WNBA Today, 09/13/2013: Sparks hold off Lynx as appetites whetted by spicy preview of potential Western Finals

 

Most of the major issues may have been decided already, but there’s still a little spice left in the WNBA’s regular season, as last night illustrated. There was an appetiser before the game everyone was looking forward to, but we’re going to skip straight to the main course. Details of the early game can be found lower down, for those who requite strict chronological order or who really enjoy their starters.

 

The main event saw the fifth and final meeting – in the regular season – of the Western Conference’s top two. Heading into the season, most saw a clear top three in the West, but Phoenix’s issues left Minnesota and Los Angeles to break away. The Sparks have slipped up a little more frequently over the course of the year, so the Lynx had already secured the #1 seed in the West before last night, but bragging rights were still on the line. And barring a first-round upset, these two teams will be seeing each other again in almost exactly two weeks’ time in the Western Conference Finals.

 

Both teams came in healthy, with their usual starting lineups, and almost inevitably it was Minnesota who got off to the quicker start. The perimeter of Lindsey Harding, Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard has matchup problems against the Lynx, and we’ve seen this several times before. They’re significantly smaller than Minnesota’s dangerous trio of Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore, so guarding them is immediately difficult. It’s made even more so by the way Minnesota have been working on developing a post attack with their wings this season. That said, most of the early damage was done by Moore on Beard, which ought to be one of the safer pairings for LA. You still wonder if the Sparks might not be better off bringing either Harding or Toliver off the bench, and opening with a bigger wing like Jenna O’Hea or Marissa Coleman against the Lynx starters. Once Monica Wright comes into the game for Augustus or Moore, the Harding/Toliver pairing can cope – they both have someone on the floor they can cover. It’s just that initial lineup that gives them problems.

 

With Janel McCarville also happily taking and hitting the open jumpers Candace Parker was letting her have, Minnesota went out to a 15-8 lead midway through the first quarter. That quietly extended to 21-10 because LA had no offense besides Parker. She was effective backing down various defenders and finishing or even hitting a jump shot or two, and abused Devereaux Peters once the young post came off the bench for Minnesota. But absolutely no one was offering her any help for the Sparks. They were just watching her work, and missing shots when she occasionally gave up the ball.

 

Switching up the perimeter options worked for LA to change the momentum of the game. O’Hea came in and quieted Moore, while Harding sitting down put the ball in Toliver’s hands and brought LA’s gunner into the action. The Sparks even managed to generate some transition points – always a key part of their offense, but hard to find against the athleticism and work ethic of Minnesota – and took charge of the game. But the primary difference was that the Lynx offense dried up. They weren’t hitting their shots from the perimeter or creating anything easy, LA were contesting everything, and the Sparks were in control. They led 35-31 at halftime.

 

The first few minutes of the second half were dominated by the Sparks, and Nneka Ogwumike in particular. While she’s always efficient, and made the All-Star team this year, Nneka has a tendency to drift through too many games without making a noticeable impact. Against the Lynx, they need her to step up. One of LA’s primary advantages over Minnesota is that the pairing of Parker and Ogwumike is significantly more athletic than the Lynx starting posts, because McCarville has to guard somebody. Minnesota had a similar problem at times last year when Taj McWilliams-Franklin was in the same role. Ogwumike opened the second half with a series of layups, when McCarville just couldn’t handle her athleticism and movement. Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve was forced to go to Peters instead, but while she’s more mobile she doesn’t have the nous of McCarville. It’s still not a perfect solution for Minnesota.

 

Just three minutes into the third quarter, we had the first big talking point of the night. Parker went in for a putback attempt and thought she was fouled. There really wasn’t much contact, considering what you see in most WNBA games, but inevitably she screamed her head off about it and yelled her displeasure. She does it in virtually every game, usually more than once. Referee Tommy Nunez gave her a technical – she was probably lucky not to have picked one up earlier in the evening – so Parker went in search of another official to whine to. Then she wandered back to Nunez, and smacked her arm several times to indicate the foul she felt had been committed. Nunez had had enough, and gave her the second tech that resulted in ejection. While we can’t be sure exactly what she said, the second one looked soft compared to what players typically get away with once they’ve been given an initial technical foul. But the whole point of the two-tech rule is that the first one is a warning to shut up. Keep talking, keep whining, keep gesticulating – you’re giving the ref the opportunity to toss you. Parker plastered a big smile over her face, high-fived along her bench, and ran off to the locker room. Her team was up 43-33 at the time.

 

Even without Parker involved, the second half remained a very interesting contest. Less than a minute after she was thrown out, Minnesota went to their ‘Moore at the 4’ lineup with Maya sliding over to power forward. It’s an option that’s always been intriguing against LA because of that aforementioned need to match up with the mobility and athleticism of LA’s frontcourt. Testing it out for an extended period against the Sparks before the playoffs made a lot of sense – except that without Parker involved it seemed a little redundant. Moore played most of the second half at power forward, but it’s hard to see how much Reeve will have learned. Moore spent too much time trying to handle Jantel Lavender, the one LA post that McCarville matches up with pretty nicely. If these teams do meet in the Western Conference Finals, McCarville will likely be on the floor whenever Lavender’s out there. But still, maybe it was worth a look.

 

Despite the loss of Parker, LA continued to control most of the third quarter. Moore struggled on pick-and-roll defense, leaving her man open to finish too often and drawing Reeve’s ire. Then Toliver heated up, with Monica Wright doing her best to guard her but having limited success. Seimone Augustus’s jump shot warming up at the other end was the main thing keeping Minnesota’s offense going and the Lynx in the game.

 

But Minnesota were right back in it early in the fourth quarter, with help from an unusual source. Rookie point guard Lindsey Moore saw more minutes in this game than we’ve seen her play virtually all season, as Reeve took a look at her options and gave the kid a chance. She responded with some decent plays, even performing well enough to stay on the floor with Whalen at times, rather than just backing her up. Moore also hit a three early in the third quarter that kicked off a 10-0 run for Minnesota that took the Lynx from down five to up five, with under seven minutes remaining.

 

From there it was a battle. Lavender and Toliver made shots, before Wright responded for the Lynx. Ogwumike was caught in the throat by a Rebekkah Brunson elbow when Brunson tried to box her out for a rebound, although it looked entirely unintentional. It also went uncalled, and Ogwumike was left nearly as upset with the officials as she was with Brunson. She’d already played pretty well in the second half, but that incident seemed to energise Ogwumike even more for the closing minutes. With Lavender beating Maya Moore too frequently and Nneka starting to beat Brunson on the glass, LA began to win the post battle. Moore fouled out with a couple of minutes left when she was held off for position by Lavender yet again, then Ogwumike athletically leaped to block a Brunson jumper moments later. The Lynx were also making errors in their desperation to challenge LA shots, jumping into the shooters and committing fouls rather than just challenging the shots.

 

But there was still more drama to come in the final minutes. An Ogwumike free throw gave LA a four-point lead with 90 seconds left. Whalen spun round Harding – using the one driving move that Harding herself constantly goes to – and finished in the lane to cut it to two. Ogwumike and Augustus exchanged misses, leaving LA with the ball, up two with 41 seconds left. The following LA play, out of a timeout, went absolutely nowhere. It ended up with Toliver firing a horrible, off-balance leaner from deep on the wing, which bounced off the iron. McCarville did a good job initially of finding Ogwumike and boxing her out, but then went after the ball. It was tipped away from her, right into the grateful arms of Ogwumike, who layed the ball right back in. Clearly, it was her night.

 

There was still time for Minnesota to make things interesting. Whalen finished a driving layup, and Toliver went 1-of-2 at the line, leaving the lead at just three points with 15 seconds left. LA generally do a good job in those situations of running their opponent off the three-point line, and they covered both Augustus and Lindsey Moore well, but the ball rotated to McCarville for a pretty good look to tie the game. We’ve seen in recent weeks that she can hit that shot, but not this time. LA grabbed the rebound, and O’Hea was fouled. She went 1-of-2 at the line to apparently seal the game with only 7 seconds left and a four-point gap. But Whalen charged down the floor and hit a runner, only for it to be wiped out because Toliver fouled her before the shot. Then Whalen hit another one on the ensuing inbounds play. The officials went to replay to check if the basket was a two or a three, and Carol Ross bizarrely started ranting and raving at the officials while they watched the tape. Whether she was complaining about the length of the review, or something Reeve was doing during the break, or what, it was hard to tell. She complained long and hard enough to draw an incredibly stupid technical foul. She was very, very lucky that Whalen clearly had a toe on the three-point line, because otherwise the technical free throw would’ve been to tie the game. Instead it merely cut the gap to one, and when the ball was tipped out of bounds on the next inbounds pass, time expired. LA had held on in a wild one, 85-84.

 

If we end up seeing these teams play out a series in a couple of weeks for the right to represent the West in the WNBA Finals, it should be an awful lot of fun. There’s some extra spice now, with Parker probably feeling she was unfairly treated, and Ogwumike screaming in Brunson’s face after completing an and-1 late in the fourth quarter (which was ignored by the officials, but should’ve been an obvious technical for taunting, ironically enough). Only four Sparks produced anything worth mentioning offensively – Parker carrying them early on, Toliver providing the perimeter scoring, Lavender taking advantage of Maya Moore inside, and Ogwumike dominating the action in the second half. This is the Nneka that LA want to see on a more consistent basis. Constantly active, flying around the floor and making a consistent impact on the action. While they have plenty of talent on the perimeter, Harding and Toliver (never mind Beard or the backups) haven’t been particularly reliable as scoring options as the season’s worn on. If they can take care of Phoenix first, and assuming Minnesota don’t slip up against Seattle, it’s in the paint where LA need to attack the Lynx. If Parker can keep her emotions in check, and Nneka can feed off hers, they still have every chance of challenging for a championship.

 

Minnesota won’t be too upset about the defeat. Reeve clearly experimented more in this game than she would have if it had carried any heavily significant meaning (although they may now need to beat Chicago on Saturday night to secure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs). But they got drawn into LA’s game a little too easily, and settled for too many contested shots. They can hit those, but they’re better when they pick at the seams in LA’s defense, or exploit the lack of size in their starting Sparks perimeter, and make it to the rim. They’ve been well aware of the difficulties presented by LA’s athleticism inside, and how difficult it is to match up with that, but they’ve gotten past it before. With home-court advantage on their side, the Lynx will still be confident of getting past LA if these teams meet again in 14 days. But it’s not going to be easy.

 

Earlier in Oklahoma…

 

The other game last night was rather less exciting, with all due respect to the Tulsa Shock and Seattle Storm. With one team playing out the string while the other is already set for a likely first-round exit against Minnesota, there wasn’t much on the line in the first place. With Seattle point guard Temeka Johnson (heel) and backup wing Alysha Clark (ankle) out, and Tulsa missing Liz Cambage (ankle, already back in Australia), Glory Johnson (knee) and Skylar Diggins (illness, shoulder), there was even less to appeal. Noelle Quinn once again filled the starting spot for the Storm, while the return of Candice Wiggins after missing a game replaced Diggins, and Courtney Paris took Glory Johnson’s spot.

 

As with Reeve in Minnesota – but to an even greater extent – Seattle’s Brian Agler tried some weird stuff in this game. As early as the first quarter we saw Tianna Hawkins, Ashley Robinson, and either Camille Little or Tina Thompson on the floor simultaneously. So a triple-post lineup, essentially, considering none of those players have been at small forward all season. Alongside that, Seattle broke out a 1-2-2 zone, often with center Robinson playing the ‘1’ at the top. Something else that Agler hasn’t tried all season (and he’s always been reluctant to play any kind of zone, even in previous years before the defensive three-seconds rule was introduced to the WNBA). Maybe he was testing it out as an option for the first-round series against the Lynx, but that seems pretty unlikely. It was probably intended more as a way to limit the exertions of his players, and cover for the unusual lineups he was forced to use by the absences of Temeka Johnson and Clark.

 

The Storm kept in touch in the first half anyway. Second-year wing Shekinna Stricklen was their primary offensive force, raining in shots from outside. She hasn’t been consistently productive this season, and Storm fans would’ve liked to have seen more conspicuous progress from her in her second season, but she does occasionally have these bursts of offensive production. Unfortunately for Seattle, they were conceding wide open looks to Roneeka Hodges at the other end, and she was matching Stricklen shot for shot. The turnaround in the second quarter coincided with a more typical Storm lineup taking the floor, and the zone being temporarily dumped. Seattle were more comfortable in their usual defense, Tulsa’s offense dried up, and a 15-4 Storm run to end the first half left Seattle ahead 36-32 at the break.

 

Both Stricklen and Hodges continued to fire in shots from outside in the second half, with the defenses struggling to pick them up. Seattle clung to a lead throughout the third quarter, but it had been wiped out by the midpoint of the fourth. Tulsa were collapsing inside and making it difficult to finish at the rim, which kept them in the game – along with Hodges’s bombing and a few glimpses of recent record-breaker Riquna Williams.

 

However, it was Seattle who pulled away again in the final five minutes. They just had a slight edge in their ability to execute in the final period, first pulling Paris away from the rim to attack her in space (and leave the Shock struggling to rebound with her away from the basket). Then they simply made more shots than the Shock, pressuring Williams and others into misses. With under a minute to play and holding a three-point lead, Tanisha Wright ran the clock down for Seattle, dribbling and dribbling endlessly, before nailing a long jumper as the shot clock expired. That was the dagger, and Seattle closed out a 76-67 victory.

 

This was one of those end-of-season games that probably didn’t mean much to anybody involved, even with one side heading for the playoffs. Stricklen finished 10-13 from the field, including 6-8 from three-point range, but history tells us that she could just as easily go 1-5 for two points next time out. It’s hard to take it as a sign of progress when there’s been so little consistency in the past. Tina Thompson didn’t shoot particularly well, but she did finish with 20 points and 10 boards, which was nice to see after a couple of horrible games against Minnesota. They’ll need her firing on all cylinders if they want to challenge the Lynx in the playoffs. This win also gives Seattle the chance to finish at .500 if they can win their final game, also against Tulsa, on Saturday night. That might be nice, after such a hard-working season where expectations were so low coming in.

 

With so many important pieces out, this wasn’t the real Tulsa Shock. They got a reminder that Hodges can really shoot if you give her the chance (finishing 5-8 for 15 points) and Paris once again had a few nice moments in the paint, but it had a clear end-of-season feel to it for Tulsa. And they might not admit it, but the loss was also useful in the ‘battle’ with San Antonio and New York for lottery balls. It dropped them half a game below the Liberty and Silver Stars, and they might be quietly happy to lose the next game to Seattle as well. Tulsa haven’t had much luck in previous lotteries, regardless of finishing position, but improving your statistical chances can’t hurt.

 

 

Notes

The Indiana Fever announced yesterday that wing Katie Douglas will return tonight for the first time since the opening days of the season. She hasn’t played since May due to a bulging disc in her back. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, while the Fever will be happy to have one of their stars back in time for the playoffs, it comes with an unfortunate side-effect. By rule, Jessica Breland had to be released because she was the hardship exception signed to fill in the gap when Douglas and many others were injured earlier in the season. The problem for Indiana is that Breland had become their only regular backup post behind Tamika Catchings and Erlana Larkins, with Jasmine Hassell an end-of-the-bench option they rarely use. Hassell’s now their only backup post. It could be tricky in the playoffs, and Catchings and Larkins better be ready to play a lot of minutes in the postseason.

 

The Minnesota Lynx signed another of their stars to a contract extension today, with Seimone Augustus signing the usual ‘multi-year extension’ (three years is the longest that can be added on, and that’s probably what both sides happily agreed to). She joins point guard Lindsay Whalen, who did the same last week. It’s another obvious but smart move from the Lynx to lock in another key piece of their core for as long as possible. It’s also another sign that the individual player maximum isn’t expected to rise much in the next collective bargaining agreement. While they could always agree to alter things as part of the discussions for the new deal, WNBA salary figures have to be written in for each year (rather than listed as “maximum applicable salary”, as can be the case in the NBA). So these players and their agents are apparently happy to sign up for salaries based on the current CBA, rather than wait on any potentially significant bumps in the next one.

 

 

Upcoming Games

 

Friday September 13th (today):

Connecticut @ Washington, 7pm ET. Mystics -9.5 is too many against the rejuvenated Sun. Washington haven’t been playing well enough to earn that number, and Connecticut have worked hard in the absence of so many key figures. Against my pre-Charles-sitting-down edict, I’ll take the Sun to cover.

 

New York @ Indiana, 7pm ET. Fever -9.5 is a lot of points, but I don’t trust New York to attack them hard enough to cover it. Being down to two-and-a-bit posts against a team that likes to go inside will be a test for Indiana, but they’ll also have the emotional boost of the returning Katie Douglas. So I’ll take the Fever.

 

Atlanta @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET. This meeting of the top two in the East has drawn a lot less attention than last night’s clash of the top two in the West. Maybe because the top spot was decided so much earlier in the East. Chicago -7 is the line, and the Sky have earned that gap. With Minnesota’s loss last night leaving the door ajar for Chicago to claim home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, I expect them to continue to play all their stars. Atlanta have been poor on the road for most of the season, so I’ll take the Sky to win and cover.

 

San Antonio @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. Mercury -10.5 is still high, but with what’s left of San Antonio at this point and Phoenix looking feisty in Diana Taurasi’s absence on Wednesday night, I’ll take the Mercury to cover now she’s back.

 

—–

Saturday September 14th (tomorrow):

Chicago @ Minnesota, 8pm ET

Tulsa @ Seattle, 10pm ET

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