Four games on Saturday night in the WNBA, all four won in varying degrees of comfort by the favourites. So the playoff picture is continuing to resolve itself – mostly by default because we’re running out of games – but there weren’t exactly a lot of shocks to go around. With two weeks to go in the regular season, if you can’t make a pretty good guess at what’s coming by now, you haven’t been paying attention.
- At stake in this one: Los Angeles continue to chase Minnesota for the #1 seed in the West, coming into the day one game back. As a sideline, Chicago are right up with the pair of them for home-court advantage in a theoretical WNBA Finals. San Antonio were still in with a mathematical chance of chasing down Phoenix or Seattle for a playoff spot, albeit a very small chance. Bizarrely enough, a Silver Stars loss in this game would confirm Seattle’s place in the postseason, while Phoenix would still be catchable – despite Seattle sitting in fourth while Phoenix were in third. Schedules, tie-breakers and mathematics can be strange bedfellows.
- LA had their usual starting lineup, and their roster as healthy as ever, but San Antonio began the game with yet another new starting unit. Danielle Robinson was still out with strained/sprained knee (the team have used both words to describe it), and now her replacement Davellyn Whyte was missing as well (reportedly with a foot problem). That shifted Shenise Johnson over alongside Jia Perkins in the backcourt, with Shameka Christon coming in to start on the wing. It’s a perimeter that had some success in their win over Tulsa the night before, but obviously their bench became even shorter.
- While LA led by as many as 11, it was ultimately a fairly tight first half. The Sparks were looking to push whenever they could, but becoming a little ponderous and static when forced into halfcourt sets. San Antonio started slowly but came back into the game late in the first quarter through better defensive energy and Jia Perkins making plays on offense. Dan Hughes would love to have Perkins as his sixth woman energy from the bench, but the injuries have forced her into a much bigger role this season. She’s not always the most efficient scorer, but sometimes she can be electric.
- The other place where San Antonio found success in the first half was on the offensive glass. With Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, LA have a clear athleticism advantage in this matchup over players like Danielle Adams, Jayne Appel and Cathrine Kraayeveld. While Parker was doing her typical job of filling the stat-sheet in a number of areas, the Sparks were getting outworked on the glass and the Silver Stars were staying alive with second-chance opportunities. They took 11 more shots than LA in the first half, thanks to a 10-2 advantage in offensive rebounds, and it allowed the Silver Stars to trail only 35-30 at halftime.
- There was never one particular streak where LA took over this game in the second half. They just seemed to ease away, and after a while they had it won. They came out with far better energy on the boards, with Ogwumike in particular looking like someone had woken her up at halftime. They also got some scoring from Kristi Toliver, who’s been distinctly hit-or-miss lately in whether she makes any impact on games whatsoever. LA’s lead hit 15 points in the third quarter, before more of The Jia Perkins Show dragged it back down to seven.
- But the result was still never really in doubt. San Antonio’s posts do a good job of standing up and staying strong against challenges inside, but they didn’t have the weapons to stay with LA. The Sparks pulled away for the final time early in the fourth quarter, and it was comfortable from there. Some useful minutes from Jantel Lavender and Marissa Coleman helped, especially since Parker disappeared into her shell in the second half for no obvious reason. Lavender still hasn’t been overly consistent in the second half of the season, but when she gets involved she can hard to handle with her size inside and ability to finish from anywhere inside 15 feet. Coleman has started to seem useful ever since people gave up on her being any kind of star and began to view her as a decent backup. She’s looked much more comfortable in that role this season.
- So while they were suffering on the court, Seattle were actually in the process of being confirmed as a playoff team, thanks to this result. San Antonio can still catch Phoenix – and still have to play the Mercury twice themselves – but it’s a heck of a longshot. This wasn’t a bad performance from the Silver Stars by any means – they were just utterly outgunned. Maybe next year.
- LA didn’t exactly dominate, but they got the job done. None of the Sparks produced a complete game, but when you’ve got that much talent on your side, 20 decent minutes or so from five or six different players can go a long way. It’s a solid start to a four-game road trip, which continues in Atlanta on Monday and hits Minnesota on Wednesday night. That’s the one everyone’s already looking forward to.
- Similar to the game above, one side was playing for seeding at the top of the West, while the other was still fighting in the lower reaches. Seattle came in knowing that they needed one win to be an official playoff team (because this game tipped off simultaneously with the one in San Antonio), but that they were essentially there already. The edge is taken off the battle with Phoenix for the #3 seed because the #1 is still unsure between Minnesota and LA. Most would probably feel that both lower-ranked teams would prefer to play LA. Ironically, winning a game like this – or either of the other two games against the Lynx that Seattle have coming up – would only help the Sparks in their quest to overtake Minnesota at the top. At this stage, undoubtedly all the teams are just taking it one game at a time, in good clichéd tradition.
- The first quarter of this game was basically kind of insane. It was an offensive showcase, at both ends of the floor. Lindsay Whalen chipped in a couple of nice drives, but Maya Moore was the unquestioned star. She was drilling threes like they were layups, posting up, flipping in little fadeaways – anything she felt like. Often with a defender right on top of her, making no difference whatsoever. She couldn’t miss, producing 15 points in the opening period, as the Lynx shot 70%.
- Seattle were actually playing pretty well, especially offensively. They were moving the ball nicely, driving into the defense when they could with Temeka Johnson and Tanisha Wright, and knocking down shots when the ball was kicked out after penetration. It was solid, smooth production. Wright in particular has had some great games in the last month, varying her game with inside and outside attacks, looking confident and in control. But Seattle couldn’t get any stops, so they trailed 31-26 after a fantastic opening quarter.
- Not a great deal changed in the second. Reality had to settle in just a little, but Moore kept piling up points, and Seattle’s offense remained fairly effective without managing to make any inroads on Minnesota’s advantage. The Lynx led 53-42 at the break, with Moore 10-13 for 25 points. She was absolutely unstoppable. Her teammates weren’t bad when they tossed up the occasional attempt, either. Eight Lynx took at least one shot in the first half, and every single one of them was at least 50% from the field. How do you guard a team shooting like that?
- While they’d never looked in any real danger of losing the game, Minnesota killed it off in the third quarter. Tina Thompson pulled Seattle within seven points early in the period by hitting yet another of her deep threes. She’d hit three of them in the first half, and had two more in the opening minutes of the third quarter. Seattle run incredibly simple pin-down screens to break her open for those looks, and it’s just hard to get out that far on someone willing to shoot from such distance. Minnesota’s posts also naturally fade into the paint to protect against penetration, which occasionally left her open as a result.
- But a 17-2 Lynx run followed the Thompson triple that pulled Seattle within seven, and killed off the game. Moore was still rolling and Whalen and Seimone Augustus chipped in, but the exciting element for Minnesota was the contribution of backup wing Rachel Jarry. She was draining threes from the corners when the Seattle defense helped off her on penetration, and then added in a nice drive and finish through contact for a three-point play. Cheryl Reeve’s rediscovery of Jarry could be useful for Minnesota down the stretch and heading into the playoffs because it not only adds another shooter, but it could add an extra wrinkle to their ‘small’ lineup. When Maya Moore’s slid over to power forward in the past, it’s invariably been with Monica Wright adding an extra guard alongside Whalen and Augustus. If Jarry comes in as the extra player instead, it adds a little extra length to the group, rather than just ballhandling and quickness. It’s a little early to tell, but it could help the rebounding and matchups with those small lineups against some opponents. It certainly never hurts to have an extra player on the bench that Reeve might be willing to actually use.
- The rest of the game was essentially extended garbage time. Moore was the only Minnesota player who got the entire fourth quarter off, but she’d already racked up 30 points on 12-15 shooting.
- It’s hard to believe, but Seattle really weren’t that bad in this game. Yes, they broke down a few times, and maybe their heads dropped eventually under the onslaught, but there’s only so much you can take. The Lynx were just in that kind of mood where there’s very little you can do to stop them, assuming weapons aren’t allowed on the court. Thanks to the vagaries of WNBA scheduling, Seattle’s next two games are against the Lynx as well. They’ll just be hoping that Minnesota aren’t quite so ridiculous.
- After that brief scare in mid-August when the Lynx lost four of five, they’ve won four in a row and look back to their free-flowing best. If the playoffs started today, the Storm would be their first-round opponent, and they shot them off the court. Whalen, Augustus, Wright and Jarry all played solid supporting roles for Moore, and Seattle couldn’t compete. Nice way to tune up while they wait for the Sparks to arrive on Wednesday night.
- As usual, apologies to the non-gamblers out there, but this might’ve been the most befuddling line of the season. Atlanta had not looked great at all in their last few games, struggling since Tiffany Hayes re-joined Sancho Lyttle on the sidelines due to her knee issues. Armintie Herrington had also been out, due to her concussion. On top of that, Angel McCoughtry had missed most of overtime in their last game due to an ankle sprain. Meanwhile Chicago had won seven of their last eight, their only injuries are to backups, and they came in one win away from confirming the top seed in the East. It was hard to believe that the line opened with Chicago just 7.5-point favourites, and even more amazing that the line didn’t move.
- McCoughtry started on the bench, but came into the game after barely five minutes. Exactly how that helped her ankle, I have no idea. It never makes much sense when a semi-injured player begins a game on the sidelines only to play virtually the same minutes as usual anyway, but that’s what they went with.
- The first half, surprisingly enough, ended up being pretty even on the scoreboard. Chicago led by as many as 10, but that evaporated over the course of the opening 20 minutes. Elena Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles both made some nice plays for the Sky. It was Delle Donne early, driving through contact to finish or shooting over defenders in her typically smooth way. Then Fowles later running the floor hard to pick up points in transition before the defense was even set. But the Sky, including those two superstars, missed a ridiculous number of layups in the first half. Atlanta started with a particularly big lineup, with Erika de Souza, Aneika Henry and Le’coe Willingham all on the floor, but that shouldn’t have made Chicago miss anywhere near as often as they did (and it continued throughout the half against all kinds of Dream defenders). They Sky should’ve had significantly more points on the board by the break.
- That said, at the other end of the floor, Atlanta had a star performance keeping them in it. And for once it wasn’t Angel McCoughtry, or even Erika de Souza. Rookie guard Alex Bentley was fantastic in the first half. Her one mis-step was on her first touch of the ball, stepping on the sideline for her only turnover of the half – although even then she swished a three as the whistle blew. She shot outstandingly from the perimeter, drove to finish when it was on, and still had the unselfishness to find her posts inside for easy buckets several times as well. She was the main reason Atlanta were only trailing 40-39 at the interval (along with those missed Chicago layups).
- The third quarter was where this game was decided. It helped that Bentley’s perimeter touch deserted her a little, while Epiphanny Prince actually made a couple of shots after barely even seeming to participate in the first half. It helped that Angel McCoughtry was so lazy on one defensive possession that even Fred Williams had enough and benched her. She missed a runner in the lane and was beaten for the rebound, then Chicago had time to make three passes, penetrate, kick-out and take a jump shot before she even wandered into the camera-shot at that end of the floor. She didn’t even fall down on the previous possession. Maybe the ankle was troubling her, but she mostly seemed to be moving okay. But none of that was the main reason the game changed.
- The primary difference was that instead of missing layups, Chicago were getting fouled. Maybe they were doing better at creating contact, maybe Atlanta were making more mistakes and reaching in, maybe the refs were just feeling more generous – regardless of how it happened, Chicago shot 15 free throws in the period and made 13 of them. That’s in comparison to Atlanta’s single trip to the line in the third quarter, and Chicago’s eight visits in the entire first half. The Sky offense was doing okay, they were working on the glass, and Atlanta’s offense had ground to a halt without Bentley or McCoughtry carrying them, but the key was all those free throws. Angel didn’t stay on the bench for long, but it didn’t make much difference.
- With a 20-point Sky lead heading into the final period, the fourth quarter was essentially garbage time. Chicago’s broadcasters didn’t mention it much, but while this was theoretically a matchup of the two best teams in the East, this isn’t the real Atlanta Dream. Without Herrington, Hayes and Lyttle, and with McCoughtry below full-strength, this wasn’t the Eastern Conference Finals preview it might’ve been. If this Dream squad is all that showed up for the playoffs, they’d likely be done in the first round anyway.
- Alongside the obvious boost of sealing the top seed in the East, and keeping pace with LA and Minnesota, the other positive for the Sky was that Delle Donne and Fowles didn’t even need to dominate the period where they took over the game. Their ‘Big Two’ (sorry Epiphanny, it’s not been ‘Three’ for a while now) only scored 6 of Chicago’s 30 points in the third quarter, as plenty of other players contributed. Teams already set themselves up to cover the Sky’s stars above all else, but that’s only going to become more pronounced when opponents are gameplanning for playoff series. The role players need to step up when it’s required, and they managed that in this game, albeit against a weakened opponent.
- While they were the team who could theoretically catch Chicago before this loss, Atlanta were already much more concerned with the teams behind them. They’re just a game up on Washington now, and only 1.5 ahead of Indiana in fourth. New York haven’t shown any likelihood of being able to put a run together, so the Dream’s playoff spot is under very little threat even if they lose every remaining game, but their seeding could easily drop. They’ve made playoff runs before from low seeds, but after sitting in first or second all season long, they won’t want to fall. The most important employees on Atlanta’s staff right now are probably the physiotherapists and doctors. This team desperately needs to get healthier, fast. They’re missing three of their top six players, and it shows. A lot.
- Phoenix have a bizarre schedule to end the season. They hadn’t played for over a week, and had another five blank days coming immediately after this game. Then their final six games of the season take place within the span of ten days. It’s probably not how they’d choose to organise them, but it had allowed a kind of mini-training camp with head coach Russ Pennell, who’d been thrust into the fray with very little practice time after getting the job a few weeks ago. After San Antonio’s loss earlier in the evening, Phoenix’s ‘magic number’ was two coming into this game. A win over the league’s worst team would take them right to the brink.
- One thing the Mercury had worked on in practice was a set play off the opening tip, which pleased me immensely. As I mentioned in a recent article, the tip-off in most WNBA and NBA games is irrelevant. It decides whether you get the ball to start the first and fourth, or second and third quarters. That essentially makes no difference. But Phoenix know that with Brittney Griner on their team, they’re invariably going to win the opening tip – so they ran a play off it. Griner tapped the ball back to Diana Taurasi, Briana Gilbreath set a back-pick on Tina Charles, leaving Griner to quickly run under the rim and post-up guard Renee Montgomery. Taurasi lobbed Griner the ball, and she finished. So pretty, so simple, and a nice way to open the game. The only negative thing I might say about it is they could’ve saved it for a bigger game. That play’s going to be much harder to execute now that other opponents know it might be coming.
- The Mercury offense had a few new wrinkles to it. They looked for Griner early, but didn’t have that much success with Connecticut bringing double-teams on her constantly down low, and passes out failing to create anything much. But there were some motion sets, with players repeatedly cutting through the paint, that looked designed largely just to make sure everyone was engaged and looking to move, rather than stand and watch. Candice Dupree missing several good looks that she’d normally convert didn’t help, but Phoenix still led 21-14 to close the opening quarter.
- Phoenix’s defense was mostly relatively sound, but so much of defense comes down to consistency, concentration and hard work. They’re still figuring that stuff out. Some of their transition defense wasn’t great at all, getting beaten down the floor by the Sun, and Krystal Thomas was repeatedly late in arriving as a help defender inside when she spelled Griner. The rookie center herself almost seemed to be trying too hard at times, after being challenged by Pennell to bring a consistently strong effort to everything she does. That led to some space behind her on occasion, which Tina Charles used to her advantage. Griner is also still learning exactly how to deal with pick-and-rolls which you’d like to see her more comfortable with by this stage in the season. But even a little confused, having Griner on the floor is a big step up from Thomas.
- Connecticut led, amazingly enough, 37-36 at halftime. Taurasi was back in the distributor role that she’s faded into at times this season. She’s playing the point because she can make her teammates better, and the Mercury don’t have a lot of other ballhandling options, but they still need her to be a scorer. A couple of times in the first half, and on one glaring occasion early in the third quarter, she seemed to have found a driving lane to the hoop but made an unnecessary attempted pass anyway. Creating good looks for your teammates is great, but if this team is going to win a championship – and presumably that’s still the aim – Taurasi’s going to have to score. Griner, Dupree and DeWanna Bonner are talented, but this is still her team. They’ll go as far as Diana takes them.
- This game turned out to be an interesting switch of roles in a lot of ways, especially in the second half. Tina Charles has been fending off double-teams all season, and playing increasingly passively as a result, firing away from outside rather than even bothering to drop down low where she knows she’ll be passing out anyway. But Phoenix were defending her straight up with Griner. Apart from the occasional swipe at the ball if a guard was close enough, they just left the kid to deal with last year’s MVP, and Griner did a solid job. Most of Charles’s touches in the second half either came around that 15-foot distance where you’re not that bothered about her tossing up shots, or on simple post-ups. Griner was very comfortable with that. She consistently forced Charles into tough attempts down low, and a lot of misses. Or she just watched while Tina missed jumpers. Straight-up, individual defense Griner can handle without much of an issue, and Connecticut did very little to make her move or think beyond that.
- It looked weird because Connecticut were using the Charles-defense on Griner at the other end. Double-teams arrived every time she touched the ball, leaving her to have very little impact on the offensive end. Phoenix had a couple of bursts of offense in the third quarter when they managed to get out in transition, briefly looking like their old selves, but the game remained tight.
- With under five minutes to play, the home team finally gave their crowd something to shout about. With the shot clock dwindling, Bonner tossed in a prayer from three-point range. Then Dupree – who had a much better second half – dropped in a runner in the lane. After a rare Charles make, Thomas outworked her on the glass and dropped in a hook to add another bucket. It was dink and dunk stuff without much rhythm, but Phoenix were on top at a crucial stage of the game.
- With a couple of minutes left, the Mercury finally killed it off. An attempted entry pass from Montgomery to Charles went straight out of bounds, before a series of offensive rebounds kept a Phoenix possession alive. It ultimately finished with Griner finally getting a low-post touch with Kelsey Griffin too far away to get there in time for the double-team. Griner turned and hit a short jumper right over Charles, exactly as she’d liked to have been doing all night. Montgomery bricked a three to follow, before Taurasi actually drove for her own offense finally and drew a foul. That sight had been just as rare in this game as good looks for Griner down low. When Charles missed yet again in trying to score over Griner on the next possession, Phoenix were safe. It hadn’t been pretty, but the win was secure.
- For Connecticut, it was about as good (or bad) as we could expect at this point. It was surprising that they were in it for so long. It was also yet another game where they played better when Charles was on the bench, producing more energy and attacking better when she wasn’t clanking efforts off the rim. Her 7-23 shooting took her percentage for the season back down to exactly 40%, the mark she’s been flirting with all year. A mark no center should ever be anywhere near.
- Phoenix won the game, but against the Sun they were damn well supposed to. It really wasn’t the kind of performance they’d have wanted after a week of practice with Pennell. The defense was decent, but that doesn’t mean a great deal against Connecticut, who’ve struggled to score against everybody. They’re ‘battling’ with New York for the worst offensive production per possession in the WNBA. It’s concerning to see Phoenix look so mediocre offensively, against a team who’ve been no great shakes at that end of the floor either in recent games. Dupree and Bonner ended up carrying most of the offensive load, but this kind of performance won’t get them very far against better teams. It’s therefore also distinctly unlikely to get them past the first round of the playoffs, unless they can pick things up significantly from here.
The Chicago Sky terminated Avery Warley’s contract today, but that’s only half the story. She was signed via a hardship exception that opened up when Carolyn Swords and Sharnee Zoll-Norman got hurt, so the usual reason for Warley being released would be the return of one of those two players. However, Swords is done for the year, and Zoll-Norman reportedly isn’t ready yet after her broken thumb. The likely reason that Warley’s been released now is that there’s a ten-day waiting period between terminating a contract and being allowed to re-sign that player. Assuming Zoll-Norman is going to return at some point before the end of the regular season, they had to release Warley around this point in order to be able to re-sign her in time for the playoffs. Of course, if they want to sign Warley to a standard contract, someone’s going to have to be cut. The candidates appear to be Michelle Campbell, Allie Quigley, or maybe Zoll-Norman herself (with Shay Murphy also an outside possibility). Warley’s generally looked like a more useful backup post than Campbell in her short time with the team, and somebody has to back up Fowles, Delle Donne and Swin Cash in the paint. It seems likely that Warley will be back on Chicago’s roster for the playoffs – it’s just a matter of who makes way.
Monday September 2nd (tomorrow):
Los Angeles @ Atlanta, 6pm ET. Atlanta +1.5 isn’t enough for me to even consider taking the Dream. They might be 11-3 at home this season, but with the state of the Atlanta roster in recent games this isn’t the team that’s gone 11-3. I’ll take the Sparks.