Just one game in the WNBA last night, as the Chicago Sky completed their pair of games against the West’s elite with a trip to Los Angeles. The Sky beat Minnesota in overtime on Sunday, and now they had the chance to back-up that victory with a result against the Sparks. But it wasn’t going to be easy. LA had just come home from a successful road trip, winning four in a row after a rocky start in Tulsa. With the chance to move within a game of the Lynx at the top of the Western standings, LA were just as up for this game as Chicago.
The same starting lineups we’ve grown used to with these teams over the season began the game. The defensive matchups were always going to be interesting, because both sides have players that are so difficult to deal with. Chicago had Sylvia Fowles on Candace Parker, and Swin Cash on Nneka Ogwumike, hiding Elena Delle Donne as usual on the weakest offensive option available – Alana Beard. At the other end of the floor, LA started with Parker on Delle Donne, creating a matchup between the Sky’s prized rookie and the established veteran whose skillset most closely resembles her own. That left Ogwumike trying to handle Fowles in the post, and Kristi Toliver sliding over onto Cash – so that Beard could guard Epiphanny Prince. With that much cross-matching, inevitably the teams couldn’t always line up as they desired when the action switched quickly in transition, but that was what they were trying for.
The entire first half was a tight, competitive contest, with 15 lead changes taking place. Delle Donne hit a couple of shots early, as Parker failed to extend all the way out to guard her so Delle Donne simply fired away right over the top. As always, LA did everything they could to push up the court quickly, and find early offense in transition. It resulted in a few cheap points for LA, but also a few unnecessary turnovers when Lindsey Harding or Kristi Toliver were a little too desperate to try to force something.
The mismatches both teams had and their effectiveness in trying to capitalise on them were intriguing. Obviously, the reason you can hide weaker defenders on players like Beard and Cash is that you’re not afraid of them hurting you with their offense. But both of those players are former All-Stars, and it’s tempting to go to them when they’re handed a clear advantage on the offensive end. At the same time, it’s a generally a win for the defense if Beard is trying to hit a reasonably open jumper, or Cash is trying to post up Toliver and create a lane for an entry pass. You’d generally prefer to see that as a defense than one of the offensive stars taking the shot. So we saw a couple of efforts from Beard, and we saw both Cash and Tamera Young trying to post up Toliver, but the offenses didn’t go back to that well very often. Better to just let the weaker defenders hide than take yourself out of your own offense while trying to attack them.
One mismatch that the defense couldn’t allow to continue came when Jantel Lavender entered the game for Nneka Ogwumike. With the way Lavender’s been playing lately, actually taking advantage of her size and touch to provide points for LA inside, guarding her with Cash wasn’t really a feasible option. Lavender’s just too big. Not wanting to swing Cash over to Parker, Sky head coach Pokey Chatman instead went to her bench, bringing in Michelle Campbell. Why Campbell had moved back ahead of Avery Warley in Chicago’s post rotation is unknown – maybe Chatman thought she matched up better with LA for some reason – but she did at least offer a little more size alongside Sylvia Fowles to help deal with Parker and Lavender. Plus Cash got a few minutes of rest.
The real news from the first half didn’t have much to do with the action on the court. Delle Donne came out of the game after barely four minutes, and the trainer looked at her left foot and ankle before she went back to the locker room. Delle Donne reemerged a few minutes later, and came back into the game late in the first quarter. Everyone assumed she’d taken a knock, maybe had her ankle re-taped, and would continue without a problem. She played right through to the middle of the second quarter and seemed to be moving normally. However, she didn’t play in the final five minutes of the first half, and failed to emerge from the locker room after the interval. It was later described as a ‘left foot’ injury, and x-rays of the foot described as “clear”. She’s having an MRI today to test further but it’s a good sign that the examination will be carried out in Seattle, where the Sky play on Thursday night. If they thought it was particularly serious, she’d have gone straight back to Chicago. Hopefully it’s a minor problem, but they were right not to risk anything. Having her healthy later in the season and on into the future is a lot more important than having her for the remainder of this game.
Tied at 34-34 at halftime, it seemed like LA saw Delle Donne was absent from the Sky lineup for the second half and relaxed. Chicago opened the third quarter with more energy, and even with the downgrade from Delle Donne to Tamera Young, they took charge. First it was through Fowles, running the floor hard, dominating the offensive glass as usual, and finishing in the paint. Then Chicago started knocking down a series of wide open jumpers as LA barely covered them on the perimeter, sagging deep into the paint to swamp Fowles inside. The Sky led by as many as nine points in the third quarter.
It was interesting that once Delle Donne was off the floor and Chicago could shift their defensive assignments, it was Epiphanny Prince they tried to ‘hide’. Prince’s jump shot hasn’t been working for quite some time now, but she at least had a solid defensive reputation when she came out of college. At this point, Chatman has more trust in the likes of Young and Courtney Vandersloot on the defensive end. It was Prince’s man who kept being left open in the corner – first Beard, then Marissa Coleman – to continue providing some offense for the Sparks.
LA came back into the game late in the third, with Parker hitting a three from the wing and Toliver nailing a step-back jumper on the final possession while Shay Murphy jumped into her to add a free throw on top. Parker takes too many of those long jumpers considering her considerable skills at creating better shots, but her ability to hit a few from out there certainly helps. Most big defenders like Fowles – the kind of player teams have to use on Parker because of her size – don’t want to track their man that far out, so it stretches the defense in ways that opponents really don’t enjoy. Toliver, of course, loves taking tough shots like that under pressure.
After their strong finish to the third, LA also scored the opening eight points of the fourth quarter to take control of the game. Campbell was out there for most of the sequence, painfully weakening the Sky at both ends of the floor. For all her rather ordinary abilities, Chicago miss backup center Carolyn Swords. Their bench was weak already, with Allie Quigley consistently mediocre, Murphy having a desperately poor season and Swords the only remotely dependable post backup. Now it’s even thinner.
Chicago kept hanging around throughout the fourth quarter. Harding had a few nice plays, stripping Vandersloot on a drive, hitting a pullup jumper, and acrobatically finishing a break when Parker tossed her a no-look bounce pass. But Chicago mixed up their defenses, throwing in an occasional possession of zone, and they still had Fowles inside. From the opening possession of the game, her size advantage on Ogwumike gave Chicago more room for error on entry passes than usual, because they could get the ball to her over the top more easily than usual. With two minutes left her length also made a sweet lob pass in transition from Vandersloot easier, although that one was over Parker. A quick pump-fake from Fowles led to Parker fouling her on the layup, and Chicago were back within three.
Prince was benched by Chatman in crunch time in an apparent attempt to go offense/defense, and when brought back Prince had the sense to drive and dump the ball off, rather than miss yet another layup attempt or brick another jumper. Fowles finished her feed, and Chicago were within a point. Unfortunately, on the next Sky possession, Prince indicated that the previous decision had been a fluke – by missing yet another layup. LA ran down the clock, and Toliver missed a tough pullup jumper, giving Chicago the ball with 32 seconds remaining, trailing by just two.
Then came the crucial play. Cash had the ball at the elbow, and Murphy cut backdoor along the baseline to beat an overplaying Harding. Cash found her with a bounce-pass, and Murphy in turn made a nice pass under the rim to Fowles on the opposite low block. Fowles watched Parker go sailing by as she tried to come over for the block, but made the mistake of putting the ball on the floor. She was close enough to the rim already, and there was no need. When you dribble the ball as a post in that situation you give little guards a chance to get involved in the play, and that’s exactly what happened. Harding reached in, snatched the ball away for a steal, and Chicago’s chance was gone. The Sky had to foul, Harding made both free throws – something her teammates struggled with at several other points down the stretch – and that was enough. Chicago had a couple of other chances to make the closing seconds interesting again, but solid LA perimeter defense denied the three-pointer and forced an ugly airball from Murphy before a missed layup from Vandersloot. The Sparks held on to win 80-76.
Especially considering they lost one of their stars early in the evening, Chicago could consider this a pretty decent performance. Delle Donne played less than 11 minutes, and without her the Sky still came close to pulling out the win. Fowles finished 8-15 for 22 points and 9 rebounds, with four other players in double-digits supporting her. The difference lately is that Prince isn’t playing like the offensive star she was for parts of last season and early in this one. She finished 3-14 for 10 points, and that’s a pretty representative stat line of what she’s been producing recently. It’s not like the presence of Delle Donne or a change in the offense to feed Fowles more has hurt Prince’s game. The offense is virtually the same, and she’s a player who likes to create most of her own opportunities anyway. She’s just missing. A lot. Maybe Chatman needs to build more sets to run her off screens and actively create good looks for her, just to re-ignite her offense. This team is much more dangerous with three stars on the offensive end than two.
The Sparks made hard work of it at times, but pulled out the win eventually. Parker was the top scorer with 18 points on 7-12 from the floor, but the other starters all chipped in along with Lavender and Coleman off the bench. The depth of this team is still where they hurt you most, even with individual offensive stars like Parker and Toliver. When one of their guns isn’t firing, there are still a host of others who can attack you. Lavender faded in the second half (and wasn’t given as many opportunities), but with Lavender’s game apparently joining the party now, they have yet another player who can cause problems for opposing defenses. Now sitting just a game back from the Lynx at the top of the West, LA might be rounding into form at just the right time.
The WNBA’s trade deadline is tomorrow (August 15th). There aren’t any particularly strong rumours floating around, or anything obvious likely to take place, but you never know what might happen on deadline day. That said, what usually happens on deadline day in this league is nothing.
San Antonio filled the spot opened up a few days ago by waiving DeLisha Milton-Jones, signing rookie forward Chelsea Poppens. She was drafted by Seattle this year in the second round and cut in training camp. It gives the Silver Stars the chance to take a look at another youngster, at least.
Finally, Lauren Jackson returned to competitive action earlier today, representing Australia in the first game of the Oceania Championship series against New Zealand. In her first game in almost a year, Jackson played 26 minutes and finished 10-21 for 22 points and 9 boards. After all her injury issues, it’s just nice to see her back on a basketball court.
Wednesday August 14th (today):
Atlanta @ Connecticut, 7pm ET. Sun +3 is the line, in a matchup of teams who’ve both been struggling lately. The fact that Atlanta are three-point favourites on the road, despite having lost seven of their last eight games, says it all about the state of the Connecticut Sun. I’ll take the Dream, because I wouldn’t take the Sun to beat a one-armed man in a juggling contest right now.
Indiana @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. Mercury -4 is the line, in what could be the first real test of Russ Pennell’s WNBA career after two ugly games against Tulsa. While they might have problems against the size of Griner inside, I’ll take Indiana to give the Mercury a little reminder of what the rest of the league can do. But it’s going to be a very interesting contest.
Thursday August 15th (tomorrow):
Chicago @ Seattle, 10pm ET