WNBA Today, 08/17/2013: Western summit continues to tighten; Eastern picture remains muddied

 

Four games last night in the WNBA. We had a couple of upsets – one minor, one huge. And a couple of home wins – one comfortable, one blowout. Let’s go to the Bullet Point Breakdowns to take a look.

 

Washington Mystics 66 @ New York Liberty 57

  • New York came into this one just half-a-game behind the Mystics for the final playoff spot in the East. Having beaten Washington twice in recent weeks, a win for the Liberty also would’ve sealed the season-series tiebreaker should these teams end up level at the end of the season. The Mystics came in having beaten the best and the worst the WNBA has to offer in their last two games, Minnesota and Connecticut. Now they had to take on an opponent from somewhere in the middle.

 

  • The lineups were the same as usual for these teams, although New York had veteran forward DeLisha Milton-Jones in uniform for the first time after claiming her off waivers from San Antonio.

 

  • The first half was ultimately very even. Washington built a small lead early with their starters, thanks to the fact that they have more players who can shoot than New York. Cappie Pondexter was utterly invisible in the first quarter. As has been something of a theme lately, the Mystics lost their way a little when their bench players came in, and New York slid back into it largely due to Washington’s offensive futility. Then the rest of the half played out with Pondexter actually making a couple of shots, while Plenette Pierson and Crystal Langhorne entertainingly went to war down low.

 

  • The third quarter was even more forgettable than the first half. Desperately scrappy basketball, too many turnovers, defense dominating and not a lot of points being scored. A 34-33 New York lead at halftime became a 45-44 Washington lead after three periods.

 

  • It didn’t take long in the fourth quarter for the victor to become clear. Matee Ajavon, Kia Vaughn and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt all nailed jumpers in the opening moments, turning a one-point lead into an eight-point gap. In a game where points had been at a premium all night, that felt like a chasm. Defensive decisions and defense in general had become rather too easy for the Mystics. Pondexter couldn’t hit a shot to save her life in the second half, and New York don’t have many other players who can shoot (especially considering Bill Laimbeer’s continuing reluctance to play Leilani Mitchell). So the defense increasingly collapsed into the paint, and made it harder and harder for New York to force the ball inside. So they spent the fourth quarter either being swamped in the paint when they continued to try to get there, or watching Pondexter brick jumpers.

 

  • Washington didn’t score inside in the fourth quarter either. They did, however, make shots. They were moving the ball a little better than New York, and the Liberty had some communication problems on how they wanted to rotate against the pick-and-roll, but primarily the Mystics took over by actually throwing the ball through the hoop. Amazing how easy this game can look when you can manage that. Ruffin-Pratt in particular stepped up and hit everything in the fourth quarter, keeping Monique Currie on the bench, and thoroughly outplaying Milton-Jones (who struggled in her Liberty debut). New York couldn’t answer, and the Mystics ultimately closed the game out fairly comfortably.

 

  • Maybe we all should’ve known this result was coming for New York – it’s now the ninth straight game where they’ve alternated between a win and a loss. It’s creating a pretty pattern of Ws and Ls on their schedule page, but not helping them much in the standings. In many ways, considering they didn’t get much from their post players, and Pondexter was poor, it’s a surprise they stayed in the game for as long as they did. Some unusually successful shooting from Katie Smith helped. But if you can keep their interior players quiet, the Liberty just don’t have much on the perimeter that’s likely to hurt you besides Cappie. It was also disappointing that Toni Young spent the entire evening on the bench, and Kelsey Bone joined her for most of it. If you’re going to lose, lose with the kids rather than the players approaching retirement.

 

  • This was an important win for Washington, for multiple reasons. It maintained their playoff spot in the standings, and allowed them to avoid going 3-0 down in the season series with New York. It also kept their momentum going after their two previous victories, including their upset in Minnesota. That surprising win over the Lynx looks like it could’ve been a big point in their season, breaking a losing streak and re-energising their starting unit in particular. After depending on their bench to play a big role earlier in the season, then relying on their starters in recent games, this one saw a combination. Ajavon, Langhorne and Latta all played important parts, but Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Kia Vaughn both stepped up to help them home in the fourth quarter. This team looks like they really want to hang on to that playoff spot through the end of the season.

 

 

Connecticut Sun 57 @ Atlanta Dream 88

  • If you remember, these teams played each other 48 hours earlier, with the Sun winning on a last second Tan White jumper. That game fluctuated largely depending on Atlanta’s lineups, with the ‘small’ group featuring Angel McCoughtry at power forward consistently far more effective than when the Dream used two traditional bigs. So it was a little disappointing that Le’coe Willingham continued to start at the 4, as both teams stuck with the same starters. Why not go with what had worked a couple of days earlier? The injury news was also the same for both teams – Kara Lawson and Allison Hightower were out once again for Connecticut, and Sancho Lyttle continues to rehab her broken foot for Atlanta.

 

  • As it turned out, Atlanta didn’t need to worry about their lineups much in this game. Connecticut were dreadful enough for it to scarcely matter who the Dream put on the floor. The Sun made a run at the worst offensive quarter in WNBA history in the opening period, scoring one point in the opening 8:39. They couldn’t make any kind of shot, they had too much of a focus on dumping the ball to Tina Charles with little other movement, they turned the ball over repeatedly – it was an all-purpose shambles. Iziane Castro Marques, who’s spent most of their recent games kicking her heels on the bench, eventually spoiled their attack on the record books. She had a free throw to take them all the way up to two points, and then a rainbow three for their first field goal. They opened the game 0-16.

 

  • Offensively, Atlanta didn’t actually play that well in the first quarter. They missed a lot of layups, and only McCoughtry and Erika de Souza were remotely effective with the ball. But they did manage to generate some transition offense from all of Connecticut’s misses and turnovers, Erika dominated the paint defensively, and the Sun were just so bad that Atlanta could hardly help breaking into a significant lead. They finished the first period up 20-7, but it felt like they should’ve been ahead by 30.

 

  • There seems very little point in examining the rest of this game in detail. As is typical for them, Atlanta lost some rhythm to open the second period when McCoughtry was resting. Charles had a brief sequence of effectiveness when she made four straight buckets late in the second quarter, which allowed the Sun to go in at halftime trailing just 39-24. Then Atlanta emerged from the locker rooms after the break looking far, far more interested in being on the court, scored the first 16 points of the second half in the space of barely three minutes, and the game was completely over. It was another embarrassing performance for Connecticut and another overwhelming defeat.

 

  • This, or something like it, is probably what ought to have happened on Wednesday night as well. Atlanta came out with better energy, played solid defense (with Erika largely staying out of foul trouble this time, which makes a big difference) and ran over a poor team. They didn’t need to worry about lineups, or their outside shooting, or playing more than about 22 minutes of focussed basketball. Now they need to keep these performances up for more than one night. Breaking a losing streak with a win over the Sun almost doesn’t count.

 

  • Part of the difference between this performance and Wednesday night was that White and Montgomery just didn’t hit shots. Some of it was Charles going back to how she’s played for most of the season. Most of it was just this team reverting to type after an unusually competent performance in the prior game. Injuries and absences have been an issue, but Anne Donovan and Charles have to take their fair share of the blame as well. The team hasn’t played well, and they rarely maximise what they have left to put on the floor. It continues to be a very disappointing season for the Sun.

 

 

Tulsa Shock 83 @ Minnesota Lynx 77

  • The Shock arrived with two important players missing, with guard Riquna Williams (ankle) and post Glory Johnson (concussion) still out. Minnesota had center Janel McCarville back from her own concussion, but Rebekkah Brunson was out instead with a right knee problem. So Devereaux Peters kept her starting spot, just replacing a different player. After losing two games in a row for the first time all season, this was Minnesota’s chance to break that mini-slump and start moving in the right direction again.

 

  • For the first couple of minutes, it looked like Minnesota might be back to their old selves. Maya Moore drilled a jump shot, Lindsay Whalen drove through the defense for a layup, and Moore drew a foul for a couple of free throws. A couple more like that, they could go up double-digits and coast through another game like they were consistently doing before these losses began. But it didn’t work like that. Whenever that starting five is broken up, they don’t have quite the same chemistry. It affects them a little on offense, but it’s more apparent on defense where the rotations and movement aren’t as crisp. There isn’t that same instinctive knowledge of how their teammates are going to react on every play. Also, of course, Rebekkah Brunson’s very, very good. Peters is a solid enough backup in her second year as a pro, but the difference is pretty evident.

 

  • When Seimone Augustus was hurt earlier in the year, Monica Wright stepped up and the team hardly missed a step. Without either starting post, they’re down to Peters and Amber Harris, and the step down is more noticeable. As mentioned above, Peters can fill in, and even if it hurts them now, heavy minutes for her in these games will hopefully help her develop for the future. Harris, on the other hand, looks just about done in Minnesota. Her confidence looks shot, if it was ever there in the first place, and she makes too many basic errors at either end of the floor to ever earn the trust of Cheryl Reeve. She’ll likely have more WNBA chances, because athletic 6’6″ female basketball players don’t grow on trees. But if she ever has any success in this league, it looks unlikely to be with the Lynx.

 

  • The Minnesota offense, led by a barrage of Augustus jumpers in the second quarter, was almost as good as usual in the first half. It was Tulsa’s offensive success that was shocking (if you’ll forgive the pun). Liz Cambage was helped by McCarville picking up her second and third fouls in quick succession early in the second quarter, removing the one veteran post defender Minnesota had left, but other Shock players were effective as well. They were getting inside far too easily, on drives and passes, leading to high-percentage shots. The likes of Nicole Powell and Candice Wiggins even made a few shots from the perimeter. The Lynx tried going small with Maya Moore at power forward for much of the second period due to McCarville’s foul trouble (and Reeve not wanting to use Harris). That was pretty disastrous. It’s not so much that Moore struggles to defend power forwards straight up, especially 4s like Tiffany Jackson-Jones who aren’t particularly huge or physically dominant. It’s more that Moore doesn’t fill the lane like a true post, and doesn’t have the instincts of an interior help defender. It left the paint far too open, and Tulsa shot 58% from the field in the first half for a 44-42 lead.

 

  • Not a great deal changed in the second half. You kept waiting for the Lynx push, but it largely failed to materialise. The Shock ran off 14 straight points in the third quarter, which is something you just don’t expect to see against Minnesota, especially when they’re playing a relatively weak opponent missing two of their key players. The Shock got the ball inside consistently and drew a lot of fouls in the third period, plus Skylar Diggins actually contributed positively. She was poor in the first half, with Tulsa’s flow dropping off dramatically when she took over the point guard duties from Angel Goodrich, but Diggins hit a couple of shots and played much better in the second half. She even converted a drive in the lane, something she’s been struggling with horribly all season long. Her triple closed out the third quarter with Tulsa up 68-58.

 

  • Even then, it still seemed inevitable that the Lynx would make their run. And with the Shock’s dismal record in close games, if Minnesota could have evened it up you would’ve favoured them down the stretch. But it never quite happened. There were too many sloppy turnovers, too many missed jumpers where you’d normally expect players like Whalen and Moore to make the shot, and too few defensive stops. That was still where Minnesota were letting themselves down. The Lynx defense normally does a much better job of limiting their opponents and making it much harder to score.

 

  • Minnesota did pull within five with three minutes left on a driving layup from Whalen, but Tulsa instantly answered with a Goodrich runner in transition the other way. Minnesota failed to cut Goodrich off, and looked tired chasing her down – after a made basket, not even a turnover or long rebound. Then Augustus and Moore both had clean looks at threes which would’ve made things interesting, and both missed. When they finally pulled within three points on a McCarville layup, there were only 18 seconds left in the game. Tulsa struggled to inbound the ball, but eventually managed to toss it in to Cambage (she’s huge – it makes for a much easier target). She made both free throws, and that iced it. Candice Wiggins went bananas after the final buzzer sounded, elated at a victory on her old stomping ground, but the rest of the Shock hardly even celebrated. They’d been in front for most of the night, and by that point the final result wasn’t even a surprise.

 

  • It’s hardly panic stations for the Lynx. When you dominate the league for a long stretch, and you’re clearly going to make the playoffs (even if top spot is now in question), it’s not a big deal to drop a few games. But three losses in a row, including two at home to teams from the lower end of the WNBA scale, are at least a little concerning. The main take away is that their starting five damn well better be healthy (and stay that way) going into the postseason. Otherwise there’s a big drop-off for this team. Wright also limped off with what looked like a knee issue midway through the fourth quarter after running into Cambage, so one of their few trusted bench players might be about to miss some time as well.

 

  • For Tulsa this is a massive win. Firstly there’s the confidence boost from playing this well and winning on the home floor of the league’s best team. They’ve proved to themselves and everyone else that they can perform and beat a top team in hostile territory. Managing it without Glory Johnson or Riquna Williams makes it even more impressive, considering for a long stretch of this season those were their two effective players, and everyone else was virtually making up the numbers. It also pulls the Shock back within three games of Seattle in the final playoff spot in the West. They’ve only got nine games remaining on their schedule, but three of them are against San Antonio, and their final two games of the season are a home-and-home against the Storm. A playoff charge is still possible – if Tulsa can make this kind of performance more than a one-off.

 

 

Indiana Fever 72 @ Los Angeles Sparks 94

  • Nothing new on the injury front for either team coming into this game – Indiana were still without Katie Douglas and Shavonte Zellous, while Los Angeles continue to be one of the healthiest teams in the league. LA were looking to continue a five-game winning streak, and after Minnesota’s loss earlier in the evening they had the chance to move into a virtual tie with the Lynx atop the West.

 

  • Kristi Toliver opened the game with three straight buckets for LA, on a drive and two ridiculous jumpers. She clearly liked the look of her matchup with Erin Phillips, plus some nights Kristi just feels it. Sparks head coach Carol Ross’s eyes must light up when Toliver’s first couple of shots drop in an opening quarter. When she’s confident and in rhythm, Toliver’s one of the most electric scorers in the league and she can hit from anywhere.

 

  • The pattern of this game seemed eminently predictable before it even began. Both teams tried to push when they could, but when forced into halfcourt offense LA were vastly more effective. The Sparks have developed significantly as an offensive team within sets. They can manufacture points through a number of sources now, rather than constantly needing to run in order to score. They beat Indiana’s overplaying defense by going backdoor on several occasions, just as they did against the Fever last week on the road. The only surprise was when you looked up at the scoreboard and the Sparks led by just 12 at halftime. It felt more one-sided than that.

 

  • Briann January had another horrible game. It didn’t show up on the stat sheet as conspicuously as it did on the floor, where miscommunications, poor passes, and missed layups abounded. She closed out the first quarter with a stunningly dumb foul on Jenna O’Hea 30 feet from the hoop with one second on the clock, sending O’Hea to the free throw line. Then finished the second period by apparently looking at the wrong clock, starting a play far too late, and allowing the shot clock to expire. It was pitiful.

 

  • That said, January’s still put the work in on the defensive end this year (although miscommunications on that end hurt Indiana in this game as well). The Fever switched her onto Toliver to start the second half, hoping that would cool her off. The Sparks guard immediately drilled a couple of jumpers just to show that she didn’t give a damn who Indiana defended her with.

 

  • After the Fever produced a little bit of inside-outside ball movement, a transition bucket off a turnover, and Catchings hit a step-back jumper, Indiana were somehow back within seven points midway through the third quarter. Ross called a timeout, settled her team down, and replaced Candace Parker and Alana Beard with Jantel Lavender and Marissa Coleman. That’s one clear advantage that LA have right now over Indiana, and which they’ve had most of the season. Their health and depth allows Ross to rotate in new options, keep the energy high, and try something else if the players on the floor aren’t working. LA were back up by 16 by the end of the third, and the game was essentially over.

 

  • To make things even worse for the Fever, Karima Christmas drove the baseline with a minute left in the third, ran into Coleman, and crumpled to the floor in agony. It looked like a left hip problem of some sort, and it wouldn’t be any surprise if she missed tonight’s game in Seattle (at least). The last thing Indiana needed, after so many injury problems this season, was to lose one of the players who’s stepped up while her teammates have been dropping like flies.

 

  • LA are looking increasingly confident, and increasingly competent. Toliver finished this game 11-15 for 28 points on a series of jumpers and drives, once again illustrating how many ways this Sparks team can hurt their opponents. Parker and Ogwumike produced as well, but this time it was Toliver’s turn to be the star. They were helped by facing a team that just didn’t pose much of an offensive threat for most of the night, but they’re rolling lately. Looks like there’s going to be a fight for the #1 seed in the West after all.

 

 

Upcoming Games

 

Saturday August 17th (today):

Phoenix @ San Antonio, 8pm ET. The line is Silver Stars +7, and that’s enough for me to take San Antonio. If you discount games against Minnesota when the Lynx were dominating everyone, the Silver Stars have either been winning or keeping games close for a while now. Phoenix, meanwhile, have played three very low-scoring games since Russ Pennell took over, making the extra seven even more important. Give me San Antonio and the points.

 

Indiana @ Seattle, 10pm ET. Storm -1 is the line, and with Indiana on a back-to-back and potentially without Christmas on top of Zellous and Douglas, I’ll happily take Seattle. It could be a pretty damn ugly game either way.

 

—–

Sunday August 18th (tomorrow):

Washington @ Atlanta, 3pm ET

Connecticut @ Chicago, 6pm ET

New York @ Minnesota, 7pm ET

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One comment on “WNBA Today, 08/17/2013: Western summit continues to tighten; Eastern picture remains muddied

  1. […] Yup, the next few weeks will be miiiiighty interesting. LA is looming, Atlanta is Dreaming, and the #3 and #4 spots are up for grabs in both conferences. Read all about it at L’Alien! […]

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