Two games in the WNBA last night, and in their own way both were important to the lower reaches of the playoff race. Over in the East, one game would go a long way to deciding whether we’d have a real battle for the final spot, or if the four playoff teams would be virtually done and dusted. In the West, the winner would still be in with a shot, while the loser would be officially eliminated from playoff contention.
The first game saw New York host Indiana, with the Liberty sitting 1.5 games behind their visitors before tip-off. A win for New York would pull them within half a game, and secure the season-series over the Fever to take the tie-breaker. A loss, and they’d be 2.5 back with only five games left on their schedule. They’ve struggled in recent games, and Minnesota embarrassed them on their own floor on Tuesday night, but if they were going to raise themselves for any game this year, now was the time.
Unfortunately for Liberty fans, the first quarter was just as embarrassing as the game against the Lynx. New York were absolutely pathetic in the opening stages. Where Indiana were forcing their way deep into the heart of New York’s defense, finishing or drawing fouls for free throws, the Liberty were just repeatedly turning the ball over. Some of it was an inability to handle the typical pressure that the Fever put on ballhandlers and passing lanes. But much of it was just basic, dumb mistakes, and terrible passes from the Liberty. Bill Laimbeer took a timeout with his team down 8-0, then another one at 14-0 after successive steals had led to breakaway layups for the Fever. It was a dismal start for the home team, especially considering how important the game was.
New York finally got on the board with one of those Cappie Pondexter shots I’ve railed against all season – where she shoots a two from barely inches over the three-point arc – but at least it was a bucket. With Indiana hitting from outside when the ball was kicked out, the Liberty defense remained ineffective, but at least they slowed the turnover rate and managed to get into the game. Indiana led 27-14 at the end of the first quarter, and it felt like New York were lucky to get out of it while still that close.
Just one game in the WNBA last night, and with the Connecticut Sun as the visiting team the result never seemed to be in much doubt. The Sun are still without Allison Hightower and Kelly Faris due to injury, and Kara Lawson for family reasons. That’s on top of Asjha Jones and Danielle McCray, who’ve both missed the entire season. It’s too generous to Connecticut’s players and coaching staff to put all their problems this season down to those absences – especially when so many teams around the league have been fighting through similar issues – but obviously it’s made things much more difficult. However you distribute the blame, the Sun have been dreadful for the vast majority of the season.
Last night’s hosts the Seattle Storm have had their own key losses to deal with. Superstars Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird were ruled out for the entire year before the season began, forcing Brian Agler to piece together a roster from what he had left and what he could attract on the free agent market. Most prognosticators were not high on their chances of success before the season began – to say the least. But the Storm have come together as a team, worked hard for each other, and scratched and clawed their way to victories. Exactly like they’ve done under Agler in previous years whenever they’ve been missing key players. Last night’s game gave them a chance to push above .500 for the first time since the opening weeks of the season, and move within touching distance of confirming their spot in the playoffs.
The Storm have had their inconsistencies this season. Without elite stars to rely on, when their offense starts to break down, it can get ugly. Even in the important pair of games they’d just completed against struggling San Antonio, the Storm were awful in the first encounter and nearly managed to throw away the second. But at times recently they’ve flowed, and looked like they were growing more comfortable within their own offense. It’s led to an 8-4 record over their last 12 games. That’s the kind of form that’s more than enough to make them heavy favourites over Connecticut, and the first quarter went exactly as you’d expect. Seattle were effective in a variety of ways. Both Tina Thompson and Camille Little attacked inside, showing absolutely no respect for Kelsey Griffin’s defense (or the weak efforts that Tina Charles has been passing off as interior help defense this season). Meanwhile Shekinna Stricklen hit a trio of open three-pointers within the first six minutes of the game. By my estimation, the Sun starting perimeter of Renee Montgomery, Tan White and Kalana Greene were each responsible for one of those triples. So at least everyone was equally culpable for failing to cover their assignments. Seattle led by as many as 12 in the first quarter.
Only one game on the WNBA schedule last night, and the task was made more difficult for the hosts before the game even began. Atlanta have been missing starting power forward Sancho Lyttle for over seven weeks due to her broken foot, and now two other key members of their rotation were out as well. Tiffany Hayes missed her second consecutive game with swelling in the knee that was operated on during the season, while fellow wing Armintie Herrington was out due to a concussion suffered in their loss to Chicago on Saturday. They re-signed Anne Marie Armstrong to fill out their bench, but essentially the Dream were down to six players that they ever actually want to see on the floor. They’ve struggled without Lyttle and Hayes in the second half of the year, and now there was an extra starter missing as well. It’s a good thing that they opened the season 10-1, because without that start their playoff spot might’ve disappeared already.
Washington came into last night’s game at 13-15, Atlanta’s closest challengers in the standings but still 2.5 games back. The Mystics are more concerned with making sure Indiana and New York don’t chase them down from behind, but a win in this game had the potential to open up the chance to hunt down the Dream for the #2 seed, especially if Atlanta’s injuries persist. As they have been virtually all season, Washington were at full strength for this game.
It’s hard to come up with much worth talking about from an ugly, brick-filled, snooze-fest of a first half. Both teams inevitably sagged into the paint to defend against drives and post play, trying to force their opponents to beat them from outside. Both teams responded by missing an awful lot of jump shots. Over and over again. The only effective offense came on the rare occasions that players managed to push the ball and beat the defense down the floor, making it to the rim before the defenders could get set. Young guards Tayler Hill and Jasmine Thomas produced a couple of useful moments for their teams, as did backup posts Michelle Snow and Aneika Henry. But that was about it. The half was summed up when Angel McCoughtry airballed a three-pointer at the buzzer, leaving the game tied at 33-33. A missed jumper and a scoreline that showed no real progress for either side in the opening 20 minutes.
The action livened up a little in the second half. Ivory Latta picked up a technical foul while walking off the floor just after the halftime buzzer, so McCoughtry gave Atlanta the lead before play even re-started. Two more technicals quickly followed against the Mystics, first for Kia Vaughn shouting about the lack of a call, then for a flailing arm from Monique Currie. So McCoughtry added two more free throws. It seemed like those uncontested shots from 15 feet helped Angel find her range, because suddenly more of those pullup jumpers that she takes far too frequently were actually dropping in. With some help from Thomas and Alex Bentley – the starting backcourt in the absence of Herrington – that pushed Atlanta ahead by eight midway through the third quarter.
We’re starting to hit that point in the season. Where everyone knows which teams are good, and which teams are on the brink of giving up on the year as a dead loss. So last night’s three WNBA games saw two very predictable results that maintained the status quo, and just one tight, interesting contest. We’ll be starting with that one, obviously.
Seattle Storm 72 @ San Antonio Silver Stars 71
- This was another of those double-features the WNBA has introduced this season, where teams play twice in the same city within barely 48 hours. So everyone had fresh memories of the dreadful game on Sunday where Seattle barely showed up and got what they deserved. After the Storm lost that game, this one became very important. It tied the season-series between the teams at 2-2, and pulled San Antonio within three games of the Storm in the standings. Another win for San Antonio would both narrow the gap to two, and secure the head-to-head tie-breaker over Seattle. The squads were identical, both sides starting the same units as point guard Danielle Robinson continues to miss out for San Antonio with her strained knee.
- Robinson’s replacement Davellyn Whyte was firing and hitting from outside early on. That’s the one advantage Whyte gives you over D-Rob – she’s not afraid to fire away from deep, and occasionally she’ll get hot. Robinson rarely lets fly from further than 18-feet.
- As has often been the case this year, Seattle started slowly. Brian Agler called his usual early timeout – it’s virtually a tradition at this point – and they pulled themselves out of it with the help of Tina Thompson. From there, the entire first half stayed very tight. Thompson was the leading light for Seattle, hitting little hooks and fadeaways inside or popping out beyond the arc for her trademark deep threes. It gave the Storm a presence and a primary option that they never really found on Sunday in the previous game, and their energy on the glass was important as well.
- Between Whyte, Jia Perkins and Danielle Adams, San Antonio were hitting enough shots to keep pace. Even with a 19-7 deficit on the boards, they had the game tied at 31-31 at halftime.
- The second half was a different experience. The game became more frantic and helter-skelter at times, with one key move from San Antonio head coach Dan Hughes having a big effect on the game. In an effort to handle Thompson and track her movement better, the Silver Stars began to treat her as a small forward. Instead of trying to guard her with Danielle Adams, who had to chase Thompson around screens and try to follow her out when she popped beyond the arc, they gave Shenise Johnson and Shameka Christon the assignment. That left Adams on either Shekinna Stricklen or Noelle Quinn. Obviously it was a risk to some extent. Adams is relatively light on her feet, but she’s not used to guarding perimeter players. And Thompson is still capable of posting up, so Hughes was trusting Johnson and Christon to be able to handle that. To a large extent it worked for San Antonio, as Thompson definitely cooled off in the second half.
Sunday was not an entertaining day of WNBA basketball. It was filled with sloppy play, teams who barely showed up, and other teams winning almost by default. And then it exploded into a frenzy of craziness right at the end. So this column’s going to follow the same path. We’ll cover all the tedium first, and build to the big finish. I won’t hate you if you skip to the end.
Seattle Storm 64 @ San Antonio Silver Stars 70
- As mentioned in my pick for this game in the last column, I couldn’t understand why so much money seemed to be flooding in on San Antonio. Seattle’s Temeka Johnson had looked ready to return before the end of their previous game despite taking a hit to the head (and was indeed fit to start this one). Meanwhile, opposing point guard Danielle Robinson missed San Antonio’s last game with a sprained right knee (and ultimately missed this one as well). Seattle have been the better team during the season, and have even produced a little consistency lately, beating Indiana, Los Angeles and Phoenix in their last three games. San Antonio have been fighting, but pretty poor all year. Even on the road, Seattle seemed like they ought to be favourites. Of course, maybe my picks are offered free of charge for a reason.
- Seattle were atrocious in the first half of this game (they were pretty bad throughout, but let’s look the opening 20 minutes first). After tearing LA and Phoenix apart for long stretches of recent games, they looked completely bemused by San Antonio’s defense, and utterly incapable of creating anything decent against it. The shot clock ran down without the offense going anywhere, they forced up bad shots under pressure because they couldn’t find anything else, and then the turnovers started piling up. It’s a typical reaction when you can’t break a defense down – especially for the Storm, but really for any team. You start forcing passes into tiny holes or even holes that never existed in the first place, and they become cheap, easy takeaways for the opponent. It was a return to the Storm from much of last season, where constantly handing over possession consistently killed their offense. Although, as long as the turnover went out of bounds or bounced around for a while so Seattle could get back and set their defense, it didn’t make much difference. They weren’t hitting anything when they held on to the ball long enough to shoot anyway.
- San Antonio weren’t exactly a smooth-running machine themselves. The defense was obviously doing the job, shutting down Seattle, but the offense was pretty mediocre. They beat the Storm in transition a couple of times by running harder down the floor, and Jia Perkins made a few shots, but that was about it. They pulled ahead largely because Seattle couldn’t score. The Silver Stars did get a few nice plays from Shenise Johnson, who had to play some point guard with Robinson out and Davellyn Whyte picking up some early fouls. It probably won’t hurt Johnson to spend some extra time with the ball in her hands, making decisions and making plays. She needs the work, and she needs the responsibility to force her to step up. It might be just her second year in the league, but she’s supposed to become a big piece of the puzzle for this franchise going forward – not just a decent complementary player. San Antonio led 34-24 at halftime.
We had a pair of contests in the WNBA last night, and there was a striking contrast between the two. In one, the offenses were flowing, shots were falling, and both teams finished with offensive efficiency numbers well above the best averages in the league. The other game featured an excruciating pile-up of turnovers, missed shots, and floundering offense. You can probably guess which game we’re going to look at first.
Over the course of the season, venue hasn’t made that much difference to the Indiana Fever. Coming into last night’s game they were 7-7 at home, and 5-7 on their travels. But recently they’ve looked much more comfortable with the Bankers Life Fieldhouse crowd behind them. A winless three-game Western swing had been broken up with a quick trip home to beat San Antonio, but now they were back out on the road in Minnesota, beginning another four-game road trip. From the way they’ve played since midseason you’d think Indiana would be relatively secure in playoff position, but they were still only a couple of games up on New York before last night. Another run of Fever losses and even the Liberty might scrape together enough wins to make things awkward by the end of the season.
Indiana also had the problem of yet another injury, with guard Erin Phillips sidelined again due to her right knee. She looked like she’d finally shaken off the lingering problems from preseason surgery on a meniscus tear, before her leg went out from under her after jumping for a rebound in their last game. She didn’t even make the trip. Minnesota had everyone available once again (although considering Cheryl Reeve’s typical rotation, it wouldn’t matter much if players on the end of the bench stayed home).
With the breakdown of the halfcourt camera it was hard to see the action clearly in the first half, but several aspects of the play were clear throughout the evening. The contrast in defensive philosophy is interesting between these teams. Indiana, even more than ever, were switching constantly on screens. They’ll stick when they can, but at any tiny hint that a player is being held up on a pick, they’ll just switch it. That basically meant Minnesota could create any matchup they wanted without a great deal of effort, and obviously led to mismatches. It also leads to occasional complete defensive breakdowns when one player switches and the other doesn’t react at the exact same moment. Indiana are very good at swarming and helping, and they’ve got lots of practice at switching and rotating, but it’s hard to do perfectly. Minnesota make much more strenuous efforts to stick with their assignments, despite having the size on the perimeter to play like Indiana if they wanted to. They’ll switch guard-to-guard or post-to-post when it’s obvious, but they expect their players to fight through or around screens much more consistently. Both approaches can be equally viable, but it made for an intriguing contrast.
Last night’s WNBA slate featured an upset that really shouldn’t have surprised anyone; another extraordinary gambling cover; a team finally celebrating a playoff berth three days after they actually clinched; and a team everyone wrote off before the season began completing a season sweep over the preseason darlings. Just another night in our favourite little league, ladies and gentlemen.
Atlanta Dream 64 @ Washington Mystics 74
- This is the one we all should’ve seen coming (I was kicking myself all night for missing this one and only going 3-1 with yesterday’s picks as a result). Atlanta came in on a three-game winning streak, including a win over the Mystics, but they did it all at home. They were 11-1 at home and 3-8 on the road before this game, and those three road wins came way back at the start of the season when they were rolling. The lineups were as expected, with Kia Vaughn retaining her starting spot ahead of Michelle Snow after Vaughn’s offensive explosion in their last game after becoming the starter.
- The first half was rather less than gripping. It started off okay, with both teams creating more layups that the opposing defenses could’ve been comfortable with. But both sides shot poorly from outside, and the officials didn’t help with a seemingly endless stream of whistles. When they couldn’t create any momentum, moving Angel McCoughtry’s first half rest to later in the second quarter didn’t work as well for Atlanta as it did in their previous game. Instead of avoiding their offensive lull without her on the floor, it just shifted it a couple of minutes later. Outside of McCoughtry, no one on either side stood out, and the game crawled to a 37-35 halftime scoreline. The highlight was an Ivory Latta crossover dumping Le’coe Willingham on her butt before a layup, and Willingham getting her revenge with a comprehensive block on the next possession.
- The second half wasn’t all that different. Both teams had a little success when they went inside to their centers, with Vaughn and Erika de Souza converting at the rim, but both squads were still firing up a host of bricks. Neither team could gather any momentum and sustain a run.
- The pivotal moments came early in the fourth quarter, and unsurprisingly it was inspired by someone finally making a couple of shots. Atlanta were 0-13 from behind the arc to that point, with Washington 3-8 (those makes were hard to remember), when Ivory Latta nailed a triple with seven minutes left in the game. There’d been nothing between the teams for most of the night, but it was immediately after the 13th long-range miss from the Dream and created a six-point gap that felt huge. When she hit another one a couple of minutes later, pushing the Mystics’ advantage to 10, the game felt finished even with five minutes remaining. There were several offensive rebounds for Washington in that sequence as well, as the Mystics outworked and outshot the Dream. They did a solid job all night keeping Atlanta away from the rim, and it was the old story for the Dream – they couldn’t hit anything from outside to punish the collapsing defense. Atlanta’s own defense was solid enough, but the scoring they’d managed in their recent run of victories just wasn’t there.
Last night’s sole WNBA game saw one of the least surprising results of the season. Despite losing four of their previous five games, Minnesota arrived in Connecticut still in possession of the WNBA’s best record at 18-7. Their recent slip-ups have allowed Chicago and Los Angeles to creep closer, but the fact that they were still top of the pile illustrated how dominant they’ve been for most of the season. At 7-17, the Sun were rock bottom of both the East and the WNBA as a whole, as a disastrous season finally starts to crawl to a close. It started with Asjha Jones deciding to take the whole season off and Danielle McCray blowing out her achilles. More injuries, underperformance, and the general unrest created by dumping head coach Mike Thibault and replacing him with Anne Donovan has continued a downward trend. With 10 games left they were still only 3.5 outside the playoffs heading into last night, but everyone involved with the Sun organisation would like the season to end as quickly as possible.
Allison Hightower (knee) and Kelly Faris (foot) were shut down for the remainder of the season earlier this week, and Kara Lawson wasn’t fit enough to suit up after recently returning to the Sun following compassionate leave to be with her ill father. That left Renee Montgomery and Tan White starting in the backcourt again, with Kalana Greene regaining her starting spot on the wing by default. They were down to eight bodies in total. After a few minor injuries had contributed to their recent losses, Minnesota had all 11 players available.
Arguably the high point of the game for Connecticut came on the opening possession. Tina Charles went right by Janel McCarville and finished for what would be the Sun’s only lead of the game at 2-0. Plays like that are what worry you about McCarville in the middle of Minnesota’s defense. She’s got great hands and decent instincts, but her quickness to stick with the more mobile posts in the league is dubious. If she was taller it would be less of an issue because she’d be more of a presence inside, but she isn’t that big either. The positive in the early stages of this game was that McCarville offered something offensively. She hit a deep jumper moments after that Charles basket, then jumped a passing lane for a steal and a breakaway layup. Later in the period she even nailed her second three-pointer of the season after Charles left her alone beyond the arc. If she can at least be some kind of threat on offense, she’ll force defenses to pay some kind of attention to her. One player that can be virtually ignored – at either end of the floor – becomes a much bigger issue in the playoffs when opponents spend days gameplanning for a specific opponent. The Lynx have to get something from their center spot.
One game took center stage on its own last night in the WNBA, and unfortunately it was one of those nights where we probably could’ve used an extra matchup to boost the entertainment. San Antonio have been continuing to battle all season, but they’re in the lower reaches of the Western Conference for a reason. Without Becky Hammon and Sophia Young they’ve put up a fight, but they’re going to need an unlikely-looking push to sneak into the playoff spots before the end of the season. The Silver Stars were visiting Indiana, who needed a result themselves. After an ugly start to the season as they struggled to cope with injuries, they’d stepped it up as the year wore on and some of their walking wounded returned. But they’d lost three in a row on a west coast road trip, all pretty convincingly, and they’ve got four more road games coming right up. They had to win this one to break the run of losses and give themselves something to build off as they left on their travels again.
The good news for the Fever was that Shavonte Zellous was back after missing four games due to plantar fasciitis. Indiana had missed her offense while she was out, leaving them lacking in scoring weapons. She slid straight back into the starting lineup in place of Erin Phillips.
Both teams made a decent start offensively, getting in behind the respective defenses, but it was Indiana who started to pull away late in the first quarter. Much of their success came via the pick-and-roll, or off-shoots from the effects of pick-and-rolls. It was the kind of attack I was surprised we didn’t see more of from Phoenix when they lost to the Silver Stars on Saturday. Typically, San Antonio hedge so hard on the ballhandler that if she can move the ball on – either to the roller, or to another teammate to make a continuation pass – then the entire Silver Star defense has to rotate. It’s hard to do that fast enough to avoid giving up a wide open look somewhere. You hope you can recover quickly enough to re-set the defense, or maybe only give up an open mid-range shot instead of a layup, but that’s not easy. Indiana found the gaps in San Antonio’s defense and moved into the lead.
It got worse for San Antonio as the first half wore on because they weren’t hitting shots. More than anyone in the league, the Silver Stars rely on perimeter shooting to produce their points, and with virtually any team that’s unreliable. It’s just a low-percentage way to score. Early on they found some holes in Indiana’s defense, posted up Danielle Adams a couple of times, or sent Danielle Robinson through the defense on cuts. But they went away from that and just kept firing bricks instead. Their defense also dropped off when Dan Hughes gave some minutes to rookie forward Chelsea Poppens, a recent addition after the franchise parted ways with DeLisha Milton-Jones. Poppens wasn’t in sync with anyone, so the defensive rotations and movement got worse. Indiana led 41-25 at halftime.
It was a busy Tuesday in the WNBA this week, with four games competing for our attention last night. As always, all of them are covered for you right here. On to the Bullet Point Breakdowns.
Minnesota Lynx 75 @ Atlanta Dream 88
- Having ended their surprising three-game losing skid with a comfortable win over New York on Sunday, the Lynx came in looking to build another winning streak against the team they swept in the 2011 WNBA Finals. In fact, the Dream hadn’t beaten Minnesota since 2010, back before Maya Moore turned pro. However, after two consecutive wins Atlanta looked like they might’ve found some form, ending a horrible streak of eight losses in nine games. Plus, they came in with a 10-1 record at home this season, the best in the WNBA.
- Minnesota had Monica Wright available again after she missed a game due to a bruised quad. Le’coe Willingham continued to deputise for the injured Sancho Lyttle for Atlanta.
- The Dream got off to the much quicker start in this game, and although Minnesota briefly came back into it as the first quarter continued, Atlanta dominated most of the first half. Early on it was Lynx turnovers and Dream offensive boards that were leading to Atlanta’s edge, with Erika de Souza making the most of her size advantage in the paint. As the half progressed, it was the active hands and constant energy of the Dream defense which kept Atlanta on top.
- As always, Angel McCoughtry was a major part of the Dream’s success, but she had help. First from Erika, then from Tiffany Hayes, who continued her impressive recent form. Hayes brings such energy and hustle to the team at both ends of the floor, and even if her shooting can be streaky (and she shoots her threes from somewhere down around her knees) she gives Atlanta another legitimate threat from the perimeter. Fred Williams also seems to have decided – partly because of how good Hayes has been – that the small lineup with McCoughtry sliding to power forward has become his ‘first-change’ option. He’s gone to it in the first quarter of both their last two games and used it for long stretches, with Aneika Henry used purely as Erika’s backup at center. It keeps their energy constantly high, because that small group know they have to work their butts off to move and help each other due to their lack of pure size.
- Williams also smartly switched up his rotation a little in this game. Leading 20-17 at the end of the first quarter but on top, he left McCoughtry in rather than benching her for her typical rest at the start of the second quarter. The Dream have suffered ugly lulls in that period in many recent games, but instead they kept their momentum rolling, built a lead, and McCoughtry still got some rest later in the half anyway. Williams recognised that they couldn’t afford the lull against Minnesota, and navigated around it nicely for once.