Before reading today’s column, there’s an extra WNBAlien article for you to enjoy over at Hoop365.com HERE. It covers the strong starts from Chicago and Minnesota, plus various items of interest from around the WNBA. Please check it out.
Lineups: Tamika Catchings was still out for the Fever (and didn’t even travel with the team, so is also very unlikely to be playing tonight in Connecticut). Making things worse for the Fever, point guard Briann January – who’d been shooting the lights out lately – was also out after tweaking her ankle in practice. Layshia Clarendon started in her place, allowing Sydney Carter to continue her role coming off the bench. Washington opened with the same group that helped them beat Connecticut the night before, with rookie Bria Hartley in the lineup ahead of veteran Kara Lawson.
Story of the Game: Indiana were horrible for the opening 12 minutes of the game. Couldn’t hit a shot, no movement, no rhythm, no finishing – ugly. That was with both Clarendon and Carter trying their hand at running the team. After falling behind by as many as 16 points, the Fever finally got something going when Lin Dunn without a point guard, unless you count rookie gunner Maggie Lucas (which you really shouldn’t). Neither of the backup point guards had been doing anything at either end of the floor, so they simply let the likes of Shavonte Zellous and Marissa Coleman start with the ball in their hands and went from there.
With Zellous and Coleman leading the way, and finally hitting a couple of shots, the Fever came back into a game that Washington had been leading almost by default. The Mystics weren’t playing that well themselves, but had moved into the lead due to how poorly Indiana had played. Washington still led by nine at halftime.
Fever center Erlana Larkins had managed to pick up four fouls in the first half, the final one on a harsh call where she chased down a loose ball, slipped to the ground, and an opponent fell over her. Despite that foul trouble, she started the second half as normal, and proceeded to be the best player on the floor for the next 20 minutes – while playing all 20. She was a beast on the offensive glass, finished via post moves and putbacks, hustled after everything, kicked out for several open threes by teammates, and generally led the Indiana turnaround. With Washington continuing to be as mediocre as they’d been for most of the night, that swing changed the game.
Behind drives and bombs from Hartley and Ivory Latta, Washington managed to pull within a point late in the game. After a pair of Coleman free throws, the Mystics needed a three to tie in the final nine seconds. Natasha Howard extended her long limbs to block Hartley’s effort, and when the ball dropped to Stefanie Dolson she made the mistake of passing off to Kia Vaughn well inside the three-point arc. By the time Vaughn kicked it back out to Lawson, time had expired and the Fever had held on.
Key Players: Larkins had a fantastic second half, and was the stand-out for Indiana. Marissa Coleman also had probably her most effective game in a Fever jersey, although many of her best plays came on catch-and-shoot or instant-decision opportunities. That’s still going to be her best role for Indiana, but their injuries have put pressure on her to produce in more complex ways wth the ball in her hands. It got even worse for the Fever midway through the third quarter, when Shavonte Zellous limped off with a right knee problem. She never returned, and must at least be doubtful for tonight’s game in Connecticut. Zellous had a decent game up to that point, showing more willingness to attack than we’d seen in many previous games, so it was a shame to see her forced out of the action.
It was one of those nights where the collective effort of the Mystics just wasn’t enough, and the pieces never came together. Hartley continues to look like a player who can be a success at this level. She’s got no fear, and a very quick first step, and is earning her extended minutes regardless of how ineffective or banged up Lawson has been. Centers Vaughn and Dolson had some moments as well, just not enough.
Lineups: Odyssey Sims was back in the starting lineup for Tulsa, after her one game off the bench when recovering from illness. Jordan Hooper dropped back to the reserves. Phoenix started the same five as usual, with their bench a little thinner due to Shay Murphy leaving to represent Montenegro in EuroBasket Women 2015 qualifiers.
Story of the Game: Oh, Phoenix. You know, maybe this is my fault for suggesting that it looked like they were sorting their defense out after their last game. Because this was horrible, primarily on the defensive end. Tulsa started strong through Glory Johnson attacking Candice Dupree, and kept slipping behind Mercury defenders into space at the basket. Diana Taurasi was trying to respond, virtually on her own, at the other end. Then things really started to fall apart for Phoenix in the second quarter. They were horrendously sloppy on defense, leaving wide open lanes for Skylar Diggins and Riquna Williams to exploit, and it snowballed into Phoenix turnovers on offense as well. Rookie point guard Tiffany Bias, getting minutes outside of garbage time for essentially the first time, looked like a deer in the headlights. Her vastly more experienced teammates were little better. Tulsa shot 61% in the first half with a lot of open layups, and led by 17 at the break.
Phoenix put up a bit of a fight in the second half, but the closest they got was nine points early in the fourth quarter. They never managed to string together enough decent defensive possessions to make a comeback, and the Shock avoided another heartbreaking close loss in the best possible way – by winning in a blowout.
Key Players: The triple-threat guard group of Sims, Diggins and Williams were back to leading the way for the Shock. Phoenix have a big size advantage over Tulsa at several positions, especially when the Shock play all three of those guards together, but Tulsa used their advantages in speed and quickness to much greater effect. Glory Johnson was the complement inside and on the glass when they needed her.
The only positive for Phoenix (unless you really liked head coach Sandy Brondello’s funky pants), was that Penny Taylor had her strongest game of the season. We’re probably never going to see the Penny of old again, but her all-round game and basketball smarts can still be a big help for this team.
On the other end of the scale, the depths to which DeWanna Bonner’s defense has dropped is startling. She used to be nice Swiss-army-knife defender, capable of doing a decent job on virtually anyone. Now she gets screened embarrassingly easily, regularly loses concentration on her man, and is basically a negative on the defensive end. For a team with so many defensive holes already, it’s a problem for the Mercury.
Notes of Interest: Phoenix’s first substitution is still removing point guard Erin Phillips and going big with Taylor as the replacement. The problem is that the big lineup is confused defensively. None of them instinctively defend guards, so even just working out who to pick up became an exercise in pointing and shouting rather than playing basketball. Their zone is just as disorganised as the man-to-man. This is part of why I said the roadtrip would be a real test for the Mercury – it’s always easier to handle these issues on your own floor in front of your own fans. Everything gets more complicated in unfamiliar surroundings.
The Mercury started playing Hack-a-Paris with three minutes left in the game, intentionally fouling Courtney Paris to send her to the free throw line (when trailing by 14, which made it pretty ridiculous). Paris is a career 53% shooter at the line, 43% in the last three years, so it’s something we might see teams try during the season. But probably only as a last resort to slow the Shock down.
Lineups: After rolling her ankle in the game against Atlanta on Tuesday, Candace Parker came off the bench for Los Angeles for just the third time in her career. Armintie Herrington came back into the starting group, with Nneka Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender in the post. Chicago started the same five that’s become their regular lineup so far this season. Epiphanny Prince was in uniform for the first time this year, but Pokey Chatman never actually told her to take the warmups off.
Story of the Game: Statistically speaking, Chicago’s defense in this game wasn’t quite as bad as Phoenix’s in the one above. But it was damn close.
LA got off to their typical fast start behind forced turnovers and breaks, even without Parker on the floor, and perhaps more importantly forced Jessica Breland into two quick fouls. She picked up her third early in the second quarter and ultimately played barely six minutes in the first half. The Sky don’t really have a backup power forward – raw rookie Gennifer Brandon doesn’t count, while Sasha Goodlett and Markeisha Gatling are both purely centers. So Elena Delle Donne sliding to the 4 is essentially the only option when Breland is out. That didn’t help Chicago’s interior defense.
And the interior is where the Sky broke down time and time again over the course of this game. LA finally seemed to accept their limitations as perimeter shooters and move the ball – and themselves – well enough to attack the rim instead. They brought their posts up high to set screens, cut and drove from the wings or ran pick-and-rolls right down the middle, and repeatedly beat the Sky defense to the basket. Chicago needed to take a step (or two, or three) inside towards the basket, forcing more kick-outs and perimeter shots. They stuck too close to the corner shooters all night, rather than making those players beat them. The help didn’t rotate in time in the middle, so LA just kept scoring. Just like Tulsa, the Sparks were up by 17 at halftime (although they’d shot 62% to Tulsa’s 61).
Chicago came within nine in the third quarter, but then seemed to lose the heart for the fight. LA picked up easy transition points against lackadaisical Sky defense, pushed their lead back out, and the entire fourth quarter was garbage time. Parker and Ogwumike both got plenty of rest in the second half.
Key Players: Let’s give this one to Carol Ross, for making very necessary changes – and getting her team to listen to them – since Tuesday night. This is much closer to the kind of basketball the Sparks need to play to be successful, especially while Candice Wiggins is injured and Toliver will be leaving again soon (although Toliver’s 7-11 shooting helped the cause in this one and she’ll still be around for the clash with Minnesota on Sunday). They have to create space in the middle of the floor by stretching out the opposing defense as much as possible, and then attack the middle. Ogwumike also deserves a mention for an outstanding second quarter where she took Chicago apart in the paint and on the glass.
Defensively, LA did a much better job than they did against Atlanta on Tuesday, but without Chicago posing much of a threat. Delle Donne had to try to carry the Sky virtually on her own for most of the night, and ended up with 33 points on 16 shots and 16 trips to the free throw line. With very little help, it wasn’t nearly enough.
Notes of Interest: While the ankle and the presence of Delle Donne may have played into the decision, it was very noticeable that while Parker started at small forward in LA’s last game, she didn’t spend a single second there in this one. The big lineup with three posts was never seen, allowing the Sparks to stay quicker on the perimeter and have everyone defend positions they’re more comfortable with. Parker at the 3 is an option they can work on, but it’s just that – something that needs work. It’s a change-up, not a regular option at this point.
There was lots and lots of garbage time, and Chatman still never put Prince in the game. So she really must not want to use her just yet.
The Sky gave up two cheap baskets in the final nine seconds of the first half, first on a Parker drive, then on an instant turnover before Toliver flung up a prayer that bounced around the rim and fell in. I only mention it because Toliver turned around and hugged the nearest person in excitement when the ball finally dropped – and that person happened to be one of the refs. Which was amusing.
Lineups: Same fives again for both teams. Seattle’s Jenna O’Hea, expected to be out for several more weeks with her broken toe, was apparently in the layup line before the game, but didn’t play.
Story of the Game: For three quarters, this was a slow, scrappy game where it looked like Minnesota would claw out an ugly win. They weren’t playing great, with players like Tanisha Wright, Alysha Clark and Shekinna Stricklen making it hard work for Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus to score with their usual fluidity. But the Lynx managed to maintain a single-digit lead, keep the interior of their defense solid enough to limit Crystal Langhorne, and generally stay in control.
Then we hit the fourth quarter. Brian Agler started the period with a makeshift lineup of Nicole Powell and Angel Robinson in the post, Temeka Johnson at the point, and Noelle Quinn on the wing with Wright. The only substitution he made in the entire period until the last few seconds was to replace Robinson with Camille Little. It ended up working like a bizarre, remarkably effective charm. They were quicker and more mobile at both ends of the floor, Minnesota’s offense stalled badly for most of the period, and the Storm forced a few turnovers which led to cheap points on the break. Suddenly the crowd was back in the game, and an upset – the fourth of the night – was on the cards.
After Seattle had taken the lead midway through the fourth, Minnesota stole it back on consecutive one-on-one plays by Moore and Augustus. Seattle didn’t panic and think “oh here we go, all that work for nothing”. They kept fighting and took the lead back on a pick-and-pop for a Little three. Minnesota’s posts always want to sag and protect the paint, so those shots are often on offer if you’ve got a post who can hit them. Little did. Wright followed up with a circus finish through traffic to keep the momentum going.
After Lindsay Whalen started forcing the issue and creating points herself, the game came down to the final seconds. Seattle made their free throws, leaving the Lynx down by three with ten seconds left. For once they didn’t look well organised at all for that final possession, and Tan White was left dribbling the ball while Augustus and Moore stood around watching from inside the three-point arc. White eventually gave up waiting for her star teammates to offer a target and fired herself. She came up well short, and that was the game – Minnesota’s first loss of the season.
Key Players: While the Lynx didn’t look like they had a lot of energy, credit the various Seattle wings for their efforts defending Moore and Augustus. Wright does an outstanding job of fighting around picks while staying right on the hip of the opponent, making them less likely to hit immediate jump shots if they receive a pass. Her teammates follow suit as much as possible, and it frequently plays a part in forcing gunners like Moore and Augustus into poorer shooting nights.
It was also nice to see Brian Agler stick with the unit that had been working in the fourth quarter, leaving both Sue Bird and Crystal Langhorne on the bench. There was a timeout with just under three minutes left, after Minnesota had taken the lead back, where he must’ve been tempted to go back to his veteran leader and the post who’s been easily his best player this season. Instead he let the group who’d got his team back in the game play it out, and was rewarded.
It was a forgettable night for the Lynx, against an opponent they rarely enjoy facing. No one was great, and they’ll hope to respond against LA on Sunday night.
Notes of Interest: Having returned from her knee injury and played in a couple of games, Devereaux Peters was left on the bench throughout this game. Apparently Cheryl Reeve doesn’t really trust her yet. Monica Wright is also nearing a return for the Lynx, but didn’t play.
Indiana @ Connecticut, 7pm ET
Chicago @ Atlanta, 7pm ET
Phoenix @ San Antonio, 8pm ET