading home to face Tulsa on Sunday.
- Atlanta added another win to their league-leading record, moving to 9-1. The last five victories have even come without the services of Sancho Lyttle (who’s 8-0 herself with Spain over the same period, by the way). They force turnovers, play with high energy and an active defense, and they’ve just kept rolling since the season began. When McCoughtry remembers she has teammates, and they’re hitting shots from outside, they become a very dangerous outfit. You also have to applaud Fred Williams for the success so far of the Jasmine Thomas/Alex Bentley pairing at point guard. Neither is a star, but between them they’ve filled the role perfectly well and fit in smoothly on this squad – Lindsey Harding has not been missed. Bentley’s even developing a habit of hitting shots at the end of shot clocks or quarters (a very useful talent to possess) and has nailed her last 10 consecutive three-point attempts across five games. All the Dream have to do is keep up these performances for as long as possible.
- The lineups were the same as when these teams clashed a week earlier back in Los Angeles, when the Sparks ran away to an 87-59 blowout win. Minnesota were looking for a little revenge, while LA wanted to show that result had been no accident. Regardless of the result, they’d be facing each other yet again on Tuesday back in LA.
- It didn’t take long for the Lynx to impose themselves on this game. In case you hadn’t noticed while watching the sport of basketball – size matters. By introducing Lindsey Harding into their starting lineup this year and sliding Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard over, the Sparks have made themselves quicker on the perimeter, but also significantly smaller. Minnesota, on the other hand, have a big, physical point guard in Lindsay Whalen, and two wings over six-feet tall in Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore. Unlike last week, when Augustus and Moore barely made an impact, they were utilising their size against the Sparks last night. Lindsey Harding is a good defender, but she has to cover Augustus with these lineups because LA don’t want Toliver anywhere near either Minnesota wing. And Harding just isn’t big enough if the Lynx go right at her (or over her) through Augustus or Moore. Considering their major rivals in the West – Minnesota and Phoenix – are both big on the perimeter, it’ a problem LA will face all season. They either have to limit the time Toliver and Harding spend on the floor together – meaning wings like Marissa Coleman, Jenna O’Hea or Farhiya Abdi will have to play more – or the help defense has to improve. As they showed last week, it’s not impossible to survive with a smaller perimeter group, but the help has to arrive quickly when Harding or Toliver need it. LA’s defensive rotations still need work.
- Minnesota were also much more active and energetic defensively, creating offense from their defense. Last week it was LA forcing turnovers for fastbreak opportunities, or simply beating Minnesota down the floor in transition – this time it was the Lynx producing the same kind of points.
- In the half-court, Minnesota were determined to keep LA out of the paint. They gave up an occasional layup when Candace Parker attacked Janel McCarville – a matchup the Lynx avoid whenever possible by using their more athletic frontcourt players to handle Parker – but in general they kept LA out. On another night, maybe the Sparks would’ve lit them up from outside, but between good efforts to jump out to challenge shooters, and LA simply missing a lot of decent looks, the Lynx were in complete control. They led 44-30 at halftime.
- While effort and energy accounts for a lot, Minnesota also looked better prepared for the challenges LA present and the potential ways to exploit the Sparks defense. The Lynx were clearly setting picks on specific players, waiting for the switches that are frequent elements of LA’s defense, then attacking the resulting mismatches. The work rate and dedication was central to their dominance on the boards and the improved effectiveness of their defense, but they played far smarter, as well as harder.
- Just as in Atlanta, the lead was in double-digits for the entire second half. This one was even more of a blowout, with the gap flirting with 30 and the game finishing with a whole load of garbage time.
- Devereaux Peters earned her extended minutes in this game, playing nearly 25 and finishing 6-11 for 14 points, 9 boards and 3 assists. She kept things simple, running hard from basket-to-basket and finding opportunities at the rim as a result. If Amber Harris can’t be counted on consistently – and Harris has played very limited minutes in some recent games after some shaky performances – then they’ll need Peters to step up. Especially against teams like LA where the raw athleticism can cause problems for McCarville.
- It was a disappointing outing for LA, who were never really in it after their slow start. The aggressive defense didn’t have a chance to replicate its impact from the previous week, as Minnesota ran past the Sparks in the early going before LA’s defense could even try to attack. The 52-18 Lynx advantage in points in the paint, along with a 47-28 victory on the glass, tells the tale of the game. Minnesota penetrated the Sparks’s defense far more successfully, while LA were left firing – and missing – from outside. Both these teams have been much better at home than on the road this season, so it’ll be interesting to see how the balance plays out in their third clash next week. It’s back in LA, but the Sparks will have to play much better regardless of the venue.
- Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve threw a little bit of a shot at her team in the press this week, aggravated by that previous performance against LA and some lackadaisical practices. She even mentioned changing her starting lineup, although that always seemed distinctly unlikely to happen. Whatever the thinking behind those comments, it apparently worked. From the opening tip, Minnesota’s defense was solid against penetration, and they pushed the ball hard to attack in transition. They were physical inside, giving Nneka Ogwumike a particularly miserable evening. Now all they have to do is string a few of these performances together, rather than just raising themselves for the matchups with special meaning. First up, producing another game like this back in LA on Tuesday night.
- Plenette Pierson was out due to the knee she re-injured in New York’s last game. The only listing I read or heard for her status was ‘day-to-day’, which is at least better than serious news of a tear or break. But as we know by now, day-to-day can mean anything. Without her, both Avery Warley and Kara Braxton started in the paint for New York, Braxton returning to the starting lineup after being benched for Warley last time out. It’s still not clear exactly why Braxton sat out the first half of that game. Seattle had the same group they’ve used all season.
- This entire game was pretty ugly as a spectacle, but the first half in particular was excruciating. Laimbeer’s Liberty have already established a pattern, after less than 10 games with him in charge. They’re a strong, solid defensive team, and all credit to them for maintaining that despite the losses of Essence Carson, Cheryl Ford, and now Pierson. Temeka Johnson was really the only effective offensive option for Seattle, coming off high picks and attacking Leilani Mitchell. But New York’s offense is dismal. They’re on pace to not just beat, but flat-out destroy the WNBA record for turnovers per game (since the introduction of the 24-second shot clock in 2006). The Storm weren’t even forcing a lot of their giveaways – the Liberty were just throwing the ball into traffic, or straight out of bounds. It led to a 30-30 tie at halftime, with both teams shooting under 38% from the field, and New York ‘leading’ the turnover count 12-5.
- Even without Pierson – the only true power forward on their roster – New York were dominant on the glass all night long. Camille Little and Tina Thompson have done a decent job competing on the boards for Seattle this year, despite often being undersized against their opponents, but the size and physical presence of the Liberty dominated in that area last night. It helped balance out the ridiculous number of turnovers.
- A quick burst to open the second half, ignited by a Cappie Pondexter three, established a six-point New York advantage that they maintained for much of the final 20 minutes. If only Pondexter would take a few more of those shots from beyond the arc – she’s still firing up too many long twos, which turns a good shot into a bad one just by taking a single step closer to the rim. It’s not like Rebekkah Brunson or Danielle Robinson, who take a bunch of mid-range twos because they know that’s the extent of their range. Pondexter has three-point range – she’s just not utilising it much. As you can probably tell by now, it drives me nuts.
- Seattle couldn’t find their stroke from outside all night, but they did manage to claw together enough offense to keep hanging around in the second half. It only took another finish in the lane from Johnson, Thompson taking a charge, and Little finding room for a layup inside to pull the Storm within one point with six minutes remaining.
- After New York responded through Pondexter and another continuous stream of rebounds, and both teams went deathly cold for several minutes, a three-point play for Shekinna Stricklen pulled Seattle within 60-58 with a minute left to play. Cappie answered with my least favourite shot – the long two – but it went in. And when the ball goes in, almost anything’s a good shot. From there, the Storm were just about finished, especially considering their futility from three-point range. They missed three more in the final seconds, completing a 1-18 night from beyond the arc.
- It was yet another ugly, hard-fought victory for the Liberty – which is basically how you can describe each of their wins this season. Pondexter finished with 23 points, but needed 24 shots to get there, and Mitchell was the only other Liberty player in double-figures with 10. The 22 turnovers were horrendous, but their defense recovered well enough to limit the number of points that Seattle turned those opportunities into. It was enough for a win, and to take New York back above .500, but it’s going to be a brutal way to try to win games for the rest of the year.
- It was another of those games where Seattle just didn’t quite have the firepower to dig themselves out of a poor offensive night. Johnson finished 10-19 for 22 points, but she didn’t get much help. Thompson, having such a strong offensive season so far, was 1-8 from the floor, including 1-6 from beyond the arc. The lack of accuracy from outside prevented the offense from ever finding a flow, and it proved to be too much to overcome.
Saturday June 29th (today):
Phoenix @ Connecticut, 7pm ET. The Sun are only getting 4.5 points. Not enough – give me Phoenix.
Los Angeles Sparks @ Chicago Sky, 8pm ET. Chicago -4 is the line, which suggests the bookmakers don’t quite believe in the Sky yet, considering LA played last night and haven’t won on the road yet this season. I’ll take Chicago, but without much confidence.
Sunday June 30th (tomorrow):
San Antonio @ Atlanta, 3pm ET
Tulsa @ Washington, 4pm ET
Seattle @ Indiana, 6pm ET