WNBA Today, 07/25/2013: Home is where the victors are, as WNBA hits midway point

 

Scattered through the afternoon and evening, yesterday saw three games in the WNBA, as we definitively hit the midway point of the regular season (102 games down, 102 to go). It wasn’t perhaps the most auspicious collection of games to reach that milestone, but there were one or two moments worth talking about. Let’s go to the Bullet Point Breakdowns.

 

Chicago Sky 78 @ Washington Mystics 82

  • Both teams began the game with their established starting lineups, although Mystics power forward Crystal Langhorne was reportedly a game-time decision due to back spasms.

 

  • Chicago pulled out to a big early lead in this game, largely by virtue of simply shooting much better than Washington. Despite Elena Delle Donne missing several jumpers, the Sky as a whole were much more successful in hitting shots. Sometimes it’s that simple. The Mystics were also bailing them out far too frequently with cheap fouls, helping Chicago build their lead. The advantage was as big as 21 points midway through the second quarter.

 

  • Washington got back into it in the same way they’ve been successful for most of the season – they became the aggressors. A step up in intensity on defense, and a more concerted attack mentality on offense from players like Langhorne, Monique Currie and Matee Ajavon quickly cut into the lead. After shooting three free throws in the opening 14 minutes of the game, Washington shot nine in the remaining 6 minutes before the break. The gap was down to nine at 44-35.

 

  • The Mystics kept their momentum rolling into the second half. Crystal Langhorne was doing a solid job against Delle Donne defensively, with plenty of help leaning her way whenever she touched the ball. Is restricted the Sky rookie to tough jumpers when Langhorne managed to consistently stay in front of her, and they weren’t dropping. In the paint, double-teams were dropping down on Sylvia Fowles whenever necessary, almost treating her like Tina Charles in Connecticut, and the ball movement from Chicago wasn’t good enough to punish Washington. The Mystics took their first lead since the opening basket of the game on a Tayler Hill three midway through the third quarter.

 

  • In the same vein as the double-teams on Fowles, Washington were dropping behind screens to prevent penetration and block the paint, leaving Chicago with open pullup jumpers from mid-range – but the Sky weren’t hitting enough to take advantage. Epiphanny Prince can be a very dangerous scorer but her percentages are pretty ordinary since coming back from EuroBasket Women with Russia (and suffering an ankle sprain in the build up to that tournament). Prince, Delle Donne and Courtney Vandersloot weren’t making enough of their shots to maintain the Sky’s lead and keep defenders away from Fowles. The game was tied at 56 heading into the fourth quarter.

 

  • There was an unfortunate collision late in the third where Delle Donne drove into the paint and was blocked by Kia Vaughn. Delle Donne fell and appeared to hit the back of her head on Vaughn’s knee in the collision that followed. She seemed okay, and stayed in the game for the next couple of possessions. However, she ended up sat on the bench being looked at by the team doctor, and spent the fourth quarter in the locker room. She was later diagnosed with a concussion, and must be doubtful for the All-Star Game on Saturday. With Brittney Griner already out and Skylar Diggins not playing well enough to make the team, the WNBA would obviously love for Delle Donne to be a part of the showpiece event. Considering she was the leading vote-getter, clearly so would the fans. Hopefully she can at least attend, even if the doctors decide she shouldn’t play.

 

  • Meanwhile, we still had a game to finish. The Washington commentators were so focussed on Delle Donne failing to return that they barely mentioned their own All-Star power forward sitting out the entire fourth quarter. In Langhorne’s case, while the back issues may have played a part, she was largely kept there because her replacement was playing so well. Rookie forward Emma Meesseman was outstanding in the final period. She hit a pair of pick-and-pop jumpers on feeds from Ivory Latta. She had a steal that became a layup back the other way. She made a spin-move into traffic that drew an extra defender, then hit an open teammate under the basket with a bullet pass for another layup. Then she ran the wing hard, and Latta hit her for another running finish past the desperate lunge of Fowles. If she hadn’t already had several impressive appearances this season, it would’ve been a classic ‘break out game’ for the young Belgian. But if you didn’t know about her already, you certainly did after this quarter of basketball.

 

  • Meesseman’s streak helped push Washington ahead by as many as 11 in the fourth quarter, but the Sky weren’t quite done. Meesseman showed her naivety defensively once or twice to allow Swin Cash to respond, Fowles kept running the floor hard to finish, and Prince hit some big shots from deep. With two minutes left, Ajavon went under a screen while defending Prince, who immediately pulled up and drained a three to pull Chicago back within four points. Mike Thibault immediately called a timeout, gesticulated wildly, and sat Ajavon down in favour of Hill. It’s safe to say he wasn’t happy about that piece of defense.

 

  • A Cash layup with 14 seconds left pulled Chicago within three points, but when Hill was fouled she sank 1-of-2 at the line to make it a two-possession game, and that iced it.

 

  • This was an impressive win for Washington, considering how far they fell behind in the early stages, to a team that had won eight of their last nine games. The switch in mentality made a big difference, just constantly staying on the attack at both ends of the floor. Ivory Latta’s enthusiasm and zeal was key, but she also plays under much greater control these days. It’s not just all-out craziness. She finished the game 6-16 from the floor for 18 points and 13 assists, making the right pass when extra defenders tried to corral her. Currie and Kia Vaughn also made important contributions, with Meesseman outstanding while playing the entire fourth quarter. They go into the All-Star break at exactly .500, which is a hell of a step up from the last couple of years.

 

  • Pokey Chatman and her squad will feel like they let this one slip away. Losing Delle Donne for the fourth quarter obviously hurt, and maybe worrying about her was as much of an issue as missing her presence on the floor, but they’d already given up their huge lead before she got hurt. The success of Meesseman was also a small reminder of how thin the Sky look at times. With Delle Donne out, they tried Michelle Campbell early in the fourth, then went small with Tamera Young. Neither really worked. An extra, consistently reliable piece to bring off the bench would be a nice boost for this team. Even if the starters are usually enough.

 

Phoenix Mercury 69 @ Minnesota Lynx 81

  • We’re going to pay about as much attention to this game as the teams did – which is to say, not much. With Brittney Griner and Penny Taylor already out due to injury, and a visit to Minnesota on the agenda, Phoenix probably didn’t make much fuss about Diana Taurasi’s seventh technical of the season and the resulting one-game suspension. It was a game they were likely to lose anyway, so why not swallow the suspension and give themselves some leeway for Taurasi to pick up another tech later in the year (the 9th, 11th, 13th etc. also carry one-game suspensions. So #8 isn’t a problem). But that meant everyone was pretty sure of the result of this game before it began, and it felt like that from beginning to end.

 

  • The Lynx were up by nine after barely six minutes, while exerting fairly minimal effort. They pushed when it was available, took the layups on offer, and otherwise made plenty of jumpers. Phoenix didn’t even bother to drop into their X zone which had proven relatively effective in recent games. Taurasi usually plays the ‘1’ in the 1-2-2 zone (or the middle of the ‘3’, if you call it a 3-2), and without her they decided not to use it. So it was vanilla offense, against vanilla defense, and everyone was coasting.

 

  • Minnesota were up by as many as 14 in the first half, until a series of Mercury free throws pulled them within 41-34 at the break. A cascade of Lynx layups opened the second half as Phoenix committed lazy, cheap turnovers which illustrated that they’d already accepted the inevitable result. Minnesota’s lead hit 17 in moments.

 

  • It was never quite enough of a blowout for Cheryl Reeve to clear her bench, but she’s always reluctant to do that anyway. The only intrigue in the final period was whether Minnesota would cover the spread, after starting the game as 15-point favourites. As someone who took Lynx -15, it was a little annoying that they relaxed enough to let the cover slip away. But I’m sure they didn’t care. It was one of the most relaxed, blowout-y 12-point wins you’re ever likely to see.

 

  • This was a thoroughly worthless game for both teams, although it took Minnesota to 5-0 against Phoenix this year (completing the season series between the teams). Expect a bunch of “it’s not easy to beat one team seven times in the same year” stories if they should run into each other in the playoffs.

 

Connecticut Sun 65 @ Atlanta Dream 74

  • A clash of two teams in desperate need of a win. The Sun had lost eight of their previous ten games, and generally looked dismal in the process. Atlanta had been swept on a four-game road trip, dropping them out of top spot in the East, and leaving them wondering if life without Sancho Lyttle would be as easy as they made it look earlier in the year.

 

  • After replacing Iziane Castro Marques with Tan White last time out, Anne Donovan tried another option in the backcourt, starting Renee Montgomery instead. Kara Lawson was in uniform on the bench, but never took the floor, presumably due to the bruised knee that’s kept her out of recent games. If she wasn’t going to play, putting her body under the stress of travel to and from Atlanta seemed a bad idea. She must’ve been close enough to being available that they felt it was worth the risk.

 

  • The first half of this game was an absolute joke from Connecticut. The kind of 20 minutes that makes owners consider firing their coach at halftime (although they were on the road, so that was probably unlikely). Offensively they did virtually nothing other than fire up 15-18ft jumpers throughout the half, and bricked practically all of them. There was no attack, no pace, limited ball movement, and Tina Charles quickly tired of being double-teamed and drifted out to join the bricklaying. Kalana Greene miraculously hit a jumper at the halftime buzzer – their second make from outside the paint in 23 tries.

 

  • Atlanta weren’t exactly lighting it up themselves, but they were doing enough. They had some chances in transition off the 13 Sun turnovers; they had Erika de Souza finding deep position in the paint; they had open lanes to drive through against half-hearted Connecticut defense with no weak-side help; and they had Alex Bentley hitting more jumpers than the entire Sun team combined (and Bentley only took five shots). Angel McCoughtry was cold, and the Dream led 40-20 at halftime anyway. A repeat of that in the second half and maybe Connecticut actually would’ve thought about swallowing Anne Donovan’s contract and making a change over the All-Star break.

 

  • However, to the Sun’s credit – and Donovan’s – they came out after the interval looking like a far more invested and focussed outfit. They were probably helped by the Dream feeling like the game was already over – it was hard to blame them after that first half – but there was immediately more intensity from Connecticut. They were actually challenging passes, getting into passing lanes defensively, and giving Atlanta something to think about. Offensively, even if she was still receiving passes up high, Charles was putting the ball on the floor to draw extra defenders, and then hitting open teammates to finish. It made a nice change from countless bricked jumpers, and led to a 10-0 Sun run to open the second half.

 

  • With three minutes left in the third quarter, quick hands from Tan White stripped McCoughtry when she tried to go up for a jumper, and when McCoughtry pulled back White in the resulting scramble she picked up her fourth foul. Fred Williams riskily left his star in the game and that came back to bite him mere seconds later. McCoughtry drove at White, fell into her as she tried to spin, and picked up an offensive foul for her fifth. Now leading by only eight, Atlanta’s star had to sit.

 

  • The Dream did a nice job of closing the third quarter out without McCoughtry, picking up their defense and pushing the ball with Bentley. They were back up by 14 by the end of the period.

 

  • Charles did her best to bring the Sun back in the fourth. She hit a pretty spin move in the paint, followed by two long jumpers, to drag the gap down to 10 before McCoughtry returned with five minutes remaining. Typically, Angel made a jumper, then grabbed a steal, to stop the rot for Atlanta.

 

  • The Sun had one last push in them, with a Montgomery three – their only make all night in 13 tries from beyond the arc – and Greene layup in transition pulling them within five points with under a minute to play. But Atlanta sank enough free throws and the Sun couldn’t sink enough shots to make it any more interesting than that.

 

  • Connecticut just gave themselves too much to do with their first half performance. They were actually pretty decent in the second half, but just so utterly abominable in the opening 20 minutes that they dug too deep a hole. Maybe they can take solace from how they performed later in the game, but as a whole it’s another ugly game in an ugly season. 4-12 is not where this franchise expected to be at the All-Star break, even after Asjha Jones pulled out of the 2013 season. They’ve been awful, and there aren’t many signs of recovery.

 

  • Williams probably won’t be happy about his team allowing this to become a contest, after dominating the first half. They lost their rhythm and their concentration, and gave the Sun hope. But at least they held on, including a long stretch where they had to survive without McCoughtry to run the offense through. They did enough, they broke their losing streak, and now they can regroup for the second half of the season.

 

Notes

The Phoenix Mercury announced that Penny Taylor underwent arthroscopic surgery on her right knee, and is expected to miss 6-8 weeks. That’s the other knee from the one she was already rehabbing after her ACL tear last year. It’s a tough blow for Taylor who was starting to look like her old self and working herself back into shape. The Mercury will hope to have her back for the playoffs – at 6 weeks she’d have six games to gain fitness and try to rebuild chemistry with the team before the postseason, at 8 she’d be returning right as the playoffs begin – but it’s going to be tricky. She wasn’t all the way back from the ACL yet, so it’s piling two lots of rehab on top of each other. Plus you’re still well advised to take any injury information offered by the Mercury with a pinch of salt. Who knows how optimistic that timescale is. They’ve shown they can win games without her, but winning a championship certainly becomes a far more difficult proposition.

 

The League announced that Seattle’s Tina Thompson will be replacing Phoenix’s Brittney Griner on the West’s All-Star squad on Saturday. It’s a slightly sentimental choice, because based purely on performance over the first half of this season there are others who deserved it more (including Storm teammate Camille Little). But no one will have any real issue with the choice. It’s the final year for a true WNBA legend, and it’s a nice way to say goodbye. She’s not that far off deserving to be there anyway, which is pretty remarkable for someone in her 17th WNBA season. There’s been no statement yet on whether Elena Delle Donne will take part, or if a replacement will be named for her due to her concussion.

 

Finally, just in case you missed the earlier post, you can hear my dulcet tones on this week’s Dishin’ & Swishin’ podcast, now available HERE. We discuss everything around the All-Star choices, with some debate on the state of the league and the performances over the first half of the season. Plus you get real confirmation that I actually am British (or I do a really nice job with the accent).

 

Upcoming Games

 

Thursday July 25th (today):

New York @ San Antonio, 12.30pm ET (already completed). I took New York +3, hoping they could build from Tuesday’s performance against Indiana, and was disappointed.

 

Indiana @ Tulsa, 12.30pm ET (already completed). I took Indiana +3, banking on the Fever’s level over the last month being worth more than Tulsa’s over the last week. That proved pretty accurate.

 

Seattle @ Los Angeles, 3.30pm ET (already completed). I took Seattle +14, largely because that simply seemed too high. As it turned out, the Storm did even better than I expected. Coverage of all three games coming tomorrow, of course.

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