Last night saw a double-header of action in the WNBA, featuring three Western teams still hoping to grab the two remaining playoff spots in any doubt in the West, and one Eastern squad continuing to fight for their own postseason berth. We began in San Antonio, where they were taking Breast Cancer Awareness night an extra step or two further. Not just pink uniforms, but a pink court, pink spotlights, pink shoes for head coach Dan Hughes, and pink hair for point guard Danielle Robinson. Apparently it really is true that everything is bigger in Texas.
After leaving Phoenix’s previous game with a knee problem, Candace Dupree was fit enough to start, but backup point guard Jasmine James stayed home due to a concussion suffered in that same game. Penny Taylor continues to miss out due to her knee, of course. San Antonio are still without Sophia Young and Becky Hammon, as they have been for all but 12 minutes of the season. Recent signing Chelsea Poppens was a new addition to their options off the bench.
The most obviously intriguing aspect of this game was whether Phoenix’s defensive improvements under new head coach Russ Pennell could be sustained. They’d won three in a row since he took over, but this was his first game on the road, and the first against a team that actually likes to shoot from outside and will happily exploit those opportunities repeatedly. There’s a reason that most teams build some kinks into their vanilla man-to-man defense, and it’s because you’ll run into teams like this who’ll break it down without much trouble. In the first half, San Antonio illustrated that Phoenix’s new defensive structure is still very much a work-in-progress. The Mercury are only switching in very obvious situations – deep baseline cuts where opponents cross over, wing handoffs where it’s easy to change assignments – on everything else defenders are generally expected to stick with their man. Except when they don’t, or can’t. Too many Mercury defenders were caught on screens, and left in an opponent’s wake while she was wide open for a jump shot. Or there was confusion when one Mercury player left her assignment and expected a teammate to swing over and cover, but the teammate didn’t get the memo. Against some teams, Pennell may have to switch a little more, or at least hedge a little more with his bigs on screens. Or it’s just a matter of building chemistry so the Phoenix players know how to react and recover defensively. They haven’t been doing this for very long.
Arguably more concerning than the defense, was how stilted Phoenix’s offense looked at times in this game. San Antonio are well coached and well drilled, but ultimately they’ve been a pretty bad defensive team this season. They leave holes you can exploit. It seemed obvious that Phoenix should’ve been pick-and-rolling them to death all night long. On a couple of early Mercury possessions, we saw the same problems for San Antonio defending that basic play that they had against Liz Cambage and Tulsa. If you put Jayne Appel (or even Danielle Adams) in the pick-and-roll, then most of the time San Antonio will hedge hard against the ballhandler with both defenders. If the ballhandler can make the pass to the rolling post – something Diana Taurasi, for example, is incredibly good at – it’s likely to result in a very good look. Dupree got a wide open jumper and an easy layup (although she blew the latter) on early possessions, and Brittney Griner was left open from two feet (although she contrived to miss as well). It was baffling that Phoenix didn’t just run simple pick-and-rolls all night long. For whatever reason, they went away from it.
Without the level of success you’d typically expect offensively for Phoenix, San Antonio grew in confidence, and benefitted from the opportunities to run off long rebounds and Mercury breakdowns. The Silver Stars were up 23-13 at the end of the first quarter, and a combination of threes and layups pushed their lead as high as 18 points in the second period. Adams was producing points inside and out for the Silver Stars without being exploited at the other end by the Mercury. Phoenix did make a late run before halftime, when San Antonio missed a few jumpers and got caught in transition a couple of times. The Mercury scored the final eight points of the half, and went in only 45-37 behind.
Pennell is also still feeling out his roster, and you could see that at times. The rotation’s going deeper than it did under Gaines, and the minutes also seem more prone to fluctuation. Dupree and Griner spent long passages of the fourth quarter on the bench, and after three fouls in less than two minutes (including a couple of very tough calls) Taurasi was on the sidelines down the stretch as well. Some of this is what we wanted to see under Gaines – hold players accountable for their actions and deficiencies, and sit them down if that’s what they deserve. Some of it is just a new head coach trying to see what he’s got. But their were some strange lineup choices late in a game that almost got interesting.
San Antonio’s lead floated between 7 and 12 points for most of the second half. With Griner really struggling to finish plays inside, the bizarre disappearance of their pick-and-roll game and their defensive issues, Phoenix just couldn’t put together a sustained run. Taurasi was oddly peripheral to the action for most of the first half, but came into the game a bit more until those fouls derailed her. Charde Houston had a run of buckets in the fourth quarter as well, but by then it was too little, too late. The closest they came in the final minutes was six points, and they were helped out by some very silly fouls from the Silver Stars. A poor turnover from Shameka Christon with 20 seconds left gave Phoenix a chance to cut the gap to four, but Houston blew the breakaway layup and that sealed the result. San Antonio held on for an 88-82 victory.
It’s another bump in the road for Phoenix. They shot 51% from the field, somehow, but that masks a difficult night offensively where some of the choices didn’t make a lot of sense. Defensively, they just need to keep working. Improvements have been made but you can’t be perfect every night, and communication and chemistry are such major parts of effective defense. Those need time to build. They might have yet another injury issue as well, because DeWanna Bonner seemed to be hurt in the fourth quarter when teammate Alexis Hornbuckle fell into her. Losing another key piece like that wouldn’t help Pennell’s chances of continuing to improve this team.
San Antonio showed what they can do when they’re focussed and manage to take an opponent out of their rhythm, once again. As usual, they did most of their offensive damage on jump shots, but there was a balance between the likes of Jia Perkins, Danielle Robinson, Danielle Adams and Shenise Johnson (who hasn’t done much since the All-Star break, so it was nice to see her show up). They pierced the Phoenix defense when they could, and moved well to exploit the Mercury’s defensive problems on screens and rotations. They continue to claw out enough wins to hang around as a lingering threat for that final playoff spot in the West.
Shifting to Seattle…
The late game saw the team who’ve held that final Western playoff spot for most of the season hosting an Eastern opponent looking to cling on to their own postseason position. Seattle have had an up-and-down season, pulling out more wins than most expected without Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson. Indiana improved significantly as their roster started to get healthier, after struggling badly to start the year under the weight of injuries. But this was their third game in four nights on a Western road swing, and they’d already lost by double-digits in Phoenix and Los Angeles. It’s been an awkward stretch of games for them.
More injury issues haven’t helped the Fever. Shavonte Zellous was still out with plantar fasciitis, and she’s been the main perimeter scorer who’s stepped up to help Tamika Catchings this season in the absence of Katie Douglas. At least Karima Christmas was healthy enough to start, despite hobbling off with a hip issue in LA the night before. Seattle were unchanged again, and have actually been surprisingly healthy for most of the season – besides the long-term problems for Bird/Jackson, obviously.
Seattle got off to the quicker start in this game, with Tanisha Wright and Shekinna Stricklen in central roles. They also attacked the same hole in Indiana’s defense that we saw LA repeatedly aim for in recent games – going backdoor behind overplaying defenders. We saw earlier in the season that Indiana’s defense becomes less effective when they’ve got key players out to injury, because they don’t have the same chemistry, and that undoubtedly has played a part. But the Fever may need to tweak their defense if teams are going to consistently break them down in this way. The defensive three-seconds rule has changed where they can position their help defenders, which creates these gaps in behind where they didn’t exist before. They’ve done an effective job for most of the year in continuing to be one of the best defenses in the league, but teams watch tape and find flaws as the season goes on. We’ve seen that one problem recur too many times lately for Indiana to ignore it.
Seattle’s lead hit double-digits in the first quarter, but quickly dissipated in the second. Christmas and Jessica Breland hit a few jumpers from the top of the key, Seattle missed a few jump shots, and the game was tight again in moments. Both head coaches picked up technical fouls in the closing minutes of the first half, as the physicality of the game threatened to boil over a little. Both these teams fight for every inch, and this game was always going to be a war.
The entire second half continued to be a close, hard-fought battle. Both defenses were working hard, and it was difficult to string together any kind of run. Stricklen produced three straight buckets for Seattle in the third quarter, hitting a three on a kick-out from Wright, cutting backdoor for a layup, and then finishing again in transition after a Layshia Clarendon turnover. It forced a timeout from Lin Dunn, which also gave her the opportunity to put Catchings back in the game. A series of offensive boards led to a driving finish from Christmas, followed by a spin move from Catchings that left Tina Thompson guarding dust, wiping out most of that Stricklen push in seconds.
Even in the fourth quarter, there was never any kind of sustained charge that took over the game. Guard Erin Phillips may have hurt herself somewhere along the way, because she didn’t play in the final 14 minutes of the game, leaving Clarendon and Briann January in the backcourt for Indiana – neither of whom has played particularly well all season. That left Indiana with even fewer effective shooters on the floor than usual, which didn’t help. Seattle just made a play here and a play there to ease out four or six-point leads. With under three minutes remaining, a January three went around the rim and out, before Christmas grabbed the offensive rebound only to be blocked by Thompson from behind on the putback attempt. Moments later, when Camille Little badly missed a three at the other end, Noelle Quinn was on hand to grab the offensive board and drop it back in. Plays like that were all going the Storm’s way. Maybe having that little bit more energy in the tank due to fewer injuries and not playing the night before helped out.
January sinking a three with a minute to play cut the Fever deficit to three points – sometimes it feels like Briann should only shoot triples, considering she’s about a 36% shooter from everywhere, and that’s much better when it’s 36% of three instead of two. Stricklen then missed a wide open look from the corner for Seattle – left open because January bizarrely gambled off her for a steal – giving Indiana the ball in a one-possession game with 36 seconds left. Catchings pushed up a three over Little, it came up way short, and that was pretty much the game. Indiana had to start fouling, Wright and Thompson made their free throws, and Seattle finished off a 77-70 win.
It’s been a bit of a struggle for Indiana in the last week or two. They pulled off two impressive wins over Chicago, but since then their only victory came when they got hot from outside against Atlanta. Otherwise it’s been rough-going against Western opponents. They head home for a game against San Antonio on Wednesday, but then it’s back out on their travels again for four more road games. They really need someone to get healthy – Zellous seems most likely – to help out the offense, and just to reunite a unit that’s been playing together for a while. Phillips has been attacked relentlessly by more than one team in this run of games, and Tanisha Wright had just as much success as Kristi Toliver did. Some of that’s probably down to Phillips’s knee making it more difficult for her to stick with opponents, but it’s also because she hasn’t been working in this system or with these players all year. While their vastly improved play made the Fever look like a dead-cert playoff team for a while, the standings show that their position is still rather precarious. They still need to win some games down the stretch just to make the postseason, never mind make an impact once it begins.
With Tulsa’s upset win in Minnesota the night before, and San Antonio beating Phoenix earlier in the evening, Seattle needed this one. It was a tough, grinding game, but they were pretty successful offensively over the course of it. Wright, Thompson and Stricklen were the main scoring weapons, and Wright in particular has had several useful outings lately. The Storm look a much better team when she’s on the ball making things happen, and playing with the confidence to create and take shots. She’s physical enough to go at opponents both on the defensive end and in the paint, which Seattle needs (especially considering Stricklen does most of her damage from outside, despite being far bigger than Wright). It’s going to be a battle to hold on to a playoff spot in the West, but this team is always up for a fight.
Sunday August 18th (today):
Washington @ Atlanta, 3pm ET. Dream -8 is a lot of points considering how well Washington have played in their last few games, and Atlanta’s poor run of form. The Dream still haven’t beaten anyone other than Connecticut since June. On the other hand, they’re 9-1 at home on the season. I’ll take Washington and the eight, just because I think that’s a little too high. But I don’t like it.
Connecticut @ Chicago, 6pm ET. Presumably the Sky will still be without Elena Delle Donne, but they’re nine-point favourites anyway. And once again I can’t take this Sun team, especially on the road, to cover anything. Give me Chicago -9. I’m not sure exactly how high this spread would’ve had to have been for me to take Connecticut. Very, very high.
New York @ Minnesota, 7pm ET. Off a three-game losing streak, the gambling world still believes in the Lynx, making them 14.5-point favourites. If we knew Minnesota would be at full strength, I’d probably take them to cover that. But after Rebekkah Brunson missed their last game with a knee problem, I’ll take New York to cover. Even if Minnesota pull away for a comfortable win, there’s every chance they’d relax and let the margin drop below 15 anyway.