The Daily W, 06/02/2014

 

Atlanta Dream 76 @ Connecticut Sun 85

 

Lineups: Connecticut’s Kelsey Griffin was out with what was worryingly reported as a gall bladder problem. That made the decision for Anne Donovan in the post, although she later said that Kelsey Bone would’ve started at center alongside Chiney Ogwumike anyway. Kelley Cain was also available again off the bench after her foot injury. Atlanta went with the same five as in their previous game, and the absence of Inga Orekhova on the bench proved to be a telling sign of who was being cut to make room for Celine Dumerc’s imminent arrival.

 

Story of the Game: The two young Sun posts bookended the first half for Connecticut, Bone getting them off to a strong start, and Ogwumike dominating the closing stages. The Sun led for most of the opening 20 minutes, with Atlanta’s only consistent success coming via the offensive boards. Both teams displayed some terrible transition defense at times, but Connecticut were more consistent in attacking with pace and taking advantage of Atlanta’s lapses. Renee Montgomery got another chance to make an impression after her strong finish to their previous game, and gave the Sun the burst of speed and scoring that’s always been the central positive to her game. It’s still not entirely clear why Donovan has left her stuck to the bench through most of their early games.

Both teams were sloppy in the second quarter, as turnovers started to dominate the action. Angel McCoughtry was having a tough time getting anything going, with both Katie Douglas and Alyssa Thomas doing a decent job on her defensively. But Angel tends to be her own worst enemy at times, and she started to force things and make it worse. She was 0-9 at the interval, and Connecticut led by double-digits.

It didn’t get much better for the Dream in the second half. They cut the gap to six early on, but the Sun quickly pushed it back out, and were fairly comfortable for the rest of the afternoon. After some poor displays so far this season, it was a nice respite for Connecticut, and they’ll be hoping it’s a sign of things to come.

Atlanta were frustrated, and started losing their heads. McCoughtry screamed about a defensive lapse – that was her own fault – and was benched. Michael Cooper picked up a technical of his own. And then Matee Ajavon added her second tech of the game to get herself ejected – she’d been a disaster on the floor anyway, so it was no great loss. To add injury to a fairly insulting performance, Tiffany Hayes picked up a painful knock while running into a screen with only three seconds left in the game.

 

Key Players: It’s hard to pick out anyone worth mentioning for Atlanta. Hayes and Erika de Souza were the most effective scorers, and Shoni Schimmel had a few decent moments when Cooper used her – which wasn’t all that much – but no one had the best of days. For all of Cooper’s talk about wanting to play even faster than the Dream have in the past, Atlanta haven’t been earning as many points off turnovers as in previous seasons. The loss of Armintie Herrington hasn’t helped in that area. Without those steals and breaks to ignite their play and provide cheap points, they lack the electricity that this team possesses at its best. In fact, they’re giving up more points off their own miscues than they’re creating via takeaways. But Cooper’s still settling in, Dumerc’s arrival will help, and they’re in the East – they’ve got plenty of time to improve.

Ogwumike and Bone, the post pairing many of us have been begging for since opening day, was the bedrock for this performance and should be for the Sun going forward. Kelsey Griffin is a nice player, but she’s a good energy backup. Bone’s a 23-year old true center, and the partnership she might develop with Ogwumike could be their core for a decade.

The Sun also look better with Alex Bentley or Montgomery as the ‘point guard’, allowing Allison Hightower to help out with initiating the offense but putting another creator next to her. It may mean they need to be a bit more creative to find minutes for Alyssa Thomas, but it’s far from impossible.

 

Notes of Interest: This was the promising, potential-laden Connecticut Sun that many of us wrote about in the preseason. If they can play like this more often, Anne Donovan might save her job yet.

 

—–

 

Los Angeles Sparks 84 @ Washington Mystics 92 (3OT)

 

Lineups: With Kristi Toliver in Slovakia representing her recently-adopted nation, Armintie Herrington and Alana Beard started on the wings for Los Angeles. Candice Wiggins was still out with her swollen knee – more on that in the ‘League News’ section at the end of this article – so the Sparks were looking thin on the perimeter. Especially as Carol Ross doesn’t really trust young Swedish backup Farhiya Abdi. Mike Thibault tinkered with his starters again, bringing Kara Lawson back in while Jelena Milovanovic went back to the bench. That slid Tierra Ruffin-Pratt to small forward, while Lawson joined Ivory Latta in the backcourt.

 

Story of the Game: This was a long, long game, as you’ll be able to tell from that ‘3OT’ in brackets above. The opening moments favoured LA, as they trapped on ball-screens and Washington panicked and gave the ball away under the resulting pressure. But an early Thibault timeout calmed his team down, and from there Washington were on top for most of the first half. Once the transition chances from Washington’s live-ball turnovers dried up, the LA offense bogged down horrendously, and with their lack of perimeter shooting there was no one to break them out of it. The Mystics were hardly lighting it up, but a little success from Monique Currie helped them cling to a lead.

LA concentrated heavily on working through their all-star post pairing of Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike in the second half, and for a while it worked. Setting up high-low passes between the two of them, and generally crashing the boards hard, got them back into the game and even into the lead for a while. But all afternoon, the Mystics knew where LA were going. Parker herself was really the only one who could stretch the floor for the Sparks, with Toliver and Wiggins absent, Beard unable to hit anything, and Lindsey Harding losing confidence in her jump shot as the game wore on. Washington could send double-teams whenever they felt like it and swamp the lane with defenders, without much fear of anyone hurting them from the perimeter.

Washington’s bench helped them turn the game back around as well. LA have the bigger names behind their regular starters, but Thibault and Washington have proven that they’ll use ten players and stick with whoever’s getting the job done. Ross has no such track record, even when her roster’s healthy. Bria Hartley, Stefanie Dolson and Jelena Milovanovic all made big plays for Washington down the stretch, and earned their right to play in overtime. Hartley went by Beard like she wasn’t there for Washington’s final points of regulation, before Parker scored over Emma Meesseman to tie it back up. Latta and Parker exchanged misses, before Latta was long on a three on the final possession – the rebound fell to Milovanovic, but she missed a short jumper that would’ve prevented a lot of extra basketball.

The highlight of the first overtime was a desperate leaning three from Latta with five seconds left that tied it up, after Parker had gone 1-of-2 at the free throw line with a chance to virtually ice the game. Parker made the right play on the final possession after Latta’s trey, passing out of a double-team, but Herrington turned down a wide open 10 foot jumper to force Ogwumike into a much tougher shot. Nneka’s forced fadeaway probably wouldn’t have counted even if it had dropped, due to time expiring.

Meesseman had a couple of gorgeous finishes in traffic around the rim in the second extra period, but Beard hit her first shot of the entire game between them, and then drilled a three to tie the game again. Most of the time when LA were managing to score, it was on the rare occasions that they created transition chances, and Parker gave them the lead again via that route. Latta was tripped and tied it up at the line, before a desperate Harding runner failed and sent us to the third overtime.

With everyone inevitably looking tired, it was the Mystics who manged to make the crucial plays to finally get over the line. Hartley finished over Beard again – a matchup that was a lot of fun in overtime, as they repeatedly attacked each other. Latta nailed a huge three. And Meesseman and Dolson managed to provide enough defensive pressure to force Parker and Ogwumike into misses. Parker lost her dribble out of bounds on a drive, Hartley hit a couple of free throws, and it was finally over.

 

Key Players: The rookie UConn duo of Hartley and Dolson both had impressive games, combining to shoot 13-21 for 34 points, and working effectively at the other end as well. Meesseman did a solid job battling Parker all afternoon, forcing her into a lot of misses. Parker helped with her willingness to settle for that turnaround baseline fadeaway – a really pretty shot on the one-in-ten occasions that it goes in – but Meesseman’s defense was part of making Parker decide that was the best option. Latta shot horribly overall, but made two of the biggest shots of the night when it mattered.

Parker and Ogwumike were just about it for LA offensively, which is ridiculous for a team with this much talent. They may not have that many outside shooters left available, but they’ve got plenty of people who can move and create, or finish decent sets. They should be able to do better than this, even on days when their transition chances are intermittent, and a couple of shooters are missing.

 

Notes of Interest: The Sparks keep flirting with their big lineups with Parker at small forward, especially considering their lack of perimeter options at the moment. They still don’t look comfortable with it. In fact, on one possession they tried to set up in a ‘horns’ formation, and Ogwumike, Parker and Jantel Lavender all tried to stand at the elbows where the two posts would typically start. Ogwumike had to scurry to the corner to create the standard formation, and the possession ended up with her jacking a contested three under pressure. It needs work.

The Sparks also need to brush up on their cover-up skills. Apparently, they don’t want people to know that Kristi Toliver left to play for Slovakia, because the box score read ‘Not With Team – Professional Business in Russia’ next to her name. So they’re either lying badly, or need to work on their geography – she was playing in a warm-up tournament in Slovakia, literally about a thousand miles away from Russia. On the bright side, she’s flying back to LA to play in their three games this week, before returning to join the Slovakians for their remaining EuroBasket Women 2015 qualifiers.

 

—–

 

Minnesota Lynx 87 @ San Antonio Stars 79

 

Lineups: As expected, once again. Monica Wright is apparently nearing a return, but isn’t ready yet. Shenise Johnson was still missing with her right hamstring injury for San Antonio.

 

Story of the Game: Once again, San Antonio gave the Lynx some problems for much of this game. Minnesota struggle to contain Danielle Robinson off the dribble, and San Antonio are smart in the ways they pop their shooters open for perimeter shots – and have several players who can hit them – so they were productive offensively. The problem was that they couldn’t do anything to stop the Lynx. Minnesota had a seven-point lead at halftime behind the scoring of Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus as usual, along with some help from Tan White off the bench. Apparently shooting efficiency is contagious, because White was hitting with the same consistency as her more storied teammates. San Antonio shot 53% in the first half and were still barely clinging to Minnesota’s coattails.

Most of the second half wasn’t much different. San Antonio’s offense was frequently effective, either through Jia Perkins, Becky Hammon and Kayla McBride outside, or even finding their way through the Lynx defense on pick-and-rolls or quick cuts. But Minnesota were just that smidgen better at the other end. Augustus was the key in the second half, repeatedly using screens to force her way onto bigger defenders who couldn’t hope to cover her, then either driving by them or shooting over them. She’s happy to kill you either way.

The Stars did hang close enough to put a scare into Minnesota in the closing minutes. They threw some 2-3 zone at the Lynx, which Augustus drove right down the middle of on its first appearance, but after that it seemed to help slow Minnesota down. Perkins drilled big shots at the other end, grabbed a couple of steals, and then a Jayne Appel finish on a pick-and-roll feed from Robinson pulled San Antonio within three with a minute left to play. But they let White sneak behind the zone, and she finished an alley-oop feed from Augustus to push the lead back out to five. The Stars ran a set for another Perkins three, but her attempt was long and that was that. The Lynx maintain their perfect record at 7-0.

 

Key Players: Augustus was Minnesota’s leading scorer, giving Moore a little bit of a rest despite Maya playing all 40 minutes. White’s production was important as well, giving the Lynx the bench production that they’ve rarely had in their games so far this season. Minnesota went small for most of the second half, with Moore at power forward and White as an extra perimeter player, which makes for more natural matchups against the smaller Stars. Whalen also did a good job of making sure she produced offensively, even if she couldn’t contain Robinson at the other end.

San Antonio were remarkably balanced, with seven players scoring at least eight points, and various people taking their turn to carry the load. It was the kind of performance that would’ve beaten many opponents, just not one this good.

 

Notes of Interest: Dan Hughes went super-small midway through the second quarter, with Sophia Young-Malcolm essentially at center and Shameka Christon at power forward. It didn’t work, and the experiment didn’t last long. Hughes is always willing to try different lineup combinations and see what might work, but that’s one we may not see too much more of.

 

—–

 

Tulsa Shock 60 @ Seattle Storm 62

 

Lineups: Odyssey Sims was available after reportedly being ‘under the weather’ for their previous game and sitting out for most of it. But Fred Williams decided to bring her off the bench, and with Riquna Williams having previously stated her preference to come off the pine, rookie forward Jordan Hooper started on the wing alongside Roneeka Hodges. Seattle used the same group that they’ve opened with in recent games.

 

Story of the Game: Seattle started the game stronger, and led by as many as 11 points in the first half. They were getting good looks at threes early in their possessions, actually running into some transition offense for once, and continue to develop their use of Crystal Langhorne on post-ups and pick-and-rolls.

Tulsa shot their way back into it in the second quarter behind their own threes from Hooper, Sims and Jennifer Lacy. We also saw a little variety from them in the first half, with Glory Johnson hitting some mid-range jump shots on pick-and-pops, and Courtney Paris a target in the low post. Paris was drawing double-teams from the Storm, and even with their small post players that’s a sign of respect for how far Paris’s game has come on the pro level.

Seattle led for the entire second half, but that’s a somewhat misleading description. The game stayed tight, with limited scoring, and Langhorne the only consistent threat for the Storm. Tulsa’s perimeter gunners were quiet, with Skylar Diggins virtually invisible under the defensive attention of Tanisha Wright, but the Shock kept making enough plays to hang around. Johnson was over-aggressive at times, shoving and elbowing her way into unnecessary fouls, but her activity around the rim was the main factor keeping Tulsa’s offense even slightly afloat.

Inevitably, it came down to the final moments, and equally inevitably the Shock found a way to lose. A Riquna Williams airball landed in Diggins’s hands, and her putback cut the gap to two points with 33 seconds left. Then – for once – Tulsa actually managed to rotate quickly enough to contain a Storm pick-and-roll (although why Seattle ran it with Camille Little instead of Langhorne, you’d have to ask Brian Agler). Langhorne grabbed the rebound, but lost the ball as she fell to the ground, and Tulsa had eight seconds to tie or take the lead.

Just for a change (that’s sarcasm), the Shock play went to Diggins up top, and she drove left. We’ve seen that play from Tulsa so many times at the end of games, and it’s worked a grand total of pretty close to zero – you’d think they might try something else. In fairness, a pick had created a switch, and left Diggins faced with Little. She ignored Glory Johnson down low, who had Wright on her as the other half of the switch, and tried to go past Little. The Storm post reached in and grabbed all ball, forcing a tie-up and a jump ball. She won the tip, Sue Bird tracked the ball down, and that was the game. The excruciating close losses continue for Tulsa.

 

Key Players: Langhorne was once again the offensive star for Seattle, and she’s developing lovely chemistry with Bird, Wright and Temeka Johnson. You lose count of the amount of passes on the pick-and-roll that split the two defenders and lead Langhorne in to finish with her typical smoothness. It’s pretty. Unfortunately, a little bit of Wright off the dribble and an occasional jumper from elsewhere was the only other offense the Storm could come up with, hence the mere 62 points.

Johnson finally became a central element in the Shock offense, and Paris had some moments as well, but unfortunately for Tulsa it came on a night when their perimeter players were largely no-shows. Hooper shot well in the first half, but Diggins, Sims and Williams were all notable only for how quiet they were for most of the night.

 

Notes of Interest: In fairness to these two teams, Seattle have played five of their seven games so far on the road, while Tulsa have played four of their five away from home. The schedule hasn’t done either of them any favours. That said, you’d probably have to look pretty hard to find anyone who doesn’t currently view these two as likely to be fifth and sixth in the West come the end of the season.

 

—–

 

League News

 

Los Angeles’s Candice Wiggins had surgery today to repair a torn left meniscus, and is expected to miss four-to-six weeks. Not good news for the Sparks considering it coincides with Kristi Toliver’s European travels. Toliver will be back for this week – which is bizarre, considering she’s missing Slovakia’s first two qualifiers – but then she’ll likely miss six Sparks games. And they’ll probably claim she’s in Russia throughout the whole thing.

 

Atlanta made their expected move today, waiving rookie wing Inga Orekhova to make room to activate French point guard Celine Dumerc. She could make her debut on ESPN2 tomorrow night against LA, if the Dream think she’s ready. Just as an extra note of interest, Greek forward Styliani Kaltsidou, a teammate of Dumerc’s at Bourges, made the trip to the US with her. There’s been no indication yet that the Dream are intending to sign Kaltsidou as well, but she’s a decent player. They certainly might think about it.

 

New York also made a roster move today, waiving the injured Kamiko Williams and signing post Avery Warley (now Avery Warley-Talbert). It’s a switch that was made possible when they released Kara Braxton last week and replaced her with Shanece McKinney, because McKinney’s much cheaper than Braxton so it opened up cap room. Williams, who tore her ACL in training camp, has to be paid her salary for the season, but they now have enough room to do that and add another player anyway. Warley’s a rebounding post who’s looked reasonable at times in WNBA stops in Phoenix, Chicago and New York. But as the fourth or fifth post, she won’t help fix many of the Liberty’s problems – like their need for supporting players who can shoot.

 

—–

 

Upcoming Games

 

Tuesday June 3rd

Los Angeles @ Atlanta, 7pm ET (live on ESPN2)

Seattle @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

 

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