Considering how many meaningless games we tend to have to sit through at the end of regular seasons – in all sports – the WNBA schedulers couldn’t have scripted last night much better. A virtual playoff between the top two teams in the league for home-court advantage throughout the postseason, then a fond farewell to a legend overshadowing the terrible game that completed the evening. That’s a pretty good penultimate night for the regular season schedule.
Chicago came into Minnesota having had to work pretty hard to bring meaning to the encounter. Despite sealing the #1 seed in the East some time ago, Pokey Chatman has continued to play her stars for heavy minutes in the interest of building momentum heading into the playoffs, and maybe grabbing home-court over the West as well. Most recently, that included a win over Atlanta on Friday night where Elena Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles played a combined 76 minutes and 34 seconds. Minnesota is not where you want to be flying on the second half of a tiring back-to-back. 14-2 at home coming into this game, the Lynx have continued to roll down the stretch, with the usual string of victories interrupted only by a one-point loss to Los Angeles on Thursday. Both teams had their regular lineups to start the game and no new injuries.
As is frequently the case, the matchups are interesting when we see cross-conference games, because these teams don’t run into each other very often. Minnesota primarily used Rebekkah Brunson on Delle Donne, and the Lynx forward did about as good a job as you can do. She was physical with the rookie, and stayed right in her face. Delle Done still hit some ridiculously tough jumpers in the first half, but she wasn’t getting anything easy.
With Delle Donne hiding as much as possible on the limited offensive threat of Janel McCarville, that left Swin Cash to try to cover Maya Moore. Cash did as well as she could, and her size and strength largely wiped out the occasional post-ups Moore has been running in the second half of the season. But Moore’s younger and more agile, and found some room to shoot around the perimeter to play a central part in Minnesota’s offense.
The game stayed close in the first quarter, but in the second the Lynx began to pull away. Point guard Lindsay Whalen was the main player doing the damage. Her Sky counterpart Courtney Vandersloot has improved significantly as a defender this year, but picked up three fouls in barely five minutes of first half action (all while trying to cover Whalen). Without Sloot on the floor Whalen got whatever she wanted, either off the dribble in the halfcourt, or by leaking out for easy chances in transition. The Lynx are running that elbow-handoff more frequently now after the success Whalen and McCarville have had with it, and we saw it multiple times in the first half. Cash even did a good job defending it on one occasion, only for Whalen to finish under heavy pressure at the rim regardless of the defense. Minnesota led 45-34 at halftime.
Chicago had real trouble creating good shots in the first half. Sylvia Fowles took two long jumpers that are exactly what the opposition wants her to take (even though she made one of them). Delle Donne had her struggles with Brunson, while Epiphanny Prince was back to missing perimeter jumpers after her hot streak the night before. Fowles finally got a couple of touches deep in the paint as we neared the interval, but it took a long time before she managed to get the ball in strong position against McCarville.
Chicago managed to stay in touch in the third quarter. At times on the pick-and-roll, the rotation help defense wasn’t there for the Lynx because Brunson was chasing Delle Donne around the perimeter. So if Minnesota couldn’t cut off the passing lane, the backup wasn’t always there in time. McCarville’s willingness to float out to the perimeter occasionally had a similar effect at the other end – Fowles had to track her outside at least a little, and it drew her out of ideal defensive position in the paint. Then Vandersloot started beating Monica Wright at will off the dribble. Wright is usually Minnesota’s go-to perimeter defender when she comes off the bench, tasked with some of the most difficult assignments in the league, but Vandersloot beat her repeatedly for layups. Lindsay Whalen (and later Lindsey Moore) had to replace Wright for defensive reasons – which is a little ridiculous.
But Maya Moore hit a ridiculously deep pullup three late in the third quarter, and then with the shot clock expiring Whalen nailed her first three of the entire season to close out the period, giving the Lynx a 67-53 advantage heading to the fourth. It was an ugly final quarter. Both teams looked like they could use the days off they’re about to get before the playoffs begin. Chicago seemed determined to try to shoot their way back into the game from the perimeter, but with Delle Donne hardly involved and everyone else cold, they had very little success. Minnesota had no offensive rhythm either, but with the Sky unable to score it made no difference. McCarville was doing a decent job of using her body against Fowles in the paint while reaching around to challenge the passing lanes, but Chicago were also guilty of failing to look inside enough. The Lynx held on for a relatively comfortable 79-66 victory.
Ultimately, this clash wasn’t as exciting as it might’ve been. Minnesota did an effective defensive job on Chicago, and the Sky didn’t hit anywhere near enough shots from outside to compensate for the defensive effort on Delle Donne and Fowles. The Lynx also dominated the glass against a Chicago team that’s been the best rebounding outfit in the WNBA all season long. Minnesota finished 44-26 ahead on the boards, with Fowles completing her typical double-double but getting very little help from her teammates. If these teams do ultimately meet again in the WNBA Finals, Chicago can’t let that happen. For all the talents of their star players, one of their consistent edges this year has been on the glass, and they can’t relinquish that.
Minnesota rounded off their season with the two players in their lineup who’ve been involved in the MVP debate leading the way. Whalen finished 9-16 for 23 points, 6 boards, 6 assists and general control of the game whenever she was on the floor. Moore ended 8-16 for 22 points, 11 boards and 6 assists, to stuff the stat-sheet just like usual. As the player with the higher scoring average and strong numbers in more categories, Moore will probably finish higher in the official voting. But both have had outstanding seasons, and the likes of Augustus and Brunson haven’t been too shabby either. Just 11 teams in WNBA history have won at least 26 games in a season, and 3 of those 11 belong to this Lynx core.
Thompson’s ‘final’ game
There was another game last night as well, for what it’s worth. And if you sat through it, you’re well aware that the basketball wasn’t worth much. Tulsa went to Seattle to close out their season, with the key players who’ve provided optimism for their future unavailable. Center Liz Cambage is already back in Australia after suffering another ankle injury, and frontcourt partner Glory Johnson didn’t dress due to a knee problem. The Shock played like their two best players were out and they just wanted to start their brief vacations as soon as possible.
The Storm had their regular 10-woman roster intact again, with Temeka Johnson (heel) and Alysha Clark (ankle) returning from their injuries. But the night was about Tina Thompson. It wasn’t quite the final farewell to the WNBA legend, because the Storm ruined that by making the playoffs, but it was her last regular season game. And with the Storm exiled to the Tacoma Dome for the first-round of the playoffs, it also might be her last game at Key Arena. Seattle rightly took the opportunity to pay tribute to the League’s first ever draft pick and a superstar of the women’s game.
Fittingly, Thompson opened the scoring with a pair of deep threes, the shot she’s virtually trademarked in the later years of her storied career. Tulsa apparently decided to pay tribute by barely showing up and hitting nothing, allowing Thompson’s team to take complete control. The first half was a procession of missed layups and missed jumpers for the Shock, who really didn’t look like they wanted to be there. Seattle were happy to take advantage, with Shekinna Stricklen joining Thompson in hitting from outside, and then Alysha Clark and Tianna Hawkins providing a nice burst from the bench. The Storm led 44-28 at halftime.
There were very occasional indications that Tulsa might make a game of it in the second half. Roneeka Hodges came in and drilled a couple of threes to recall memories of the perimeter barrage from Thursday night’s clash between the same teams. Candice Wiggins hit a jumper with five minutes left in regulation that cut the gap to 11 points. But that was as close as the Shock got. With a minute left and the victory secure, everything stopped as everyone rose to applaud Thompson off the floor. The cheers were so loud and lengthy that she even had to come back out and wave to the crowd once again, like a hitter being pulled back out of the dugout to tip his hat one more time. The Storm won 85-73, and the 12-point gap didn’t fully reflect their dominance, but no one really cared. It was Thompson’s night.
This wasn’t the real Tulsa Shock. It was disappointing that both Tiffany Jackson-Jones and Courtney Paris failed to take advantage of their extended opportunities in the paint, but the whole team played without a great deal of interest. They were ready for the season to end, but will be hoping for better things next year with all their young players more experienced, and another lottery talent to add to the mix.
Thompson top-scored for Seattle with 22 points, and there was an extended post-game ceremony which no one outside the area was allowed to see (an exception to your immediate LiveAccess cut-offs would’ve been nice, WNBA). For the Storm, it was a nice enough way to close out the regular season. Johnson and Clark both looked healthy and ready for the playoffs, and Camille Little had some nice moments after several very quiet recent games. They’re going to be heavy underdogs in a first-round matchup with Minnesota, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – this team wins games when they’re not supposed to. Up against the best team in the league, who basically blew the Storm out all four times they met this season, is just about the definition of when you’re not supposed to win. And remember, the Storm came within a Lauren Jackson turnaround jumper of dumping the Lynx out in the first-round last year. So who knows. Stranger things have happened. Somewhere.
The Phoenix Mercury announced that they’ve signed backup wing Charde Houston to a contract extension. This isn’t quite the same as the recent extensions we’ve seen for Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus with Minnesota. Those were no-brainers. Houston’s a career backup shooting 41% from the field for 6 points a game this year (whose minutes and production have fallen in recent appearances under Russ Pennell). Her defensive failings are also going to limit her usefulness while Pennell remains the head coach (and his record so far suggests he may well turn the interim tag into a permanent gig). It’s not a big deal if they avoided giving Houston any meaningful guaranteed money, and this isn’t one of the most expensive rosters in the league any more, but it seems an unnecessary move. Losing Houston in free agency wouldn’t have been a significant issue anyway, and we don’t know what the salary cap is going to be in future years (because the collective bargaining agreement is expiring). It’s an odd decision, and Corey Gaines isn’t even the general manager any more.
Sunday September 15th (today):
Indiana @ Connecticut, 1pm ET. I took Indiana -4, expecting them to use most of their top players so that Katie Douglas could rebuild chemistry with the first unit, and that would be enough to beat what’s left of the Sun. Then I heard Catchings, Zellous and January would all be missing the game. Apparently, Lin Dunn decided losing this one and increasing their chances of facing Chicago in the first-round was worth more than helping Douglas fit in. A loss would also help Indiana keep the #5 pick in next year’s draft.
Phoenix @ Los Angeles, 3pm ET. I took LA -8, because they were at home, and I expected them to rest fewer players than Phoenix. But without knowing exactly who’d play, and with a playoff series on the way between these teams (so neither will be giving anything away), I was keeping any real money in my pocket.
New York @ Washington, 4pm ET. Washington -7.5 seemed too high to me, even against a Liberty team who’d be better off losing to maintain lottery position (and would be without Cappie Pondexter once again). It’d be just like New York to win a game like this (or at least cover) when their season is over and losing would help them much more. So I took the Liberty and the points.
Atlanta @ San Antonio, 4.30pm ET. Atlanta -4.5 was the line. The Silver Stars looked like they were ready for the season to end in Friday’s game against Phoenix. The Dream were always liable to rest a player or two, but I took whatever they were going to have left to beat the remnants of a San Antonio team that wanted their vacation to get underway.
Playoffs begin Thursday September 19th