WNBA Today, 09/07/2013: Postseason four become official in West, reach brink in East, on five-game Friday

 

Another quintuple-game night in the WNBA on Friday, and all five of them had playoff implications of some description. Whether it’s officially confirming your spot in the postseason, fighting for seeding, or just playing spoiler while you look forward to the lottery, the regular season isn’t quite done yet.

 

Washington Mystics 70 @ Connecticut Sun 77

  • Although if you happen to be a Connecticut Sun fan, you could’ve been forgiven for thinking your team had already decided the season was over. With the mathematical calculations finally confirming that the Sun’s chances of making the playoffs were finished (realists had confirmed that eons ago), two more Sun players were shut down for the season. The team confirmed that Kara Lawson wouldn’t be returning for the rest of the year with lingering issues from her bruised knee, while Tina Charles was shut down with sore knees and various other aches and pains that everyone’s always feeling by this stage in the season. Making sure they stay below everyone else in the standings would also help Connecticut’s lottery chances, of course (and give them the #1 pick in a dispersal draft in the unfortunate event that any other team ceased operations over the offseason).

 

  • But in case you haven’t noticed me pointing it out several times over the course of the season, both here and on Twitter, the Sun have invariably been a better team with Tina Charles on the bench this season. Plus, when a team hears that their opponent is missing virtually their entire starting five (remember, Asjha Jones, Danielle McCray, Allison Hightower and Kelly Faris are all out for various reasons as well as Charles and Lawson), they tend to relax. The Mystics came out with very little energy, and we saw what might well have been the quickest timeout of the season. Mike Thibault brought everything to a halt after just 45 seconds, with his team trailing 5-0.

 

  • Washington struggled to find any of their usual energy and focus throughout the first half, but they did at least crawl into a pretty tedious contest. They didn’t hit many shots, but they managed to drive into contact enough to earn trips to the free throw line and gather up some points. Connecticut had a drought in the middle of the half where their basic limited level of talent was highlighted, but over the course of the half they shot significantly better than Washington. The rotations and help in the Mystics defense weren’t crisp at all, and Tan White led the Sun to a 36-34 halftime advantage.

 

  • Whatever Thibault tried, it was a constant struggle all night for Washington. On top of the Sun absences, the Mystics had been off for eight days, which seemed to have led to a lack of focus rather than some useful rest. They had a constant stream of sloppy turnovers throughout, and failed to move the ball well enough to attack the Sun effectively. They spent much of the second half trailing by around 10 points.

 

  • For anyone who’s watched Connecticut consistently this season (us poor, unfortunate few), this wasn’t really a big surprise. When Charles is out of the way, they lose that focal point to their offense. But rather than leaving them shapeless, it opens the rest of the team up to move the ball around and take whatever’s on offer, rather than constantly looking to feed Tina. Plus, of course, Charles has been tossing up bricks at a 40% clip this season, so it’s not like they were removing a particularly efficient piece of their offense.

 

  • In fact, the Sun were winning this game in a very similar fashion to how the Mystics have been pulling out victories all season. Work hard, play for each other, and become more than the sum of your parts. Washington were getting beaten at their own game.

 

  • The Mystics did produce a late run, dragging a double-digit gap down to four points with 90 seconds left to play. They finally started playing more aggressive defense down the stretch, trapping ballhandlers and looking for steals to turn the game. Then it backfired, when Tan White managed to pass out of one of those traps to an open Kayla Pedersen under the hoop for a vital layup. Ivory Latta missed a pair of threes after that, either of which could’ve made things interesting, but that was enough for the Sun to hold on.

 

  • White was the star for Connecticut, although it was a group effort from the eight players they had left in uniform. She’s enjoyed the green light that’s been flashing since her return from injury with so few other offensive weapons left for the Sun, but it’s been distinctly hit-or-miss as to whether she’d make many of those shots. She finished 10-19 from the field for 26 points, but also added in six assists and some important defense, including one memorable chase-down block on Tayler Hill. Kelsey Griffin, Renee Montgomery and Mistie Bass all chipped in as well, as the Sun showed that ‘playing for pride’ can still happen even when half your team is done for the year. I might not have picked against them if I’d known Charles was going to call it quits and open the team up to play without her.

 

  • It’s a desperately disappointing loss for Washington, because you’re not supposed to lose to the worst team in the league anyway, never mind when last year’s MVP just decided her season was over. Crystal Langhorne did her best to carry them in the second half, but as a team they just couldn’t hit enough shots to exploit Connecticut’s shortcomings. The Mystics don’t have more than two days between games until the end of the regular season from here on out – maybe that’ll help them keep their focus and produce better performances than this.

 

 

Atlanta Dream 70 @ New York Liberty 57

  • Technically, New York were still fighting for the playoffs, although that’s looked like a longshot for some time now. While the Liberty were hoping to chase down either Washington or Indiana, Atlanta were still trying to hold off those same two teams and retain their #2 seed heading into the playoffs. Armintie Herrington took her starting spot back from Alex Bentley after one game coming off the bench following her concussion. They’re still missing Sancho Lyttle, but other than that the Dream were back in one piece.

 

  • This was another game where from the very start it appeared Kara Braxton was going to be a prime topic of conversation. It looked like we might be seeing Good Kara, as she went to war with Erika de Souza in the post, and produced several buckets deep in the paint. Erika got plenty back at the other end, but Braxton looked engaged and up for the fight, which certainly isn’t always the case. Players with copious talent who can’t seem to find the enthusiasm or concentration to bring it every night for 40 minutes are always vastly more frustrating than players who just don’t have the same innate ability. Sooner or later, Braxton drives everyone crazy.

 

  • Angel McCoughtry started the game taking too many outside jump shots, as Katie Smith and plenty of help defenders made her life difficult. McCoughtry found a little success when she started to drive more, but she ended up being left on the bench for much longer than usual in the second quarter by Dream head coach Fred Williams. The team survived perfectly well without her for once, thanks to the interior presence of Erika and the perimeter bombing of Tiffany Hayes. Alex Montgomery converted a couple of drives herself, but she gave Hayes far too much room at the other end, presumably scared of Hayes’s driving ability. The Dream guard took what was on offer, and went 3-3 from beyond the arc. Atlanta led 43-36 at halftime.

 

  • While McCoughtry was out for most of the second quarter due to the coach’s choice, New York lost Cappie Pondexter for virtually the same stretch due to another injury. She tried to drive past Herrington and ended up being squashed between Herrington and Ruth Riley, smacking her right leg into Riley and requiring lengthy treatment. Pondexter missed the remainder of the second quarter, but was back out to start the second half, so presumably it was nothing too serious. But yet another knock to their star player obviously wasn’t going to make anything easier for New York.

 

  • In fact, it was that opening stretch of the third quarter with Pondexter back on the floor where Atlanta took the game away from the Liberty. The Dream opened the second half with a 12-0 run, bringing much more aggressive double-teams whenever Braxton touched the ball down low. Atlanta were confident that either she’d make a mess of passing back out – a common problem even with Good Kara – or the Liberty shooters wouldn’t be able to punish them anyway. They were right. The Dream also managed to knock down a couple of drive-and-kick jumpers, and pulled out to a commanding lead.

 

  • From there, New York were never really in it. Plenette Pierson had a couple of decent moments in the second half, and Kelsey Bone tried to pick up where Braxton had left off in the paint, but the Liberty never made enough shots to seriously threaten a comeback. Atlanta made plenty of mistakes and coughed up a bunch of turnovers, but it hardly mattered against the minimal resistance from New York, as the Dream coasted home.

 

  • The notable positive for Atlanta from this game, besides picking up a rare road victory, was that McCoughtry only played 27 minutes. While she still took 17 shots, and she was the clear leader in their previous game when they held off Indiana, Atlanta have been better about shifting the ball and finding their offense from other sources in recent games. Yes, if they go anywhere in the postseason it will likely be with Angel leading from the front. But other teams will happily let her score 50 if no one else has a chance to do anything and the rest of the team fades out of the action entirely. There needs to be some kind of balance, and that’s been a little improved lately. Now they’ve got four games left to keep that rolling, hold on to their #2 seed, and in an ideal world work Sancho Lyttle back into the rotation. There’s been no recent news on whether she’s expected to return from her broken foot in time for the playoffs, but the increased use of Ruth Riley in this game may not have been a good sign. That could be Williams testing out his remaining post options to see what’s left.

 

  • New York, amazingly, still have a shot at the playoffs. They’re going to need to run the table in their final three games, and have either Indiana or Washington collapse, but the theoretical chance still remains. And that’s pretty clearly what it is – merely theoretical. Pondexter’s ailing, and wasn’t playing that well before the injuries started taking a visible toll. The rest of the squad isn’t good enough to compensate. While distant dreams of somehow backing into the postseason might technically still exist, slipping behind San Antonio and/or Tulsa to maximise their lottery chances would probably be the more beneficial course of action anyway.

 

 

Los Angeles Sparks 74 @ Tulsa Shock 70

  • Tulsa’s chances of reaching the playoffs had long since disappeared, and center Liz Cambage had already flown off back to Australia after another ankle sprain ended her season. Los Angeles’s interests lay in trying to catch Minnesota for the #1 seed in the West, which was looking significantly less likely after losing to the Lynx on Wednesday night. But it was still a possibility, and the Sparks also needed a general return to form, regardless of the meaning behind their remaining games. They’d produced some sloppy performances lately, with old problems – stagnant halfcourt offense, poor help-side defense – returning to haunt them. That’s not how you want to be playing going into the playoffs.

 

  • Outside of Cambage, there was no Connecticut-style shutting down going on in Tulsa. Everyone else was available, as was made clear after barely a minute when Angel Goodrich came off the bench for Riquna Williams. Goodrich had missed a couple of games due to illness, but was apparently ready to play. Williams looked like she was limping a little and asked to come out, but she was back for the start of the second quarter and looked fine, so apparently it was something fixable.

 

  • Early on and through most of the first quarter, LA looked pretty good. They were constantly looking to push the ball and find quick offense, even noticeably firing at the first decent look they found within halfcourt sets. It gave them a much better pace and momentum to their offense, and both Candace Parker and Kristi Toliver were heavily involved. Of course, facing an opponent with significantly less raw talent and defensive organisation than teams like Minnesota and Atlanta also didn’t hurt.

 

  • In fact, things were rolling so nicely for LA that Parker went for a dunk late in the first quarter when she got out on a breakaway. She back-rimmed it and the ball went flying away, but at least she had the confidence to try it. Would’ve looked good on the highlight reel for Most Valuable Player voters, too.

 

  • But as has been the case all too frequently in recent games, LA couldn’t maintain their momentum. With Goodrich hitting a runner at the first quarter buzzer, then Williams back in to provide a burst of offense for the Shock – plus Parker resting on the bench to open the second quarter – the Shock took a matter of moments to even the game back up. LA lost all their rhythm in the second quarter, went stagnant again offensively, and started making mistakes on the defensive end. Some decent ball reversal from the Shock found wide open shooters on the weak side, and occasional drives from Tulsa’s guards were too often rewarded with dumb LA fouls. Everyone in the league should know by now that against Skylar Diggins and Candice Wiggins you make every attempt to avoid the foul while putting some token pressure on their attempts at the rim. And then they’ll probably miss on their own. Instead Tulsa had some free points to add to their total, and finished the first half ahead 39-37.

 

  • No one managed to take control of the game in the second half. LA’s pace had disappeared, and so had their ball movement, leading to too much one-on-one basketball and too many jacked up jump shots. It was a scrappy half of basketball. The Sparks were also making Courtney Paris look like a perfectly serviceable defender, which has been pretty rare sight on a WNBA floor. When you don’t make her move too much, and give her big, slow options like Jantel Lavender to guard, she can cope without too much trouble. And she was combining with Glory Johnson to give LA problems on the glass as well.

 

  • With eight minutes left in the game, Toliver tried to make something happen on a drive and bowled right over Jen Lacy for a charge and her fifth foul. That left Toliver on the bench for several important minutes. She came back in, nailed a big three with four minutes left to give LA a five-point advantage – the biggest lead we’d seen in the second half. It felt like someone was finally taking advantage of Tulsa’s defense sagging into the paint. But moments later, after missing another attempt from deep, Toliver came sliding over on help defense to try to cover a rolling Glory Johnson. She was a split-second late, and instinctively reached in to either grab the ball or grab Johnson and prevent the layup. She drew the inevitable reach-in foul, her sixth, and to make matters worse Johnson somehow flung the ball up and in through the contact. Toliver knew exactly what she’d done, and a grimace crossed her face immediately. To her credit, she’s been a more focussed defender this year, but some mistakes are hard to eliminate entirely.

 

  • The final minutes of this game took a long time to finish off. LA did most of their work at the free throw line, with Lindsey Harding, Alana Beard and A’dia Mathies combining to shoot 11-12 down the stretch. Parker also nailed an important jumper from deep in the corner on a drive-and-kick from Harding. Tulsa missed a couple of wild layups when LA’s defense was smart enough to avoid the foul, but then the Shock started making plays. Paris was bullying Parker in the paint for offensive rebounds and finishes right at the rim. Williams hit a ridiculous off-balance three on a broken play, and Nicole Powell made a tough runner in the lane. But the Shock never actually had a shot to tie the game – LA consistently made enough free throws to keep themselves two possessions in front, and just barely clung on.

 

  • Credit to Tulsa for fighting this out and making a game of it right to the end. Johnson, Williams and Paris were their primary figures, and their active team defense gave LA problems all night. But this loss takes their record in games decided by five points or less, or in overtime, to 1-9 on the season. It suggests they’re not that far away from being a decent team, but also that they can’t close games out to save their lives. It’s been close but no cigar for Tulsa all season long.

 

  • LA won the game, and they were balanced enough for all five starters to score in double-digits. That’s about where the positives end for the Sparks. It wasn’t a particularly pretty win at all, or the sort of return to form they were hoping for. It was a gut-it-out victory, that counts as 1 in the W column like all the others, but won’t raise morale much. They’ve got two games left, against Minnesota on Thursday and Phoenix next Sunday. If the Lynx beat Seattle twice in their upcoming games they’ll secure to top seed in the West and we might see a lot of players resting in that game on Thursday night. If they drop at least one to the Storm, that last regular season game between the top two in the West will still have potential relevance and might be much more interesting. The Sparks could probably use the work out in a meaningful encounter, especially if they manage to flip the switch back on to face their key rivals.

 

 

Indiana Fever 82 @ Chicago Sky 77

  • Apologies, but with five games in one evening at least one gets pushed to be viewed via archive the next day. This one was the choice last night, and WNBA.com’s LiveAccess portal has been broken all day. So coverage of this game will appear in a future article, as soon as I get a chance to watch it. For now, suffice it to say that Chicago would be more than happy to avoid playing Indiana in the playoffs if at all possible. It’d be a very interesting matchup, but possibly a little too interesting for Pokey Chatman and her squad.

 

 

San Antonio Silver Stars 80 @ Phoenix Mercury 83

  • This was the one game last night that had the chance to actually decide a playoff spot. If Phoenix could win, San Antonio’s chances went from slim to none and the Mercury were in. The Silver Stars continued to play shorthanded, with Danielle Robinson’s knee keeping her on the sidelines where Becky Hammon and Sophia Young have been virtually all year with their own knee problems. Robinson’s backup Davellyn Whyte was ruled out as well earlier this week due to a partially torn achilles, leading to the signing of yet another young replacement in Chelsea Hopkins. Shenise Johnson continued to start as the makeshift point guard alongside Jia Perkins in the backcourt.

 

  • Phoenix’s only new injury issue was Charde Houston breaking her nose during practice earlier in the week, but she was ready to play in a mask. Of course, they also continue to wait on Penny Taylor, who they were always hoping would be ready in time for the postseason. The Mercury got off to a strong start, looking for Brittney Griner under the rim but creating points through other avenues when they couldn’t get her the ball. Diana Taurasi had a driving finish and a transition three in the early moments, raising hopes that she wouldn’t just be a facilitator in this game. She also ran a pretty pick-and-roll with Candice Dupree, the basic play I was begging them to run repeatedly in their last encounter with San Antonio. It was nice to see that it was apparently going to be a bigger part of the offense this time around.

 

  • However, San Antonio quickly wiped out the early Phoenix lead. First it was Jayne Appel exploiting Griner’s constant wish to help on everything, which has a tendency to leave gaps behind if the opponent shifts the ball rather than going straight up into a Griner block. Then it was Perkins and Johnson nailing jumpers from the perimeter. Give them a chance, and this San Antonio team can still find holes.

 

  • But as the half wore on, Phoenix’s greater array of weapons and depth of talent started to tell. Johnson and Danielle Adams missed a lot shots, and San Antonio tried out some risky lineups with several inexperienced youngsters on the floor at the same time. Their zone defense also looked shaky, and left too many gaps for Phoenix to cut into. Even Briana Gilbreath, the one Mercury starter you can usually ignore entirely, was producing points by cutting into space and running the floor. She even hit an elbow jumper when the Silver Stars defense virtually begged her to shoot. Phoenix led 42-32 at halftime.

 

  • The Mercury looked perfectly fine through the third quarter and the first couple of minutes of the fourth. They weren’t exactly dominating at either end, but they were effective enough at both to keep their lead ticking over at stay in control. They also did a better job of getting Griner involved in the offense in the third quarter, running their interior screens and motion sets to create angles to find her inside in solid position, allowing her to finish or forcing San Antonio to foul her. Modified pick-and-rolls are effective ways to create opportunities for her as well, even if there’s an extra pass or two involved in the middle of the play before she receives the ball inside. Most teams don’t have more than one player who they want covering Griner as the primary defender, so if you can force the opponent into rotating their defensive matchups it’s going to create big problems. Then you just have to make a decent entry pass and you’ve got the defense in trouble.

 

  • But early in the fourth quarter, with Phoenix seemingly in complete control, the game changed. San Antonio broke out their 3-2 zone again, which was much more effective than the zone they used in the first half. Phoenix were driving the baseline, or pulling up in the middle of the zone, then missing the short jumpers that resulted. They weren’t getting to the rim any more. Meanwhile Danielle Adams was using her quick feet to attack Griner at the basket, and drew the Mercury center’s fifth foul, sending her to the bench. Then San Antonio started hitting a few shots from the perimeter, as they occasionally tend to do, and the comfortable lead was down to six points.

 

  • With 90 seconds left, Appel was unfortunate to pick up an offensive foul on a hand-off – it looked like Griner shoved her as much as Appel moved on the pick – which fouled Appel out of the game. She’d done an admirable job on the glass and defending the post during the game, and she’s also become more of a facilitator on offense for San Antonio this season with so many veteran players going down with injuries. It was a significant loss for the Silver Stars.

 

  • Even with Appel on the floor, one noticeable problem for San Antonio out of their zone was that their defensive rebounding became even worse (and it’s not great most of the time anyway). Without her it was an even bigger issue, so the Mercury were getting multiple chances on each trip down the floor. But San Antonio somehow scrambled another stop by swarming Griner inside, and then Adams drove right by her for an easy layup. Four-point game, 45 seconds left. Out of a timeout, Griner came charging across the lane looking to post up, but ran right through Jia Perkins with her arm at head-height (for Perkins – pretty typical arm-height for Griner). Offensive foul, and Griner’s night was done. The immediate turnover was just as critical as fouling out at that point.

 

  • San Antonio’s ensuing possession was pretty messy, and largely contained by Phoenix, but ultimately Shenise Johnson got a shot off and drew a foul. Making both free throws cut the deficit to two with 24 seconds left. Obviously the Silver Stars were going to have to foul to extend the game, but they tried to go for the steal first, and were rather upset when the whistle came a little quickly. Sometimes officials can be a bit hasty when they’re expecting teams to foul intentionally. San Antonio appeared to get a break when Taurasi missed the second shot, but good hustle from Krystal Thomas forced Adams to tip the ball out of bounds and Phoenix crucially retained possession. Another almost-steal-actually-called-a-foul led to Taurasi making two more from the line.

 

  • Adams rolled in for a layup to make it a three-point game again with 14 seconds left, before a complete mess of a sequence finished the game. Phoenix inbounded successfully, but an awful pass from Dupree turned the ball over almost immediately. Then Chelsea Hopkins almost gave it right back, but the ball dropped for Adams. She tried to dribble upcourt, but was stripped by Thomas on the way, and Phoenix finally managed to corral the ball and move it into enough space for time to expire. It was a complete shambles, but the Mercury had held on for the win.

 

  • It was probably an appropriate way for Phoenix to confirm their postseason qualification – with Griner and Taylor on the bench, and a general mess happening on the floor. It was a difficult, awkward game, and the Mercury still don’t look like a team who know quite what they want to do or how they want to go about it on the court. They held on and got over the line, and Taurasi was a little more direct in looking for her own offense at times (although not often enough). But it left the lingering sense that against a better team they’d be in trouble. They’re in, and anything can happen in the playoffs, but this team still feels like a potential spoiler in the postseason more than a strong championship threat. With the players they have they’re always going to be dangerous, but there’s another step or two to climb before they can legitimately be expected to make a serious run.

 

  • For San Antonio the playoff hopes are finally finished. They’ve produced some impressive performances at times this year, considering their key injuries, but ultimately they just haven’t had the horses. Assuming everyone’s back and raring to go next year, with a lottery pick thrown into the mix, it’s going to be interesting to see how much they can improve. They have the potential to be a pretty dangerous team, if everything goes right. This year, most things have gone wrong.

 

 

Notes

USA Basketball confirmed this week that University of Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma would return as head coach of the women’s national team up until the 2016 Olympics. It’s a bit of a departure from previous moves by USA Basketball, where the top job tended to move on to a new person for each four-year cycle. But as with the men’s side of things, where they’ve tried to build continuity with Mike Krzyzewski, apparently they wanted the same structure with the women. Geno certainly had plenty of success the first time around, so it’s hardly controversial bringing him back.

 

One of the players likely to be a part of Auriemma’s USA squads, point guard Lindsay Whalen, signed a ‘multi-year extension’ with the Minnesota Lynx earlier this week. We tend to see some of these as the regular season winds down, locking players up to avoid any complications from them hitting free agency in the offseason. The interesting aspect here is that she was willing to sign despite the collective bargaining agreement being about to expire. Contract figures have to be specified in the WNBA – they can’t just say “maximum possible salary” – so apparently she and her agent aren’t expecting the individual maximum to rise much, if at all, in the next deal.

 

 

Upcoming Games

 

Saturday September 7th (today):

Connecticut @ Indiana, 7pm ET. The line was Indiana -11.5, which is very high considering Indiana tend to play slow, low-scoring games. And considering Charles was out, which led to a Sun victory on Friday night. But with Connecticut on the road, on a back-to-back, and Tan White unlikely to shoot as well for the second night in a row, I took Indiana to cover (announced via pre-game tweet).

 

Minnesota @ Seattle, 10pm ET. Storm +7 wasn’t enough points to even tempt me into taking Seattle. They haven’t been particularly competitive against Minnesota in previous meetings this season, and I’m not convinced that the atmosphere of Key Arena can do enough to change that. If I’m wrong, it might make the likely playoff matchup between these two in a couple of weeks significantly more intriguing.

 

—–

Sunday September 8th (tomorrow):

Phoenix @ Atlanta, 3pm ET

Chicago @ Washington, 4pm ET

Tulsa @ San Antonio, 4.30pm ET

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