Two games in the WNBA last night, both with significant playoff implications. While the eight teams who’ll be participating in the postseason have become relatively clear, only Chicago as the #1 seed in the East have already settled into a particular spot. The final two weeks of the season could still have a heavy influence on positioning, matchups, and home-court advantage in the playoffs. Everyone’s still battling to finish as high as they can.
We’ll start in the West, because the clash between Minnesota and Los Angeles had been a long time coming. These two have broken clear as the top teams in the conference as the season’s worn on, but the three previous times they faced each other this year took place so early in the season that they feel like distant memories. LA came out 2-1 up in those games, with all three resulting in blowout wins for the home team. But the important numbers heading into last night had little to do with those encounters. The Lynx were 1.5 games ahead of the Sparks at the top of the West with five games left on Minnesota’s schedule (just four for LA). The Sparks were probably going to have to win both this game and their final regular season meeting with the Lynx back in LA next Thursday to sneak up into the #1 seed. A split would still give them a chance, but would leave them relying on Seattle beating Minnesota in their upcoming double-header. It was a definite longshot unless LA did the work themselves.
Fortunately for all neutrals, both teams were healthy and had everyone available, so the starting units were the same groups we’ve grown accustomed to over the season. It was Minnesota who got off to the fast start with the home crowd behind them. They were pushing the ball quickly down the floor to create early offense, and already looking to those dive-in post-ups they’ve been working on with Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore since midway through the season. You may remember me mentioning in prior articles that the matchup with LA was one prime reason that this has clearly become a focus of the staff in Minnesota. With a perimeter of Lindsey Harding, Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard, somebody on that group is going to be noticeably undersized against the Lynx wing she’s trying to guard. With Toliver on Lindsay Whalen and Beard trying to handle Moore, usually it’s Harding struggling to deal with Augustus. From the opening possessions, Augustus was deep in the paint exploiting her size advantage over Harding. Barring injury, a significant coaching move or an upset in the first round, we’ll be seeing plenty of that in the Western Conference Finals, as well.
But while it led to an 8-0 start for Minnesota and an early Carol Ross timeout, the advantage didn’t last for the Lynx. They missed too many shots right under the rim, Rebekkah Brunson picked up two early fouls, and then Cheryl Reeve tried her newly-twisted ‘small’ lineup. Australian rookie Rachel Jarry came in to join Moore and Devereaux Peters in the frontcourt, and for whatever reason Jarry was asked to guard Candace Parker. Moore seemed the more obvious choice to me, but Reeve went with the spindly Aussie. LA went right at the matchup, and Parker overpowered Jarry. It was only a couple of minutes before Reeve had to pull her back out, because it was clearly a farce. Then Parker drove right by Moore for a layup, perhaps highlighting why they’d resisted that matchup in the first place. We were tied 18-18 at the end of the first quarter.
LA took a brief lead at 23-20, but from there Minnesota took over the second quarter. With several bench players on the floor, LA’s offense became a little too intricate, trying to make the perfect pass, and led to some unnecessary turnovers. The Lynx gained steam, and just kept rolling even when LA’s starters came back out. The especially impressive aspect of Minnesota’s performance in that second period was that besides a triple each for Moore and Janel McCarville, and one free throw for Whalen, they scored 20 points entirely in the paint. This wasn’t one of those passages where their shooters got crazy-hot from outside. They were piercing LA for layups, creating points on the break with their defense, and winning the battle on the glass to create second-chance points. McCarville’s last-second prayer from outside put an extra gloss on the halftime score, taking Minnesota out to a 45-33 advantage.
The second half started with McCarville posting up Harding, which highlighted another aspect that always seems to crop up in these matchups. LA’s defense allows mismatches rather too easily. Part of it is scheme – they’re simply more willing to switch than many teams within their defensive structure. It’s not always a bad idea, because it makes defending easier at times if you don’t have to constantly chase around screens, as long as everyone’s aware of when and how you’re switching. But some of it comes down to the solidity and physicality of Minnesota’s screen-setting, forcing LA into switches whether they like it or not. Setting a pick is a skill, as is using it correctly to force your defender to run into it. Minnesota are great at both, and it leads to mismatches like McCarville on Harding. Having Whalen at the controls, making decisions about whether to hit Augustus curling around the screen or wait for the potential mismatch left behind, is a nice little luxury as well.
Minnesota kept their lead in double-digits for most of the second half, although the game was a little more attritional compared to the flow of the first half. LA struggled to create any momentum, especially with some lazy help defense consistently preventing them from getting the stops they needed to build a run. The first real signs of a comeback came late in the third quarter, when Toliver seemed to wake up. She produced a couple of threes, another long jumper, and a driving layup to ignite LA’s slumbering offense and momentarily pull their deficit below 10. Then Reeve called a timeout, Augustus answered with her own pretty jumpers at the other end, and the Lynx were back in control.
There were some interesting moves from both head coaches in the fourth quarter, as each looked for an edge down the stretch. LA broke out their 2-3 zone again, which we’d seen very briefly earlier on. They don’t seem particularly comfortable in it, and there’s too much space on the wings, but when you mix up your defenses it at least keeps the opponent a little off-balance. Minnesota went small again, but this time with Monica Wright as the extra perimeter player. That shifted Moore to power forward, where she had the better of the matchup with Parker for several minutes. Parker tried to post her up and attack inside, but struggled to convert. Moore popped into space away from what Parker calls defense, and knocked down jumpers. With six minutes left in the game, trailing by 16, Carol Ross responded by going small herself, pushing Parker to center and Marissa Coleman to power forward. That forced Minnesota back into guarding Parker with a true post, and allowed Beard to slide back onto Moore. LA immediately ran off a 7-0 push, and gave us something of a contest for the final minutes.
Both teams went back to ‘natural’ lineups for the final four minutes (two true bigs on either side), as Minnesota tried to cling on. The Lynx got a little too passive too early, playing not to lose rather than continuing to run everything as they had all night. LA also discovered a little energy on defense – and benched Lindsey Harding. With Beard and Coleman on the wings and Toliver at the point they weren’t so obviously undersized against the Lynx perimeter, plus Harding hadn’t hit a thing all night long. Taking her off the floor couldn’t hurt at this point even ignoring the size issue. The Sparks – Parker in particular – also drew some generous calls from the officials down the stretch, heading to the line for free throws on plays that easily could’ve been called charges instead. But with 40 seconds left Minnesota ran an old favourite set where Moore and Augustus both cut along the baseline, Augustus sets a screen for Moore to keep going, then reverses course and springs back out behind Moore and an extra back-screen from a post. It resulted in yet another nailed jumper and a seven-point lead with 39 seconds left. That was too much for LA to make up, and Minnesota eventually held on for an 83-74 victory.
This was a very solid performance from the Lynx against their primary Western rivals. Moore and Augustus both shot and finished well, while Whalen ended the game with 14 assists and just two turnovers while running the show. The team as a whole finished with 26 assists on 32 baskets, a ridiculously high assist percentage which shows just how many times they were making passes leading directly into good looks or easy finishes. The posts did their jobs inside, while both Peters and Wright had useful sequences off the bench, especially the hustle they got from Peters when she was their only post on the floor in the first half, and the perimeter defense from Wright down the stretch. They got to test out some options for the potential playoff series against this opponent, and move a step closer to securing the #1 seed in the process. All in all, a positive night for Minnesota.
LA obviously won’t be quite so happy. Parker’s cut a frustrated figure in several recent games, upset either at her teammates or herself – although her ire is often directed towards the officials. She had her moments in this game, leading LA with 25 points on 9-20 shooting, but she was part of a team defensive effort that looked shaky and rarely shows up for 40 minutes. Apart from the third quarter burst from Toliver, there also wasn’t enough help for her offensively. They weren’t moving the ball well enough to shift the Lynx defense out of position, leading to too much one-on-one basketball (in fact, as a team, they finished with fewer assists than Whalen on her own). It’s not just this game, either. LA have slid back to being the team from earlier in the season that looks short of ideas in the halfcourt and needs to get out and run to create their offense. On the bright side, this gave them a fresh look at the Lynx, and they’ve got one more to come next week. The road to a championship almost certainly goes through Minnesota, and LA are going to have to figure out how to climb past this particularly obstinate obstacle.
Our other game was in Atlanta, where the Dream hosted the Indiana Fever. After a hot start to the season, Atlanta’s difficulties in the second half of the year have left them looking for wins over the final weeks just to cling on to the #2 seed ahead of Washington and last night’s opponents. A loss to Indiana would’ve created a log-jam where just one game separated all three teams. But for once the injury news was on Atlanta’s side coming into this game. They retained the starting lineup that had beaten LA on Monday night, but both Tiffany Hayes (knee) and Armintie Herrington (concussion) were available again off the bench. Meanwhile Indiana had lost yet another player. Ravaged by injuries all season to an even greater extent than the Dream, this time it was point guard Briann January’s turn to miss out due to illness. That moved Erin Phillips into the starting lineup.
Atlanta carried their momentum from that uplifting win over the Sparks right into the start of this game. They were getting out on the break and running the floor hard, barreling in for efforts right at the rim. They were also absolutely dominant on the glass in the early stages, with the height advantage of Erika de Souza inside helping but the whole team collaborating on the rebounding effort. Even when Indiana managed to penetrate the Dream defense they were missing under pressure, and needed the ability of Tamika Catchings to create contact and draw calls to create points. Hitting a couple of shots from deep late in the first quarter also allowed them to keep just about in touch, finishing the opening period down only 25-18.
Whenever these teams clash – and that’s pretty frequently, considering they’re in the same conference and both regularly make the playoffs – pace is always an interesting issue. Atlanta average the highest number of possessions per game in the WNBA, i.e. their games are typically played at the highest pace in the league. Indiana are rock bottom of the same list. So there’s always a struggle for control over the tempo. While Atlanta had managed to keep the pace high in the first quarter, running even off rebounds without always needing to create turnovers, Indiana managed to slow the game down in the second quarter. The Fever offense was still struggling to create points or hit shots, but they slammed the breaks on Atlanta’s offense as well, and kept the game close. Indiana trailed just 40-33 at halftime, after 20 minutes where it felt like Atlanta were on top almost throughout.
Other memories of previous battles between these teams were stirred by the war that was going on in the paint. The constant physical competition between Erika de Souza and Erlana Larkins down low was the absolute highlight of the game, even while Catchings and Angel McCoughtry were doing everything they could from the perimeter. Larkins hasn’t had the best season as a starter this year, with the drawbacks of starting a frontcourt where neither player is much over 6ft-tall showing up on occasion – and the injuries elsewhere highlighting her limited offensive arsenal. But it was her insertion into the starting lineup that turned the playoff series against Atlanta last year, and began Indiana’s push to a championship. Facing Erika again seemed to energise Larkins, and she was absolutely outstanding on the glass, especially on the offensive end. Larkins also did an impressive job defensively, brought into stark relief by the comparison with how Candace Parker and LA struggled to handle Erika on Monday night. Throughout this game, Erika was catching the ball on entry passes significantly further from the hoop, and being forced into much tougher shots than she took against LA. That was down to the work Larkins was doing before the ball arrived, when much of post defense really takes place. She wouldn’t give up deep position in the paint, and kept Erika from dominating. It’s a testament to the Brazilian center’s talents that her stat-line still looked impressive at the end of the night, despite the work Larkins did against her throughout the game.
Catchings had a post-up bucket past a static McCoughtry and a three from the top of the arc to open the second half, which set the scene for a tight, aggressive, very competitive second half. Indiana did a better job limiting the Dream’s running game, and McCoughtry in particular was less effective from the field – although she still drew plenty of fouls on her drives to the rim. Indiana also shot much better from the perimeter in the second half, and big threes from Phillips and Shavonte Zellous helped wipe out a nine-point advantage that Atlanta had built late in the third quarter. If Indiana are going to do anything in the playoffs this year, they’re going to need to knock down those threes like they did in last year’s run, which is why the health of all the guards that have missed time is so crucial. January, Zellous, Phillips and Katie Douglas have now all missed games, with Douglas out for most for the year with a bulging disc in her back. They need that perimeter threat. Sadly, with 7:30 left in regulation and the score tied, they lost yet another guard when Phillips was inadvertently poked in the eye by Herrington. She went to the bench, and you could see the black eye developing and swelling up while she watched. She didn’t return.
Especially for two teams built on their defenses, there was some beautiful offensive execution down the stretch. McCoughtry hit a jumper in the lane with a soft touch; Larkins set a ‘screen of death’ to break Layshia Clarendon open for a driving layup; Herrington made a backdoor cut to finish a bounce pass from Le’coe Willingham; and Larkins had a gorgeous post move to slide past Erika for a layup before Willingham answered with a three. It was punch and counter-punch of the highest order.
With a minute left in regulation Catchings stole an inbounds pass, leading to a Clarendon layup and a one-point Indiana lead. Atlanta’s possession that followed was a mess, finishing with a Jasmine Thomas airball, and then an unnecessary foul from Thomas when Atlanta still had plenty of time to just play defense. Fortunately for them, Catchings went 1-of-2 at the line, and the Dream had 27 seconds to tie or win the game. Again it was Thomas who took the shot – denial defense from Karima Christmas prevented Atlanta from even getting McCoughtry the ball – and the wild layup was way off. But for once Larkins was beaten to a crucial ball by Erika, who dropped in the putback to tie the game. Indiana had 15 seconds to win it. Catchings passed to Christmas in the corner, and wanted the ball back, but Christmas penetrated and kept going right to the rim rather than kicking it back to Catch. She bowled over Hayes at the rim, and was called for a charge. Under the letter of the law, it looked on replay like Hayes was late setting up, but it’s the kind of call defenders tend to get these days. Atlanta got the ball in to McCoughtry for a turnaround jumper in the 0.9 seconds remaining, but it was off and we went to overtime.
Layshia Clarendon has had a difficult rookie season – and difficult is a pretty generous description – but played heavy minutes in this game due to the illness/injuries to all of Indiana’s other guards. She had a couple of nice finishes at the rim in the second half – shots she’s struggled to convert for much of the season – and she worked hard to defend McCoughtry for stretches, but there were a lot of mistakes elsewhere. For example, it was Clarendon looking the wrong way when Herrington cut backdoor for that layup in the fourth quarter. It was often her making the kind of passes you just can’t make against Atlanta’s gambling defense to cough up turnovers and breakouts. And things got worse in OT. There was a high school-level ballhandling error where she lost the ball on her own without an opponent touching it, before compounding the mistake by committing a clear path foul when Thomas picked the ball up. There was a blatant carry for another turnover moments later, when she hesitated far too long on a theoretical hesitation dribble. There was an ugly missed layup. It looked like she was about to be benched midway through the extra period, only for Jeanette Pohlen to replace Christmas instead. Rookie growing pains can sometimes be, well, painful.
Meanwhile, Atlanta did their work in overtime via defense, steals and breaking layups. McCoughtry had an outstanding block from behind on an attempted Larkins putback. Herrington drove past Pohlen for a crucial layup. Then McCoughtry poked the ball away from Catchings at the top of the arc, and steamed in for another layup with a scream of elation to go with it. That gave Atlanta an eight-point lead with only a minute remaining, and virtually sealed the win. McCoughtry still had time to turn an ankle again, but played out the game so it can’t have been too bad. The Dream closed out an 89-80 victory.
If we end up seeing three games like this in a playoff series in a few weeks, no one’s going to complain. Indiana played with energy and intensity all night, with Larkins an absolute monster on the glass finishing with 17 boards (10 offensive) while she fought with Erika inside. But Catchings and Zellous shot a combined 10-34, which kept them from ever taking control of the game. This is the question heading into the playoffs – assuming the Fever hold off New York to make it there, which is yet to be 100% assured. We know Indiana are going to give everything they have, and make things tough on every opponent with high-energy, harassing defense. But can their offense produce enough points to win games? It’d probably be a lot easier if they could actually put a healthy team out on the floor for the postseason.
Despite the contrast in pace that these teams prefer to play at, we often have similar questions about Atlanta. When everyone’s engaged, their defense can shut teams down and make it very difficult for opponents to execute. But most of the time, Atlanta can’t really shoot. So they have to play fast and aggressive, consistently attack the rim, and produce points like that. Where balance and production from the role players helped them beat LA on Monday, McCoughtry was the clear leader in this one, finishing 9-16 for 30 points (including 12-14 at the free throw line), 9 boards, 8 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks. Erika gave them a foundation inside as well when she could, and Herrington was strong in her return from concussion, but Angel was the star alongside the team defense. If they can keep up the level of drive and energy that they’ve rediscovered in the last couple of games, a playoff run is certainly possible – and this win confirmed mathematically that they’ll be in the postseason. We always know that Atlanta can produce these performances – it’s just a matter of whether they’ll show up at the right time.
Yet another San Antonio Silver Star has gone down due to injury, with rookie guard Davellyn Whyte done for the season after suffering a partially torn achilles. They signed former San Diego State guard Chelsea Hopkins as a replacement, presumably through yet another hardship exception. It’s a tough way for Whyte’s season to end, after she got increased opportunity with Danielle Robinson’s knee injury opening up minutes at the point. Whyte’s looked useful at times in her rookie season, although the hot shooting from the start of the year tailed off dramatically. She’ll probably have a fight on her hands to make this team next year in training camp.
Sylvia Fowles and Maya Moore were named WNBA Players of the Month for their respective conferences for August, awards they fully deserved. In a surprise to nobody, Elena Delle Donne won Rookie of the Month for the third consecutive time. The Rookie of the Year voting is not going to be close.
Washington @ Connecticut, 7pm ET. The Sun broke my run of success picking against them by covering the spread in their last game against Phoenix, but Sun +3 isn’t close to enough to change my pattern. Washington have been the better team, and are the only ones involved still playing for anything. I’ll take the Mystics on the road.
Atlanta @ New York, 7.30pm ET. Same line, same pick. The home team are 3-point underdogs just like the game above, and again that’s not enough. Atlanta haven’t been the same team on the road this year, but the Liberty have been so poor in any venue in recent weeks that I’ll take the Dream.
Los Angeles @ Tulsa, 8pm ET. Much as I hate doing it, I’ll take another road favourite. After a couple of disappointing results against good teams, LA should be determined to improve things, and a visit to Tulsa (minus Cambage) ought to be a nice tonic. Although it’s a bit of a risk taking them against a Shock team that tends to play better when the pressure’s off, considering Tulsa have nothing left to play for.
Indiana @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET. This one’s particularly interesting because it could be a preview of a fascinating first-round playoff matchup. Historically, Indiana have a fantastic record against Chicago, and even this year the Fever are up 2-1 in the season-series. The Sky have sealed the #1 seed in the East, but are still playing for home court advantage in a potential WNBA Finals with Minnesota or LA. The line is Chicago -7, and I’ll take the Sky to cover purely because Indy played an exhausting game on Wednesday night, and they’ve been shaky on the road recently. And half their team will probably be injured.
San Antonio @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. Mercury -12 is too high for me, even against the injury-ravaged Silver Stars. Phoenix haven’t played well enough to be favoured by that much over anyone lately, so I’ll take San Antonio to cover.