WNBA Today, 08/23/2013: WNBA’s best beats worst in surprise to no one; plus Friday picks and previews

 

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.

 

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WNBA Today, 08/22/2013: Return of Zellous helps Fever take care of Silver Stars; League acts on Laimbeer

 

One game took center stage on its own last night in the WNBA, and unfortunately it was one of those nights where we probably could’ve used an extra matchup to boost the entertainment. San Antonio have been continuing to battle all season, but they’re in the lower reaches of the Western Conference for a reason. Without Becky Hammon and Sophia Young they’ve put up a fight, but they’re going to need an unlikely-looking push to sneak into the playoff spots before the end of the season. The Silver Stars were visiting Indiana, who needed a result themselves. After an ugly start to the season as they struggled to cope with injuries, they’d stepped it up as the year wore on and some of their walking wounded returned. But they’d lost three in a row on a west coast road trip, all pretty convincingly, and they’ve got four more road games coming right up. They had to win this one to break the run of losses and give themselves something to build off as they left on their travels again.

 

The good news for the Fever was that Shavonte Zellous was back after missing four games due to plantar fasciitis. Indiana had missed her offense while she was out, leaving them lacking in scoring weapons. She slid straight back into the starting lineup in place of Erin Phillips.

 

Both teams made a decent start offensively, getting in behind the respective defenses, but it was Indiana who started to pull away late in the first quarter. Much of their success came via the pick-and-roll, or off-shoots from the effects of pick-and-rolls. It was the kind of attack I was surprised we didn’t see more of from Phoenix when they lost to the Silver Stars on Saturday. Typically, San Antonio hedge so hard on the ballhandler that if she can move the ball on – either to the roller, or to another teammate to make a continuation pass – then the entire Silver Star defense has to rotate. It’s hard to do that fast enough to avoid giving up a wide open look somewhere. You hope you can recover quickly enough to re-set the defense, or maybe only give up an open mid-range shot instead of a layup, but that’s not easy. Indiana found the gaps in San Antonio’s defense and moved into the lead.

 

It got worse for San Antonio as the first half wore on because they weren’t hitting shots. More than anyone in the league, the Silver Stars rely on perimeter shooting to produce their points, and with virtually any team that’s unreliable. It’s just a low-percentage way to score. Early on they found some holes in Indiana’s defense, posted up Danielle Adams a couple of times, or sent Danielle Robinson through the defense on cuts. But they went away from that and just kept firing bricks instead. Their defense also dropped off when Dan Hughes gave some minutes to rookie forward Chelsea Poppens, a recent addition after the franchise parted ways with DeLisha Milton-Jones. Poppens wasn’t in sync with anyone, so the defensive rotations and movement got worse. Indiana led 41-25 at halftime.

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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.

 

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WNBA Today, 08/20/2013: Home wins come easy, medium and hard, while Laimbeer crosses the line

 

Sunday saw three WNBA games, and ultimately three double-digit home victories. But each was achieved in a very different way, and we even had a little bit of controversy to spice things up as well. Bullet Point Breakdowns follow.

 

Washington Mystics 58 @ Atlanta Dream 76

  • This was a battle between two teams hoping to cement signs of an upturn in form. After playing some poor basketball to lose six out of seven and slide back into the pack in the East, Washington had run off three straight wins – starting with a shocking upset win in Minnesota. Meanwhile, Atlanta had lost eight of nine before destroying Connecticut on Friday night, which they were obviously hoping could begin their own new streak. The Dream came in with oddly competing statistics – they hadn’t beaten anyone besides the Sun since June, and beating Connecticut this season barely counts; but so many of their recent games have been on the road, they still held the best home record in the WNBA. At 9-1 at Philips Arena coming into this game, they had every right to be confident on their own floor, despite all those losses elsewhere.

 

  • In a frantic, end-to-end opening quarter, it was Washington who got off to the better start. They were pushing the ball hard, looking for quick offense, and attacking Angel McCoughtry off the dribble. It was hard to tell whether Angel was meant to be guarding Matee Ajavon or Monique Currie – McCoughtry seemed to pick up whoever she felt like on any given possession, assuming she made it back down the floor in time to guard anyone. But early on, Washington were both breaking down Atlanta’s defense, and hitting their open shots from outside.

 

  • McCoughtry was still getting plenty back at the other end, attacking and getting to the rim as usual. Dream head coach Fred Williams also showed a willingness to try the small lineup with McCoughtry at the 4 earlier than usual, which was a positive. It’s rarely come into play in the first quarter this season.

 

  • Atlanta just about survived the early second quarter minutes where McCoughtry rests – it’s been a struggle to avoid collapsing in that period lately – and then made a push when she came back. They had positive moments both with Le’coe Willingham at power forward – a much more reliable option to guard Crystal Langhorne than McCoughtry – and with the quicker, more aggressive small lineup. By halftime, while it felt like Washington had been on top for much of the first half, the Dream were in front 38-37.

 

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WNBA Today, 08/18/2013: Silver Stars show Mercury still have work to do; Storm battle past tiring Fever

 

Last night saw a double-header of action in the WNBA, featuring three Western teams still hoping to grab the two remaining playoff spots in any doubt in the West, and one Eastern squad continuing to fight for their own postseason berth. We began in San Antonio, where they were taking Breast Cancer Awareness night an extra step or two further. Not just pink uniforms, but a pink court, pink spotlights, pink shoes for head coach Dan Hughes, and pink hair for point guard Danielle Robinson. Apparently it really is true that everything is bigger in Texas.

 

After leaving Phoenix’s previous game with a knee problem, Candace Dupree was fit enough to start, but backup point guard Jasmine James stayed home due to a concussion suffered in that same game. Penny Taylor continues to miss out due to her knee, of course. San Antonio are still without Sophia Young and Becky Hammon, as they have been for all but 12 minutes of the season. Recent signing Chelsea Poppens was a new addition to their options off the bench.

 

The most obviously intriguing aspect of this game was whether Phoenix’s defensive improvements under new head coach Russ Pennell could be sustained. They’d won three in a row since he took over, but this was his first game on the road, and the first against a team that actually likes to shoot from outside and will happily exploit those opportunities repeatedly. There’s a reason that most teams build some kinks into their vanilla man-to-man defense, and it’s because you’ll run into teams like this who’ll break it down without much trouble. In the first half, San Antonio illustrated that Phoenix’s new defensive structure is still very much a work-in-progress. The Mercury are only switching in very obvious situations – deep baseline cuts where opponents cross over, wing handoffs where it’s easy to change assignments – on everything else defenders are generally expected to stick with their man. Except when they don’t, or can’t. Too many Mercury defenders were caught on screens, and left in an opponent’s wake while she was wide open for a jump shot. Or there was confusion when one Mercury player left her assignment and expected a teammate to swing over and cover, but the teammate didn’t get the memo. Against some teams, Pennell may have to switch a little more, or at least hedge a little more with his bigs on screens. Or it’s just a matter of building chemistry so the Phoenix players know how to react and recover defensively. They haven’t been doing this for very long.

 

Arguably more concerning than the defense, was how stilted Phoenix’s offense looked at times in this game. San Antonio are well coached and well drilled, but ultimately they’ve been a pretty bad defensive team this season. They leave holes you can exploit. It seemed obvious that Phoenix should’ve been pick-and-rolling them to death all night long. On a couple of early Mercury possessions, we saw the same problems for San Antonio defending that basic play that they had against Liz Cambage and Tulsa. If you put Jayne Appel (or even Danielle Adams) in the pick-and-roll, then most of the time San Antonio will hedge hard against the ballhandler with both defenders. If the ballhandler can make the pass to the rolling post – something Diana Taurasi, for example, is incredibly good at – it’s likely to result in a very good look. Dupree got a wide open jumper and an easy layup (although she blew the latter) on early possessions, and Brittney Griner was left open from two feet (although she contrived to miss as well). It was baffling that Phoenix didn’t just run simple pick-and-rolls all night long. For whatever reason, they went away from it.

 

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WNBA Today, 08/17/2013: Western summit continues to tighten; Eastern picture remains muddied

 

Four games last night in the WNBA. We had a couple of upsets – one minor, one huge. And a couple of home wins – one comfortable, one blowout. Let’s go to the Bullet Point Breakdowns to take a look.

 

Washington Mystics 66 @ New York Liberty 57

  • New York came into this one just half-a-game behind the Mystics for the final playoff spot in the East. Having beaten Washington twice in recent weeks, a win for the Liberty also would’ve sealed the season-series tiebreaker should these teams end up level at the end of the season. The Mystics came in having beaten the best and the worst the WNBA has to offer in their last two games, Minnesota and Connecticut. Now they had to take on an opponent from somewhere in the middle.

 

  • The lineups were the same as usual for these teams, although New York had veteran forward DeLisha Milton-Jones in uniform for the first time after claiming her off waivers from San Antonio.

 

  • The first half was ultimately very even. Washington built a small lead early with their starters, thanks to the fact that they have more players who can shoot than New York. Cappie Pondexter was utterly invisible in the first quarter. As has been something of a theme lately, the Mystics lost their way a little when their bench players came in, and New York slid back into it largely due to Washington’s offensive futility. Then the rest of the half played out with Pondexter actually making a couple of shots, while Plenette Pierson and Crystal Langhorne entertainingly went to war down low.

 

  • The third quarter was even more forgettable than the first half. Desperately scrappy basketball, too many turnovers, defense dominating and not a lot of points being scored. A 34-33 New York lead at halftime became a 45-44 Washington lead after three periods.

 

  • It didn’t take long in the fourth quarter for the victor to become clear. Matee Ajavon, Kia Vaughn and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt all nailed jumpers in the opening moments, turning a one-point lead into an eight-point gap. In a game where points had been at a premium all night, that felt like a chasm. Defensive decisions and defense in general had become rather too easy for the Mystics. Pondexter couldn’t hit a shot to save her life in the second half, and New York don’t have many other players who can shoot (especially considering Bill Laimbeer’s continuing reluctance to play Leilani Mitchell). So the defense increasingly collapsed into the paint, and made it harder and harder for New York to force the ball inside. So they spent the fourth quarter either being swamped in the paint when they continued to try to get there, or watching Pondexter brick jumpers.

 

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WNBA Today, 08/16/2013: Staggering comeback saves Sky in Seattle

 

Just the one game in the WNBA last night, but it was crazy enough to entertain all on its own. Chicago made their yearly visit to Seattle to face the Storm, but took the floor without rookie phenom Elena Delle Donne. Her mid-foot sprain, suffered in their previous game against Los Angeles, is expected to keep her out for a couple of weeks. The chances of losing their top spot in the East look slim, simply because there aren’t any teams in the chasing pack who look capable of stringing together a run to catch them. But with the Sky’s history, where they’ve consistently found ways to miss the postseason from whatever position they happened to be in, their fans aren’t taking anything for granted. Tamera Young came into the starting lineup again as Delle Donne’s replacement.

 

Seattle continue to sit in fourth place in the West, where they’ve been for quite some time now. Whether a playoff spot and likely first-round exit is actually preferable to owning some ping-pong balls in the lottery remains open to debate, but they continue to fight their way to enough wins to hold that spot. San Antonio and Tulsa aren’t dead yet, but Seattle remain in pole position.

 

With Delle Donne out, the likely focus of Chicago’s offense was obvious. Epiphanny Prince hasn’t been able to hit water from the side of a boat lately, so finding Sylvia Fowles in the paint was always going to be their primary option. However, the one thing Seattle have been good at year after year after year under Brian Agler, is preventing teams from taking layups. They consistently force opponents into taking a smaller proportion of their attempts from inside 5 feet than any other team in the WNBA. With Fowles as the first, second and third option for Chicago, their defensive focus was going to be pretty damn obvious. Everyone sagged into the paint for Seattle, making passing lanes to even get Fowles the ball difficult in the first place. Whenever she did touch the ball inside, defenders swarmed all over her immediately, forcing it back out unless she managed to score within moments of receiving the pass. And in case you haven’t noticed over the years due to Fowles being such an athletic and effective finisher inside – she’s a terrible passer. She has 9 assists this season. All season, in total. That’s not helped by the limited number of players on her team who can shoot, but it tells the story. Force her to pass out, and you’re more likely to create a turnover than give up a bucket.

 

The other problem that Chicago had offensively in the first half was that Epiphanny Prince continued to play like she has for at least a couple of months. She’s been awful. Her jump shot accuracy has disappeared, and she was shooting a miserable 31% in July and August combined coming into this game. This team was meant to become an unguardable 3-headed monster with the addition of Delle Donne, but lately Prince hasn’t been holding up her end.

 

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