It wasn’t exactly a banner day of basketball yesterday in the WNBA, as three games resulted in an ugly slugfest and two blowouts. Because ‘poor but close’ is generally more interesting than ‘desperately one-sided’, and the league’s newest head coach was involved in the tight game, we’re breaking away from our usual chronological order for today’s Bullet Point Breakdowns, and starting in Arizona.
- Russ Pennell’s first game in charge of the Mercury came against Tulsa, the first of three meetings with the Shock in the space of twelve days. If Tulsa could take advantage of Phoenix’s recent issues to win at least two of those, then the lower reaches of the playoff race in the Western Conference might become distinctly more interesting. Pennell had the good fortune to have DeWanna Bonner healthy to play despite the bruised knee she suffered in Corey Gaines’s final game as head coach. Brittney Griner’s sprained ankle, however, kept her out. Krystal Thomas started in her place. Tulsa continued with the same starting lineup they’ve been rolling out in recent games, but were once again without live-wire sixth woman Riquna Williams due to a right ankle problem that’s expected to keep her out another week.
- The most obvious difference under Pennell, right from the start, was the lack of zone defense. The Mercury were so deplorable playing man-to-man under Gaines that they went to a 1-2-2 zone midway through the season for the majority of defensive possessions, and had some success. Pennell has thrown that out, and went man-to-man throughout. They weren’t switching much either, placing individual responsibility on each player to cover their man. It backfired a couple of times early on, as a few Mercury players failed to offer the effort required to play effective man-to-man. Diana Taurasi, in particular, got caught on screens or just watched Angel Goodrich go by her far too frequently.
- Tulsa’s success in recent weeks has come through the post pairing of Liz Cambage and Glory Johnson, and that was inevitably their focus again. They tried to run their offense through Cambage down low, and when she looked to score she was efficient and effective. Phoenix weren’t even double-teaming her that frequently, often leaving Thomas or Lynetta Kizer to do most of the work alone. It would’ve been nice to see Cambage attack even more than she did – at times it was almost as if she was expecting additional defenders and looking to pass before it was necessary. Johnson was quiet, failing to make much impact on the game. It was back to the story from a month or so ago, when the concentration on feeding Cambage led to Johnson barely touching the ball.
- Johnson overcame that problem in recent games by offering an alternative option to receive passes further out on the floor, and creating touches for herself on loose balls and offensive rebounds. In this game, Tulsa were being absolutely dominated on the glass. Maybe it was extra energy injected into Phoenix by their new coach, maybe it was a lot of balls bouncing the wrong way, but Tulsa were simply destroyed in the rebounding department in the first half. Not what you expect when your two best players are an athletic power forward and a giant center.
- Phoenix were giving that advantage right back with turnovers. Pennell apparently hadn’t tried to change the offense at all in his limited time with the team (one practice and one shootaround, essentially). That was absolutely right, considering the offense was decent already while the defense was a mess – plus with Griner injured, there was no need to change anything to get her more involved. But the Mercury offense was too pedestrian, and too many passes were forced or confused, along with too many ballhandling errors handing the ball back to Tulsa. Phoenix shot well when they held on to the ball long enough to shoot, with Taurasi creating contact on drives as usual, and Candice Dupree particularly smooth in finishing plays off. It was the turnovers that were keeping the game close.
- Fouls were causing Phoenix problems as well. Thomas picked up three before halftime trying to handle Cambage in the post, while Taurasi managed to collect four before the break. Most coaches would bench a player after her third in the first half, so we’ll have to wait and see whether that’s a regular tactic from Pennell or if he just didn’t react quickly enough. The fourth was stupid from Taurasi, shoving into a Glory Johnson screen for an obvious foul (although Diana, of course, felt it was a gross miscarriage of justice).
- Talking of which, according to Mercury staffer Ben York on Twitter, one of Pennell’s comments to his new team was “I got ’em”, in reference to the refs. In other words, shut up and let him work the officials. He was certainly active on the sidelines, making his voice heard by both the players and the refs. Considering Taurasi remains one technical away from another suspension, hopefully she listens to him.
- There was a grand total of one fastbreak point from either team in the first half, which gives you an idea of the pace the game was being played at. Phoenix led 40-38 at halftime, with a ridiculous 22-6 advantage on the glass, and an equally conspicuous 13-4 ‘edge’ in turnovers.
- Taurasi started the second half despite her four fouls – too important to the team not to take the risk and have her out there – but Thomas was on the bench with her three. Kizer started instead. Pennell has said it’s a clean slate for everybody with him coming in, and Kizer’s minutes were the clearest example of that. She barely played in most games under Gaines, but she entered this game in the first quarter and saw lots of action in the second half. With Griner out and Thomas in foul trouble, Gaines would’ve been trying to defend Cambage with a Bonner/Dupree frontcourt. Pennell wasn’t.
- There was a scary moment for the Shock just a few minutes into the second half. Glory Johnson jumped out to challenge Briana Gilbreath on a three-point attempt, then tripped over Gilbreath’s foot and went careening into the front row. After a long break in play, she eventually sat up, then rose and walked back to the locker room under her own steam. But she looked a little woozy. She eventually reappeared and joined her teammates on the bench, but didn’t return to the game. The Shock announced later that she had suffered a concussion, and will miss their game on Sunday.
- By that point the Mercury were up by 9, and Cambage looked either tired or even more passive than in the first half. Maybe Phoenix’s defense should be credited for locking down harder under their new coach, but it felt throughout this game like Tulsa were allowing them to be more successful on the defensive end. The Shock were incredibly slow and static for most of the game. They desperately missed Riquna Williams, who would’ve sped everything up and injected some dynamism into their offense.
- However, Tulsa continued to hang around. Skylar Diggins hit a pair of threes late in the third quarter, and unnecessary mistakes by Charde Houston (a travelling violation when she wasn’t looking where she was going) and Alexis Hornbuckle (a dead ball foul with 2 seconds on the clock) allowed Diggins to add two more at the foul line. It’s brain farts like that which hurt Phoenix all night. A 9-point lead became 1 in barely a minute.
- Tulsa got outworked too many times in this game. Maybe they were tired for some reason, but they hadn’t played since last Sunday in San Antonio. They weren’t running the floor hard after steals, the rebounding imbalance in the first half was in part due to effort, and Cambage continued to drift through much of the second half. But with little Phoenix offense coming from anywhere other than Dupree finishes and Taurasi shots, the Shock kept hanging around. Another 9-point Mercury lead was wiped out midway through the fourth quarter, when Cambage dredged up some energy to finish a pair of plays and kick out successfully to Nicole Powell for a three. Tiffany Jackson-Jones tied the game with under two minutes remaining on a putback.
- Taurasi put the Mercury back in front with an elbow jumper, before a static Shock possession went nowhere and gave Phoenix the ball back. Taurasi very nearly picked up the Mercury’s 23rd turnover with a blind hook pass into traffic, but Kizer snared the loose ball and dropped it in for a four-point lead with under a minute left
- Jackson-Jones missed a finish at the rim, and yet Phoenix still almost managed to give the game away. Gilbreath threw the ball straight out of bounds while trying to move it up the court, when all the Mercury needed to do was run time off the clock. Powell hit a shot from deep in the corner with her toe on the three-point line to halve the deficit. Cambage emphatically blocked a Gilbreath attempt in the paint – Phoenix had trouble finishing around the big Aussie all night – before a Taurasi pull-up jumper rimmed out. Tulsa called timeout, trailing by two, with nine seconds remaining.
- The play Gary Kloppenburg drew up was baffling. Skylar Diggins hadn’t even been in the game for the final six minutes, because Angel Goodrich has generally been the better option at point guard in recent times. But Diggins was inserted, and she ran a high pick-and-roll with Cambage. Inevitably, Diggins drove off the pick, and threw up a wild layup attempt that didn’t even catch iron. She’s been atrocious on layup attempts in traffic this season, so drawing up a play in a crucial situation that had that as a distinctly likely result was mind-boggling. She could’ve tried to make the return pass to Cambage, who was rolling open down the lane, but chose the low-percentage layup attempt instead. Blame Diggins for yet another driving miss if you will, but definitely throw some of that criticism Klopp’s way for the play design. Why?
- Gilbreath was fouled on the rebound and went just one-of-two at the line, but without any timeouts Tulsa were screwed anyway. Candice Wiggins’s heave didn’t even beat the buzzer, never mind go anywhere near dropping in.
- Tulsa will be disappointed they didn’t make more of this opportunity. While teams often gain a little boost from bringing a new coach in, the Mercury were trying to listen to his new ideas in a very short space of time, and playing without Griner. Even before Johnson got hurt, the Shock weren’t doing much of a job capitalising. Too little energy, too little effort, and a loss that makes a significant dent in their slim hopes of sneaking back into the playoff hunt.
- For Phoenix, on the other hand, it’s a start. They weren’t great, by any means. 23 turnovers is a horrifying statistic, especially as so many of them were unforced, but they worked hard on the boards and were effective in defending their opponent – even if Tulsa made that pretty easy for them at times. There were still several defensive breakdowns, but they ultimately did well enough. Dupree and Taurasi carried the offense, as they’ve often done this season, and they pulled out an important win. Now it’s just a case of building from here.
- After two wins and then a relatively creditable performance in losing to Los Angeles, things seemed to be looking up a little for Connecticut since the All-Star break. They came into this contest just two games outside the playoff spots in the East, remarkably enough, despite their awful first half of the season. They also had backup post Mistie Bass available again after missing a game due to a knee strain. Chicago arrived looking to bounce back after losing two straight to Indiana, as losses by Atlanta have been keeping them atop the East recently, rather than their own results.
- The marquee matchup when these two teams clash is always in the post, where Sylvia Fowles vs. Tina Charles has generally been regarded as a battle between the two best centers in the game. It’s safe to say that Fowles won the war last night. Overwhelmingly, emphatically, embarrassingly won it. Yes, double-teams occasionally came down to help Fowles out, and the lack of effective shooting on the Connecticut perimeter failed to stretch the defense in the slightest – but Charles was absolutely dominated. She couldn’t get anything to drop inside, and most of her efforts were forced up under duress with very little chance of success in the first place. Then, inevitably, she drifted further and further away from the rim, and missed jump shots instead. She was also outworked several times, Fowles running much harder rim-to-rim to play defense or convert in transition. And then there was the turnstile defense from Charles, which didn’t help cover anything in the paint for Connecticut. Tina got killed.
- Of course, it wasn’t all Charles’s fault. Chicago as a team shot significantly better than Connecticut, with Fowles, Courtney Vandersloot, Elena Delle Donne and even Epiphanny Prince contributing in the first half. Prince has struggled in the last month, repeatedly shooting a low percentage and failing to provide the perimeter offense that balances out Chicago’s scoring. She looked just as bad early in this one, but nailed back-to-back threes midway through the second quarter that took Chicago into a double-digit lead. Connecticut guards going under screens on both possessions, offering her the open look, didn’t help the Sun’s chances – but it certainly made Prince’s life easier. Chicago led 42-27 at halftime.
- Nothing changed in the second half. After shooting a horrible 1-13 in the opening 20 minutes, Charles was 1-5 in the second half before being mercifully pulled. Not only was she dominated by Fowles, she was outplayed by the power forward tandem next to her that everyone’s been making fun of all season. Kelsey Griffin hit a few shots, then Bass came in and added a bunch in garbage time.
- Prince and Delle Done both had plenty of opportunities to work on their shooting touch in the second half, and by the end both were tossing jumpers in with ease. It was like a nice little warm up for them, and Chicago will be helping it flows into upcoming games.
- A few important minutiae notes: Sky head coach Pokey Chatman is still rolling out her bizarre no-Fowles, no-Prince, no-Delle Donne, no-Vandersloot lineups. It’s extraordinary that she can’t manage to stagger their rest better and keep her weak bench from trying to survive as a group. She’s also trying to use Allie Quigley as a point guard while Sharnee Zoll is out with her broken thumb, and that’s ridiculous as well. Quigley simply isn’t a point guard. She can’t handle the ball well enough, or distribute, and her first thought is always to shoot anyway. Prince should be sliding over as Vandersloot’s backup until Zoll returns – Quigley should only ever be out there as a two-guard gunner. In other Sky backup news, hardship signing Avery Warley has already moved ahead of season-long backup Michelle Campbell in the post rotation. Assuming Zoll’s fit before the end of the season – her return automatically triggers Warley’s release – someone’s likely going to be cut so they can re-sign Warley to a standard contract. Campbell and Quigley are probably the leading candidates to go.
- So a nice relaxing evening for Chicago. Credit their impressive interior defense for swamping Charles and Connecticut and forcing a lot of the Sun’s problems, but in many ways they were simply too strong and too talented for Connecticut. And with Delle Donne healthy and Prince having one of her good days, they also simply have more players who can shoot.
- The Sun were embarrassed on their own floor, or at least Charles certainly was. Maybe they’d started to believe they’d already turned the corner and didn’t need to keep working quite so hard, or maybe they’re just not good enough to compete with Chicago at this point. They’ll be hoping to wipe the memory of this game from their minds with a significantly improved performance in Washington on Sunday night.
- After weeks on the sidelines with a knee injury, San Antonio’s DeLisha Milton-Jones wasn’t just out for this game – she was gone. The Silver Stars agreed to a buyout with her and placed her on waivers. If she was still injured, there’d presumably be little reason for her to give up any money to get out of San Antonio. So maybe she’s nearing fitness, and wants to try to catch on with a real contender before the end of the season. That said, Storm beat writer Jayda Evans reported on Twitter that Milton-Jones still has pain in her knee, so maybe DMJ just wanted to go home and was willing to give up some security to be able to do it. San Antonio now have an open roster spot they can fill with someone else.
- Just like in Connecticut earlier in the evening, the road team got off to the better start, and their lead just kept growing. Seattle looked half asleep in the early going, failing to show the usual effort an energy on help defense. Brian Agler will understand and somewhat accept when his team’s offense is stilted, because basic limitations in talent can cause that. The poor defense is something you rarely see from the Storm.
- I said in my mini-preview/picks yesterday that the team who shot better would win this game, and that was indeed turning out to be San Antonio. Jia Perkins curled off screens early in the game to knock down jumpers. Shenise Johnson and Shameka Christon both sank a couple from outside. Danielle Robinson was hitting her mid-range J consistently. But they were getting points inside the defense as well. Open lanes to the hoop were far too plentiful, and after leading by double-digits in the first quarter, San Antonio led by as many as 23 in the second. It was another embarrassing collapse for a team in front of their own fans.
- Nothing went right for Seattle. Camille Little couldn’t convert anything inside against the size and bulk of Jayne Appel and Danielle Adams. Tina Thompson looked knackered from the opening minutes, and the ball barely seemed to move on offense. The game was over very, very early. The one memorable moment in the second half was when the frustration got to Temeka Johnson, and she smacked Robinson in the back with a wild two-handed swipe. It drew a deserved flagrant foul, and said plenty about the state of the Storm on the night. Most of the second half was garbage time played out by reserves.
- Agler and the Storm will hope this was just a one-off and they can burn the tape and forget it. They were awful. They have an immediate chance to prove it was a fluke thanks to the latest effort by the WNBA to save money – playing two consecutive games in the same city between the same two teams. San Antonio are back in Key Arena on Sunday night, less than 48 hours after this game concluded. The positive is the chance to respond and gain immediate revenge; the negative is that this win moved San Antonio within 1.5 games of Seattle for fourth spot in the West. Lose another one and the Silver Stars will be inching dangerously close.
- It’s been impressive work from San Antonio lately. The only team they’ve lost to in their last seven games is Minnesota – they’ve just had the misfortune of playing the Lynx three times in that stretch. The Silver Stars are showing that they’ve still got enough to compete with the other non-elite teams in the WNBA, and they’re still within range of a playoff push if they can keep it going. They took Seattle apart in this one.
As mentioned above, DeLisha Milton-Jones has been waived in San Antonio. And Glory Johnson’s concussion is expected to keep her out of tomorrow’s second straight game in Phoenix.
Saturday August 11th (today):
Los Angeles @ New York, 1pm ET (already completed). Picks were announced on Twitter before the games as usual. I took LA -5.5 even on the fifth game of their road trip, because they’ve just been too much better than New York to ignore. Pretty accurate.
Indiana @ Atlanta, 7pm ET (already completed). I took Indiana -3.5, because they’re a solid team at home, and Atlanta haven’t been playing well enough lately to be expected to win in hostile environments against good defenses. Also worked out pretty well.
Sunday August 12th (tomorrow):
Connecticut @ Washington, 4pm ET. Mystics -5.5 is the line. Both teams are annoyingly inconsistent, but after Charles’s capitulation against Chicago I’ll hop back off the Sun-are-improving bandwagon. Give me Washington.
Tulsa @ Phoenix, 6pm ET. Mercury -5 is the line, up 1.5 points from Friday’s identical matchup (which Phoenix won by three). I’m taking Tulsa again, because if Cambage has seen Friday’s tape and attacks every time she’s single-covered, it changes the game. Of course, if Griner happens to be healthy enough to play, that changes it even more.
Minnesota @ Chicago, 6pm ET. The first clash of these two conference leaders this season, and it’s a mouth-watering one. Chicago are 2.5-point underdogs on their own floor, which shows just how much respect the Lynx have earned. Minnesota will also be looking to bounce back from their loss to Washington on Thursday night, and haven’t lost two in a row all year. I’ll take the Lynx, because I’m not convinced Chicago’s ball movement is good enough to create open shots against Minnesota – but my advice would be to keep your money in your pocket, sit back and enjoy.
New York @ Atlanta, 6pm ET. Dream -8.5 is the line, and it could be ugly with both teams flying in on a back-to-back after losses. I’ll take the points and the Liberty, because Atlanta may have to hit a few perimeter shots to beat New York. And they often struggle to do that.
San Antonio @ Seattle, 9pm ET. Seattle -5 is the line, coming in 1.5 points since Friday’s identical game. I’ll take the Storm, because they’ve got enough self-respect to come out and respond to Friday’s dismal performance.