Last night’s pair of WNBA games had very little meaning in the grand scheme of things, but still produced tight, exciting finishes. What more can you ask for while teams are playing out the end of the regular season?
We opened in Connecticut, where Atlanta were the visitors. Both teams had the expected players available, i.e. Atlanta with everyone bar power forward Sancho Lyttle, who’s looking less and less likely to return for the playoffs; Connecticut with Charles, Lawson, Hightower and Faris out, leaving eight in uniform. The Sun had shown in their last couple of games that both the +/- statistics and the eye-test that suggested they’ve been better with Charles on the bench this year might have some truth to them. Atlanta had a couple of solid wins to start September, then went right back to looking shaky again. Connecticut are playing for pride and each other; Atlanta want to pick up their form heading into the postseason.
One word showed up an awful lot of times in my notes from this game. ‘Turnover’, often with an expletive or something like ‘crappy’ attached. Atlanta were staggeringly sloppy all night long. They started out the game committing several turnovers by trying to make the extra pass when they should’ve just kept going to the rim or taken the open shot. That’s okay. For a team that sometimes fails to move the ball enough, you can live with them making a few mistakes by trying to move it too much. But as the night wore on they were just making error after error, with passes flying out of bounds or straight to Sun players. They can’t expect to win playing like this.
Of course, they were playing Connecticut, so the Dream stayed in the game anyway. Atlanta led by as many as nine points in the opening period, but with useful production from Kayla Pedersen and Iziane Castro Marques off the bench Connecticut eased back into the game. This is how the Sun have been playing since Charles was shut down for the season. They’re working hard, playing as a team, and competing. They go through stretches where you wonder where their next point is going to come from, because there just aren’t that many obvious scoring options left on the team, but they move the ball around and scratch out enough to stay alive. Their last three games have probably been more impressive than the first 29. Atlanta led 37-36 at halftime.
The giveaways continued to pile up in the second half. Connecticut pushed out to an eight-point lead when four consecutive Dream possessions finished in turnovers of various descriptions. That took Atlanta to 20 for the night, with nearly 15 minutes still to play. The run ended when Angel McCoughtry decided she’d had enough of all this passing leading to just coughing up the ball, and drove straight to the rim instead. Within minutes Atlanta were back in front.
The Dream tried to go inside to Erika de Souza through much of the game, but Connecticut double-teamed hard when they had to, and Mistie Bass did a solid enough job standing up to her. Erika had more success when Bass had to rest, finding more room against Pedersen, but it was never consistent. And Erika played her part in the turnover fiasco as well, tossing passes into the stands or to Connecticut players when trying to move the ball back out of the post.
We saw very, very little of Atlanta’s small lineups throughout the game. When they did try it in the first half it was with Courtney Clements on the floor rather than Tiffany Hayes, and then they stuck with two true bigs virtually throughout the second half. Hopefully, that was Fred Williams saving his wings from the exertion required when they go small. McCoughtry has to defend bigger players, and everyone has to rebound harder to make up for the lack of size. It’s just more effort. But it’s also been one of their most effective options all season long. Especially if Lyttle’s not coming back, we should be seeing plenty of the Dream’s true small lineup (Hayes, Herrington, McCoughtry, plus a point guard and a center) in the playoffs. If we don’t, Williams needs his head examined.
The game swung around enough for Atlanta to lead by eight with seven minutes left in the game. It seemed like Connecticut were probably going to have to settle for a moral victory after putting up a nice fight against a much healthier team. Atlanta had actually been driving to the hoop in the fourth quarter, and getting out in transition a little, earning several trips to the free throw line. But a couple more Dream turnovers, Renee Montgomery deciding to take matters into her own hands, and Connecticut dropping into their 3-2 zone turned the game around once again. Montgomery had several nice drives to create points for the Sun in the fourth, and a jumper or two from the perimeter to keep the defense honest. She gave the Sun a go-to option when they needed someone to take charge.
Atlanta ought to be well-prepared to play against zone defenses. They see them more often than any other team in the league, because they always want to get inside and struggle to shoot from the perimeter. But apart from one possession where Ruth Riley popped into the void in the middle of the 3-2 and hit a short jumper in the lane, Atlanta created very little against Connecticut’s zone. The Dream basically passed around the outside of it, and then took a jump shot over the top. Seeing as they’re not a great shooting team, that wasn’t very effective at all.
With a minute left and the game tied, McCoughtry chased after a rebound and committed the cardinal sin of blindly throwing the ball back inbounds under her own basket. It went straight to Kalana Greene, who finished the play and gave Connecticut a two-point lead with 51 seconds remaining. That was the Sun’s first lead of the fourth quarter. Atlanta’s ensuing possessions weren’t any better than the others they’d come up with in the fourth – except that they made the difficult outside shots instead of bricking them. A three from Hayes and a deep two from Jasmine Thomas sandwiched a pair of Tan White free throws, leaving Atlanta ahead by a point with 12 seconds to play.
Connecticut ran almost exactly the same play we saw Indiana try to execute the night before in the final second of their game against Washington. A guard came up to set a back-pick at the elbow for a post to roll to the hoop, before a long inbounds pass could arc all the way to the other side of the rim for the finish. It worked much better this time, partly because Montgomery’s screen was pretty illegal and knocked Erika to the floor, partly because the pass from Greene was much more direct rather than high and looping, so it beat the defense. Atlanta were also slow in recognising that Erika had fallen down, so McCoughtry failed to cover across in time to stop Bass from finishing the play. The Dream pushed the ball and found Thomas for a wide open look from the corner, but she missed. Hayes grabbed the offensive rebound, but was swamped by Bass and White in her attempt to throw it back up. There could’ve been a call there, but no whistle came, and Connecticut had won their second in three games since Charles sat down for the season, 78-77.
There were 46 turnovers in this game, 27 of them committed by Atlanta. It was just ridiculous how cheaply they gave the ball away, and in the end it cost them. Typically they force a huge amount of turnovers, but they do tend to give quite a few up as well. Given that their first round opponents may well end up being Indiana, who like to gamble for steals almost as much as the Dream themselves, taking care of the ball has to become a priority. Possession is valuable, and you can’t afford to toss it away with so little consideration.
Connecticut are understandably enjoying their recent performances immensely. This honestly isn’t that big a surprise. I don’t think it’s so much a matter of them lacking chemistry with Charles, or not liking her – you could still see her laughing and joking with the team in the huddle after this game, and she still seems very much a part of the group. It’s not even down to her underperforming this season, although she clearly dropped off badly from last year’s MVP season. It’s more about how the team plays without her. There’s less focus on centering everything around one player, with more movement of the ball while they look for what’s available. Defensively there’s better cohesion and help as everyone has come together to work as a unit (and honestly, Charles’s help defense had been lacking for most of the season). However it’s come about, the last few games have at least given the Sun fans something to smile about after a depressing season, while several stars they typically come to watch are sat on the sidelines in street clothes.
Over to the Windy City…
The second game featured the Chicago Sky hosting the Phoenix Mercury, although once again a national television game was lacking a showpiece star. Diana Taurasi picked up her ninth technical foul of the season for a flailing arm the night before against New York, which resulted in her second one-game suspension of the year. For the record, because a lot of people ask this, the slate gets wiped clean for everybody going into the playoffs. Four technicals in the postseason would result in a one-game suspension (and would be pretty ridiculous, considering the absolute maximum number of playoff games you can participate in is 11). Penny Taylor also took the night off to protect her knee on the second night of a back-to-back, so the Mercury were down to nine bodies. Rookie point guard Jasmine James started in place of Taurasi. For ESPN’s sake, at least Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles were all in uniform and ready to play.
One interesting choice from Pokey Chatman for this game, which the Sky stuck with all night, was using Delle Donne to guard Candice Dupree while Swin Cash took DeWanna Bonner. It’s an awkward decision for Chicago. Most teams don’t have a scoring threat at all three frontcourt spots, so Delle Donne generally takes the least dangerous of the three while Cash and Fowles cover the others. But Bonner, Dupree and Griner can all hurt you, so Delle Donne really has to work. Putting her on Dupree made Delle Donne the de facto power forward on defense, which caused some occasional problems for the Sky. She did okay on Dupree individually, but as an interior help defender she’s still a step slow on occasion and left some gaps. It was a nice test, though. Cash and Fowles aren’t always going to be there to cover for her, so Delle Donne’s defensive game is going to have to progress as she gains more experience.
From a Sky perspective, there was too much penetration in general from the Mercury in the opening stages. Fowles was doing a great job keeping Griner away from deep position in the paint, but the likes of James, Alexis Hornbuckle and Charde Houston were piercing the defense too easily off the dribble. Epiphanny Prince hit a couple of deep jumpers early (usually a good sign that Chicago might get something from her) and Delle Donne made some shots, but the shorthanded Mercury were on top.
After trailing by as many as eight points for much of the first half, Chicago came back into it as we approached halftime. Prince had stopped hitting anything, but she was making it to the free throw line instead. Meanwhile Fowles was unsurprisingly feasting on the offensive boards. Griner likes to play help defense on anyone who shows any hint of penetrating into the lane, and often that’s great. It dissuades opponents from even trying to drive at times, and results in plenty of blocks. She had two on Courtney Vandersloot in the first half that were so comprehensive they were a little embarrassing for the Sky point guard. But it leaves big gaps behind Griner on the glass, because whoever she’s guarding initially is usually left alone to rebound. When that’s Sylvia Fowles, generally the best offensive rebounder in the women’s game, it’s very dangerous. Chicago were back within 40-36 at halftime.
Even without Taurasi or Taylor, Phoenix continued to stay in charge of much of the second half. Griner started the third quarter nicely, with a block of Fowles and a nice turnaround in the lane, before drawing a foul on another attempt and then breaking Bonner open for a jumper with a (largely illegal but uncalled) screen on Cash. Then the Mercury largely just out-shot Chicago for most of the third quarter, with Delle Donne peripheral to the action and Fowles even less involved. It’s a problem Chicago have sometimes – allowing their star players to drift out of the game – and Phoenix’s performance was good enough to take advantage. Especially with Prince continuing to fire away and miss at will.
The Mercury were still up by seven points midway through the fourth quarter when Griner picked up her fifth foul with a silly, half-hearted reach on a Swin Cash post move. The drop-off from Griner to Krystal Thomas at the pivot for Phoenix is so significant that the rookie really has to be careful when she’s in foul trouble (which is fairly frequently). Occasional rest is fine; enforced absence at crunch time isn’t. By the time Russ Pennell took a timeout with barely two minutes left in the game – specifically so that he could get Griner back in – the Sky had tied things up. Fowles was more active looking for the ball and her teammates focussed more on feeding her when Thomas was her only opposition inside, plus Prince had a driving layup that she might not have even tried if Griner was waiting for her at the rim.
A series of missed jumpers at both ends of the floor set up a grandstand finish. Prince managed to draw a foul on a drive, then went 1-of-2 at the line for a one-point Sky lead with 33 seconds left. Rookie guard James broke off a play to go to the rim for Phoenix, only to be rejected by Fowles. Then Vandersloot went 1-of-2 as well, before James redeemed herself. She came straight down the floor, used a drag screen from Griner, pulled up from 18 feet and nailed a jumper to tie the game. It was a big-time play from a kid who wasn’t even in the league until late July.
But there were slightly more storied rookies in this game, and there was still time for one of them to steal the show. Prince inbounded for Chicago with 5.8 seconds left, and according to post-game interviews the ball was supposed to go back to her – although considering she shot 5-19 on the night it’s hard to understand why. In all honesty, Delle Donne didn’t try very hard to return the ball to Prince. Instead she spun around Bonner, creating space for a leaner at the free throw line, and drained it as time expired. ESPN won’t have cared in the slightest about Taurasi missing the game at that point – they had their storybook ending regardless, as the Rookie of the Year won the game at the buzzer, 70-68.
There are a host of positives for Phoenix to take from this game, despite the eventual defeat. They stuck right with the best team in the East throughout the night, despite missing the player who’s been their heartbeat and only distributor all season long. Griner didn’t even produce much, up against the presence of Fowles, although she had an impact defensively. Instead, while Dupree was the offensive leader, players like James, Briana Gilbreath and occasionally DeWanna Bonner stepped up to produce. If Gilbreath can actually make a few shots in the playoffs it’ll be important, because Taylor probably won’t be healthy enough to play too many minutes. Gilbreath is still going to be out there, and opponents are largely going to ignore her to shade help towards the other threats on the floor until she makes them pay. Defensively, they largely kept Fowles quiet, Delle Donne didn’t exactly dominate despite solid numbers and the big finish, and no one else was too effective either for the Sky. The Mercury also turned the ball over just nine times, which was important after the messiness they’ve struggled through at times in recent games – especially considering Taurasi wasn’t out there to run the offense. So a loss, but not a damaging one for Phoenix.
In fact, it might’ve been a rather more worrying game for Chicago. It was another night where they managed to struggle their way to a win, but without much fluency and despite some of the old issues on offense. Prince missed a lot of shots, finishing with 21 points but on 5-19 shooting. Fowles didn’t see enough of the ball, which is understandable to some extent against Griner and the overall length of Phoenix’s defense, but always a negative. And then besides Delle Donne, they got very little from anyone else. It’s always good to win games, and Chicago have been eking out these victories even while they don’t necessarily play that well all year. But it leaves such a slim margin for error, when that gap should be wider. You don’t always want to have to rely on game-winning shots at the buzzer.
Thursday September 12th (today):
Seattle @ Tulsa, 8pm ET. Despite Tulsa playing noticeably better when the pressure’s off and they’re relaxed, and the Shock beating the Storm three times already this season (including a couple of blowouts), I’m taking Seattle +5. Even if Temeka Johnson takes another night off to rest her heel, I expect Seattle to respond after taking some ugly recent beatings from the Lynx, released by playing a much easier opponent. The Storm need some kind of boost going into the playoffs, and this is where it should begin.
Minnesota @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET. This one seems like an easy pick to me. Yes, LA have blown the Lynx out twice this season in the games in Los Angeles. But in recent weeks, Minnesota have been a significantly better team than LA, and I don’t think they’ll be relaxing against their closest rival in the West. So I’ll take Minnesota +2.5. Taking the Lynx and getting points, regardless of the venue, seems like a gift.
Friday September 13th (tomorrow):
Connecticut @ Washington, 7pm ET
New York @ Indiana, 7pm ET
Atlanta @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET
San Antonio @ Phoenix, 10pm ET