Last night’s WNBA slate featured an upset that really shouldn’t have surprised anyone; another extraordinary gambling cover; a team finally celebrating a playoff berth three days after they actually clinched; and a team everyone wrote off before the season began completing a season sweep over the preseason darlings. Just another night in our favourite little league, ladies and gentlemen.
- This is the one we all should’ve seen coming (I was kicking myself all night for missing this one and only going 3-1 with yesterday’s picks as a result). Atlanta came in on a three-game winning streak, including a win over the Mystics, but they did it all at home. They were 11-1 at home and 3-8 on the road before this game, and those three road wins came way back at the start of the season when they were rolling. The lineups were as expected, with Kia Vaughn retaining her starting spot ahead of Michelle Snow after Vaughn’s offensive explosion in their last game after becoming the starter.
- The first half was rather less than gripping. It started off okay, with both teams creating more layups that the opposing defenses could’ve been comfortable with. But both sides shot poorly from outside, and the officials didn’t help with a seemingly endless stream of whistles. When they couldn’t create any momentum, moving Angel McCoughtry’s first half rest to later in the second quarter didn’t work as well for Atlanta as it did in their previous game. Instead of avoiding their offensive lull without her on the floor, it just shifted it a couple of minutes later. Outside of McCoughtry, no one on either side stood out, and the game crawled to a 37-35 halftime scoreline. The highlight was an Ivory Latta crossover dumping Le’coe Willingham on her butt before a layup, and Willingham getting her revenge with a comprehensive block on the next possession.
- The second half wasn’t all that different. Both teams had a little success when they went inside to their centers, with Vaughn and Erika de Souza converting at the rim, but both squads were still firing up a host of bricks. Neither team could gather any momentum and sustain a run.
- The pivotal moments came early in the fourth quarter, and unsurprisingly it was inspired by someone finally making a couple of shots. Atlanta were 0-13 from behind the arc to that point, with Washington 3-8 (those makes were hard to remember), when Ivory Latta nailed a triple with seven minutes left in the game. There’d been nothing between the teams for most of the night, but it was immediately after the 13th long-range miss from the Dream and created a six-point gap that felt huge. When she hit another one a couple of minutes later, pushing the Mystics’ advantage to 10, the game felt finished even with five minutes remaining. There were several offensive rebounds for Washington in that sequence as well, as the Mystics outworked and outshot the Dream. They did a solid job all night keeping Atlanta away from the rim, and it was the old story for the Dream – they couldn’t hit anything from outside to punish the collapsing defense. Atlanta’s own defense was solid enough, but the scoring they’d managed in their recent run of victories just wasn’t there.
- Atlanta didn’t shoot fantastically in their three-game winning streak that suggested a turnaround in fortunes, but they did well enough to survive. Most of their work came in transition, or on drives, or by working their backsides off for steals and second-chance points. Without the excitement of a home crowd behind them (even the small crowds Atlanta provide for their WNBA team), they didn’t play with the same energy we’ve seen lately. They still created 42 points in the paint, because they’re as aware of their shooting deficiencies as everyone else, but McCoughtry couldn’t hit anything from outside and neither could anyone else in a Dream uniform. Tiffany Hayes’s meaningless three with 22 seconds remaining was their only make all night on 18 attempts from deep. We’ve seen this many times before from Atlanta.
- Washington’s offense never exactly purred either, they just found a way to claw out the win in the fourth quarter. Latta made big shots in the fourth, Monique Currie, Tayler Hill and Vaughn all had their moments, and along with some effective defense it proved to be enough. It’s looking increasingly likely that this team will find their way to enough victories to make the playoffs, which is a remarkable achievement considering their last couple of seasons and the expectations for this group coming into the 2013 season.
- For Tulsa, the injury news was good, with Glory Johnson fit enough to regain her starting spot at power forward. She came off the bench in their last game after recovering from a concussion, but suffered a wrist injury during that game which limited her. She wasn’t even wearing strapping on the wrist, so apparently that proved a minor issue. For the Silver Stars, the news was less positive. Danielle Robinson was out with a sprained right knee, suffered when her left foot slid out from under her in their last game. It forced rookie Davellyn Whyte into the starting lineup to take her place, as yet another injury made Dan Hughes’s life more difficult in San Antonio.
- The first half was basically a debacle for San Antonio. Virtually everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Without Robinson at the controls, the offense was messy and discombobulated, committing repeated unnecessary turnovers. They even struggled to advance the ball past halfcourt when Tulsa threw out some token full-court pressure to make things awkward. Jayne Appel and Danielle Adams both ended up in foul trouble in the second quarter, forcing rookies Kayla Alexander and Chelsea Poppens into extended action in the paint. And they couldn’t hit any shots when they did get them off. Whyte is never afraid to fire, but has struggled to actually hit shots since a quick start to her first season as a pro. Adams and Jia Perkins were both off as well. They scored 8 points in the first quarter, and were stuck on 8 for nearly the next seven minutes of action. It was painful.
- Tulsa didn’t exactly dominate while all this was going on. It was more like they could scarcely avoid taking advantage of San Antonio’s mistakes. But Johnson looked healthy and active, Cambage made her free throws when she got calls inside, and Candice Wiggins actually made a couple of shots from the perimeter. It’s also nice to see how Angel Goodrich’s confidence has improved offensively. She’s willing to take open shots now on kick-outs, or pull up and take the mid-range jumper if teams go under screens and offer them to her. She seemed almost scared to fire earlier in the season, but she’s increasingly adding her own offense to the mix – rather than just running the team and moving the ball on to everyone else. Tulsa led 40-22 at halftime.
- Hughes started Shameka Christon over Perkins for the second half in the search for shooting, which didn’t work at all – initially. Tulsa’s lead floated around 20 points for most of the third quarter with few signs of anything changing for San Antonio. Adams and Appel had a little success working on the offensive glass, before two quick fouls sent Appel to the bench again. Adams joined her after a charge call.
- Then suddenly in the late moments of the third and on into the fourth quarter, something clicked for the Silver Stars. With an unlikely post pairing of Cathrine Kraayeveld and Alexander managing to compete defensively, and Christon finding her range from beyond the arc, San Antonio started to cut into the lead. From 20 with a couple of minutes left in the third the gap was down to 8 with under seven minutes left in regulation, and we had a game on our hands.
- To the Shock players’ credit, although they committed some dumb fouls to hand San Antonio some cheap points, they made plays to cling on to their lead. While Shenise Johnson was stepping up for one of her best recent performances for the Silver Stars, Glory Johnson made mid-range shots to answer for Tulsa. Cambage and Nicole Powell both made plays down the stretch as well. Ultimately, even though Christon was 4-7 from three-point range in the second half to fire San Antonio within range, and an uncontested layup from Shenise Johnson on the final play of the game made gamblers who took San Antonio +6.5 happy, the hole simply proved too big. It took too long for the Silver Stars to join the party.
- Even though it wasn’t a particularly smooth or comprehensive victory, and they should’ve finished it off with more comfort, there were pleasing aspects to the box score for Tulsa. Cambage and Glory Johnson were once again the foundation, with Big Liz finishing and making her free throws, and Johnson typically finding ways to score without having to be the focus of the offense. But there was also some balance for once. Wiggins and Goodrich both scored in double-digits, and they could afford to leave Riquna Williams on the bench when it became clear she was having more of a famine night than a feast. This is what the Shock need. There has to be a perimeter balance to their constant attempts to go inside to their bigs, or defenses will just constantly collapse into the paint. Now they just need a little more consistency from those perimeter players.
- It was a valiant fight from San Antonio. They’ll be pleased to see Alexander playing productive minutes, after looking completely lost earlier in her rookie season. She finished 3-5 for 10 points and 8 boards, but more importantly she played over 21 minutes and earned that time on the floor (even if foul trouble for the starters initially pushed her out there). It was also nice to see Shenise Johnson step up after failing to do that enough this season. But the drop-off from Robinson to Whyte was as significant as you’d expect, and the Christon barrage came too late. There’s only so much you can do when you’re robbed of so many important players.
- Fans who’d done the maths and run every possible scenario had already declared that the Sky were conclusively in the playoffs for the first time in their history. But the simpler numbers, with less effort, said they needed one more win. So this was the game they could sell as the one they needed to finally end their drought. The Liberty had Cappie Pondexter back in uniform after skipping their visit to Minnesota last weekend with a heel injury. Veteran DeLisha Milton-Jones retained her starting spot ahead of rookie Kamiko Williams with Pondexter coming back in at the point.
- For one of the few times all season, Chicago’s defensive matchups were exactly the same as the assignments for their opponents. Milton-Jones was the first option to cover Elena Delle Donne, who was hiding against DMJ at the other end. Courtney Vandersloot was on Pondexter as the Sky continued to keep Epiphanny Prince on less dangerous perimeter threats. Prince hasn’t been doing much on either end of the floor for a while now.
- New York killed a lot of their own possessions in the first half with turnovers, harkening back to their performances from earlier in the season where they were setting a record pace for giveaways. Chicago moved in front almost by accident, despite their own offense being largely ineffective. Delle Donne made a couple of nice plays, but Sylvia Fowles saw very little of the ball inside and Prince was invisible yet again.
- The player keeping New York in the game in the opening 20 minutes was Plenette Pierson. However, it wasn’t the pick-and-roll attack finding her in stride going to the hoop, or deep moves for layups. Instead most of her baskets came simply by making mid-range jump shots right over Swin Cash’s sagging defense. Cash did the exact same thing to Pierson on a few occasions at the other end, but not nearly as frequently. Considering New York had virtually no other offense from anywhere, with Pondexter utterly passive and uninvolved (presumably still feeling the heel), it was a good thing for them that Pierson’s shot was dropping. Chicago still led 38-33 at halftime.
- After barely three minutes of the second half, the game was virtually finished. Chicago came out with an obvious intent to involve Fowles in the offense, after she’d barely been used in the first half. Instead of looking directly for her they did a better job of making an intermediary pass, shifting the ball from the wing to the top of the arc to change the angle for an entry pass. Or they’d run a pick-and-roll with Fowles and Vandersloot up high, shift the ball to the wing, and then hit Fowles as the roller with the next pass. Same principle. It led to layups and free throws, and finally involved the best center in the league in Chicago’s offense.
- Meanwhile Cash actually managed to stop Pierson once or twice, Prince finally hit a couple of jumpers, and Chicago’s lead was suddenly at 16 points. With Pondexter hobbled and New York looking clueless without her as their driving force, a comeback from that kind of distance was virtually impossible. Chicago led by 20 at the end of the third quarter, and the entire fourth was garbage time.
- After a few weeks where they managed to be up and down, dominating a couple of games with Pierson, Kara Braxton and Kelsey Bone in the paint, New York’s season is starting to look like it’s tailing off towards a disappointing finish. Pondexter’s injury could be the final straw. She’s had plenty of games this season where she’s barely penetrated and spent most of the game bricking long jumpers, but this was her first game all year with single-digit shot attempts. She just wasn’t involved at all. Chicago’s defense is good, but not that good. The Liberty are still right there in the playoff hunt, and Washington and Indiana look unlikely to run off a string of wins to pull away from them. But playing like this it’s hard to see where the victories are going to come from for New York themselves.
- At best, it was a gutsy win for Chicago. They didn’t dominate, none of their stars were at their best, but as a group they put together enough offense to beat a weakened opponent ripe for the taking. They even created enough separation to give their stars the fourth quarter off before flying to Atlanta for the second half of a back-to-back. And now, even for the people doing the arithmetic on their fingers, the Sky are absolutely, definitively in the playoffs. It’s the first time in the franchise’s history, so it’s something to celebrate, but not for too long. This team has the talent to aim much higher than just reaching the postseason this year. Now they want to make sure of the top seed in the East, maybe even the best record in the league, and then try to make a real challenge for a championship.
- Positive news for both teams on the injury front before the game. Shekinna Stricklen was healthy enough to start after missing much of their previous game with a sore achilles. DeWanna Bonner took her starting spot back for the Mercury after knee and ankle problems had her coming off the bench in their last game. Phoenix also had backup point guard Jasmine James available again after recovering from a concussion.
- The opening minutes saw Bonner shooting well from outside, which has been a rare occurrence for her this season. Seattle were dropping double and triple-teams on Brittney Griner in the low post, and even bringing double-teams when Candice Dupree touched the ball down low. The Storm did a decent job on Phoenix early, but created a problem for themselves when Tanisha Wright picked up two quick fouls midway through the first quarter. She’s their primary option to guard Diana Taurasi, but they had to shift Wright over and go to Noelle Quinn or occasionally Stricklen to guard Taurasi instead.
- The really impressive stuff came at the other end of the floor, and Seattle started to build a lead in the second quarter. They were producing some really smooth, intelligent, pretty offense and cutting Phoenix to pieces. There was some screen-the-screener action (that’s where you set a pick off the ball first, usually for a player who then comes up to set an on-ball pick), which forced Phoenix into more switching than we’ve seen from them under Russ Pennell. The Mercury have largely been trying to stick with their assignments since he took over, avoiding switches, but Seattle’s screening and re-screening was forcing them to switch whether they liked it or not. Then Seattle could exploit the mismatches inside or out. They Storm also brought Camille Little up high on several possessions, distributing from the top of the arc and/or setting screens from that spot. It pulled Griner out of the paint, opening up the lane and making it tougher for her to play help defense. It also forced her to make decisions when guards drove off those screens, having to work out how hard to hedge or how long she could afford to leave her initial assignment before rotating back over. Decisions she’s still not totally comfortable with. It was great stuff from Seattle, and they took control.
- They also had Temeka Johnson at her aggressive best, attacking off the dribble. She was particularly effective when James was on the floor – Johnson clearly felt the rookie couldn’t guard her, and she was right. Seattle led 44-33 at halftime, and much of it came down to the success of their offense rather than their defense. Which still feels like a bizarre thing to say about Seattle over Phoenix.
- Which isn’t to say that the Mercury were doing a good job of breaking down Seattle’s defense either. Turnovers were a problem for Phoenix all night, including a lot on incredibly basic miscommunications where the ball went straight out of bounds or into Storm hands instead of to the intended teammate. There were positive moments for the Mercury. Taurasi involved herself in the offense more early in the third quarter, and they looked for Griner a little more which invariably leads to good things. But when the offense was working, they couldn’t get stops. And when Seattle’s scoring dried up, so did Phoenix’s. The Mercury couldn’t sustain anything consistently.
- All this despite issues for Seattle in the backcourt. Wright continued to struggle with foul trouble, repeatedly forcing the Storm to go back to Quinn on Taurasi, but Quinn did a pretty good job. It was also another of those nights where it felt like Phoenix would’ve benefitted from a reliable ballhandling option so they could shift Taurasi off the ball. She was spending too much time moving the ball on and creating for everyone else, and not enough taking over the game herself. Seattle lost another backcourt option when James spun into Temeka Johnson and the Storm point guard took a hit to the face. She came out, came back in briefly, and then had to be taken back to the locker room late in the third quarter. She emerged during the fourth, but never came back into the game.
- Phoenix ran some nice stuff for Griner early in the fourth quarter. There was a set with a post up for her on one side while Taurasi ran off a staggered screen on the opposite side of the floor, occupying other defenders. It prevented the help defense from swamping Griner, and she finished nicely. Then there was an interior screen for her coming across the lane – set by Taurasi of all people – which again gave Griner room to work in the low post. It felt like we didn’t see enough of those kinds of sets during the night. Griner spent a lot of time at the elbow in horns sets, which is a perfectly reasonable place to start possessions. But you don’t want her constantly standing there from beginning to end of the possession. She needs to have somewhere to go, an action built into the set. She’s also a really poor rebounder considering her size and athleticism, and the direct comparison with players like Camille Little and Tina Thompson highlighted that. She got beaten for balls that ought to be hers, if she went after them anything like the elite rebounders in the league. She needs to watch a whole lot of Sylvia Fowles tape. Griner could create so many opportunities for herself just by attacking the offensive glass.
- Wright picked up fouls numbers 5 and 6 in quick succession with just over three minutes left in the game, the second on a horrible phantom call. With Brian Agler still resisting risking putting Johnson back in, that moved Quinn to point guard. Phoenix still couldn’t make any inroads. Seattle didn’t score a single field goal for the final six minutes of regulation, but they fought on defense and earned enough free throws to constantly keep Phoenix at arm’s length. The Mercury never got closer than seven, and even that was far too late to matter.
- This win completed a season sweep for the Storm over the Mercury. Considering the struggles that Seattle have against the pure size of someone like Liz Cambage when they play Tulsa, Phoenix really ought to be able to create bigger problems for them through Griner. But it never happened. Thompson, Little and Johnson led the scoring for the Storm as yet another impressive team performance earned them another win. It’s becoming an increasingly regular occurrence, and while the offense is still prone to breakdowns their successes are more consistent now. The job Agler’s done with this group, and the way they’ve coalesced as the season’s gone on is really impressive. They’re still not entirely safe in their playoff spot, especially considering they have three games against Minnesota and two each against Tulsa and San Antonio left on their schedule. But this win moved them within half a game of the Mercury for third, and the way they’re playing moving up looks more likely than dropping down. They obviously also hold the tiebreaker over Phoenix if they should need it at the end of the season.
- Once again, this game highlighted that Pennell still has plenty of work to do. They might be 4-2 since he arrived, but that’s three wins over Tulsa and one over an understrength Indiana. The Storm and Silver Stars have shown them up in the losses. With Taurasi’s potential to go off and Griner’s ever-present threat, no one will exactly want to face them in the playoffs. But playing like this, there’s not a great deal to be scared of, either.
Saturday August 24th (today):
Indiana @ Minnesota, 7pm ET (already completed). I took Lynx -9, expecting Indiana to struggle to hit enough shots to keep up with Minnesota. Turned out to be moderately accurate, until another last-second cover. I’ll be bitching about that in tomorrow’s coverage.
Chicago @ Atlanta, 7pm ET (already completed). I took Dream -2.5, thinking their strength at home would help them get past the Sky. Then Tiffany Hayes sat out to rest her knee, Armintie Herrington got hurt, and Angel McCoughtry spent all night building a house of bricks. One of my few bad nights of picks since the All-Star break.
Sunday August 25th (tomorrow):
Seattle @ San Antonio, 4.30pm ET
New York @ Connecticut, 5pm ET
Tulsa @ Los Angeles, 8.30pm ET