Monday games are unusual in the WNBA. In fact, this year all of the league’s regular season outings on a Monday came on national holidays – the Memorial Day double-header that ESPN used to kick off their coverage, and the Labor Day game in LA this week. Presumably there’s some market research somewhere that suggests people don’t want to go out to games on the first day of the working week. But for the Los Angeles Sparks and Atlanta Dream there was no vacation day, as their respective battles for playoff positioning provided some entertainment for the rest of us.
The Sparks at least came into Monday’s game assured of their playoff spot. In fact, they’re virtually certain (to all but the mathematicians) of a top-2 seed in the West. But both LA and Minnesota are well aware of how important home-court advantage could be in a potential Western Conference Finals clash between the two, and LA were trailing by just a game coming into this one. The two matchups between the Sparks and the Lynx still on the schedule could well be the deciders, but if LA don’t take care of business in their other games down the stretch they might not matter. Atlanta are still to secure their postseason berth – officially – but with New York floundering the Dream are practically there. However, after opening the season 10-1, Atlanta had gone 4-12 since, dropping into a three-way fight for the 2/3/4 seeds in the East. Washington and Indiana haven’t exactly been charging, but if Atlanta couldn’t find a couple of wins before the end of the season, home-court advantage in the first-round could easily slip away.
Atlanta’s problems in the second half of the season have stemmed from their injuries. Sancho Lyttle is still out due to her broken foot, having played just six games all season. Tiffany Hayes was out again with swelling in the knee that was operated on in midseason. And Armintie Herrington was still missing due to her concussion. On the bright side, Angel McCoughtry was fit enough to retake her starting spot after one game coming off the bench due to an ankle sprain, but that was the only good news for the Dream. They’ve really struggled when both Hayes and Lyttle have been out, and missing Herrington compounds things. Their scoring options and bench are both relatively limited to begin with – so losing three of their top six players is hard to take. Playing LA just makes it look worse – the Sparks have stayed pretty damn healthy all year long.
However, it was Atlanta who managed to craft out a first quarter lead in this game. Early on, LA were hitting jumpers and missing everything at the rim, to the extent that you started to wonder if they were better off just firing away from the perimeter – even Candace Parker, who normally delights opponents when she settles for outside shots. But that backfired as the opening period wore on and the jumpers stopped falling. It felt like LA had been practicing spin moves, but not very successfully. They were repeatedly spinning and twisting around, only to find a Dream defender still stood right in front of them making the shot difficult. LA’s offensive production dried up.
At the other end of the floor, Atlanta were doing a good job of looking inside for Erika de Souza, who none of the Sparks posts could handle. With the Sparks struggling the Dream grew in confidence and started to get into their running game as well, providing the kind of opportunities to break out and charge to the rim that McCoughtry thrives upon. Atlanta led by double-digits before the end of the first quarter.
One significant positive for the Dream was that they weren’t revolving around McCoughtry as much as they have in many games in the second half of the season. With both Jasmine Thomas and Alex Bentley starting due to the absence of Herrington and Hayes, they had two guards on the floor who can handle the ball and were looking to be aggressive offensively. For once, McCoughtry was an important part of the offense, without dominating it. Bentley’s shot wasn’t falling as consistently as it had against Chicago on Saturday, but she was still taking her opportunities where she could and creating for her teammates. She’s already learned how big a target Erika presents down low, and how effective Atlanta’s center can be at finishing plays, so many of Bentley’s passes were headed that way. This time it was Thomas’s turn to be the greater force in terms of converting buckets, while Bentley piled up assists. This is what Atlanta have lacked in so many games with Lyttle and Hayes out – consistent offensive weapons from areas on the floor besides McCoughtry.
While Atlanta’s defense was strong and solid, closing inside to cut off interior passing lanes and make converting in the paint difficult, it was another game where it didn’t feel like LA were playing up to their potential. Too many missed layups, too many poor shot choices when they gave up on getting inside, and pretty weak transition defense allowing Atlanta to rack up more fastbreak points than we’ve seen the Dream produce in a while. The final sequence of the first half summed things up, when LA could’ve created a 2-for-1 by attacking the rim quickly, but drifted around going nowhere for the entire shot clock before turning the ball over. Then Bentley actually attacked the rim, and despite her miss Erika easily beat Parker for the offensive board and dropped the ball in at the buzzer. That gave Atlanta a surprising 48-32 advantage at halftime.
Frankly, for most of the second half, not much changed. Occasional bursts from LA suggested an increase in intensity. They were trying to front Erika with Parker in the paint, and bring double-teams or weak-side help as quickly as possible – but it didn’t hold up consistently, while Parker grew increasingly frustrated with her inability to stop Erika, and the calls that kept going against LA on those plays. Parker picked up a technical foul in the third quarter after one whistle, for slapping at the ball after the play and sending it bouncing into the crowd. She easily could’ve been given that tech for her whining or smashing of the ball in the first half, so it was probably about time. Offensively, the Sparks were trying to push at every possible opportunity, saving themselves from poor halfcourt decisions or facing a set Atlanta defense. Whenever LA strung two quick baskets together like that, Dream head coach Fred Williams was up and calling a timeout to halt any hint of momentum. It left him calling his third timeout of the half early in the fourth quarter – leaving just one for the remaining nine minutes of action – but it was effective in keeping Atlanta ahead by at least 11 points.
The problem was, with just one timeout left, Williams had to become a little more conservative with calling them. LA broke out some 2-3 zone in the fourth quarter, Atlanta took a while to adapt to it, and some of the long rebounds led to more transition chances for LA. Backup center Jantel Lavender finished off a couple of plays while Parker and Kristi Toliver led the breaks, and with just under six minutes to play LA were back within five points.
The main issue Atlanta had in those early attempts to break LA’s zone was that they took perimeter shots. As long as you don’t just fire up anything from outside, but actually shift the defenders around and move the ball inside and back out, those can often be good shots against a zone. But they’re not what Atlanta want to take. They don’t have the shooters, and an Angel McCoughtry three-pointer – even wide freaking open – is generally a win for the defense. So Atlanta started finding more effective, Dream-appropriate ways to beat the zone. They moved the ball around and created lanes to find Erika to finish inside. They penetrated and dumped to cutters like Le’coe Willingham, who made the right moves to exploit the space given to her while the defense focussed on Erika and McCoughtry. They slashed through the seams of the zone all the way to the rim, rather than kicking back out to shooters. It resulted in a 10-3 run, because when they created baskets, they could set their defense – which LA were still struggling with. That was enough to reestablish Atlanta’s lead, and that was plenty to carry them through to the finish. A severely understrength Dream had produced their best performance in weeks, and finished off LA 92-82.
For Atlanta, this was a fantastic game. Lately they’ve left everyone wondering if they could even compete with the better teams in the league while shorthanded, but finally they stepped up and played their kind of game with the players they had left. The starting five all played heavy minutes – unsurprising considering the dregs left on the bench – and they all produced. Erika was strong, physical, and impossible for LA to handle all night, finishing 10-15 for 27 points and six boards. Willingham was especially important in the fourth quarter slicing in for crucial finishes against the zone – ending the game 7-8 for 16 points – and also spent much of the night keeping Parker as quiet as possible. The young backcourt had Thomas doing the scoring (7-13 for 19 points) and Bentley distributing (11 assists, just 1 turnover). In fact McCoughtry was the only real inefficiency, shooting 5-14 for 16 points, but driving the team forward and making some big plays when she could. It was just a really strong, solid performance, built from the inside out and via their defense. They’ll still be desperate to get their walking wounded back on the court, but at least they’ve proven to themselves how they can play even without them.
For LA, this was a real disappointment. They’d won nine of their previous ten games coming in, but this certainly wasn’t the first time in recent weeks that they’ve underperformed. Sometimes they really seem to lack focus and energy, and fail to match up to their opponents’ desire to take hold of the game. The bright side to that is that they’ve still won a lot of games, and if they play to the level of their competition then raising themselves for the playoffs – or the upcoming games against Minnesota – shouldn’t be a problem. But ‘flipping the switch’ can be tricky, especially when best-of-three playoff series leave very little room for error. And dropping 1.5 games behind Minnesota in the standings means they probably have to win both remaining games against the Lynx to have any chance at the #1 seed. That starts tonight in Minnesota – and this wasn’t the best way to warm up.
The Tulsa Shock have officially shut down center Liz Cambage for the remainder of the WNBA season. She’ll be heading back to Australia to rehab her ankle sprain, before departing for her season in China. It makes sense for Tulsa, even if Cambage might’ve been able to struggle back out for a game or two before the end of their schedule. They’re out of playoff contention, so there’s no need to put extra stress on Cambage; they can give more minutes to players like Courtney Paris and Tiffany Jackson-Jones to see what they can offer with greater opportunities; and if they happen to lose enough games to stay below New York and San Antonio to maximise their lottery chances, that wouldn’t be a bad thing either. While they’d have loved to have made the postseason this year, a little lottery luck for once wouldn’t hurt the Shock. As for Cambage, we can only hope that her experiences in the WNBA this year have made a better impression, and she’ll continue coming back. Hopefully also without the ‘will-she, won’t-she’ drama of previous years. When she was fit in the middle of the year she was a serious force in this league, and she’s still only 22 years old. She’s still getting better.
Wednesday September 4th (today):
Indiana @ Atlanta, 7pm ET. Dream -4 is a pretty fair, “we don’t have a clue” line from Vegas. Indiana have produced a few decent games lately, but also had a recent string of shaky performances on the road. Atlanta have struggled due to their injuries until the game detailed above. I’ll take the Fever to cover, because I’m not convinced Atlanta will get out on the break as often as they did against LA. Without that, we could end up with both teams having difficulty scoring. So I’ll take the points. This could easily be a playoff preview, between two teams who’ve battled in the postseason before.
Los Angeles @ Minnesota, 8pm ET. Finally the clash many have been looking forward to for a while. The teams met three times early in the season, all resulting in blowout wins for the home side. Since then they’ve pulled away as a pair at the top of the West, with Minnesota just about keeping their noses in front. The line is Lynx -7, which seems just a tiny bit high, but I have a lot more faith in Minnesota at home than LA on the road. I’ll back the Lynx to win and cover, and if LA play like they did on Monday another blowout could be on the cards. But it’d be nice to see these two really battle one out – rather than another damp squib that’s over by halftime.