WNBA Today, 08/13/2013: Five-star day for WNBA

 

Apologies for this piece arriving a day later than usual. Hopefully you won’t all think it’s a dollar short as well (but as it’s free, that would seem difficult). Sunday saw another quintuple-header in the WNBA, and the first meeting this year of the two teams who’ve been atop either conference for the last few weeks. Let’s start the Bullet Point Breakdowns with that headline matchup.

 

Minnesota Lynx 86 @ Chicago Sky 94

  • The Lynx arrived off the back of having a 10-game winning streak broken by Washington on Thursday, and not having lost consecutive games since last year’s Finals they were obviously hoping to bounce back quickly. Janel McCarville was still out due to concussion, and this time Cheryl Reeve went directly to Devereaux Peters as the replacement, rather than messing around with Amber Harris as the starter. The Sky had stuttered a little since the All-Star break, with Elena Delle Donne’s concussion upsetting their rhythm and playing a part in back-to-back losses against Indiana. It’s games against teams like the Lynx where they really needed to step up and prove their credentials as a potential championship contender, after so many years of underperformance.

 

  • As most would’ve expected, Delle Donne was hiding on Peters defensively, with Sylvia Fowles taking Rebekkah Brunson and Swin Cash trying to chase after Maya Moore. The Lynx switched the post pairings at the other end, using Brunson as their first option on Delle Donne, and leaving Peters to do her best against Fowles.

 

  • Chicago got three blocks from Delle Donne and three taken changes from Courtney Vandersloot in the opening period – two players who aren’t exactly known for their defense but who’ve done their bit this season. Vandersloot’s worked hard to get stronger, and her feet appear to have become quicker in the process. Opponents don’t quite seem to quite realise how tall and long Delle Done is. She might not be the greatest individual defender in the world, but she’s very coordinated and size makes up for a lot. She broke Chicago’s rookie-record for blocks in this game – a record previously held by Fowles.

 

  • However, it was Minnesota who built the first leads of any significance, pushing ahead by as many as seven midway through the first quarter, and eight early in the second. Brunson and Seimone Augustus were both knocking down jumpers, while Epiphanny Prince continued her recent run of offensive futility. She’d had a good game against the dismal Sun on Friday, but in general her shot’s been missing in action for well over a month.

 

  • You could see that both head coaches were taking this game very seriously, well aware that it was a real test (and a potential WNBA Finals preview). Pokey Chatman didn’t mess around with Allie Quigley at point guard, using Prince whenever Vandersloot needed a brief rest. Amber Harris got a couple of minutes here and there, because without McCarville someone had to spell the posts, but Harris was pulled quickly when Fowles went right at her (and basically abused her). Neither coach wanted to give anything away cheaply.

 

  • Minnesota’s instincts to hedge inside and protect against penetration got them in trouble a couple of times in the second quarter, as Delle Donne was given too much space to hit a couple of threes. By halftime, everything was tight again and the Lynx led 41-40.

 

  • Minnesota seemed to be taking control in the third quarter. A little transition scoring from turnovers or long rebounds, a few Maya Moore jumpers, and solid halfcourt defense allowed them to build a double-digit lead. They looked like the team with a little more energy and desire. Keeping the ball out of the paint also led to fewer fouls from the Lynx and far fewer trips to the free throw line for Chicago. After 16 in the first half, they had just two in the third quarter (and those were for technical fouls on Reeve and Augustus).

 

  • But Chicago were far from done. A strange choice from the Lynx to double-team the ball out of Vandersloot’s hands on the final possession of the third period ultimately led to an unbalanced defense and an easy putback for Fowles before the buzzer. Then Vandersloot nailed a three to open the fourth, and Chicago were back within five points.

 

  • Both coaches were riding their top players hard. Minnesota’s starting five played the entire third quarter, and only Augustus got a break in the fourth as Monica Wright came in. Wright made some poor mental and ballhandling errors – she’s not been the same player in recent weeks that everyone was excited about earlier in the season – so Augustus was quickly reintroduced. Only Tamera Young and Shay Murphy saw any second-half minutes from the Sky bench, and those were distinctly limited. It was some isolation production from Delle Donne midway through the fourth quarter that took Chicago back in front for the first time since early in the third.

 

  • It was back-and-forth action in the fourth quarter, with the strong defenses from both these teams forcing the other to work hard for effective offense. Peters was doing a solid enough job in the halfcourt against Fowles, but Big Syl was adding to her totals by running the floor hard for every transition chance and doing her usual yeoman’s work on the offensive glass. Her tip-in gave Chicago a three point lead with three minutes left in regulation, before Lindsay Whalen managed to drive and convert over Vandersloot. A couple of minutes later Augustus knocked down a jumper over Vandersloot to give Minnesota the lead with 47 seconds remaining. Remember back when Maya Moore was drafted and some people wondered if Augustus and Moore could play together when both seemed to be natural small forwards? As it’s turned out, using them together on the wing gives opponents a hell of a lot more trouble than the Lynx. They can just shoot over most of the people teams are forced to try to use to guard them, especially Augustus at shooting-guard.

 

  • On the possession that followed, Fowles dropped the ball on a pick-and-roll, leading to a turnover. Minnesota used their last timeout with 38 seconds remaining to set up a play (remember that, we’ll be coming back to it in a moment). Whatever Reeve drew up, it didn’t work. Various rotations from Augustus and Moore failed to break either open, then a couple of screens for Whalen didn’t work, and she had to force a tough jumper over a double-team that barely hit the rim. Fortunately for Minnesota, Brunson grabbed the offensive board, and the Sky were forced to foul. Whalen hit a pair of free throws to stretch the Lynx lead to three points with 12 seconds remaining.

 

  • You probably could’ve guessed who was going to take the next shot for Chicago. Delle Donne got a baseline screen from Prince, then another screen at the elbow from Fowles, and still received a pass from Vandersloot 25 feet from the basket with three defenders diving at her. And hit nothing but net. The star rookie’s numbers have actually been trending downwards as the season’s gone on, but now she had a marquee shot to go along with all the other accolades that have come her way this season. Tied game, 4.5 seconds left.

 

  • But remember, Minnesota had used their final timeout to draw up that worthless play a little earlier. So they inbounded, Whalen brought it up, and threw up a desperate heave at the buzzer. Airball, and we were headed to overtime.

 

  • Chicago were the dominant team for almost all of the extra period. They were the team with more energy now, the only side getting anything in transition, and quickly broke out to a six-point lead. Minnesota wore it down to two, but the big play was made by Swin Cash with a minute left in OT. Augustus tried to reverse a pass to Whalen out of a double-team, only for Cash to jump the lane and take it away. Fowles ran the floor hard yet again, took a pass from Vandersloot and finished to essentially ice the game.

 

  • There was still time for Prince to miss a free throw though, the first miss after a remarkable 46 combined makes by the two teams on the night.

 

  • This was a heck of a game. Two high-calibre teams going at each other like it really meant something. Fowles and Delle Donne both finished with over 30 points (Fowles 10-13 for 31, Delle Donne 9-15 for 32) to lead the way for Chicago, as they proved that they belong in this kind of company now. If we end up with five games like this in October, we’ll be more than happy.

 

  • Minnesota can’t be too upset with their performance. They defended that big shot by Delle Donne about as well as you could hope to, they were without their starting center, and they could’ve easily come away with the win. But the efficiency with which Delle Donne and Fowles ultimately scored will worry Reeve, and her team got a little too happy to settle for jump shots in the final period. Maybe some of that was fatigue after working so hard in the third period and playing with a very tight rotation, and some of it can definitely be put down to Chicago’s defense which makes it tough for anybody. The home game against Tulsa on Friday night should be an easier opportunity to break this losing ‘streak’.

 

 

Connecticut Sun 63 @ Washington Mystics 75

  • We’re not going to spend a lot of time on this game, because Connecticut spent an awful lot of it back to being atrocious again.

 

  • Both teams picked up where they left off in their previous games. For Washington that meant making the extra pass that Mike Thibault had been asking for, then converting the resulting opportunities. For Connecticut, it meant more half-assed play from Tina Charles inside (and then often too far outside), and a lot of bricks from everyone else. Washington led by 16 points when Nadirah McKenith tossed in a three from halfcourt at the first-quarter buzzer (and credit to her for firing that, because a lot of players don’t bother these days due to the potential damage to their shooting percentages).

 

  • The Sun came back into it a little in the second quarter because Washington’s offense stalled once their bench came into the game and Crystal Langhorne took a rest. Kelsey Griffin struggled to handle Langhorne all afternoon, which was hardly a surprise. Washington reestablished their dominant position right at the end of the half thanks to a little Ivory Latta penetration and Tayler Hill hitting a pair of threes.

 

  • Sun assistant coach Jen Gillom talked about problems with their defense when asked about what went wrong in a halftime interview. They scored 23 points in the first half. Hard to say their big problem was on the defensive end.

 

  • Washington’s lead hit 21 in the third quarter, but to Connecticut’s credit they didn’t quit, even though their performance for most of the game suggested they’d barely shown up in the first place. Once again, Washington’s offensive production dropped off dramatically when the bench players started filtering in, which is a turn around from earlier in the season when the reserves were often propping up the starters. With Charles on the bench, a Sun run led by Allison Hightower and Tan White pulled Connecticut within nine points early in the fourth period.

 

  • Charles came back in and seemed to have discovered some interest in actually performing. She made a couple of nice plays, and a point-blank missed layup from Michelle Snow was followed by a Griffin three-point play that cut the gap to four points with four minutes remaining in the game. From nowhere, the Mystics had allowed this to become a contest.

 

  • Another Charles bucket made it a five-point game with under two minutes left, before the possession that sealed the game’s fate. Latta missed a three but ran down the offensive rebound. Monique Currie missed another three, but a scramble resulted in another offensive board. And then just as the shot clock was about to expire, Latta finally nailed a three from the corner. Ballgame over.

 

  • The Sun just aren’t very good. They can’t put together 40 minutes of decent basketball, and Charles seemingly can’t put together 40 minutes of interest. Kara Lawson is now missing games due to undisclosed ‘family reasons’ rather than her knee injury (there’s been no explanation from the Sun as to what’s going on there) and without her this team doesn’t have enough. They are slightly improved due to the returns of Renee Montgomery and Tan White – although Montgomery’s shot selection still often leaves a lot to be desired. But slightly improved on atrocious doesn’t amount to much.

 

  • Washington almost managed to give this one away. The good thing for them is that their veteran starters have stepped up in recent games. The young bench was starting to make it look like the wrong five were opening games, but the likes of Langhorne, Currie and Latta are proving their worth again. After beating the best and worst teams in the WNBA in consecutive games, now they need to keep it up against all the ones in the middle.

 

 

Tulsa Shock 56 @ Phoenix Mercury 77

  • I really wanted to change my pick for this game. I somehow managed to take Tulsa while forgetting that Glory Johnson was going to miss this one after a concussion suffered in the previous encounter with Phoenix on Friday night (or not a concussion – the Shock deleted the tweet that stated that as the injury, and left the malady unnamed). Riquna Williams was also still back in Tulsa due to her ankle problem. To make matters worse for the Shock (and my pick), Brittney Griner was passed fit to return after her ankle sprain caused her to miss Friday’s clash.

 

  • The early minutes illustrated that officials really have no idea what to call when Griner and Tulsa center Liz Cambage are in the game. It’s bad enough with one of them, but with both out there it’s a nightmare. Both picked up two early fouls due to all the wrestling that was going on in the paint. After briefly taking her out of the game so he could talk to her, new Mercury head coach Russ Pennell sent Griner back in – and she managed to pick up four blocks without adding any more fouls in the remaining four minutes of the first quarter. So Pennell must be saying something right.

 

  • Tulsa led this game 12-10 just before Griner came back in the first period. 10 minutes of game-time later, Phoenix led 31-12 after a 21-0 run. The Shock played most of that sequence without Cambage after she picked up her third foul late in the first quarter, and they were horrible. Missing their two young star posts, and the speedy guard who usually provides their energy from the bench, the Tulsa offense was absolutely clueless. They were stagnant, and static, and completely bereft of ideas. We have to give credit to Pennell and his players for the defensive effort, because Phoenix holding a team to 113 points in two games combined was virtually unheard of before this weekend. They did a solid job, playing vanilla man-to-man defense, showing where they had to on screens, and restricting Tulsa effectively. But the Shock were so bad that it’s hard to tell how much Pennell has really achieved yet. There will be much tougher tests to come.

 

  • Phoenix led 40-16 at halftime, and the game was essentially over. Tulsa were a little better in the second half, with Skylar Diggins taking the opportunity to explode for a meaningless 19 points, but it was hard to see any kind of comeback ever occurring. And it didn’t. The interesting aspect of Diggins’s scoring burst was that it came alongside Angel Goodrich, rather than in place of her. Obviously the absence of Riquna Williams opened up minutes at shooting guard that needed to be filled by someone, but ultimately Diggins was taking playing time away from Candice Wiggins at off-guard rather than Goodrich at the point. Maybe they need to find Diggins more time playing off the ball.

 

  • So a positive start for the Pennell era. Diana Taurasi, Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner did more than enough to carry the offense, and after a ridiculous number of turnovers in their previous game they brought it down to an excellent 10 in this one. The offense has actually been pretty ordinary in Pennell’s first couple of games, and Griner wasn’t particularly integrated into it when she could stay on the floor in this one, but one step at a time. It’s going to be very interesting to see how they continue to perform against teams other than a Shock squad tossing up complete junk.

 

  • Tulsa were awful in the first half, and illustrated just how thin this team is. Without their rocks in the paint, they don’t have a lot of ideas about what else to do. They finished the game shooting 28% from the field overall. Not exactly what they were hoping for when they arrived in Phoenix for a back-to-back against a team who’d just felt the need to fire their coach, with hopes of making a push for the playoffs. It’s looking like another season where Tulsa’s target becomes staying off the bottom of the West.

 

 

New York Liberty 88 @ Atlanta Dream 82

  • Atlanta head coach Fred Williams apparently finally admitted that switching Jasmine Thomas for Alex Bentley as the starting point guard might have been a mistake, swapping them back around in this game. The Dream opened the season 10-2 with Thomas at the point, then played one game with both of them starting due to an injury elsewhere, before going 1-4 with Bentley as the starter. They’ve both had their moments this year, and other elements have played into that imbalance in results, but it definitely seemed to work better the other way around. Along with Bentley, the Dream also had Tiffany Hayes back to provide an extra boost from the bench after recovering from her knee injury. New York had an extra player on the books, but she wasn’t in uniform just yet (more on that in the Notes section below).

 

  • This was a relatively tight game for most of the night, but New York were in front for most of the first half due to a sight for sore eyes – the real Cappie Pondexter decided to stand up. Nailing impossible-looking jumpers, driving into the paint, this was the Cappie that Liberty fans had been hoping to see carry their team all season.

 

  • The Liberty were also thoroughly in charge on the glass, even though they weren’t necessarily producing the same volume of points inside that their posts have provided in recent victories. Kara Braxton also struggled to handle Erika de Souza’s mobility down low when Atlanta found their big center inside. Erika doesn’t look like she’s quick, but she’s more nimble than you expect, and she’s got counter moves when you stop the first try. Braxton was waving at air at times.

 

  • As is always the case against Atlanta, New York needed to stay away from turnovers to avoid igniting the Dream’s running game. Between a few too many giveaways from the Liberty and Erika’s success in the paint, Atlanta managed to hang around. We also saw what they’d been missing with Hayes out. Her energy and activity at both ends of the floor was making positive things happen, and helped Atlanta stay within 42-37 at the break.

 

  • Atlanta injected a little more speed into their game in the third quarter. It didn’t need to be off long rebounds or turnovers, everything was just slightly quicker and sharper. Their best weapon offensively was still Erika inside, but Angel McCoughtry stepped up to try to match Pondexter as well, joining Erika in the Dream attack. The problem was that they still couldn’t do a damn thing to stop Pondexter on the other end. New York’s lead was wiped away by the mid-point of the third quarter, but was back out to five points by the end of the period. Jumpers continued to drop in with ease for the Liberty star – it was a vintage Pondexter game.

 

  • Unfortunately for New York, it was also a vintage Kara Braxton game, and that doesn’t mean quite the same thing. Moments of efficient finishing and solid interior defense were interspersed with Erika making her look foolish, and turnovers where Braxton did that job herself. The success that New York have had with Braxton this season has largely come when they put her in position to just play. Not think. When she’s deep in the paint, or rolling on a pick-and-roll, all she has to do is finish the play. Or maybe dump the ball off if the pass is obvious. There were too many times in this game where she received the ball in a position where she had choices, and had to decide what to do. That’s when Bad Kara tends to rear her head, and she becomes more dangerous to her own team than the opponent.

 

  • After a sequence where Braxton committed an awful turnover, extended out to block a McCoughtry three before breaking upcourt for a layup, then conceded a pathetically easy layup to Erika, New York led by four with under three minutes remaining. Bill Laimbeer decided he’d seen enough, and replaced Braxton with Kelsey Bone for the closing stretch. New York’s edge on the glass continued to come up big. Bone had a tough defensive rebound in traffic, Pondexter got up amongst the trees for another, before Plenette Pierson grabbed one on the offensive end and finished off the second-chance with a spinning move back to the hoop.

 

  • McCoughtry and Pondexter both missed a lot of jump shots in the final period, trying to carry their teams over the line. Both also drew a lot of fouls and shot a lot of free throws. McCoughtry nailed a three with 38 seconds left that cut the Dream’s deficit to three points, importantly making it a one-possession game and saving Atlanta from having to start fouling intentionally. Pondexter ran the clock down and drove, Hayes slid over to block her path – and the whistle blew for a blocking foul. It was a bang-bang play that easily could’ve been called a charge, but it went New York’s way, Pondexter made both free throws, and that was about it.

 

  • For the Liberty this was a big win, as they try to hold on to Washington’s coat tails and maybe draw Atlanta back into the pack for a four-way battle for three playoff spots. More importantly, they finally managed to win a game where their posts weren’t dominating every play inside. Instead Pondexter took charge, finishing 11-23 for 33 points, 6 boards and 7 assists. When you can get layups consistently through your bigs, that’s great. It’s a high-percentage way to score points and build offense. But when you’ve got a superstar on the perimeter who’s supposed to be one of the elite guards in the game, sometimes you just need her to win one or two for you. This is virtually the first time all year that Cappie’s pulled that off.

 

  • Atlanta fans are becoming a little concerned at recent events. Their team has now lost seven of their last eight games, and Sancho Lyttle is still a long way from returning to help out the post rotation. Having Hayes back will help, and she took a couple of hard hits in this game and kept going, so she’s ready. But they need to come together as more of a unit again. The balance and chemistry that seemed to be flowing in the early stages of the year has progressively drifted away, along with the perimeter shooting that was helping them break the collapsing defenses they’re consistently faced with. It still seems unlikely that they’ll fall far enough to drop out of the playoffs, but it’s becoming a possibility if they don’t arrest this slide soon.

 

 

San Antonio Silver Stars 63 @ Seattle Storm 69

  • As with Tulsa and Phoenix, these teams were facing each other for the second time in 48 hours, on the same court. Seattle barely showed up for the previous game, allowing San Antonio to blow them off their own floor, so Brian Agler and the Seattle faithful will have been expecting something significantly improved in this one.

 

  • The lineups were the same as Friday night, but the events on the floor in the first half certainly weren’t. San Antonio spent most of the first half jacking up a seemingly endless stream of threes. Instead of moving the ball and taking jumpers within their offense, or slicing inside the Storm defense to the rim – both of which they’d managed consistently on Friday – they were taking quick shots from outside with minimal ball movement. It wasn’t particularly effective.

 

  • Seattle looked more interested from the very start. They were clearly looking to get the ball inside, trusting Camille Little and Tina Thompson to be significantly more effective against Jayne Appel and Danielle Adams than they were on Friday. There was even a little speed on the break and transition offense from Seattle, something they could really benefit from discovering more consistently. Their push came in the second quarter, beginning when San Antonio reserves like Davellyn Whyte and Kayla Alexander were in the game, but continuing to roll when the Silver Star starters returned.

 

  • It was very much a team effort from the Storm, as has generally been the case when they’ve been successful this year. Temeka Johnson attacked off the dribble early, and Tanisha Wright joined in later in the second quarter. Thompson and Little were both working hard in the paint, and on the glass. Noelle Quinn came in and started throwing no-look passes to add a touch of flair. Even Alysha Clark and Tianna Hawkins contributed on offense from the bench as well. By halftime, with San Antonio continuing to fire away from deep with minimal success, Seattle led 41-26.

 

  • The third quarter was scrappy, but San Antonio kept hanging around. The Storm couldn’t put them away. The Silver Stars were still working hard, and Seattle’s offense dried up while Jia Perkins started to carry San Antonio, cutting the gap to eight points at one stage. But Seattle responded, and still led by double-digits at the end of the third.

 

  • San Antonio made a game of it in the fourth. They had some success from an unexpected source, with rookie center Alexander producing some points inside and helping cut the deficit to four early in the period. They also broke out a zone-defense, which threw off the Storm a little, although Seattle hadn’t been doing too well against the man-to-man either in the second half. Jayne Appel had been the rock for San Antonio inside throughout the game, grabbing a host of rebounds, making life difficult for Little in the paint and even providing some offense. But with Alexander’s success, Dan Hughes tried playing both his centers together in the fourth quarter when Appel came back in. It looked a bit awkward, but they got away with it.

 

  • Ultimately, Seattle just about clung on. Perkins hit a three that narrowed the gap to four points with three minutes left, but Thompson responded with a tough finish over Adams, and then a ridiculously difficult turnaround over Appel. San Antonio still managed to get within three in the closing seconds, but Wright made a clutch pair at the line to ice the game.

 

  • Seattle needed this one. The loss on Friday was embarrassing, because they just didn’t perform on their own floor. It also gave them a 2-1 edge on San Antonio in the season series (two still to play) and pushed the gap in the standings between themselves and the Silver Stars back to 2.5 games. It would’ve become worrying close with another loss. In the end they had to gut it out, after a second half that ended up being much harder work than the first, but they got there. This team still looks like the most likely contender to grab the final playoff spot in the West.

 

  • San Antonio took 26 three-point attempts. Even for a team that likes to shoot from out there, and runs sets for players like Shameka Christon and Cathrine Kraayeveld who do little else offensively, it was too many. When they diversified a little in the second half they came into the game a bit more, but eventually the gap proved too big. It’s still fun seeing this team find ways to compete, but chances are they’re going to continue losing more than they win for the rest of the season.

 

 

Notes

The New York Liberty claimed DeLisha Milton-Jones off waivers, releasing Chucky Jeffery to make room. It means they assume the contract that she signed with San Antonio, and the buyout she agreed with the Silver Stars becomes irrelevant. If she’s healthy to play, she gives New York another veteran option who can play either forward spot and add more grit and physicality to the team. Basically, she’s better than anyone else available to fill that spare roster spot the Liberty had sitting around. It might also allow them to give Plenette Pierson a bit more rest than she’s been getting in recent games. All dependent on whether Milton-Jones can actually play – she hasn’t seen the floor since sustaining a knee injury on July 19th. And New York have already had a lot of issues with knees this season.

 

 

Upcoming Games

 

Tuesday August 13th (today):

Chicago @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET. LA -6.5 is the line, and it’ll be interesting to see how Chicago fare against the other Western power after beating Chicago on Sunday. I’ll take the Sparks thanks to them returning to play in front of their home fans, and the energy Chicago will have used up against the Lynx. But it’s going to be fascinating to see how the matchup plays out, however it goes.

 

—–

Wednesday August 14th (tomorrow):

Atlanta @ Connecticut, 7pm ET

Indiana @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

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