The Daily W, 06/29/2014

 

Los Angeles Sparks 92 @ Tulsa Shock 89

 

Lineups: Los Angeles stayed with the big group that has produced better results recently, with Candace Parker at small forward and point guard Lindsey Harding coming off the bench. Kristi Toliver was back from her obligations with Slovakia in EuroBasket Women 2015 qualifying to give them an extra reserve option. The only player still missing from the Sparks is guard Candice Wiggins, still recovering from surgery on her left knee. Tulsa have their own backup guard out with Riquna Williams still struggling to return from her bruised knee. Forward Tiffany Jackson-Jones hasn’t played all season after surgery on her shin.

 

Story of the Game: LA were on top throughout the first half. Tulsa couldn’t find their range from outside, so the only points they produced were when they found their way through LA’s still relatively porous defense. At the other end, the most impressive element of LA’s offense was their balance. For once they weren’t relying on one player getting hot and carrying them – instead they were playing with good energy, and everyone was chipping in when they had the chance. Eight Sparks saw some playing time in the first half, all of them had at least one field goal, and LA led by 15 at the break.

But then there was the third quarter. Oh dear. Sparks head coach Carol Ross can use the tape of that ten minutes to shame her team whenever she feels the need to wake them up for the rest of the season. The LA defense was flat-out embarrassing in the third, giving up so many layups that the game just became a procession to the hoop for Tulsa. Over and over again, Skylar Diggins and Odyssey Sims were driving right through the lane and finishing at the basket, with defenders waving at them as they went by – and the help behind virtually nonexistent. Credit Tulsa for coming out strong from the locker room, but LA were playing a central role in their own downfall. Their 15-point lead was wiped out in under seven minutes.

LA actually produced a little decent offense of their own in the third, using Parker as a passer to Nneka Ogwumike on high-low link-ups after the ball was rotated back up from the wing. And Parker was also passing nicely when the Sparks got out on the break, where she always loves to bring the ball up the floor and fling it around. But a game they’d been dominating was a contest again because of their dismal team defense.

The start of the fourth didn’t go much better for LA, as Parker was twice in a row found desperately wanting on the defensive end while Jordan Hooper drilled threes. That’s a matchup that’s meant to be a mismatch in LA’s favour, but we really haven’t seen enough of Parker on the low block since she started playing so many minutes at small forward. She’s usually across from much smaller defenders, but seems happier trying to face them up or shoot over them, rather than use her significant physical edge. And now she was giving up threes at the other end as well – to the extent that later in the fourth Ogwumike was switched over to chase Hooper around, while Parker moved inside to defend Glory Johnson.

At times this felt like a streetball game, with both teams much more inclined to expend energy running the floor to score than they were to use it getting back to defend. Tulsa led for most of the fourth, but couldn’t pull away. Courtney Paris finished a putback off her own miss with a minute left for a four-point lead, but a Harding jumper, a poor Shock possession that ended in a shot-clock violation, and a lovely bounce-pass from Toliver for a Jantel Lavender layup tied the scores with 17 seconds left. Diggins tried to run the clock down, but it went a little too long when Armintie Herrington managed to poke the ball away and then use LA’s foul-to-give. It left the Shock with only 4 seconds to inbound again and create something, and an off-balance heave from Sims wasn’t close. On to overtime, for the third time in a row in Shock games.

Much of OT was oddly low-scoring considering the poor defense that had been played for most of the night. But Tulsa’s guards appeared to be tiring, and many of those drives that they’d finished earlier in the game weren’t being completed any more. After starting with Harding and Herrington in the backcourt for overtime, Ross made the smart move to introduce Toliver after a couple of minutes, which gave LA some much-needed punch to their offense. She got two at the line after being fouled on a drive, then drilled a big three to take the lead with barely a minute left.

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The Daily W, 06/28/2014

 

Phoenix Mercury 81 @ Indiana Fever 76

 

Lineups: Phoenix stuck with the big lineup that’s been working for them lately, but Indiana made yet another switch to their starting lineup, this time specifically tailored to the Mercury. Former Phoenix center Krystal Thomas, who’s barely played for most of the season in Indiana, came in to start the game and guard Brittney Griner. Karima Christmas dropped to the bench, while Erlana Larkins slid over to power forward.

 

Story of the Game: Indiana were in front and on top for the vast majority of this game, but could never quite kill it off. They played with fantastic energy in the first half, doubling and rotating when they needed to on defense but recovering well to challenge every shot. They got caught out a couple of times with Candice Dupree scoring over smaller defenders in the post after switches, but in general they kept Phoenix very quiet.

On offense, the Fever did a good job of attacking the rim and maintaining their aggression despite the Mercury’s size and length. Obviously, that was easier when Griner was resting, but they kept it up even when she was in the game. Marissa Coleman was also having one of those nights when pullup jumpers and fadeaways were dropping, which helped boost the offense.

Thomas had the first half of her WNBA life, playing effective defense against Griner and the Mercury drivers in the paint, and even chipping in with a couple of buckets when the ball fell her way. She was getting lots of help whenever necessary, and Phoenix struggled to get Griner the ball in the first place, but when Lin Dunn dreamed how inserting Thomas into the lineup would play out, that first half was almost exactly it. Indiana led by nine at the break.

The Fever looked outstandingly well prepared for playing Phoenix, knowing where the holes in the Mercury’s defense were going to crop up before they showed themselves. But Phoenix wouldn’t go away. They still had Dupree finishing plays inside, and Penny Taylor helped in the third quarter as well with her familiar tricky spinning drives into the lane. Phoenix were also starting to shoot a heap of free throws, with Diana Taurasi leading the way after being antagonised by Briann January’s physical defense earlier in the game. Opponents often find they don’t like Diana when she’s angry.

January had a poor game, and was the central figure in the turnover problems that seriously damaged Indiana in the second half. Too many passes went flying out of bounds, or hit a teammate in the feet rather than the hands. And in the final period Phoenix finally completed the comeback. Indiana’s offense had tired and stagnated, while the Mercury were still energised by their charge back into the game. DeWanna Bonner – whose defense has been deservedly castigated here many times in recent years – had two crucial steals in the latter stages. The first created four points because it led to a clear path foul, the two resulting free throws, and then a Dupree finish in the lane. The second came on the ensuing inbounds play, just to further demoralise the Fever.

Indiana were given a chance when Taurasi fouled Shavonte Zellous on a late three, with the resulting foul shots making it a one-point game. But Sandy Brondello drew up a beautiful play in the timeout that followed, confusing the Indiana defense and leaving Taurasi open for three. She drilled it, and that was just about the end of Indiana’s chances.

 

Key Players: Dupree was the most consistent threat for Phoenix over the course of the night, but Taylor’s ‘old man game’ moves helped drag them back, and Taurasi’s driving and big-shotmaking finished it off. Griner was swallowed whole by Indiana’s defense and faded from the game badly, which was a discouraging sign, despite her six blocks.

Indiana actually played a heck of a game, but just couldn’t keep it up for all 40 minutes. After recent close losses to Tulsa and Minnesota, they’ll be very disappointed to let this one slip away as well. Thomas did what was asked of her on the defensive end, and may well have earned more minutes even against other opponents. Lynetta Kizer is the far more talented offensive player, but Thomas is the vastly better defender. Coleman and Zellous did most of their scoring, with some help from Larkins and Christmas, but it was a collective effort that nearly held off one of the better teams in the league. Unfortunately, ‘nearly’ doesn’t count for anything in the standings.

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The Daily W, 06/27/2014

 

Atlanta Dream 81 @ San Antonio Stars 79

 

Lineups: Both sides went with the starting fives we’ve come to expect. Matee Ajavon played for the first time in weeks for Atlanta off the bench, albeit very briefly. Swin Cash didn’t play at all, but as far as anyone reported that was only a coach’s decision

 

Story of the Game: San Antonio started so poorly that Dan Hughes called a timeout after only 70 seconds of play, and subbed out four of his starters. Danielle Robinson was the only player to escape the cull. Having made his point, he sent them all back in three minutes later. Regardless of which group was in the game for the Stars, Atlanta were the team playing with pace and energy early on. They were repeatedly finding their way right into the heart of the San Antonio defense, and converting at the rim. Erika de Souza was the main threat in the paint, but Sancho Lyttle was an option as well, with Angel McCoughtry making her presence known as always by attacking off the dribble.

San Antonio came back into it largely by figuring out their own offense, rather than improving their defense. Once they started playing with more mobility and creating good looks at the offensive end, it slowed down Atlanta’s offense because they had to pull the ball out of the basket. It’s much harder to run when you can’t get stops. Shoni Schimmel’s wide open three at the first quarter buzzer summed up how the Stars had played defense – but it only extended Atlanta’s lead to seven points, rather than the blowout that looked imminent in the early moments. The pattern continued in the second quarter, where San Antonio continued to slide back into the game by hitting shots and finding their own gaps in Atlanta’s defense, draining much of the Dream’s momentum. Atlanta were up by just three at halftime, despite shooting 51% from the field.

But the Dream reasserted themselves in the third quarter, and took control of the game again. San Antonio had gotten stagnant on offense, leading to breakdowns and turnovers. Apart from occasional forays by Danielle Adams, the Stars really don’t have a threat in the paint that they can toss the ball to for a good look inside, which means that when they stop moving their offense can end up looking horrible. They also got painfully outworked on the glass in the third quarter allowing Atlanta to push their lead back out to double-digits. The only things that even kept San Antonio within shouting distance were a couple of Jia Perkins threes, aided by some shoddy transition defense from the Dream. The shine was taken off that when Perkins appeared to pull her right hamstring in the waning seconds of the period, while simply dribbling the ball upcourt. Considering Shenise Johnson has already missed several games this season with hamstring problems, it makes you wonder whether the Stars stretch properly before games.

This game looked pretty much over, and appeared to be drifting to a conclusion as the perimeter of Celine Dumerc, Shoni Schimmel and Tiffany Hayes offered energy and creativity that extended Atlanta’s lead to 14 midway through the fourth quarter. But once Angel McCoughtry came back in, and the Dream started firing quick, forced shots and acting like their work was done for the night, the Stars made a charge. Most of the comeback came on threes from Shameka Christon, hitting one of her all-too-rare hot streaks from outside. Becky Hammon nailed a triple as well, and had a trademark spinning layup in the closing seconds. Christon’s third three in the final two minutes made it a one-point game, but with just two seconds left on the clock. Hayes went 1-of-2 at the line, but without timeouts San Antonio had to try to push the length of the court to answer. Robinson was fouled by Dumerc (with Atlanta’s foul-to-give) to slow her down, and then her heave came after time expired on the ensuing inbounds (and wasn’t close anyway). The Stars had run out of time, and Atlanta had just barely clung on.

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The Daily W, 06/26/2014

 

Chicago Sky 69 @ Connecticut Sun 79

 

Lineups: Probably the most exciting moment of the night for Sky fans came before the game even began, with the confirmation that both Elena Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles would be returning to the lineup. Delle Donne had missed five games due to illness related to the Lyme disease she’s suffered with in the past; Fowles had been out all season recovering from surgery on her hip. They both came straight back into the starting group, putting together the five that Pokey Chatman had been hoping to use all season. Connecticut were still without guard Allison Hightower due to her knee problem, while Danielle McCray is also going to be out for a while after breaking her right thumb. Kelly Faris was expected to be out due to a sprained wrist, and surprised even the Sun commentator when she appeared on the floor.

 

Story of the Game: Chicago came flying out of the gate, energised by their returning players, and dominated the early stages. They looked for Fowles in the post immediately, and she spun right by Kelsey Bone for a layup. Big Syl’s size and length under the basket continued to provide a target for her teammates to toss the ball up to as the first quarter wore on. Delle Donne looked a little further away from her best, and they kept her minutes restricted all night, but it was a strong, positive start for the Sky as a team. Backup point guard Jamierra Faulkner came off the bench and kept their momentum going by attacking the rim, and even hitting a jump shot (which really showed the basketball gods were smiling down on the Sky in the first quarter).

But the biggest the gap ever became was 12 points, and the Sun kept hanging around despite Chicago’s speedy onslaught. A few hustle plays, some transition points, and a couple of messy turnovers from Chicago, and Connecticut were right back in it. Delle Donne found some energy to provide a burst of offense for the Sky late in the first half, enabling Chicago to lead by six at the break, but Connecticut were very much involved in the contest despite Chicago’s quick start.

And then in the second half, it was all Sun. Chicago had lost their flow entirely, and there were too many possessions with a scary resemblance to their stagnant, static offense from the past – where the desperate focus on trying to feed Fowles in the paint drags all movement to a halt. The impressive thing about the early stages was that Chicago were playing with the same pace that we’d seen from them early this season, only with all the stars back involved. As the game wore on, that pace and fluency completely disappeared.

But credit the Sun for forcing many of Chicago’s problems. From the second quarter on they played with much better energy and focus on the defensive end, and the second half saw them constantly forcing the issue against an increasingly nervous Chicago team. Alyssa Thomas had probably her best half so far as a pro, using her strength and size to attack the basket from the wing. She also combined with the rest of Connecticut’s frontcourt players to overwhelm Chicago on the glass. With Fowles, Delle Donne and Jessica Breland all involved for Chicago, they should’ve been able to battle it out on the boards, but they were utterly dominated.

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The Daily W, 06/25/2014

 

Washington Mystics 81 @ San Antonio Stars 70

 

Lineups: The starting groups were the same as in recent games for both teams, but there was also some good news among the reserves. Rookie center Stefanie Dolson was wearing some protection on her right knee, but she was ready and available to play after an awkward looking fall in their game on Sunday night in Seattle.

 

Story of the Game: This one was pretty close for most of the first three periods. Danielle Robinson was hitting her mid-range jumper early on, as a key part of San Antonio’s offense. Once Kayla McBride stopped firing up bricks from outside and started attacking off the dribble a little, she joined in later in the game. Meanwhile Washington ran a lot through the post, with Kia Vaughn the early beneficiary and Dolson increasingly involved as the game progressed.

The Mystics pulled in front in the second quarter, hitting some of the mid-range shots that opened up once San Antonio started sending extra help into the paint to keep them away from the rim. But the Stars were hitting enough to hang around, and a trio of three-point plays from Sophia Young-Malcolm in the third quarter helped San Antonio turn the tide. Washington countered with three threes from Ivory Latta, one in transition and two from so deep that the defense was understandably a step off her. They were mostly those “No… no… no… yes!” shots that Latta tends to specialise in on her good nights.

So the game was decided in the fourth quarter. San Antonio missed some good looks, both inside and out, which ground their offense to a halt. They also went away from what had been working – we saw very little of Robinson attacking with her speed, or McBride getting to the rim. The star of the closing period was Dolson, who scored on whichever San Antonio defender happened to be near her in the paint. Kayla Alexander, Danielle Adams and Jayne Appel were all victims, as the big rookie converted on post moves and putbacks for her most productive offensive sequence as a pro. San Antonio were also dominated on the boards in the final period, which isn’t a new experience for them. The Stars couldn’t come up with any answers, and Washington eased home for a much-needed win.

 

Key Players: In the fourth it was mostly Dolson for Washington, but Latta made the big shots in the third and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt was effective in spurts for most of the afternoon. It won’t work against everyone – many WNBA teams are better at defending the paint than San Antonio – but the interior attack gave Washington a grounding throughout the game. Even if the points ultimately came from outside, it often started by getting the ball inside.

McBride and Robinson were the most effective offensive weapons for San Antonio, although it was nice to see Young-Malcolm finishing through contact in the third quarter. As we’ve seen over the years, the Stars have a tendency to live or die by the jump shot, and 2-15 from beyond the arc was too much to survive in this one

 

Notes of Interest: San Antonio switched to their 3-2 zone early in the fourth quarter, a common move by Dan Hughes to try to unsettle opponents. The interesting thing was that Washington appeared to have a set intended to force a defensive three-seconds violation, and it worked. It earned the Mystics a free throw, and pushed San Antonio to switch back to their man-to-man the next time down the floor. We’ve so rarely seen opposing teams try to actively force those issues against zones since the rule was introduced last season, so it was nice to see a counter-move work exactly as planned.

 

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Seattle Storm 57 @ Los Angeles Sparks 65

 

Lineups: Both teams started the same units that had begun their previous games. So Temeka Johnson was in the lineup again for Tanisha Wright, still out due to her bruised knee, while Los Angeles once again went big with Candace Parker at small forward and point guard Lindsey Harding on the bench.

 

Story of the Game: This was a game that LA led almost from beginning to end, but never managed to put to bed until the final moments. It was an odd kind of game, considering Seattle’s offense has been working fairly well in their recent outings while LA have been trying to fix their leaky defense – the Storm ended up having great difficulty scoring despite a painfully slow-paced game that was exactly to their liking.

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The Daily W, 06/23/2014

 

Tulsa Shock 105 @ Chicago Sky 99 (OT)

 

Lineups: Same starting groups for both teams, although Riquna Williams was available again for Tulsa off the bench. She didn’t play much after two hideous turnovers late in the first quarter – both on pathetically lazy underarm ‘passes’. Maybe she wasn’t really ready to play, although the problem looked like it was more in her head than her knee.

 

Story of the Game: The defense in the opening stages of this game was flat-out embarrassing at both ends of the floor. Chicago were repeatedly giving up dribble penetration right into the heart of their defense; Tulsa’s rotations to cover after simple picks and passes were desperately slow or occasionally nonexistent. It provided a lot of points for the national audience on ESPN2, but some dismal viewing for the basketball purist.

It didn’t get a great deal better as the game wore on, although the teams tried to cover up their holes. After Roneeka Hodges had been smoking hot from outside to open up a lead for Tulsa, Allie Quigley starting draining threes for Chicago to turn it around. It helped that the Shock were barely bothering to even recognise she was on the floor, never mind defend her. Chicago led by 10 at halftime.

The Sky had Jessica Breland back in top form, being left in far too much space and adding some one-on-one moves to the free throw line jumper she’s been hitting all season. Pokey Chatman also got her team to start overwhelmingly collapsing into the lane to cover for the dribble-penetration. If you drop five defenders into the paint whenever anyone even looks like being beaten off the dribble, at least there’ll be a lot of traffic in the way when they try to get to the hoop.

With Skylar Diggins pushing the offense, and Glory Johnson picking up some scraps in her battle with Breland, Tulsa kept hanging around in range in the second half. They couldn’t quite get enough stops to complete the comeback, until the last few seconds of regulation. Jordan Hooper hit a three for Tulsa, Johnson finished off a nice feed from Diggins, and then Johnson drove from the elbow through contact for a three-point play with 19 seconds left. That tied up a game that Chicago had led for every second since early in the second quarter. It also picked up Breland’s fifth foul. Chicago had a chance to win it, but Epiphanny Prince’s pullup jumper off a high Markeisha Gatling pick was short, and Breland’s putback attempt hit the side of the backboard. Extra basketball.

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The Daily W, 06/21/2014

 

New York Liberty 64 @ Atlanta Dream 85

 

Lineups: Same again for both teams. So recent additions to the starting lineup in New York, Alex Montgomery and Avery Warley-Talbert, retained their spots ahead of Essence Carson (poor performance) and Plenette Pierson (semi-injured). Atlanta continue to start Jasmine Thomas at the point, sliding Shoni Schimmel and Celine Dumerc in during the course of the game.

 

Story of the Game: By some distance, this was the most comprehensively we’ve seen a team approach New York with a “someone other than your stars must beat us” attitude this season. Every time Cappie Pondexter used an on-ball screen, the two defenders involved both went to her, trapping the ball out of her hands. Similarly, double-teams dropped down on Tina Charles whenever she touched the ball inside, although she had trouble converting anything all night even when she got shots up before extra defenders arrived. Atlanta trusted their defensive rotations and help behind the traps to cover the gaps, and understandably felt they were better off conceding good looks to Montgomery, Warley-Talbert, Anna Cruz and the other role players – rather than letting Pondexter or Charles carry the offense. Other teams have beaten New York without being quite so overt in their efforts to limit New York’s stars, but essentially the plan worked. Pondexter kept passing, Charles either missed or disappeared, and Atlanta moved in front.

Angel McCoughtry drove much of Atlanta’s offense in the first half, although once again she was a little too focussed on her own scoring. But she was attacking the rim, always giving the Dream an option offensively if nothing else presented itself. They had better energy than New York, better ball movement, and their defensive intensity fed into their offense, which has always been the case when Atlanta are at their best. Aneika Henry had another strong half as well, in what’s becoming a legitimate three-post rotation, rather than Sancho Lyttle, Erika de Souza, and hoping you can find some rest for that pair. Atlanta led by 14 at halftime, despite dismal outside shooting. They were getting to the rim and the free throw line more than often enough, while dominating the glass, and the Liberty couldn’t keep up.

Both teams went deep into their benches in the second half, when Atlanta’s lead was rarely threatened. These teams are on very different paths at the moment, with Atlanta winning their sixth straight while New York lost their eighth in nine games. It was pretty easy to tell which was which from their confidence levels and performance on the floor.

 

Key Players: McCoughtry led Atlanta’s scoring, but needed 19 shots for 18 points, and was benched in the second half when Michael Cooper seemed to tire of her selfishness as much as I did. She finished with six assists, which shows how far her game has come in the last couple of years – she still makes passes and finds her teammates, even when it feels like she’s hogging the ball a little during the play. In years past, she’d have had one assist in a game like that, on an airball that the scorer generously counted as a pass.

Tiffany Hayes had fantastic energy throughout the game, throwing herself around the court as usual. It’s not a real Hayes game unless she hits the floor at least four or five times – which unfortunately leads to too many problematic little injuries. But for now, she’s settling into her starting role, bringing the same fire that she used to add from the bench. It’s Schimmel who’s taken on that sixth woman role now, and she had some of her typical highlight-reel passes, while shooting pretty poorly.

New York had nothing much offensively from anyone, although Montgomery shot pretty well when she occasionally let fly. We’d see more teams approach playing them this way – with an overwhelming focus on defending Pondexter and Charles – if the Liberty were playing well enough for opponents to feel they needed to bother adapting that heavily.

 

Notes of Interest: While it would’ve made little difference for this game, it’s hard to understand why Charles and Pondexter are ever on the bench at the same time. This is a team built around two stars, with other players essentially told they’re supporting acts from the start. Surely it’s possible to stagger the rest for Charles and Pondexter so that one of them is always on the floor to help her teammates? They seem to rest simultaneously for stretches of every single Liberty game.

 

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Washington Mystics 65 @ Minnesota Lynx 75

 

Lineups: There was good news for Minnesota before tip-off, with Seimone Augustus returning to the starting lineup after missing a game due to bursitis in her left knee. The Mystics started the same group that we’ve seen in recent games. Washington’s Tayler Hill has now had her baby, and is apparently expected to return before the end of the season – but obviously was still unavailable for this game. Minnesota are down to just one player still out due to preseason knee surgery, with Rebekkah Brunson still on the sidelines.

 

Story of the Game: Augustus didn’t look like someone worrying about knee pain, with a three and a spinning drive into the lane in the opening minutes. Maya Moore joined in the scoring and the Lynx took control of the game late in the first quarter and early in the second. A stretch of three cheap Washington turnovers, while Minnesota hit three jumpers at the other end before rounding it off with a transition layup, left the Lynx up by 17.

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