Washington Mystics 64 @ New York Liberty 81
Lineups: New York started the same as in other recent game. Washington went back to the lineup they used the last time they played the Liberty, nine days earlier. That meant Tierra Ruffin-Pratt sliding to shooting guard, and Jelena Milovanovic coming in at small forward. Bria Hartley went back to the bench. It worked last time against New York.
Story of the Game: Nothing worked this time for the Mystics. This game was essentially over by halftime, as Washington floundered and were blown off the floor by a Liberty team that suddenly found their stride. New York scored the first 10 points of the game, largely on jump shots from Cappie Pondexter and Essence Carson, while Washington forced up a lot of jumpers at the other end and hit nothing. The Mystics eventually found a few points when Kara Lawson came off the bench and showed some signs of the Lawson of old, who’d barely made an appearance this season. She hit a three on a kick-out, a pullup three in transition, and then capped off the first quarter with a last second steal and bomb from about 30 feet. All that only allowed the Mystics to stay within five points at the end of the opening period.
Without any more Lawson heroics in the second quarter, New York blew the game open. Some of the Liberty’s success was simply down to one of those freak exceptional shooting nights. They only scored six points in the paint in the second quarter, but totalled 32 behind the jump shots raining in from all over the floor. But you also have to give credit to the Liberty for the pace they played at, the way they moved the ball and exploited the opportunities presented to them, and the energy and enthusiasm they carried through the game. They created good shots, which always increases your chances of a night like this where the basket looks a mile wide. They were up by 22 at halftime.
There was never even a hint of a comeback in the second half, and the entire fourth quarter was garbage time. New York shot 26% in the second half, scored just eight points in the fourth quarter, and yet it was probably the most relaxing 20 minutes of basketball for Liberty fans all season.
Key Players: Cappie Pondexter was a ridiculous 10-11 from the field, with the only shot she missed all day a forced three under heavy pressure to beat the shot clock. Not a single one of the 11 attempts came from within 12 feet, as she just dropped in jump shots at will. If that Cappie showed up every night this team would not be 3-5 and looking up at most of the Eastern Conference. Anna Cruz and Alex Montgomery had nice games alongside her as well, with Tina Charles not needing to be any more than solid.
The whole game was an example of how easy basketball can seem when your shots are dropping, because the Liberty looked like a completely different animal from what we’ve seen for most of the season. But they were never tested. There was never a period of adversity that posed any tough questions for them, or forced them to keep their heads up while things looked like they might be going wrong. It takes more than one swallow to make a summer, so let’s see if any more come flying by before we get too excited. But that very first swallow can sometimes be a lovely sign of things to come.
Washington are going to have games like this. They’re solid, and organised, and they can beat anyone on a given day, but they’re not super-talented and sometimes teams will just out-play them. The solitary positive for the Mystics from this game was that Lawson hit some shots. Just like with the Liberty, we don’t know yet whether that was a fluke or a sign of future continued success, but it’s a damn sight better than all the bricks she’s been throwing up in previous games.
Minnesota Lynx 85 @ Los Angeles Sparks 72
Lineups: Same group for Minnesota that they’ve been using all season. After dropping to the bench for one game due to her ankle problem, Candace Parker was back in the starting lineup for LA, with Jantel Lavender back on the bench. The starting perimeter was Lindsey Harding, Alana Beard and Armintie Herrington again, leaving Kristi Toliver to continue coming off the bench. This was expected to be Toliver’s final game before rejoining the Slovakian national team for their remaining EuroBasket Women 2015 qualifiers.
Story of the Game: Long-time readers (and followers on Twitter) will know that I’ve long been amused by Cheryl Reeve’s tendency to play one possession of 2-3 zone defense at the start of games, then use man-to-man for about 99% of the remainder. Well the Lynx played that one possession of zone in this one – and then stayed in it. It was an interesting way to take on the Sparks, and while Minnesota didn’t stick with it religiously for 40 minutes – they first dropped back to man-to-man when Toliver entered the game after barely three minutes – the zone made regular appearances throughout the rest of the game. Along with Minnesota’s extremely talented and experienced perimeter players, it allowed the Lynx to prevent LA’s usual strong start, and break into their own early lead.
It was the Lynx who were getting out in transition more than the Sparks, limiting the way LA like to find early points, and Minnesota controlled the opening period. In the halfcourt they were happy to take advantage of LA’s typical fondness for switching and exploit the resulting mismatches. The Lynx were the aggressors in the early stages, drawing fouls on offense, and not giving up anything easy to help LA find a rhythm. Minnesota led by 14 after 10 minutes of play.
LA finally came into the game when they went back to that infamous big lineup, with Parker at small forward. They’d eschewed it entirely against Chicago on Friday night and blown the Sky out, but after such an ugly start against the Lynx it was worth a try. The extra size and length made things awkward for Minnesota’s offense, which was left taking and missing a lot of jump shots. Parker led the Sparks offense into a few mini-runs by pushing whenever possible and attacking the defense, leaving LA trailing by only five at halftime.
The Sparks even broke out their own 2-3 zone late in the second quarter, to see how the Lynx liked a taste of their own medicine, but Minnesota looked better prepared for it and immediately found the gaps. LA needed the halftime interval for some extra instruction, with Beard immediately slashing through for a layup to start the second half, before Nneka Ogwumike slipped behind the zone for an easy score. It looked like they might’ve finally figured out what to do.
But virtually the entire second half was an exercise in ‘almost, but not quite’ for LA. Every time they came close to Minnesota, pulling within three points on six separate occasions, the Lynx had an answer. Minnesota had just that little bit of extra assurance about their play, a little extra confidence and organisation, one or two more players who could make a play, and more of a plan for how they were going to take charge of the game. The Sparks came within three for the last time with 4:33 left on a pair of Ogwumike free throws, but those turned out to be LA’s final points of the afternoon. They still had several good looks over the closing minutes, including opportunities right at the rim for Parker and Ogwumike, and a clean look at a three for Toliver, but missed all of them. Meanwhile Lindsay Whalen was pulling her regular trick of twisting and turning into the heart of a defense in crunch time, making big shots when they needed to be made. Minnesota pulled away again, and this time it was for good.
Key Players: Maya Moore didn’t have the best of shooting nights, and is in fact 19-51 (37%) over three games in June. Maybe the incredibly heavy workload is catching up to her a bit, and if that’s the case Reeve will have to work out ways to rest her more, regardless of how soon Monica Wright makes her playing return. 30 minutes a night of a full-pace Maya is a lot more useful than 38 minutes of a worn-down version, especially considering it’s the playoff games at the end of the season where you need her at 100%.
Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen led the scoring in their usual ways, and Damiris Dantas quietly piled up points and rebounds by working hard and sliding into space when it was on offer. Whenever Rebekkah Brunson does make it back, Dantas is proving that she can be a thoroughly effective backup – or fill-in – whenever necessary. Although Devereaux Peters also played 17 minutes, so Reeve may have a little extra depth inside now.
No one really stepped up enough for LA alongside Parker. They’re rarely at their best when they become Candace and the Parkerettes, and there was a little too much of that. The Harding/Beard/Herrington perimeter can score if you put them in the right situations, but they’re not great as catch-and-shoot scorers from outside. That makes the team a little one-dimensional at times when they can’t exert enough pressure with their defense and force their way into transition. And we never saw the big lineup in the entire fourth quarter, despite how effective it had been earlier. Foul trouble for Ogwumike made it a little more difficult to go big, but certainly not impossible.
Notes of Interest: After the Phoenix-San Antonio game on Saturday and now this one, it’s been a weekend of zone in the WNBA. It’s been a long time since this league saw two games where both teams played so much zone in an attempt to limit their opponents. It also illustrates that there’s a lot less fear of the defensive three-seconds rule now that everyone’s had a while to get used to it.
Tuesday June 10th
New York @ Tulsa, 12.30pm ET
Phoenix @ Washington, 7pm ET
Seattle @ Chicago, 8pm ET