WNBA Today, 09/27/2013: Dream hold off Fever as defense disappears out East; Mercury kiss cheeks while Lynx kick ass in West

 

In some ways, the prospects for our Eastern and Western Conference Finals in the WNBA this season suggested they would go to type. In the East, we had two teams known for their ability to pressurise and force turnovers. One was the best defense in the league this season, the other has been known as a shut-down defensive squad for years. A classic Eastern defensive battle was on the cards. In the West, we had the team with far and away the best offense in the WNBA this season, against a team known as all-offense, all-the-time for over six years (albeit with some recent hints of defensive interest). So a run-and-gun Western shootout, right? As it turned out, we got the contrast – just not in quite the way that history might’ve suggested.

 

The evening began in Atlanta, with the Indiana Fever starting another series on the road. That’s what happens when you slide into the playoffs with a sub-.500 record after a constant struggle throughout the regular season. But the Dream had survived problems of their own, collapsing from a 10-1 start to the season and then having to come from 1-0 down in the first-round of the playoffs to fight past Washington. Whoever ultimately makes it out of the East is going to have worked through some significant difficulties to get there.

 

Dream head coach Fred Williams made a surprisingly active and ballsy move to open the series. After junking his small lineup entirely against the Mystics in the first-round, and making it through that series in part because of his team’s size and offensive rebounding, he immediately went small against Indiana. Both Le’coe Willingham (who started the Washington series at power forward, then missed Games 2 and 3 due to a knee problem) and Aneika Henry (who replaced Willingham) were in uniform and available, but both began the series on the bench. Instead, Angel McCoughtry slid over to the theoretical power forward position, while Armintie Herrington regained her starting spot alongside Tiffany Hayes and Jasmine Thomas on the perimeter. Essentially, it puts four perimeter players on the court with center Erika de Souza. It’s a lineup they used effectively as a change-up during the regular season, especially after Sancho Lyttle got hurt and made their ‘natural’ lineups less effective. We were always likely to see it in this series because Indiana are so small these days with Tamika Catchings at power forward. But it’s the first time Williams has ever used it to start a game. In some ways, it’s the exact opposite of how the Washington series began, where Mike Thibault and the Mystics dictated the action throughout Game 1 and Williams never seemed to have an answer. For once, he had the guts to throw the first punch.

 

All of that said, the game didn’t begin particularly well for Atlanta. They looked confused on which way they were going on the opening tip, handing Catchings an uncontested layup to start the game. Then Hayes jacked an ugly three on Atlanta’s first possession, and Catchings continued to light them up for the next few minutes of the game. The plan appeared to be to guard her with Hayes – McCoughtry was hiding on Karima Christmas, as expected – and Catchings apparently wasn’t impressed by this idea. She hit jumpers, or attacked Hayes off the dribble and finished inside. It didn’t look like Hayes could handle her. When the game restarted after the first timeout five minutes into the opening quarter, Herrington had switched over onto Catchings, and Plan A appeared to have been thrown out the window.

 

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2013 WNBA Playoff Previews: Western Conference Finals – Minnesota Lynx vs. Phoenix Mercury

 

By the numbers (over entire regular season):

 

Minnesota Lynx (26-8) vs Phoenix Mercury (19-15)

 

Points scored per 100 possessions: 106.46 (1st in WNBA) – 99.46 (4th)

Points conceded per 100 possessions: 94.55 (3rd) – 100.4 (10th)

Rebound percentage: .522 (2nd) – .486 (10th)

 

Season series between the teams: Minnesota won 5-0

06/06 @Min, Lynx win 99-79

06/19 @Pho, Lynx win 80-69

07/07 @Min, Lynx win 91-59

07/21 @Pho, Lynx win 82-77

07/24 @Min, Lynx win 81-69

 

—–

 

For all the talents of the Los Angeles Sparks, in many ways this was the matchup that everyone wanted to see. In one corner we have the dominant Minnesota Lynx. They were a powerhouse for the third year in a row, once again finishing with the best record in the WNBA. They’ve got three years of chemistry, the smoothest offense and one of the most cohesive defenses in the league. They’ve even got a little bit of extra incentive this season, trying to regain their crown after slipping up against Indiana in the Finals last year when heavily favoured. They’re the ones who were always meant to be here. In the opposite corner, the team who were practically crowned before they set foot on a basketball floor, then had to re-shape themselves after things didn’t go to plan. This isn’t the old Phoenix Mercury, the team that lost the last 12 games they’ve played against the Lynx. Russ Pennell made some changes after he took over in midseason, and now ESPN gets the leader of their ‘Three to See’ in the conference finals after all. We’ve got the reigning champs who were almost forgotten, against the team everyone rushed to anoint as their successors. The Sparks might be out, but Hollywood easily could’ve written this script.

 

Let’s start with what we know. The Lynx are very, very good. They had some occasional struggles getting past Seattle in the first-round, but that was a veteran team with exceptional discipline who know how to make a game messy. And Minnesota still held on to beat them for the sixth straight time this year. With Lindsay Whalen at the point, and Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore on the wings, the Lynx have arguably the most dangerous perimeter trio that the WNBA has ever seen. They can fill it up from outside, they can drive past you, Augustus and Moore have both worked on their post game, and in transition they’re even scarier than the LA team Phoenix just snuck past. This has been one of the central problems for the Mercury in the past in dealing with Minnesota – even if they managed to get their own offense rolling, they couldn’t stop the Lynx to save their lives. It was a team that could play at both ends of the floor against a team that only showed up at one.

 

But while Minnesota have those 12 consecutive wins over Phoenix stretching back to 2011, they’re yet to face the Russ Pennell Mercury. Since taking over he’s gotten the team to engage on the defensive end, and at least expend the energy required to put up a fight when they don’t have the ball. It’s not always been perfect – it takes a while to remember how to follow defensive concepts, and some players on the roster are just basic bad defenders – but they’ve been competitive ever since he took over. Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve will have her team prepared for the changes in the Mercury, but you can never entirely understand what you’re going to face until you see them on the floor. In the end, maybe it was a positive for Phoenix that they played all five regular season games against Minnesota before the All-Star break. It helped get Corey Gaines fired, and the Lynx never got a taste of the new Mercury.

 

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2013 WNBA Playoff Previews: Eastern Conference Finals – Atlanta Dream vs. Indiana Fever

 

By the numbers (over entire regular season):

 

Atlanta Dream (17-17) vs Indiana Fever (16-18)

 

Points scored per 100 possessions: 95.19 (9th in WNBA) – 95.37 (8th)

Points conceded per 100 possessions: 93.2 (1st) – 95.27 (5th)

Rebounding percentage: .503 (4th) – .503 (5th)

 

Season series between the teams: Atlanta won 3-1

05/31 @Ind, Dream won 86-77

06/25 @Atl, Dream won 76-60

08/10 @Ind, Fever won 80-66

09/04 @Atl, Dream won 89-80

 

—–

 

So here we are again. Two years ago, Atlanta recovered from losing the opening game in the Eastern Conference Finals to fight past Indiana and make their second consecutive trip to the WNBA Finals. Last year, Indiana lost the opening game in the first-round, before coming back to knock out the Dream – beginning the run that ultimately led to a championship. So there’s plenty of history here. Between them, they’ve provided the East’s representative in the WNBA Finals for each of the last four seasons. We’re looking at two teams who know exactly what this is all about, and know each other incredibly well. So with all this familiarity, and both teams clawing their way to mediocre records this season, what’s going to make the difference in who earns another shot at winning it all?

 

The regular season encounters this year tell us very little. Partly because at least one important player was either absent back then or will be absent for the playoffs, and partly because this is the playoffs. Indiana didn’t look like the team that had struggled through much of the regular season in the first-round, because they stepped up their game when it mattered and took the Chicago Sky apart. Atlanta had many problems against Washington in the first-round, but eventually stepped up in key areas and came through. It’s simplistic to say, but these teams are close enough that the winner of this series is likely to be decided in large part by who raises their game best for postseason play. Indiana always seem to enjoy playing Chicago, so maybe that helped them in the last round, but they also looked demonstrably ready for playoff basketball. If Atlanta play like they did for most of the series against the Mystics, and the Fever show up like that again, the Dream are in trouble.

 

A lot of that comes back to Angel McCoughtry. She’s the leader and driving force for Atlanta, but she shot appallingly against Washington when the defense managed to keep her out of the lane and limit Atlanta’s transition chances. Indiana will be trying to do exactly the same thing. Karima Christmas will probably be defending her for most of the series, and is capable of doing a lot of the same things that Monique Currie did for Washington, but the Fever don’t have quite the same size to clog the lane as the Mystics. And as we saw in the Game 3 decider, Washington were eventually hurt by foul trouble. While Indiana’s domination of Chicago masked the issue in the first-round, the Fever are still desperately thin in the post. Foul trouble for Tamika Catchings or Erlana Larkins could cause real problems, because there’s nowhere much else to go.

 

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WNBA Today, 09/24/2013 (Part Two): Sparks dreams dashed by Mercury in dramatic decider

 

So Atlanta were in – now it was on to the decider in a series that had provided rather more offense. The Mercury and Sparks had thrown haymakers at each other, both stolen a game on the road, and ended up here. After the season began with everyone talking about the power of the top three teams in the West, it seemed only appropriate that the first-round should be completed by this. One game to decide who’d face the Lynx in the Western Finals, and who’d be left considering their season a significant disappointment.

 

There was a change in the starting lineup for Phoenix, with the visible pain Penny Taylor was in at the end of Game 2 keeping her out of Game 3 entirely. Returning from her knee surgeries has been a problem all season, and if she was missing a deciding playoff game you know she really wasn’t able to move on it at all. Briana Gilbreath came back into the lineup, which changed up some of the defensive assignments. Kristi Toliver now had Gilbreath to hide on, so she didn’t have to spend as much time worrying about covering DeWanna Bonner (not that Bonner had done much to attack that matchup during this series). Lindsey Harding isn’t much bigger than Toliver, but she’s generally a better defender, and she slid over onto Bonner. But it also gave Phoenix an extra perimeter defender that they could rely on, and Gilbreath started the game on Harding. That allowed Diana Taurasi to move over onto Alana Beard, who she could help away from more consistently than Harding. Losing Taylor could never be a positive, but it had the potential to make Phoenix a more effective defensive team.

 

But the most noticeable difference in the opening stages from the previous games was Kristi Toliver’s offense. She came in a dismal 4-22 from the field in the series, bricking endless jumpers in Game 1 before disappearing entirely as Game 2 wore on. But she was firing away again, hit a step-back over Candice Dupree to open her account, then a transition three shortly afterwards. This was a scary prospect for Phoenix, because Toliver being icy cold had been a big help to them so far in this series. With Taurasi and Brittney Griner missing several decent looks in the opening period, it was some surprising success from Bonner and the usual smoothness of Dupree that kept the Mercury even at 19-19 at the end of the opening period.

 

The second-quarter was kind of insane. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have seen that it even provoked me into a little ditty, which went along the lines of “I can’t guard you, You can’t guard me, Let’s all score, together!” LA looked like they were taking control early on, led by Candace Parker. Phoenix have struggled to guard her through much of this series, with Dupree their best option but rarely a particularly successful one. Parker abused her on a series of drives, and helped push the Sparks into an eight-point lead.

 

But then there was the other end of the floor. As it has been for much of the season – and probably should’ve been for even more of the season – the Taurasi-Dupree pick-and-roll became Phoenix’s go-to play. While Dupree couldn’t really guard her, Parker was being even more embarrassingly roasted in the reverse matchup. Her pick-and-roll defense was neither one thing nor the other – she wasn’t staying with the roller to cover the finish, or jumping out on the ballhandler to cut off the pass. She was just sort of watching while Dupree went sailing past (and the rotation to help behind her was pretty awful as well). Dupree also beat her on a couple of straight-up isolation drives and a jumper or two, and just kept piling up points. By halftime she was 10-13 for 20, and the Mercury were shooting 58% for a 42-40 lead.

 

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WNBA Today, 09/24/2013 (Part One): Dream through as fouls, fatigue and failing shooting puts paid to Mystics’ hopes

 

Deciding Game 3s deserve their own articles, so coverage today comes in two parts. First the East, and coming soon details of the exciting conclusion to the West’s first-round.

—–

 

In any sport, the most exciting games are when it’s winner-takes-all. When it comes down to a final contest where you either win and move on, or lose and go home. So last night was a treat for WNBA fans. Two first-round series had gone the distance, and were heading for deciders on the same night. Two teams would be left to pack their bags and check travel plans for their overseas gigs during the offseason; two would be opening the conference finals on Thursday night.

 

We began in Atlanta, where neutrals could only hope for a more entertaining product than the series had provided so far. The Dream and Mystics had combined to shoot 33% from the field in the opening two games, and it had not been a pretty exhibition of basketball. The players available were the same as for Game 2, with both Sancho Lyttle and Le’coe Willingham still missing for Atlanta, leaving Aneika Henry to start at power forward again. It had worked out pretty well for the Dream two nights earlier.

 

But it was Washington who got off to the better start in this one. The speed and energy of Atlanta’s defense had made a major impact on Game 2 and allowed the Dream to take control despite not shooting particularly well, but this time it was the Mystics’ quickness and conversion in transition that dominated the early stages. They were pushing down the floor hard, looking for open shots before Atlanta’s defense could get set, and actually knocking several down. Ivory Latta hit a couple of threes, Kia Vaughn was running the floor hard and finishing and Monique Currie hit shots as well. These were all positive signs for a Washington team that had been successful defensively in this series, but often struggled to score points. They were the ones with speed to their game, rather than Atlanta.

 

The Dream trailed by as many as 11 points in the opening period. Their defense didn’t start with the same kind of energy as in Game 2, and when you get beaten down the court in transition it’s hard to send traps or double-teams to unsettle your opponent. Usually, you’re still struggling to pick up your own man, never mind send an extra defender. That’s doubly true, of course, when Angel McCoughtry’s on your team and barely bothering to run back on defense. It was annoying in the regular season – it’s scarcely believable in a playoff game that could end her team’s season. Offensively, Atlanta had many of the same problems in the opening period that they’d suffered from during the first two games. Defenders staying in front of McCoughtry, leading to forced jump shots that didn’t go in; and Kia Vaughn continuing to shut down Erika de Souza on the low block. Fortunately for Atlanta, Vaughn picked up two early fouls in barely three minutes of action, the second a thoroughly dumb reach when Erika attacked on a drive from the elbow. Vaughn went to the bench, but she had such an impact on Erika in this series that every time Michelle Snow came in it seemed to take Erika a little while to recognise that she now had much greater opportunity to attack.

 

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WNBA Today, 09/23/2013: Fever and Lynx advance; Sky exit with tails between their legs, Storm and Thompson with heads held high

 

In the first round of every set of playoffs, it’s the matchups between the top seeds and bottom seeds that are supposed to finish first. We spend all season working out which is the best team in their conference and which just about creeps in by barely escaping the lottery. So in some ways, Sunday’s WNBA games went just as they were supposed to. But they arrived at that destination in very different ways.

 

The opener in the East saw the top seed already in deep trouble. After a 24-10 regular season, all the factors that led Chicago fans to hope to avoid Indiana in the playoffs had come home to roost in the opening game. Experience, the ability to raise their game to a true playoff level, coaching, and execution had allowed the Indiana Fever to steal Game 1 on the road, and come home with the chance to clinch. The Sky had proven all season that they were capable of beating anyone, but it was going to take a significantly improved performance to keep their season alive.

 

The starting lineups were the same as Game 1, with the only added information since the opener being that Katie Douglas will apparently miss the entire postseason due to her back problem. So, just like last year, Indiana will have to make their postseason run with nine bodies (or fewer, if someone else gets hurt as well). In case you were wondering, no, they’re not allowed to re-sign Jessica Breland (or anyone else) now that Douglas has gone down. You’re stuck with the 11 players on your roster at the start of the playoffs for the entire postseason.

 

Disappointingly, the Sky didn’t look much different from Game 1 either. There was a frantic pace to the opening minutes, which was presumably at Chicago head coach Pokey Chatman’s request, but it led to mistakes, turnovers and blown layups more than anything good for the Sky. Defensively, they didn’t seem to have made many adjustments. Karima Christmas and Shavonte Zellous missed threes on Indiana’s opening possessions, which might’ve raised Chicago hopes that they’d have a chance simply due to the Fever’s shooting regressing to the mean. Then Tamika Catchings semi-penetrated, Epiphanny Prince was drawn in from the short corner, the kick went to Zellous, and she drilled the three from the corner. Exactly the same as Game 1, and we were right back there again.

 

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WNBA Today, 09/22/2013: Desperation fuels Dream and Sparks to force deciders

 

For many years, I’ve been saying that the WNBA’s regular season goes on too long. In fact, that’s true in most American sports. They play for months on end to decide nothing more than which terrible teams to eliminate, and who plays whom in the games that actually matter. And, of course, to decide the vital home-court (or field, or whatever) advantage. Six games into this year’s WNBA playoffs, and all that time fighting for home-court is looking even more pointless.

 

Last night’s action began in Washington, where the Mystics were looking to close out their first playoff series win since 2002. Atlanta had been so pedestrian and lifeless in Game 1 that it seemed like Washington had every chance to complete the job, especially considering the Dream’s dismal road record over the course of the season. Since their 10-1 start to the year, Atlanta had gone 1-12 away from Philips Arena. They also made a change in the post, and not the one they would’ve made by choice. Sancho Lyttle was still out, and she was joined in street clothes by replacement Le’coe Willingham due to a right knee problem picked up in practice. That forced Aneika Henry into the starting lineup, leaving only the decaying remnants of Ruth Riley on their bench as interior backup.

 

Let’s get one thing straight from the start – this was not a pretty game. This was the uglier sister to Game 1’s initial ugly sibling. If I say something good happened in the next few paragraphs, it’s relative to all the other rubbish that we had to sit through over the course of this game. But at the very least, we have to credit the Dream for making it ugly. They came out with vastly better energy than in Game 1, doubling and trapping and generally harassing on the defensive end. It wasn’t a typical man-to-man, more a constant stream of double-teams where they trusted themselves to be able to rotate and cover well enough to avoid being exploited elsewhere on the floor. Making that one basic change led to much greater energy in their play elsewhere on the court, feeding into their offense and their rebounding. Occasionally, anyway.

 

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