The Daily W, 05/31/2014

 

New York Liberty 60 @ Washington Mystics 68

 

Lineups: New York stuck with the same five, but Mike Thibault made significant changes to his starting group. Kara Lawson and Monique Currie were both benched, with Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Jelena Milovanovic coming in on the wings. In Ruffin-Pratt’s case you could see it as a defensive switch, bringing in someone who could cover Cappie Pondexter more effectively than Lawson. Considering Essence Carson isn’t playing well enough for a defense to need to adapt for her, Milovanovic for Currie was a straight coach’s decision. Neither Lawson nor Currie has been playing well enough to really have any complaints.

 

Story of the Game: Washington were the team on top for most of the first half. Kia Vaughn was their primary offensive weapon in the opening quarter, finding space inside off simple plays for high-low feeds from Emma Meesseman. Then Vaughn started hitting her jumper from the elbow, and even added a layup in transition after running the floor hard. The Mystics were the more active team in general in the first half, more willing to push the ball and look for quick offense, and more attacking in halfcourt sets.

The Liberty managed to stay in touch, largely because Pondexter was having one of her more accurate shooting nights and point guard Anna Cruz was hitting from outside. Their focus on stuffing the ball inside to Tina Charles gets them in trouble sometimes, because the team becomes too focussed on feeding her, which leads to turnovers because the passes are so obvious. They still rarely show evidence of having enough ball movement or perimeter shooting to take advantage of the attention she draws down low. And the Liberty also got destroyed on the glass in the first half, which didn’t help. Charles was being outplayed by the opposing posts.

Washington’s lead hit 12 in the third quarter, before Pondexter led the comeback charge. She was raining jumpers from outside, had a drive-and-kick for a Cruz three, and basically dragged her team back into the game without a lot of help. This was the superstar Cappie we’ve seen too little of in the last couple of years.

The ridiculous Liberty bench unit lacking Pondexter, Charles or Carson was in evidence again at the end of the third. They survived for a couple of minutes, just about.

The fourth quarter stayed tight until the final five minutes, although Pondexter saw little of the ball and Charles remained as ineffective as she’d been all night. Then Ivory Latta took over for the Mystics. She drilled a three, had a couple of driving layups while Cruz just waved her by, and then sealed the game in the final 30 seconds with another step-back three – she fired that last one way too early in the shot clock, but once it went in no one cared.

 

Key Players: Vaughn early and Latta late was enough for Washington, along with the collective effort throughout. Just like last year, this is going to be the most balanced team across 10 or 11 players all season long, as Thibault uses everyone to get the job done. In many ways that’s the reverse of how the Liberty have been built, but ironically it was the starting center and combo-guard who led the Mystics to victory in this one.

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The Daily W, 05/30/2014

 

Connecticut Sun 65 @ Indiana Fever 79

 

Lineups: Same fives again for both teams – so Tamika Catchings continues to sit out due to her sore back. Connecticut center Kelley Cain is also out at the moment due to a foot injury, but on the scale of importance to her team, Cain’s at almost the exact opposite end of the spectrum from Catchings.

 

Story of the Game: Perhaps the most important piece of information to offer from this game is that if you missed it, don’t bother hitting the archives to catch up. It wasn’t pretty, and unless you’re a diehard Fever fan, you won’t get much out of it. Connecticut got off to the better start, although partly by accident. An early knee to the thigh sent Kelsey Griffin to the bench, bringing center Kelsey Bone into the game. That slid Chiney Ogwumike over to power forward, forcing fellow rookie Natasha Howard to guard her, while Erlana Larkins took Bone. Howard couldn’t handle Ogwumike, who had the perfect opportunity to establish herself in the paint early on and dominate. Griffin came back in pretty quickly, but Connecticut led by as many as seven points in the first quarter.

At the other end of the floor, we were seeing far too much of The Marissa Coleman Show. It’s a little bit ‘chicken and egg’, but Indiana’s offense has a tendency to bog down, which led to Coleman trying to make something happen on her own, which rarely ends well. The ‘egg’ perspective is that Coleman tends to ball-stop, leading to the offense bogging down, and then she’s forced to shoot or create. They’ve asked her to do too much in some of these early games, and she’s a much more effective player as a complementary piece whose primary job is to hit open threes. Despite being a new player who’s never been on the same team as Catchings before, Coleman’s effectiveness has perhaps taken the biggest hit from the absence of Indiana’s superstar.

Connecticut’s offense started to fall apart as soon as Ogwumike took her first rest late in the first quarter. Once she was removed as a post-up target or an offensive rebounder who could salvage teammates’ bricks, the cracks started to show. The Sun don’t have a lot of movement, they’re not well-organised or well-coached, and their offensive play devolved into turnovers and bad one-on-one attempts. Indiana weren’t great either, but their ball movement improved a little, they started to hit some shots – from better looks, due to the ball movement – and crept into the lead late in the first half. Howard’s minutes were limited after that rough early stretch because the Fever found some success using Karima Christmas as an undersized power forward. Christmas is more of a small forward, but her energy, effort, and smarts can work sometimes even when forced to defend posts. Ogwumike helped by missing some looks you’d expect her to convert, but Christmas did the job her team needed.

The third quarter was painful to watch, as an endless stream of fouls and free throws dominated the action. Indiana were up by 15 midway through the period, as Anne Donovan threw out every option on her bench in an effort to find something that would work – including Kelly Faris, who’s barely seen the floor so far this season. Connecticut fell into an 11-0 run more through Indiana mistakes than their own efforts, but between Ogwumike and Alex Bentley the Sun briefly made it look like a contest again.

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The Daily W, 05/29/2014

 

Tulsa Shock 79 @ San Antonio Stars 82

 

Lineups: San Antonio started their regular five, while Tulsa head coach Fred Williams made the seemingly obvious switch I talked about in yesterday’s mini-preview – promoting Odyssey Sims into the starting backcourt alongside Skylar Diggins, allowing Riquna Williams to return to her bench-gunner role. San Antonio’s bench was a little shorter than usual, with Shenise Johnson ruled out due to a strained right hamstring.

 

Story of the Game: Both teams were insanely hot from outside in the first half, combining to hit the first 11 three-point shots attempted. There were under four minutes left in the half when Shameka Christon tossed up the first missed three of the evening. The star of the show amongst the floor-wide bombing was a former Notre Dame guard – but not the one who tends to get all the press. Kayla McBride was smoking hot from the perimeter, not afraid to put the ball on the floor to create easier looks, and even made a couple of nice passes along the way as well. This is why Dan Hughes took her #3 in the recent draft, ahead of players like Alyssa Thomas and Natasha Howard who might’ve filled a more obvious hole on his roster.

McBride’s former college teammate Skylar Diggins was producing pretty nicely as well, continuing to look vastly more confident – and competent – than she did last season. Between Diggins, Sims, Williams and Jennifer Lacy firing from outside, and the interior of San Antonio’s defense looking shockingly soft when the Shock attacked it rather than firing away, Tulsa shot 65% in the first half and led by as many as nine points in the second quarter.

But with both teams turning the ball over far too cheaply, no one managed to maintain control of the game for long, regardless of the shooting. A late run for San Antonio, capped off by yet another McBride three, cut the Stars’ deficit to four points at the break.

Danielle Adams started the second half for San Antonio in place of Sophia Young-Malcolm, which was a little worrying considering the knee injury Young-Malcolm is still working her way back from, and the heavy knee brace she’s wearing to support it. But she re-joined the action later in the period, so maybe it was just a coaching choice from Hughes.

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The Daily W, 05/28/2014

 

Seattle Storm 64 @ New York Liberty 70

 

Lineups: The same fives these teams used in their last games came out for the tip-off. Alysha Clark continues to open at small forward for Seattle, presumably to give them energy and hustle from the start, because the likes of Noelle Quinn and Shekinna Stricklen are still more likely to be in that spot in crunch time. Seattle’s bench was a little thinner than before, due to Jenna O’Hea’s broken toe, which is expected to keep her out for 4-6 weeks.

 

Story of the Game: Neither side led by more than four points in the opening period, as they felt each other out and tried to get something going. The very first possession from New York featured a high-low pass from Plenette Pierson to Tina Charles with deep position in the paint, signalling their intent for much of the rest of the game.

Seattle opened up by missing a series of mid-range jumpers, with posts Crystal Langhorne and Camille Little popping into plenty of space, but failing to knock anything down. Then Sue Bird began to take over the Storm offense. The entire first half was peppered with outside bombs from Bird, using screens to shake Anna Cruz, and then filling it up from the resulting opportunities. She had 17 points at halftime.

But until late in the half, Bird didn’t get a lot of help offensively, and New York had been the team in front. The Seattle defense struggled to recover at times after their frequent collapsing on Charles, and the Liberty hit enough shots to maintain a lead until Bird just got ridiculously hot. She wrapped up the first half with another deep jumper in Cruz’s face, giving the Storm a three-point lead at the interval.

The Liberty clearly spent the break talking about Bird and how to cool her off, although we’d already seen the signs of them adapting in the first half. When she came off any pick the big was showing hard on her now, essentially turning it into a trap, and forcing someone else to beat them. Of course, Bird’s the consummate point guard and at times that merely led to great looks off the pick-and-roll or slip screens, when Bird fed the ball to the screener rather than shooting herself. But in general it worked for New York – along with Bird simply cooling off – and Seattle’s offense was significantly less effective in the second half.

But New York weren’t exactly steamrollering the Storm at the other end. The physical defense of Little and Langhorne was forcing misses from Charles, along with basic errors from the Liberty center that didn’t have much to do with the defenders. She missed a lot of straightforward opportunities in the second half. Essence Carson’s jumper has looked pretty good in the early stages of the season, but without being put to a huge amount of use. And Cappie Pondexter was invisible for huge stretches of this game. Tanisha Wright is always one of the tougher defenders on Pondexter, but the Liberty can’t afford for Pondexter to fade out of games entirely, whoever she’s facing.

Bill Laimbeer took a risk late in the third quarter, as Carson, then Pondexter, then Charles, were all subbed out. The remaining players unsurprisingly struggled to score, and Seattle were back in front by five points at the end of the third, despite their own offensive struggles. The pretty obvious lesson for Bill is that his two-and-a-half stars can never be on the bench simultaneously – unless it’s garbage time and someone’s up by 20.

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The Daily W, 05/27/2014

 

Minnesota Lynx 75 @ Chicago Sky 72

 

Lineups: It was as expected for both teams, with the same lineups as in their previous games this season. Maya Moore had several stitches in the head wound from her collision with Seimone Augustus on Saturday, but was ready to play. Epiphanny Prince was still in street clothes after returning to the Sky on Friday.

 

Story of the Game: The much-anticipated matchup between Moore and Elena Delle Donne half-happened. Moore was on Delle Donne from the start, and did a solid job of sticking close to her around screens, making it difficult for her to get the ball, and then difficult to hit shots if she got them up. It’s a sign of how far Moore’s defensive game has come in the last couple of years that the Lynx gave her that assignment, while Augustus just had to stand somewhere near Tamera Young on the defensive end. Chicago avoided the reverse matchup, sliding Delle Donne over to Augustus and letting Young chase after Moore. Augustus is no easy cover herself, of course, but the Sky clearly felt Moore was the greater threat.

Delle Donne couldn’t find any space to score early on – and in fact only hit her opening shots once Moore went to the bench late in the first quarter – but Minnesota missed a lot of shots in the opening stages and allowed Chicago to take a small lead. Cheryl Reeve can’t be happy with her team’s defense in the early days of the season, despite the wins they’ve been piling up. Under her leadership they’ve been built on a tight interior and sagging help that protects the rim and prevents layups. But this year there’ve frequently been driving lanes on offer right down the middle of the Lynx defense, and they’re giving up far too many layups. Lindsay Whalen was beaten off the dribble countless times in this game, which isn’t that uncommon, but the lack of help behind her was disturbing. Obviously the loss of Rebekkah Brunson (and Devereaux Peters) hurts their interior defense, and the drop in chemistry from replacing her with a different player (regardless of talent level) hurts as well. But they have to get better. With Moore and Augustus they’ll outscore lots of teams, but defense is supposed to be your building block, especially under Reeve.

After Chicago led by as many as seven in the first quarter, Minnesota went small in the second and quickly came back into it. With Moore at power forward they were quicker and more aggressive, creating points in transition and developing some flow. Moore wasn’t doing much scoring herself, but the team looked sharper. The Sky stayed in the game largely through the shooting of Allie Quigley, who knocked down several shots from outside. She also blew a series of layups, but she was hitting everything she threw up as long as she was at least 15 feet away.

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The Daily W, 05/26/2014

 

San Antonio Stars 62 @ Los Angeles Sparks 83

 

Lineups: San Antonio started the same group as on Friday night in Phoenix, likely to be their starting five for most of this season, barring injury or Dan Hughes deciding he needs more size than Kayla McBride at small forward. Los Angeles had Nneka Ogwumike back from her lower back strain, but this time it was Alana Beard’s turn to miss out, due to a mild ankle sprain. She was replaced in the lineup by Armintie Herrington. Candice Wiggins was still in street clothes due to her swollen left knee.

 

Story of the Game: LA flew out of the traps and dominated the early stages, scoring the first 13 points of the game and leading by as many as 16 in the first quarter. When they’re active, aggressive, and playing with pace, the Sparks can be very difficult to stop. Kristi Toliver’s jumper was dropping, Ogwumike was cleaning the glass, Lindsey Harding was attacking off the dribble and then Sandrine Gruda and Jantel Lavender came off the bench and kept them rolling. It was like trying to hold back the tide for San Antonio.

But everything swung back around in the second quarter. The Stars threw in a little 2-3 zone to mix things up, and once they started hitting some shots it slowed LA’s transition game and their offensive flow dissolved. But halftime a game that initially looked like a mismatch was practically dead even again.

The dominant figure in the second half was Candace Parker, who was the main player in rebuilding LA’s lead in the third quarter, then pushing it out again after it dwindled to five points early in the fourth. Jayne Appel – with plenty of help – does the best she can against Parker, but the Sparks star’s array of skills makes her difficult for anyone to handle. Appel has the size and physicality to compete with her in the paint, but not the footspeed or agility to handle her off the dribble or in transition. And Parker’s range forces her to extend out further than she’s comfortable with. The LA commentators would’ve had you believe that Candace was walking on water by the end of the game – she wasn’t quite that good – but she helped carry LA to a comfortable win.

 

Key Players: Parker was clearly the central piece for the Sparks after they let San Antonio back into the game, although Toliver and Lavender continued to provide scoring support. Ogwumike was her usual self, quietly filling the complementary role and doing all the dirty work.

The LA defense still looks just as volatile as it did last year. At times, their sheer size and mobility creates turnovers or swamps opponents, then it feeds into their offense and becomes even more destructive. On other occasions their help defense in particular is absolutely dismal. Parker stunting towards Hammon when the Stars guard was about to finish a layup, basically letting her score so she could jump back to cover someone else, was the most egregious example. But there were several others. It’s these fluctuations that sometimes come back to haunt LA in the postseason. Being consistently very good is usually a better idea than being exceptional for long periods and poor for others. They struggle with that.

Jia Perkins was the main player that dragged San Antonio back into the game, and then kept them afloat in the second half and made it a contest for as long as possible. Dan Hughes did what he could with funky small lineups and different defenses, but in the end his team couldn’t keep up. More of his players need to show up offensively on a night-to-night basis. Sophia Young-Malcolm hasn’t done much yet after returning from her ACL tear, Shenise Johnson is still flattering to deceive, Kayla McBride is still trying to work out the pro game, Shameka Christon is basically decomposing before our eyes – the list goes on. Organisation and collective production can only go so far against an opponent as talented as LA.

 

Notes of Interest: As many of us suggested coming out of the draft, McBride really does look like duplication of what San Antonio already has on its roster. If she develops and becomes really good at her perimeter-based scoring game, she may live up to that #3 overall pick. But in terms of helping the Stars win before Hammon retires, it’s looking like other selections would’ve been more useful.

 

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Indiana Fever 82 @ Atlanta Dream 77 (OT)

 

Lineups: Angel McCoughtry returned after missing the previous day’s game with a rhomboid (shoulder) strain, replacing Matee Ajavon in the lineup. Shoni Schimmel and Jasmine Thomas continued as the starting backcourt (Schimmel’s playing the point guard role the vast majority of the time). Indiana went with the same five again, still missing Tamika Catchings due to her bad back. On the bright side, backup point guard Sydney Carter was available again off the bench after recovering from her ankle sprain.

 

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The Daily W, 05/25/2014

 

Seattle Storm 73 @ Washington Mystics 65

 

Lineups: Seattle stuck with the same group that lost to Connecticut the night before, with Alysha Clark in that third perimeter spot they’re unsure what to do with. Ivory Latta regained her starting spot in the Washington backcourt from Bria Hartley – apparently Latta missed a couple of practices last week due to a minor injury, which may have been the reason Hartley replaced her against Indiana.

 

Story of the Game: The first half was a low-scoring affair. Emma Meesseman scored at will early on for the Mystics, initially using her height advantage inside, then hitting jumpers when given too much space from mid-range. But she didn’t get a lot of offensive help from her teammates.

Seattle went super-small at times in the second quarter, with Nicole Powell becoming their center. But it seemed to upset the Mystics more than the size limitations hurt Seattle. Washington were thrown off their rhythm by knowing they should be attacking the mismatches, and focussing too much on that. Seattle doubled hard and with more organisation than we’d seen from them in previous games this season, managing to recover well enough to survive. The Mystics also just missed several good looks when the ball was rotated away from the double-teams. The Storm also finally manged to exploit the other side of being undersized, when Powell knocked down a pair of threes – the other team’s bigs aren’t used to guarding players like her, so she should find open looks when forced to play ‘center’.

Both teams were better offensively in the second half, and Seattle were scrambling less on the defensive end because Camille Little and Crystal Langhorne played the vast majority of the minutes inside. The Storm were noticeably better than in any of their three previous games, using backdoor cuts and more motion to pierce into the heart of the Washington defense. They also hit some shots, which always helps. Shekinna Stricklen made her first meaningful impact of the 2014 season with back-to-back threes that keyed a Seattle run in the third quarter to build a lead, and they largely maintained it from there. After looking tired for several minutes, Sue Bird drilled a huge three with 90 seconds left in the game to help ice it. Die Bitches apparently still lives.

 

Key Players: The three primary scorers for Seattle were Bird, Little and Tanisha Wright, but it was a collective performance. There was better cohesion, and they fought their way to the finish line just like we’ve seen them do many times over the years. It remains to be seen if they can produce this kind of result regularly, or against stronger opponents, but at least it got them off the mark for the season, and prevented an ugly 0-4 from appearing in the standings.

Meesseman’s early burst was the most memorable sequence for Washington, who didn’t have a great day. The ball movement and perimeter shooting wasn’t good enough to punish Seattle when their defense broke down. We’re also still waiting for the real Kara Lawson to show up in a Mystics jersey.

 

Notes of Interest: Jenna O’Hea has been getting good looks for the Storm – and they’ve been running sets specifically designed to break her open for threes – but she’s not been knocking them down. A career 45% shooter from three-point range in the WNBA, she’ll likely snap out of it, but the physical pounding from playing power forward for the Storm may not be helping. She sometimes had to chase players like Diana Taurasi around when she was playing for LA, but she never had to hold up against the likes of Candice Dupree or Emma Meesseman in the paint. Powell was given all the backup post minutes by Brian Agler in the second half of this game.

If you’re like me and mute or switch over as soon as the halftime buzzer sounds in most games, hold on a minute or two for Mystics home games. They talk to head coach Mike Thibault, and he’s invariably insightful and amusing in his honest analysis of the first half. It’s worth sticking around for.

 

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