Regular readers of these columns will probably have noticed that games tend to be covered in chronological order. If one game tipped off at 7pm and another at 9pm, details on the earlier game generally come first. However, when two of the WNBA’s mediocre teams bore everyone to tears for a couple of hours, before the two conference leaders face off on national television, exceptions can – and will – be made. So let’s start things off in Minnesota.
The vagaries of the WNBA schedule had given the Atlanta Dream eight days off between games prior to last night’s matchup with the Lynx. On the bright side, it had given them time to bring Sancho Lyttle back into the fold after her successful EuroBasket Women campaign with Spain, and she slid straight back into her starting power forward spot. However, when you’re 10-1 and rolling, the last thing you want is a midseason vacation. They’d also lost a rotation player during the gap, with backup guard Tiffany Hayes undergoing surgery on a torn meniscus in her left knee. She’s expected to miss 3-4 weeks, according to the Dream.
Minnesota were missing an even more important piece of their puzzle, with star wing Seimone Augustus sidelined by the sprained left ankle she suffered in their game against Phoenix on Sunday. Regular sixth-woman Monica Wright slid into the open starting spot.
Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve used one of her favourite pet gimmicks to open the game – a single possession of 2-3 zone defense, before playing man-to-man for virtually the entire remaining 39 minutes and 45 seconds – and then it was off to the races. It was a high-paced, energetic opening period, but despite that being Atlanta’s favoured style, it was the Lynx in control. Wright’s promotion into the starting lineup allowed Minnesota to use her as the primary defender on Angel McCoughtry, and from the very start Wright gave McCoughtry fits. She’s a quick, active defender, capable of constantly staying in front of players like McCoughtry to make it difficult to convert on drives or hit from outside. She’s also noticeably smart defensively, invariably in the right place at the right time. On top of that, Wright was doing an impressive job on offense, ghosting right by McCoughtry on her way to the rim for multiple layups. Atlanta’s help-defense was a step slow – Lyttle perhaps taking some time to fit back into the Dream system – but the initial defender also isn’t supposed to be beaten that easily off the dribble.
The Lynx also had Maya Moore’s jumper flowing smoothly, as she curled around screens and repeatedly drilled catch-and-shoot jumpers. With Lindsay Whalen joining the scoring party by attacking the rim or knocking down jumpers of her own, and Minnesota’s transition game flowing from their defense, the Lynx increasingly took charge as the first half progressed. The defense was key. They put the clamps on the Dream, constantly rotating and helping where necessary and forcing Atlanta into a series of contested jumpers. In the first quarter, the Dream stayed in the game because they were dominating the offensive glass. Minnesota were forcing them to miss, but not managing to finish the play by grabbing the rebound, which eventually allowed Atlanta to score on their third or fourth attempt. But in the second period the Lynx improved their efforts on the boards, and Atlanta’s goose was cooked. A 27-22 lead after 10 minutes became 56-39 at halftime as Moore, Whalen, Wright and team defense took over the game.
It was an enjoyable half of basketball, where it hadn’t even felt like Atlanta played that poorly – the Lynx were just flying. There’d been a few too many open lanes in the Dream defense – something we’re not used to seeing from them – but they were essentially being outplayed by a very good team.
The second half wasn’t quite the spectacle we’d seen in the first. The game became scrappy and a little chippy in the middle of the third quarter, as all the energy seemed to dissipate from the contest. Minnesota were happy with their 20-point lead, and Atlanta had virtually conceded that it wasn’t going to be their night. There was still some good stuff from the Lynx, and time for Wright to showcase her offensive skills a little more, but the result was never in doubt in the second half. Atlanta continued to settle for perimeter jumpers and never managed to force enough breakdowns from Minnesota to ignite their running game, which led to a comfortable 94-72 victory for the Lynx.
It’s not a big problem for Atlanta to have one bad night in one of the toughest venues to visit in the WNBA, especially when they’re already 10-1 and trying to fit Lyttle back into the set-up. But it was at least a reminder that not everything is going to be plain sailing this season. McCoughtry finished the game 5-19 for 16 points, frustrated by the defense of Wright all night long – and not much more effective when Moore or even Sugar Rodgers took a turn. Lyttle continues to take most of her shots from at least 15-feet, which can be frustrating, but the whole team shot pretty poorly. The bigger concern would be the defense, which was pierced far more easily by Minnesota than anyone else has managed this season. The rotation and help just wasn’t there like it needs to be. But a bad day at the office against an exceptional opponent is no reason to panic.
The Lynx, on the other hand, will be delighted. It started from their defensive base, restricting McCoughtry and forcing a team that can still go deathly cold outside into firing away from out there. But the Minnesota offense also ran with speed and efficiency all night, as Wright slipped comfortably into Augustus’s role as part of their ‘Big Three’ on the perimeter. The trio of Whalen, Moore and Wright shot a combined 22-34 for 61 points, as layups and mid-range jumpers kept rolling throughout the game. The likes of Rebekkah Brunson, Janel McCarville and Devereaux Peters weren’t asked to do too much offensively, but they stepped in when necessary and played their roles at the heart of the defense. It was a dominant display from a Lynx team that clearly wanted to show Atlanta that they might have the best record in the league, but Minnesota are still arguably the WNBA’s top-dogs. They certainly were last night.
Hours earlier in Jersey…
The first game yesterday saw Seattle complete their East Coast road swing by visiting the Liberty. It was the usual group for the Storm to open the game but Bill Laimbeer once again made changes for New York. Point guard Leilani Mitchell went back to the bench, sliding Cappie Pondexter and Katie Smith over to become the backcourt, while rookie forward Toni Young came in alongside them. Fellow first-year player Kelsey Bone replaced Avery Warley in the paint. Plenette Pierson continued to come off the pine, playing the role she always used to fill for Laimbeer in Detroit of playing starter’s minutes but providing scoring from the bench.
Tina Thompson opened the game with one of her trademark deep threes, but from there it was all downhill in the first half for Seattle. They were absolutely atrocious, especially in the first quarter. The entire team looked half-asleep, or already dreaming of making it home after the game when their week-long road trip came to an end. The defense that leads the WNBA year after year in preventing layups was conceding acres of space in the paint, allowing uncontested drives and finishes inside, and straightforward putbacks on the rare occasions New York missed. It was the third straight game Seattle have trailed 21-7 in the first quarter, although this time they avoided finishing the period with that scoreline – thanks to a Mitchell three that made it 24-7 instead.
It’s becoming completely ridiculous for Seattle. Game after game they’re starting slowly and helping their opponents out to big early leads. The ‘Early Agler Timeout’ has reached the point of cliché he’s had to call them so often – and he’d already used two before six minutes had elapsed in this game. This team doesn’t have a big enough margin of error to start playing games about 10 minutes after everyone else begins. Credit New York for their defensive energy and willingness to exploit the holes Seattle were leaving, but it’s the Storm’s failings that were glaringly obvious.
Seattle’s defensive effort improved slightly in the second quarter, but their offense was the same plodding mess it had been since the tip-off, resulting in a procession of perimeter bricks after very little ball movement or effort to create anything better. New York led 36-19 at halftime, without even playing that well. Pondexter was an ugly 2-10 from the field, and it had scarcely mattered.
However, one thing we can say about this Storm team is that they don’t quit. Despite all those awful starts, they’ve really only been blown out twice this season – they don’t just go away. Meanwhile, New York’s struggles with turnovers and scoring this year makes it tough for them to kill teams off. So after a truly pathetic and embarrassing first half, Seattle somehow opened the second half with a 20-4 run that pulled them within a point of the Liberty. There was finally some penetration from the Storm, creating better looks and rhythm shots, even if they were ultimately coming on kick-outs that led to efforts from the same sort of range they were missing from in the first half. They were moving the ball and simply looking more interested in performing than they had for the opening half. Meanwhile, New York were back to their turnover-happy selves from most of this season, which both ground their offense to a halt and helped Seattle inject speed into their transition game. After 20 minutes of dire basketball, it only took the Storm seven minutes to virtually even up the game.
The problem was that Seattle seemed to have expended most of their remaining energy – and maybe their reserves of luck as well – on getting back into the game. Laimbeer managed to keep his team fighting, and New York never did fall behind, which might’ve been important psychologically. Katie Smith injected some spirit and energy with her defense and hustle, while the offensive production came from Pondexter and Pierson. Cappie didn’t have a great game by any stretch of the imagination, but she did make some important plays down the stretch to keep the Liberty’s noses in front. Pierson, meanwhile, had probably her best game of the season – definitely her most impressive outing since her knee started giving her more trouble. Pierson’s versatile offensive skill-set, allowing her to finish in the paint, drive, or knock down the mid-range jumper, gave Camille Little and Tina Thompson problems all night. That production, along with some grit and the general fading of Seattle’s energy, allowed New York to push their advantage back out to around 10, and hold on for a 66-57 win.
Brian Agler and his Storm team can’t keep taking the positives from “well we didn’t quit” performances. At some point, you have to show up from the start and prevent the need for that kind of determination. They were just so, so bad in the first half that it was too hard to dig themselves out of the hole and complete the comeback. At least they get to head home for a few games now – although with Atlanta and Los Angeles on the schedule over the next week, it’s not going to be easy even back at Key Arena.
The major positive for New York was seeing signs of the real Plenette Pierson, who finished the game 8-15 from the floor for 22 points. With Essence Carson out and limited offensive weapons besides Pondexter, they need those kinds of performances from Pierson to win games this year. Some productive minutes from Toni Young and Alex Montgomery helped as well, deepening the rotation of options at Laimbeer’s disposal. Plus they just desperately needed a win after losing five of six, even if much of the result came down to how poorly their opponent played. New York’s two wins in their last seven have now both come against Seattle – they probably wish that wasn’t the end of their season series against the Storm.
According to a tweet from the woman herself, Tulsa’s Tiffany Jackson-Jones has been cleared to play after recovering from the stress fracture that’s kept her out all season. Presumably they’ll work her back slowly, but she’ll help improve the Shock’s interior play and rebounding once she’s ready to contribute.
Wednesday July 10th (today):
Washington @ Chicago, 12.30pm. I took Washington +9.5 (announced via pre-game tweet), expecting the Mystics to keep it close enough to cover. Occasionally, I end up looking halfway smart.
San Antonio @ Phoenix, 3.30pm ET. I took Phoenix -12 (also announced earlier in that tweet), expecting them to beat San Antonio – once again shorn of Becky Hammon – relatively comfortably. Dan Hughes and the Silver Stars have given them problems in the past though, so it might not be easy.
Thursday July 11th (tomorrow):
Minnesota @ Indiana, 12pm ET
Los Angeles @ Tulsa, 9pm ET