WNBA Today, 08/07/2013: Quintuple Tuesday in the WNBA


Yesterday was the first five-game day of the 2013 WNBA season, as the schedulers did their level best to make my life as difficult as possible. But they won’t break me. Not only did I come within inches of going 5-0 with my picks against the spread (got the right winner in all of them, but one failed to cover), all five are examined in the usual detail below. On to the Bullet Point Breakdowns.


Washington Mystics 88 @ New York Liberty 93

  • This was one of three remaining meetings between these teams, after New York won their first matchup last week with a dominant post performance. The starting lineups were the same as in that previous meeting, with Washington’s Mike Thibault promoting Michelle Snow back into the starting lineup for Emma Meesseman, after trying something different against LA on Sunday.


  • New York were the slightly more successful team in the early going thanks to their interior attack, with Cappie Pondexter drawing extra defenders to create good looks for her teammates inside. She still takes too many of those 19ft pullup jumpers – frustrating because they’d be barely any more difficult from two feet further back, and a low-percentage three-pointer is a much more worthwhile shot than a low-percentage two. But she does at least seem to be handling the ‘lead guard’ position better. There’s been more poise, fewer turnovers, and better patience to her game recently – even if her jump shot still isn’t dropping all that often.


  • It was New York’s general inability to hit a shot that helped ease Washington back into the game, although the Mystics were taking plenty themselves. Even with all those perimeter shots, Washington drew plenty of whistles, which also helped them take the lead at the free throw line.


  • As the half progressed, the Liberty found some shooting from an unusual source. Wing Alex Montgomery has gradually earned increasing minutes this season, but it’s been due to her defense and hustle more than her points production. Her jumper was falling in this game, giving the posts someone to kick out to and Pondexter a sidekick on the perimeter. That left us with a surprisingly high-scoring first half, which finished with Washington up 46-45.


  • After all the damage that had been done to them in the paint last time these teams met, Washington were collapsing inside and trying to make everything as difficult as possible for the Liberty under the rim. It led to Plenette Pierson stepping outside, and the offense running through her from 15 feet out. She hit the occasional jumper, but more often than not she was a facilitator, moving the ball to teammates on the outside or making the post-to-post dump passes to Kara Braxton or Kelsey Bone.


  • However, as the third quarter progressed, it was Washington’s power forward who came increasingly into the game. Crystal Langhorne was all over the offensive glass, she was running the floor for opportunities in transition, and alongside the driving of Matee Ajavon she helped the Mystics regain control. New York’s coverage on the pick-and-roll got slow and sloppy, and a Washington run to close out the third gave them a nine-point lead at the end of the period.


  • When the Mystics lead hit 14 early in the fourth on yet more Langhorne layups, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see New York lay down and die. We’ve seen it from them before this season, losing their composure and concentration down the stretch, rather than fighting to the finish. But instead, we got a response. Katie Smith hit a long jumper, part of an afternoon where she provided more effective offense than we’ve seen from her in a while. Pondexter drilled a three. Montgomery hit another long jumper, then nailed a three from the corner. Suddenly the Liberty were back within four points and we had a game on our hands.


  • Even when they were succeeding, Washington’s offense never seemed too far away from grinding to a halt. If you can stop Langhorne by playing strong interior defense (and/or sending help), and they’re not getting calls on drives, it’s just a matter of challenging jump shots. That’s what they’ve got left. After Pondexter drew some fouls and hit some free throws, Braxton gave the Liberty the lead on a layup with under three minutes remaining. It came on a Pierson drive and dish, resulting in her tenth assist of the afternoon.


  • In the span of nearly eight minutes of basketball after taking that 14-point lead, Washington scored precisely five points – on a long Langhorne jumper and a deep Ivory Latta three. Everything else was a desperation heave or saw a player swamped in traffic inside. After New York took an 89-85 lead with 31 seconds left, Thibault drew up a nice play that left rookie guard Tayler Hill wide open for three in the corner. Her shot swished through, but she’d stepped on the sideline before firing it up. New York ball, and the game was essentially over. That summed up Washington’s fourth quarter.


  • This game probably could’ve gone either way. It was a game of runs, and New York happened to make the final one before the buzzer. But that won’t make Washington feel any better. They were well on top, Langhorne was rolling (she finished the game 10-14 for 24 points and 11 boards, 8 on the offensive glass), and then it all fell apart. Too many bad shots, limited ball movement, and giving up open looks on the defensive end. It was their sixth loss in seven games, and for the first time in months they dropped out of the playoff positions in the Eastern Conference. And hey, they’re heading to Minnesota on Thursday night. That’ll help.


  • As with the game they lost to Connecticut on Saturday, it’s hard to know if this is real for New York. The Sun got randomly hot from outside, and shot the Liberty out of that game; New York shot a remarkable 55% from the field in this one, and finished with 93 points. Based on larger sample sizes, you’re probably not going to get 5-8 shooting from Katie Smith every night, and you’re definitely not going to get 8-15 from Alex Montgomery. The latter is a tantalising talent. Everyone with even half a clue saw she’d be Bill Laimbeer’s kind of player even before he arrived in New York. She’s physical yet mobile, she’ll defend and fight for everything, and she’s a useful rebounder for a wing. But for her WNBA career she’s a 35% shooter from the floor, and just 30% from beyond the arc. If she can kick those up significantly, and come anything close to what we saw in this game on a regular basis, it’d be huge for New York. Finally, Pondexter and the post players had enough support to drag them over the line, even on an afternoon where their defense wasn’t quite up to its usual standards.



Los Angeles Sparks 74 @ Connecticut Sun 72

  • The Sparks were still without star Candace Parker, out since the All-Star break due to a right wrist injury. Jantel Lavender continued to deputise at center. Connecticut had won two in a row, so despite those victories requiring large slices of luck their confidence should’ve been high. Amazingly enough, despite their struggles in the first half of the season, the Sun came into last night just 1.5 games outside the playoff spots in the East. However, Kara Lawson was still absent for family reasons (and presumably continuing to rest her right knee), and backup post Mistie Bass was also out due to a right knee strain.


  • Without Parker, Los Angeles are pretty thin in the post. After cutting Nicky Anosike in training camp, they came into the season with just four bigs, so now they’re down to three. Lavender scored LA’s first two baskets of the game on a putback and a running hook over Tina Charles, then picked up her second early foul and had to sit. You have to play as much with your head as with your body when your team is shorthanded. Right now, once you get past Nneka Ogwumike, Lavender and Ebony Hoffman, LA are left trying to use Marissa Coleman at power forward. Foul trouble needs to be avoided.


  • Connecticut looked decent in the first half, which is more than we’ve been able to say about them for most of the year. The overwhelming focus offensively was still Charles, but she was deeper in the post than she has been for most of the season, and there was more apparent chemistry and teamwork at both ends of the floor. Too often this year they’ve been stagnant, standing around watching Charles draw defenders, before jacking up bricks if the ball came back out from her. And help defense has often been late or nonexistent. This was better, even if they weren’t running away with the game.


  • The Sparks were solid in the opening quarter, with Kristi Toliver looking to score more than she did in her aimless performance in Washington on Sunday. She made a couple of poor decisions when Lindsey Harding sat down and she had to play point guard, but otherwise she was looking to score. That’s what they need from her, especially with Parker missing.


  • The star for the Sparks, once she came back into the game in the second quarter, was Lavender. She’s been a frustrating talent since entering the league in 2011, showing flashes of being a powerful presence inside but never able to sustain it for very long. She battled Charles to a virtual tie in the first half, playing solid defense and finishing consistently on the offensive end. With the Sparks having far more talent surrounding her than Connecticut have around Charles, if she could keep that up LA were likely to ease away for a relatively comfortable win. The Sparks led 43-36 at halftime.


  • With LA fronting Charles successfully, creating steals and fastbreak points back the other way, the Sparks pushed their lead out to 13 points early in the third quarter. It looked like another collapse could well be on the cards for Connecticut. But to their credit, this time they didn’t let that happen. They buckled down defensively, found some slightly more inventive ways to move the ball before looking inside for Charles, and were quickly right back in the game.


  • As an individual, Charles seemed to rise to the challenge that Lavender was offering up early in the game. She was on the low block more consistently, going at the defense rather than fading away from it, using her jumper as an occasional way to stretch the opponent out – rather than the central element of her offense. Charles vs. Lavender wasn’t anything close to a tie in the second half.


  • However, Connecticut became a little stagnant again early in the fourth quarter, as the focus on feeding Charles left them standing around too much. With a 24-second shot clock, there’s only so long you can wait to see if your center is going to break open. Otherwise the clock runs down, and you’re forced into creating something ugly just to get a shot up before time runs out. With LA up 61-53 with under eight minutes left, Anne Donovan’s answer to this problem was to take Charles out of the game. It gave her a quick rest, and it forced the rest of the team to do something besides forcing the ball to Tina. When she came back in 90 seconds later, Connecticut still trailed by eight, but a couple of runners from Allison Hightower had reminded the Sun that they had other offensive options.


  • With Lavender disappearing, LA also had to find other offensive avenues in the second half. Ogwumike was all over the offensive glass, leading to success on second-chance opportunities. Hoffman hit a couple of shots from outside, which tends to happen when she gets enough minutes to remind everyone of her range. And Toliver’s jumper was important again. Down the stretch, a Kelly Faris three, a fantastic sweeping lefty finish from Hightower for a three-point play, and a Renee Montgomery triple pulled the Sun back within a point. LA answered with two of those trademark ridiculously difficult jump shots from Toliver, where she seems to be off-balance but finds the bottom of the net regardless.


  • In case you’d forgotten while she was injured, Montgomery is a wildly hit-or-miss kind of player. She’ll make some big plays, but she’ll also take some terrible shots. She jacked an ugly three in the final minute that bounced straight back off the glass, handing the ball back to LA. Toliver ran down the clock and fired a pullup three that missed as well, giving the Sun a chance. They had the ball back, trailing by three with 19 seconds left.


  • The Sparks played strong defense on the perimeter, denying the three-point shot, so Montgomery drove and took the two on offer instead. Not yet in the penalty, Connecticut had to foul twice to send Toliver to the line, but she went just 1-of-2 at the stripe. Now the Sun had just 2.8 seconds, but trailed by only two. LA had a foul to give and used it almost immediately, leaving the Sun inbounding again with 1.7 seconds left, which left them with very limited options. The ball went to Montgomery, whose heave bounced away off the iron, allowing LA to celebrate.


  • It was a ‘gut it out’ kind of game from LA. Still figuring out how to play without Parker, they pieced together their offense from around the team and eventually had enough. They’ve still got plenty of talent, and Parker shouldn’t have to rush back at all. The way the West is working out right now, LA look unlikely to catch rampant Minnesota, and equally unlikely to be caught by Phoenix from behind. They just need to keep working and putting in solid performances, and they should be fine. Lavender replicating the form we saw from her in the first half of this game on a consistent basis would be particularly useful – even once Parker returns.


  • The Sun lost, but in many way this was a promising performance, arguably one of their best of the season. On occasion they got too focussed on Charles and stopped moving the ball, but in general there was more teamwork and more of an attack mentality. The loss of Bass (and continuing disappointment of Kayla Pedersen) meant they got very little from the frontcourt besides Charles herself, but Montgomery and Tan White have at least offered extra options at guard alongside Hightower since returning from their injuries. They’d won their last two games and completely failed to convince me that it was the start of anything for the second half of the season. They lost this one, and yet I’m a little more of a believer.



Minnesota Lynx 93 @ San Antonio Silver Stars 80

  • Remember this matchup? Yes, we’ve been here three times before this season, and all three ended in Lynx blowouts. The most recent was just four days ago. The lineups were exactly the same again, with DeLisha Milton-Jones still out for San Antonio.


  • Minnesota lost a post of their own after less than 90 seconds of play. Danielle Adams swept the ball through looking to go up for a jump shot, and smacked Janel McCarville right under the chin as Adams’s arms and the ball swung upwards. McCarville went down for a while, and had to be helped to the sidelines. She wouldn’t return for the rest of the night.


  • Most of the first half was what we’ve come to expect from these two teams. Solid execution at both ends of the floor, the Lynx in the lead, as San Antonio did their best to hang on to Minnesota’s coattails. The usual parade of jumpers was rolling in from Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore for the Lynx. One addition we’ve seen since the All-Star break is an effort to use Augustus and Moore inside a little more, utilising the fact that they’re often being guarded by smaller and/or less athletic opponents. They’re so good from mid-range that sometimes it doesn’t feel like they need to do anything else, but a more developed post attack would’ve been very useful in the Finals last season when players like Briann January, Erin Phillips and Shavonte Zellous were on Augustus and Moore. When you’re this good you can afford to experiment a little, and prepare for what’s coming later in the season.


  • San Antonio hung in the game through the perimeter shooting of Jia Perkins and Shameka Christon, and the developing offensive arsenal of Danielle Adams. When she exploded onto the scene as a rookie, after dropping to the 20th overall pick due to concerns about how she would cope with the pro game, Adams did most of her damage from long range. While she went 3-4 from three-point range in the first half of this game, and her perimeter shooting remains vital to her effectiveness, she’s becoming a focal point of San Antonio’s offense in the low post as well. It makes her a significantly more dangerous weapon, and especially useful to the Silver Stars – because they have so little post offense from anywhere else.


  • Minnesota led 45-40 at halftime. Devereaux Peters did a solid job deputising for McCarville, but picked up her 4th foul early in the third quarter. Peters has had problems in the past with accumulating fouls, and it’s not that big an issue when you’re only expected to play 15 minutes a night off the bench. But once you become the de facto starter – which was the case once McCarville was clearly out for the night – you have to become a little more careful. Peters and Amber Harris did okay covering for McCarville, who hasn’t exactly been lighting anyone up this season herself. But at times it was noticeable that Minnesota were going a little deeper into their reserves than usual. The Lynx starters have their own kind of chemistry, and even with McCarville replacing Taj McWilliams-Franklin this season that’s still the case. You can usually see the differences whenever a reserve or two is on the floor.


  • Despite San Antonio staying in touch for much of the night, it always felt like Minnesota were the team in control. They pushed their lead into double-digits late in the third quarter, and that remained the case for virtually all of the fourth. Whenever the Silver Stars threatened to make it interesting, one of Minnesota’s stars would respond and they’d be comfortable again. They’re floating through games with ease right now.


  • After popularising #LosLynx on Twitter, Minnesota are now working on pushing #FourToFear into the WNBA consciousness. This game didn’t hurt. Whalen (5-10 for 11 points, 10 assists), Moore (10-15 for 26 points, 10 boards, 6 assists), Augustus ( 8-12 for 21 points, 7 boards) and Rebekkah Brunson (10-15 for 20 points, 6 boards, 4 steals) are a fearsome quartet. San Antonio just couldn’t match them, and will be delighted that this is their final game against the Lynx this season.


  • The bright spot for the Silver Stars was Adams, who finished the game 13-17 for 31 points. They may not have the weapons right now, but if Sophia Young, Becky Hammon and a high draft pick are added next season, this could become a threatening team again quickly. Adams developing her game now to become a more dangerous complementary piece in future could be very useful.



Indiana Fever 64 @ Chicago Sky 58

  • These teams had played each other twice already this season, but this was the first where Tamika Catchings and Elena Delle Donne were both in the lineups. Delle Donne was back after recovering from her concussion, and went straight back in as a starter.


  • This was not a pretty game. Not offensively, anyway. Defenses dominated from start to finish, with the speed and activity of Indiana just as effective as it had been in nullifying the Sky on Saturday. The Fever were switching freely, but the recovery and help is so fast that it’s very difficult to exploit them even when they end up in apparent mismatches. Delle Donne looked to be moving well and seemed healthy, but she spent an awful lot of the game standing in the corner and watching the action go by.


  • Chicago’s defense is pretty damn good as well, of course. With Tamika Catchings struggling to hit her jump shot just as much as Epiphanny Prince has been lately, the teams crawled their way to a 29-29 tie at halftime. Chicago were frustrated by the physicality of Indiana’s defense, with the usually fairly placid Sylvia Fowles picking up a technical foul late in the first half. Catchings got a touch-foul call on a drive while a lot of contact was being let go, which obviously upset Big Syl.


  • It was such a desperately low-scoring game, that whenever a couple of shots dropped in a small lead felt like a chasm. Late in the third quarter, Chicago left Layshia Clarendon alone at the top of the three-point arc – a perfectly reasonable strategy considering how she’s performed this season – and she drained the shot. Then Jessica Breland nailed a free-throw line jumper, and suddenly Indiana were up by seven. But Clarendon and Breland combined to brick Indiana’s next three shots, and the Sky were quickly back level.


  • The final telling run came midway through the fourth quarter, when Shavonte Zellous hit a couple of tough jumpers for Indiana and Karima Christmas finished a drive. The Fever’s offense hadn’t exactly been smooth all night, but at least there was some penetration and mobility to it. Chicago were doing far too much standing around, waiting and hoping for Fowles to find some room or firing up jump shots after virtually no ball movement up top. Delle Donne created a couple of buckets for herself to keep the gap down to five points – her first points of the second half – but it wasn’t enough.


  • Allie Quigley was playing point guard for Chicago for the final five minutes of the game, for some reason. She’d made a couple of shots early in the fourth quarter, but she’s no point guard, and her defense is mediocre at best. It was her ugly forced jumper bouncing out, followed by a poor cross-court pass being picked off by Catchings, that iced the game. A terrible pass from Epiphanny Prince – also not a point guard – put the cherry on top with another turnover. Courtney Vandersloot spent the final five minutes on the bench.


  • If you’re counting, this is the 27th Indiana victory in 32 games against the Sky since the Chicago franchise was added to the WNBA. It wasn’t pretty, but it counted for 1 in the win column just like the previous 26. You can’t put too much stock in those historical numbers, because so many of them came with very different rosters, but the Sky clearly still have some problems with Indiana’s defense. Erlana Larkins and the team around her make it very hard for Sylvia Fowles to be effective inside, swarming her in the paint and constantly floating in passing lanes. So someone else has to step up, and no one did. Prince continues to struggle mightily, and hasn’t shot over 50% in a game since June 22nd (against Indiana, ironically enough). With Delle Donne very quiet as well, possibly in part because she’s still shaking off the effects of the concussion, the Sky didn’t have enough. They’ve got one more regular season game against Indiana, and it’ll be interesting to see if they’re any more effective. These teams might well see each other in the playoffs, and Chicago will hope the games don’t go quite like this one.


  • Indiana were pretty horrid themselves offensively. No one shot well, and they were dominated on the glass, but eventually they found a way to claw out the win. They’ve been winning ugly games like this for so long, it’s hardly a surprise at this point. They know how to close these games out. It’s their ninth win in twelve games, and their season is definitely on an upwards trajectory.



Seattle Storm 80 @ Phoenix Mercury 65

  • Despite Phoenix supposedly being part of the ‘Big Three’ teams in the West, and Seattle one of the trio of also-rans, the Storm had already beaten the Mercury twice this season. But the first was during those opening three games of the season when Phoenix were yet to realise they couldn’t change their philosophy overnight, and the second was with Brittney Griner playing limited minutes. So the Mercury had excuses for both of them. Time to try again.


  • The extra element of intrigue in this game was whether Seattle could dismantle Phoenix’s zone as comprehensively as they had in the game between these squads last week. Early on they were certainly the more successful team, with Shekinna Stricklen hitting a couple of shots and Camille Little creating second chances on the offensive glass. We also simply saw less of the Mercury zone over the course of the game. They used it, but certainly not as much as they did against Atlanta on Saturday. Seattle had pushed them back into plenty of man-to-man.


  • However, after falling behind by as many as 11 in the opening period, Phoenix worked their way back into the game over the remainder of the first half. It was a scrappy game, with poor shooting percentages on both sides, and a pair of DeWanna Bonner threes did most of the work in the comeback as Seattle’s offense stalled for a long time. The Storm weren’t moving the ball any more, or cutting through the paint, or driving to the rim. It took a Bonner foul on Tina Thompson in the waning seconds – and the technical free throw that was harshly added on top when Bonner ran off towards the other end of the court in frustration – to allow Seattle to take a 31-30 halftime lead. That was despite Seattle shooting under 30% from the field in the first half.


  • The third quarter was one Phoenix would like to forget, for a whole host of reasons. The ESPN video from the Storm locker room at halftime showed Brian Agler talking to his team about the need to attack. About how Griner might’ve blocked a few shots in the opening minutes, but it was a passage that resulted in a 21-10 Seattle lead. And while the ball movement still wasn’t fantastic, there was definitely more aggression and attacking about Seattle’s play after the interval. They did much of their early damage at the free throw line, resulting in some momentum and confidence to help the subsequent shots to start falling.


  • Phoenix also had plenty of problems that had nothing to do with the scoreboard. Diana Taurasi picked up yet another technical foul, her 8th of the season, midway through the period. There was nothing obvious or demonstrative that drew it, but replays clearly showed one of the officials telling her he’d heard enough and she needed to stop. Clearly, she didn’t stop. That puts her one technical away from another one-game suspension. Moments later, Bonner went down in a lot of pain, clutching her right knee. There was no obvious collision, which is always when those incidents are scariest, because you instantly think torn ligament. Fortunately, she managed to limp back to the locker room without much assistance, and emerged later with an ice bag on her knee. She didn’t return to the game, but she’s listed merely as ‘day-to-day’ with a bruised right knee. They’ll settle for that, given the potential alternatives.


  • The hits kept on coming. Taurasi rolled an ankle on a spin move, although she stayed in the game without much obvious discomfort (the weak turnover for a Noelle Quinn layup back the other way might’ve upset her most). Then Griner collapsed to the ground in agony, and everyone held their breath yet again. Rather than reaggravating her right knee problem, it turned out that she’d stepped on Little’s foot and twisted her left ankle. She’s ‘day-to-day’ as well, but was also done for the night. Given the pain she was in and the prior knee issues, it was another case of breathing a sigh of relief at ‘just’ an ankle sprain.


  • While all this was going on, Seattle had put together a 30-point quarter, and taken control of the game. With key players out, and Taurasi shooting poorly all night under pressure from Tanisha Wright (and help), a comeback always looked like a long shot – and so it proved. The Storm eased away in the fourth, for their third win over Phoenix this season.


  • So the problems continue for the Mercury. The injuries will worry them most, of course, because this team isn’t going anywhere with Penny Taylor, Griner and Bonner on the sidelines. But they had other issues before that. Seattle are a smarter team, and they make up for their lower level of raw talent than Phoenix with organisation and execution. And with Agler outcoaching Corey Gaines on a consistent basis. When Taylor had surgery on her other knee, the Mercury front office talked about her being “back in our lineup when we start our quest for a third title in mid-September”. Well, in case they hadn’t noticed, Seattle are once again only half a game back for third place in the West, and Tulsa have looked a little frisky lately. As long as Griner and Bonner are back relatively quickly, their playoff spot shouldn’t be under too much threat, but they’ve lost seven of their last nine games. That’s not the form of a title-challenger, however many injuries you have as excuses.


  • Seattle keep finding ways to win games. By hook or by crook, Agler gets them playing how he wants, and they overcome perceived shortcomings in personnel. They took a lot of bad shots in this game, and didn’t break down Phoenix’s defense in as pleasing a way as last week, but they found a way to get the job done pretty comfortably (and they were on the way there before the injuries started to hit Phoenix). This victory also sealed the tie-breaker over the Mercury, meaning dreams of a higher seed than #4 in the West might be plausible. I had them in the playoffs in my preseason predictions, but very few other people did. It’s a heck of a coaching job by Agler, and an admirable season so far for the pieces left on their roster.



Upcoming Games


Thursday August 8th (tomorrow):

Los Angeles @ Indiana, 7pm ET. Fever -2.5 for the line is a sign of how far Indiana have come, and of how much gamblers think the loss of Parker affects LA. This could easily go either way, but my gut says Sparks for some reason. And I’m going to listen to it for once.


Washington @ Minnesota, 8pm ET. Lynx -15 is just such a huge line. There’s no way you could predict any result other than a Minnesota victory with the way these teams have played lately. But with McCarville potentially sitting the game out, I’ll take the 15 points. I think the Mystics might just cover (or perhaps more accurately, Minnesota might relax enough to drop the margin of victory below 15).


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