Another triple-header in the WNBA last night, and the team with the weaker existing record won all three of them. Everyone’s back underway now after the All-Star break, and so far there’s been something of a concertina effect tightening up the standings. Off to the Bullet Point Breakdowns to examine last night’s action.
- The teams were unchanged for this matchup from their previous games, both in the players available and their starting lineups (although Kara Lawson was listed as ‘Not with Team – Family Issue’ rather than out due to her bruised knee, for what that’s worth). Both were trying to build from wins, after New York produced another dominant post display to beat Washington, and Connecticut scraped together a fourth quarter comeback to beat an understrength Indiana.
- The opening stages were exactly what most probably would’ve expected. The Liberty pounded the ball inside, and ended up with a series of layups and post finishes for Plenette Pierson and Kara Braxton. The Sun help defense was slow to arrive (if it arrived at all), leaving far too much room for bigs on the pick-and-roll. At the other end of the floor, Tina Charles was already drifting further and further away from the rim to fire jump shots, and no one else was hitting anything, just as has been the case all year for Connecticut. It was a familiar story.
- Then a funny thing happened. Renee Montgomery and Allison Hightower made consecutive threes out of a timeout midway through the first quarter, and that opened the floodgates. For the rest of the first half, Connecticut were suddenly making shots they’d been missing all season. The return to fitness of Montgomery and Tan White have given them more options, but even the likes of Kelly Faris and Kelsey Griffin were drilling perimeter jump shots. It gave Connecticut a foothold in the game that they’ve rarely had this year, because of the constant steam of bricks they’ve been firing up.
- New York were still the more efficient team offensively for most of the first half. Cappie Pondexter continued to shoot horrendously, as she has done for the vast majority of the season, but when she stuck to creating for teammates and dropping off passes it led to good looks. There’s been a little bit more patience to the Liberty passing in recent games, making the pass when the opportunity actually presents itself rather than when they feel they’re supposed to pass. By halftime the Sun shooting had kept them right in the game, and the Liberty led just 34-33, but New York were up 26-8 in points in the paint. Typically, that suggests the team relying on outside shooting will cool off and the team scoring inside will pull away in the second half.
- But of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. When you start making a few shots, everything can begin to look better. The sun shines brighter, the birds sing sweeter, you put some effort in on defense – the list goes on. After already beginning to fade in the second quarter, New York’s post attack continued to tail off in the third, as they failed to find the same space that had been on offer at the start of the game. The parade of jumpers continued to drop for the Sun now their confidence was up, leading to some drives for higher-percentage looks as well. Connecticut’s lead continued to stretch out throughout the third quarter, and New York didn’t have an answer. They were being comprehensively out-shot by the Sun.
- Trailing by 10 points with around seven minutes left in the game, Pondexter finally seemed to remember that she was allowed to drive. She’d been one of the major culprits in New York’s barrage of ugly bricks from outside, but finally she started breaking her man down, getting to the hole, and drawing fouls. Then she stopped as quickly as she’d started, Connecticut hit a couple more shots, and the game was over again. The Liberty clearly lost heart in the final period, and their effort dropped dramatically. Instead we saw weak turnovers, open lanes, poor rebounding, offensive fouls and plenty of bitching to officials. None of that was going to help a comeback effort.
- This was a weird game from both sides. Conceding jump shots to the Sun is a perfectly good gameplan, based on how they’ve played this season, but once they actually hit a few New York didn’t seem to know how to respond. Pierson and Braxton finished with solid and efficient scoring numbers (although only 5 rebounds between them), but their effectiveness weakened as the game progressed. The perimeter shooting was horrible, no one managing to stretch the defense or punish Connecticut for collapsing inside. It was yet another disappointing follow-up to a victory for New York. There’ve been too many of those this season.
- For Connecticut, is this progress, or did they just happen to get hot for once? They finished the game with 30 points in the paint, but most of those came after New York virtually quit. The key factor that allowed them to shoot 51% and take over the game was actually making some perimeter shots. That included a freakish explosion from Griffin (6-11 for 16 points) and Montgomery’s first decent night of the season (6-7 for 18, including 4-4 from beyond the arc). Once the shots started falling, we saw improved willingness to drive and attack from the likes of Charles and Hightower, but will that continue on a different night if they’re not as hot? It’s a second victory in a row, Connecticut’s first ‘win streak’ of the season, which is the right way to start. But let’s not start counting any chickens just yet.
- Chicago were still without Elena Delle Donne due to her concussion, leaving Tamera Young to start for the second straight night. However, they did have an extra body to use in the post, after signing Avery Warley via a hardship exception. Indiana were significantly stronger than in their loss to Connecticut on Thursday night. Tamika Catchings was back after a family issue kept her away from that game, Erin Phillips was available again after resting her knee, and for the first time this season Jeanette Pohlen was in uniform after recovering from her ACL tear.
- From beginning to end of this game, the key element was Indiana’s defense. In the opening minutes, even when Chicago managed to enter the ball to Sylvia Fowles, she was finishing with short jumpers rather than layups. She can make those shots, but they’re nothing close to the sure thing she is from right under the rim. Erlana Larkins was doing a solid job of making sure she kept Fowles out of deep position, forcing her away from the basket before she received the ball. As a group, the Fever were incredibly active defensively, getting into passing lanes, blocking off drives, rotating quickly and flying over on weak-side help.
- All of that said, it was a surprisingly high-scoring first quarter for two teams grounded in defense-first philosophies. Courtney Vandersloot was effective for the Sky, while the Fever got into the teeth of the Chicago defense unusually easily, and led 23-19 after 10 minutes.
- Pohlen saw her first action of the season late in the first quarter, receiving a nice ovation from the home crowd. She quickly showed that she wasn’t afraid of contact, driving into traffic, and looked fully mobile. Clearly they’ve waited for her to be all the way back from the injury – absolutely the right course to take – and now she’s ready to play.
- The second period was more what you’d expect from these teams, as defense took over. Drives were being swamped in the lane and scoring dried up on both sides. Indiana pulled out a narrow lead by making more of the hustle plays, running down 50/50 loose balls and grabbing offensive rebounds. By halftime they were up 40-32.
- The defining sequence of the game came in the early minutes of the second half. The Fever came out of the locker room with much greater energy and focus, opening the third quarter with a 12-2 run. Shavonte Zellous had an easy layup right through a wide-open lane, Karima Christmas had an easy layup of her own along with a pair of threes on drive-and-kick passes from teammates, and Larkins had an open finish at the rim. There wasn’t the same solidity to the Sky defense that we’re used to seeing, likely in part because they were playing on a back-to-back and didn’t have the same energy as usual.
- The Sky also tried their 2-3 zone again, and it gave up many of those early Fever baskets. Chatman’s zone defenses, both in the WNBA and in Russia, generally don’t work out very well. As coach of a team that’s been so successful focussing on their man-to-man this season, hopefully the zone is intended as a change-of-pace at most. We’ve seen far too much of it in their two games since the break.
- After that push to open the third, Indiana’s lead was in double-digits the rest of the way. A desperation bench lineup pulled a few points back for the Sky, but gave them right back. Then when Catchings had a quick 5-0 run after the Chicago starters returned, they all sat back down as the Sky conceded.
- These teams play again next Tuesday back in Chicago, and it’s going to be a very interesting re-match. Fowles wasn’t herself in this game, failing to find deep position or dominate the glass like she usually does. It may well be that her foot simply isn’t up to playing two games in 24 hours. By Tuesday she’ll have had some rest, and Delle Donne may well be back, plus they’ll have home advantage and Chatman will have had time to look at the tape of this game to see what went wrong. It will be interesting to see if the outstanding Indiana defense can be as effective against that version of the Sky.
- From a Fever perspective it was a thoroughly pleasing performance. Catchings didn’t shoot well from outside and it didn’t matter in the slightest. They kept the Sky quiet, pushed into their offense from their defense, and a balanced team effort got them over the line. 10 healthy bodies, including more of their first-choice players, certainly helped. They’d still love to get Katie Douglas back, but this group can win games without her if this is as healthy as they get for a while. This win took them up to third in the Eastern Conference standings, and at this point the reigning Eastern champs are looking up rather than down.
- The final team to resume action after the All-Star break, Atlanta are still short two important pieces with Sancho Lyttle and Tiffany Hayes injured. Le’coe Willingham continues to start in Lyttle’s place at power forward, while the Dream bench continues to look desperately thin without Hayes’s presence. There was no difference in the available options for Mercury head coach Corey Gaines, but he had been given the all-clear to use Brittney Griner for as many minutes as necessary. Which was a pretty big boost all on its own.
- Phoenix were atrocious in the first quarter of this game. They looked lazy and half-asleep, repeatedly turning the ball over with sloppy and misplaced passes. Atlanta constantly look for steals and poke their hands into passing lanes, but they weren’t even having to put in much effort to take the ball away – Phoenix were doing the work for them. The Mercury wanted to drop into their ‘X’ zone, but we didn’t even have much chance to see if Atlanta had a plan to attack it. They were constantly in transition, running off the 10 Mercury turnovers in the opening 10 minutes. Atlanta led 24-17 at the end of the first period, and it felt like Phoenix were lucky to be that close.
- The game changed when Phoenix ceased throwing the ball to their opponents. Funny how that makes a big difference. Finally they could actually run some offense, dump the ball down to Griner in the paint, or let Diana Taurasi attack off the dribble and draw contact. It also didn’t hurt that Angel McCoughtry took a quick rest in the middle of the second period, and Courtney Clements isn’t exactly an even replacement. The absences of Lyttle and Hayes has really shown up the end of the Dream bench. Ruth Riley is an overpaid practice player; Clements a conscience-less shooter who hasn’t shot well all season; Aneika Henry a decent backup post; and Jasmine Thomas has barely hit a shot since being benched. That’s all they’ve got. They’re desperately thin.
- Phoenix had swung the game around entirely and led 40-29 with three minutes left in the half, when the momentum flipped right back around again. The Dream finished the half with a 13-0 run, led all the way by McCoughtry, mostly in transition. She had a drive for contact and free throws; a pullup mid-range jumper; a drive for a three-point play; and three passes that led directly to layups for teammates. Meanwhile at the other end of the floor, Erika de Souza (with help) was doing an increasingly effective job sealing off Griner and forcing her into tough looks, while Taurasi was getting a little frustrated at a lack of calls. She ended up sliding towards her own bench after one drive, and tossed several towels onto the court in her disgust at the lack of a call. Presumably none of the officials saw that, or it would’ve been an automatic technical foul (and taken her to the brink of another suspension).
- So Atlanta led 43-40 at halftime. Remarkably, McCoughtry shot 8-13 in the first half (despite some ugly bricks early in the game) and had 7 assists – so she was directly involved in 15 of Atlanta’s 17 baskets. There’s a reason she’s an MVP candidate.
- The Brittney Griner/Erika de Souza matchup was fascinating throughout this contest. Griner was such a phenom that many people overlooked the talent already in the WNBA at the center position, and at times Erika was teaching the kid a lesson. Erika had a couple of gorgeous post moves, spinning and stepping around Griner to finish despite those go-go-gadget arms straining to stop her. And defensively Erika did a solid job of holding the rookie out of deep position (although Phoenix seemed to forget to look for her as the second half progressed). In the individual battle, the veteran came out on top in this one.
- However, as a team, the Mercury increasingly began to take charge. Without the stream of live-ball turnovers to run off, Atlanta were settling for perimeter jump shots against the Mercury zone, and hitting practically none of them. McCoughtry in particular was guilty of firing brick after brick, no longer driving to create contact and draw fouls. The lack of shooting continues to be an issue for the Dream. Thomas and Alex Bentley couldn’t hit anything, and without Lyttle and Hayes that was pretty much the extent of their options. It’s been a flaw with this team for years (and years, and years) now, which only fleetingly seems to be fixed (when someone randomly happens to get hot for a night or two). There also wasn’t the same ball rotation or player movement which we saw from Seattle against the Mercury zone a couple of nights earlier, so there weren’t a lot of great looks.
- The Phoenix lead hit double digits and kept going early in the fourth quarter, as DeWanna Bonner and even Briana Gilbreath started hitting threes. Offensive production from the likes of Gilbreath and Alexis Hornbuckle were a bonus, but it’s Bonner that’s vitally important to this team. She got into the game by scoring on drives or in transition, taking much better shots than we’ve seen her throw up for most of the season. Then she took threes on good looks after already finding her rhythm, rather than jacking at will regardless of depth, defense, or likelihood of success. That’s what they need from her offensively.
- However, despite a 14-point lead with five minutes remaining, Phoenix still almost managed to give the game away – and Bonner was a major culprit. Hitting a couple of jumpers gave the Dream some hope – a Thomas three banked in off the glass, and Bentley had a three-point play in the lane. Then a few free throws and a McCoughtry runner got them closer. Then Bonner grabbed a defensive rebound before being stripped for an easy Erika layup while Bonner jumped up and down squealing about the lack of a call. Bonner took the ensuing inbounds pass, still fuming, and gave up an immediate poke-away steal to McCoughtry, who finished the play with another layup. A 15-2 run had pulled the Dream within a point with a minute to play.
- The interesting contrast for virtually all of that Atlanta streak was that the Dream had gone small against the Mercury’s giant group of starters. They had McCoughtry at power-forward with Bentley, Thomas and Armintie Herrington on the perimeter, and Erika as their only true post. It left some ridiculous-looking matchups, with Thomas guarding Bonner most of the time (at least a seven-inch difference in height), but worked entirely in Atlanta’s favour. The Mercury barely went inside to use their size advantage at all, preferring to fire up threes on nearly every possession. Even out of a timeout they ended up with a Gilbreath prayer from the corner. The Dream are quick and active with their small group, but Phoenix really failed to do anything meaningful to attack it. Which was a little pathetic.
- Still, Phoenix just about managed to hold on. Taurasi drove and eventually drew contact for free throws. McCoughtry tried to replicate the trick but couldn’t get all the way into the defense and ended up with a pullup from 15 feet instead, which bounced out, and from there Atlanta were in trouble. More Mercury free throws followed, McCoughtry airballed a couple of threes, and that was enough for Phoenix to hold on.
- 20 games into the season, the Mercury are still very much a work in progress. They’ve still got more than enough offensive talent to damage teams on that end of the floor, even on their weaker nights. Taurasi and Bonner, with some minimal help, was just about enough in this one. Defensively, and perhaps more importantly mentally, they’re still working things out. The zone was pretty effective against Atlanta for most of the night once they stopped turning the ball over, but the Dream have stopped moving the ball lately and basically can’t shoot. Phoenix have another game against Seattle next week, the team which tore their zone to pieces a couple of nights ago. That’ll be an interesting test to see how much progress they’re really making.
- This was Atlanta’s fifth loss in six games, and they’re struggling. Hayes should be back sometime relatively soon, which will help bolster the perimeter scoring, but this isn’t the same team that was moving the ball smoothly and working as a team earlier in the year. They had stretches of effectiveness when they were moving in transition, or using Erika in the paint, but otherwise there was too much Angel and the McCoughtryteers. From 8-13 at halftime, she finished 12-30 for the game. They need her, she’s their best player and leader, but like Connecticut with Tina Charles it can’t be all about Angel. Other players need to step up, and the system has to encourage them to step up. Or there could be more losing on the way.
Jasmine Hassell, recently waived from her emergency contract in Indiana, is reportedly the new addition to Seattle’s roster. She replaces Nakia Sanford, who decided she didn’t want to be in Seattle on seven-day contracts any more. Hassell didn’t show much in Indiana, but she’ll give the Storm another body to play inside if they need her.
Sunday August 4th (today):
Los Angeles @ Washington, 4pm ET. The Mystics are getting 4 points on their own floor, which is a comment on how poor they’ve been recently, considering LA have been no great shakes either (and Candace Parker’s status is still unknown). I’ll take Washington, but with little confidence.
Tulsa @ San Antonio, 4.30pm ET. The Shock are favourites on the road (which might a first for Tulsa), giving up 1.5 points to San Antonio. For some strange reason, I like the Silver Stars. Appel can at least challenge Cambage, and Adams versus Johnson is interesting at the other post spot. After that it’s a matter of who can make some shots.
Seattle @ Minnesota, 7pm ET. Lynx -13.5 is only that low because Seattle have had a couple of decent results lately and Storm games tend to be low scoring. I can’t see them putting together enough points to hang with Minnesota, so I’ll take the Lynx to cover and blow them out.