Two WNBA games on Saturday, one early and one late. Each was between a team who’ve been moving forwards and winning games lately, and a team who’ve been struggling. So the results shouldn’t have come as a big surprise.
The opener was in New York (well, New Jersey – back to New York next year), where the Los Angeles Sparks were the visitors. The Liberty have been frustratingly up and down lately, which is at least better than the consistent turnover-riddled losses that were a repetitive story earlier in the season. The Sparks have been strong, picking up their game even before Candace Parker returned from her wrist injury. This was the fifth and final game of a road trip for LA, and they’d swept the previous three against Eastern teams after a disappointing start in Tulsa. They were looking to finish strong in New York before heading home.
The lineups were the same as in recent games for these teams. New York started out okay, sliding Plenette Pierson inside for a pretty basket off the pick-and-roll on their opening possession and playing some solid interior defense. They even forced Nneka Ogwumike to the bench quickly after she picked up two fouls inside the first four minutes of the game. But the Sparks began to pull away thanks to significantly better perimeter shooting. Both teams were neutralising each other in the post. The size and athleticism of Ogwumike, Parker and Jantel Lavender was enough to body up on New York’s posts and make them miss inside. Everything was rimming out. At the other end it was mostly a similar story, with the Liberty strong enough in the paint to keep LA out. Parker even helped them out by consistently bricking shots from about 19 feet. But Kristi Toliver was hitting jumpers, and the likes of Lindsey Harding, Alana Beard and Marissa Coleman joined in as the first half wore on. That made the big difference on the scoreboard.
Cappie Pondexter was doing what she could to carry the Liberty offense, and it was nice to see her both drive for layups or fouls, and nail a three in the kind of situation where she’s been firing 19ft twos most of the season. But that wasn’t really enough. When the Liberty have been successful lately, it’s been through Pierson, Kara Braxton and Kelsey Bone providing consistent scoring inside. They couldn’t do that, so New York struggled to score.
They did get a couple of nice buckets from athletic rookie forward Toni Young, but that was before she was presented with a strange mismatch that seemed to backfire on New York. LA were determined to have Alana Beard defend Pondexter, which meant Harding and Toliver had to cover the remaining perimeter players when the Sparks had their starting guards on the floor. That was fine when the Liberty had Kamiko Williams and Katie Smith on the wing, but when New York put Young at small forward, she had a significant size advantage on Toliver or Harding. The Liberty tried to attack it, but it took them out of what little rhythm they had, and possessions ground to a halt while they tried to find a way to get Young the ball in position. LA ended up gaining from what turned out to be a brief sequence, when Bill Laimbeer pulled Young back out of the game. LA led 39-30 at halftime.
Both sets of posts continued to struggle for much of the third quarter, although both teams did start drawing fouls more consistently and generating points at the free throw line. Even Parker, who had barely hit anything throughout, finally realised that if she drove from 18ft and threw something up, she had a decent chance to end up with free throws rather than yet another brick. New York came within five points a couple of times midway through the third when Pondexter created some offense and hit another three, but the telling sequence of the game came in the final four minutes of the third period. Ogwumike was on the bench again in more foul trouble, but all that did was bring LA’s most effective post of the day back into the game. Jantel Lavender played a lot of minutes while Parker was injured, and her play is earning her plenty of playing time even now the superstar is back. Lavender’s got a big body which she’s willing to use in the paint, she can finish down there, and sometimes she’s got a mid-range jumper to add on top. It’s yet another threat to add to LA’s dangerous arsenal. Between Parker free throws, Harding pullup jumpers, Lavender finishing and New York still not being able to compete on the shooting front, LA’s lead grew to 16 at the end of the third.
There was never any hint of a comeback in the fourth, as New York meekly faded away and both benches got plenty of work. LA eased home for an 85-67 victory.
The Sparks have been rolling in recent games. This one was a reminder that even if you stop their athletic, All-Star post attack, they can still hurt you in other ways. Lavender finished 9-13 for 18 points and 8 boards off the bench (and five turnovers, which Coach Ross will undoubtedly point out to her amongst the praise), but it was the perimeter shooting that stood out. New York did a solid job sealing the paint off for much of the afternoon so LA happily rained in the jumpers that were on offer instead. Go under every screen, worry about the post on every pick-and-roll, sag into the paint on every pick-and-pop – you’re going to concede open shots. Toliver and Harding in particular made them count, with others chipping in here and there. It was more than enough to take care of the Liberty.
Without being able to score through their posts, New York just didn’t have much of a Plan B. Pondexter finished 7-15 for 22 points, but got minimal help from anyone else. And while the lack of effective scoring was the most conspicuous failing, there was also never really any change of approach on defense to counter the way LA were beating them. The same mid-range jumpers that started beating them in the first quarter continued to beat them for the rest of the game. Maybe Laimbeer simply felt they couldn’t take that away without opening themselves up inside, but something different might’ve been worth a try. It was all a bit too easy for LA in the end.
Later, In Indiana…
The late game was in Indiana, where the Atlanta Dream were the visitors. Atlanta are the team sitting higher in the standings, and three games ahead of the Fever before this one tipped off. They’d also beaten Indiana twice already this season. However, those wins were back when the Fever were riddled with injuries and struggling desperately to cope, and Atlanta were rolling to a 10-1 start. Things have swung rather violently since then. Struggling themselves since injuries took out Sancho Lyttle and Tiffany Hayes, the Dream had lost four of their last five coming into this one. Indiana had won 9 of their last 13, and have been picking up steam as more players returned to health. Win this one, and they’d really start thinking about hunting Atlanta down for second place in the East.
However, the injury curse had struck the Fever again, taking out shooting guard Shavonte Zellous with plantar fasciitis. They hope to have her back for the road trip that starts in Phoenix on Wednesday. Guard Erin Phillips, who’s had a few problems herself since returning from her knee surgery – both with the knee, and with regaining her shooting stroke – stepped into the starting lineup. Atlanta continued with the same five that have opened all their recent games.
Considering this was a clash between the top two teams in defensive points per possession this season, the offenses were remarkably successful in the first half. Atlanta were balanced, rather than relying on Angel McCoughtry to do everything, with everyone from Jasmine Thomas to Courtney Clements to Armintie Herrington chipping in with some production offensively. But it was Indiana who led most of the way. They opened the game with a pair of threes from Tamika Catchings and Erin Phillips, which signalled how they were going to continue. Phillips in particular lit Atlanta up from behind the arc, going 4-5 from outside in the first half. It’s a huge boost for Indiana if she can find her shot, because one of the central limitations on the Fever this season has been the lack of consistent outside shooting. Last year they shot a lot of threes, stretching the floor around Catchings, but without Katie Douglas, Jeanette Pohlen and Phillips for much of this season, they haven’t had the same perimeter threats. Phillips is more important than Pohlen, because her ballhandling and distribution can simultaneously take pressure off point guard Briann January – something Pohlen can’t really do. The Aussie guard has struggled with her shot since coming back, but maybe that knee’s still improving.
Indiana were also helped out by foul trouble for Dream center Erika de Souza, which forced some scrambling in the post for Atlanta. We saw early minutes for deep reserve Ruth Riley, some lineups with Riley and Aneika Henry as the post pairing, and some time with McCoughtry and Courtney Clements as the forwards. Still, we also saw Indiana open the second quarter with Layshia Clarendon, Pohlen, Karima Christmas, Jessica Breland and Sasha Goodlett all on the floor together, a lineup so desperately limited offensively that it ground everything to a halt for the Fever. Lin Dunn called a timeout quickly so she could make four simultaneous subs to rescue the situation.
After leading by a narrow margin for most of the first half, Indiana ran off a string of points late in the half, led by two of Phillips’s threes, to take a 46-37 lead in at halftime. They were shooting better from outside, generating steals and drawing fouls better than Atlanta – they just needed to stop the Dream from continuing to shoot 59% from the field.
The Fever were fine for most of the third quarter, but everything started to go downhill in the final few minutes. Rookie guard Clarendon still doesn’t look like a point guard at this level. She dribbles too much and doesn’t move the ball, her handle isn’t great, and she hasn’t shot well enough to punish teams with her own scoring. But Dunn persists in using her as the backup at the point, rather than finding 40 minutes between January and Phillips at that spot. The offense had already begun to crawl with Clarendon in charge, before Dunn took Catchings out to give her some rest – and then everything really dried up for the Fever. It quickly translated to Atlanta’s mindset and transition game at the other end of the floor, as they sensed blood, and a 12-point lead came down to 2. A late January driving layup – yes, she actually converted three of those in this game, something we’ve barely seen all year – stopped the rot and gave Indiana a 61-57 lead going to the fourth.
Catchings’s rest would normally extend a little into the fourth quarter, but she was out there for the start of the final period. She had to be, considering how Indiana had played without her at the end of the third. That stabilised the Fever, who were also helped by Erika picking up her fifth foul in unfortunate fashion early in the period, running into the back of January when she just couldn’t stop in time. It was a call that had to be made, but it was completely unintentional from the Atlanta center.
Atlanta went small for the entire fourth quarter, with McCoughtry the de facto power forward. It’s worked at times this year, especially with the absence of Lyttle robbing them of their best natural 4, but it failed to be effective this time around. It was McCoughtry’s gambling, desperate defense which left everyone else scrambling and gave up an open three for Phillips to take Indiana’s lead back to double-digits. And with Christmas and occasionally January doing solid defensive jobs on McCoughtry, she couldn’t dominate offensively. Atlanta’s offense was never effective enough in the fourth quarter to threaten a comeback, and Indiana pulled away for an 80-66 win. January iced it with a long jumper, and the third of those driving layups she surprisingly managed to convert.
After a loss against LA where one of their primary problems was an inability to hit shots, this was a nice bounce-back for Indiana. Phillips stepped up from outside, Christmas continues to offer some support, and Catchings led the way in more direct fashion. You barely noticed that Zellous, their second-best player this season, was on the sidelines in street clothes. Of course, they had the benefit of playing a team with an injured power forward and a center in foul trouble all night, which forced Atlanta into a perimeter attack that the Dream rarely benefit from. This is still going to be a very interesting matchup later in the season if both teams get healthy. Right now, it would be the 2-3 first-round playoff series in the East.
Atlanta can’t be too upset with shooting 51% from the field against the best defensive team in the league, but it masked an offensive performance that was relatively inefficient in other ways. Indiana managed to defend without fouling for most of the night, keeping the Dream off the foul line, and Christmas did a solid job on McCoughtry. Atlanta still don’t look bad, exactly, they’re just not flying like they were earlier in the season. With a run of games against teams from the lower reaches of the Eastern Conference coming up, maybe they’ll be able to turn around their results. Hayes is also expected to return some time soon, which will definitely help.
Sunday August 12th (today):
Connecticut @ Washington, 4pm ET
Tulsa @ Phoenix, 6pm ET
Minnesota @ Chicago, 6pm ET
New York @ Atlanta, 6pm ET.
San Antonio @ Seattle, 9pm ET
All picks and mini-previews for these five in yesterday’s column, HERE.