Lineups: The expected groups for both teams. Tamika Catchings continues to sit and watch in street clothes
Story of the Game: Indiana got off to the slightly better start with Seattle’s posts settling for – and missing – too many mid-range shots, rather than fighting to get to the rim. The pick-and-pop into space is a nice play, but an open 15-footer is usually still a lower percentage shot than an open-ish layup. Indiana attacked a little better, and led by as many as nine points in the first quarter.
The Fever had Erlana Larkins and Natasha Howard giving them drive in the paint, but when Seattle started hitting their shots in the second quarter they moved in front. First it was Sue Bird, actually nailing a few perimeter jumpers – a sadly rare sight since her return from injury for this season. Then it was Jenna O’Hea, who appears to have returned from her broken toe with a newly refreshed jump shot. She was 2-11 (18%) from three-point range before the injury, getting off to a rocky start with the Storm offensively. In the two games since returning she’s 4-8 from outside. As with many teams, Indiana’s posts tend to sag towards the paint on picks to protect against the drive and corral the ballhandler. So when you’re using a player like O’Hea as your power forward – meaning she’s usually being guarded by a post – she often finds a lot of room on the perimeter simply by setting a screen. Her second consecutive triple gave Seattle a nine-point lead, and they were still up by six at halftime.
After a first half where they’d relied on outside shots, Seattle did a better job of finding ways to the basket in the second half. Slip screens, backdoor cuts and drives combined to give the Storm more points in the paint in the third quarter alone than they’d managed in the opening 20 minutes. They had a noticeably different approach in this game from the experimentation against understrength Chicago the night before. More off-ball movement, screening and re-screening to try to confuse the defense, rather than constantly basing everything around on-ball screens. The Storm defense was far less switch-happy as well – it was Indiana who were the more willing team to switch and let their guards battle with Seattle’s posts in the paint when necessary.
The Fever kept hanging around within range in the third quarter, more through grit and determination than any particularly fluid offense. That allowed them to stay close enough to make their real charge in the fourth. They lost point guard Briann January with over six minutes remaining, after she stepped on Larkins’s foot while trying to guard Bird. That reaggravated the ankle injury that forced her to miss a game a week ago, and she was done for the night. But the rest of the Fever squad stepped up. Shavonte Zellous has started the game fairly well, but disappeared for the middle two quarters. She was back on the ball with January sidelined, stayed aggressive, and helped carry the offense with drives and jump shots. Meanwhile Marissa Coleman, who’d made one big three in the third quarter but done nothing else all night, drilled two more huge triples in the final four minutes of the game.
Oddly enough, Seattle made every two-point field goal they attempted in the fourth quarter – but they shot 0-7 from three-point range, and that killed them. On Lin Dunn Night in Indiana, her current franchise pulled away to beat her old one, and she can enter the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend coming off a victory.
Key Players: In such a low-scoring game, making just a few offensive plays stood out as key moments. Coleman’s trio of second half threes, and Zellous’s late burst, for example. But the work of the post pairing of Howard and Larkins in the paint was a little more consistent. Howard attacked off the dribble more than we’ve seen in most games, and finished well. Larkins attacked the glass with her usual vigour. It was another hard-working, piecemeal performance from Indiana that clawed out a win.
Seattle looked like they were going to hold on for most of the night, but couldn’t quite stick it out to the end. Brian Agler has leaned even smaller in recent games, with Camille Little and Crystal Langhorne sharing the floor for only limited minutes. It allows them to spread out defenses more, but Nicole Powell and Jenna O’Hea aren’t natural post defenders, so Seattle’s weak-side and help defense suffers as a result. And when you go small to spread an opponent out but only shoot 4-19 from three-point range, you’re probably in trouble. Compared to Chicago the night before, Indiana did a significantly better job of rotating and recovering to challenge Seattle’s shooters – but some of it just came down to missing good looks.
Los Angeles temporarily suspended Kristi Toliver yesterday while she’s off representing Slovakia in EuroBasket Women 2015 qualifying, opening the cap space to add point guard Samantha Prahalis to their roster. Considering their need for perimeter shooting to spread the floor, and Prahalis’s limited ability from outside, it doesn’t seem like a perfect fit. But they’ve got the length at other spots to cover for her defensive deficiencies, and maybe she can help them run a more cohesive halfcourt offense. Toliver is most likely to miss six Sparks games, as the final Slovakian qualifier is on June 25th.
Phoenix also temporarily suspended Ewelina Kobryn, but haven’t signed anyone to replace her or Shay Murphy while they’re in Europe playing in those same qualifiers.
Phoenix @ Connecticut, 7pm ET. The Mercury road trip continues, with a short hop to Connecticut after playing in Washington on Tuesday night. Their ball movement and offensive weapons will cause problems for Connecticut, but the Sun have produced a few decent performances recently. Chiney Ogwumike will be easily the most active post player on the floor, and Phoenix will have a battle on their hands to compete on the glass. But whether Connecticut can make enough perimeter shots to support their posts is always questionable.