WNBA Today, 08/21/2013: Western leaders lose, Eastern leaders win, and Shock fall to Mercury yet again

 

It was a busy Tuesday in the WNBA this week, with four games competing for our attention last night. As always, all of them are covered for you right here. On to the Bullet Point Breakdowns.

 

Minnesota Lynx 75 @ Atlanta Dream 88

  • Having ended their surprising three-game losing skid with a comfortable win over New York on Sunday, the Lynx came in looking to build another winning streak against the team they swept in the 2011 WNBA Finals. In fact, the Dream hadn’t beaten Minnesota since 2010, back before Maya Moore turned pro. However, after two consecutive wins Atlanta looked like they might’ve found some form, ending a horrible streak of eight losses in nine games. Plus, they came in with a 10-1 record at home this season, the best in the WNBA.

 

  • Minnesota had Monica Wright available again after she missed a game due to a bruised quad. Le’coe Willingham continued to deputise for the injured Sancho Lyttle for Atlanta.

 

  • The Dream got off to the much quicker start in this game, and although Minnesota briefly came back into it as the first quarter continued, Atlanta dominated most of the first half. Early on it was Lynx turnovers and Dream offensive boards that were leading to Atlanta’s edge, with Erika de Souza making the most of her size advantage in the paint. As the half progressed, it was the active hands and constant energy of the Dream defense which kept Atlanta on top.

 

  • As always, Angel McCoughtry was a major part of the Dream’s success, but she had help. First from Erika, then from Tiffany Hayes, who continued her impressive recent form. Hayes brings such energy and hustle to the team at both ends of the floor, and even if her shooting can be streaky (and she shoots her threes from somewhere down around her knees) she gives Atlanta another legitimate threat from the perimeter. Fred Williams also seems to have decided – partly because of how good Hayes has been – that the small lineup with McCoughtry sliding to power forward has become his ‘first-change’ option. He’s gone to it in the first quarter of both their last two games and used it for long stretches, with Aneika Henry used purely as Erika’s backup at center. It keeps their energy constantly high, because that small group know they have to work their butts off to move and help each other due to their lack of pure size.

 

  • Williams also smartly switched up his rotation a little in this game. Leading 20-17 at the end of the first quarter but on top, he left McCoughtry in rather than benching her for her typical rest at the start of the second quarter. The Dream have suffered ugly lulls in that period in many recent games, but instead they kept their momentum rolling, built a lead, and McCoughtry still got some rest later in the half anyway. Williams recognised that they couldn’t afford the lull against Minnesota, and navigated around it nicely for once.

 

  • After trailing by as many as 17, the Lynx did drag themselves back into it before halftime. Cheryl Reeve went to a very unusual lineup, after already exhibiting her displeasure with the performance by booting the ball across the court after calling a timeout. Monica Wright, Seimone Augustus, Sugar Rodgers and Rachel Jarry were all on the floor together, in undoubtedly the smallest lineup Minnesota have used all season. It didn’t last long – Maya Moore returned to make it a more standard ‘small’ lineup – but it did help the Lynx wake up a little. Between Augustus jump shots and an offensive rebounding attack led by Rebekkah Brunson, Minnesota only trailed 52-41 at halftime. It looked like the Lynx were going to have some momentum heading into the break when Moore pulled up from ridiculously deep and hit an off-balance three, but she did it a few seconds early. It gave Hayes time to answer, and nail her own 30-foot heave at the buzzer to send the crowd wild.

 

  • After being largely outplayed for the first half, the third quarter was all Minnesota. They dominated the glass, and exploited Atlanta’s aggressive defense several times by going backdoor and getting in behind them. The Lynx defense had better energy, forcing Atlanta into shots from outside their range, and defending without giving away the fouls that they constantly committed in the first half. And, obviously, they made some shots. Even when they’re playing well and on top of teams, so much of Minnesota’s attack comes down to shooters like Augustus, Moore and Whalen simply hitting shots. An 11-point halftime deficit became a four-point Minnesota lead by the end of the third quarter.

 

  • However, as quickly as Minnesota seemed to have taken control of the game, Atlanta ripped it away again. Blame it on Minnesota fatigue if you want – there are certainly some Lynx fans starting to wonder if that’s an issue for their team – but the Atlanta defense swarmed them and absolutely dominated the fourth quarter. In the seven minutes of fourth quarter play before Reeve grew so exasperated that she cleared the bench, Minnesota shot 0-9 on a bunch of tough jumpers under pressure, while committing seven turnovers. The Dream were forcing them into bad shots, or near-impossible passes into tiny gaps to try to create something better. Minnesota got outplayed.

 

  • At the other end of the floor, Alex Bentley stepped up to make a couple of important shots, and the dribble-penetration of Hayes continued to be important. While they took a brief vacation in the third quarter, Atlanta broke down the Lynx defense pretty consistently in this game, and it created good looks or trips to the free throw line. It’s the kind of offense Atlanta were succeeding with back when they started the season 10-1.

 

  • Atlanta finished with four players scoring in double-digits, with Armintie Herrington joining McCoughtry, Hayes and Erika. They played the entire fourth quarter with their small lineup, either forcing Minnesota to go small to match them, or hiding McCoughtry on Janel McCarville (who basically has no post game at this point, so did nothing to take advantage). When they play with this kind of energy and drive at both ends of the floor, Atlanta can overcome their limited outside shooting, and even the occasional brick-fest from McCoughtry. The Dream are scary when they play like this.

 

  • Meanwhile for Minnesota, the ‘scary’ thing is that they’ve lost four out of five. They lost this game to a very good team who have been even more dominant at home, so this one wasn’t a huge surprise, but teams like the Lynx aren’t supposed to drop that many games in a short space of time. Maybe they’re tired, and banged-up, or maybe it’s the wake-up call they needed before the playoffs arrived. A game against Connecticut on Thursday night ought to be the perfect opportunity to right the ship and start moving in the right direction again. The fourth quarter of this game taught them a lesson about the energy and desire necessary to take over games down the stretch. They’re supposed to have graduated from that class already.

 

 

Chicago Sky 79 @ Washington Mystics 73

  • To the relief of every Sky player, coach and fan, Elena Delle Donne returned earlier than expected from her mid-foot sprain and took her place in the starting lineup for this game. The Sky had pulled off two ridiculous comebacks to win their last two games without her, but there’d been some desperately ugly basketball in digging the holes they’d somehow climbed out of. Mystics head coach Mike Thibault made a change to his starting lineup as well, putting Kia Vaughn in at center over Michelle Snow.

 

  • The Vaughn move proved to be a masterstroke from Thibault. As we’ve seen from previous matchups between these teams this year, Chicago use Sylvia Fowles to guard Crystal Langhorne, Swin Cash on Monique Currie, and Delle Donne tries to hide on the center. Against Michelle Snow that’s not a big problem, because at this stage in her career Snow’s offense largely comes down to mid-range jump shots and the occasional putback. Vaughn actually likes to mix it up inside. With Vaughn/Langhorne rather than Snow/Langhorne as their post tandem, Washington could stretch Fowles out to the perimeter by moving Langhorne outside, keeping Big Syl away from a natural help position on defense. Then Vaughn had room to attack inside and pile up points. It was by no means all Delle Donne’s fault – Vaughn scored her points in a variety of ways, past a variety of defenders after screens and movement forced rotations and switches – but Vaughn had far and away her best offensive half of the season in the first half of this game.

 

  • Led by Vaughn, Washington were ahead by as many as 11 points in the first quarter. She was doing a solid job at the other end as well, fighting Fowles off the block and limiting her touches in the paint. Epiphanny Prince was also back to her typical, painfully ineffective ways. But point guard Courtney Vandersloot had a nice half knocking down shots and attacking off the dribble – some of Ivory Latta’s defense was miserable – and the Sky had that talented rookie back on the floor. Delle Donne found some space in transition to hit from outside, and created some contact to head to the free throw line (where she’s one of the best in the league). She even helps take some of the pressure off Vandersloot as a ballhandler, because when Delle Donne grabs a defensive rebound and there isn’t an immediate outlet opportunity to break, they let her bring the ball up and look to create. It’s a simple way to involve her in the offense immediately, and force a defense into something it’s not used to – covering a 6’5″ forward who’s running the offense as a pseudo-point guard.

 

  • One addition it would be nice to see develop in Delle Donne’s game is a little more passing vision just before she’s about to fire. It’s something we’ve seen increasingly from Angel McCoughtry this year. When McCoughtry rises up, fully prepared to shoot, she’s still keeping her eyes open for the opportunity to turn it into a jump pass to a better placed teammate. It’s something she never used to do, but her assists have gone up dramatically this season as a result. When Delle Donne’s on the move and looking ready to pull the trigger, defenders swarm her way. There was one occasion in this game where she jumped to fire and three defenders rose with her. She’s a willing passer, but there are still some instincts drilled into her from Delaware where they needed her to take practically every shot on offer. Sometimes moving the ball on is a better option, even when you’re as talented a scorer as Delle Donne.

 

  • So Chicago were down only 41-37 at halftime, despite Vaughn’s 17-point explosion. The only negative for Washington was that it felt like they should’ve capitalised more on their performance to lead by a greater margin. It became an even bigger issue when they couldn’t hit a shot to save their lives in the third quarter, allowing Chicago to take over the lead. The Sky offense was still pretty poor, but with Washington failing to convert at all, it was enough. The Mystics fell behind by seven midway through the period, but eventually managed to hang around by drawing fouls for free throws. It was the only way they had to manufacture points.

 

  • The pattern didn’t change that much in the fourth quarter. Chicago just about kept their noses in front through Fowles’s work on the glass, an occasional jumper and trips to the free throw line (Washington committed far too many fouls on jump shooters in this game). Washington managed to respond, but with Matee Ajavon and Monique Currie both firing blanks from outside all night, Langhorne invisible, and Vaughn quiet since being clocked by a Fowles elbow just after halftime, it was heavy going.

 

  • The Mystics came close a couple of times in the final period. Latta hit a pair of threes – she hadn’t done much offensively before that point, either – to pull them within a point, only for Delle Donne free throws and a Fowles finish on the pick-and-roll to push the Sky lead back out. Then Washington were within two with 90 seconds to play, only for Vandersloot to knock down a big three after the Mystics defense overcompensated to cover the Sky’s Big Three. Then Sloot took a charge from Currie, Delle Donne stuck with a play and finished after Vaughn blocked her initial attempt, and the game was virtually over. Washington just didn’t quite have the offensive firepower to pull off the upset.

 

  • It was a messy, scrappy win for Chicago, but they got there in the end. Delle Donne’s perimeter shooting and ability to create a decent look on her own was a noticeable and important addition back into their attack, and they needed her in this one. Vandersloot was impressive as well, overcoming a few poor turnovers with a solid offensive performance in other areas. Fowles was Fowles, producing 16 points and 15 boards without ever seeming to be heavily involved in the offense. She was defended well all night, but just finds ways to produce. Her work on the offensive glass is outstanding. Epiphanny Prince is still the great unknown for this team. After a couple of decent streaks of minutes in their two recent comebacks, she was desperately poor again. If she’s hurt, she should just take a couple of weeks off to help her body, but she looks like she’s moving fine. The offense just isn’t there. The Sky are desperately hoping it comes back in time for the playoffs. Oh and this game, being Chicago’s 18th win of the season, secured the Sky’s first ever winning-season as a franchise. Mathematically, their playoff spot isn’t secured yet, but they’re almost there. It’s about damn time.

 

  • Even with Vaughn’s hot half, Washington just can’t overcome so many poor offensive nights from so many players. None of their other starters produced, and it was a little surprising that they were still so close in the final minutes. Sometimes, Washington still struggle to compete with teams like Chicago purely because of the talent level of the top players on the respective rosters. The Mystics will play hard virtually every night, but sometimes that’s not enough.

 

 

Phoenix Mercury 89 @ Tulsa Shock 86

  • There was good news for both teams on the injury front, even if it wasn’t evident from the starting lineups. Both Riquna Williams (ankle) and Glory Johnson (concussion) were back in uniform and available for Tulsa, although Tiffany Jackson-Jones continued to start at power forward as Johnson was eased back into the action. Phoenix started Charde Houston ahead of DeWanna Bonner, but that was only an effort to protect Bonner after recent injury issues. She had a knee problem just before new head coach Russ Pennell arrived, then picked up an ankle issue in their game against San Antonio. But having her available to play off the bench was much better than it might’ve been after she missed most of the fourth quarter against the Silver Stars.

 

  • After their first matchup a week earlier had turned out to be a bit of a damp squib due to foul trouble, everyone was still eager to see Brittney Griner and Liz Cambage go at each other in the paint. Once again, there was plenty of bumping and barging, with Cambage in particular absolutely certain she’d been fouled a gazillion times within the opening three minutes of the game. Over the course of the night, it ended up relatively even. Both forced the other into missing shots they’d usually convert; both showed off a little range on their shot when they got tired of battling under the rim; and both were probably lucky to avoid picking up even more fouls than they did. Cambage did a slightly better job of forcing Griner into foul trouble in the first half.

 

  • There was one other noticeable difference between Griner and Cambage in the first half – Griner made no visits to the foul line at all, while Cambage shot poorly when she got there. Tulsa gave away too many points in the first half, shooting just 8-15 at the line. Cambage’s 3-7 was a big part of that. Usually she’s better than that on freebies.

 

  • There were mixed fortunes for Tulsa’s returning players. Having Riquna Williams back was a breath of life into their offense, reintroducing a guard who’s constantly looking to attack and create her own offense. They’ve got so little individual creation and scoring from the rest of their perimeter, so she’d been noticeably missed. Glory Johnson looked good after coming into the game, but took a hard foul in the second quarter from Alexis Hornbuckle. Johnson was looking to convert a layup on the break, when Hornbuckle grabbed her and spun her out of control before she crashed to the ground. She left the game holding her left wrist. Jackson-Jones looks like she might be benefitting from the extra minutes, stepping up her game a little during Johnson’s recent injury, but the Shock certainly didn’t want to lose their young star again moments after coming back.

 

  • Phoenix had some struggles offensively at times in this game. They’ve gone away from their pick-and-roll attack, which doesn’t make much sense to me considering how successfully Diana Taurasi and Candice Dupree have run that basic play this season. But Taurasi was still producing points one way or another, and with a little from everyone else the Mercury were only down 42-39 at halftime. Cambage and Williams unsurprisingly led the way for Tulsa.

 

  • Phoenix took over the game in the third quarter. Tulsa fired up too many jump shots early on, forgetting about their bread and butter, then started to miss inside as well even once they remembered. At the other end, Phoenix’s offense stepped up a gear, with Taurasi leading the way and excellent support from Dupree and Bonner. They were moving the ball better, and piercing into the middle of Tulsa’s defense on passes and drives. They were simply creating much better looks than the Shock, and it led to a nine-point lead by the end of the period. On the bright side for Tulsa, Johnson returned to the game mid-way through the third, but with her left wrist heavily strapped. She’s right-handed, but it seemed to affect her shot for the rest of the game.

 

  • This game felt like it was over more than once in the fourth quarter, but Tulsa refused to go away. Phoenix were 11-points up with 2:19 remaining after a Taurasi three, only for a 10-2 Shock run to make things a little interesting again. Within that push, Candice Wiggins even sank a triple, after yet another terrible game. She was destroyed by Taurasi most of the night (she’s hardly the first, but when defense is the only good reason to have Wiggins on the floor, it bears mentioning) and invisible offensively. The delights of the Diggins/Wiggins backcourt have distinctly failed to materialise this season.

 

  • Diggins made a couple of late layups – even more remarkable than Wiggins making a three – and Dupree was stupid enough to foul her on one of them to add a free throw on top. Then Williams drilled a three from the corner. When Griner went 1-of-2 at the line with 3.3 seconds left, Tulsa were out of timeouts but only trailed by three points. They had a chance. Williams took the inbounds pass in stride and flew to the other end of the court, but like some people don’t know their own strength, maybe Riquna doesn’t know her own speed. She went over the three-point arc before releasing her running shot, so it would’ve been irrelevant even if it had dropped in. Letting her off the hook a little, it bounced off the rim anyway, but it was a silly error. You have to give yourself some kind of chance in that situation. Better to fire from halfcourt than end up over the line taking a two.

 

  • It’s Tulsa’s third loss to Phoenix in 12 days, and whatever thoughts they may have had of a run at the playoffs are fading away. They need perimeter help from somewhere. Nicole Powell has disappeared again, and the Diggins/Wiggins duo hasn’t worked out as planned. Williams is a nice energy boost as a sixth woman, but you can’t help feeling that they’re one top perimeter player away from actually being a good team. It’d be nice if Diggins was going overseas in the WNBA offseason (apparently she’s already said that she isn’t), because she needs the work. She can’t finish under pressure, her shooting hasn’t been great, the ball moves better when Angel Goodrich is at the point, and it’s just generally been an underwhelming rookie year for the third member of the ‘Three to See’. That perimeter player they still need may well be someone not currently on the roster, rather than Diggins herself after a year or two of development.

 

  • Phoenix had three players finish this game with double-doubles, as Taurasi (8-18 for 28 points, 10 assists), Dupree (10-16 for 20 points, 10 boards) and Griner (7-14 for 15 points, 10 boards) all contributed. Maybe they haven’t had the toughest schedule since Pennell took over, and there are still things to work on for when they face better opponents, but this is still more than we saw under Gaines. It was another decent win, even if they let it become a little too close for comfort right at the end.

 

 

Los Angeles Sparks 57 @ Seattle Storm 77

  • The final game of the night gave Los Angeles the chance to move into sole possession of top spot in the Western Conference after Minnesota’s earlier loss. The Sparks came in having won six in a row, quickly gaining on the Lynx thanks to Minnesota’s poor run of results. Seattle have been inconsistent, but continue to scratch out the necessary wins to keep themselves in a playoff spot.

 

  • While it took them a little while to make it apparent on the scoreboard, Seattle dominated the first half. LA came out settling for too many jump shots, and settling for the wrong players taking them as well. Alana Beard, in a season where she’s taken a back seat offensively to all the talent around her, decided to fire away in this game for some reason. She hit a couple, but there’s a reason LA have been running their offense through other options all year. Kristi Toliver was incredibly quiet, before picking up fouls that sent her to the bench anyway, while Candace Parker was oddly invisible as well – despite her tendency to show up big in games on national TV.

 

  • However, while their offense wasn’t great, LA’s defense got ripped to shreds in the first half. Seattle’s spacing and movement created holes that the Sparks couldn’t come close to filling, and switches that the Storm repeatedly exploited. Seattle were clearly well prepared by head coach Brian Agler to force LA into constant decisions on cuts and screens, and LA failed miserably to cope. Seattle only led by two at the end of the first quarter, but their dominance told in the second period and their lead hit 17. They were still up 51-37 at halftime, the first time they’ve broken 50 points by the break all season.

 

  • As it’s been in most of Seattle’s strong performances this season, it was a team effort from the Storm. They had six players with at least six points in the first half, with Tina Thompson and Camille Little finishing inside and popping outside for the occasional deep bomb, while Tanisha Wright and Temeka Johnson attacked off the dribble. Wright has also recently shown an increased ability and willingness to set up down low and post-up small defenders, and she went right at LA down there. Eight assists in the half for Wright illustrated the control she’s been playing with lately. Out on the wing, Shekinna Stricklen was effective again before leaving the game with a strained achilles she’s been fighting through for much of the season. Noelle Quinn stepped in and kept everything flowing. It was probably Seattle’s best half of the season.

 

  • Inevitably, LA responded in the second half. Seattle couldn’t be that good for another 20 minutes, and the Sparks produced a much stronger defensive effort to create problems for the Storm. LA were more aggressive defensively, actively pursuing the ball better and forcing mistakes. The gap was down to single digits midway through the third quarter.

 

  • However, Seattle always managed to keep the Sparks at arm’s length. LA head coach Carol Ross started the fourth quarter with a bizarre lineup of Beard and bench players, and five minutes were wasted with incredibly scrappy basketball at both ends of the floor. The defensive effort from the Sparks reserves was fine, but they didn’t have enough scoring talent on the floor and any momentum they’d built drifted away. When the starters returned nothing positive happened for LA at all, and Seattle could coast home.

 

  • This was a desperately disappointing performance from LA. Not just because they had a chance to move to the top of the West, but because they got outworked, outhustled, and flat-out outplayed. They didn’t really show up. When you’ve been playing as well as they have lately, you’re allowed an occasional off-night, but this was really poor. On top of the performances on the floor, Ross was utterly outcoached by Agler as well, with the switching schemes in LA’s defense consistently breaking down. Just a really bad night at the office for the Sparks.

 

  • And a great one for Seattle. With Tulsa losing again and San Antonio inconsistent at best, the Storm’s playoff spot looks increasingly secure. They still have so many games to play against those teams behind them that nothing is set in stone yet, but with more performances like this one they’ll be fine. They had 30 points in the paint at halftime, illustrating just how comprehensively they got right into the teeth of LA’s defense and created gaps that led them right to the rim. The second half was more of a struggle, but they stepped up their defense instead and finished the game off. If Seattle do end up as the 4th seed, they won’t mind if LA sneak into 1st. This game showed that a first-round matchup between these two squads could be much closer than the overall standings might suggest.

 

 

Notes

The Connecticut Sun announced that Allison Hightower and Kelly Faris are done for the season. Hightower is out due to the strained right knee that’s already forced her to miss a couple of games, while Faris has reinjured the left foot she had a problem with at the University of Connecticut. It’s also probably an admittance by the Sun that they’re not going to the playoffs this year, so players whose bodies need rest might as well get it. It’s a shame to see Hightower’s season end like this, as her continued improvement has been one of the few bright spots for the Sun this season. Faris had also just broken into the starting lineup, after Anne Donovan spent most of the season watching the same starting group lose repeatedly. On the bright side for Connecticut, Kara Lawson is back with the team after leaving to be with her seriously ill father. She may not be in game shape, but if she can play at all she’ll help the team. Amazingly enough, with 10 games to play they’re still only 3.5 outside the playoffs.

 

 

Upcoming Games

 

Wednesday August 21st (today):

San Antonio @ Indiana, 7pm ET (already completed). I took Indiana -8 (announced via Twitter), because the Fever have simply been a better team when relatively healthy this season, especially on their own floor. Turned out pretty well. Full details on the game in tomorrow’s column, of course.

 

—–

Thursday August 22nd (tomorrow):

Minnesota @ Connecticut, 7pm ET

 

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