WNBA Today, 09/21/2013: Fever fire and outshoot sloppy Sky, before Lynx finally end the run of upsets

 

After a couple of upsets shifted the balance of the WNBA playoffs on opening night, the second evening began with the series that always looked most likely to provide a lower seed surprise. The reigning champion Indiana Fever had struggled through the regular season and finished with a 16-18 record, but they were 3-1 against Chicago, and have repeatedly beaten the Sky over the years. When several players were given the night off for Indiana’s final regular season game, it became pretty clear that the Fever were happy to face Chicago in the first-round. The Sky may have been the best team in the East this season, but the Fever weren’t the least bit afraid to take them on.

 

However, the task appeared to become more difficult for Indiana before tip-off, when Katie Douglas was ruled out due to more back pain. The Fever had ended up losing out on two counts – Douglas’s return forced them to release backup post Jessica Breland, and now they didn’t have Douglas either. On the bright side, after a season of filling-in and stepping up quite nicely, Karima Christmas was well-prepared to slide back into the starting role that Douglas would’ve taken. Chicago had their regular group to start the game.

 

The first punch in the coaching battle was thrown by Indiana’s Lin Dunn, with a shift in the defensive matchups. The Fever switch enough that the initial assignments don’t always matter that much, but they had Tamika Catchings on Elena Delle Donne, Christmas on Epiphanny Prince, and Shavonte Zellous on Swin Cash to open the game. Christmas had done most of the work on Delle Donne in the regular season clashes between these teams, with Catchings on Cash and Zellous on Prince, in more ‘natural’ matchups along positional lines. They were obviously happy to take the minimal risk that Cash would use her size and strength to take advantage of being guarded by a perimeter player (and they were proven right). Maybe the changes came from preparing for the series with Douglas in mind as a starter rather than Christmas, but it’s equally possible that Dunn just wanted that extra little edge that nudging your opponent off-balance can provide.

 

The Sky tried to go inside to Sylvia Fowles, early and often. But Erlana Larkins was doing her typical impressive job of using her body to put Fowles under pressure, making it hard for Fowles to get deep position in the paint and equally tough to finish whenever she did receive the ball. It was very hard work for Big Syl inside early on. Fortunately for Chicago, Delle Donne drew some fouls to head to the free throw line, and exploited Indiana’s switching a couple of times for three-point plays over Briann January on the low block. Chicago’s offense was surviving okay.

 

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WNBA Today, 09/20/2013: Atlanta embarrassed, LA exploited, as Mystics and Mercury open playoffs with road upsets

 

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.

 

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2013 WNBA Playoff Previews: Western Conference First Round – Minnesota Lynx vs. Seattle Storm

 

By the numbers (over entire regular season):

 

Minnesota (26-8) vs Seattle (17-17)

 

Points scored per 100 possessions: 106.46 (1st in WNBA (by a mile)) – 95.71 (7th)

Points conceded per 100 possessions: 94.55 (3rd) – 98.73 (9th)

Rebound percentage: .522 (2nd) – .489 (9th)

 

Season series between the teams: Minnesota won 4-0

08/04 @Min, Lynx won 90-72

08/31 @Min, Lynx won 97-74

09/07 @Sea, Lynx won 75-60

09/10 @Sea, Lynx won 73-60

 

—–

 

As we’ve heard virtually every commentator and analyst across the league proclaim in the second half of the season, “no one expected Seattle to be in this position”. Of course that’s not entirely true – in one of my rare moments of insight, I had the Storm making the playoffs in my preseason predictions, and in fact even had them facing Minnesota in the first-round. That prediction was based on the simple knowledge that over the years, whichever key players happened to be missing on a given night, Brian Agler’s Storm teams found a way to win basketball games. The team defense is there, the collective effort and organisation is there, and they don’t give up. So if anyone is going to give Seattle a chance in this series, it’s going to be me, right?

 

The problem is, it’s incredibly hard to come up with defensible arguments that give the Storm a prayer in this series. Minnesota have been a dominant team yet again this year, led by the wing scoring from Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore, along with the leadership and attacking of Lindsay Whalen at the point. Then there’s still the athleticism and rebounding of Rebekkah Brunson and the smarts and passing of Janel McCarville inside, and one of the most aggressive and effective team defenses in the game – plus the additional chemistry of their core (besides McCarville) having now been together for several years. It’s a Lynx team that loves to play up-tempo and run by you in transition, but can also execute in the halfcourt and create good looks at the basket. They’re a nightmare to handle.

 

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2013 WNBA Playoff Previews: Western Conference First Round – Los Angeles Sparks vs. Phoenix Mercury

 

By the numbers (over entire regular season):

 

Los Angeles (24-10) vs Phoenix (19-15)

 

Points scored per 100 possessions: 102.73 (2nd in WNBA) – 99.6 (4th)

Points conceded per 100 possessions: 93.99 (2nd) – 100.4 (10th)

Rebound percentage: .494 (7th) – .486 (10th)

 

Season series between the teams: Tied 2-2

06/14 @Pho, Mercury won 97-81

07/14 @Pho, Sparks won 88-76

07/18 @LA, Mercury won 90-84

09/15 @LA, Sparks won 89-55

 

—–

 

Since back in the preseason, the 2-3 matchup in the Western Conference’s first-round looked appetising. With three teams expected to be real powers in the West, whichever two were forced to play each other were going to have a real fight on their hands. Then the Phoenix Mercury went and changed the script, in a variety of ways. Initially it was by failing to live up to expectations, producing a mediocre team despite the return of several important players and the addition of Brittney Griner. Then a midseason coaching change led to a new outlook and a new philosophy, and ultimately kept them in that same top-three they were always supposed to be a part of. Meanwhile, all the Los Angeles Sparks have done is produce their second consecutive 24-10 season, while exhibiting a variety of strengths and frailties along the way. Eventually, we’ve been left with a first-round playoff series that looks just as intriguing as it did back at the start of the year.

 

Phoenix are a strange team to figure out. Since Russ Pennell took over, they’ve gone 9-4 and exhibited a much greater willingness to actually put some effort and concentration into playing defense. They’ve still had breakdowns at times, and that record doesn’t show the cupcake schedule they’ve faced since Pennell arrived, but there’ve definitely been noticeable improvements. Although at times under Pennell they’ve struggled on the offensive end. He’s left much of the offense alone, with a tweak here or there, but they’ve had games where turnovers have piled up and the players looked like they barely knew each other. Now they’re in the postseason, they don’t have any more games against weak opposition, and they’re unlikely to get away with performances like that.

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2013 WNBA Playoff Previews: Eastern Conference First Round – Atlanta Dream vs. Washington Mystics

 

By the numbers (over entire regular season):

 

Atlanta (17-17) vs Washington (17-17)

 

Points scored per 100 possessions: 95.19 (9th in WNBA) – 95.96 (6th)

Points conceded per 100 possessions: 93.2 (1st) – 95.6 (6th)

Rebound percentage: .503 (4th) – .502 (6th)

 

Season series between the teams: Atlanta won 3-2

06/02 @Wash, Dream won 73-63

06/28 @Atl, Dream won 86-75

08/18 @Atl, Dream won 76-58

08/23 @Wash, Mystics won 74-64

08/28 @Atl, Mystics won 85-80

 

—–

 

These teams finished tied with .500 records in the Eastern Conference, but arrived there by very different routes. Washington were a ‘win two here, lose three there’ kind of team all season long. They’d fight out a few results, then lose their way for a while, then remember what they needed to do to win games again. Just to make it this far has to be considered a success for Mike Thibault and his squad, considering the disastrous couple of years under Trudi Lacey that preceded this season. Meanwhile, Atlanta started the year 10-1, and then dropped into something resembling freefall. For those of you who can do basic math, you’ll be able to calculate that they went 7-16 over the remainder of the season. Injuries hit them hard, and it was a struggle to overcome them enough to regain real form in the second half of the year – plus not everyone is back. Both these teams are somehow predictably unpredictable, which makes foretelling how their series is going to play out rather tricky.

 

Thibault has turned the Mystics into a solid team this year. You can see from the stats above that they’re pretty consistently mediocre – which isn’t a criticism. They’ve lifted themselves to being middle-of-the-pack at most aspects of the game. They play decent team defense, they can hit shots from outside, they can draw fouls on penetration – but they’re also prone to cold streaks, occasional breakdowns defensively, and becoming painfully static on offense. They work hard for each other, but you’re never quite sure where their offense is going to come from. Will Ivory Latta or Monique Currie get hot from the perimeter? Is this a random night where Kia Vaughn or Crystal Langhorne finds some rhythm inside? Will their young bench group lead to the offense disintegrating or energise the team and keep the starters on the bench? They’ve pieced things together this season from game to game, finding the hot hand wherever it is, and clawing out wins. Their depth and multiple potential scorers makes it hard to plan to stop them, because you can’t focus on a particular player or two, but it also means they don’t have a true go-to option. They’re reliant on someone stepping up on any given night.

 

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2013 WNBA Playoff Previews: Eastern Conference First Round – Chicago Sky vs. Indiana Fever

 

By the Numbers (over entire regular season):

 

Chicago (24-10) vs Indiana (16-18)

 

Points scored per 100 possessions: 102.08 (3rd in WNBA) – 95.37 (8th)

Points conceded per 100 possessions: 94.95 (4th) – 95.27 (5th)

Rebounding percentage: .525 (1st) – .503 (5th)

 

Season series between the teams: Indiana won 3-1

06/22 @Ind, Sky won 71-61

08/03 @Ind, Fever won 79-58

08/06 @Chi, Fever won 64-58

09/06 @Chi, Fever won 82-77

 

—–

 

It seemed only appropriate to start here. For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you’ve seen me talking about how interesting this matchup could be since sometime in June. Here we finally are in September, and I got what I wanted. The reasons this clash is so fascinating are pretty obvious. The Sky have been the best team in the Eastern Conference for most of the season (once Atlanta’s smoking hot start cooled off dramatically). They’ve got the player who reclaimed the ‘Best Center in the World’ crown this season in the paint, and the runaway Rookie of the Year, both of whom have been touted as MVP candidates. But they’ve literally never been here before. In their eighth year of existence, this is the franchise’s first visit to the postseason. In the other corner, we have the reigning champs. The Fever brought back virtually every meaningful piece from their title run last year, but a ridiculous run of injuries led to a difficult season where it sometimes looked like they’d struggle to even reach the playoffs. They eventually made it in, albeit with a losing record. But they’ve been here, done it, bought the T-shirt and won the ring. And they’re healthier now than they’ve been practically all season. So who triumphs – the experienced campaigners, or the young upstarts?

 

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WNBA Today, 09/16/2013: Regular season ends as Mystics take #3 seed and Fever happily settle for #4

 

Sunday saw the conclusion to the WNBA’s 2013 regular season, with a surprising amount still to be decided. There were some minor questions around home-court advantage in theoretical WNBA Finals matchups, but the main issue remaining was in the Eastern Conference playoff race. With the #3 and #4 seeds still to be decided, the matchups in the first-round were also still up in the air. And there was still a chance that Indiana and Washington could finish off their games, and be left waiting around for the Atlanta result to decide their fate. It was a strange state of flux to be sitting in, heading into the final day of the season.

 

Indiana Fever 80 @ Connecticut Sun 82

  • Playing in the first game of the day, the Fever made the first conspicuous move in relation to deciding the seeding for the Eastern playoffs. If you want to be generous, you could say that their decisions suggested that they didn’t mind whether they faced Chicago or Atlanta in the first-round. After all, neither a win or a loss would definitively decide their opposition. But more accurately, it seemed like they wanted the Sky. Tamika Catchings took the day off to rest a sore back (I’ll resist making the standard joke about how it was caused by having to carry this team all season); Briann January sat out to rest a sore shoulder; and Shavonte Zellous was excused to attend a funeral. The Zellous issue was presumably legitimate, but if they really wanted to win this game, Catchings and January undoubtedly would’ve played. It left the Fever with just seven healthy bodies, and a distinctly makeshift lineup.

 

  • The moves made plenty of sense for Indiana. While Chicago have clearly been the best team in the East this season, the Fever have a great record against them over the years and went 3-1 against them this season. It also made sense in planning for the future, because a loss would give them a strong chance of the #5 overall pick in next year’s draft, while a win might move them down that order. If they were happy to play the Sky instead of the Dream, you could argue the players should’ve ‘rested’ for more than just this one game.

 

  • Of course, Indiana had a decent chance to win anyway. All of Connecticut’s injuries had them down to seven players as well, with Tan White the latest casualty due to a broken finger. And while you can rest as many players as you like, once you take the court instincts tend to kick in. No one’s going out on the floor playing to lose.

 

  • The reason I didn’t expect Indiana to rest so many players was the return of Katie Douglas. This was just her second game back after missing almost the entire season with a back problem, and it seemed like they’d want her to rebuild chemistry with the other key players on the roster. Clearly they didn’t think that was a big deal, presumably due to the number of years Douglas has already played with most of these teammates. There were some communication issues during this game, most noticeably between Douglas and Karima Christmas, where switches and defensive rotations weren’t particularly smooth. While she’s been watching from the sidelines all season, turning that into movement on the floor is very different, and Douglas needs to get up to speed very quickly. It’s a transition for Christmas right now as well, because she’s being asked to play some power forward after Indiana were forced to release Jessica Breland due to Douglas’s return. Christmas has been playing small forward all season, and while the amount of switching within Indiana’s defense means she’s had practice sliding inside, it’s not quite the same thing. Her help instincts and rotation moves aren’t quite those of a player used to playing in the paint.

 

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