WNBA Today, 08/15/2013: Lineup choices doom Dream in Connecticut; Mercury continue to rise under Pennell

 

Two games last night in the WNBA, and they were intriguing in a lot of ways. Two Eastern Conference teams desperate for a win ran into each other, and spent most of the night seemingly trying to find ways to avoid winning. Then a cross-conference matchup saw a team famed for its defense face one historically known for its offense – and the all-attack squad came out on top in a low-scoring, defense-first game. Sometimes everything works out backwards.

 

The opening game was in Connecticut, where the Sun hosted the Atlanta Dream. The visitors arrived still sitting in second place in the East, but that’s down to their 10-1 start to the season. Since then they’ve gone 1-7, free-falling down towards the chasing pack. Connecticut should’ve been the perfect venue to turn around that slide. The Sun were 6-15 coming in, deservedly rock bottom of the East, and two miserable losses against Chicago and Washington over the weekend had maintained their run of misery.

 

The Sun were also shorthanded once again, with Allison Hightower out along with Kara Lawson’s long-term absence. Lawson continues to be missing with what’s listed as ‘family issues’ in the box scores, Hightower was out with either a strained knee (according to the box) or a back problem (according to the commentator). The confusion over Hightower’s injury led to a conspiracy theory or two considering it was the day before the trade deadline, but nothing happened today to substantiate any of that guesswork. Tan White replaced Hightower in the starting lineup, and Anne Donovan also made an unforced change (finally), by replacing Kalana Greene with rookie Kelly Faris on the wing. Atlanta have Tiffany Hayes back from injury now, but Sancho Lyttle continues to miss games due to her broken foot. After surviving so well without Lyttle when she was with Spain for EuroBasket Women earlier in the season, Atlanta have really missed her since she got hurt.

 

It’s that power forward spot that ought to be filled by Lyttle that’s going to dominate much of this discussion of last night’s game, but some other stuff happened first. For one thing, Connecticut had probably their most successful first quarter of the entire season – and they did it essentially without Tina Charles (or despite her, if you want to be a little mean). Charles played the opening 5:28 of the game, and left with her team trailing 16-13. She’d contributed one hook shot and a few free throws, along with some pretty lazy help defense, and being outworked by Erika de Souza in transition. The Sun were most effective offensively when she wasn’t even involved, with Kelsey Griffin, Renee Montgomery and Tan White making plays. When Charles sat down that developed even further, and the Sun took off. With Montgomery hitting threes and White scoring in a variety of ways, plus Mistie Bass doing her job as Charles’s fill-in, Connecticut led 28-24 at the end of the first quarter. 28 points in an entire half has been more typical for the Sun lately.

 

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WNBA Today, 08/14/2013: Sparks hold on to beat Sky, as Delle Donne’s foot causes concern

 

Just one game in the WNBA last night, as the Chicago Sky completed their pair of games against the West’s elite with a trip to Los Angeles. The Sky beat Minnesota in overtime on Sunday, and now they had the chance to back-up that victory with a result against the Sparks. But it wasn’t going to be easy. LA had just come home from a successful road trip, winning four in a row after a rocky start in Tulsa. With the chance to move within a game of the Lynx at the top of the Western standings, LA were just as up for this game as Chicago.

 

The same starting lineups we’ve grown used to with these teams over the season began the game. The defensive matchups were always going to be interesting, because both sides have players that are so difficult to deal with. Chicago had Sylvia Fowles on Candace Parker, and Swin Cash on Nneka Ogwumike, hiding Elena Delle Donne as usual on the weakest offensive option available – Alana Beard. At the other end of the floor, LA started with Parker on Delle Donne, creating a matchup between the Sky’s prized rookie and the established veteran whose skillset most closely resembles her own. That left Ogwumike trying to handle Fowles in the post, and Kristi Toliver sliding over onto Cash – so that Beard could guard Epiphanny Prince. With that much cross-matching, inevitably the teams couldn’t always line up as they desired when the action switched quickly in transition, but that was what they were trying for.

 

The entire first half was a tight, competitive contest, with 15 lead changes taking place. Delle Donne hit a couple of shots early, as Parker failed to extend all the way out to guard her so Delle Donne simply fired away right over the top. As always, LA did everything they could to push up the court quickly, and find early offense in transition. It resulted in a few cheap points for LA, but also a few unnecessary turnovers when Lindsey Harding or Kristi Toliver were a little too desperate to try to force something.

 

The mismatches both teams had and their effectiveness in trying to capitalise on them were intriguing. Obviously, the reason you can hide weaker defenders on players like Beard and Cash is that you’re not afraid of them hurting you with their offense. But both of those players are former All-Stars, and it’s tempting to go to them when they’re handed a clear advantage on the offensive end. At the same time, it’s a generally a win for the defense if Beard is trying to hit a reasonably open jumper, or Cash is trying to post up Toliver and create a lane for an entry pass. You’d generally prefer to see that as a defense than one of the offensive stars taking the shot. So we saw a couple of efforts from Beard, and we saw both Cash and Tamera Young trying to post up Toliver, but the offenses didn’t go back to that well very often. Better to just let the weaker defenders hide than take yourself out of your own offense while trying to attack them.

 

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WNBA Today, 08/13/2013: Five-star day for WNBA

 

Apologies for this piece arriving a day later than usual. Hopefully you won’t all think it’s a dollar short as well (but as it’s free, that would seem difficult). Sunday saw another quintuple-header in the WNBA, and the first meeting this year of the two teams who’ve been atop either conference for the last few weeks. Let’s start the Bullet Point Breakdowns with that headline matchup.

 

Minnesota Lynx 86 @ Chicago Sky 94

  • The Lynx arrived off the back of having a 10-game winning streak broken by Washington on Thursday, and not having lost consecutive games since last year’s Finals they were obviously hoping to bounce back quickly. Janel McCarville was still out due to concussion, and this time Cheryl Reeve went directly to Devereaux Peters as the replacement, rather than messing around with Amber Harris as the starter. The Sky had stuttered a little since the All-Star break, with Elena Delle Donne’s concussion upsetting their rhythm and playing a part in back-to-back losses against Indiana. It’s games against teams like the Lynx where they really needed to step up and prove their credentials as a potential championship contender, after so many years of underperformance.

 

  • As most would’ve expected, Delle Donne was hiding on Peters defensively, with Sylvia Fowles taking Rebekkah Brunson and Swin Cash trying to chase after Maya Moore. The Lynx switched the post pairings at the other end, using Brunson as their first option on Delle Donne, and leaving Peters to do her best against Fowles.

 

  • Chicago got three blocks from Delle Donne and three taken changes from Courtney Vandersloot in the opening period – two players who aren’t exactly known for their defense but who’ve done their bit this season. Vandersloot’s worked hard to get stronger, and her feet appear to have become quicker in the process. Opponents don’t quite seem to quite realise how tall and long Delle Done is. She might not be the greatest individual defender in the world, but she’s very coordinated and size makes up for a lot. She broke Chicago’s rookie-record for blocks in this game – a record previously held by Fowles.

 

  • However, it was Minnesota who built the first leads of any significance, pushing ahead by as many as seven midway through the first quarter, and eight early in the second. Brunson and Seimone Augustus were both knocking down jumpers, while Epiphanny Prince continued her recent run of offensive futility. She’d had a good game against the dismal Sun on Friday, but in general her shot’s been missing in action for well over a month.

 

  • You could see that both head coaches were taking this game very seriously, well aware that it was a real test (and a potential WNBA Finals preview). Pokey Chatman didn’t mess around with Allie Quigley at point guard, using Prince whenever Vandersloot needed a brief rest. Amber Harris got a couple of minutes here and there, because without McCarville someone had to spell the posts, but Harris was pulled quickly when Fowles went right at her (and basically abused her). Neither coach wanted to give anything away cheaply.

 

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WNBA Today, 08/11/2013: Sparks and Fever continue to improve, Liberty and Dream continue to struggle

 

Two WNBA games on Saturday, one early and one late. Each was between a team who’ve been moving forwards and winning games lately, and a team who’ve been struggling. So the results shouldn’t have come as a big surprise.

 

The opener was in New York (well, New Jersey – back to New York next year), where the Los Angeles Sparks were the visitors. The Liberty have been frustratingly up and down lately, which is at least better than the consistent turnover-riddled losses that were a repetitive story earlier in the season. The Sparks have been strong, picking up their game even before Candace Parker returned from her wrist injury. This was the fifth and final game of a road trip for LA, and they’d swept the previous three against Eastern teams after a disappointing start in Tulsa. They were looking to finish strong in New York before heading home.

 

The lineups were the same as in recent games for these teams. New York started out okay, sliding Plenette Pierson inside for a pretty basket off the pick-and-roll on their opening possession and playing some solid interior defense. They even forced Nneka Ogwumike to the bench quickly after she picked up two fouls inside the first four minutes of the game. But the Sparks began to pull away thanks to significantly better perimeter shooting. Both teams were neutralising each other in the post. The size and athleticism of Ogwumike, Parker and Jantel Lavender was enough to body up on New York’s posts and make them miss inside. Everything was rimming out. At the other end it was mostly a similar story, with the Liberty strong enough in the paint to keep LA out. Parker even helped them out by consistently bricking shots from about 19 feet. But Kristi Toliver was hitting jumpers, and the likes of Lindsey Harding, Alana Beard and Marissa Coleman joined in as the first half wore on. That made the big difference on the scoreboard.

 

Cappie Pondexter was doing what she could to carry the Liberty offense, and it was nice to see her both drive for layups or fouls, and nail a three in the kind of situation where she’s been firing 19ft twos most of the season. But that wasn’t really enough. When the Liberty have been successful lately, it’s been through Pierson, Kara Braxton and Kelsey Bone providing consistent scoring inside. They couldn’t do that, so New York struggled to score.

 

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WNBA Today, 08/10/2013: Two road blowouts and Mercury win with, uh, defense and rebounding?

 

It wasn’t exactly a banner day of basketball yesterday in the WNBA, as three games resulted in an ugly slugfest and two blowouts. Because ‘poor but close’ is generally more interesting than ‘desperately one-sided’, and the league’s newest head coach was involved in the tight game, we’re breaking away from our usual chronological order for today’s Bullet Point Breakdowns, and starting in Arizona.

 

Tulsa Shock 67 @ Phoenix Mercury 70

  • Russ Pennell’s first game in charge of the Mercury came against Tulsa, the first of three meetings with the Shock in the space of twelve days. If Tulsa could take advantage of Phoenix’s recent issues to win at least two of those, then the lower reaches of the playoff race in the Western Conference might become distinctly more interesting. Pennell had the good fortune to have DeWanna Bonner healthy to play despite the bruised knee she suffered in Corey Gaines’s final game as head coach. Brittney Griner’s sprained ankle, however, kept her out. Krystal Thomas started in her place. Tulsa continued with the same starting lineup they’ve been rolling out in recent games, but were once again without live-wire sixth woman Riquna Williams due to a right ankle problem that’s expected to keep her out another week.

 

  • The most obvious difference under Pennell, right from the start, was the lack of zone defense. The Mercury were so deplorable playing man-to-man under Gaines that they went to a 1-2-2 zone midway through the season for the majority of defensive possessions, and had some success. Pennell has thrown that out, and went man-to-man throughout. They weren’t switching much either, placing individual responsibility on each player to cover their man. It backfired a couple of times early on, as a few Mercury players failed to offer the effort required to play effective man-to-man. Diana Taurasi, in particular, got caught on screens or just watched Angel Goodrich go by her far too frequently.

 

  • Tulsa’s success in recent weeks has come through the post pairing of Liz Cambage and Glory Johnson, and that was inevitably their focus again. They tried to run their offense through Cambage down low, and when she looked to score she was efficient and effective. Phoenix weren’t even double-teaming her that frequently, often leaving Thomas or Lynetta Kizer to do most of the work alone. It would’ve been nice to see Cambage attack even more than she did – at times it was almost as if she was expecting additional defenders and looking to pass before it was necessary. Johnson was quiet, failing to make much impact on the game. It was back to the story from a month or so ago, when the concentration on feeding Cambage led to Johnson barely touching the ball.

 

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WNBA Today, 08/09/2013: Sparks punish Fever inside, while Mystics pull off big upset in Minnesota

 

While the big news around the WNBA yesterday may have been the departure of Phoenix Mercury head coach Corey Gaines (read in depth coverage of that HERE), there were also two intriguing cross-conference basketball games to take in. Having gone the right way in both of them in my picks against the spread, forgive me if there’s a mildly smug hint to the coverage below. The predictions have been going surprisingly well since the All-Star break – for once, I’d actually be making money if I followed my own gambling advice.

 

The opener was in Indiana, where the Los Angeles Sparks made their yearly visit. After missing the first three games of LA’s post-All-Star road trip due to a right wrist injury, Candace Parker was back with the team and back in the lineup. There was some strapping around the wrist, and she grabbed it once or twice during the game, but obviously she and the medical staff felt she was ready to return. The Fever are as healthy as they look likely to get for a while. Center Jessica Davenport is done for the season after surgery on her tibia, and Katie Douglas’s back problem continues to leave her sidelined. But with the injuries they’ve battled all year, Indiana will settle for having 10 of their 12 first-choice options available to play.

 

The opening couple of minutes seemingly went perfectly for the Fever. LA looked unprepared for the energy and activity of Indiana’s defense, and repeatedly turned the ball over on passes into traffic or poke-aways by Fever defenders. Briann January even hit a layup, which has been about as common this season as seeing a pig drift by your window. But Indiana didn’t create any separation during that sequence because they couldn’t hit anything from the perimeter, and when they avoided turning the ball over LA weren’t missing. It didn’t help when January picked up her second early foul on a soft call while trying to play tight to Lindsey Harding on defense, sending her to the bench.

 

Once the Sparks started taking better care of the ball, they began to dominate. They were getting out in transition when they could, but even in halfcourt sets they were finding their bigs deep in the paint and converting at the rim. Without steals to run off, Indiana were taking a lot of jumpers, virtually none of which went in, merely helping LA push back the other way from the long rebounds. The officials also started calling almost everything, which hurt Indiana far more than LA. Suddenly those reach-ins or poke-away plays from Fever defenders were drawing whistles, sending LA to the line repeatedly, rather than resulting in turnovers. By the end of the first quarter LA already had 16 points in the paint, 9 more at the free throw line, and led 27-13.

 

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Losses Outweigh Gaines: No defense for Corey as Mercury make a change

 

Sitting at 10-11 and clinging to third place in the WNBA’s Western Conference, the Phoenix Mercury decided enough was enough on Thursday, and fired head coach and general manager Corey Gaines. Russ Pennell, former men’s head coach at the University of Arizona and Grand Canyon University, was named interim head coach, while Chief Operating Officer Amber Cox will take over the general manager duties.

 

While many were surprised at the timing – changes at head coach, especially for playoff teams, tend to happen in the offseason rather than during the regular season – the decision itself can’t be a huge shock at this point. After the desperate season last year, where endless losses piled up (by design or misfortune, depending on your perspective), this year was meant to be the bounce-back. They were adding a game-changer in rookie center Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi was healthy, Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner were still in the fold, Penny Taylor was on her way back, even their young point guard was now a year more experienced – they were loaded. Injuries to Griner and Taylor provided yet more excuses for Gaines, but the team weren’t good enough whoever was on the floor. And considering teams across the league were dealing with major injuries to their stars and finding a way to survive, the Mercury’s struggles were made to look even worse.

 

Defense has always been Gaines’s achilles heel. In his five seasons in charge, the Mercury were second-last, last, last, third-last, and last in the WNBA in defensive points per possession (that’s how many points they concede, adjusted for the pace at which their games are played). They’re last again this year, by a considerable margin. The other 11 teams all sit somewhere between 91.4 and 101.4 points per 100 possessions; Phoenix have given up 104.3. Whenever this has been brought up over the years, his defenders have talked about how the Mercury offensive style leads to the defensive failings. But that’s always been a fallacy. You can play fast-paced, attacking basketball on the offensive end, and still play defense. Just because you like to concentrate on one end of the floor, doesn’t mean you can completely ignore the other. There are some poor defenders on the Mercury squad, but they’ve been so bad for so long that it’s completely inexcusable. There’s been a dismal lack of rules and consistency within their defense for years, and then this year they added the most dominant defensive center to emerge from the NCAA in a very long time. The hope was that they could install her at center, and she could cover for the flaws in Gaines’s system and coaching. But they were still terrible. Griner had her issues adapting to the pick-and-roll based pro game, and then the knee problem slowed her progress, but there were no signs that Gaines knew what he was doing in utilising her. You couldn’t help but feel that virtually any other coach in the league would’ve been doing a better job turning her into a true force on the defensive end.

 

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