Connecticut Sun 87 @ Minnesota Lynx 90 (OT)
Lineups: Same again for Minnesota, with Damiris Dantas continuing to fill in for Rebekkah Brunson. Connecticut promoted rookie forward Alyssa Thomas into the starting lineup in place of point guard Alex Bentley. Part of that may have been to have an extra perimeter defender with some size on the floor to handle Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore, but it’s also a move that wouldn’t exactly be miles outside the box against anyone. Allison Hightower has been handling many of the point guard duties for Connecticut for years now, and can comfortably slide over, while Thomas’s development is a big part of the Sun’s future.
Story of the Game: As this was Minnesota’s home opener, the pre-game festivities involved raising the 2013 championship banner and handing out the rings. The Lynx then proceeded to play the first half like they’d drunk too much wine at the party. They were uncharacteristically sloppy, giving up too many cheap turnovers, and leaving too much space to exploit in their defense. The Sun shot unsustainably well, but Minnesota helped them find that rhythm. Chiney Ogwumike also had far too much room to work in the paint. While in some ways it was just a bad half, and those happen to every team, we’re going to see more defensive breakdowns from the Lynx early in the season than we’re used to, simply because they’ve got a lot of new pieces in the mix once you get past the four returning starters. It’s difficult to play on-a-string defense when not everyone knows which way (and how far) that string is meant to stretch.
It took a while for the expected comeback to kick in during the second half – Connecticut’s lead rose as high as 16 – but it arrived eventually. Maya Moore was the unsurprising catalyst, drilling several shots late in the third quarter, while the team defense also started to force turnovers and create transition chances.
It briefly looked like the young Sun squad were going to be overwhelmed by the charging Lynx, but they pulled themselves together and stuck around in the fourth quarter. After Janel McCarville turned an ankle while trying to bring the ball up the floor, it took a ridiculous second-chance basket by Moore, a Lindsay Whalen baseline jumper, a dreadful Katie Douglas turnover, and a tough leaning jumper over defenders from Seimone Augustus to tie the game and send it to overtime. Whalen dribbled the ball straight out of bounds on an inbounds play in the middle of all that, too.
It was all Ogwumike early in OT, scoring the first five points of the extra period, but from there Whalen took charge. She’d generally had an awful night of missed layups and turnovers, but isn’t the kind of character to sit down and hide on the end of the bench. Her driving finishes and earned free throws turned the game in Minnesota’s favour, before she hit a deep jumper to give the Lynx a three-point lead with 12 seconds left. Douglas found Alyssa Thomas wide open for a three to potentially tie it, but shooting from deep is not exactly the rookie’s forte. She airballed it, and the Lynx had pulled off the comeback win.
Key Players: Most of them have already been mentioned for Minnesota, with Maya Moore superb once again, Augustus helping her with the scoring load and Whalen showing up late. Backup point guard Lindsey Moore also had important contributions, playing a long stretch in the second half when Whalen was struggling. She still doesn’t look like anyone’s long-term solution as a starting point guard, but with more performances like this she’ll gain Cheryl Reeve’s trust for sustained appearances as the backup.
Ogwumike was great for Connecticut in the paint, playing over 40 minutes in only her second game as a pro. She’ll face significantly tougher defenders than fellow rookie Dantas, but she’s going to be a serious problem for anyone for years to come. She’s looking a little bit more center-ish than sister Nneka, but whatever position you slot her at she’s already a dangerous athletic threat in the post. We’ve seen very little from Kelsey Bone in the Sun’s opening two games though, and it’s going to be a shame if Anne Donovan largely ends up platooning Bone and Ogwumike at center. They’re too good for that.
Notes of Interest: Even with Bentley benched, Renee Montgomery was still the third choice at point guard and only saw five minutes of action. It’s hard to believe she’ll be happy with that if it’s a relection of how much she’ll play in upcoming games as well. A trade at some point this season wouldn’t be a big surprise, even with her expensive contract as part of the baggage.
Phoenix Mercury 74 @ Los Angeles Sparks 69
Lineups: Same again for Phoenix, but Los Angeles lost Nneka Ogwumike to a lower back strain, pushing center Jantel Lavender into the starting lineup. Backup guard Candice Wiggins was also kept out as a precaution due to a slightly swollen left knee.
Story of the Game: It took about 15 minutes of game time for the action to begin in earnest in this one. A series of turnovers, bricks, one-on-one play and sloppy basketball kept the scoring – and the entertainment level – pretty low for most of the first half. Phoenix had crawled out to an early lead, but LA eventually came back into it behind the defense and activity of Armintie Herrington more than anything else. That woke everyone up, and we finally had something worth watching.
Neither side led by more than five points in the entire second half, and most of the time it was even closer than that. Alana Beard’s jumper – for the second game running – was looking shockingly good. Outside of that, we saw an awful lot of Candace Parker for LA. Often that’s good, and she made several nice plays. But she also forced up some terrible shots, and spent too much time trying to play point guard. Putting the ball in her hands can be very effective, but it sometimes means the ball doesn’t move, and Candace just spins into traffic looking to make something happen. And it’s still a hit-or-miss affair when she tries to bring the ball up the court herself.
Phoenix had a little more balance, although after their refreshed depth had helped take Seattle apart the night before, all but four of their points came from their four returning starters. They threw some 2-3 zone at LA at times, which was interesting to see in their playbook (it was very much not the Gaines ‘Rover’ zone, and interim head coach Russ Pennell stuck pretty rigidly to man-to-man after he took over last year). It helped to confuse the Sparks a little in the second half, although the Mercury largely used it when Brittney Griner was on the bench. Depositing Griner in the middle of a zone like that, even with the WNBA’s defensive three-second rule, has to be something they’ll try as the season goes on.
Griner came up big for Phoenix down the stretch of this game. She turned a loose ball into a layup, then rejected Sandrine Gruda at the other end, before an offensive rebound and putback gave the Mercury the lead with less than a minute to play. LA’s fondness for switching defensively, which appears to be sticking around so far this season, got them into trouble on that play. Parker switched out to challenge the jump shot, and Griner was left inside surrounded by players about a foot shorter than her. Opposing offensive boards are going to happen in those situations.
Diana Taurasi had the final big make of the night, curling down to the baseline and drilling a 15-foot jumper. Alana Beard missed a jumper before Taurasi extended the Phoenix lead to three at the foul line, only for a defensive mix-up between Taurasi and Erin Phillips to leave Kristi Toliver with a wide open look to tie the game from behind the arc. Fortunately for Phoenix it rimmed out, and that was the ballgame.
Key Players: Taurasi and Griner made the eye-catching plays for Phoenix, but DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree had important contributions as well. Bonner looks to be playing a little more within herself so far this season, taking shots when she’s open but not just arbitrarily jacking away from 30 feet whenever she feels like it. Dupree’s field goal percentage may well drop a little this year, because it looks like she’ll be firing more mid-range jumpers while Griner’s taking up the space inside. It won’t mean Dupree’s playing worse, just filling a slightly different role.
Herrington and Gruda helped kick-start LA when they came in off the bench, illustrating what LA’s depth can do for them this season even when two rotation players are sitting out due to injury. At the same time, if Kristi Toliver’s jump shot would like to join the rest of us in starting the 2014 WNBA season, that’d be nice.
Notes of Interest: Even with Ogwumike out, we saw the first meaningful use of LA’s big lineup in this game, where Parker slides out to small forward alongside two other posts (Lavender and Gruda, in this case). It’s an option worth investigating for Carol Ross, but it does mean Parker will have to defend wing players and do a decent job. One of the first things that happened when they tried it in this game was Bonner using a pick, Parker not bothering to make any effort to get round it, and Bonner drilling the resulting wide open three. It’s a work in progress.
Nneka Ogwumike (back) and Candice Wiggins (knee) both sound relatively minor in LA, but aren’t the things you want cropping up after just one game.
Minnesota will be hoping that the turned ankle Janel McCarville suffered late in regulation in their game isn’t serious. They can ill afford to lose yet another post player.
The Indiana Fever made a minor roster move today, releasing post Jasmine Hassell in favour of slightly-taller post Krystal Thomas. It’s an upgrade, because Hassell really doesn’t offer much, while Thomas is a slightly bigger interior presence and mildly better rebounder. She was the odd woman out in Phoenix this year after they added Ewelina Kobryn and didn’t have the cap room to carry more than 11 players.
Wednesday May 21st
Connecticut Sun @ Chicago Sky, 12.30pm ET
Regarding the Lynx D: I think they were seriously missing both Brunson and Wright here. A healthy Rebecca Brunson is the perfect player to guard Ogwumike, and in general makes opposing post players work very, very hard. As great as Dantas was, she just doesn’t have that kind of strength (or experience). Monica Wright is also a great on-ball defender, and to have her coming off the bench with fresh legs for D- without having to sacrifice much offensively – would have been huge in a game like this.
Definitely true, but it’s also just chemistry. Much of the Lynx success defensively in recent years has been down to how well they play team defense, rather than how good the individual defenders are. It takes a little while to get that back even with the same people – there were some breakdowns between Moore and Augustus on Friday night – but it’s even harder when you’re building that chemistry with completely new people.
But yes, Brunson would undoubtedly have made things tougher for Ogwumike than Dantas managed. McCarville didn’t have much success either.