Now we really know the WNBA has kicked back into gear after the All-Star break – three games last night, all of them missing superstars of the women’s game due to injury. Such is the WNBA in 2013. On to the Bullet Point Breakdowns to take a look at the action.
- The late-breaking news before this one was that Los Angeles star Candace Parker was out due to a right wrist problem. Nothing seems to have emerged yet as to how or when she suffered the injury, and she was with the team, but Jantel Lavender started in her place. It’s unknown whether Parker will be available for LA’s next game on Sunday in Washington. Tulsa kept the same starting lineup that led them to three wins in their final four games before the break.
- The opening possession of the game saw Glory Johnson go straight past Lavender with a drive from the elbow, while drawing a foul. It was clearly a screw-up from the LA defense (which is a little ridiculous off an opening tip). Nneka Ogwumike should’ve been on Johnson, with Lavender on Liz Cambage. But it illustrated an extra level of difficulty that the Johnson/Cambage pairing throws at defenses. A lot of teams in this league have relatively interchangeable post tandems, so switching when the opposing 4/5 combinations cross, or just picking up whichever is nearest in transition isn’t a problem. But Johnson and Cambage present such differing threats that teams may need specific defenders on each of them. It just makes post defense and interior rotation that little bit more complicated.
- Lavender picked up a second foul moments later and went to the bench. Now LA had to handle Tulsa’s posts with Ogwumike and Ebony Hoffman.
- It was Tulsa who got off to the quicker start. Most of their halfcourt sets start in the ‘horns’ formation, then roll into a high-low balance with Johnson at the elbow and Cambage in the paint after the point guard uses one of them as a screen. It’s not complicated, but it can be very effective. They were also playing much quicker than LA in the early going, looking to push and attack. The Shock have moved away from firing endless threes in recent games, driving more even when they can’t get the ball inside to their talented posts. It’s made them a more dangerous team, and leads to more fouls and free throws.
- The other obvious change in Tulsa’s recent run of good form is that it’s coincided with Angel Goodrich coming in as the starting point guard. The move was forced when Skylar Diggins sprained an ankle and missed a game, but Goodrich hasn’t let her back in. Citing that as the reason for Tulsa’s upswing would be unfair to Diggins – the health of Cambage and increasing development of her pairing with Johnson has been key, and came at a similar time – but it’s hard to write it off as complete coincidence. Goodrich is an active little thing, she keeps them moving, and she knows how to run a team. Her confidence to score herself is slowly increasing as well, after she looked almost afraid to shoot early in the year. She’s also managed to play well enough defensively to prevent being exploited on that end despite her tiny stature. Diggins has struggled to adapt to the pro game, and still can’t finish in traffic for love nor money. The big-name rookie might get her job back eventually, but right now head coach Gary Kloppenburg is quite rightly sticking with what’s working and going with the rookie third-round pick.
- Goodrich had a gorgeous behind-the-head feed to Cambage in transition late in the first half, part of a 10-0 run to close the half that took Tulsa in 41-32 ahead.
- The second half began the same way as the first – Johnson going right by Lavender to score inside. You’d think LA would’ve learned.
- The Sparks struggled to handle Cambage all night. She was too big and too strong in the paint, and they basically had no answer besides fouling her. The only real negative about Cambage is that she still acts like a kid at times. She pouts and whines, often at plays made by teammates rather than just at fouls or calls she doesn’t get from the officials. She’s still only 21, and hopefully will grow up a bit more (although there are certainly middle-aged players who are equally whiny). She picked up another technical in this game, and if she ever stays fit and available for a full 34-game season she may threaten Diana Taurasi for the league lead.
- The Sparks also had some joy driving by Cambage. She’s so big that she can often block attempts inside even when she appears to have been beaten, but if you can go from one side of her to the other and finish she usually won’t be quick enough to recover.
- LA kept pulling closer and then being held at arm’s length by Tulsa in the second half. Kristi Toliver was hot most of the evening, but the Sparks never seemed to find her enough shots to entirely exploit that. At times they looked like they weren’t sure where their offense was going to come from. With Parker on the floor everyone else looks scary, a threat to hurt you from all five spots on the floor. Without her, the Sparks lose their focal point, and they had to work out where to go instead. When they couldn’t get out in transition, that didn’t always work out too well.
- The fourth quarter was where things got interesting. Sparks head coach Carol Ross tried something different, benching true post options like Lavender and Hoffman to go with wing Marissa Coleman at power forward and Ogwumike at center. It created mismatches at both ends of the floor. Ogwumike and Cambage struggle to guard each other – the Spark is too quick, the Shock is too big. But with Coleman at the 4, they were forced to. Meanwhile, Coleman had to handle Tiffany Jackson-Jones or Glory Johnson, and help against Cambage when necessary. And the Tulsa bigs had to try to cover her. It led to a more open interior for Tulsa to attack, with LA even trying some zone to help cover for their small lineup. But it also put more shooting on the floor for LA, and Coleman rained in some jumpers when the Shock posts didn’t manage to track her out to the perimeter.
- Point guard Lindsey Harding got a little more aggressive offensively in the fourth quarter after drifting through much of the game, and combined with Coleman to help pull the Sparks within three with 3:30 left in the game. But again, Tulsa had an answer. They rotated the ball well against LA’s zone, found Candice Wiggins in the corner, and she nailed an open three. Then for the second time in the period, Cambage managed to stretch out a long arm and block Ogwumike at the rim when she seemed to have been beaten. Then Wiggins wiggled through traffic to flip the ball in, and the Shock were back up by eight.
- Tulsa still don’t really know how to close out games. They’ve got so little experience winning at this level that nerves and anxiety still become an issue down the stretch. They gave up multiple second chances, fouled Toliver on a three, and coughed up a couple of cheap turnovers in the final moments, but LA couldn’t capitalise enough to bridge the gap. The Shock held on for the win.
- Cambage was the star, finishing 9-11 for 28 points, 8 boards and 4 blocks. That total also included 10-11 at the free throw line, something which sometimes goes overlooked with her. She’ll punish you if you just keep hacking her in the paint, because she’s not one of those big centers with no touch. She’s very solid at the line. There was also balanced scoring help from Wiggins, Johnson and Powell, while Goodrich finished with 9 assists to just 2 turnovers. They shot 53% as a team. Seattle keep finding ways to win games, which is going to make it hard for the Shock to run down a playoff spot in the West, but this was a nice way to start the effort.
- Even allowing for the absence of Parker, it wasn’t a great performance from LA. They have more than enough talent to be a very good team even without their superstar, but they never quite found their flow. Toliver and Ogwumike both finished with good numbers, but without ever taking control, and the team defense couldn’t handle the interior attack of the Shock. When you’re turning to a gimmick like Coleman at the 4 – even if it almost works – something’s going wrong. They’ll be hoping Parker’s back soon and that can be the real start of the second half of their season.
- Already shorn of Becky Hammon and Sophia Young for the season, San Antonio were once again without DeLisha Milton-Jones as well due to her knee problem. So Danielle Adams and Shenise Johnson continued to start at the forward spots. Minnesota were short a reserve after Rachel Jarry sprained an ankle in practice, but were otherwise at full strength.
- We’d seen this matchup a couple of times already this season, so we had a pretty good idea of how the game was going to progress from the start. San Antonio are well coached and organised, they can sometimes give San Antonio a few problems with their team defense, but ultimately the raw athleticism and basic talent advantage of the Lynx tends to prevail. Usually rather convincingly. Minnesota were into their flow quickly as usual, pushing into a lead behind the finishing of Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore.
- San Antonio kept in touch in the first half, just about. The Lynx lost their rhythm when the bench players started to filter onto the floor, and struggled to regain it when the starters returned. The Silver Stars fired a remarkable 17 three-point attempts in the first half alone, and when Shameka Christon made a couple late in the second quarter, it pulled the Silver Stars back into the contest. They trailed just 39-33 at the break.
- With Adams sealing off Rebekkah Brunson to finish inside, then Danielle Robinson slicing to the rim to finish – something which happened a little too often in this game for Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve’s comfort – San Antonio were within four points early in the third quarter. Then Brunson had a trademark monster offensive rebound, Augustus had a couple of interior finishes over Robinson (something Minnesota had clearly talked about attacking during the interval), Moore hit a jumper and Brunson nailed a turnaround. In moments, Minnesota had responded to the game almost becoming a contest and blown the gap back out to 12 points. Even on virtual cruise control, the Lynx can be flat-out scary.
- That was about it, realistically speaking. The Lynx lead didn’t drop below nine points the rest of the way, and it was up above 15 for most of the fourth quarter. It was an exhibition of smooth Minnesota offense creating easy chances in transition and hitting jumpers when they needed to, while their defense forced San Antonio into miss after miss, mostly on contested shots from outside. Even when the Silver Stars did make it to the rim, too often they were out of control and missed anyway. It was yet another very comfortable victory for the Lynx.
- We’ve seen this story before. Unless San Antonio get remarkably hot from outside, this pairing is essentially a mismatch. The Silver Stars can’t handle the Lynx for 40 minutes. They play each other again next week (San Antonio will delighted that it’s the final time this season) and even with the venue switching to Texas it’s hard to see any other result.
- The missing piece for this game was Elena Delle Donne, still going through the required protocols to recover and return from the concussion that kept her out of the All-Star game. Chicago were also without backup point guard Sharnee Zoll (broken thumb, four weeks) and backup center Carolyn Swords (torn MCL, done for the year). So wing Tamera Young moved into the starting lineup and they were down to eight players in total. Washington continue to be the healthiest team in the league, and once again had all eleven players dressed and ready. Mike Thibault stuck with his veteran starting group again, despite some problems in recent games.
- Delle Donne being out forced Chicago into changing how they defend the Mystics. In previous encounters this season, Sylvia Fowles has handled Crystal Langhorne in the paint, Swin Cash has taken small forward Monique Currie, while Delle Donne hid on the Washington center (Michelle Snow or Kia Vaughn). They may not be major interior threats, but even Snow or Vaughn would’ve exploited Young inside, so Chicago had to use Young on Currie and swing Cash to the center. It worked well enough, but Snow’s jump shot was actually dropping in, which proved increasingly useful for the Mystics as the first half progressed. She bricked that same shot repeatedly in Washington’s last game, but in this one it was flowing.
- Still, Chicago were the team who took the early lead. Fowles was a menace inside as usual, getting deep position as she looked for entry passes or working for her own looks on the offensive glass. There was even one tip-in that should’ve been called offensive goaltending because it was still on the rim when she forced it back in, but that play’s such a rarity in the women’s game that the officials missed it.
- Chicago’s lead was as high as 14 early in the second quarter, but Washington crept back into the game through the remainder of the first half. Pokey Chatman broke out a 2-3 zone defense for virtually the first time this season, and it wasn’t particularly organised or effective. With no real backup for Fowles due to Swords’s injury, it was an understandable move when Big Syl was resting. Why they kept using it when she came back in, your guess is as good as mine. Between those Snow jumpers and some increased offensive aggression from Matee Ajavon and Monique Currie, Washington had tied the game at 44 by the break. Both teams shot over 50% from the field in the first half.
- The second half was a much, much scrappier affair. To an outside observer, Chicago’s zone often looked confused (and sometimes the players didn’t seem entirely certain whether they were in zone or man-to-man). But it had the effect of confusing Washington as well, who turned the ball over far too many times in the second half. At the other end of the floor, when Chicago could get into quick offense they looked good. A run in the middle of the third quarter saw Fowles beat Langhorne to finish a running hook, Epiphanny Prince drill a quick-hit three on a hand-off from Courtney Vandersloot, and then Fowles finish a pretty Vandersloot bounce-pass. But the bulk of their points were coming at the foul line. Still, it was enough to create another double-digit Sky lead in the third quarter.
- Vandersloot is slipping a little under the radar this season with all the star turns around her, but she deserves recognition for her performances. Obviously the weaponry around her makes her life easier as a point guard, but she’s doing a better job of finding everybody without turning the ball over. And most noticeably, she’s vastly improved defensively. Her lack of footspeed caused problems in previous years, with players going around her far too easily, but she’s consistently managing to stay in front of drivers this year – and usually she’s on the opposing point guard, rather than the easiest perimeter player available. She had two blocks in this game – her 13th and 14th of the season – one by staying in front of Ivory Latta and reaching up at the perfect moment, one by chasing Latta down after a steal and catching her from behind. We haven’t seen Chatman pulling on Sloot’s short leash and dragging her back to the bench much this year, and it’s not just because the backup options have been weak. Vandersloot is earning her time out there.
- The Mystics came back again, dragging the deficit down to a single point with four minutes left in the game, but they still couldn’t handle Fowles in the paint. Chicago didn’t convert a single field goal in the final four minutes of the game, but they didn’t have to. Going 10-12 at the free throw line, while their defense limited a messy Washington team to forced jumpers and missed efforts in traffic, was enough.
- Fowles finished the game 10-14 from the floor, 12-15 from the free throw line, for a total of 32 points, 15 boards, and 5 blocks. She was absolutely dominant when her team needed her to be, with Delle Donne out and Prince still struggling to rediscover her offensive game. All this while continuing to remove her shoe and use a heating pad on her foot every time she goes to the bench during games. Avery Warley, most recently of the New York Liberty, is on her way to bolster the post corps for the Sky. It’s a sensible signing (via a hardship exception). Warley will body up in the paint, go after rebounds, and generally swallow some minutes inside to help Fowles rest. Making the playoffs has been the target for this franchise for years, and it’s become a near-certainty at this point in 2013. But the targets are higher now for a team sitting atop the Eastern Conference. They need to make sure Fowles is still in one piece once the postseason arrives.
- Washington showed plenty of fight to keep battling back, but too many turnovers and too much Fowles did them in by the end. It’s no disgrace to be unable to handle Fowles in the paint when she’s in this kind of mood, but after losing four of their last five games the Mystics are slipping back towards the chasing pack. Indiana and New York are now right on top of Washington for the third and fourth playoff spots, and even Connecticut are within range if they ever sort themselves out. It could be a long, drawn out scrap for the last spot (or two) in the East.
As mentioned above, Avery Warley has signed for Chicago via a hardship exception, granted due to the injuries to Sharnee Zoll and Carolyn Swords. By rule, Warley will have to be waived when Zoll returns, but given the lack of post depth with Swords hurt, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they then cut someone and re-sign Warley to a standard contract. The emergency deal gives them a chance to take a look at her before making that move.
In Indiana, another player signed with a hardship exception has been released. Jasmine Hassell is gone, because wing Jeanette Pohlen is available again after finally recovering from the ACL tear she suffered in the playoffs last season. Now the Fever are just waiting on Katie Douglas to return from her back injury, although that still looks to be some way off. Erin Phillips has also been in and out since returning from her meniscus tear, due to residual pain in her knee. At least Pohlen adds to their perimeter options and provides another player who can knock down a few threes.
Saturday August 3rd (today):
Connecticut @ New York, 6pm ET. Liberty -4.5 is the line, and while I’ve gotten in trouble trusting New York before, I still have more faith in them than Connecticut. 10 decent minutes against the Fever reserves doesn’t prove anything.
Chicago @ Indiana, 7pm ET. Indiana -2.5 suggests the gambling world isn’t expecting Delle Donne to return just yet (that does seem the most likely scenario), and expects Tamika Catchings to return from whatever her family issue was on Thursday. With the Sky on a back-to-back, I’ll take the Fever.
Atlanta @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. Mercury -4.5 is giving Phoenix an awful lot of credit, considering they’ve lost six of their last seven and Griner’s still on restricted minutes. We’ll see loads of zone again from the Mercury, and Atlanta generally have problems if you can force them into shooting repeatedly from outside. Considering how the Dream struggled heading into the break, I’ll take Phoenix. But I don’t like doing it.
Sunday August 4th (tomorrow);
Los Angeles @ Washington, 4pm ET
Tulsa @ San Antonio, 4.30pm ET
Seattle @ Minnesota, 7pm ET