Lineups: Atlanta had French point guard Celine Dumerc available for the first time, bus as she’d only arrived a couple of days earlier she came off the bench behind the same starting five we’d seen in recent Dream games. LA shook things up, starting Candace Parker as a small forward for the first time in years. Jantel Lavender came in to start at center, with wing Armintie Herrington dropping to the bench. The Sparks also had Kristi Toliver available after returning from her brief trip to Slovakia. She’ll be heading back there again in less than a week.
Story of the Game: The opening stages were dominated by LA, something we’ve already seen more than once in Sparks games this season. They come out with high intensity, force mistakes and turnovers from their opponents, and then score before they have to set up or run anything complicated in the halfcourt. But it’s just not possible to keep that pace up for 40 minutes, so the game slows down and they become far less effective.
Atlanta briefly tried to cover Parker with Tiffany Hayes, a matchup which illustrates how far the Dream will often go to keep Angel McCoughtry away from tougher defensive matchups. But Hayes picked up two fouls in the first 38 seconds (one trying to cover Parker, the other in transition) and then a third a minute later (after Michael Cooper decided not to take her out). At that point, McCoughtry was virtually forced to pick up Parker.
LA led by as many as nine points in the first quarter, constantly looking for quick offense even when they weren’t technically in transition. While most teams and coaches will tell you that attacking early before a defense can settle is usually a good idea, there was a hint of desperation about it for the Sparks. It felt like they were in this constant press for quick offense because they knew how much they’d struggle if they slowed down.
The Dream were already sliding back into the game as the opening period progressed, and took over the lead in the second quarter. LA’s defense was scrambled early, so willing to switch or pick up whoever’s in the vicinity that at times it looks almost like a zone. Switching is fine, as long as the communication’s good and everyone rotates and recovers where necessary. But Atlanta were moving the ball and finding huge gaps in LA’s defense when the Sparks got confused or failed to help after teammates got beaten. You would think with an extra post player coming into the lineup that the middle of the defense should be more secure – bigger, longer defenders, more rim protection, more crowded in the lane – but LA were giving up a ridiculous number of points in the paint. The vast majority of Atlanta’s points were coming on layups and finishes around the basket, rather than from outside.
Dumerc came in for Hayes after her early foul trouble, but it was the other ‘backup’ point guard that helped ignite the Dream. Shoni Schimmel came in and started linking up with Erika de Souza, or creating points for herself off the dribble. Schimmel’s vision and ability to make accurate passes to players in motion or posting up is excellent, and her energy and flair is always going to excite a crowd. There’ll be an occasional head-shaking turnover, and the defense is still a work in progress, but in the early stages of her pro career the good is already significantly outweighing the bad.
Very little changed as we moved into the second half. LA tried to get their guards involved in the offense, but while they finally hit a shot or two it wasn’t enough to scare the Dream defense. The same flaws continued to hand points to Atlanta, who had de Souza as their primary scoring weapon. She’s a big, physical player, but she also has nimble feet and runs the floor hard – right down the middle, basket-to-basket. That often gets her layups in transition, or solid early position deep in the paint. She was also the beneficiary of more illustrations of the development we saw in Angel McCoughtry’s game last season – keeping her head up on drives, and giving up the ball if a teammate is better placed. Extra defenders went to Angel, she dumped off to Erika, and she finished the play – often with no rotating help defense in sight.
LA trailed by 13 points late in the third quarter, and only started to make real inroads when they switched to an actual zone defense, rather than a man-to-man that just occasionally looked zone-ish. Atlanta got caught up just passing the ball around the edges of the zone without penetrating it, lost all their momentum, and the Sparks came all the way back to within a single point with just over three minutes left in the game. McCoughtry had also fouled out, picking up her sixth on a harsh call while fighting for a rebound. But LA’s offense was still stilted and unimaginative, Parker (twice), Nneka Ogwumike and Lindsey Harding all missed jumpers after the ball barely moved, and Atlanta pushed their lead back out for a deserved win.
Key Players: Erika de Souza is the name that jumps out, finishing the game 13-18 for 27 points and 11 boards. But it’s the staggering 68 points in the paint for Atlanta as a team that’s most telling. 31 of their 39 baskets were scored within five feet of the rim, as they found ways into the heart of LA’s defense over and over again. Schimmel’s constant desire to push the pace and keep the team playing at a high tempo was fun to watch as well.
For LA the ball was in Parker’s hands a lot, but Lavender actually led the scoring and shot an impressive 10-15 from the field. She can finish inside and is as good as any post in the league at hitting the elbow jumper, which ought to make the triple-post offense even more effective for LA. The defense with Parker, Ogwumike and Lavender all on the floor clearly has some way to go.
Notes of Interest: The Sparks have gone from impressively deep to paper-thin incredibly quickly. Toliver’s transatlantic travels have had her in and out of the lineup (and not looking herself last night after the long return trip). Candice Wiggins is out for a while after surgery on her knee. And Carol Ross has no confidence in Farhiya Abdi or Nikki Greene, and only very slightly more in Sandrine Gruda. That only leaves six players. Gruda has to be worked into the rotation properly, and if Abdi and/or Greene aren’t good enough to play, they might need to cut at least one of them and go searching for help.
It wasn’t a good day for the French contingent in general. Gruda and Dumerc combined for 16 minutes, zero shots, zero points, and six turnovers. Both should improve significantly.
Lineups: Same again for both teams. The only injury keeping anyone out on either of these rosters was Jenna O’Hea’s broken toe for Seattle.
Story of the Game: The first 15 minutes of the game were very close. Seattle have always given Phoenix problems over the years, even when the Mercury have had more talent on an individual basis, because the Storm are invariably well organised and smart. They know how to take advantage of the Mercury’s failings. Unfortunately for Seattle, there aren’t quite so many of them any more. But in the early stages of the game the Storm moved the ball well to find open shooters on the perimeter, and found Crystal Langhorne for points in the paint.
Langhorne’s settling in with the Storm now, and this was just the latest in an outstanding stretch of games. Rather than being dissuaded from going anywhere near the rim by the presence of Brittney Griner, Langhorne seemed to take it as a personal challenge, and scored several times by going right at Griner under the basket. She’s a supreme finisher around the hoop, and Seattle are increasingly developing ways to take advantage of that.
Phoenix had a couple of miscommunications defensively, but it’s a huge sign of progress for them that it’s now possible to pick out areas they need to work on and fine-tune – rather than just throwing your hands in the air and shaking your head whenever they’re playing defense. On the offensive end they were having no trouble finding holes to attack, moving the ball and hitting shots. Griner was also well-integrated for once, and her own array of short jumpers and hooks were balancing out some of Langhorne’s success at the other end.
Midway through the second quarter, consecutive Storm possessions saw Mercury defenders fight around picks and get fingertips to the shot the Seattle player was firing behind the screen. That was the start of a strong run for Phoenix to close the first half, and allowed them to go into the interval ahead by nine, after 20 minutes of basketball where there’d been little to choose between the teams. See, defense matters, and the Mercury are starting to learn that.
Langhorne continued to carry the Seattle offense in the second half, but without quite the same ruthless efficiency, and with very little help from her teammates. The shooters around the floor haven’t provided much support for her in recent games, and it’s hard work to win games when you’re only scoring from one source. Langhorne also settled for her mid-range jumper a little too often in the second half. It’s a shot she can hit, and it helps keep the defense honest, but she’s so good at finishing inside that the jumper is a low-percentage attempt by comparison.
Seattle came within six points at one stage in the second half, but for the most part the Mercury were fairly comfortable. Candice Dupree and Diana Taurasi showed that their pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop is the equal of Langhorne-and-whoever, Griner picked up a couple of blocks on Langhorne in retribution for the times she’d been beaten earlier on, and everyone drew fouls and hit free throws when the game became a whistle-fest in the third quarter. It was one of the more relaxing games the Mercury have had against Seattle in recent memory.
Key Players: Taurasi, Dupree and Griner were the primary weapons for Phoenix, but they got decent support from elsewhere when it was required. This was the kind of performance they want to see from Griner night-in and night-out. Seattle tried to swarm defenders to her, but she scored quickly and efficiently enough that they couldn’t get the extra help to her in time. When they did arrive quickly enough, she made the right pass to open teammates. Defensively, she didn’t quit or look downhearted under Langhorne’s onslaught, but kept fighting her, and made things more difficult as the game wore on. Plus she avoided the foul trouble that’s plagued her in too many games in the past. It seems strange to say Griner was a bright spot when her assignment was far and away the most effective player on the opposition, but this was progress.
For Seattle, Langhorne was outstanding, Tanisha Wright had her usual active night defending Taurasi, and Shekinna Stricklen hit a few threes off the bench. That was about it. They actually played decent basketball for much of the night, and took better care of the ball than they have in many games this season – they just got outplayed by a team with significantly more offensive talent.
Notes of Interest: Taurasi was called for a flagrant foul in the third quarter for a block from behind on her good friend Sue Bird. It initially looked like a pretty wild swipe, and Bird’s legs got tangled up with a defender as she landed to make it look worse, but there was nothing much to get excited about. It was downgraded to a common foul on review, and everyone moved on. We did have to suffer through an endless stream of free throws while the officials tried to ‘take control of the game’, though.
To the surprise of nobody, Elena Delle Donne and Maya Moore were named WNBA Players of the Month for their respective conferences. Similarly obvious was Chiney Ogwumike taking Rookie of the Month.
The WNBA admitted after the Minnesota-San Antonio game on Sunday that the technical called on the Lynx for their trainer coming onto the court to examine Damiris Dantas was wrongly assessed. Apparently, the officials have been fined, and Kayla Alexander retroactively given a flagrant foul for the elbow that left Dantas on the floor. Referee Tony Dawkins had already apologised to Cheryl Reeve for his mistake at halftime during the game.
Thursday June 5th
San Antonio @ New York, 7pm ET
Washington @ Connecticut, 7pm ET