We had a pair of contests in the WNBA last night, and there was a striking contrast between the two. In one, the offenses were flowing, shots were falling, and both teams finished with offensive efficiency numbers well above the best averages in the league. The other game featured an excruciating pile-up of turnovers, missed shots, and floundering offense. You can probably guess which game we’re going to look at first.
Over the course of the season, venue hasn’t made that much difference to the Indiana Fever. Coming into last night’s game they were 7-7 at home, and 5-7 on their travels. But recently they’ve looked much more comfortable with the Bankers Life Fieldhouse crowd behind them. A winless three-game Western swing had been broken up with a quick trip home to beat San Antonio, but now they were back out on the road in Minnesota, beginning another four-game road trip. From the way they’ve played since midseason you’d think Indiana would be relatively secure in playoff position, but they were still only a couple of games up on New York before last night. Another run of Fever losses and even the Liberty might scrape together enough wins to make things awkward by the end of the season.
Indiana also had the problem of yet another injury, with guard Erin Phillips sidelined again due to her right knee. She looked like she’d finally shaken off the lingering problems from preseason surgery on a meniscus tear, before her leg went out from under her after jumping for a rebound in their last game. She didn’t even make the trip. Minnesota had everyone available once again (although considering Cheryl Reeve’s typical rotation, it wouldn’t matter much if players on the end of the bench stayed home).
With the breakdown of the halfcourt camera it was hard to see the action clearly in the first half, but several aspects of the play were clear throughout the evening. The contrast in defensive philosophy is interesting between these teams. Indiana, even more than ever, were switching constantly on screens. They’ll stick when they can, but at any tiny hint that a player is being held up on a pick, they’ll just switch it. That basically meant Minnesota could create any matchup they wanted without a great deal of effort, and obviously led to mismatches. It also leads to occasional complete defensive breakdowns when one player switches and the other doesn’t react at the exact same moment. Indiana are very good at swarming and helping, and they’ve got lots of practice at switching and rotating, but it’s hard to do perfectly. Minnesota make much more strenuous efforts to stick with their assignments, despite having the size on the perimeter to play like Indiana if they wanted to. They’ll switch guard-to-guard or post-to-post when it’s obvious, but they expect their players to fight through or around screens much more consistently. Both approaches can be equally viable, but it made for an intriguing contrast.
We also saw, once again, the parts of the game Minnesota have noticeably been working on in recent weeks. Reeve has clearly asked Janel McCarville to be more of an offensive threat, to make teams have to be more concerned about her from the center position. When Indiana left her alone – which was relatively often, with Erlana Larkins shading into the lane to help elsewhere – McCarville was taking the open jumper offered to her. She doubled her total of three-pointers for the season (from two to four) in the first quarter alone, and hit several other shots over the course of the game. It’s big for them to at least force opponents to guard her.
The Lynx also repeatedly looked for Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore on the low block. It’s something they’ve been doing increasingly since the All-Star break against everyone, but it had a particular resonance to see them use it successfully against Indiana on a host of occasions. If they’d had that option in their arsenal in last year’s Finals, we might be talking about a back-to-back champion right now. Augustus and Moore were guarded by much smaller opponents in that series, but there was virtually no effort to exploit their defenders down low. Against the same opponent, Minnesota illustrated how effective it could’ve been. It was nice to see, but also left you wondering how their fortunes might’ve been different last year. It makes the scarily talented Lynx wings even more dangerous, because they create their post-ups by diving in from the corners. That’s the same spot from where they often curl up off screens to receive passes for jumpers or sweeping drives into the paint. So now the defenders are equally scared of them cutting in either direction. On song, they’re a nightmare to guard.
Moore was outstanding in the first half, leading the way with finishes and fadeaways, while contributing at least a little in every other area as well. But Indiana kept answering. Tamika Catchings was hitting her jumper, and the shooting of Shavonte Zellous was once again key to their offense. Even Layshia Clarendon, so often a punching bag on this website for her poor performances this season, had one of her better games of the year. She’s playing with a little more confidence, and seems to have worked on her jump shot. The Fever trailed by as many as 10 in the first half, but went in at the break having narrowed the scoreline to 37-35.
The second half was essentially more of the same, except the offensive execution was probably even better. Minnesota kept pulling ahead, but Indiana would repeatedly answer by creating and hitting an outside shot on ball movement or a drive-and-kick, or Catchings would throw in an occasional drive. Rebekkah Brunson’s had some hard work to do lately, covering Catchings, Charles and McCoughtry for much of Minnesota’s last three games. She’s done a solid job in all three encounters, but there’s only so much you can do against players of that calibre.
With 8:25 left in the game, Moore swung her arms through in the process of putting the ball on the floor to drive by Zellous. She caught Zellous in the face with her arm, and was ultimately called for a flagrant foul. It seemed like a harsh, college-style call, but even in the pros they don’t like it when you make contact above the shoulders. Zellous made both free throws to cut the Fever deficit to three points before heading to the bench for more treatment. Indiana actually did a good job of surviving without her for the next few minutes. Catchings continued to hit from outside, Clarendon made a couple of plays, and a Jeanette Pohlen triple tied the game yet again with five minutes to play.
But then came the telling run. To begin with, the raw shooting talents of the respective teams played a part, as Moore and Augustus nailed jumpers while January and Clarendon missed theirs. Then it was the post-up attack of Minnesota’s wings that once again took over, with Moore and Augustus punishing that small Fever backcourt inside. By the time Indiana head coach Lin Dunn called a timeout with just under three minutes remaining – with Zellous waiting at the scorer’s table trying to get back in – Minnesota were up by 8.
That was essentially all she wrote. Indiana had another couple of missed jumpers and some miscues for turnovers which ruled out the possibility of a final comeback. In fact, they scored only two points in the final five minutes of the game until Zellous hit a three at the buzzer to alter the mood of anyone with money on the game. Her triple covered the spread, but the Lynx still had the victory at 84-77.
It was really a beautifully executed game for Minnesota offensively. They were consistently smooth, and they attacked their height advantage on the wings by getting into the paint rather than just firing jump shots. It’s a needed balance that they’re working to bring to their offense. Even with shooters like Moore, Augustus and Lindsay Whalen, some nights you just won’t be hitting. If you can find ways to consistently create layups, that becomes a much smaller problem. Despite the occasional mental error on defense, Moore was fantastic in this game in practically every area. She shot 15-21 for 35 points, but she was on the glass, forcing steals and blocking shots as well. Reeve might be a little concerned about how effective Indiana’s offense was against them, but much of that came down to a surprisingly successful shooting night for the Fever. On balance, this was an impressive and morale-boosting win for the Lynx, which they needed after some disappointing recent results. And just think about the size of the perimeter players for their nearest competitor in the Western Conference – that post game for Moore and Augustus could be distinctly useful against the likes of Harding and Toliver.
Indiana won’t be too depressed about this game either. Their offense was solid and they shot well, plus they responded repeatedly when they had to in order to stay in the game. They just couldn’t quite stick with Minnesota down the stretch, especially after losing Zellous for that crucial sequence. If they play like this for the rest of their road trip, they’ll come out on top against most opponents. A win in New York on Friday would start to make the top four in the East look distinctly likely to remain the top four until the end of the regular season – and anything can happen in the playoffs.
Over to Atlanta, leaving shooting accuracy behind…
Our other game was in Atlanta, and ended up being much less pleasing to the eye. It probably didn’t help that both teams flew in on a back-to-back after playing the night before. Chicago had the advantage of having finished off New York early, allowing them to rest their starters in the fourth quarter. Atlanta had to fight to the end, and came out on the losing side in Washington anyway. However, with an 11-1 record at home coming into this game, the Dream had every right to be confident even against the Eastern leaders. A win would’ve pulled them within 2.5 games of Chicago at the top of the East, and led to ideas of potentially catching them for the top seed in the conference. It’s a positive sign for the Dream that those thoughts even existed, considering a little while ago fans were starting to worry whether they’d even cling on to their playoff spot.
However, Atlanta’s chances in this game took a hit when it became clear that wing Tiffany Hayes would be keeping her warmups on and staying on the bench. She’s taken a couple of heavy falls recently, and her knee is still recovering from midseason surgery on a meniscus tear, so it made sense to keep her out of playing back-to-back games. But it certainly hurt their chances in this specific encounter. The speed, activity and energy of Hayes has been vital in their recent improvement in form, making the small lineup with Angel McCoughtry at power forward effective and offering an extra scorer from the perimeter. She was missed.
This was an ugly, ugly game. Chicago got off to the better start, largely due to the work of Elena Delle Donne. She hit a deep jumper, drew a shooting foul from Le’coe Willingham to create free throws, and then nailed a pullup three in transition to help Chicago to a 15-4 advantage in the first quarter. Atlanta spent the first period actually creating several of those steals that typically ignite their running game, but repeatedly screwing up the play in transition the other way. They’d run straight into the defender on a 3-on-1 break, or blow the open layup, or toss the ball straight out of bounds on a supposed pass. It was a mess, and it left them trailing the Sky.
Chicago didn’t exactly light it up, either. Apart from the occasions where Delle Donne made Willingham look woefully incapable of guarding her, the Sky were slow and awkward offensively, and turned the ball over far too much. They were bailed out by Atlanta’s errors in transition, and the constant stream of jumpers Angel and the McCoughtryteers clanked off the iron. Swin Cash, with occasional breathers from Tamera Young, was doing a good job on McCoughtry. She stayed in front of her as much as possible, forcing Angel into throwing up jumpers with little chance of success, or taking tough attempts under pressure on drives. With her teammates ineffective as well, Angel was 5-16 at halftime and the rest of the Dream were 5-17 combined. It felt like they were lucky to be as close as 35-26.
Nothing got any better in the second half. In fact, Armintie Herrington took a nasty spill in the opening seconds, cracking her skull into the floor after chasing a loose ball with Delle Donne. She left the court in a lot of pain, clutching her head, and never returned. It looked like she’d be adding to the shockingly long list of WNBA players who’ve suffered concussions during the 2013 season. On the court, the offense was still miserable at both ends. Atlanta were still producing a procession of forced jumpers, largely from McCoughtry, while Chicago struggled themselves at the other end of the floor. Both these teams are solid defensively, and fatigue may have been a factor after playing the night before, but there was no rhythm whatsoever. Chicago should’ve been up by at least 20 if they could’ve put together any decent offense or found anyone besides Delle Donne to hit a shot. Instead, amazingly, Atlanta were still in it.
In fact, when Courtney Clements hit a three – yes, Atlanta were so shorthanded that even Clements was seeing decent minutes – and Alex Bentley picked Courtney Vandersloot’s pocket for a breakaway layup, it ignited a ‘run’ which cut the Dream deficit to two points late in the third quarter. Then with a minute left in the third, McCoughtry crashed into Sylvia Fowles on a drive and left Fowles in a heap under the basket, screaming in agony. Every Sky fan held their breath, because above all else the one thing that could derail this season for Chicago is another injury to their star center. Replays showed McCoughtry’s knee jabbing into Fowles’s thigh, possibly while also kicking her in the knee. It obviously hurt, but that was good news, even while Fowles was helped back to the bench with a towel over her face. It didn’t look like a break or a twist, which in these circumstances counted as a victory.
Heading into the fourth quarter against an opponent without their interior presence, you had to at least wonder if Atlanta might pick up steam. Nope. The early minutes of the fourth quarter were riddled with the same ugly jumpers and blown layups that the Dream had been tossing up against the Sky with Fowles on the floor. To be fair to them, Atlanta did eventually realise where they needed to attack, and found Erika de Souza in the paint to go at backup post Avery Warley. Then Bentley cleanly picked Vandersloot again for another layup, and the gap was back at four points midway through the fourth quarter – when Fowles surprisingly returned. Immediately, Erika had no room to work inside and couldn’t draw any fouls, the Dream went back to firing bricks, and Chicago pulled away. It was pretty painful getting there – both for Fowles and the viewing public – but Chicago closed out a 67-56 victory.
This was a really horrible game for Atlanta. They forced 20 turnovers, their typical bread and butter, but converted them into only 18 points. That sounds like a decent figure, but it should’ve been so much higher with the number of break-outs they created. In return, they coughed up 22 turnovers which became 31 Chicago points, and that was the difference. Or, if you prefer, the difference might’ve been Angel McCoughtry shooting 6-26 from the field. Cash did an excellent job on her, but she just kept forcing up jumper after jumper, and she must know just as well as the rest of us that those have a low-percentage chance of going in. Even if you’re not aware of it before the game, it should become pretty obvious once the 15th brick is slamming back off the rim. In fairness, no one else on the Dream hit anything from outside either, and the absence of Hayes (and Sancho Lyttle) was glaring. It would’ve been nice to see them involve Erika more in the offense, but that’s hard when Fowles is in there fighting with her. It was a bad night for the Dream.
It wasn’t a great night for Chicago either, to be honest, but at least they finished it with a W. Delle Donne was the only player on the court who declined Angel’s invitation to the brick party, finishing 9-16 for 25 points. The turnovers will have driven Pokey Chatman nuts on the sidelines, and the starting perimeter of Vandersloot, Cash and Epiphanny Prince combined for 14 of them, but they gutted it out. This is the kind of ugly, error-strewn game they’d have found a way to lose in previous years. The new, playoff-bound, Delle Donne-featuring Sky found a way to win it instead.
The Seattle Storm decided not to re-sign Jasmine Hassell to another seven-day contract (not a surprise) and are going to try Stanford grad Joslyn Tinkle instead. A big forward who likes to fire from outside, it gives Brian Agler the chance to take a look at another young option. She’s a rookie after going undrafted this year.
Sunday August 25th (today):
Seattle @ San Antonio, 4.30pm ET. The line was San Antonio -1 (after a lot of money came in on the Silver Stars), which didn’t make much sense to me. Maybe the gamblers were expecting Temeka Johnson to miss the game after her injury late in Seattle’s previous game, but Danielle Robinson has been hurt too, and she’s an even bigger loss on the opposite bench. Seattle have been the better team both recently and across the season, and seemed the clear choice to me. Of course, sometimes these picks don’t make me look too smart.
New York @ Connecticut, 5pm ET. Sun -2.5 was embarrassing for New York as a line, considering how terrible Connecticut have been. Even at the Mohegan Sun, the Liberty shouldn’t have been coming in as that kind of underdog. The problem was that Cappie Pondexter has been playing on a bad heel, and New York have been pretty awful lately as well. I took New York, solely because I have no faith in Connecticut at all. It was a pick against the Sun, far more than it was for the Liberty.
Tulsa @ Los Angeles, 8.30pm ET. LA -11 is a lot of points, especially with Tulsa showing some occasional friskiness in the second half of the season. But I expect LA to be back to form on their own floor after a poor defeat in Seattle, and they should be able to pull away from the Shock. So I’m taking the Sparks and giving up the points.