Only two games yesterday in the WNBA – which is pretty light for a Sunday this season – and on top of that, both turned out to be very one-sided. This was not a day for nail-biting drama in the WNBA.
Our first game was in New Jersey, at the Prudential Center that the New York Liberty are calling home for the third straight year (back to Madison Square Garden next season, assuming everything goes to plan). Considering they’ve been far more successful on their own floor this season, it should’ve been a welcome return for the Liberty after a four-game road trip. However, their visitors were the Chicago Sky, who finally seem to have amassed enough talent that even they can’t avoid winning basketball games. They also had center Sylvia Fowles back in the lineup after missing just one game due to her sprained ankle.
The first 15 minutes of the game were relatively even, with Katie Smith once again tasked with guarding Elena Delle Donne and doing the best job she could. Neither team was shooting particularly well, but Cappie Pondexter was finding her way to the rim often enough to keep the Liberty in it. Then the Sky discovered a very simple way to create points. Whether it was Courtney Vandersloot, Epiphanny Prince or Delle Donne, someone would penetrate slightly into the New York defense from the top of the key. They didn’t need to get to the rim, or even beat their defender – it just needed to be enough to attract attention from the strong side defender guarding the Sky player on the wing. As soon as that defender took a step inside to help prevent the penetration, the easy kick-out pass went to the shooter who’d been left in extra space, and that player knocked down the shot. Remarkably simple, and it worked several times in the space of a few minutes for Chicago. It’s essentially the basis of beating any reasonably solid defense – you make them bend, and then exploit whatever space they’ve left behind. It turned a three-point game into a 41-32 halftime lead.
The same semi-penetration and kick move worked for Chicago in the third quarter, and so did a lot of other things as the Sky turned the game into a rout. Even when it was simple one-on-one basketball through Prince or Delle Donne, offense was coming much more easily for Chicago, while New York were having to work incredibly hard for anything they got. Pondexter has looked better in the last couple of games, but she’s scoring much more efficiently on catch-and-shoot opportunities than dribbling into shots herself – and the team doesn’t have enough alternative weapons to create chances for her. Playing her off the ball a little more would be nice, but it feels like the Liberty would probably turn the ball over before she could run around a couple of screens and break open to receive a pass. The offense is still too ponderous and predictable, still too prone to trying to make the perfect pass through invisible gaps, and it allowed the Sky to pull away to a comfortable lead.
It’s hard to know what New York might’ve been if they’d stayed intact this season. Losing Essence Carson hurt, and never even getting to see Cheryl Ford (or Deanna Nolan) in a Liberty uniform made things even more difficult. Plenette Pierson still looks like she’s restricted by the knee injury she’s carrying as well, which has limited their interior game and put far too much on the shoulders of Kara Braxton – who really shouldn’t be relied upon for anything other than bonehead mistakes. Bill Laimbeer’s offense wasn’t really working even when Carson was healthy, but they’d have had more of a chance to work things out if the team was in one piece. This was a painful defeat to come back home for, and they trailed by at least 30 for most of the final quarter, ultimately losing 93-64.
From a Sky perspective this was a solid win, going on the road to an Eastern Conference rival and taking care of business without taxing their stars too much. Delle Donne was more successful this time around against Smith, and the team as a whole shot well, finishing 9-18 from three-point range. It makes life so much easier for this team when they can find their range from the perimeter, and punish teams for collapsing on Fowles or drives by Delle Donne and Prince. Their next nine games are all against Eastern Conference teams who are currently .500 or worse, so there’s a chance to really cement that playoff spot they’ve been dying to claim for so many years.
Moving to Minnesota…
Sunday’s second game was another chance for the Phoenix Mercury to test themselves against the team that’s won the West for the last two years, the Minnesota Lynx. Since switching back to their old style of basketball after a poor 0-3 start, the Mercury had gone 8-1 and started to live up to some of the hype that they generated heading into this season. But the Lynx beat them by 20 in the third of those early losses that led to Phoenix’s re-direction, and then provided the one loss in the Mercury’s last nine outings, with a comfortable 80-69 win in Arizona. Unless they get lucky and someone does the job for them in the first round of the playoffs, Phoenix are probably going to have to figure out how to beat this Lynx team if they want to reach the WNBA Finals this year. Here was another chance to prove they were up to the challenge.
The starting fives were the familiar lineups we’ve come to expect from these teams, and it was Minnesota who once again got off to the smoother start. Phoenix can only really be successful one way – by keeping the pace of the game high, and outscoring or outrunning their opposition. Minnesota have a more balanced style, capable of adapting to the opponent or the twists and turns of individual games. They also have a habit of running right back at the Mercury when these teams face each other, and showing Phoenix that they can do just as good a job of it. Led by Seimone Augustus attacking the rim in transition, that approach created an early lead for the Lynx.
At the other end of the floor, it was pretty clear how Minnesota were shading their defense. It was almost a zone inside on early possessions, as help leaned towards Brittney Griner in the post to make it difficult to feed her the ball and easy to bring extra help if it ever reached her. On the perimeter, Augustus and then Monica Wright covered Diana Taurasi, with lots of help. As we’ve seen with LeBron James in the men’s game, sometimes elite players can ‘make the right play’ and it’s still precisely what the defense wants them to do. Extra defenders moved towards Taurasi whenever necessary to make her a passer, rather than a scorer. It left gaps, but the Lynx are a good enough team to recover and fill those spaces once the ball is rotated to other players. Taurasi was quiet, and no one else was punishing Minnesota.
That said, the Lynx didn’t really manage to pull away in the first half. They were knocked back a bit by a nasty ankle turn for Augustus while trying to defend DeWanna Bonner on a drive, which left Augustus limping off the floor and heading back to the locker room on crutches. An MRI today confirmed a left ankle sprain, which is a positive diagnosis considering what it might’ve been. ‘Sidelined indefinitely’ was all that was offered as a prognosis, and they’ll certainly be careful with her. The Lynx need Augustus for the playoffs, not regular season games in July, so there’s no rush – this team is hardly going to drop out of the postseason picture with her in street clothes.
Augustus’s absence meant extra minutes for Wright, although she’d have seen plenty of time anyway as Minnesota’s first-choice Taurasi-hassler. Phoenix lost their composure a little in the first half, with Taurasi and Corey Gaines whining as usual (Taurasi even throwing in some dramatic recreations of how she felt Maya Moore had flopped after being virtually clotheslined by a Taurasi reach-in foul). Charde Houston also picked up a technical foul for her own comments to the officials. But given the holes that the Lynx had found in their defense, and Taurasi only finding room to take three shots, the Mercury probably would’ve settled for only being down 10 at halftime, 39-29.
However, the third quarter was a different story. Candice Dupree finally started making use of the space the defense was affording her while focussing on Taurasi and Griner, but with Moore heating up the Lynx started to pull away. Phoenix just couldn’t get the stops they needed to stay in touch, and a consistent stream of Moore mid-range jumpers turned a 10-point game into a blowout.
While they’ve been winning lately, the ever-present issues with Phoenix’s defense have been conveniently pushed to the background – but against the Lynx they were exposed once again. I feel like a broken record getting into this again, but there still seems to be so little planning and consistency within their defense. Every pick-and-roll, every cut, every possession is handled differently. Almost like they’re making it up as they go along. Presumably there’s a little more forethought and planning going into it than that, but that’s the impression you’re left with. It still amazes me that after all these years they haven’t manged to bring in a defensive assistant coach to simply take over that end of the floor and drill some structure into this squad. Maybe they have tried that once or twice, and it just hasn’t worked. There’s still no excuse for the defense being this bad and this disorganised.
The Lynx lead broke 20 in the third quarter, and as with the earlier game the gap was over 30 for much of the final period. Once again, the Lynx had handled the Mercury rather easily, completing a 91-59 victory.
Mercury fans will point to a massive imbalance in fouls and free throws in this game – 27 fouls called against the Mercury, 11 against the Lynx; 35 free throws shot by Minnesota, just 5 by Phoenix – and clearly the team felt the world was against them as well. Maybe there even was a little bit of home cooking in terms of the calls. But much of it came down to Minnesota piercing the Mercury defense as it struggled to rotate or cover, which then leads to reaches by defenders and free throw attempts for the more aggressive team. It’s not rocket science – part of playing solid defense is keeping in front of your man or sliding across quickly to help your teammates if they get beaten. Minnesota are much better at that than Phoenix, which played a significant role in the huge difference in the number of calls. The Mercury also allowed the perceived injustice of the officiating to mess with their heads and turn a game where they were just about hanging around into a true blowout. The only Phoenix player who finished in double-digits on the scoreboard was Dupree with 12, as Minnesota’s gameplan for Griner and Taurasi worked like a charm.
The Lynx offense was led by Moore, who kept working and making an impact with hustle plays and defense until her offense started to come around in the second half. It was a more mature performance from her that will have pleased head coach Cheryl Reeve, who’s been critical of Moore’s defensive play at times this season. Reeve also got a nice game from Devereaux Peters – who appears to have played her way past Amber Harris as Minnesota’s first post off the bench – and Monica Wright was impressive as the fill-in for Augustus. Wright has been in the news over the last couple of days for her engagement to NBA star Kevin Durant, but she clearly hadn’t allowed that to distract her from her responsibilities on the court. Both as the primary defender on Taurasi and as a scoring threat alongside Moore, she did her job impressively and continues to be one of the leaders in the Sixth Woman of the Year race. The biggest threat to her winning that award might be the injury to Augustus forcing her to play too many games as a starter – but hopefully Seimone won’t be out for too long.
Sadly, everyone’s fears were confirmed today when San Antonio announced that Becky Hammon had indeed torn her left ACL in the game against LA at the weekend. It was her first appearance of the season after missing the opening 10 games with a broken finger. It’s horrifying the number of female basketball players that succumb to this particular devastating knee injury – Essence Carson and Sophia Young are both out right now for the same reason – and it’s also the second of Hammon’s career. However, she was 26 the first time she did this, rather than the 36 she is now. She’s one of those players who clearly loves the game, and she’ll presumably fight to make a return, but when a veteran player suffers a serious injury late in their career you always have to wonder if it could be the last we see of them. Hopefully, Becky will be back.
Tuesday July 9th (tomorrow):
Seattle @ New York, 7pm ET. The line is New York -5, largely because it’s the fourth game of an East Coast road swing for the Storm. It’s not like the Liberty have done anything lately to deserve being favoured by that much. I’ll reluctantly take New York to win and cover. Considering the games these two have been producing lately, it could be a brutal one to watch.
Atlanta @ Minnesota, 9pm ET (live on ESPN2). This one, on the other hand, is an appetising clash. The two conference leaders facing each other on national television, with the Dream still looking to prove themselves and the Lynx trying to keep them down. Events would seem to favour Atlanta – Sancho Lyttle should be back for the Dream, while Augustus is presumably out for the Lynx. But Minnesota are still 4.5-point favourites and I like them to cover. They won’t give up their perfect home record without a fight.