WNBA Today, 09/22/2013: Desperation fuels Dream and Sparks to force deciders

 

For many years, I’ve been saying that the WNBA’s regular season goes on too long. In fact, that’s true in most American sports. They play for months on end to decide nothing more than which terrible teams to eliminate, and who plays whom in the games that actually matter. And, of course, to decide the vital home-court (or field, or whatever) advantage. Six games into this year’s WNBA playoffs, and all that time fighting for home-court is looking even more pointless.

 

Last night’s action began in Washington, where the Mystics were looking to close out their first playoff series win since 2002. Atlanta had been so pedestrian and lifeless in Game 1 that it seemed like Washington had every chance to complete the job, especially considering the Dream’s dismal road record over the course of the season. Since their 10-1 start to the year, Atlanta had gone 1-12 away from Philips Arena. They also made a change in the post, and not the one they would’ve made by choice. Sancho Lyttle was still out, and she was joined in street clothes by replacement Le’coe Willingham due to a right knee problem picked up in practice. That forced Aneika Henry into the starting lineup, leaving only the decaying remnants of Ruth Riley on their bench as interior backup.

 

Let’s get one thing straight from the start – this was not a pretty game. This was the uglier sister to Game 1’s initial ugly sibling. If I say something good happened in the next few paragraphs, it’s relative to all the other rubbish that we had to sit through over the course of this game. But at the very least, we have to credit the Dream for making it ugly. They came out with vastly better energy than in Game 1, doubling and trapping and generally harassing on the defensive end. It wasn’t a typical man-to-man, more a constant stream of double-teams where they trusted themselves to be able to rotate and cover well enough to avoid being exploited elsewhere on the floor. Making that one basic change led to much greater energy in their play elsewhere on the court, feeding into their offense and their rebounding. Occasionally, anyway.

 

The Atlanta offense still didn’t exactly run smoothly in the first half. Angel McCoughtry hit a couple of shots, but she missed an awful lot more. Erika de Souza was still being forced out of position by Kia Vaughn inside, and started settling for shots from further out or tossing awful passes just to get rid of the ball (and that continued even once Vaughn was in some foul trouble and it was Michelle Snow playing defense instead). But they were getting enough done to build a lead. McCoughtry got to the rim once or twice, and drew a couple of fouls. Henry gave them someone with greater length inside, who actually wants the ball down low (whereas Willingham could basically be ignored). And as a team the Dream were dominating the offensive boards. They were winning the fight for every loose ball, keeping possessions alive and generally tiring out the Mystics by forcing them to play long passages of defense. Atlanta were only up 6-4 in second-chance points at halftime according to the boxscore, but you could see the damage being done during the action.

 

Plus, rather significantly, Washington couldn’t hit a shot. In his halftime interview – a thoroughly enjoyable part of Mystics home broadcasts all season – Washington head coach Mike Thibault accurately admitted that “Atlanta’s outworked us”. But he also notably said “that’s as bad as we’ve shot the ball in a month”. Some of it was the Dream’s defense, with the constant activity hurrying the Mystics and leading them into throwing up some poor efforts. They also did a poor job of getting the ball inside. But much of it came down to Washington just shooting incredibly badly. Ivory Latta hit a couple, and Emma Meesseman had some nice moments off the bench, but that was about it. The four starters besides Latta were a combined 1-19 in the first half (and the bench was 1-5 outside of Meesseman), leading to a 36-21 advantage for Atlanta at the break.

 

Frankly, very little changed in the second half – except that Atlanta’s offense was even worse. But Washington continued to produce just as badly, so there was never any real sign of a comeback. McCoughtry hacked herself into foul trouble early in the third quarter – one of the drawbacks of flying around double-teaming is that sometimes you fly too fast and crash into people – but it didn’t make much difference. The Dream defense was still just as effective without her, and Fred Williams had never needed – or wanted – to go to his small lineup with McCoughtry at power forward, so losing that option was irrelevant. They were quick enough and active enough without that change-up move, so he stuck with two true bigs all night, and it worked. Crystal Langhorne never got into the game at all with the size of Henry and Erika clogging the paint, and Riley survived 11 minutes of action as the backup. She even made a couple of shots, including a three.

 

The Mystics produced a flicker of hope when Thibault went to his young bench, and they injected some energy. Instead of walking the ball up after the many, many misses from Atlanta, they did a much better job of pushing the ball and looking for quick offense, and Tayler Hill hit a couple of deep threes late in the third quarter. But she was the only one hitting anything, and while she tried to continue shooting Washington back into the game, there weren’t enough makes to get the job done. Especially considering the Dream continued to dominate the offensive boards. It’s a horrible clichĂ©, but it felt like Atlanta ‘wanted it more’, and had come out with more desire in a game that was do-or-die for them, but not for the Mystics. Even with McCoughtry picking up her fifth foul in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter on a push-off and having to sit for a while again, Atlanta’s lead never dropped below 10. They eased home for a 63-45 victory, despite shooting 29% from the field in the second half.

 

Washington will be very disappointed to have produced a performance like this on their home floor with the chance to end a playoff series. 45 points is embarrassing, as is the 25% field-goal percentage, the 53-30 defeat on the glass, and the 7-17 they shot from the free throw line in the second half when those easy points were desperately needed to make the game a contest. The 25% from the floor is the worst shooting in a WNBA playoff game since 1997, and the second-worst ever. 14 field goals in the entire game ties the WNBA playoff record low. Their defense was almost as productive as it had been in Game 1, with McCoughtry continuing to be forced into her own hideous percentage and Erika still ineffective on the low block, but they just couldn’t score. They couldn’t handle Atlanta’s defensive pressure, got rattled into some bad decisions with the ball, and got thoroughly outworked. On the bright side, they know they can limit this Dream squad. They’ve done it twice in a row now. If they can refocus, come out with better energy to compete on the boards, and maybe hit a couple of shots – Game 3 is still within their grasp. It just would’ve been so much more relaxing to close things out at home.

 

Beyond just keeping their season alive, Atlanta have to be happy that they battled to a win in a game where they never had any real rhythm. They didn’t get out on the break that much, McCoughtry wasn’t hitting many shots even before she was limited by foul trouble, and none of their other perimeter options started lighting it up either. But between Henry, Erika, Tiffany Hayes, Armintie Herrington and McCoughtry, they were outstanding at winning the fights for rebounds and chasing down every loose ball. They won all the 50/50 battles. There were also occasional signs of smarter choices on offense. Erika couldn’t get anything done on basic post-ups, so she stepped out and hit an occasional 15ft shot, or got involved in pick-and-rolls that created some room. Henry sealed off defenders and finished inside occasionally, and will surely keep her place in the lineup even if Willingham’s healthy to play in Game 3. The energy, activity and desire got the job done for Atlanta, even without being able to shoot the ball. Now they have to produce that again in Game 3, back on their home floor (hopefully in front of a few more fans than in Game 1). A change of starting post player in Game 2 of the first-round led to a charge for the East’s #2 seed last season that resulted in a championship, so maybe history’s on their side. It wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, but they’ve extended their season at least one more game. Now they have the chance to push it to at least a couple more.

 

Desperation in the Desert…

 

So one series had been forced to a deciding game, and now another team had to go on the road and do the same thing. The Los Angeles Sparks will have been disappointed with their second-half display in Game 1, allowing Phoenix to steal home-court away from them, but the mistakes were correctable. Kristi Toliver had shot atrociously, and surely had to improve. They could do a better job of preventing Diana Taurasi from controlling the game. Candace Parker could stay involved for closer to 40 minutes instead of 25. They still had every chance. Phoenix, or course, wanted to end the series as quickly and painlessly as possible.

 

Both teams opened with the same starting lineups, but there was an immediate switch from LA once the action began. Firstly, they didn’t fall for the Mercury’s tip-off play (with the back-screen on the center allowing Griner to roll in for a lob and a layup). Alana Beard ‘jumped’ the tip, and the Sparks settled immediately into defensive position. Apparently tape review hadn’t gotten that message across, but seeing it happen in Game 1 had made an impression. Then the more lasting change became apparent. Instead of Lindsey Harding defending Taurasi, that job was tasked to Beard instead. Harding didn’t do that bad a job over the course of Game 1, but Taurasi took over key stretches and scored 30 points – so you could understand LA’s feeling that a change needed to be made. Beard is a bigger, longer defender, who had a chance to make Taurasi’s life more difficult and keep her hands in passing lanes – or Taurasi’s face – more consistently. Of course, it meant that Harding and Toliver had to cover the remainder of Phoenix’s perimeter. Toliver was on DeWanna Bonner again, which hadn’t proved to be much of an issue in Game 1 despite the size difference. Harding slid over to Penny Taylor. Taylor posted her up once, about a minute into the game, but that was about it for the rest of the night. Phoenix’s significant size advantage on the perimeter really hasn’t that meant much to the Mercury offense in this series. Taylor’s too injured, and Bonner too ineffective, to take advantage of it.

 

Most of the first quarter was nip and tuck, with both teams struggling to hit shots from the perimeter. LA hurt themselves by settling for too many outside shots in Game 1 and they were still taking too many in the opening stages of Game 2, with Toliver cold again. She hit one early, but it didn’t last, and it definitely seemed to be getting into her head. She was starting to force bad shots. But fortunately for LA, they were getting on the offensive glass and misses were beginning to lead to putbacks, rather than dead possessions.

 

Phoenix didn’t come out with great energy, and looked a little flat in the first half. It began to tell in the closing stages of the first quarter and on into the second, when a 15-3 run from LA took charge of the game. The Mercury were trying to run a lot of their offense through Brittney Griner in the low post, and that worked fine when she managed to slide in for a layup or high-percentage finish near the rim. But they didn’t hit the shots when the ball was forced elsewhere by the defense, and LA were starting to roll in the opposite direction. There was more speed and directness to the Sparks offense than we’d seen in Game 1, and they were doing a better job of turning rebounds and turnovers into quick offense at the other end of the floor – and the offensive rebounds meant their misses weren’t even that costly. As with Washington in the earlier game, the team that lost Game 1 had come out looking desperate to keep their season alive, and that had mattered more than home-court advantage.

 

The leader for LA in all this second quarter action was Parker, who was doing exactly what her team needed from her. She did much of her work in transition, running the floor hard on the break for opportunities on the move or at least while attacking the basket with momentum. In fact she missed badly the couple of times she took the standstill jumpers from the perimeter that Phoenix offered her in halfcourt sets. But there were layups and putbacks, and a couple of gorgeous turnarounds from the baseline on either side of the floor. Defending her became even tougher for the Mercury when Candice Dupree picked up her third foul on a slightly harsh charging call midway through the second quarter (Harding did a nice job sliding over under the rim, but it was a bang-bang call that could’ve gone either way). Phoenix’s second choice on Parker was DeWanna Bonner, and Parker’s eyes lit up at that prospect. She roasted Bonner’s weak defensive efforts several times, and finished the first half 9-15 for 19 points. Most of those six misses were from outside – whenever she got within 15 feet, she was deadly. As a result, LA led 44-30 at halftime.

 

Stopping LA in transition, protecting the boards, and stopping Parker full stop were big issues for Phoenix in the first half, but their offense wasn’t in rhythm either. Right around the same time Dupree picked up her third foul, Taurasi was called for her third as well, on a fall from Alana Beard that might well draw her a post-game warning or fine from the league for flopping (Taurasi swung her arms through after receiving an inbounds pass and Beard fell like she’d been caught by the elbow. Replays suggested minimal contact, or quite possibly none). Taurasi went to the bench, but actually came back in a couple of minutes later after Russ Pennell apparently decided his team couldn’t survive without her. She didn’t hit many shots in the first half anyway, finishing just 1-6 from the field in the opening 20 minutes. When there’s that big a difference between the production of the superstars, Phoenix are going to be in trouble.

 

But things didn’t go quite so smoothly for LA in the second half. Phoenix came out with Taylor running a couple of possessions, which forced Harding back into the pick-and-roll as a defender, and led to a couple of good looks for either Taylor or Dupree. Then Taurasi was more aggressive, driving to the rim regardless of her defender. But as the second half wore on, Phoenix continued to miss too many shots that you’d typically expect them to hit. Taurasi came off those same ball-screens from the first game, but missed the pullup. Dupree was in as much space for her mid-range jumper as usual, but it rimmed out. They could never quite find the offensive flow to sustain a run.

 

At the other end of the floor, LA weren’t as smooth in the second half. Parker was again quieter after the break, although at least she remained involved this time around. They weren’t playing at the same pace as the first half, and were taking more shots from outside, but they were managing to hit enough to hold on to their lead. Toliver had become much more selective, which largely meant she just wasn’t shooting any more, rather defeating the point of having her on the floor – but at least it meant she wasn’t ending possessions with bricks. Ross eventually had enough midway through the fourth quarter, and went to Marissa Coleman instead to play on the wing.

 

Part of the reason Toliver’s ineffectiveness didn’t hurt LA that much is that she was being matched by Bonner’s uselessness on the other side. Taylor has the excuse of injury, and you could see how much pain the Aussie was in when she went to the bench for the final time with eight minutes left in the game. She looks like she’s really struggling, and might even be a doubt to play in Game 3 despite her legendary toughness. Bonner doesn’t have those excuses, and she’s been defended by someone nearly a foot shorter than her for most of this series. Her defense has dropped off in the last couple of years as well, and her decision-making leaves a lot to be desired. She’s back to tossing up some awful deep threes that have little chance of going in, and three times in this game she ‘saved’ balls that were going out of bounds and threw them back in under her own basket straight to Sparks players. She got away with it in the first half when Parker missed, but Nneka Ogwumike twice turned those errors into layups in the second half. They need more from Bonner. She’s not had a great season at all – the point she got in the MVP voting might be the most ludicrous vote in any of the end-of-season awards – but LA are basically being allowed to ignore her. It’s embarrassing, and it should be one of the places Phoenix have an advantage.

 

The Mercury had one last run in them in the fourth quarter. Even Beard had been making jumpers, and a Parker 20-footer gave the Sparks a 15-point lead with under five minutes remaining. Then LA had a couple of weak turnovers, Phoenix put together a series of layups that culminated in a Briana Gilbreath tip-in – she was only on the floor due to Taylor’s physical issues – and the Mercury were within seven with 2:30 left. Carol Ross took her second timeout in the space of 90 seconds. But right out of that timeout Harding came around a high screen from Ogwumike, and drilled a free throw line jumper. Using Nneka for screens is always a solid option in this series, because Griner doesn’t want to hedge outside and challenge jump shots, she wants to sag back into the paint. So the pullup is always going to be there if LA want it. That shot was pretty much the dagger. Phoenix pulled within five a couple of times in the closing seconds, but they were fouling to extend the game and could never hit the big shot to really make things interesting. LA held on for an 82-73 win, and we’ll have another Game 3 winner-takes-all showdown on Monday night.

 

With their season on the line, LA earned this one. Parker finished the game 13-24 for 31 points and 11 rebounds, leading the increased effort and energy that they needed to keep their hopes alive. It wasn’t a perfect game from LA by any means – the Harding/Toliver backcourt shot a combined 7-25, for one thing, with Harding struggling until that crucial jumper in the final moments. But the strong first half where they attacked consistently, hit the boards and rode on Parker’s back gave them the foundation. Then they hit enough shots and made enough plays to get over the line in the second half. Presumably the move to defend Taurasi primarily with Beard will stick for Game 3, and they’ll hope for the same level of success. They’ll need the same level of activity on defense to continue to limit Phoenix, because it’s often LA’s help that breaks down rather than the initial defender. But they’ll believe they’ve got every chance of advancing, now that they’ve stolen back home-court advantage once again.

 

Phoenix will be frustrated by this loss, as much as disappointed. If they’d made a couple of shots here or there that they’d normally expect to convert, it could’ve become a real contest in the second half and then anything might’ve happened. But Taurasi finished 6-19, Dupree 7-17, and Bonner 2-9. The first two in that list, at least, would expect to convert at a better clip than that (and the third ought to). They were 1-14 from three-point range, which isn’t good enough either, and there were too many unnecessary turnovers in the first half to help out LA’s transition game. Maybe Beard’s length on Taurasi, or Parker’s effort on Dupree, or LA’s energy as a team extending out on shooters a little better had an impact – but it also just seemed like Phoenix missed shots. That’s the positive for them in Game 3. They know they can win in LA, and they know they can defend this Sparks team pretty effectively if they take care of the ball and work hard to get back. They just need to hit a few more shots. And if the playoffs so far have proven anything, it’s that home-court advantage doesn’t necessarily mean much.

 

 

Notes

More end-of-season awards were made official, with Washington’s Mike Thibault being named Coach of the Year, and Indiana’s Shavonte Zellous winning Most Improved Player. Given that they rushed to hand out so many trophies in the opening four days of the postseason – the only occasions you can guarantee a playoff team will have a home game – it’s probably a safe bet that Sixth Woman of the Year is going to someone on a non-playoff team. Given that candidates from Connecticut, New York and San Antonio are thin on the ground, that probably means Riquna Williams should clear a spot on her mantelpiece.

 

 

Upcoming Games

 

Sunday September 22nd (today, both games already completed):

Chicago @ Atlanta, 3pm ET. I took Chicago +2, in the hope that the Sky could salvage my pick for them to win the series. And the hope that Pokey Chatman might’ve managed to fix one or two things since Game 1. Those hopes turned out to be distinctly futile.

 

Minnesota @ Seattle, 5pm ET. I took Minnesota -8.5, returning to my old rule about refusing to take the Storm to cover anything against the Lynx, until they proved they could compete with Minnesota. Well they’ve finally proven it, but any future Storm picks will sadly have to wait until next season.

 

Full coverage of both games, as usual, in tomorrow’s column.

—–

 

Monday September 23rd (tomorrow):

Washington @ Atlanta, 8pm ET. Best-of-three series tied at 1-1.

Phoenix @ Los Angeles, 10pm ET. Best-of-three series tied at 1-1.

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