Lineups: As expected for both teams, with both trying to build on big wins – New York in a blowout over Washington on Sunday, Tulsa with their first victory of the season over Phoenix on Friday.
Story of the Game: After a desperately scrappy opening – often the case in these day games that take place before players’ body-clocks say they should be playing – it was Tulsa who eventually got themselves into gear and took control of the first half. It was mostly on jump shots from their perimeter players, but with enough drive-and-kick beforehand, or the occasional post-up or offensive rebound from Courtney Paris and Glory Johnson, to keep the defense honest.
New York weren’t hitting shots like they did in the first half against Washington, so nothing looked as smooth. Paris did a decent job contesting against Tina Charles in the paint early on, and then the turnover issues started kicking in. It’s been a recurring problem for New York over the last couple of years, but generally not too bad in the early games this season. They were just sloppy, in a game where they should’ve been taking advantage of one of the weaker defenses in the league. The answer they tried for their misfiring offense midway through the second quarter was to post-up Cappie Pondexter, and it actually worked a couple of times. But a gimmick like that isn’t going to salvage your whole performance, and the Liberty trailed by 13 at halftime.
New York dragged themselves back within four points in the third quarter, as Tulsa started firing up a lot of bricks from mid-range. With Tulsa largely leaving Paris to guard Charles on her own, rather than sending the endless double-teams that come from many opponents, Charles became more aggressive and started carrying the Liberty offense.
But in the fourth quarter, Tulsa took the game back. Skylar Diggins’s one-on-one attempts to prop up her team’s offense were more successful than Pondexter’s at the other end, with a series of drives and pullups from Diggins creating the points they needed. Pondexter couldn’t convert her attempts, going 0-7 in the period, and that was the game.
Key Players: Paris was solid for Tulsa, doing a decent job for much of the afternoon battling Charles without a great deal of help. Paris also came up with 16 rebounds, often out-fighting Charles for them and showing more desire to claim the ball. Beyond that Diggins was the key figure for the Shock, being a willing passer for most of the game but stepping up late as a scorer, and continuing to play with increasing confidence. Odyssey Sims gets the primary defensive assignments – in this case Pondexter – but Diggins has been the superior offensive force in most games this year.
Charles finished 11-19 for 25 points and 10 boards, but didn’t get a lot of help. Pondexter’s shot wasn’t falling, and the supporting players continue to disappear for the Liberty. Essence Carson has been MIA for a while now, Plenette Pierson was invisible, and rotation pieces like Anna Cruz and Alex Montgomery are sometimes a little too comfortable fading into the background. The roster was built around two stars with a supporting cast, but the players can buy into that format a bit too much at times. It’s hard to win games with only two real threats on the floor, especially when both rarely hit form on the same night.
Notes of Interest: Maybe that dominating first half against Washington really was just a fluke. Sometimes that first swallow flying by was just lost.
Lineups: As normal for the Mercury, with Bria Hartley coming back into the starting lineup for Jelena Milovanovic for Washington.
Story of the Game: It felt like Phoenix were in control for most of the first half, but they never managed to convert it into a significant advantage on the scoreboard. They were moving the ball well, and finding open shooters off pick-and-roll actions, with Brittney Griner, Candice Dupree and even DeWanna Bonner all producing points. But it wasn’t efficient enough to pull away.
Washington got a nice run of points from Emma Meesseman in the opening period, but otherwise spent too much time firing mid-range jumpers and missing most of them. An 8-2 advantage on the offensive glass, and the resulting edge in second-chance points, helped them keep up with the Mercury. Tianna Hawkins, the young power forward acquired from Seattle in the Crystal Langhorne trade, played a central role in that and continues to produce well on a per-minute basis (but not play that many minutes). Even with the desire to feature Meesseman (who mostly plays the same position), if Hawkins keeps performing they’ll have to find more playing time for her.
The first five minutes of the second half were the key moments of the game. Washington came out of the break looking sleepy and unfocused, allowing Phoenix to score the first 10 points of the half. The Mercury found Griner in the paint for straightforward finishes, and knocked down shots outside through Dupree and Diana Taurasi, while the Mystics were bricking contested shots and handing over cheap turnovers. Mike Thibault subbed out his entire lineup after barely four minutes in disgust at how they’d started the third quarter.
From then on, Phoenix were relatively comfortable. The closest Washington came was on a nice passing combination finished by Meesseman with eight seconds left in the third quarter, which pulled them within five points. But they allowed Erin Phillips to slalom through four Mystics defenders before finishing at the rim before the buzzer sounded. That just about summed up Washington’s second half, and Phoenix were rarely troubled in the final period.
Key Players: Meesseman had her strong stretches, Monique Currie hit a few shots, and Kara Lawson – while back to missing most of her jumpers – did a solid job of distributing the ball. That was about it for Washington, and that poor run to start the second half really killed them. They also spent far, far too much of the game watching center Kia Vaughn fire up bricks from 18 feet. Her range can help stretch a defense out a little, and in this particular case pull Griner away from the rim, but she was a step too far out and kept missing. Then shot a bit more, and missed some more. It just went on, and should’ve stopped sooner. It doesn’t stretch the defense when they’re happy to just give you the shot.
Griner was effective at the other end as well, and led the Mercury in scoring with 20 points on 9-15 from the field. They’re increasingly using Griner in pick-and-rolls with Taurasi as an alternative to the more common (and consistently effective) Taurasi/Dupree option. It shakes things up because Griner is going to roll down the lane, presenting a huge target to be hit by a high pass, while Dupree typically pops away from the action into space for a mid-range jump shot. And of course, Griner can roll while Dupree pops on the other side of the lane, presenting a horrible choice for opposing defenses. Both Taurasi and Phillips (or Penny Taylor, or even Bonner) are capable of picking out the right pass and finding their teammates to score. Griner’s also dangerous on basic post ups, especially when teams choose to single-cover her. Stefanie Dolson put up a decent effort in the second half for Washington, but mostly just battled her way into foul trouble.
Defensively, the Mercury were much more solid than in their dismal performance in Tulsa on Friday, but also tested far less by the static Mystics.
Notes of Interest: Mercury backup center Ewelina Kobryn played earlier today for the Polish national team in Slovenia, so she may have left a little earlier than the Mercury originally claimed she would. She hasn’t featured in either of Phoenix’s last two games (not that it’s made much difference).
Lineups: The big news in this one came before the tip-off, with Chicago’s lineup decimated by injuries. With center Sylvia Fowles still recovering from her pre-season hip surgery, they also lost power forward Jessica Breland to a shin problem (day-to-day, apparently, but she was using crutches to get around), and superstar Elena Delle Donne. Their star scorer felt too ill to play, and the Sky are always careful with her due to her problems with Lyme disease in the past. They’ll be desperate to see her return as soon as possible, because without her their offense takes a massive hit. Breland’s been a huge plus for them this season as well, and losing her for any significant time would hurt. Rookie Gennifer Brandon started in Breland’s spot, with Allie Quigley coming in on the wing alongside Tamera Young.
Seattle were the same as in recent games, and actually gained some depth with the speedy return of Jenna O’Hea from her broken toe. She was meant to be out much longer, but she’s Australian.
Story of the Game: With Chicago’s three best bigs all out of the game, you might’ve expected Seattle to dominate in the paint. But that wasn’t how it played out. They tried to run through Crystal Langhorne in the post in the opening stages, but as the game continued the holes ended up appearing on the perimeter. One of the Storm guards would use a pick, the Sky defense would rotate to cover with protecting the rim as their first concern, and then fail to make the secondary rotation to the player left open on the perimeter. So rather than hit the roller in pick-and-rolls, or cutters coming through the defense, Seattle rotated the ball to wide open shooters on the perimeter and knocked down easy looks. That put them in front by as many as 16 points in the first half.
Chicago’s offense was flimsy at best, with Quigley hitting nothing, Brandon looking just as raw as a starter as she had as a backup, and Courtney Vandersloot continuing to suffer through a painful run of ineffective performances. Obviously the injuries made things difficult. Tamera Young was the de facto power forward at times, after starting all season at off-guard. But it really wasn’t pretty.
Brian Agler seemed to be using the opportunity of a weakened opponent to experiment. Maybe it was a version of how they planned to handle Delle Donne, or a response to the tiny lineups Chicago were forced to play, but the Storm were a little different from usual. They switched incredibly freely for most of the game on defense (we’re talking beyond LA Sparks-level of switching), testing to see if giving up potential mismatches to their opponent was better than constantly trying to hold their positions and recover around screens. He also used his smaller lineups for most of the game, playing just one of Langhorne or Camille Little, with Nicole Powell or O’Hea as the other ‘post’. Late in the third quarter, the Storm even broke out a 3-2 zone (which sort-of ‘wheels’ into a 2-3 when necessary). There’d been no particular run to force that switch, they just decided to give the zone a test-run.
But the game ended up being a little too close for comfort for Seattle. The Sky’s rotations were a little better in the second half, and they made a push late in the third quarter behind rookie center Markeisha Gatling and scoring guard Epiphanny Prince. Gatling is a big body and has nice hands under the rim. Prince is still trying to fit in after needing a break from basketball and only recently returning to the team. Her defense was poor on several occasions during this game, but her offensive skills are still there. She can beat players with her dribbling talent and quickness, make the big shot from outside, and generally generate offense by herself.
Ultimately the Storm just about held off Chicago, with Noelle Quinn knocking down a big three when the Sky had cut the gap to four points with a couple of minutes to play. The final scoreline made the game look a little closer than it really was – Prince hit a meaningless three at the buzzer – and Seattle held on for a win that should’ve been theirs as soon as the lineups were announced.
Key Players: The Storm backcourt of Sue Bird and Tanisha Wright, with Temeka Johnson backing them up off the bench, did the job of probing the Sky defense and making the right passes to open shooters. They also led Seattle’s scoring, along with Little, who made a couple of plays inside to offer a mild indication of the presence of post offense. As a team, they shot 9-20 from three-point range, with seven different players hitting at least once from beyond the arc. That’s the primary element that won them the game, but those shots won’t be as open against a better defense that isn’t playing so many people in unfamiliar roles.
In a third consecutive loss, there were still positives for Chicago to take. Prince showed that she’s working her way back, and that she can still carry the team offensively for stretches. Gatling offered more evidence that she can be a threat in the paint. And rookie backup point guard Jamierra Faulkner continues to impress and suggest that she could have a future in this league. It’s just hard to win when you’re down three key starters.
Notes of Interest: Prince was holding her left calf and hobbling in the closing seconds of the game. After not playing for a little while and struggling with the mental side of being ready to perform, her body has to get used to the physical side of playing again as well.
Seattle @ Indiana, 7pm ET. It’s going to be interesting to see how much of the style Seattle used against Chicago carries over to this game. Do they switch as much, go small as often, try the zone etc., or is it back to their more typical game against a more typical opponent. Beyond that, can a fairly old team cope with the back-to-back against a Fever squad that’s been sitting at home waiting for them since Saturday? Indiana have clawed their way to 4-4, still waiting for Tamika Catchings to return, and they’ll be a physical test for the Storm. Maybe it’s a good thing that Langhorne only played 22 minutes against Chicago, with a battle against Erlana Larkins on the way tonight.