Only one game on the WNBA schedule last night, and the task was made more difficult for the hosts before the game even began. Atlanta have been missing starting power forward Sancho Lyttle for over seven weeks due to her broken foot, and now two other key members of their rotation were out as well. Tiffany Hayes missed her second consecutive game with swelling in the knee that was operated on during the season, while fellow wing Armintie Herrington was out due to a concussion suffered in their loss to Chicago on Saturday. They re-signed Anne Marie Armstrong to fill out their bench, but essentially the Dream were down to six players that they ever actually want to see on the floor. They’ve struggled without Lyttle and Hayes in the second half of the year, and now there was an extra starter missing as well. It’s a good thing that they opened the season 10-1, because without that start their playoff spot might’ve disappeared already.
Washington came into last night’s game at 13-15, Atlanta’s closest challengers in the standings but still 2.5 games back. The Mystics are more concerned with making sure Indiana and New York don’t chase them down from behind, but a win in this game had the potential to open up the chance to hunt down the Dream for the #2 seed, especially if Atlanta’s injuries persist. As they have been virtually all season, Washington were at full strength for this game.
It’s hard to come up with much worth talking about from an ugly, brick-filled, snooze-fest of a first half. Both teams inevitably sagged into the paint to defend against drives and post play, trying to force their opponents to beat them from outside. Both teams responded by missing an awful lot of jump shots. Over and over again. The only effective offense came on the rare occasions that players managed to push the ball and beat the defense down the floor, making it to the rim before the defenders could get set. Young guards Tayler Hill and Jasmine Thomas produced a couple of useful moments for their teams, as did backup posts Michelle Snow and Aneika Henry. But that was about it. The half was summed up when Angel McCoughtry airballed a three-pointer at the buzzer, leaving the game tied at 33-33. A missed jumper and a scoreline that showed no real progress for either side in the opening 20 minutes.
The action livened up a little in the second half. Ivory Latta picked up a technical foul while walking off the floor just after the halftime buzzer, so McCoughtry gave Atlanta the lead before play even re-started. Two more technicals quickly followed against the Mystics, first for Kia Vaughn shouting about the lack of a call, then for a flailing arm from Monique Currie. So McCoughtry added two more free throws. It seemed like those uncontested shots from 15 feet helped Angel find her range, because suddenly more of those pullup jumpers that she takes far too frequently were actually dropping in. With some help from Thomas and Alex Bentley – the starting backcourt in the absence of Herrington – that pushed Atlanta ahead by eight midway through the third quarter.
But Washington came right back. McCoughtry missed a charging layup that could’ve taken Atlanta’s lead to double-digits, before Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Tayler Hill and Emma Meesseman all made plays to wipe out the deficit. It’s been a quiet few weeks for the young Mystics bench we were all getting excited about earlier in the season, but they made some big shots to keep Washington in the game in the third quarter. Then Ivory Latta joined in, and started matching McCoughtry shot for shot.
An effective tactic Atlanta has rediscovered in recent weeks is going to their small lineup, with an extra perimeter player on the floor and McCoughtry sliding over to masquerade as a power forward. But with Hayes and Herrington out, that became a virtual impossibility. The only way they could’ve gone small would’ve been with Courtney Clements at small forward, and while Clements did get plenty of minutes spelling the perimeter players, none of them were particularly effective (she shot 0-7, taking her shooting average for the season down to a horrific 24%). So what Atlanta needed was for their true posts to step up and make their more traditional lineups successful. Erika de Souza missed a lot of makable shots in the paint in the first half, but both she and Aneika Henry contributed to the Dream push that opened the fourth quarter. Their work inside gave Atlanta options that didn’t involve praying that jump shots would fall in. A Henry finish with under three minutes left in regulation gave the Dream a seven-point lead.
But the Mystics wouldn’t go away. We’ve seen plenty of this spirit from Mike Thibault’s team this year – they don’t quit. McCoughtry coughed up two virtually identical turnovers, curling into the middle of the floor and having the ball ripped from her grasp at the top of the key. Both led to points for Washington, and in a matter of moments the gap had gone from seven to three. Matee Ajavon had produced virtually nothing all night for Washington, but she was huge in the final minutes of the fourth. She was credited with both those steals, then ghosted past McCoughtry – horrible, horrible ‘defense’ – for an easy layup. A stagnant possession from Atlanta followed, but Thomas bailed them out with a 20-footer that dropped as the shot clock expired. Ajavon answered with another driving layup.
Trailing by a point, Washington had to start fouling intentionally, and once Bentley drained a pair at the line the Mystics were down three with 14 seconds left. The initial motion from Washington didn’t work, with McCoughtry sliding over a Crystal Langhorne screen to prevent the pass to Monique Currie. But then McCoughtry made a mistake. Currie faked a baseline cut, and McCoughtry got distracted by Langhorne under the rim. Of course, a pass to Langhorne for an open layup wouldn’t have been a big deal – Washington still would’ve trailed. But Currie popped back behind the three-point arc, and McCoughtry was a couple of steps slow in following her back out there. Currie drained the three, and the game was tied with 6.4 seconds on the clock.
Here’s where another earlier error came back to bite Atlanta. They’d burned two consecutive timeouts in order to move the ball past halfcourt with 22 seconds on the clock, after pressure from Washington gave them some difficulties advancing the ball. That left them with no timeouts. So they had to inbound the standard way, and finished regulation with a Thomas heave from 40 feet. It wasn’t close, so we were headed to overtime.
The very first moment of overtime made me smile. The opening jump-ball in a WNBA (or NBA) game is essentially irrelevant. You either get the ball to open the first and fourth quarters, or the second and third. It’s exactly the same. But the tip-off in overtime means something. It’s an extra possession that never gets evened up. Washington made it count, when Snow beat Erika for the tip, and actively tapped it forward to Langhorne rather than backwards to a guard. Langhorne immediately charged in for a layup. Smart play.
However, likely the most important moment of the extra period came around 90 seconds in. An Atlanta steal led to a McCoughtry breakaway, but she blew the layup under heavy pressure from Snow. McCoughtry turned her right ankle on landing, and was still lying on the floor when Hill drilled an open three at the other end. I’ve criticised Angel plenty of times this season for not getting back on defense, but it’s understandable when you can barely walk. She needed help getting off the floor, putting no weight on her right foot. It didn’t look too bad on replay, and it seemed like they were trying to re-tape her on the sidelines, but she never re-entered the game. Whether she’ll miss any future action is still to be seen, but she was done for the night.
While McCoughtry had hardly been carrying Atlanta, they couldn’t produce much at all without her on the floor. Le’coe Willingham was their choice as the replacement – another signal that Clements really should’ve been waived long ago – and made a couple of horrible errors for turnovers. However, she did convert their one basket after McCoughtry’s injury with a transition layup, and Atlanta had the ball back after a Currie miss with 24 seconds remaining, trailing by three. Thomas took an eternity to do anything with the ball, seeming almost unaware of the perilous situation her team was in. Eventually the ball went in to Erika under the basket, only for her to miss a reverse layup. Then Atlanta wasted precious seconds failing to foul. Eventually they got around to it, and Latta made a pair at the line to ice the game. Washington had pulled out an 85-80 win on the road.
This was a tough loss for the Dream, although their primary concern following the game will be McCoughtry’s health. Adding 1 in the L column would be nothing compared to any missed time by their star player, especially considering they’re already missing two perimeter players. But it didn’t look like a serious sprain at the time, and she posted a picture on Instagram a few hours ago that showed no strapping or support of any kind on her foot. So hopefully she’s fine. It’s a game Atlanta probably should’ve won, considering they led for much of the second half, and were in a strong position with only minutes remaining. Both Thomas and Henry stepped up at times to provide the offense that has to come from somewhere else with all their injuries. But you can clearly see how much of a struggle it is for the Dream with so many key players missing. They’re still the favourites to finish the regular season with the #2 seed in the East, but they’ll probably need to win at least a couple more games to stay there. That’s going to remain a difficult task unless they can get healthy.
Washington didn’t play particularly well either, but they made big plays when they had to and scratched out a win. They’re just 1.5 games back from Atlanta now (although the Dream hold the tie-breaker after taking the season-series 3-2). More importantly, the Mystics are a game up on Indiana, and 2.5 ahead of New York. They even have a couple of games left on their schedule against Connecticut, everyone’s first choice of opponent by this stage in 2013. This was just another step in Washington’s shockingly successful revival this season under Thibault. He’s a strong Coach of the Year candidate, and after being the laughing stock of the WNBA for two years under Trudi Lacey, this franchise looks destined for the postseason.
Thursday August 29th (today):
Connecticut @ Seattle, 10pm ET. My policy of taking anyone to cover anything against the Sun has been going pretty well in recent weeks. Seattle -7.5 isn’t enough to change my mind. The Storm need this one, because their final five games after this are three straight against Minnesota and a home-and-home with Tulsa (the best team in the league, followed by a team that have given the Storm fits this year). Seattle’s inconsistencies are always a concern, but they ought to take care of Connecticut.
Friday August 30th (tomorrow):
Indiana @ New York, 7.30pm
San Antonio @ Tulsa, 8pm