While the big news around the WNBA yesterday may have been the departure of Phoenix Mercury head coach Corey Gaines (read in depth coverage of that HERE), there were also two intriguing cross-conference basketball games to take in. Having gone the right way in both of them in my picks against the spread, forgive me if there’s a mildly smug hint to the coverage below. The predictions have been going surprisingly well since the All-Star break – for once, I’d actually be making money if I followed my own gambling advice.
The opener was in Indiana, where the Los Angeles Sparks made their yearly visit. After missing the first three games of LA’s post-All-Star road trip due to a right wrist injury, Candace Parker was back with the team and back in the lineup. There was some strapping around the wrist, and she grabbed it once or twice during the game, but obviously she and the medical staff felt she was ready to return. The Fever are as healthy as they look likely to get for a while. Center Jessica Davenport is done for the season after surgery on her tibia, and Katie Douglas’s back problem continues to leave her sidelined. But with the injuries they’ve battled all year, Indiana will settle for having 10 of their 12 first-choice options available to play.
The opening couple of minutes seemingly went perfectly for the Fever. LA looked unprepared for the energy and activity of Indiana’s defense, and repeatedly turned the ball over on passes into traffic or poke-aways by Fever defenders. Briann January even hit a layup, which has been about as common this season as seeing a pig drift by your window. But Indiana didn’t create any separation during that sequence because they couldn’t hit anything from the perimeter, and when they avoided turning the ball over LA weren’t missing. It didn’t help when January picked up her second early foul on a soft call while trying to play tight to Lindsey Harding on defense, sending her to the bench.
Once the Sparks started taking better care of the ball, they began to dominate. They were getting out in transition when they could, but even in halfcourt sets they were finding their bigs deep in the paint and converting at the rim. Without steals to run off, Indiana were taking a lot of jumpers, virtually none of which went in, merely helping LA push back the other way from the long rebounds. The officials also started calling almost everything, which hurt Indiana far more than LA. Suddenly those reach-ins or poke-away plays from Fever defenders were drawing whistles, sending LA to the line repeatedly, rather than resulting in turnovers. By the end of the first quarter LA already had 16 points in the paint, 9 more at the free throw line, and led 27-13.
While Candace Parker and Jantel Lavender had done most of LA’s damage in the opening quarter, it was fellow Spark post Nneka Ogwumike who took on the mantle in the second period. She was one of the beneficiaries of something LA had clearly worked on in preparation for this game. Indiana overplay passing lanes, which means their defenders stretch out a long way in hope of steals or simply to disrupt their opponent’s ball movement. LA were exploiting that with quick back-cuts behind those defenders into the space towards the rim, then taking passes to lead them in for layups. Because the Sparks were spreading the floor so well – and because players like Ogwumike are so freaking quick and athletic – Indiana’s help defenders couldn’t make it across in time to bail out the defender who’d been left behind. The Fever also weren’t helped by an atrocious call against Tamika Catchings midway through the second quarter, where she completely pulled out of challenging a fastbreak layup by Alana Beard. Catchings knew she was on two fouls, which was why she pulled out, but drew the whistle anyway. That sent her to the bench and removed Indiana’s best help-defender from the game. The Fever had a little success late in the first half finding Erlana Larkins under the rim, but LA still led 43-30 at the break.
As you’d expect from a team with the fighting spirit of Indiana, they made a push to get back in the game in the third quarter. Catchings did her best to carry her team back with some assistance from Karima Christmas, who’s been a surprisingly effective role player for the Fever this season while bigger names have been dropping like flies due to injury. They came as close as five points at one stage, when Catchings hit a three, but unusually for Indiana they couldn’t create enough stops to sustain the comeback. LA were still creating the space to find points through their three posts inside, and Lavender had started nailing her elbow jumper as well. Her raw size gave Indiana problems in the paint, and they were virtually giving her that 15-foot shot, which she was more than willing to take. When they’re in this kind of mood, LA’s offense can be devastating, even without creating turnovers or getting out on the break.
While it was far more of a struggle for both teams to find points in the fourth quarter, LA’s lead was in double-digits throughout. In fact, Lavender had played so well that the Sparks offense looked a little more stagnant once Parker came back in and began to dominate the ball again. But LA were never really threatened in the final period, and they eased home for a well-deserved 74-64 victory.
These East-West clashes between the good teams in either conference are often some of the more interesting games of the season. The teams don’t know each other as well as the conference rivals they play four or five times a year, and there’s a freshness to the contests that we don’t see with the familiar matchups that are repeated over and over again. Apart from the first couple of minutes, where LA played like they’d never seen an aggressive, ball-hawking defense before, it was the Sparks who exploited their opponents’ weaknesses most effectively. Their athleticism and size inside was too much for Indiana, along with the movement which constantly found them deep in the paint behind Fever defenders. Parker, Ogwumike and Lavender finished a combined 23-36 for 49 points, as LA scored 50 points in the paint. Not counting free throws, they only scored 61 in total on the evening, so you can see how focussed they were on getting inside. Maybe the brief absence of Parker, which forced both Ogwumike and Lavender to step up as interior threats, has been good for LA. If the post attack can continue to be anything like this, then the perimeter weapons like Kristi Toliver only become more dangerous, and LA become an even bigger threat in the West.
Indiana had won 9 of their previous 12 games, and not everything can go perfectly every evening, but this was one of a few games recently that have reminded everyone of some of the fears around this team at the start of the year. They’re so small and lightweight inside, that teams who can spread them out and still attack them under the rim can give them a lot of problems. They limited Chicago and Tulsa, teams with big post players who can do plenty of damage, through hard work and active defense, but it’s not always enough. Once we hit the playoffs, it’s going to be a matter of whether their constantly aggressive and mobile defense can be as successful as it was last year, or if some team manages to exploit them inside like LA did in this game. On top of that, they’ve had many games this year where they simply struggled to hit enough shots. We know Catchings can be hit-or-miss, but she had shooters spreading the floor around her last year. Erin Phillips still hasn’t found her shot since returning from injury, January’s struggled all season, Layshia Clarendon’s been poor throughout her rookie year, and Shavonte Zellous couldn’t hit anything last night either. When that’s the case, the Fever are going to have trouble finding points.
Over in the Land of the Lynx…
Our second game was in Minnesota, where the Lynx were defending a 10-game winning streak, and an 18-game home winning streak that stretched back to last season. The visitors were the Washington Mystics, who’d struggled recently and lost six of their last seven. You could be forgiven for expecting the Mystics to be lambs to the slaughter, although they did beat the Lynx in their only other meeting this season. Minnesota were also short a player, with starting center Janel McCarville sitting out due to the hit to the chin she took from Danielle Adams in San Antonio on Tuesday night. Amber Harris came into the starting lineup, allowing Devereaux Peters to remain in her spot as the first post off the bench. It also put Harris directly against the length of Michelle Snow, who appears to have regained her spot as Washington’s regular starting center after one game on the bench.
The Lynx didn’t explode out of the gate like they have against so many teams in recent games. They’ve been rolling into early leads, then coasting through games in a dominant position where opponents are always playing catch up. Instead, Washington stayed right with them. Ivory Latta was immediately more effective offensively than she has been in weeks, looking to score both on drives and perimeter shots. In fact, as a team it was those outside shots where they were hurting the Lynx. Washington have been forcing too many jumpers lately, but they’ve often been thrown up under pressure after one-on-one moves. Most of these were different. There was ball movement beforehand, or penetration into the heart of the Lynx defense before the ball was kicked back out and rotated for a wide open look. When those are the jump shots you’re taking, it’s far less of a problem.
We’ve seen this before in previous seasons from the Minnesota defense. They collapse and help down to protect against penetration, desperate to avoid giving up chances at the rim. So if opponents can get into the defense and then move the ball back out, they’ll give up good looks. All you can do at that point is try to jump back out to challenge shooters as best you can.
Minnesota were also playing without a starter, of course, and that didn’t help the cohesion at the center of their defense. McCarville hasn’t piled up particularly impressive numbers since coming to the team as Taj McWilliams-Franklin’s replacement this year, but as the season’s gone on she’s built chemistry with the remaining Lynx starters. Harris and Peters were ineffective as replacements. Peters has had a few decent games as a backup this year, and she’s only halfway through her second season, but you have to wonder if Harris’s chances are running out. Every once in a blue moon you see her use her size or ballhandling skills to make a nice play, but far more frequently she makes defensive errors or floats through her minutes making very little impact. She’ll get more chances because there simply aren’t that many 6’6″ female basketball players with her kind of mobility, but if she ever has any success in this league it may well be somewhere other than Minnesota.
After falling behind by as many as seven points in the third quarter when Latta and Monique Currie hit consecutive threes, Minnesota tried something different. Rebekkah Brunson slid to center, an extra perimeter player came in, and they went to ‘Moore at the 4’ with Maya as the power forward. It paid instant dividends with a pair of open looks for Moore on threes – one make, one miss – and then Moore driving right by Crystal Langhorne for a layup. That’s obviously a key advantage of the small lineup for the Lynx – if the opponent continues to play two bigs, one of them has to try to guard Moore. It also led to extra energy and speed on the defensive end for Minnesota, including Moore stealing an entry pass and throwing a beautiful touchdown pass to Lindsay Whalen for a layup on the break that followed.
However, Washington noticed the small lineup immediately, and attacked it. The drove into the paint, where there was less help defense than usual because Moore isn’t a natural interior defender. They posted up on smaller defenders, with Currie exploiting Whalen on the low block. And they continued to go to work on the glass, where obviously they gain a size advantage when Moore plays power forward. It’s negatives like that which stop Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve from using Moore at the 4 as a more regular part of her arsenal, and Washington led 45-40 at halftime.
Despite the drawbacks, Minnesota went to their small lineup much earlier in the second half – after barely three and a half minutes – and stuck with it the rest of the way. Clearly Reeve wasn’t happy with the performances of Harris and Peters, although she gave them very little opportunity to improve in the second half. In typical Reeve fashion she reached the conclusion swiftly, and that was it for the rest of the night.
Minnesota did seem to be on top for much of third quarter, playing with more energy defensively, making several trips to the free throw line, and seeing Seimone Augustus start to carry the offense. But Brunson’s elbow jumper was just a little off, and kept rimming out, while Currie’s mid-range shot was falling at the other end. That basic difference, along with Washington’s continued advantage on the glass, allowed the Mystics to cling to their narrow lead.
The fourth quarter was a back-and-forth battle. Minnesota took their first lead since the second quarter on a Whalen drive early in the period, and the energised Lynx defense forced a couple of 24-second violations from Washington in those opening minutes as well. The burst of Minnesota scoring to take over the game seemed poised to arrive. But Mike Thibault brought his starters back in en masse with just under seven minutes remaining, and for once it was that veteran group that keyed a run for Washington, rather than their backups. Matee Ajavon stripped Whalen for a breakaway layup. An ugly Sugar Rodgers brick ignited a Washington break that finished with a Currie layup. And then Langhorne had an easy putback when Whalen was trapped trying to handle her under the rim when Minnesota’s defense was left unbalanced. It was Washington who’d had the energy, effort and desperation to make the big plays and rebuild a lead.
The grandstand finish was still on the way. Minnesota ran a series of side pick-and-rolls with various combinations of Whalen, Moore and Augustus in the final five minutes that left them rather predictable and resulted in a lot of mid-range jumpers, which weren’t always falling. But with under two minutes to play, they took the same play up higher, and Moore nailed an open three on a feed from Whalen to cut the gap to five points. Then Moore stripped Snow at midcourt, and the resulting push saw Augustus drive and draw a foul, ultimately cutting the margin to three at the free throw line. Langhorne settled for a long jumper on Washington’s next possession, which bounced out, before mayhem ensued on the Lynx possession that followed. They tried to run the same Whalen/Moore set up high, but Washington broke it up. Moore cut towards the basket, and Whalen tried to flip an impossible pass to her through traffic. The ball broke loose, then broke loose again, with Monica Wright eventually gaining possession while lying on the ground. The ball was kicked out to Whalen, who rotated it to Augustus, who nailed the three to tie the game with 36 seconds left. The crowd went nuts.
After producing one of her best performances of the season, Washington put the ball in Ajavon’s hands on the next play. She beat Whalen off the dribble and got right to the rim, somehow managing to convert a spinning layup under pressure from three defenders. Reeve didn’t call timeout, allowing her team to play it out, and Augustus drove the baseline. Washington’s help arrived in time to cut her off, and she pulled up for a 12-foot jumper, which you’d back her to make. She’s shooting a frankly ludicrous 63% from the field at home this season. But it rimmed out, Brunson couldn’t get enough on her attempted tip, the ball was slapped away from Moore on the next rebound, and then Washington finally managed to grab the ball. Minnesota were forced to foul from there, and Currie made a pair of clutch free throws to ice the game. Against all predictions, Washington had pulled off a 79-75 upset win in Minnesota.
For the Lynx this is obviously no huge disaster – they weren’t expecting to win every game until the end of the season. But it did expose one or two issues that had disappeared into the background recently. Behind Brunson and McCarville, they’re still distinctly thin in the post. Peters and Harris are both unreliable, especially if either is asked to play more than 10 or 15 minutes as a backup. That said, maybe one of them would’ve improved and stepped up, if Reeve hadn’t fallen into her old trap of quitting on the backups midway through the game. They also got destroyed on the glass, ultimately losing the rebounding battle 44-24. Obviously, playing Moore at power forward for most of the game didn’t help that, but considering they’re the second-best rebounding team in the league over the season as a whole, that’s probably not something they have to worry about long-term. They’ll obviously hope to have McCarville back shortly and to slide back into their dominant form, but a performance like this does make you wonder if they’d consider looking somewhere for a veteran backup post. The trade deadline’s next week, by the way.
Washington will be overjoyed at this performance. They’ve been really poor lately, seemingly allowing their season to tail off after such an impressive beginning. Now they’ve gone and beaten the best team in the league who had been dismantling all before them. And rather than the young bench which has been their most impressive element on several occasions, it was the veteran starters who stepped up and carried them. Latta was 7-7 in the first half, finishing 9-11 for the game for 24 points; Ajavon ended up 7-17 for 18 points, 4 boards, 5 assists and 5 steals; Langhorne was 5-11 for 10 points and 8 boards; and Currie finished 7-14 for 20 points and 8 boards. They all played their part in earning a win that could help reignite their season, if they can play with that kind of energy and ball-movement for the rest of the year. The last team to beat Minnesota at the Target Center was the Connecticut Sun early last season – when Mike Thibault was still their head coach. After leading the Mystics to a two-game season sweep of the Lynx this year, maybe the guy knows something about how to beat this dominant Minnesota squad.
One thing I failed to mention in yesterday’s article about Gaines’s departure from the Mercury, was that assistant coach Earl Cureton is gone as well, with Russ Pennell bring Anthony Boone with him from his time at Grand Canyon University. The mere fact that Phoenix looked outside their organisation for a replacement – rather than handing over the interim job to an existing assistant – illustrates an acknowledgement that real change was needed rather than simply a new voice at the top.
Friday August 9th (today):
Chicago @ Connecticut, 7pm ET. Sun +4.5 is the line, and maybe I’m buying in far too quickly, but I’ll take Connecticut. The Sky have been the better team by some distance over the course of the season, but in recent weeks it’s been a lot closer.
Tulsa @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. This is an impossible game to pick. It’s Pennell’s first game as head coach, and teams tend to gain a slight boost as they try to impress a new leader. But Griner and Bonner both picked up injuries in their last game, and are doubtful at best. Phoenix -3.5 is a middle-of-the-road line that says Vegas are clueless, too. I’ll take Tulsa, due to the injuries, and the likelihood that Pennell hasn’t had time to fix anything yet.
San Antonio @ Seattle, 10pm ET. Storm -6.5 is the line, and in a game that’s likely to be low-scoring, I’ll grab the points. In a statement of the bleeding obvious, it’ll come down to who can make shots. It’s just as likely to be San Antonio as the Storm, so I want the 6.5.
Saturday August 10th (tomorrow):
Los Angeles @ New York, 1pm ET
Atlanta @ Indiana, 7pm ET