WNBA Today, 08/15/2013: Lineup choices doom Dream in Connecticut; Mercury continue to rise under Pennell

 

Two games last night in the WNBA, and they were intriguing in a lot of ways. Two Eastern Conference teams desperate for a win ran into each other, and spent most of the night seemingly trying to find ways to avoid winning. Then a cross-conference matchup saw a team famed for its defense face one historically known for its offense – and the all-attack squad came out on top in a low-scoring, defense-first game. Sometimes everything works out backwards.

 

The opening game was in Connecticut, where the Sun hosted the Atlanta Dream. The visitors arrived still sitting in second place in the East, but that’s down to their 10-1 start to the season. Since then they’ve gone 1-7, free-falling down towards the chasing pack. Connecticut should’ve been the perfect venue to turn around that slide. The Sun were 6-15 coming in, deservedly rock bottom of the East, and two miserable losses against Chicago and Washington over the weekend had maintained their run of misery.

 

The Sun were also shorthanded once again, with Allison Hightower out along with Kara Lawson’s long-term absence. Lawson continues to be missing with what’s listed as ‘family issues’ in the box scores, Hightower was out with either a strained knee (according to the box) or a back problem (according to the commentator). The confusion over Hightower’s injury led to a conspiracy theory or two considering it was the day before the trade deadline, but nothing happened today to substantiate any of that guesswork. Tan White replaced Hightower in the starting lineup, and Anne Donovan also made an unforced change (finally), by replacing Kalana Greene with rookie Kelly Faris on the wing. Atlanta have Tiffany Hayes back from injury now, but Sancho Lyttle continues to miss games due to her broken foot. After surviving so well without Lyttle when she was with Spain for EuroBasket Women earlier in the season, Atlanta have really missed her since she got hurt.

 

It’s that power forward spot that ought to be filled by Lyttle that’s going to dominate much of this discussion of last night’s game, but some other stuff happened first. For one thing, Connecticut had probably their most successful first quarter of the entire season – and they did it essentially without Tina Charles (or despite her, if you want to be a little mean). Charles played the opening 5:28 of the game, and left with her team trailing 16-13. She’d contributed one hook shot and a few free throws, along with some pretty lazy help defense, and being outworked by Erika de Souza in transition. The Sun were most effective offensively when she wasn’t even involved, with Kelsey Griffin, Renee Montgomery and Tan White making plays. When Charles sat down that developed even further, and the Sun took off. With Montgomery hitting threes and White scoring in a variety of ways, plus Mistie Bass doing her job as Charles’s fill-in, Connecticut led 28-24 at the end of the first quarter. 28 points in an entire half has been more typical for the Sun lately.

 

When Charles came back, rather than the whole team constantly looking to her as their pivot and focus, she fed off the success of her teammates. For once, she was a significant and successful part of the whole, rather than a black hole sucking everything towards her while the Sun fired brick after brick. Instead everything was going in, with countless turnaround and fadeaway jumpers hitting nothing but net, and Connecticut led by as many as 15 points midway through the second quarter. Charles’s success also wasn’t hurt by Erika finding herself in foul trouble yet again.

 

Of course Atlanta weren’t exactly blameless in this Sun explosion. They were heavily reliant on Angel McCoughtry in the first period to create offense herself on drives or jump passes, lost their flow entirely when she rested to open the second quarter, and struggled to regain it. Their defense also hasn’t been the same lately, which hurts them at both ends of the floor. The energy they invest on defense translates into their offense in transition and just their attack mentality. Perhaps more than any other team in the league, they let it affect their scoring when their defense isn’t successful.

 

But the Dream were also limited because it took head coach Fred Williams 16 minutes and 13 seconds of game time to finally try the blindingly obvious tactic of moving McCoughtry to power forward and going small. It’s something Atlanta have used plenty of times this season when Lyttle’s been out, so it was hardly a leap into the unknown. With the minimal threat of Griffin at power forward it seemed a staggeringly clear way to change the game – especially considering the combination of Le’coe Willingham and Aneika Henry at power forward had led to a 15-point deficit. The small lineup created an immediate 6-0 run, and allowed Atlanta to go in at halftime trailing only 54-45.

 

And this is why I suggested on Twitter last night that this game wasn’t so much a ‘chess match’ between head coaches, more a case of high-stakes chutes and ladders (‘snakes and ladders’ for any non-American readers out there). It took Williams an eternity to try the ‘Angel at the 4’ lineup. For some reason he opened the second half with Willingham back in at power forward, and unsurprisingly enough the Sun rediscovered some rhythm and some offense. Tiffany Hayes replaced Willingham to go small again, and surprise surprise the Dream took over. This wasn’t brain surgery. It barely even required the use of a brain. The speed and motion of the smaller lineup was allowing Atlanta to attack more, putting better shooting on the floor, and lining McCoughtry up across from a power forward who couldn’t hope to guard her (but who Angel had little problem with at the other end). Atlanta went on a 16-4 run after they went small in the third quarter, turning an 11-point deficit into a one-point lead.

 

In many ways Atlanta were unfortunate to have their momentum broken at that point. Hayes took a smack to the face from a flailing Bass arm, and had to leave the court with a bloody nose. Then Armintie Herrington turned an ankle, and had to limp off the floor as well. With Courtney Clements out of favour due to playing badly all season long, the Dream didn’t have enough trusted perimeter players left to stay small. Connecticut were back up by six by the time Herrington had her ankle re-taped and managed to half-limp back onto the floor.

 

Here’s where it was Donovan’s turn to blindly stagger up a ladder. When Atlanta went back small again, the Sun had Mistie Bass in at power forward rather than Kelsey Griffin. Bass couldn’t guard McCoughtry anywhere outside her dreams, but she’s also much bigger, stronger, and more offensively direct than Griffin. Basically, Angel couldn’t guard her either. It meant Connecticut finally had a way to at least stay fairly even with the Dream’s small lineup. The Sun also broke out a 3-2 matchup zone, something we’re seeing several teams around the league try out. It didn’t look like they’d practiced it that much, and Atlanta pierced it a couple of times without much trouble, but it gave Connecticut a way to minimise the effect of having Bass at power forward defensively.

 

Trailing by six with four minutes remaining, the Dream made one last push. Hayes was back with her nose plugged, and nailed a big three. Then McCoughtry and Herrington both finished layups, and Atlanta were back in front. After McCoughtry added a pair of free throws, Montgomery answered with a big triple to tie the game up again.

 

Herrington’s lack of shooting prowess hurt the Dream yet again when she missed a pair at the line, but the Dream snagged the offensive rebound. After a McCoughtry miss they did it again, only for Jasmine Thomas to miss as well. It was like Connecticut were working out how to play their zone as they went along, and becoming more effective – rather than Atlanta working out how to attack it. The Dream struggled to create anything beyond badly forced jump shots in that closing sequence.

 

Tied game, Sun ball with 23 seconds remaining and the shot clock off. Montgomery ran the clock down, before Bass came up to set a pick. Inevitably, McCoughtry came off that screen and tried to harass Montgomery into a turnover. It’s Angel’s M.O. – why stick to a defensive assignment when you can go for the steal? In fairness, it’s also generally the attitude of the Atlanta defense, so maybe she was doing what she was supposed to do. But it left the Dream defense scrambling when Montgomery reversed the ball out of the trap and found Charles, who moved the ball on to Tan White, who had a wide open baseline jumper from 15 feet for the win. She nailed it. With just 0.5 seconds left on the clock, after a timeout Atlanta only had time to force the ball in to Hayes whose desperate throw never had a chance. Connecticut somehow clawed out the win, 88-86.

 

Williams should’ve gone small earlier. It was such an obvious tactic against a team who’ve had a hole at power forward all season, and yet it took an age for him to even try it. It also would’ve been nice if Erika could’ve avoided the stream of fouls. Her third was a desperately cheap reach-in on Charles in the first half; her fourth and fifth both came on unnecessary clear-outs while fighting for offensive boards in the fourth quarter. With Lyttle out she’s too important to the Dream as a balance option inside, so she has to be more careful about dumb fouls. This is a game Atlanta should’ve won, and when you’re losing repeatedly you have to take care of games against the weaker teams. They get another shot at the Sun on Friday night, this time back home in Georgia. If they can’t even beat Connecticut on their own floor, maybe Williams really will have to start fearing for his job.

 

The bright side for the Sun was the first half, and obviously the fact that they pulled out the win in the end. They were flying in the opening 20 minutes, everyone was hitting shots, and everything was rolling. Faris hit three triples on the night to contribute and support Charles, Montgomery and White, before Bass had her productive moments in the fourth quarter. It’s still hard to see this as being the start of anything significant, but a win’s a win. With how this team’s played this season, they’ll take them any way they come.

 

There’s no D in Phoenix. Well, there never used to be…

 

The late game was in Phoenix, with recently hired head coach Russ Pennell facing the first opponent who looked likely to provide a real test. Two wins against a poor and understrength Tulsa hadn’t proven anything yet, but holding an opponent under 70 points, and then under 60 points, was a good start. The Gaines Mercury rarely produced results like that. Last night’s visitors were the Indiana Fever, who unfortunately were understrength again themselves. Jessica Davenport and Katie Douglas were out again, as expected, but Shavonte Zellous also continued to sit out due to plantar faciitis. So Erin Phillips started again, as she had in Indiana’s win over Atlanta on Saturday.

 

This was a desperately sloppy game in the first half, at both ends of the floor. It’d be nice to credit the constant stream of turnovers to impressive defense, but both teams were making some terrible decisions and some awful passes. The giveaways just kept coming.

 

On possessions where the teams managed not to hand the ball back to the other team, Phoenix eventually proved more successful. Indiana stayed in the game in the opening quarter through the shooting of Tamika Catchings, which never seemed sustainable. Catchings can be a major piece of your offense, but her jump shot is rarely reliable over an extended period. She also got very little help, with Briann January having an absolutely atrocious game – way off with her jump shot when she took it, then losing confidence and turning down open looks, all while committing poor turnovers on other possessions.

 

The Mercury went to Brittney Griner on the opening possession of the game, and she scored with ease past Erlana Larkins before any kind of double-team even got close. We saw that on other occasions as well, but Candice Dupree continued to be their major scoring weapon. Her pick-and-roll with Diana Taurasi has been absolutely devastating at times this season. Taurasi is so good at making the pass regardless of what kind of trap or hedge you send at her, and of course you don’t want to leave her open to take the shot. So she finds a way to make the pass to Dupree, who’s a virtual certainty to knock down the open jumper or slide in and finish the layup. The Mercury also closed out the first half repeatedly getting inside and creating contact, drawing whistles from the officials and heading to the free throw line. They led 42-30 at the break.

 

So, Phoenix’s defense. Outside of Catchings in the first quarter, Indiana didn’t make any shots, which obviously helped. So did the absence of Zellous, who’s been the primary sidekick to Catchings this year and made the All-Star team. But at some point, you have to stop looking for excuses. You have to give Pennell and the Mercury some credit. This is precisely what people like me have been asking for for years on end. Decent, solid, responsible defense from the Phoenix Mercury. Just like those coaching decisions in the earlier game, it’s not brain surgery, and it’s not rocket science. It’s simple, ordinary man-to-man defense. Don’t switch unless you have to, hedge a little on pick-and-rolls but basically stick to your man, go under screens against virtually everyone (because there really aren’t that many players in this league who’ll punish you for that) – and just put some damn effort in. There has never, ever, been any good reason why this squad couldn’t play at least mediocre, middle-of-the-pack-level defense. And that was before Griner arrived. They’re long, they’re quick enough, their offense tires opponents out – this is what we should’ve been seeing for ages. Pennell’s already’s got them buying in, working harder, and having some success. Maybe they’d be in trouble if they had to play Minnesota or Los Angeles tomorrow, but that’s not an issue right now. They’re absolutely heading in the right direction.

 

The game was never really a contest in the second half. Catchings faded out of the offense, and no one else could make a shot. Their point guard play was miserable, with Layshia Clarendon even worse than January, and Erin Phillips better used off the ball. The Mercury lead was in double-digits throughout the second half, and they eased home for a 75-58 victory. The only concerns for Phoenix were more injury issues. Dupree landed awkwardly after coming across from the weak side to block a Jeanette Pohlen layup attempt, and strained her left knee (later listed as day-to-day by the team). Then backup point guard Jasmine James was flattened by a (legal) screen from Erlana Larkins that none of her Mercury teammates warned her was coming, leaving her noticeably woozy. She’ll be out at least five days with a concussion.

 

So everything’s looking up at this point for Phoenix, and so far the head coaching change appears to be a rousing success. The offense, statistically speaking, hasn’t been quite as efficient as it normally is, but it’s been good enough. And with Taurasi at the controls, and the likes of Griner, Dupree and DeWanna Bonner running alongside her, scoring points should rarely be too much of a problem. The headline story is that they’ve held their opponents to 181 points combined in three games. That’s just barely over 60 points per game, and came with defensive efficiency marks of 88.2, 75.7 and 75.3. The Mercury just didn’t do things like that before. Their defensive efficiency rating was over 104 for the season under Gaines. With a pretty easy schedule for most of the remainder of the regular season, Phoenix have a chance to really gain steam before the playoffs, which they no longer look in any danger of missing out on.

 

It was another one of those games for Indiana. With Griner in the paint discouraging the drive, and no one making shots besides Catchings early and Phillips in a couple of brief bursts, the Fever just didn’t have the offense to threaten Phoenix. Bizarrely, after 14 first half turnovers, Indiana had zero in the second half – and yet their offense got worse. They need Zellous back as quickly as possible to give them another scoring threat, and Douglas would be nice as well. They’ve become a likely playoff team in the East, but they’re eminently beatable with their offense so constantly prone to breaking down.

 

 

Notes

Unless something breaks out late, it looks like we’ve passed the trade deadline with absolutely no movement at all. 8pm ET today was the official mark, so something would’ve had to have been completed already and just not made it into the public domain yet. Even in the WNBA, in the age of Twitter we’d probably have heard by now.

 

Chicago’s Elena Delle Donne was diagnosed with a mid-foot sprain after being sidelined during the Sky’s game against LA on Tuesday night. They’re saying she might miss a couple of weeks, which is a decent outcome considering some of the alternative possibilities. She’s definitely out for tonight’s game in Seattle.

 

 

Upcoming Games

 

Thursday August 15th (today):

Chicago @ Seattle, 10pm ET. The line is Seattle +2, and presumably it’s only that low because of Delle Donne’s absence. The Storm are also consistently the best team in the league at preventing opponents from taking shots at the rim, where the Sky’s other star Sylvia Fowles makes her living. But I just can’t take the Storm. Chicago ought to have enough to beat them anyway. It might require Epiphanny Prince actually showing up though, which makes it a rather risky pick.

 

—–

Friday August 16th (tomorrow):

Washington @ New York, 7.30pm

Connecticut @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET

Tulsa @ Minnesota, 8pm ET

Indiana@ Los Angeles, 11pm ET

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