Sunday was an odd day of WNBA basketball. Three games, two of which had at least some relevance to playoff qualification and positioning – and yet by the end of the day the only game anyone was talking about was the apparently irrelevant matchup that closed out the weekend. We’ll stick to chronological order as usual, and build to the big finish just like a certain diminutive Shock guard.
- With Seattle dropping another game to Minnesota on Saturday night (and looking distinctly unlikely to change that pattern when they play the Lynx again on Tuesday), Phoenix’s hold on the #3 seed in the West was looking increasingly secure. At this point, their run-in is more about trying to build chemistry, and become more comfortable playing in Russ Pennell’s system. They came into this game 6-2 since he arrived, but that record had been pieced together against some weak and undermanned teams, and masked some pretty shaky performances. Going on the road to face a playoff team who’d put up some decent performances recently looked like being a more legitimate test. Three straight wins for Atlanta had shown some hints of the old Dream performances from early in the season, when they broke out to a 10-1 start. Now it was a matter of trying to keep that momentum rolling – plus they were still playing to maintain their hold on the #2 seed in the East, ahead of Indiana and Washington.
- Phoenix tried to run that set play off the opening tip again, where Brittney Griner wins it, then Briana Gilbreath sets a pick on the opposing center, and Griner rolls right to the hoop. It basically worked – Atlanta apparently hadn’t bothered preparing for it – but Griner missed the finish inside.
- Angel McCoughtry hit a couple of deep jumpers early on, then reverted to her standard pattern of bricking them. She also provided yet another example of the half-assed defense that drives me crazy. While she’s nowhere near as good in the halfcourt as her reputation would suggest – she freelances constantly for steals, which is fine when it’s part of the defense, but she gets beaten easily off the dribble far too frequently – it’s the abject laziness that’s horrifying. She’ll miss a shot or a layup, and then just drift back towards the other end of the floor whenever she feels like it, while her teammates play 4-on-5. Sometimes she’s not even complaining to an official about a call – she just can’t be bothered to work back. It’s pathetic, especially for a player who’s supposed to be a leader and a superstar. Move. She’ll happily run the floor hard when there’s an opportunity for her to score on the end of it; she just can’t be bothered when it’s required to help her team play defense. Embarrassing. Spoiler alert – McCoughtry won’t be on my All-Defense Team when I pick it in about a week.
- On a far more positive note, the first quarter of this game saw the return of Penny Taylor from her second knee surgery, playing her first game since mid-July. She was clearly rusty, but getting back such an important and talented player could be just the boost the Mercury need heading into the playoffs.
- Phoenix were doing pretty well in the first half regardless of any extra offered by Taylor. Diana Taurasi was a little more aggressive offensively than we’ve seen in recent games, they had some pace in transition, and they led by as many as 19 points in the second quarter. Atlanta were helping them out. The Dream’s offense basically consisted of jump shots from outside after virtually no ball movement whatsoever, very few of which dropped; or Erika de Souza post-ups against Brittney Griner. Now while Griner’s had her problems in space, and understanding the technicalities of pro defense as a rookie, as a one-on-one post defender she’s pretty freaking hard to beat. She’s athletic, and enormous, and ridiculously long – and Erika was running right into a brick wall. According to some, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Considering the number of times Atlanta ran fruitless post-ups for Erika, they were starting to border on crazy.
- And then came the swing. With Griner resting, those post efforts for Erika started having much greater success against Krystal Thomas. Then the Dream got out in transition a couple of times, and forced a turnover or two, and suddenly they had some energy. It was like being able to run on the break reminded them that they also had to move in the halfcourt, and finally they were cutting and shifting the ball a little. By halftime, Phoenix’s 19-point lead was down to six, at 46-40.
- There was a little bit of a flash point early in the second half, when Griner and Erika got tangled up looking to go after a rebound. They squared up to each other and exchanged some heated words, before officials and teammates separated them. It looked like a textbook case of off-setting technical fouls, but the referees were well aware that they’d called Erika for an incredibly cheap tech in the first half when she waved her arm around after a layup. So they only punished Griner for the mini-fracas (and McCoughtry missed the free throw anyway, which kept things extra-fair).
- After that, most of the second half was a flashback to the first. Atlanta spent too much time running post-ups with very limited chance of success, and firing up ugly jumpers from outside. Phoenix had Taurasi leading the way with pullup jump shots, with occasional help from Griner, DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree, and they pulled away again. Only for the game to disintegrate into a messy affair with a ridiculous number of Mercury turnovers, and Atlanta to steam back into the game.
- She’s been in and out of the lineup this season due to injury, but Tiffany Hayes is a very important element to the Dream attack when they can keep her on the floor. She was giving their offense a directness that wasn’t coming from anyone else, driving to the rim and refusing to accept any other ending to a set where the ball was in her hands. She had a running layup that pulled Atlanta within six early in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately moments later, a ludicrous call gave Hayes her fifth foul, when she fell trying to get round an illegal screen from Dupree to challenge a Taurasi three. The shot counted, Dupree added the free throw, and the gap was back to 10 on top of the foul trouble.
- There was still one more charge to come from Atlanta. Phoenix still don’t look like they’re quite in sync, so the turnovers continued to pile up. When McCoughtry remembered she should drive, she was still effective – although unfortunately for the Dream she settled for jumpers far too often in this game. But Dupree was dumb enough to foul her on a three-point attempt, and then one of those rare drives resulted in more free throws. A Taylor turnover under pressure from McCoughtry gave the Dream the ball back with a minute left, trailing by just three points, and then there was more drama. McCoughtry settled, yet again, for a shot the opponent wants her to take, firing up a three in hopes of tying the game. It missed, and Griner came down with a big rebound – something she’s been doing much better of late. She handed the ball off to Taurasi, who blatantly elbowed McCoughtry in the stomach right in front of an official to create space for herself. No call, and Phoenix came away with the ball.
- Atlanta still had more chances, after more Mercury turnovers. McCoughtry missed yet another outside jumper, before Hayes charged in for a layup and produced a rare miss (while also failing to draw a whistle). Then Atlanta had to start fouling, and a combination of Mercury free throws and continued futility from outside for the Dream ended a wild game.
- Phoenix finished the game with an extraordinary 28 turnovers. They had 11 in the fourth quarter alone. Atlanta play some aggressive, effective defense at times, but it’s not that good. On the bright side for Phoenix, they won anyway. Taurasi and Dupree carried the offense, which is nothing new, but Griner and Bonner were involved as well and they rediscovered a little of their transition game at times. It’s a solid win, on the road against one of the better home teams in the WNBA. But there’s also still plenty of room for improvement.
- Atlanta seemed disappointingly dumb for far too much of this game. They did exactly what the defense wanted them to do, throwing the ball into Griner blocks and tossing up shots from outside that aren’t their forté. They have to play smarter than this. On the bright side, very few teams have a defender like Griner who makes dumping the ball inside to Erika such a low-percentage option. And when the opponent turns the ball over 28 times, you were probably doing something right defensively (although Phoenix made a lot of those mistakes without much prompting). It’s just that this game was there for the taking if they’d played smarter and attacked more consistently, which makes it a disappointing loss.
- Washington still needed one more win to secure their playoff spot, so that was the main thing on the line heading into this one. The chances of New York winning their remaining three games to sneak past the Mystics seem pretty slim, but you always want to get over the line as soon as possible – preferably via your own victories rather than waiting for someone else to lose. Chicago are settled in the #1 spot in the East, but still thinking about home-court in a potential WNBA Finals with Minnesota or Los Angeles. They had point guard Courtney Vandersloot back in the lineup after she’d missed one game with a minor ankle issue.
- Washington got off to a quick start, building a 13-3 lead by running the floor hard and knocking down perimeter shots. But it didn’t last long. Sylvia Fowles was finding position deep in the paint too often and too easily, while Elena Delle Donne was showing off her typical range of perimeter shooting and drives through contact to draw fouls. Chicago even got scoring contributions from Swin Cash and Epiphanny Prince, neither of whom has exactly been lighting up the scoreboard in recent weeks. Cash has been the unsung heroine for Chicago this year, doing all the dirty work and taking on tough defensive assignments while Delle Donne’s drawn all the plaudits. Prince’s offensive production has dropped off so dramatically in the second half of the year that everyone’s been left wondering what’s wrong with her. At this point, it’s a bonus when they start showing up on the score sheet. The Sky wiped out Washington’s advantage pretty quickly, and moved into their own lead as the first half progressed.
- The Mystics had two main avenues to score as the first half wore on: Crystal Langhorne inside and Ivory Latta out. Langhorne made some pretty spinning, twisting moves inside to find room for finishes. We haven’t seen too much of that this year, as Washington have become more of a group effort rather than focussing on feeding Langhorne the ball, but it’s alway nice to see her go to work in the paint. Latta was hot from outside, and it was a good thing too. The Mystics needed her accuracy from behind the arc to stay in touch, and were within 43-37 at halftime.
- Chicago’s lead floated around six or seven points for most of the third quarter, as neither team managed to take a grip of the game. Prince found her range and started to match Latta’s bombing from outside, keeping the Sky on top. Both teams were struggling to create good looks inside, so it became a case of keeping the score ticking over by hitting from the perimeter.
- The Sky started to pull away early in the fourth. Too many possessions drifted away from Washington, resulting in turnovers or bad shots, while Delle Donne reinserted herself into Chicago’s offense to give them a lift. She’d been quiet in the third quarter, but stepped up to help the Sky kill the game off when she needed to. They also got some positive minutes from Shay Murphy, who’s been quiet for much of the season. Most of us are expecting post Avery Warley to be re-signed for the playoffs once it’s allowed by the rules (the Sky have to wait 10 days to re-sign a player they just released from an emergency hardship contract). But it’s still a question as to who they might cut to make room. Maybe someone like Murphy is being energised by the slight threat that she might lose her job.
- With a few minutes left, Latta, Monique Currie and Tayler Hill hit deep jumpers to cut the gap back to nine points, but Delle Donne rebounded her own miss and then made a pair of free throws when she was fouled in the process. That iced the game, and Washington would have to wait a little longer to officially become a playoff team.
- It was another day at the office for the Sky, who are largely on auto-pilot at this stage. It was nice for them to see Prince hit some shots (she finished 7-9 for 21 points, including 5-5 from beyond the arc), and to see the team succeed when Delle Donne and Fowles shot a combined 10-30 from the field. But they never had to exert themselves too much. This is looking like a probable first-round playoff matchup right now, and it’s their fourth win in five attempts over the Mystics this season. They’ve all been relatively close games, but the Sky would be confident of getting past Washington in the first round, and this was another step in reinforcing that confidence. It also pushed the Mystics a little bit further behind Indiana – a team Chicago would like to avoid if at all possible.
- Washington played a decent game, but never seemed like they were going to move past the Sky. Led by Latta, they shot shockingly well from deep (10-16 from three-point range as a team), which isn’t something they can rely on from night to night. Barring something about as likely as a pig floating past my window, they’re going to make the playoffs. But they’re going to be pretty heavy underdogs once they get there if they have to face this Chicago team again.
- The only things left for these teams to worry about were pride and lottery balls. It’s become a three-way ‘fight’ between Tulsa, San Antonio and New York for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th-worst records in the WNBA, and the odds of success in the lottery differ pretty dramatically between 2nd and 4th. So it’s an important issue. But these are professional players, who are still trying to win basketball games and earn jobs in future years. They’re not going out there intending to lose. Of course, there’s also no need to play if you’re fighting an injury. Danielle Robinson remains on the sidelines for San Antonio (they were never particularly clear on the severity of her knee problem, so who knows if we’ll see her again before the end of the season. I wouldn’t bet on it). Candice Wiggins also sat this one out for Tulsa, allowing Angel Goodrich to move back into their starting lineup on the perimeter alongside Skylar Diggins and Riquna Williams.
- The first half seemed like a pretty typical game. San Antonio got off to the better start because Tulsa gave up too many live-ball turnovers, allowing the Silver Stars to create easy points in the other direction. Then it became a case of Jia Perkins vs. Riquna Williams, with both guards firing in shots from the perimeter and racking up points. Perkins received some support from Shenise Johnson, Williams got some from Diggins, and San Antonio led 43-39 at halftime.
- While there weren’t really signs in the first half of the individual explosion that was coming, there were certainly indications of how thin and desperate San Antonio have become. They were using Cathrine Kraayeveld as a small forward, because they’d largely run out of alternatives. She did okay when it was Roneeka Hodges or Nicole Powell she had to defend on the perimeter, but Tulsa stay small pretty frequently. When it was Goodrich, Diggins and Williams around the outside for the Shock, there really wasn’t anyone for Kraayeveld to cover. She mostly did her best against Diggins, and in fairness Tulsa didn’t manage to exploit her that often.
- The second half was, as you’ll probably have heard by now, The Riquna Williams Show. This was still a game deep into the third quarter, but she’d started lighting up the Silver Stars long before that. Smoking hot from outside, whether San Antonio played man-to-man or tried out their zone, she just kept hurting them from outside. She only had a pair of two-point buckets in the third quarter, on an early mid-range jumper and a breakaway layup which became a three-point play. Her remaining 15 points in the period came on 5-7 shooting from beyond the arc, over a variety of San Antonio defenders. The total of 20 points in the period was second in WNBA history for a single quarter, behind Diana Taurasi’s 22 back in 2006.
- But a different record held by Taurasi was still within reach. The most points scored by an individual in a WNBA game was 47, held jointly by Taurasi and Lauren Jackson (LJ’s in an overtime game, Taurasi’s in triple-overtime). By the early minutes of the fourth quarter, it was pretty clear this one would be ending in regulation. With so many inexperienced youngsters in the rotation, San Antonio rather fell apart in the second half at both ends of the floor. Lineups with Chelsea Hopkins, Chelsea Poppens and Kayla Alexander all on the floor together might as well have seen Dan Hughes waving a white flag from the sidelines.
- Williams was still doing most of her work from the perimeter, with just an occasional drive mixed in, but she tied the record by driving past Poppens and Shameka Christon for a layup, then broke it with a step-back jumper over Christon with a minute left in the game. The final couple of points were a little cheap – charging down the court in the final seconds when the clock would’ve expired, colliding with Poppens to earn a trip to the free throw line – but everyone wanted to see her hit 50. Just for good measure, she made both foul shots, and hit 51 instead.
- It was a virtuoso shooting performance from Williams. It’s not just that she produced 51 points – it’s that she managed it on 17-28 shooting. 28 shots for 51 points is ridiculous, and it’s not like the team were desperately feeding her the ball to pile up the points. Until the last couple of minutes, it seemed like her team had hardly even noticed she was approaching the record, and everything was still within the rhythm of the offense. She was just insanely hot. It’s a performance that will live in the memory, even if the game meant nothing at all, just because it’s rare to see someone score like that. It also might give Williams a leg-up in the Sixth Woman race, and maybe even Most Improved (although the former is probably more likely). She’s still a volume scorer, and there’ll be nights where she has to be sat down for her own good and the good of her team. But then there are nights like this, where she’s virtually unstoppable.
- In the second half, it finally felt like San Antonio would quite like the season to come to an end and put them out of their misery. They’ve just got too many players in roles beyond what they’re truly capable of at this point, and it took a toll. Plus they ran into someone who was just ludicrously hot. Sometimes there’s not a lot you can do.
The Atlanta Dream announced yesterday that they’d hired Alton Byrd as their new chief revenue officer. Not a big deal, and not even the sort of thing I’d normally bother to report, except that it’s Alton Byrd. The name probably means nothing to anyone else reading this, but I grew up watching Byrd play the point for various teams in the UK, and eventually our national team. He’s the player who began my love for small, heady point guards. The guy’s a legend of the British game, and now bizarrely he’s working in the same league I spend a crazy amount of time watching and writing about. Treat him well, Atlanta.
Tuesday September 10th (today):
Phoenix@ New York, 7pm ET. Liberty +4 isn’t enough. Phoenix might not have been convincing lately, and they might have trouble maintaining leads, but New York have just been bad. Whether Washington win or not in the game below, I expect their playoff spot to be confirmed by the result of this game, so I’ll take the Mercury.
Washington @ Indiana, 7pm ET. While the Mystics have more to play for, because their postseason spot isn’t 100% confirmed yet, I’m not convinced that’ll be enough. Indiana have just generally been playing better than Washington lately, so I’ll take them to win and cover the six-point spread. My only fear is that I’m not convinced Indiana actually want the #3 seed that a victory would almost confirm. They might prefer #4 and a first-round matchup with Chicago. If Tamika Catchings feels like a night off to rest her aching limbs, this might be the game Lin Dunn suggests she skips.
Minnesota @ Seattle, 10pm ET. The line’s up to Seattle +8.5, after sitting at +7 for the exact same matchup on Sunday. Still not enough, I’m afraid. The Storm have lost to Minnesota by double-digits three times this season, and I’m not backing them to break that trend until they prove they’re capable of it. I’ll take the Lynx again.
Wednesday September 11th (tomorrow):
Atlanta@ Connecticut, 7pm ET
Phoenix @ Chicago, 8pm ET