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.
Milovanovic also had some big moments, and certainly isn’t afraid to let fly from any distance. The old Essence Carson would’ve driven by her repeatedly, but the current version doesn’t appear to have the mobility to do that. Rookie center Stefanie Dolson had some important contributions on the glass in the closing stages as well.
Pondexter shot extremely well, leading the scoring effort for New York, but apart from a couple of shots from Cruz got very little help. Charles produced a performance that was worryingly reminiscent of last year in Connecticut, drifting further and further away from the hoop and missing lots of jump shots. It’s a shame, because she has been more aggressive in general this year, even if she missed a lot of shots in the Seattle game on Tuesday night. The 40%-shooting Charles who plays 15 feet from the basket is not the one New York were hoping they traded for.
Notes of Interest: Shanece McKinney was straight into the fray after being re-signed earlier this week, as Charles’s backup. Toni Young, on the other hand, continues to sit on the bench throughout these games. The #7 pick a year ago, Young hasn’t developed as Bill Laimbeer and the Liberty were hoping. Being unable to get off the bench on this team, desperately searching for help for their stars, is worrying.
Seattle Storm 69 @ Atlanta Dream 80
Lineups: Seattle rolled out the same starting group, while Michael Cooper tinkered with the Dream lineup yet again, starting with Jasmine Thomas and Tiffany Hayes in the backcourt while Shoni Schimmel went back to the bench.
Story of the Game: Seattle’s ball movement and motion around the floor were better in the first half than we’ve seen in many of their games this season. Crystal Langhorne was attacking in the paint and grabbing rebounds, while Temeka Johnson came off the bench to give them a perimeter punch. Atlanta were a little shaky, unable to get out on the break in transition, and with Angel McCoughtry trying a little too hard to take over on her own. Seattle were turning the ball over fairly frequently, but without leading into too many fastbreak chances for the Dream.
However, with Sue Bird’s jumper repeatedly clanking off the rim, and Tiffany Hayes flying around the court doing her typical Hayes-y things (rebounds out of nowhere, diving after loose balls, taking hits on drives), the game stayed close.
Seattle pushed out to a seven-point lead midway through the third quarter, with McCoughtry continuing to force – and miss – jumpers. Langhorne continued to lead the Storm attack inside, and Seattle were even finding a little transition offense to turn Atlanta’s traditional form of attack back against them. Then the worm turned. The Dream went small in the middle of the third quarter, taking center Erika de Souza out and replacing her with reserve forward Amanda Thompson. Seattle also tried to steal some rest for Langhorne and Camille Little at that time, bringing Nicole Powell in to play power forward. Atlanta finally found some flow, attacking more quickly, feeding Sancho Lyttle closer to the hoop – because she was now playing center – and generally looking like their old selves. They spread the floor with four perimeter players, ran unusual sets with wings at the elbow, and turned the game in their favour. By the time Powell sat back down at the end of the third, Seattle had gone from seven in front, to six behind.
The Storm were still in the game in the fourth quarter, and actually came back to tie it at one stage. Then Erika came back in and attacked them in the paint, the Lyttle and McCoughtry shots from midrange that hadn’t landed earlier started falling, and Atlanta pulled away again. Seattle looked tired in the closing stages, and all the swarming they’re having to do defensively during games may be wearing them down. They can maintain it to keep them in games against bigger, probably more talented teams, but playing like that for 40 minutes is very hard work.
Key Players: The Storm got a vintage Crystal Langhorne performance, finding her way to the rim for high percentage buckets and grabbing boards throughout. But apart from the Johnson run in the first half, she didn’t get a lot of help offensively. They shot 8-19 as a team from beyond the arc, which is pretty good, but not enough to keep them in touch. Alysha Clark did a nice defensive job on McCoughtry in her limited minutes. Brian Agler still seems to trust his other wings a little more, but Clark’s forced her way into this rotation.
Hayes was the catalyst for most of the good things that happened for Atlanta, although de Souza, Lyttle and McCoughtry all contributed as well. It’s impressive that McCoughtry seemed to be struggling for much of the game, but still finished 8-20 from the floor (not great, but not disastrous) with four boards and eight assists. She didn’t have one of her superstar games by any means, but she didn’t shoot her team out of contention like she might have in the past.
Notes of Interest: French point guard Celine Dumerc should be arriving soon (tomorrow, in fact, was the date I heard). As the Dream are currently carrying 12 players, someone’s going to have to be cut to make room. The prime candidates are wing Inga Orekhova and post Nadia Gomes Colhado, neither of whom have played much this season. Thompson has likely played her way into staying. Swin Cash and Matee Ajavon have been thoroughly useless so far this year, but will probably be kept for their veteran presence, and to avoid embarrassing the front office that traded for both of them in the offseason.
San Antonio Stars 72 @ Minnesota Lynx 88
Lineups: The starters were as expected for both teams. The one surprise on the benches was that Devereaux Peters was in uniform for the first time this season, returning from knee surgery. Shenise Johnson was still out for San Antonio due to her strained hamstring.
Story of the Game: The first half was tight, with Minnesota’s offense generally flowing as smoothly as usual behind Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus, but San Antonio also finding success at the other end. The Lynx were collapsing their defense as usual, maybe even a little more than normal to cover up the driving lanes that they’ve left open in earlier games this season. San Antonio were doing a good job of moving the ball back out to the players left open on the perimeter, and knocking down shots before the Lynx could recover. The Stars shot 8-15 from three-point range in the first half.
The most ridiculous moment of the opening 20 minutes came when Lynx post Damiris Dantas was clocked by a high elbow from Kayla Alexander as she came charging down the lane. It was rightly called an offensive foul, and play stopped, but Minnesota were eventually charged with a technical foul for their trainer coming on to the court without specific permission from the officials to check on a prone Dantas. The rules for NBA and WNBA officials when players are injured are already idiotic. Referees never stop the game for an injured player, even if he/she’s clearly seriously hurt or even lying in the path of oncoming action. They should be allowed to simply blow their whistle if it’s obvious that someone needs attention. It’s a situation that needs addressing, and handing out technicals for someone trying to treat a head injury isn’t helping anything. Idiotic.
Minnesota blew the game open in the third quarter. Dantas was apparently okay to continue after that hit to the head, and by the looks of things the Stars had only made her angry. And they wouldn’t like her when she’s angry. She scored inside on a couple of post moves, attacked the glass for rebounds, and generally took it right to San Antonio. Her teammates joined in, attacking with pace and precision, hitting shots and drawing fouls. At the other end the Lynx did a better job shading help inside but not too far, sticking close enough to the perimeter shooters to trouble them. Also San Antonio simply missed more shots – the old ‘make or miss league’ coming into play. By the end of the third quarter Minnesota had turned a three-point deficit into a 20-point lead.
San Antonio came within 10 in the final period, largely behind a perimeter barrage from Jia Perkins, but the Lynx always had an answer – whether is was a Lindsay Whalen drive, an Augustus jumper, or another spark from Dantas. The Brazilian center even capped off the night by nailing her first three-point attempt as a WNBA player.
Key Players: All five starters played big roles for Minnesota: Moore leading the scoring, Whalen attacking off the dribble when necessary, Augustus hitting shots with her usual ruthless efficiency, Janel McCarville playing ‘point-center’, and Dantas stepping up in the second half when many might’ve been lying down in a darkened room. The bench didn’t do much, but will hopefully be a little deeper now that Peters is working her way back. She looked decidedly rusty in her three minutes of action last night, but we’ve seen in previous years that she can contribute.
The Stars finished the game 14-28 from beyond the arc, and still lost fairly heavily, which says it all. It’s hard to beat a team almost exclusively with jump shots. Even Minnesota, with two of the greatest jump shooters in the history of the women’s game, know that they need to get to the rim to balance things out and create even higher-percentage looks. Becky Hammon, Jia Perkins, Kayla McBride, Danielle Adams and Shameka Christon all played their part in the bombing, and Danielle Robinson’s ability to break down a defense and find those shooters was important as well. But nowhere near enough.
Notes of Interest: Still virtually nothing from Sophia Young-Malcolm, against a team with a weakened interior. They say sometimes it takes a year to fully recover from an ACL tear, so maybe we’ll see the real Sophia back in evidence next season.
Connecticut Sun 82 @ Chicago Sky 101
Lineups: Same again for Chicago, with Epiphanny Prince still on the bench in street clothes despite having been with the team for a full week. Connecticut switched it up a little, replacing rookie forward Alyssa Thomas with point guard Alex Bentley. That slid Allison Hightower over to off-guard, and Katie Douglas to small forward opposite Elena Delle Donne. In theory, that should’ve given Delle Donne more to worry about on the defensive end, but Douglas hasn’t been scaring anyone much with her offense so far this season.
Story of the Game: The game was close for much of the first half, with Bentley giving the Sun a more aggressive mentality and pushing them to run more often. That kept them in touch with the Sky, who had Tamera Young hitting shots early on, and contributions coming from various players around the floor.
In fact, it was the bench players who helped key the second quarter run that led Chicago into a ten-point halftime lead. Courtney Clements hit a couple of jumpers, after Allie Quigley had been going shot-for-shot with Bentley for a while. Even Gennifer Brandon made a positive impact coming in for a few minutes, before Delle Donne and Jessica Breland came back in to keep the offensive production flowing. You have to credit Pokey Chatman for what she’s found and managed to piece together with the complementary players on this roster. They looked thin to start the season, with concerns over the absences of Prince and Sylvia Fowles, but the unknown pieces have stepped up and helped the team win.
Chicago’s lead was never below 12 points in the second half, from the moment Breland opened the scoring with another short jumper. Connecticut finally played Chiney Ogwumike and Kelsey Bone as their post pairing for an extended period, and Bone went to work inside, but the Sun couldn’t get the stops they needed to turn it into a comeback. Shockingly frequently, Connecticut would score, only for Chicago to quickly inbound the ball and take the two points back at the other end before you could blink. The Sun looked dispirited, willing to work for the fun of scoring points, but not put the effort in to fight back into the game on the defensive end.
Plus they couldn’t stop Delle Donne. Which is hardly a surprise.
Key Players: Delle Donne finished the game with 28 points, leading the team yet again but without needing to overwhelm the offense. Breland and Quigley were the other players in double digits, but it was a solid all-round performance to take care of a game they were supposed to win. In previous years, this could easily have been a ‘let-down game’ for the Sky – one they forgot to concentrate on and gave away while looking beyond it to tougher opponents. They look a stronger team mentally these days, and even – whisper it quietly – might have a little bit of depth on their roster.
Special mention must also go to point guard Courtney Vandersloot, who didn’t score a single point but finished the game with 13 assists versus just one turnover. She also had a nasty ankle sprain early in the second half, but came back into the game and played through it.
There were positives for the Sun, with Bone producing in the paint in the second half, Bentley helping the offense earlier on, and Alyssa Thomas showing some signs of life as the game wore on. But it was worrying how much their heads seemed to drop as their offensive efforts failed to get them back in the game in the second half. Maybe they were tired on the end of a back-to-back, or maybe the losing is starting to wear on them, even this early in the season.
Notes of Interest: Renee Montgomery played most of the fourth quarter, admittedly including many minutes where the game was essentially over. But she attacked off the dribble, fired from deep, and produced 11 points on five shots in under eight minutes of action. This player can’t help the Sun during more meaningful moments in games?
On the other bench, the situation with Prince is growing increasingly ridiculous. Not playing last weekend made sense, because she’d only just returned and hadn’t had time to practice with the team. Not playing this weekend is just strange, and ‘personal reasons’ was again the only reason offered by the Chicago broadcasters. If she wasn’t ready to play, why did they let her come back and start geting paid?
Tulsa Shock 78 @ Phoenix Mercury 100
Lineups: Both teams started the same groups as in their previous games. According to the Mercury commentators, Riquna Williams’s move back to the bench for Tulsa was at her own request. She feels she can get a better sense for the game, so Fred Williams made the move that had seemed obvious from the beginning.
Story of the Game: Early on, this was a contest. Tulsa found holes in the Phoenix defense by dragging Brittney Griner out of the paint, bringing her man up to set screens in the pick-and-roll, then finding the space behind her. Griner still doesn’t know quite how to set herself on those plays, so that she can come forward and still be able to slide back, without moving off-balance.
Remember in the first game of the season, when Phoenix looked like they had depth – especially offensively – that could rival Los Angeles? Well that depth reasserted itself last night, and helped the Mercury turn this game in their favour. Erin Phillips and Candice Dupree were the only starters on the floor when they put a run together over the end of the first quarter and on into the second, with Shay Murphy, Anete Jekabsone-Zogota and Ewelina Kobryn alongside them. They ran nice plays and set strong screens to open the shooters for perimeter looks. Phillips, Murphy and AJZ reminded everyone they could shoot, and by the time Griner, Diana Taurasi and DeWanna Bonner came back in midway through the second quarter, Phoenix were up by 15.
Meanwhile, Tulsa had stopped moving the ball and finding space as a team. For most of the rest of the night they played a lot of one-on-one basketball, which can be exciting at times when it’s in the hands of Riquna Williams and Skylar Diggins, but never looked like making this game a contest. They came within nine points late in the first half when some of the jacked jumpers from outside fell in, but trailed by more than 20 for most of the second half. They couldn’t compete with the organisation, the movement, or the raw talent of the Mercury.
Key Players: Taurasi, Griner, Jekabsone-Zogota and Phillips were the players who finished with double-digit scoring for Phoenix, but it was a collective effort that overwhelmed the Shock. They shot 10-15 from three-point range as a team, with that first half surge behind Phillips and the backups starting everything off. From there it was plain sailing for most of the rest of the night.
Williams had the gaudy stat-line for the Shock, finishing 10-18 for 27 points, with Diggins not too far behind, but that’s rarely going to result in wins for Tulsa. We’ve seen this before from the Shock, with the guards just constantly firing away while the offense creates nothing else, and the losses pile up. Courtney Paris was involved early on, and did a decent defensive job on Griner as well, but faded from the attack. Glory Johnson was barely involved at all. They can’t be this one-dimensional and expect to win games.
Notes of Interest: Odyssey Sims left the game midway through the second quarter and never returned. Obviously that didn’t help any comeback effort that the Shock might’ve put together. Hopefully she’ll be healthy enough to play her part on Sunday night in Seattle.
Phoenix still have work to do on their defense, where there are gaps when they’re forced to rotate behind switches or screens. The 2-3 zone that they throw out occasionally is even further back on the scale of ‘work in progress’.
New York @ Indiana, 7pm ET. The Liberty need a bounce-back performance. Pondexter was good last night, but will likely have more trouble in this game with the pesky defense of Briann January in her grill for most of the night. They need a response from Tina Charles. Erlana Larkins enjoys a fight in the paint, but she’s barely six feet tall, and Charles needs to go at her, score inside, and dominate the boards. If she does that, New York can easily win this game against a Fever team that’s largely been pretty mediocre this season. January’s hit some shots, Larkins has produced strong efforts in the paint, rookie forward Natasha Howard has had some exciting moments – but they’ve largely been ordinary at best at both ends of the floor. Of course, they’re still waiting for star and emotional leader Tamika Catchings to join the fray. She was pictured practicing her jumper earlier this week, which is a good sign that she’s on her way back from her back problem, but this game may well be too soon.
It’s interesting that the two guards at the bottom of Donovan’s bench – Montgomery and Faris – are both players that really only contribute on one side of the floor. In the case of Montgomery, she can score in bunches but as you noted, has a bit of a rep as a lazy defender. Faris, on the other hand, has no real offense to speak of, but had a number of impressive defensive showings last year.
I understand benching Faris, because other guards on the team (McCray, Hightower, Bentley) are pretty good defenders and pretty good at getting their points (at least Hightower and Bentley, anyway). But with Montgomery, you’d think having her on the floor with Bentley would allow you to hide her a little on defense, at least against most teams, and it would do wonders for your floor spacing on the other end. And that’s something the Sun NEED, given that Ogwumike, Bone, and Thomas don’t have a whole lot of shooting range, but can be absolute beasts when allowed operate around the rim.
Not saying Montgomery should be getting 25 minutes a game or anything, but you’d think that when the Sun’s defense is looking terrible anyway (as it often does, even with good defenders on the floor), it might be worth putting a big scorer in for a few minutes when it actually matters to see if she can get anything going for you.
Mostly, though, I just can’t figure out why this team, which looks pretty good on paper (two lottery picks from this year, two All-Rookie players from last year, three former All-Star vets) look so abysmal, even when they have the lead.
Yeah, I don’t think their defense is good enough in the first place that Montgomery could make it that much worse. And their offense devolves into one-on-one stuff often enough that she could be useful to help that out. I’ve never even liked her that much as a player, generally felt she was overrated and that Sixth Woman award she won was a joke – but I still think she should be able to get minutes on this team (assuming she’s healthy).
If it carries on like this, Donovan surely won’t last past the end of the season, and even that might be generous. Chris Sienko (the GM) might finally be in trouble as well.