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.
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.
Story of the Game: This was our first re-match of the young season – there’ll be lots, lots more – and it resulted in a similarly tight contest. The early stages were tediously stilted due to endless whistles. The game eventually found some flow, with guards Briann January and Sydney Carter helping support Indiana’s offense by knocking down open looks from beyond the arc. The Fever were doing a better job of driving into the heart of the opposing defense, then moving the ball well enough to find good looks outside, than we’d seen in most of their earlier games this year. Behind their three long-established key players – McCoughtry, Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza – Atlanta kept pace. When she’s more selective, as she’s been in their opening games, McCoughtry’s jumper even looks pretty decent at times.
A few bricked jumpers from Indiana early in the second half briefly helped ignite Atlanta’s running game, but the Fever soon returned to hitting enough shots to maintain a narrow lead. Their small lineup with three guards and Karima Christmas playing power forward even helped out and provided energy rather than being hurt by Atlanta’s size. Michael Cooper went small himself for stretches of the second half, with Amanda Thompson as the second post.
The fourth quarter was a pretty ugly exhibition of bricks and turnovers, as the teams combined to shoot 4-26 in the period. There was some decent defense at times, but any period that ends with a score of 8-4 in ten minutes isn’t likely to have showcased great basketball.
The head coaches didn’t help either. Cooper burned a timeout 11 seconds into the second half to make a point; wasted another with three seconds left in the third quarter; and then used his final timeout with just under three minutes left in regulation (when the automatic commercial timeout would’ve come at the next whistle anyway). That left the Dream unable to advance the ball in crucial late moments, and made going offense/defense with substitutions – something that’s important when Shoni Schimmel is your starting point guard – virtually impossible. Then Lin Dunn chose not to use either of her remaining timeouts while January ran the clock down for far too long on their final possession, before driving into traffic and losing the ball. Giving the teams an extra five minutes to sort out a winner seemed about right after that mess of a final period.
Indiana scored the first six points of overtime on a breaking Erlana Larkins layup right from the tip-off, a driving January layup (Schimmel’s defense is really bad), and a Carter prayer that was answered. From there they were pretty comfortable throughout the extra period against a Dream squad that looked tired on the end of a back-to-back. Too many Atlanta turnovers and Indiana offensive rebounds prevented a Dream comeback, and the Fever finally had their first win of the season.
Key Players: Larkins finished with a remarkable 22 boards against Atlanta’s significantly bigger front-line, and held her own with de Souza all night long. Her rebound totals are helped out somewhat by the complete indifference many of her teammates show towards grabbing them, but it was still a heck of a performance. Otherwise it was a collective effort in the end for Indiana, piecing together enough offense to just about get the job done. Natasha Howard had some moments, with January and Carter providing the boost early on. They went small with both of the point guards playing together for much of the game, benching Marissa Coleman and often Shavonte Zellous as well. Zellous is apparently struggling with a back issue, and it’s showing in her minimal production.
Dream guard Jasmine Thomas had easily her best game of the season so far, supporting Atlanta’s usual suspects. McCoughtry’s been nicely efficient in her games so far this season, but faded out of this one for much of the second half.
Notes of Interest: Indiana are struggling to find a go-to option late in games without Catchings available. Maggie Lucas has taken a bizarre number of vital late-game shots for them, despite limited minutes, because she’s not remotely afraid to fire them up. Howard has probably been the main alternative. They could really use their leader back.
Schimmel’s a poor defender, but she also needs more help from both the scheme and her teammates. They must know by now that she’s going to get lost behind screens and beaten off the dribble, so the help has to be ready to rotate behind her. As mentioned in yesterday’s column, Atlanta are still trying to learn what Cooper wants them to do.
Celine Dumerc’s Bourges team lost the final game of the French playoffs yesterday. So she’s already getting into the Atlanta Dream spirit even before making it to the US. Bourges didn’t get swept though, so she skipped some of the details.
Minnesota @ Chicago, 3.30pm ET (live on ESPN2). Epiphanny Prince may make her season debut for Chicago, but most of the focus will be on the matchup between Maya Moore and Elena Delle Donne. This season, with Delle Donne starting alongside Jessica Breland rather than Swin Cash, it’s much more likely that Delle Donne will be forced into actually trying to defend Moore. Whether Elena can handle that – after relatively straightforward defensive assignments in Chicago’s games so far – will be interesting to see. Of course, no one’s been able to guard Moore this season anyway, so maybe it won’t make much difference.
This should be a fun one for the national audience, even with the Lynx playing their third game in four days. Moore and Augustus may not know the meaning of the word fatigue.