A triple-game night in the WNBA yesterday, featuring two games that were predictably tight, and one that was a predictable blowout. Sometimes, in a general sense, it’s not hard to see what’s coming. But the devil’s in the details, so let’s go to the Bullet Point Breakdowns to take a closer look.
- The same lineups we’ve come to expect from these teams lately began the game. The only new health note was that backup forward Jessica Breland was available again for the Fever.
- Neither team led by more than five points in a first half that never quite took off. Indiana kept Crystal Langhorne very quiet, but were hurt by some poor transition defense and some effective driving from Matee Ajavon and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt. The Fever shot extremely poorly – one of those days where they desperately needed Katie Douglas and/or Jeanette Pohlen to be healthy so they could knock down an outside shot or two – but compensated with unusual success on the offensive glass and their usual series of steals. Indiana led 32-31 at halftime.
- The Fever began the second half without much energy, and Washington took advantage. The Mystics scored the first 10 points of the third quarter and dominated much of the period. Indiana’s defense has remained solid despite their injuries this season, but all the ins and outs have left them without quite the same level of chemistry and communication they’ve had in previous years. Two wide open Kia Vaughn layups in the third quarter highlighted that, along with Breland’s rustiness after her injury. Also, Washington simply hit more shots from the perimeter than the Fever. After an 0-5 first half, Shavonte Zellous had finally discovered her shooting tough for Indiana, but she wasn’t getting much support. Between Ajavon, Vaughn, Michelle Snow and Ivory Latta, the Mystics were finding ways to build a lead.
- The final moments of the third were difficult for Indiana, and it looked like they might be letting the game slip away. Zellous went down holding her right leg, raising fears that they might have suffered yet another injury to a key player. Then Catchings picked up a technical foul after complaining vociferously about the lack of a call when Ruffin-Pratt shoved her out of bounds during the fight for a rebound. Then Lin Dunn added another tech on top for bitching about that. Latta had just made three free throws after Larkins ran through her on an outside shot, and sank two more freebies for the technicals. Indiana were a little lucky to be as close as 62-55 at the end of the third.
- However, the Fever kept hanging around, never letting the lead stretch beyond 9 points. Zellous came back into the game with six minutes left, having been diagnosed with merely a right thigh contusion – which considering you couldn’t tell whether she was clutching her thigh or her knee, was a huge relief. And then, wonder of wonders, Indiana started making a few jump shots. Above all else, that’s what turned the game. Catchings has struggled horribly with her jumper this season, but she made a couple, and then a Zellous pullup tied things up. A broken play was salvaged by Catchings, who fed Briann January, who drilled a three that put Indiana in front with under 90 seconds left. Then another Zellous pullup piled on top. Indiana’s defense had been good enough all night, but they finally had some offense to go along with it.
- A Langhorne putback with 39 seconds left pulled the Mystics back within three points, but after the Fever ran the clock down it was Langhorne who committed a silly foul while trying to help on January as the shot clock had almost expired. The Fever guard sank both shots, and that essentially iced the game.
- This wasn’t a pretty contest by any means, but it’s also the sort of game that Indiana were letting slip through their fingers earlier in the season when all the injuries left them tiring down the stretch and feeling sorry for themselves. This was more like the old-school Fever teams who’d find a way to win ugly games, one way or another. Catchings’s inability to hit jump shots is putting a crimp in their offense – the way she punished opponents from out there while playing power forward was a big part of their scoring punch last season. But Erlana Larkins has been a little more aggressive lately in looking to score, the return of Erin Phillips at least gives them another potential weapon, and Zellous is on the fringe of the All-Star conversation with the way she’s stepped up this year. Eventually they had just enough to sneak over the line in this one.
- Washington scored reasonably well through much of this game but lost their rhythm in the fourth quarter and gave up the game to a team with more experience in these situations. 22 turnovers were obviously far too many for Mike Thibault to be happy, and played a significant role in Indiana pulling out the win. The Mystics will have a quick opportunity for revenge when these teams clash again on Sunday afternoon.
- There was a little positive health news heading into this one, with Seimone Augustus returning from her ankle sprain for the Lynx. She immediately stepped back into her starting spot, sending Monica Wright back to the bench (where she could resume her Sixth Woman of the Year campaign). San Antonio made an unforced change to their lineup, bringing Danielle Adams in alongside Jayne Appel in the paint, sliding DeLisha Milton-Jones over to small forward, and moving Shenise Johnson back to the bench. It made them a little bigger on the perimeter, perhaps in an effort to counter the Augustus/Maya Moore pairing on the wing. Adams has also been offering them a threat down low lately, so having that available from the start may have been part of the thinking. Or Dan Hughes may just be throwing a variety of options against the wall and seeing what sticks. It’s been a difficult season for San Antonio.
- The difficult season wasn’t going to stop here. Minnesota were ahead by 7 inside of two minutes, and up double-digits before the five-minute timeout. Augustus looked healthy and mobile, but it was point guard Lindsay Whalen who was really tearing San Antonio apart. She was pushing the ball at every opportunity to attack the Silver Stars before they were set, driving to the rim repeatedly for layups, and finding her other scorers on the rare occasions San Antonio managed to block her off. The brief absence of Augustus seems to have done Whalen good, reigniting the more attacking side of her offensive game. Now with everyone back, they’re just as petrifying as ever. Guarding Whalen, Augustus and Moore on the perimeter (with Wright waiting in the wings) is an impossible task when they’re in the mood.
- As the first half progressed, San Antonio tried to attack through Adams down low, and between her and Shenise Johnson they had a little success. But it hardly mattered. They couldn’t create enough stops defensively, as the constant running of Whalen kept them off-balance, and Minnesota repeatedly found the open man on pick-and-rolls and converted the resulting open looks into points. By halftime the Lynx led 46-31 and it didn’t even feel that close.
- Johnson started the second half over Milton-Jones, but it was later revealed that it wasn’t by choice. Milton-Jones was out with a right knee problem, despite finishing the first half on the court. Jia Perkins and Danielle Robinson scored the opening baskets of the second half, drawing a very quick timeout from Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve, but Minnesota swiftly responded. Yet again it was Whalen in control, and the Lynx quickly turned the game into a rout. Their athletes and scorers make them a nightmare in transition, but Whalen isn’t always looking to score when she aggressively pushes the ball down the floor after rebounds, turnovers, or even off made baskets. Sometimes it’s just about forcing the opposing defense to pick up assignments quickly, which often means they just have to grab the closest Lynx player and try to guard her. It can be difficult to re-set the defense before Minnesota are already attacking a mismatch somewhere on the floor. San Antonio simply couldn’t handle Minnesota’s speed, aggression, execution and basic talent level. The Lynx led by 20+ for most of the remaining minutes.
- This was essentially a mismatch from the very start. Even at home, San Antonio don’t have the pieces to handle Minnesota, and they’ve looked a little demoralised in some recent games. Knowing Sophia Young was out for the year and they were going to have to wait on Becky Hammon was one thing – knowing Hammon is done for the season as well is a little different. There’s no extra light at the end of the tunnel, this is just what they’ve got to work with for the rest of the year. Right now, it doesn’t look like anywhere close to enough.
- It was another comfortable win for Minnesota, and a nice way to ease Augustus back into action. No one had to play heavy minutes, Whalen put on a show, and now they head to Phoenix for the final leg of a four-game road trip. They’re 3-0 so far. The Mercury and Sparks may be pretenders to the Western Conference crown, but when you’ve been this good for the best part of two and a half years, it’s not going to be easy to shove the Lynx off the throne.
- Amazingly enough, for the third game in three, there was more positive health news than negative before tip-off. Renee Montgomery (sprained ankle) and Tan White (broken finger) had missed eleven and ten games respectively, but both were back in uniform for the Sun to bolster their guard corps. For some reason Iziane Castro Marques continued to start, but with those two and Kara Lawson all available again, Izi’s going to find minutes increasingly hard to come by. Tulsa had Skylar Diggins back after missing their win over Seattle with her own ankle problem, and Tiffany Jackson-Jones played as well after sitting out that game for an unspecified reason. Gary Kloppenburg stuck with the same starters that had helped achieve the victory over the Storm, so Angel Goodrich kept her spot ahead of Diggins at the point.
- If you’re a fan of missed shots, this was the game for you. Both teams started as they would, unfortunately, go on – shooting a combined 8-37 in the first quarter. Tina Charles couldn’t hit a thing, inside or out, with the usual double-teams collapsing on her if she touched the ball anywhere near the rim.
- This was the second straight game where Kloppenburg has started the Glory Johnson/Liz Cambage pairing that should be the frontcourt of the future for this franchise (assuming Cambage keeps showing up, and they don’t end up with Chiney Ogwumike in next year’s draft). It’s still a work in progress. They don’t have much chemistry with each other yet – it’s rare to see, for example, one making a high-low entry pass to the other – but you can see the potential. Johnson is the athlete, diving through holes and leaping over opponents for rebounds; Cambage is the giant physical specimen, capable of showing a soft touch at times, and tough to deal with due to her raw size. They were a menace on the glass in this game, with the combination proving too much for Charles and whichever overmatched forward was playing alongside her for Connecticut. Granted, Johnson and Cambage unintentionally padded their rebounding numbers by missing countless layups which bounced back to them, but they were comfortably on top in the battle on the glass.
- Outside of that, there really isn’t a great deal to talk about from most of this game. Connecticut spent the first half missing endless jump shots. Their defense forced the usual slew of Shock turnovers – Tulsa still haven’t got rid of their tendency to give the ball up cheaply with poor passes – which kept the Sun in the game. Tulsa were creating so many extra chances on offensive boards that it compensated for their misses. Connecticut led 28-27 at halftime.
- Very little changed in the second half. After a technical foul for too few players on the floor in the opening quarter, Tulsa added an equally comical inbounds violation when Diggins bounced the ball to herself before tapping it to Riquna Williams in the third quarter. It was that kind of game.
- Charles was increasingly, worryingly invisible as the game progressed, going from a limited impact to barely ever touching the ball. This wasn’t just passive, this was leading you to wonder if she was even on the floor. Johnson and Cambage continued to outmuscle and outwork Charles and co for rebounds, and eventually the Shock made enough shots to take advantage. Nicole Powell sank a three after Tulsa had been deathly cold from out there all evening; Cambage had a putback after a Powell miss; and then there was the hilarious sight of Cambage putting the ball on the floor and dribbling half the length of the court, before finding Johnson for an easy layup. No one bothered to stop Cambage, and Charles was woefully out of position to challenge Johnson on the finish. The Sun played with a real lack of energy and belief in the closing minutes, reflecting their star’s apparent disinterest in bothering to perform. The Shock happily took advantage to win their second game in a row.
- Connecticut, and Charles in particular, should be pretty embarrassed by this performance. Yes, Tulsa have size, but the Sun got destroyed inside all night long. A Shock team that’s been losing consistently, often by large margins, gave up 24 turnovers and could barely hit a shot all night, came away with the win regardless. That just can’t happen. Anne Donovan and her squad have some soul-searching to do, because this really isn’t good enough, even from a team with a hole at power forward and guards working their way back from injuries.
- For Tulsa it’s progress. Winning a second straight game is a leap in the right direction, however painful it was to watch them get there. They broke, equalled or came close to a variety of WNBA rebounding records, finishing with 62 boards overall, 25 offensive, as the Johnson/Cambage pairing gave us a taste of what they’re capable of. They finished with 17 rebounds apiece, and a combined 27 points (albeit on 27 shots). Once again, Riquna Williams was their main support from the perimeter, as the rest of the guards failed to provide much scoring. Both frontcourt players still need to work on their finishing inside, and Cambage can still be a liability when she tries to drive or pass out of double-teams, but their potential is scary. And amazingly enough, this win moves Tulsa just 2.5 games behind Seattle in the ‘race’ for the 4th playoff spot in the West.
Saturday July 20th (today):
Connecticut @ San Antonio, 8pm ET. A matchup of arguably the two worst teams in the league right now (New York and Seattle could put up an argument). Silver Stars -1 is the line, and I’ll take San Antonio to win solely due to being at home and the Sun having to fly in after playing last night.
New York @ Chicago, 8pm ET. Sky -10.5 is the line, and it’s not nearly enough for me with the way the Liberty have played lately. This matchup was a massacre on Thursday, and there’s little reason to believe New York will have fixed anything since then.
Los Angeles @ Seattle, 10pm ET. My gut says Seattle should respond after their awful loss to Tulsa on Wednesday, and getting 7 points in Key Arena is a lot. But my head points out just how much better LA have been than them for most of this season. I’ll take the Sparks to win and cover.
Sunday July 21st (tomorrow):
Indiana @ Washington, 4pm ET
Atlanta @ Tulsa, 4.30pm ET
Minnesota @ Phoenix, 6pm ET