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.
There’s an awful lot to cover in the closing days of the regular season for those of us who write about the entire WNBA. While continuing to follow the remaining games, there are end-of-season wrap-ups, playoff previews, and award articles on top of the usual stuff. And the teams aren’t making it any easier. On the antepenultimate day of the regular season we had four games last night, and three of them had at least some influence on the playoff picture. Yet resolved exactly nothing. So we’re going to try to keep the individual game coverage brief(ish), and then detail the remaining issues to be decided at the end of the article. You can skip to the ‘What it all Means’ section if you don’t want to hear about what happened last night.
New York Liberty 63 @ Indiana Fever 66
- Indiana opened the evening in a flat tie with Washington for the #3 seed in the East, with two games remaining. But that was overshadowed by the return of Katie Douglas, who’d missed virtually the entire season with a back problem. As covered in this space before, while getting Douglas back for the playoffs was a very nice boost, by rule they were required to release hardship exception signing Jessica Breland when Douglas returned. This would be the first test of whether the gain of Douglas outweighed being down to Jasmine Hassell as their only backup post. Douglas went straight into the starting lineup, replacing Karima Christmas, while New York were still without star guard Cappie Pondexter. Playing for nothing besides lottery positioning (which could only be improved by losing), there was no need to rush Pondexter back.
- It wasn’t long before the issues around losing Breland were highlighted. Erlana Larkins picked up two fouls in the opening 99 seconds, and had to go to the bench. That brought Hassell in, and in her 10 minutes of action over the course of the evening she did little beyond illustrating why she’s barely played for most of the season. We also saw Tamika Catchings forced to play some center later in the game, and Christmas having to slide over for occasional spells at power forward. When those lineups were in, the Fever looked desperately small. New York had some foul trouble of their own, which kept them smaller than usual in the paint at times, but they still punished Indiana inside for long stretches. Larkins and Catchings have been fighting their tails off all season, and they did most of the work as a pair during the Fever’s eventual run to a title last season. But the likes of Sylvia Fowles and Erika de Souza are likely to be in their way in the postseason, and this game showed how much danger a modicum of foul trouble can cause for Indiana. It’s going to be an awkward balancing act for the Fever in the playoffs.
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.
Last night’s pair of WNBA games had very little meaning in the grand scheme of things, but still produced tight, exciting finishes. What more can you ask for while teams are playing out the end of the regular season?
We opened in Connecticut, where Atlanta were the visitors. Both teams had the expected players available, i.e. Atlanta with everyone bar power forward Sancho Lyttle, who’s looking less and less likely to return for the playoffs; Connecticut with Charles, Lawson, Hightower and Faris out, leaving eight in uniform. The Sun had shown in their last couple of games that both the +/- statistics and the eye-test that suggested they’ve been better with Charles on the bench this year might have some truth to them. Atlanta had a couple of solid wins to start September, then went right back to looking shaky again. Connecticut are playing for pride and each other; Atlanta want to pick up their form heading into the postseason.
One word showed up an awful lot of times in my notes from this game. ‘Turnover’, often with an expletive or something like ‘crappy’ attached. Atlanta were staggeringly sloppy all night long. They started out the game committing several turnovers by trying to make the extra pass when they should’ve just kept going to the rim or taken the open shot. That’s okay. For a team that sometimes fails to move the ball enough, you can live with them making a few mistakes by trying to move it too much. But as the night wore on they were just making error after error, with passes flying out of bounds or straight to Sun players. They can’t expect to win playing like this.
Of course, they were playing Connecticut, so the Dream stayed in the game anyway. Atlanta led by as many as nine points in the opening period, but with useful production from Kayla Pedersen and Iziane Castro Marques off the bench Connecticut eased back into the game. This is how the Sun have been playing since Charles was shut down for the season. They’re working hard, playing as a team, and competing. They go through stretches where you wonder where their next point is going to come from, because there just aren’t that many obvious scoring options left on the team, but they move the ball around and scratch out enough to stay alive. Their last three games have probably been more impressive than the first 29. Atlanta led 37-36 at halftime.
While they largely confirmed things that had become inevitable, the combination of last night’s three WNBA results cemented several elements of the upcoming playoffs. We now know exactly what’s coming in the Western Conference, and there’s only one unknown holding up the East. We might see a lot of players grabbing some rest over the next few days.
Washington Mystics 69 @ Indiana Fever 67
- Washington came into this game still needing a win to confirm their playoff participation. Undoubtedly Mike Thibault and his squad were as aware as anyone that New York were incredibly unlikely to run the table and make them require that win, but earning your way into the postseason with a victory would feel much sweeter than waiting for the Liberty to lose. Sitting just one game ahead of the Mystics prior to this game, Indiana could claim at least the #3 seed with a win, but would drop into a tie with Washington if they lost. Their outstanding record against Chicago makes you wonder if they might not prefer the #4, but playing well and winning games heading into the playoffs was clearly worth more to them than trying to finagle the matchups. Otherwise Tamika Catchings would’ve taken the night off, and Erin Phillips wouldn’t have returned so quickly from her eye injury. They were still without Katie Douglas, however, despite reports that she was virtually ready to return.
- There’s one important element to the Douglas situation that seems to have gone largely overlooked. Remember way back at the start of the season when Indiana were allowed to keep 12 players due to injuries, without ever seeming to establish who the ‘exception’ 12th was? Well at some point, it became clear that the 12th player was Jessica Breland. Unfortunately, the Fever appear to have painted themselves into a corner. Breland has become their only viable backup post behind Catchings and Erlana Larkins, with Jessica Davenport injured and Jasmine Hassell barely ever used. But their roster’s healthy enough now that when (and if) Douglas returns, Breland would have to be immediately released because the ‘hardship exception’ would no longer apply. So while Douglas has been their second-best player for several years, having her back for the postseason would mean going into the postseason with only Hassell to spell Catchings and Larkins (or Karima Christmas sliding over in an incredibly small lineup, in a role she hasn’t played all season). It’s an unfortunate Catch 22. Chicago avoided something similar by waiving Avery Warley 10 days ago, giving them time to cut someone else and re-sign her for the playoffs. Maybe Indiana should’ve done the same, but it’s too late now (there’s a 10-day waiting period between cutting someone and being able to re-sign them, and there are now fewer than 10 days left in the season). Keeping Breland may have become more important to Indiana than adding a likely half-fit Douglas to the playoff roster.
- But back to last night’s game. Washington started well, looking for Kia Vaughn inside to use her height advantage on the Indiana posts, and penetrating far too often for Indiana head coach Lin Dunn’s liking. The Mystics get themselves into trouble sometimes by settling for jump shots, especially when there’s minimal ball movement before they just fire away. This was better than we’d seen in several recent performances.
Sunday was an odd day of WNBA basketball. Three games, two of which had at least some relevance to playoff qualification and positioning – and yet by the end of the day the only game anyone was talking about was the apparently irrelevant matchup that closed out the weekend. We’ll stick to chronological order as usual, and build to the big finish just like a certain diminutive Shock guard.
Phoenix Mercury 79 @ Atlanta Dream 71
- With Seattle dropping another game to Minnesota on Saturday night (and looking distinctly unlikely to change that pattern when they play the Lynx again on Tuesday), Phoenix’s hold on the #3 seed in the West was looking increasingly secure. At this point, their run-in is more about trying to build chemistry, and become more comfortable playing in Russ Pennell’s system. They came into this game 6-2 since he arrived, but that record had been pieced together against some weak and undermanned teams, and masked some pretty shaky performances. Going on the road to face a playoff team who’d put up some decent performances recently looked like being a more legitimate test. Three straight wins for Atlanta had shown some hints of the old Dream performances from early in the season, when they broke out to a 10-1 start. Now it was a matter of trying to keep that momentum rolling – plus they were still playing to maintain their hold on the #2 seed in the East, ahead of Indiana and Washington.
- Phoenix tried to run that set play off the opening tip again, where Brittney Griner wins it, then Briana Gilbreath sets a pick on the opposing center, and Griner rolls right to the hoop. It basically worked – Atlanta apparently hadn’t bothered preparing for it – but Griner missed the finish inside.
- Angel McCoughtry hit a couple of deep jumpers early on, then reverted to her standard pattern of bricking them. She also provided yet another example of the half-assed defense that drives me crazy. While she’s nowhere near as good in the halfcourt as her reputation would suggest – she freelances constantly for steals, which is fine when it’s part of the defense, but she gets beaten easily off the dribble far too frequently – it’s the abject laziness that’s horrifying. She’ll miss a shot or a layup, and then just drift back towards the other end of the floor whenever she feels like it, while her teammates play 4-on-5. Sometimes she’s not even complaining to an official about a call – she just can’t be bothered to work back. It’s pathetic, especially for a player who’s supposed to be a leader and a superstar. Move. She’ll happily run the floor hard when there’s an opportunity for her to score on the end of it; she just can’t be bothered when it’s required to help her team play defense. Embarrassing. Spoiler alert – McCoughtry won’t be on my All-Defense Team when I pick it in about a week.
- On a far more positive note, the first quarter of this game saw the return of Penny Taylor from her second knee surgery, playing her first game since mid-July. She was clearly rusty, but getting back such an important and talented player could be just the boost the Mercury need heading into the playoffs.
The difficulties and complications of WNBA.com’s LiveAccess service over the weekend have made the contents of my articles a little confusing, so here’s what you can find below: details on Saturday’s games, plus bonus coverage of Friday night’s Indiana-Chicago matchup. Just to keep things chronological, we’ll start with that game, in the hope that some people are still interested in hearing about it, then roll into yesterday’s basketball. Coverage of Sunday’s games, including one particularly noteworthy explosion in an otherwise meaningless game, will be in tomorrow’s article as normal. On to the Bullet Point Breakdowns.
Indiana Fever 82 @ Chicago Sky 77
- Indiana went into this game with work still to do in order to confirm their playoff spot. New York were in the process of losing yet another game, but they were still within range of catching the Fever. Chicago secured the #1 seed in the East the previous weekend, but were still playing for home-court advantage in a potential Finals matchup with Minnesota or Los Angeles, and trying to keep their momentum rolling into the playoffs. There was also a strong possibility that Indiana could be Chicago’s first-round playoff opponent, and the Fever have beaten up on the Sky with such regularity over the years that Chicago were looking for a win for mental reasons more than anything else.
- Unfortunately for the Sky, point guard Courtney Vandersloot turned an ankle in warmups, and was held out of the game for precautionary reasons. It was absolutely the right decision, however minor the injury, considering the lack of real meaning to this game for Chicago – but it was still a disappointment to face the Fever without an important starter. Epiphanny Prince slid over to play the point, with Tamera Young coming into the starting lineup. They also had backup point guard Sharnee Zoll-Norman available for the first time in weeks, after recovering from her broken thumb. Indiana were still without Katie Douglas, and guard Erin Phillips was missing as well after being poked in the eye during their game against Atlanta a couple of nights earlier.
- We’d only seen the marquee frontcourt matchup between Elena Delle Donne and Tamika Catchings once before this season – they’d missed one game each due to injury on the other occasions their teams clashed. As with the previous encounter, Catchings was nominally guarding Delle Donne at times, but Indiana’s defense was so fluid and switching so easily that the matchups were far from consistent. Delle Donne certainly wasn’t afraid of Catchings or her defensive reputation when she was lined up against the veteran star, attacking her off the dribble several times in the early going and having some success. She also set screens on Briann January multiple times, trying to force the switch and the resulting mismatch, and converted easily right over the top of January on more than one occasion.
- However, while Delle Donne produced some points early on, and Sylvia Fowles was a presence in the paint at both ends of the floor, Indiana stayed right with Chicago and ultimately pulled out into a lead late in the first half. There’s one particular, incredibly basic way that Indiana use to create good looks against the Sky, and I’ve talked about it before. I call it ‘semi-penetration’, because the primary objective is rarely to get right to the rim or even deep into the paint. If a lane happens to open up, the driving Fever player will happily take it and carry on to the basket, but that’s not what usually happens. One player drives from the top of the arc – usually Tamika Catchings but several other Fever players do it as well – only aiming to get a step or two below the free throw line, and not really needing to beat her defender. The target is merely to entice the defender in the strong side corner to take a step or two towards the paint to offer help. Then the driver makes the easy kick-out to her teammate in the corner (or on the wing, both work) for a three she’s been given the room to shoot. It’s incredibly simple, but the help-defense principles drilled into defenses like Chicago’s always make that defender in the corner want to slide in and help. Briann January and Shavonte Zellous got into a rhythm hitting threes in the first half, and it helped carry Indiana’s offense even while Catchings couldn’t hit anything. The Fever led 44-34 at halftime.