The difficulties and complications of WNBA.com’s LiveAccess service over the weekend have made the contents of my articles a little confusing, so here’s what you can find below: details on Saturday’s games, plus bonus coverage of Friday night’s Indiana-Chicago matchup. Just to keep things chronological, we’ll start with that game, in the hope that some people are still interested in hearing about it, then roll into yesterday’s basketball. Coverage of Sunday’s games, including one particularly noteworthy explosion in an otherwise meaningless game, will be in tomorrow’s article as normal. On to the Bullet Point Breakdowns.
Indiana Fever 82 @ Chicago Sky 77
- Indiana went into this game with work still to do in order to confirm their playoff spot. New York were in the process of losing yet another game, but they were still within range of catching the Fever. Chicago secured the #1 seed in the East the previous weekend, but were still playing for home-court advantage in a potential Finals matchup with Minnesota or Los Angeles, and trying to keep their momentum rolling into the playoffs. There was also a strong possibility that Indiana could be Chicago’s first-round playoff opponent, and the Fever have beaten up on the Sky with such regularity over the years that Chicago were looking for a win for mental reasons more than anything else.
- Unfortunately for the Sky, point guard Courtney Vandersloot turned an ankle in warmups, and was held out of the game for precautionary reasons. It was absolutely the right decision, however minor the injury, considering the lack of real meaning to this game for Chicago – but it was still a disappointment to face the Fever without an important starter. Epiphanny Prince slid over to play the point, with Tamera Young coming into the starting lineup. They also had backup point guard Sharnee Zoll-Norman available for the first time in weeks, after recovering from her broken thumb. Indiana were still without Katie Douglas, and guard Erin Phillips was missing as well after being poked in the eye during their game against Atlanta a couple of nights earlier.
- We’d only seen the marquee frontcourt matchup between Elena Delle Donne and Tamika Catchings once before this season – they’d missed one game each due to injury on the other occasions their teams clashed. As with the previous encounter, Catchings was nominally guarding Delle Donne at times, but Indiana’s defense was so fluid and switching so easily that the matchups were far from consistent. Delle Donne certainly wasn’t afraid of Catchings or her defensive reputation when she was lined up against the veteran star, attacking her off the dribble several times in the early going and having some success. She also set screens on Briann January multiple times, trying to force the switch and the resulting mismatch, and converted easily right over the top of January on more than one occasion.
- However, while Delle Donne produced some points early on, and Sylvia Fowles was a presence in the paint at both ends of the floor, Indiana stayed right with Chicago and ultimately pulled out into a lead late in the first half. There’s one particular, incredibly basic way that Indiana use to create good looks against the Sky, and I’ve talked about it before. I call it ‘semi-penetration’, because the primary objective is rarely to get right to the rim or even deep into the paint. If a lane happens to open up, the driving Fever player will happily take it and carry on to the basket, but that’s not what usually happens. One player drives from the top of the arc – usually Tamika Catchings but several other Fever players do it as well – only aiming to get a step or two below the free throw line, and not really needing to beat her defender. The target is merely to entice the defender in the strong side corner to take a step or two towards the paint to offer help. Then the driver makes the easy kick-out to her teammate in the corner (or on the wing, both work) for a three she’s been given the room to shoot. It’s incredibly simple, but the help-defense principles drilled into defenses like Chicago’s always make that defender in the corner want to slide in and help. Briann January and Shavonte Zellous got into a rhythm hitting threes in the first half, and it helped carry Indiana’s offense even while Catchings couldn’t hit anything. The Fever led 44-34 at halftime.
- Besides the threes and the penetration, Indiana’s other main success in the first half came on the offensive boards, with Erlana Larkins leading the way. Plus, of course, there was the Fever’s defense. They were making it hard for Chicago to run anything, bodying up on Fowles in the paint, and extending their pressure just to make it difficult to complete simple passes within sets. It throws off the timing of the offense if you can do that without over-extending yourselves and leaving the defense vulnerable behind the pressure. The impact carried through into the second half as well.
- The Fever led by as many as 15 in the middle of the third quarter, and their bench-heavy lineup even held up against Prince and several Sky reserves to start the fourth. It did at least force Prince to take charge of the ball and the offense to a greater extent, because there was no one else on the floor for Chicago who was going to score.
- The push did finally arrive from Chicago, but it was a little too late. Swin Cash hit a pair of threes to cut the deficit to six points with barely a minute left, but then Cash and Young managed to screw up a two-on-one break, Indiana snared the rebound, and from there the Sky started fouling. The Fever had enough of a gap, and hit enough of their foul shots, to close the game out.
- Indiana seem to have the Indian sign over the Sky. The only time Chicago have managed to beat them this season was when Catchings was injured and the Fever were mired in their 1-7 slump to start the year. Besides that, three of Chicago’s nine defeats this season have come in their remaining games against Indiana. The experience and confidence of the Fever just seems to be a problem for the Sky, along with the activity and physicality of their defense. Indiana didn’t even get the calls they felt they deserved in this game, with plenty of drives into contact going unrewarded by the officials. But January was fantastically hot from outside, and everyone else chipped in. Catchings hit one shot from the field all night, and Karima Christmas went by Delle Donne frequently only to be trapped in traffic around the rim, but Indiana still had enough. If you offered them the choice, the Fever might prefer the #4 seed and Chicago in the first round, rather than the #3 and Atlanta. They like playing this team.
- The inadvertent positive from this game for Chicago was that it gave Indiana a leg up on sliding past Washington for that #3 seed, which would keep them out of Chicago’s way in the first round. Delle Donne didn’t have much joy against the combination of Catchings and Christmas (and plenty of help), and Fowles was kept relatively quiet. Prince finished with one of her better stat-lines in recent months (8-15 for 19 points) but still accomplished it relatively quietly. The Sky would definitely be happy to see someone else in the first round. Anyone else.
Connecticut Sun 60 @ Indiana Fever 69
- Yes, back-to-back Fever coverage! Both these teams were playing the second halves of back-to-backs as well, which may have played a significant role in the level of entertainment provided by the basketball. If you were one of the many locked out of watching the game live due to LiveAccess issues, I wouldn’t worry too much about catching it via the archive. I wouldn’t worry about it at all, in fact.
- Indiana had the same group available, with Douglas and Phillips on the sidelines again. Connecticut were also working with the same eight players who performed the night before, after Tina Charles and Kara Lawson joined the growing ranks of Sun players out for the remainder of the season. Renee Montgomery took her starting spot back from Sydney Carter though (no idea why, or why Carter took over the spot for one game in the first place).
- There were immediate differences from Indiana’s game the night before – they drew calls on early drives that they weren’t getting from the previous officiating crew, and Catchings nailed a three from the top of the arc with her first shot. But after the Fever broke out to a quick 10-0 start, their offense dried up and the game slowed to a crawl.
- Connecticut were playing better team defense than we’ve seen from them for much of the season (I’ll resist taking another pot-shot at Charles by suggesting her absence may have played a part in that. Oh wait, does that count?). But both teams spent most of the first half generally missing an awful lot of shots. Or just taking awful shots. It was a scrappy, messy game, and Indiana led 31-28 at halftime. The Fever fans knew that a win would confirm their spot in the playoffs, so they were willing to cheer on any kind of victory, but it would’ve been a stretch to suggest they were being entertained.
- Very little changed in the third quarter. Briann January continued to miss several layups, which is nothing particularly new for her, but it was a little disappointing after her offensive explosion the night before. Of course, most of that outburst came from long-distance. While her drives undoubtedly help draw free throws, sometimes it does seem like she should concentrate on being more of a pure three-point gunner. She’s an awful finisher under any kind of pressure at the rim, but she’s good from beyond the arc, especially on catch-and-shoot attempts.
- One player who definitely needs to increase her perimeter shooting game is Kelsey Griffin, who started hitting shots in the third quarter to help carry Connecticut’s offense and keep them in the game. Part of the problem with Griffin’s game for her first three years in the league was that the perimeter shooting that was supposed to make her a versatile combo-forward threat was never actually there. She shot horribly from outside. With a lot more playing time this year, she’s shot much better, although her percentages from outside have largely gone from ‘terrible’ to ‘barely adequate’. She’s still a backup playing far too big a role this season, but at least she’s started to look like someone who could last in this league in that backup role. The player she was for the first three years hardly deserved to still be in the WNBA.
- One of the key differences between the third quarter, where Connecticut kept hanging around and had the game tied at 44-44 late in the period, and the fourth quarter where Indiana took over, was that Griffin went icy cold. Indiana also dominated the offensive boards, with their frontcourt of Jessica Breland, Karima Christmas and Erlana Larkins creating repeated second chances. Eventually, Indiana almost had to score on most of their possessions. Catchings and Shavonte Zellous started the fourth period on the bench getting regularly scheduled rest, but the reserves did a good enough job that neither was ever required to go back into the game. Tan White made a few plays for the Sun, but they just didn’t have enough to stay with Indiana in the final period. Even with Fever rookie Layshia Clarendon producing her usual dubious performance at the point and offering up several turnovers.
- So Indiana are in, even if the final step over the postseason line wasn’t particularly pretty. They’ll take it, after all the trials and tribulations of the 2013 season, and there are even some whispers starting to emerge that Katie Douglas might be ready to try on her uniform again heading into the playoffs. Even without her (or Erin Phillips), it was nice to see some of the role players step up for Indiana in their games over the weekend. January, Larkins, Christmas and Breland all made important contributions, and took some of the pressure off Catchings and Zellous to carry the offense. It’s looking increasingly likely that they might sneak into the #3 seed, creating yet another playoff series against Atlanta rather than the intriguing matchup with Chicago, but whoever they face they’ll need multiple players to produce.
- Let’s not linger on what Connecticut are doing. They produced another pretty decent effort, with Griffin, White and Montgomery all having their moments offensively, but finishing a back-to-back on the road while that shorthanded was obviously going to be difficult. Eventually, they ran out of steam.
Minnesota Lynx 75 @ Seattle Storm 60
- This was the first in another one of those double-headers the WNBA has introduced this year, where teams play each other twice in the same city within barely 48 hours. Earlier encounters and general form suggested Seattle weren’t going to enjoy the encounters. The Lynx had taken the Storm apart in both games in Minnesota this year, including one just a week ago where Maya Moore was so hot it was almost unfair. Seattle still had dreams of the #3 seed in the West – primarily because it would likely allow them to avoid Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs – but the problem was that they’d need to beat the Lynx to get there. Otherwise, we’re going to see this matchup another couple of times in the postseason.
- Both teams were as healthy as they’ve been all year (i.e. Sue Bird’s still out, but that’s it), so the rosters and lineups were as expected. The Storm did pretty well on defense within halfcourt sets in the first half. Every jump shot a Lynx player fired up was heavily contested, and Minnesota shot poorly from outside as a result. Seattle were also doing a good job of making everything awkward for Minnesota, making it difficult to break open off screens or find any space. It was a solid effort from the Storm when they got the chance to play defense how they wanted to.
- However, Minnesota made up the difference with their quick offense, and their transition attack. They were getting to the rim on the break, and finishing with ease on those opportunities. In full flow, the Lynx are still very pretty to watch.
- Talking of pretty, we saw another example of the elbow hand-off play between Janel McCarville and Lindsay Whalen, which worked like a charm as usual and led Whalen in for a straightforward layup. It’s incredibly smooth, and incredibly difficult to defend because it’s basically a solid pick with added momentum where the defense is never sure who’s going to have the ball until it’s virtually past them. Plus Whalen and McCarville still have outstanding chemistry after their years playing together in college, which makes it even more effective. It’s almost a surprise they don’t run it more often.
- Seattle also had great difficulty producing points of their own for much of the first half, blowing plenty of chances at the rim under the pressure of Minnesota’s collapsing defense. They fell behind by as many as 18 points midway through the second period, despite Minnesota’s own issues hitting shots. Then Tanisha Wright woke up. She’d missed plenty of efforts herself during the half, but it was her penetration and finishing that led Seattle back, finally giving them some effective offense and making the game something of a contest. She slid around a Camille Little pick for another bucket in the waning seconds of the first half, leaving Seattle trailing just 40-33 at the break.
- But the Storm were never really in it in the second half. Wright cooled off, and as a team they couldn’t hit anything from beyond the arc. Minnesota started hitting a few shots, which is virtually inevitable with this team, and a feeling of inevitability draped itself over the game as a whole. On Tuesday night, Seattle have one more chance to prove they can at least compete with the Lynx, or they’ll be heading into a likely playoff series with no confidence against this particular opponent whatsoever.
- Minnesota didn’t even play that well. Some of that was down to Seattle’s defense, which was solid when they had time to set up for much of the game. But the Lynx can coast past teams like this. Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus eventually hit a few shots, Rebekkah Brunson was pretty accurate all night, and Whalen was at the controls like usual. Seattle also have real problems creating anything against their defense that doesn’t involve just firing away from deep. Rachel Jarry appears to have cemented herself as the eighth member of the rotation on the nights Cheryl Reeve goes as deep as eight. Expect Jarry’s leash to be very, very short if she gets into playoff games outside of garbage time. Otherwise Monica Wright and Devereaux Peters are the only bench players we’re likely to see when any results are still in question.
- Seattle can do better than this. I’m sure of it, even against Minnesota. Tanisha Wright was the only one who produced any real offense, with Camille Little and Tina Thompson virtually invisible all night. It’s hard to find space and create points in the middle of Minnesota’s defense, which is built around preventing penetration and keeping opponents away from the rim, but they’re not quite as good as Seattle tend to make them look. Hopefully the Storm will show more on Tuesday night, just to give us extra hope for the first-round playoff series that’s probably on the way.
Sunday September 8th (today, all games already completed):
Phoenix @ Atlanta, 3pm ET. I took Atlanta -5, because the Mercury haven’t looked anywhere close to the finished article yet under Russ Pennell, while the Dream have generally been strong at home when mostly healthy (plus they’d had a couple of good wins lately). Didn’t work out too well.
Chicago @ Washington, 4pm ET. I took Washington +3, on the basis that the Mystics were the only team involved with anything tangible left to play for, and that Chicago have had a shaky performance or two lately (even if they’ve largely continued winning). That pick backfired as well.
Tulsa @ San Antonio, 4.30pm ET. I took Tulsa +2 because I knew Riquna Williams was going to go completely berserk. Or possibly just because Tulsa typically play better when the pressure is off, and San Antonio are still thoroughly beaten up. Either way, this pick went rather better for me than the first two. Full coverage of all three coming tomorrow, of course.