The Daily W, 05/18/2014

 

Atlanta Dream 90 @ Indiana Fever 88 (2OT)

 

Lineups: Angel McCoughtry came off the bench due to a minor hip problem picked up the night before (I’ve never understood why not starting helps in any way with a niggling injury, but that’s what happened). Matee Ajavon started in her place. Indiana were still without Tamika Catchings and Layshia Clarendon, so opened with the same five as the previous night.

 

Story of the Game: The Fever got off to a hot start, just like the night before, led by Briann January. She seemed to be avoiding her problems with finishing at the rim by just sticking to jumpshots, and they were all dropping. Indiana led by double digits early in the second quarter.

However, Atlanta never looked in that much trouble, and the game always seemed like it would come back to them. The Fever had some problems containing the Dream in transition, with Erika de Souza picking up points simply by running hard from basket-to-basket. Shoni Schimmel, for the second night in a row, was exciting everyone with her shockingly successful entry onto the pro level. The assists were flowing again, and she was drilling those shots from deep that she always loved firing in college.

It was tight for most of the second half. Fever head coach Lin Dunn went small on the perimeter after losing any confidence in Marissa Coleman or Shavonte Zellous, preferring the double-point guard look with January and Sydney Carter, often with diminutive off-guard Maggie Lucas as well. That left someone thoroughly undersized having to cover McCoughtry – usually January.

A pretty messy half of basketball was finished off by several shambolic broken plays to close regulation. A steal eventually gave Karima Christmas the chance to break away and win the game for Indiana, but she blew the layup and sent us to overtime.

Rookie forward Natasha Howard, who’d already had a strong night, was the star for the Fever in OT. She attacked and finished through contact several times to produce points for Indiana. Then Schimmel, who’d had less impact on the game  since halftime, converted a ridiculous finish on a drive to tie it up late in the first extra period. Both teams contrived awful shots in the final minute, before the Fever failed to even get one off on the final possession. On to double overtime.

Howard was still the main offensive threat for Indiana, and she gave them a one-point lead with 30 seconds left, but missed the and-one free throw. McCoughtry curled off a high screen at the other end, took the pass, and drilled a three for the lead. In general, opposing teams want Angel shooting threes – but she’s never scared to take or make the big shot, from anywhere on the floor. Lucas ended up with the final shot for the Fever, but she airballed it and the Dream held on.

 

Key Players: Howard was eye-catching for Indiana, helped out by Erlana Larkins in the paint. January shot well early but tailed off, and playing her with Carter is a patchwork solution to anything. January will do a useful job defending anyone you ask her to, but constantly playing her with another point guard – especially one who doesn’t look to score much in Carter – isn’t really worth it. Zellous had seven turnovers in under 17 minutes of action, so you can understand why Dunn benched her, but in general she needs to be on the floor.

McCoughtry and Erika de Souza both scored well for Atlanta again, Schimmel had a hot start and then a meaningful finish (plus double-digit assists again). Sancho Lyttle played over 45 minutes and finished with 21 boards, which might reflect more on the work Howard needs to put in as a rebounder than Lyttle herself. Lyttle’s mid-range jumper looks improved (and she’s taking them from 15-18 feet, rather than those threes from a couple of years ago, which is definitely a good thing). But she doesn’t seem to be quite as featured in Michael Cooper’s system as she used to be in Atlanta.

 

Notes of Interest: Swin Cash was pretty worthless again. Undoubtedly she’s still settling in, but so far she’s not exactly making Chicago regret refusing to meet her contract demands and then giving her away for nothing.

 

—–

 

Chicago Sky 79 @ New York Liberty 65

 

Lineups: Same fives as started yesterday’s games.

 

Story of the Game: It was too easy for Tina Charles early on. Chicago aren’t used to having to double-team anyone, because Sylvia Fowles is usually in the paint to take on low-post threats, and help out behind other defenders. But Big Syl isn’t around right now. It took Chicago about a quarter to realise that collapsing multiple defenders on Charles whenever she touches the ball is a smart idea. We saw a little 2-3 zone from the Sky in the second quarter to make those double-teams even easier to slide across on her, but they mostly brought them out of man-to-man for the rest of the night.

The first half was fairly close throughout until a late run pulled Chicago in front, with Allie Quigley offering some perimeter scoring support for Elena Delle Donne. The Sky led by as many as 12 early in the third, before the Liberty actually hit a few shots to drag themselves back into it and tie the game going into the fourth.

The final period wasn’t pretty at all for the Liberty. Charles didn’t touch the ball enough, Cappie Pondexter forced some bad shots – she barely hit any all night, forced or otherwise – and the game drifted away from them. Chicago held on for a fairly comfortable victory in the end.

 

Key Players: Delle Donne is obviously the focus of Chicago’s offensive efforts, and even when she’s not hitting a particularly high percentage, she’ll typically compensate by getting to the line, and drawing so much attention that teammates have open shots. Courtney Vandersloot also had a decent game running things at the point. But Jessica Breland was the player who jumped out and made you take notice. After the flashes she showed in Indiana last year, we knew Breland was going to be a useful pick-up for the Sky, but through two games (yes, remember, it’s wildly early) she’s the front-runner by a mile for Most Improved. She’s quick and mobile for a power forward, and she’s clearly worked on her mid-range jumper so that she’s got plenty of confidence from 12 to 18 feet. That’s hugely important on this team, because the second opposing post is going to constantly slide over to contain Delle Donne on drives and pick-and-rolls – and we’ll see the same kind of gravitational pull whenever Fowles eventually returns. Breland is going to be wide open for that jumper all year long.

Tina Charles was effective and had much more of an impact than she did the night before against Connecticut. Essence Carson’s jumper also looked pretty good. But Pondexter finished the game 3-16 from the field, and there’s still a fear that this team simply doesn’t have enough players who can shoot. Opponents are going to collapse on Charles in the paint, with sending help on Pondexter the next priority, and challenge anyone else on the Liberty roster to hurt them. No one could last year.

 

Notes of Interest: It’s good to have Madison Square Garden back in the WNBA. And I enjoy the still-developing chemistry between Ryan Ruocco and Rebecca Lobo on national broadcasts as well.

 

—–

 

Tulsa Shock 76 @ San Antonio Stars 80

 

Lineups: Somewhat surprisingly, Fred Williams promoted last season’s Sixth Woman of the Year into the starting lineup, with Riquna Williams opening the game alongside Skylar Diggins. Rookie Odyssey Sims came off the bench instead. Courtney Paris started at center. San Antonio’s five was the same as Friday night, as Becky Hammon continues to sit out.

 

Story of the Game: Overall, this was not the prettiest game of basketball you’re ever going to see. There was lots of reaching on defense, which led to lots of whistles, and a cavalcade of free throws. The first half was close throughout without much to recommend watching.

No one led by more than six points in the second half either – the game featured 25 lead changes, which is crazily high. Sophia Young-Malcolm came into the game a little more in the third quarter, but it was the backcourt of Danielle Robinson and Jia Perkins that did most of the damage for San Antonio. Sims struggled for Tulsa, but Diggins and some post production kept the Shock in the game.

Diggins and Paris ran a couple of nice pick-and-rolls late on that produced points, but Perkins was the star in the closing stages. She drilled a pair of triples – a step-back over Glory Johnson, then an open look off a pin-down screen from Young-Malcolm – to give the Stars a two-point lead with 15 seconds left. Tulsa responded with a Diggins drive and miss, before she also missed a forced putback, then Williams overcooked a three, before Paris was fouled after yet another offensive board (yes, all four of those looks were on the same possession). Paris missed the first free throw, then missed the second on purpose as there was only a second left on the clock, but San Antonio snared the rebound and closed out the game.

Déjà vu all over again for the Shock, who’ve constantly lost close games like this over the last few years.

 

Key Players: The major, major positive for Tulsa is that Diggins looked vastly better than she did last season. She still missed several layups under defensive pressure, but she made a couple as well, looked to have worked on her perimeter shot, and played with much more confidence. It’s only a one-game sample, but if this was a sign of things to come, maybe magazine covers and public appearances will become a popular way to spend the offseason rather than playing overseas. Vicki Baugh had a nice debut in her first official WNBA game as well, after several camps where she didn’t quite make the cut. Between her and Paris, Glory Johnson may have a little help in the post this season after all.

San Antonio won the game, but it was a scrappy performance. Bar the third quarter burst, Young-Malcolm was largely invisible; Kayla McBride was a little better than Friday night, but not much, and they basically clawed over the line. Danielle Robinson is still fun to watch in any game, though. Dan Hughes should still run more sets where they clear the middle of the floor and just set a high pick for Robinson to let her attack.

 

Notes of Interest: Many of us felt that there was a clear top three and bottom three (again) in the Western Conference before the season began. The opening two days of the season have only reinforced that opinion.

 

—–

 

Seattle Storm 64 @ Phoenix Mercury 81

 

Lineups: Same again for Seattle, although Brian Agler was attending his son’s graduation ceremony so Jenny Boucek was in charge on the sidelines. Phoenix started their expected lineup, with Erin Phillips joining the four returning starters. As an added bonus, Penny Taylor was in uniform and ready to play off the bench. Any fan of basketball can only be happy to see Taylor healthy enough to be back on the court.

 

Story of the Game: Rinse and repeat – Seattle got blown off the floor. In fairness to the Storm, a back-to-back against Los Angeles and Phoenix is just about the hardest possible way to start the season (considering Minnesota are currently a little short-handed). But they got destroyed for the second night running.

Phoenix broke out to an early lead while trying to make sure Brittney Griner was heavily involved in the offense from the start. Then the Mercury went to their bench and showed that the Sparks aren’t the only ones who’ve added significant depth in the offseason. Anete Jekabsone-Zogota was left far too open by sloppy and slow-rotating Seattle defense, and happily drilled wide open threes. She doesn’t have a particularly varied offensive game, but she’ll be delighted to do that all season long.

Phoenix were up by double-digits before the end of the first quarter, and that didn’t change for the rest of the night.

 

Key Players: It was a pretty collective effort for the Mercury, whose depth of talent and threats around the floor overwhelmed the Storm. They looked like a far more balanced two-way team than we’ve seen in previous years as well, although we’ll see how that holds up against opponents that are less of a mess than Seattle. Griner’s the one who jumps out at you from the box score. In under 24 minutes she was 8-9 for 19 points and credited with 5 blocks. She’ll likely make a run at Margo Dydek’s single-season blocks record this season (currently 114), assuming teams continue going anywhere near her. It was as easy and comfortable a start as Phoenix could’ve wished for.

Seattle don’t play again until Friday, and man do they need the week of practice. They look slow and old, but more disappointingly they look disorganised and confused. If nothing else, Storm teams over the years have known how to play together and make things difficult for their opponents. LA and Phoenix were both painfully comfortable this weekend.

 

Notes of Interest: Taylor looked pretty good in her 15 minutes, without trying to press anything. She was the first off the bench for Phoenix, replacing Phillips, which results in a huge lineup for the Mercury. It’ll be interesting to see how other teams handle that during the season, and how the Mercury try to exploit the size advantages. As expected, Diana Taurasi slid over as the backup point guard when Phillips rested.

3/5ths of Australia’s starting lineup for the World Championships probably played in this game, despite Lauren Jackson still being back in Australia.

 

—–

 

Injury Report

 

Largely good news. Temeka Johnson (Seattle) played despite the hit from Sandrine Gruda’s elbow the night before. McCoughtry (Atlanta) looked fine despite the reported hip problem that had her coming off the bench. New York didn’t feel the need to give Plenette Pierson the night off, despite it being the second half of a back-to-back.

No fresh injuries to report.

 

—–

 

Today’s Games

 

Connecticut Sun @ Minnesota Lynx, 5pm ET

Phoenix Mercury @ Los Angeles Sparks, 9pm ET

 

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