It was a slightly strange opening to the WNBA playoffs this year. Kind of a cross between a whimper and a bang. Upsets always shake things up and make things a little more interesting, with the best-of-three format immediately putting pressure on everybody. But the crowds weren’t great (often a problem in the first-round when teams are selling tickets on such short notice), and the first game was so lacking in energy (and shot-making) that it threatened to send everyone to sleep. Which if you think about it, just makes this article all the more important. Maybe you dozed off during the game, and require this informative piece to let you know what happened. On with the coverage.
The postseason began in Atlanta, where the Dream played host to the Washington Mystics. With both sides finishing at 17-17 there obviously wasn’t that much between these teams, although Atlanta have a much more successful recent history than Washington. The Mystics hadn’t made a playoff appearance since 2010, and hadn’t won a playoff game since 2004. They’ve won one playoff series in the franchise’s entire 16-year history. Having made the Finals twice in recent years, Atlanta had the pedigree, but they’d also struggled in the second half of this season after their 10-1 start. A team photo with Sancho Lyttle in uniform had raised faint hopes that she might be returning from her broken foot for the playoffs, but she was in street clothes yet again (it’s 9 1/2 weeks since her surgery, by the way. Recovery was supposed to take 6-8). Armintie Herrington’s shoulder problem was presumably a little more serious than initially believed, because Tiffany Hayes started the game in Herrington’s regular spot. Herrington was available off the bench, but it was a change to their regular lineup that probably wouldn’t have been made if she was fully healthy. Hayes is their bench energy, and Herrington’s something of a stabilising force for the starting group. It works better that way round.
Washington opened the game in a 2-3 zone, which briefly made me wonder if head coach Mike Thibault was going to go heavily against the typical coaching manual and use that defense consistently throughout the game. Zones against Atlanta can be effective, because the basic tenet when facing the Dream is to make them beat you from outside. But the zone was gone after just one possession. We saw it a couple more times during the night, just to keep Atlanta a little off-balance, but it was a change-up move rather than the regular defense.
Frankly, Washington didn’t need to make many changes from their basic man-to-man, because Atlanta struggled to break them down all night long. The Dream got out on the break a couple of times in the first quarter, even opening the game with a 4-0 run when Matee Ajavon was twice stripped by Angel McCoughtry for steals. But Thibault called an early timeout to calm his team down and remind them to take care of the ball, the Mystics became more careful and made sure to work back in transition, and Atlanta’s offense utterly collapsed. Between Kia Vaughn, Crystal Langhorne and Michelle Snow, the Washington posts where bodying up Erika de Souza in the paint and forcing her further from the hoop than she wanted to be. When she threw up shots after the ball was tossed into her in the post, she had someone right on top of her and nothing went in. Similarly, Atlanta’s perimeter players weren’t creating anything easy. If they managed to get anywhere near the rim, they were forced to attempt the finish under heavy pressure and missed consistently. Angel McCoughtry couldn’t get around Monique Currie, so penetration was difficult, and if she managed to force an effort towards the rim Currie was right in her face. With little pace to their game, Atlanta couldn’t score.
At the other end of the floor, Washington really weren’t that much better. Considering how effectively they’d shut down the Dream they should’ve been up by double-digits at the very least. But apart from some early work from Vaughn inside and a burst of offense from Tierra Ruffin-Pratt off the bench, they weren’t hitting shots. The looks were decent, the ball movement was okay, but they couldn’t knock anything down. By halftime the teams were a combined 0-10 from beyond the arc and Washington led 31-24 despite 39% shooting. Atlanta were a hideous 27% from the field, with guard Jasmine Thomas the only player with more than four points. She’d actually made a couple of layups, unlike everyone else.
It took 19 minutes and 37 seconds of gametime for us to see Atlanta’s small lineup, and that was just to match up with the Mystics when they went small for the final possession of the first half. Fred Williams had absolutely no idea what to do to break his team out of their slumber, but he refused to try the most obvious option. Sliding McCoughtry to power forward alongside three other perimeter players (usually Hayes, Herrington, and either Thomas or Alex Bentley) generally injects speed and energy into the Dream because it puts an extra ballhandler on the floor who wants to run, and everyone flies around the floor to make up for the relative lack of size. But Williams never tried it. Presumably, he was worried about how his team would cope inside, when Erika, Le’coe Willingham and Aneika Henry were already having some trouble on the glass against Washington’s posts. But it would’ve offered a change of pace. It would’ve meant the Dream were trying to dictate the action, rather than just floating along and allowing Thibault and his team to control what was going on. Williams didn’t seem to have any ideas about how to change anything.
The footage from the locker rooms at halftime (one of the few benefits of having ESPN2 broadcast the game, considering how atrocious Pam Ward and Carolyn Peck are) continued the coaching contrast. Thibault was rightly talking about how his team didn’t need “home runs”. Just a whole bunch of “singles”. He was right. As the first half illustrated, you don’t need to knock Atlanta out. Play in control, keep to the gameplan, and they’ll tire themselves out and grow frustrated on their own. Williams was resorting to old clichés about “wanting it more”, which didn’t help anyone. Yes, his team hadn’t played with much energy, but they weren’t being allowed to. And he was doing very little to help.
The third quarter was where the game was decided for good. Atlanta started with a little promise. McCoughtry hit a tough jumper, and then Erika finally managed to hold off Vaughn inside and finish a post move for a three-point play. But that all dissipated pretty quickly. McCoughtry had largely given up on the whole idea of being a creator, but now she was settling for jump shots and barely even trying to get to the rim. Occasionally she’ll get hot, but you’re rarely going to get back into basketball games by relying on Angel McCoughtry’s jumper. Meanwhile, they weren’t getting much from anywhere else, with Hayes quiet and that one finish from Erika not having started any kind of trend. Washington finally worked the law of averages and started to hit some shots. Currie broke the drought from three-point range, before Ivory Latta drilled a three and a pullup two in transition. The game was continuing to drift away from the Dream, with Washington up by 10 midway through the third quarter. When you’ve only scored 32 points in 25 minutes, a double-digit lead looks pretty scary.
Finally, Williams tried the small lineup. But it already felt like too little, too late. His team had been drifting without real energy for so long, that it had become a hopeful roll of the dice, rather than a proactive move to take control of the game. And it backfired spectacularly (which in Fred’s head undoubtedly became retroactive justification for not having used the option earlier). Crystal Langhorne had been doing yeoman’s work on the glass and on defense to that point, but had barely been involved in the offense at all. With McCoughtry shifted onto her she woke up immediately, started crashing the offensive glass and running the floor on the break, and attacking the rim at every opportunity. Langhorne scored eight points in less than two minutes, helping the Washington lead balloon from 10 to 21. Williams immediately quit on the small lineup – understandable at that point – but the Dream’s chances of overcoming that kind of deficit was incredibly slim with the way they’d been performing all night.
And so it proved. There was nary a hint of a comeback in the fourth quarter, with Atlanta looking bedraggled and beaten while the Mystics coasted to the finish. The 15-point gap created by the final bucket of the game was the closest Atlanta had been since prior to Langhorne’s run in the third period. If anything, the final scoreline of 71-56 flatted the Dream.
It was a horrible evening all around for Atlanta. The crowd was tiny, even for a Dream game, which obviously didn’t help the atmosphere or the inspiration for the home team. McCoughtry couldn’t get going when anything still mattered, and Washington will happily let her score 20 every night if it takes her 20 shots to get there. No one else was effective, with Erika held to 2-12 shooting inside by Vaughn and her cohorts, while Hayes, Thomas and Bentley had just as tough a time hitting shots – or even creating decent looks – as McCoughtry. Williams was utterly outcoached by Thibault, not that it took an awful lot from the Mystics’ leader. The Mystics collapsed inside, played as physical as they could without giving up too many fouls, and watched Atlanta miss a hell of a lot. The Dream need to make things happen far more in Game 2 than they did in the opener, if they want to keep this series alive. It means more motion, more activity, and going to the small lineup earlier if they have to – even if it is a risk. They need to keep the pace high and turn the game into a helter-skelter contest so that they can play the game their way. We’ve seen the Mystics fall into that trap during the season, and start coughing up turnovers. This isn’t impossible. But Atlanta have certainly made life hard for themselves.
Washington, of course, will be delighted with the performance. Their defensive gameplan worked to a tee, and without any offensive rhythm Atlanta’s heads dropped and they gave up easier chances for the Mystics. The amazing aspect was that Washington didn’t even play exceptionally well for that much of the opening three quarters, but they were up 20 and the game was essentially over. The defense was that solid, they eventually made a few shots, and the Dream were that bad. Thibault will make sure his team are prepared for a Dream side that should come out with more energy in a do-or-die Game 2, but he won’t change much. It’ll just be about doing the same things – stay strong on Erika inside, keep in front of McCoughtry and the other drivers, and force Atlanta into tough shots without fouling. That could be where Game 2 might be different. With a different set of officials, and Atlanta likely throwing their bodies into everything, maybe they’ll get more calls. Washington will have to watch out for that, and make sure they’re aggressive enough on offense to at least get the same whistles at the other end. But on their home floor for Game 2, they’ll be looking to finish out the series and complete the upset. If they can shut Atlanta down like this again, they’ve got every chance.
Later, in La La Land…
For our second game, the action moved to the west coast, and if you believe the bookies the road team were an even bigger underdog. The standings certainly suggested they should be. Los Angeles finished the year 24-10, including an 89-55 demolition of Phoenix in their final regular season game on Sunday afternoon. But that game didn’t mean much, especially to the Mercury, and they had their first-choice lineup back together for this game. Candice Dupree returned at power forward, sending Briana Gilbreath back to the bench and creating a very tall perimeter of Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor and DeWanna Bonner. LA, inevitably, started the same group they’ve been using all year long.
The opening four seconds of the game were a poor sign for LA. The Mercury ran the exact same opening tip-off play that they’ve used at least four or five times since Russ Pennell took over, where Brittney Griner wins the tip, they set a back-pick on the opposing center, and Griner runs unchallenged to the hoop for a lob pass and a layup. It was ludicrous that LA weren’t set and prepared for that, because it should’ve been incredibly obvious from a modicum of tape review. And it’s very easy to stop when you know it’s coming. It’s only one play, and one basket, but they should’ve been prepared for it. When you’re not prepared for an inevitable play in the first four seconds, how well prepared are you for the next 40 minutes?
The matchups were largely as expected. Nneka Ogwumike was on Griner, Candace Parker on Dupree, Alana Beard on Taylor and Lindsey Harding on Taurasi. That left Kristi Toliver to cover Bonner, which is a nine-inch mismatch in height if you believe the official rosters (and might be even more in reality). But Bonner has so little post game that the Sparks obviously felt they could get away with it. The reverse matchups were exactly the same at the other end, with Phoenix hoping Dupree and Taurasi could survive on Parker and Harding, and that Bonner’s length could trouble Toliver.
Even beyond that opening layup, LA played some thoroughly dumb basketball to open the game. They repeatedly settled for jump shots – the exact shots that Phoenix wanted them to take – and their constant switching on defense was also getting them into trouble. They finally broke the string of misses from outside when Harding drove and dished to Ogwumike, before a string of three consecutive offensive rebounds finished with a Parker layup and a drawn foul on Griner. Then they went into a mandatory timeout, where Ross undoubtedly reminded them to get the damn ball inside. They may have hit shots in that regular season finale a few days earlier, but firing away from the perimeter was not in LA’s best interests.
From there, the Sparks started to pull away and controlled much of the first half. Harding was starting to get into LA’s defense, beating Taurasi repeatedly off the dribble for layups, fouls, or dump-off passes to other finishers. Parker started to attack more as well, drawing Griner’s second foul to send her to the bench and create an even softer interior to penetrate. As a whole, LA were also murdering Phoenix on the glass, finishing the first quarter up 14-2 on the boards (and the Mercury were just as bad before and after Griner left the floor).
Phoenix picked up a little to start the second quarter, when Griner came back out and gave them more of a presence inside. But it was barely a couple of minutes before she was called for an illegal screen – which was just as much Taurasi’s fault for moving too early as Griner’s fault for sticking out her leg – and went back to the bench for the rest of the half. However, the Mercury continued to hang around. The transition defense of both teams left a lot to be desired, and the help rotation from LA was poor. If one Spark defender got caught up on a pick, or they tried to trap the ball on a pick-and-roll, there was minimal cover behind them. So LA led just 43-38 at halftime despite their dominance on the glass, and Parker generally having her way with Dupree.
Taurasi was aggressive offensively in the first half but didn’t shoot well, putting up 4-12 in the opening 20 minutes (and she played every last second). But she was leading the team, making the right pass (6 assists already at the break) and looking to score. That’s what they need from her, even as the primary ballhandler. She can distribute and facilitate as much as she likes, but she has to continue to look for her own offense as well.
The momentum of the game swung for good in the third quarter. Toliver hadn’t hit a thing in the first half, and she continued to be way off in the third quarter. Many of her jumpers were missing by a long way, she was rarely properly set (although that often doesn’t make much difference to her), and she just kept firing. Of course, that’s basically her job, so you couldn’t really blame her (although an occasional drive would’ve been nice). The fact that they kept running plays for her, despite being deathly cold, and that it took so damn long for her to be replaced, can be laid firmly at Carol Ross’s door.
As a group, the Sparks settled for far too many jump shots again in the third quarter, going away from what had worked in the first half. Credit Phoenix’s defense, which did a much better job of sending help for Dupree on Parker, and simply keeping the ball out of Parker’s hands. LA’s superstar faded out of the game badly in the third quarter, and some of that was her own fault, but the Mercury also turned it up on the defensive end and made an even more concerted effort to clog the lane. It’s a simple concept, but LA didn’t shoot well enough to force them into anything else.
At the other end, Taurasi was starting to put on a show. Dupree and Bonner offered some occasional assistance, but she was taking over the bulk of the scoring. She drew a couple of fouls for free throws, and hit a series of simple pullup jumpers by stepping to the side of ball-screens and firing. LA weren’t showing hard enough to challenge those shots, which is suicide when it’s Taurasi coming off the pick. Maybe it was because the help defense behind the pick-and-rolls had been so bad in the first half, so they were sagging deeper to leave less space for the roller and negate the need for help. But you can’t do that against Taurasi – you have to step up and trust the help, or trust your teammate to switch smoothly. At least then someone other than Taurasi should end the possession taking the shot.
So Phoenix moved into the lead, and were up 65-60 at the end of the third. Then it was Dupree’s turn to waltz around the LA defense, beating up on Parker just as much as the reverse had been true in the first half. She scored three straight layups, all by going around or straight past the woman named as WNBA MVP before the game. That put Phoenix up by nine, and LA never quite managed to get back into it. They didn’t have the shooting, and they couldn’t get the stops. Toliver finally hit her first (and only) shot of the night at the 11th attempt, with under four minutes left in the game. Then she fell over on defense, and allowed Gilbreath to get the two points right back. LA pulled within six with under three minutes to play, before another pick-and-roll left Dupree wide open, and she drilled the 15-foot jumper. That just about iced it, as LA continued to try to shoot their way back into the game from the perimeter (which was never going to work) and Phoenix made enough free throws to close the game out. Another road win, another upset, and the Mercury will have the chance to finish the series on Saturday after an 86-75 win.
Parker eventually took eight shots in the second half, but four of those were in the last couple of minutes when the game was virtually over. Yes, Phoenix played better defense on her after the break, but she really stopped imposing herself on the game, and her team stopped feeding her the ball. Finishing 11-19 from the floor for 28 points and 8 boards looks like a nice line, but definitely doesn’t tell the whole story. They have threats from all around the floor, but she won that MVP award for a reason. She can’t drift out of the game like that. LA did not play great defense in this game by any stretch of the imagination. In the second half in particular, they were broken down too easily by Taurasi and Dupree. But it was their offense that disintegrated in the second half and allowed Phoenix to take control. They can’t settle for all those perimeter shots, because it’s just too much of a crapshoot as to whether they’ll hit any of them. Griner was in foul trouble all night, and saw less than 19 minutes of action. Krystal Thomas is not much of a replacement as an interior defender, and Lynetta Kizer might be even worse. But Ogwumike didn’t produce much in the paint beyond her rebounding, and Parker faded from the action. If LA get back into this series by shooting from outside, they’ll have to be a little lucky. If they want to actively make it happen, they need to attack the basket and get inside.
Taurasi played all 40 minutes, responding to the needs of her team, and finished 8-21 for 30 points, 7 assists and just 1 turnover. She didn’t get all the calls she wanted – there were at least two distinct moments where she sat on the floor glaring at officials who hadn’t whistled rather than getting up to play defense. But she drew enough, hit shots at big moments, and led the team. Between Bonner, Griner, and especially Dupree, she had the support to pull off the upset. It’s the kind of win they would’ve been unlikely to accomplish under Corey Gaines. They made adjustments at halftime to make things more difficult for LA, and the game wasn’t played at any great pace for much of the second half. For once in a series, that plays to Phoenix’s advantage, because LA are always so desperate to create easy points in transition. It’s when the game slows down that the Sparks settle for lower-percentage looks. For Game 2 back in Phoenix, even after all those years of free-flowing basketball, the fans won’t care in the slightest if it’s a 62-60 slugfest as long as their team closes out the series. The Mercury have given themselves a heck of a chance.
Several end-of-season awards have already been handed out by the WNBA, starting with Most Valuable Player to Candace Parker before the game above. We also saw Defensive Player of the Year go to Sylvia Fowles, Rookie of the Year to Elena Delle Donne (duh), and the Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award shared between Swin Cash and Tamika Catchings. The All-Rookie and All-Defense teams were also announced. I’ll get into my feelings on whether the choices were correct when I finally get around to writing my own awards piece, which will come at some point during the postseason (probably). Apologies for not having found the time to write it just yet.
Friday September 20th (today):
Indiana @ Chicago, Game 1, 7pm ET. I took Chicago -6.5, hoping they could back up my Sky pick for the series. Didn’t go well.
Seattle @ Minnesota, Game 1, 9pm ET. I took Seattle +15, going against my season-long policy of waiting until the Storm proved they could compete with the Lynx before taking them to cover anything against Minnesota. 15 just seemed so high, and the Lynx could’ve blown the Storm out and relaxed below the line anyway. I was so, so close to being right. But wasn’t.
Coverage of both games in tomorrow’s column, of course. It’ll go up much earlier than today’s, I promise.
Saturday September 21st (tomorrow):
Atlanta @ Washington, 7pm ET. Washington lead best-of-three series 1-0.
Los Angeles @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. Phoenix lead best-of-three series 1-0.