Last night’s sole WNBA game saw one of the least surprising results of the season. Despite losing four of their previous five games, Minnesota arrived in Connecticut still in possession of the WNBA’s best record at 18-7. Their recent slip-ups have allowed Chicago and Los Angeles to creep closer, but the fact that they were still top of the pile illustrated how dominant they’ve been for most of the season. At 7-17, the Sun were rock bottom of both the East and the WNBA as a whole, as a disastrous season finally starts to crawl to a close. It started with Asjha Jones deciding to take the whole season off and Danielle McCray blowing out her achilles. More injuries, underperformance, and the general unrest created by dumping head coach Mike Thibault and replacing him with Anne Donovan has continued a downward trend. With 10 games left they were still only 3.5 outside the playoffs heading into last night, but everyone involved with the Sun organisation would like the season to end as quickly as possible.
Allison Hightower (knee) and Kelly Faris (foot) were shut down for the remainder of the season earlier this week, and Kara Lawson wasn’t fit enough to suit up after recently returning to the Sun following compassionate leave to be with her ill father. That left Renee Montgomery and Tan White starting in the backcourt again, with Kalana Greene regaining her starting spot on the wing by default. They were down to eight bodies in total. After a few minor injuries had contributed to their recent losses, Minnesota had all 11 players available.
Arguably the high point of the game for Connecticut came on the opening possession. Tina Charles went right by Janel McCarville and finished for what would be the Sun’s only lead of the game at 2-0. Plays like that are what worry you about McCarville in the middle of Minnesota’s defense. She’s got great hands and decent instincts, but her quickness to stick with the more mobile posts in the league is dubious. If she was taller it would be less of an issue because she’d be more of a presence inside, but she isn’t that big either. The positive in the early stages of this game was that McCarville offered something offensively. She hit a deep jumper moments after that Charles basket, then jumped a passing lane for a steal and a breakaway layup. Later in the period she even nailed her second three-pointer of the season after Charles left her alone beyond the arc. If she can at least be some kind of threat on offense, she’ll force defenses to pay some kind of attention to her. One player that can be virtually ignored – at either end of the floor – becomes a much bigger issue in the playoffs when opponents spend days gameplanning for a specific opponent. The Lynx have to get something from their center spot.
Not that it mattered much last night. The Lynx scored 10 straight to take control after Charles’s opening bucket, and extended their lead to double-digits in the first quarter. It was nice to see plenty of cutting and motion from Minnesota creating easy looks right at the rim, rather than constantly relying on their talented jump-shooters. They were breaking down a defense that’s not been great all season, but they were doing it comprehensively after some recent struggles. There were still plenty of moments where they scored because Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson or Monica Wright just made plays and hit shots, but the offense was back to its smooth-sailing best. That’s what Lynx fans wanted to see to rebuild their slightly shaken confidence.
Connecticut struggled to create good shots in the first half, with too many possessions where the ball didn’t move, the shot clock ran down, and the play went nowhere. Charles made a few short jumpers, and Montgomery was hot from outside when she found room to fire, but they couldn’t keep pace with the Lynx. Minnesota led 50-35 at halftime.
Nothing really changed in the second half. Minnesota’s offense became slightly less efficient as they relaxed – and because it was almost impossible to sustain the 68% shooting they produced in the first half. The lowest their lead ever dropped to was 10 points early in the fourth quarter, but Augustus hit an elbow jumper and Moore turned a steal into a breakaway layup to quickly dispel any remote signs of a comeback. The one particularly amusing moment in the second half came earlier on a similar Moore run-out, where it looked like she went for a dunk. She didn’t get anywhere close to high enough, and it turned into a slightly embarrassing blown layup. But the Lynx were comfortable enough in the second half to try things like that. As usual, it took a long time for Cheryl Reeve to clear her bench (and Amber Harris didn’t play at all, which is a bad sign for her), but this game was well in hand for most of the night. Minnesota ultimately eased home 91-77.
It was a return to form for Minnesota, but against Connecticut it damn well ought to have been. They were comfortable throughout, with Rebekkah Brunson particularly effective in the second half while lots of people around her were starting to drift off to sleep (players and viewers alike). There will be much greater tests to come to signal whether the recent defeats were just a blip or a real cause for concern heading into the playoffs. Not least the two games they still have remaining against the LA Sparks, their only real challengers for the #1 seed in the West. Those games may well decide who finishes the regular season on top of the conference.
Connecticut did okay, considering their situation and general level for the season. Charles produced another relatively quiet yet statistically productive game, finishing 10-18 for 22 points and 12 rebounds. But they were never really in it. Their fans will already be looking forward to next season, wondering if big changes will be made in the front office or on the roster, and considering what might arrive in the lottery. It’s been that kind of season for the Sun.
Connecticut will at least have an extra body to close out the season, as their injuries have opened up a hardship exception spot to add to their roster. They’ve re-signed point guard Sydney Carter, who had a few decent moments earlier in the season when she filled in for the Sun. She’ll have a chance to at least prove she deserves a spot in their training camp next season and a real shot at making the main roster.
Friday August 23rd (today):
Atlanta @ Washington, 7pm ET. After three impressive wins at home, including one over these same Mystics, Atlanta are two-point favourites over Washington despite being back on the road. The Dream have looked good enough in those recent games that I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and take them to win, but not with much confidence. They haven’t been the same team away from Philips Arena this season.
San Antonio @ Tulsa, 8pm ET. The line is Tulsa -6.5, and that’s too high for me. The Shock haven’t been good enough, even in the second half of the season, to be favoured by that much over anyone (except maybe Connecticut). I’ll take San Antonio and the points.
New York @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET. Chicago -11.5 seems like an awful lot of points to give up, even with the Sky at home against a struggling Liberty team. It probably reflects that Cappie Pondexter missed New York’s last game with a heel problem. Also, Chicago have beaten New York by 13, 29, 20 and 11 points already this season. So I’ll take Chicago, give up the points, and worry that they’ll win but fail to cover the big gap.
Seattle @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. As with Tulsa, Phoenix -9 is just too many points. Seattle haven’t been that consistent this season, but they’ve had more good performances than bad recently, including a strong win over LA on Tuesday night. They’ve also beaten Phoenix three times this year with Diana Taurasi shooting a combined 10-32 against their defense. So give me the Storm and the points.
Saturday August 24th (tomorrow):
Indiana @ Minnesota, 7pm ET
Chicago @ Atlanta, 7pm ET