Sunday saw three WNBA games, and ultimately three double-digit home victories. But each was achieved in a very different way, and we even had a little bit of controversy to spice things up as well. Bullet Point Breakdowns follow.
- This was a battle between two teams hoping to cement signs of an upturn in form. After playing some poor basketball to lose six out of seven and slide back into the pack in the East, Washington had run off three straight wins – starting with a shocking upset win in Minnesota. Meanwhile, Atlanta had lost eight of nine before destroying Connecticut on Friday night, which they were obviously hoping could begin their own new streak. The Dream came in with oddly competing statistics – they hadn’t beaten anyone besides the Sun since June, and beating Connecticut this season barely counts; but so many of their recent games have been on the road, they still held the best home record in the WNBA. At 9-1 at Philips Arena coming into this game, they had every right to be confident on their own floor, despite all those losses elsewhere.
- In a frantic, end-to-end opening quarter, it was Washington who got off to the better start. They were pushing the ball hard, looking for quick offense, and attacking Angel McCoughtry off the dribble. It was hard to tell whether Angel was meant to be guarding Matee Ajavon or Monique Currie – McCoughtry seemed to pick up whoever she felt like on any given possession, assuming she made it back down the floor in time to guard anyone. But early on, Washington were both breaking down Atlanta’s defense, and hitting their open shots from outside.
- McCoughtry was still getting plenty back at the other end, attacking and getting to the rim as usual. Dream head coach Fred Williams also showed a willingness to try the small lineup with McCoughtry at the 4 earlier than usual, which was a positive. It’s rarely come into play in the first quarter this season.
- Atlanta just about survived the early second quarter minutes where McCoughtry rests – it’s been a struggle to avoid collapsing in that period lately – and then made a push when she came back. They had positive moments both with Le’coe Willingham at power forward – a much more reliable option to guard Crystal Langhorne than McCoughtry – and with the quicker, more aggressive small lineup. By halftime, while it felt like Washington had been on top for much of the first half, the Dream were in front 38-37.
- The second half was a very different story from the first. Atlanta came out with much better energy defensively, and took the game away from the Mystics very quickly. The Dream got every little call in the second half from the officials, which helped, but they also earned many of those calls by driving relentlessly and forcing the referees to make decisions. With so many dead balls and Atlanta buckets, Washington couldn’t get out and run any more, and were constantly facing a set Dream defense. The Mystics offense ground to a halt.
- The third quarter of this game also gave me a chance to jump back on one of my favourite topics – the complete joke that is the NBA/WNBA’s ‘Clear Path Foul’ rule. The officials reviewed two fouls by the Mystics in the period. The first could’ve been ‘clear path’, depending on whether they felt McCoughtry had gained possession or not before being grabbed by Ajavon. It was a fifty-fifty call with how the rule is currently written. The second clearly wasn’t a clear path foul, because Currie was further towards her own basket than McCoughtry when Langhorne fouled her. Of course, the officials decided the first one was a common foul, and the second was clear path. Nonsense. But it’s a mess of a rule. Officials, broadcasters and fans are all confused by it, and often misinterpret it. And we already have a better alternative. FIBA use the ‘intentional foul’, and when someone’s grabbed to prevent an obvious breakaway, they call it. Some FIBA officials use it too widely in other situations, but it’s implemented pretty successfully on those run-out plays the ‘Clear Path’ rule is intended to deal with. Please fix it, WNBA (and NBA).
- As for this game, Atlanta’s lead basically just kept growing. It hit double-digits midway through the third quarter, and Washington could never get enough of a grip on the game to work back into it. They weren’t helped by the fact that Currie and Ajavon couldn’t hit a shot, so even if they created decent looks on the perimeter, they weren’t dropping. When Mike Thibault’s starting the fourth quarter with Quanitra Hollingsworth at center, you know things aren’t going very well for Washington.
- So that’s two in a row for Atlanta, and maybe they’re finally turning a corner. It’s been a struggle since losing Sancho Lyttle again, but having Tiffany Hayes back definitely helps. While Willingham was useful in this game and made their standard two-big lineups effective, Hayes makes their small lineup much more viable. It’s the work rate, athleticism and rebounding ability of players like Hayes and Armintie Herrington, along with McCoughtry herself, that allow them to survive against opposing groups who are bigger and stronger than they are. Their game tonight will see McCoughtry go up against Maya Moore at small forward for most of the evening, but we could also see a few very interesting minutes where both teams go small and they’re lined up at the 4. It’ll be a fascinating clash between two teams who have elite forwards that give their coaches options.
- This was a tough loss for Washington because they’d started so well, but it’s difficult to beat the Dream on the road. The Mystics still don’t have the same stars that can take over games that other teams have, so sometimes they lose momentum and can’t find a way to get it back. They’ll continue to scrap for everything this season, and they’re still clinging on to that unexpected playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
- The injury and absentee news for both teams was the same as in other recent games – Connecticut still without Allison Hightower and Kara Lawson, Chicago still missing Elena Delle Donne (along with Sharnee Zoll-Norman and Carolyn Swords). The good news was that the Sky reported Delle Donne would be a game-time decision for their matchup with Washington on Tuesday (and reports since then have suggested she’s going to play). That’s a quicker return from her mid-foot sprain than initially anticipated.
- In their previous game, Chicago were awful for most of the night against Seattle, and required a storming fourth quarter comeback to salvage a win. They opened this game just as badly as they’d played the opening 32 minutes against the Storm. The Sky missed a staggering number of layups in the first half, and when you don’t have many reliable outside shooters on your team that’s a particularly big problem. At the other end, the Sky were unfortunate that Tan White and Renee Montgomery were shooting better than usual, but Chicago were also playing lazy defense and allowing far too much dribble-penetration. Their heads dropped as the first half wore on, so things only got worse.
- Connecticut were playing largely the same kind of defense that’s been played against them for most of the season – collapse on the All-Star center, and make someone else beat you. Without Delle Donne, and with Epiphanny Prince and Allie Quigley shooting a combined 2-14 in the first half, Chicago were failing to find an alternative way to score. And considering she plays closer to the rim than Tina Charles, it’s even easier to drop extra defenders onto Sylvia Fowles. Everyone just takes a big step in towards the paint, narrowing passing lanes and swamping her with defenders inside.
- The Sun led by as many as 15 points in the first quarter – it took Chicago nearly six minutes to score at all – and by 25 late in the second. Actually making a couple of layups, then Courtney Vandersloot hitting a three, gave the Sky some hope before the break – narrowing the gap to just 16 at 43-27.
- Chicago’s offense was still pretty horrible for most of the third quarter. They still couldn’t hit a shot in halfcourt sets, which makes it hard to score when your opponent is doing everything they can to close off the paint. However, the Sky did have some success creating points off their defense, forcing steals and scoring from the resulting transition opportunities. When you can’t convert against a set defense you have to find alternative routes, and Chicago were finally managing that. They started to inch back into the game, aided by Connecticut’s return to a static, poor offense focussed too much on Tina Charles. The Sun were still having a little success with dribble-penetration, but only on the rare occasions they remembered that was their most effective route to produce points.
- With Epiphanny Prince finally recognising that if she couldn’t hit a damn thing from outside, she needed to attack to defense for layups and free throws, Chicago were within seven points towards the end of the third quarter and seemed to be rolling. Then Pokey Chatman destroyed her own team’s momentum by putting a lineup on the floor of Prince and four bench players. It’s a little more understandable with Delle Donne hurt – there are fewer stars to work with – but yet again it was a lineup with so few offensive options that their pace died completely. Fowles, Vandersloot and Swin Cash shouldn’t have all been on the bench simultaneously.
- Still, Chatman recognised that issue quickly, and all three returned early in the fourth quarter before everything could fall apart again. We had to wait until the final minutes, but the charge from the Sky eventually arrived. Connecticut still led 71-64 with 4:44 left in the game, when Anne Donovan made a quadruple substitution. One of those switches was to take Montgomery off the floor, leaving the ballhandling duties to a combination of Tan White and Kalana Greene. To say that backfired would be a significant understatement. Kelly Faris extended the Sun lead to nine with a jumper, before Chicago scored 17 points without reply. Cash and Shay Murphy sealed the end of that run with long jumpers once Chicago had gained momentum, but it was all built with layups and free throws, largely created from Sun turnovers. Donovan has limited guard options with Hightower and Lawson hurt, but Greene doesn’t even faintly resemble a point guard. Connecticut gave up some desperately cheap turnovers to keep the ball rolling for the Sky, then compounded their problems by repeatedly fouling on Chicago’s layups. Three consecutive three-point plays took the Sky from seven behind to up two. It was a disaster for Connecticut.
- Just as in their last game against Seattle, Chicago’s late run was so overwhelming that the game wasn’t even that close by the end. In fact, from a gambling perspective, it was one of the more remarkable covers in recent WNBA memory. The line was Chicago -9, which means the Sky had to win by more than nine points to cover the spread. Connecticut kept fouling beyond the point where it was really necessary, and then gave up their 14th and 15th turnovers of the second half to hand Murphy a breakaway layup to seal an 11-point win. That’s a 36-point swing after trailing by 25 moments before halftime.
- These kinds of crazy comebacks always feel nice for the team that makes them, but you also have to remember that they played badly enough to dig the hole in the first place. Chicago have been dreadful for most of their last two games, which isn’t a positive response to playing without Delle Donne. Fortunately, she’s about to return, and they won both games anyway. Fowles finished this game with her second 20/20 stat-line of the season (the first to accomplish that twice in the same year). 20 points and 21 rebounds was pretty impressive considering Connecticut focussed most of their defense on stopping her all night long. Prince improved in the second half, although she did it almost exclusively by remembering that she could drive for points. She still couldn’t hit anything from outside. But if she can carry that attacking mentality into more games, the jump shot is more likely to return while she’s finding other ways to score. It’s a much better option than just firing away blindly from outside.
- It was another painful game for Connecticut. You’d almost rather be behind wire-to-wire than somehow contrive to give up a 25-point advantage. Charles was dominated again in her personal duel with Fowles, shooting 5-16 despite being defended one-on-one for much of the night by Big Syl. It was Fowles who had to face constant double-teams, and finished with her impressive numbers regardless. The All-WNBA First-team center is a very easy choice this year. Charles will be lucky to end up on the second-team (but will probably get there on reputation more than performance).
- This was one of those games that looked decided before tip-off. Minnesota had lost three in a row, but that just left everyone expecting a response rather than some kind of continuing collapse. They had their starting group back together for the first time in a few games, with Rebekkah Brunson returning from her knee problem (Janel McCarville had only just returned from a concussion herself). However, a bruised right quad kept sixth-woman Monica Wright in street clothes. New York had bigger injury issues, with a heel problem ruling out star guard Cappie Pondexter. According to Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer, she suffered the injury against Atlanta the previous weekend and shouldn’t have played against Washington on Friday night (when she was poor in a home loss to the Mystics). The fact that they were on the road against a Western Conference opponent – in a game they’d probably have expected to lose anyway – would’ve made it an even easier decision to rest Pondexter for upcoming games.
- Recent pick-up DeLisha Milton-Jones came into the starting lineup for New York, with Katie Smith and Kamiko Williams sliding over to become the backcourt.
- They started a little slowly, but by the end of the first quarter Minnesota were rolling as you’d expect. Maya Moore hit a trio of threes in the opening period, McCarville was knocking down her catch-and-shoot jumper without hesitation, and the Lynx ran out to a double-digit lead.
- Minnesota relaxed a little too much in the second quarter, and the Liberty managed to get inside their defense on several consecutive possessions, narrowing their deficit to just four points. The Lynx were happily firing away jump shots, as they do, and a few in a row had refused to drop. They quickly regrouped and refocused, went inside to McCarville who drew a foul and hit free throws, before Seimone Augustus nailed a three. They were swiftly back in control. As a side-note, Augustus has been shooting the three more frequently lately. She’s taken at least three attempts from beyond the arc in seven of Minnesota’s last nine games. She’s not shooting a great percentage from back there this year, and maybe the extra distance has dissuaded her from taking too many, but it’s a positive step as long as she’s comfortable. Minnesota take so many long twos, that it would always be nice to see a few more come from behind the arc instead.
- The Lynx only led 43-34 at halftime, but seemed in almost complete control. A 12-2 run to open the second half cemented that position, and essentially ended the game as a contest. Without Pondexter, even though she hasn’t played that well for much of the season, New York just didn’t have the firepower to compete. It also seemed like their players came in feeling like they had virtually no chance from the beginning. They didn’t really look that different for much of the game than they have with Cappie on the floor, but in the second half they seemed to lack any belief that they could challenge Minnesota. The game just drifted away.
- But the biggest storyline to emerge from the game was still to come. As is her wont, Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve left her stars in a long time, even in a game that was already decided. Lindsay Whalen and Augustus finally sat down with under five minutes remaining, when Minnesota led by 24. Maya Moore played an extra minute longer. Laimbeer was upset by that, and after the game said “I was a little disappointed when they left Maya Moore in the game to try and get Player of the Week again, when the game was out of control. She should get hurt for that.” Obviously, Bill has his ‘Bad Boys’ reputation from his playing days, and we’ve come to expect a physical, ‘old-school’ approach from his coaching and his teams. But saying a player should get hurt is clearly crossing the line. Be upset if you want, bitch about it in the press or complain about Reeve, but don’t start talking about injuring an opponent. He ought to be fined by the league for those comments, but the habit of the WNBA is to keep those kind of things quiet – so we may never know even if they do take some action. It’s a statement that goes beyond the pale and has no place in the modern game. The NBA, and therefore the WNBA, have worked hard to take the ‘thug’ mentality out of the game as much as possible. We don’t need Laimbeer bringing it back.
- As for the game itself, Moore shot the lights out for most of the night and led the scoring for the Lynx. Brunson played restricted minutes, but looked healthy enough in her return. Amber Harris played less than four minutes in a complete blowout, which tells you exactly how far she’s fallen in Reeve’s estimation. If there was anyone remotely useful on the open market who could step in quickly as a fourth post before the end of the season, Minnesota would probably be interested, because Reeve’s not going to want to use Harris at all in the postseason. They did get some nice minutes from rookie wing Rachel Jarry, however, in her first meaningful minutes for months. She’s had a couple of niggling injuries during the season, and struggled to earn playing time, but an extra perimeter option would be nice to have in reserve. When Wright returns, Jarry could start battling Sugar Rodgers for whatever backup perimeter minutes remain.
- New York basically conceded defeat when they gave Pondexter the night off. They’ll hope she’s back quickly, with games in Chicago and Connecticut coming up this weekend. After the post-game comments from Laimbeer – Reeve’s former mentor when she was his assistant in Detroit – we can only hope that there’s no trouble when these teams clash again in a week. If Laimbeer’s got even an ounce of class – sometimes that seems pretty doubtful – he’ll have apologised for his comments by then. Two days after he made them, we’re yet to hear a thing.
Brazil’s head coach Luiz Augusto Zanon named a preliminary roster of 16 players for the upcoming FIBA Americas Championship and the list includes Atlanta center Erika de Souza. The tournament’s in Mexico from September 21st-28th, which means at an absolute minimum she’d miss Game 2 (and 3 if necessary) of a first-round playoff series and Game 1 of the Conference Finals – if she goes. It’s a tournament that Erika’s generally not bothered playing in, apart from two years ago when it doubled as the qualifying tournament for the London Olympics. Brazil ought to be able to finish in the top-three anyway, which is all that’s necessary to qualify for the World Championships next year. I tend to believe she’s been added to the roster more in hope than expectation, and that she’ll stay in Atlanta (assuming they make the playoffs). But until she or the Dream confirm, it’s an understandable concern.
Tuesday August 20th (today):
Chicago @ Washington, 7pm ET. The line’s Mystics +1.5, and with Delle Donne reportedly ready to play, it’s a relatively easy choice to take Chicago. They may have struggled in recent games, and Mike Thibault’s smart enough to attack their weak spots, but the Sky have been a significantly better team than Washington virtually all season.
Minnesota @ Atlanta, 7pm ET. Dream +3 is the line, and I like the Lynx. As with everyone else, they’ll throw multiple bodies at Angel McCoughtry, try to force Atlanta to beat them from outside, and run right back at the Dream if they force the game into a high tempo. It should be fun to watch.
Phoenix @ Tulsa, 8pm ET. This should be interesting as well, after Tulsa were squashed twice in Phoenix recently in Russ Pennell’s first games as head coach. The Shock are four-point underdogs on their own floor thanks to those results, despite winning in Minnesota on Friday. I’ll take Tulsa and the points. Phoenix weren’t impressive in their first road game under Pennell on Saturday.
Los Angeles @ Seattle, 10pm ET. Storm +6 is the line, but with the way LA have been playing lately they’re coming in on a high. And Candace Parker almost always performs when she’s on national TV. I’ll take the Sparks.
Wednesday August 21st (tomorrow):
San Antonio @ Indiana, 7pm ET.