Lineups: Both teams started with the groups that have become their ‘regular’ lineups – Phoenix since the start of the season, Connecticut since Anne Donovan finally settled on a point guard and a center. The only unavailable players were the Mercury’s Shay Murphy and Ewelina Kobryn, both in Europe representing national teams in EuroBasket Women 2015 qualifiers.
Story of the Game: On a per 100 possessions basis, the best teams in the WNBA are averaging about 106 points so far this season, the worst about 92. For this game alone, both sides finished at over 120. It’s fair to say that offense ruled the roost virtually all night long.
Neither team led by more than five points in the first half. Connecticut had easily the most active, energetic post on the floor in Chiney Ogwumike, who’s already earning points on the pro level purely by outworking opponents on the glass or by running harder down the floor. Fellow Sun post Kelsey Bone struggled in the first half, and it’s not the first time she’s had problems defensively this season. She doesn’t always use her size and bulk to good effect on that end, and opponents bypass her too often. That was partly why Connecticut ended up using Kelsey Griffin at power forward for much of the first half, pushing Ogwumike over to do her best against Brittney Griner.
Phoenix were moving the ball with their typical fluidity and unselfishness, finding the open player – often Candice Dupree – and converting those chances into points. Griner is also developing as an offensive force, becoming a better roller after setting screens, and doing a better job at recognising and reacting to double-teams. Her instinct is still to turn away from the second defender and try to score, which can still be a good option, but she’s also realising that someone’s open when extra defenders come to her, and that with the offensive talent around her that person is likely to score. Phoenix had 13 assists on 18 baskets in the first half, and Griner had three of the dimes.
The Mercury continue to be a work in progress on defense. They’ve vastly better with Griner on the floor, inevitably, because she protects the paint against drivers and post-ups, even if she sometimes has problems when pulled into space. But their rotations and weak-side help still break down far too often, giving up open shots or easy layups. When Erin Phillips sits, it usually creates a perimeter of Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor and DeWanna Bonner (although Anete Jekabsone-Zogota and Shay Murphy, when she’s around, are also options). That group looks scarily long on paper, but none of them are great defenders (Taurasi’s never been too interested in defense, Taylor’s lost a step from all the injuries, and Bonner’s deteriorated horrendously on the defensive end). The similar sizes ought to make things easier by allowing them to switch almost anything, but sometimes it just makes them even more confused because the communication isn’t great. Switching is fine as long as both people involved know when it’s happening and do it in sync – it gets you in all kinds of trouble when you half-switch or take an extra half-second to agree on what you’re doing.
Alex Bentley was the most effective guard option for Connecticut, and she’s been giving the Sun a real weapon from the perimeter lately. Five different players made threes for them in the first half, helping keep up with the Mercury, and Renee Montgomery rounded off the scoring by banking in a 40-foot heave at the halftime buzzer.
The scoring pace didn’t change in the second half. Bone was more aggressive on the offensive end, highlighting the end where she has natural talent rather than the side she most needs to work on. Griner didn’t scare her, and we’ve seen a few games lately where opponents have gone right into Griner’s chest rather than shying away from her. It’s another way to neutralise a shot-blocker – getting so close that you’re creating contact and making it difficult to time the block or extend for it. You’ll probably get one or two efforts smacked back in your face, but you’ll also create better chances to score than constantly trying to find ways around her or float shots over her.
Bentley continued to carry much of Connecticut’s offense, while Bonner woke up a little for Phoenix and contributed to their scoring. Mistie Bass also gave the Mercury some energy off the bench, and Phoenix were drawing so much contact that the Sun were in the penalty very early in the third quarter. The procession to the free throw line followed for the rest of the period.
As the tension of a tight game began to affect everyone, the game got scrappier and more bad-tempered in the final period. Both teams shot endless free throws, including one for Connecticut when Taurasi jawed a little too much with Katie Douglas and drew a technical foul. Taurasi was understandably upset about an egregious flop from Douglas moments earlier when Taurasi had barely touched her while cutting under the basket. Over the years we’ve sometimes seen the Mercury star energise herself with technicals – and sometimes take her head out of the game – but this time it was Douglas who seemed enlivened from their little argument. She followed up the technical free throw with a pair of threes that took the Sun up by seven with under three minutes remaining.
But the Mercury kept fighting, kept driving, and continued to keep themselves in the game. Alyssa Thomas was being impressively aggressive for the Sun, but only effective when she drew fouls – her shots weren’t actually going in. Phoenix cut the gap to a single point on a pair of Bonner free throws with 43 seconds left, before a dismal Connecticut possession went nowhere for 18 seconds, before finally being put out of its misery by an offensive foul on Bentley. Taurasi exaggerated the contact for that whistle, but you could hardly blame her after the earlier calls.
That left Phoenix trailing by a point with 25 seconds left in regulation. They decided to run down the clock, which is a decision I hate, even in a game dominated by offense. The theory behind it is you back yourselves to score, leaving the opponent no time to respond. But if you go reasonably quickly, you give yourselves a second chance. Yes, maybe you score and then have to play defense at the other end for 10 seconds. But if you fail to score, the worst case scenario is you foul, Connecticut hit their free throws, and you get another chance in what’s still a one-possession game. And Connecticut had just run a set out of a timeout and looked awful, which should’ve given Phoenix confidence that they could survive a defensive possession.
The play they ran was nicely worked, once it finally started. Griner came out high to set a pick for Taurasi, then rolled down the lane to draw the defense. Taurasi’s pass instead went to Dupree just behind Griner, in space for the 15-foot jump shot she’s been hitting consistently for years. But she missed (credit Griffin for shading towards Griner but managing to recover to challenge the shot), and while Griner managed to snare the rebound, her turnaround effort rimmed out as well. Time expired before Phoenix could foul – the result of their choice to run the clock down – and Connecticut had held on.
Key Players: Bentley was the biggest factor for Connecticut over the course of the night, but Ogwumike’s work-rate was huge as well, and Douglas stepped up in the final quarter. As a team they shot 10-13 from beyond the arc, which obviously played a huge role in the victory (and is something that’s virtually impossible to replicate consistently, however open the defense leaves you). But despite my criticisms of Donovan, this team does seem to be slowly coming together. I’m not sure how much Donovan has to do with it – much of the improvement has come from the best options making themselves so obvious that even she couldn’t ignore them – but it’s still happening.
Dupree was great for Phoenix on the offensive end, even if she missed that crucial shot at the end. Taurasi led the way when they recognised that the game was becoming a whistle-fest and created the contact for free throws. Griner was a solid option inside. Basically, they had an outstanding game offensively as well, they just couldn’t stop the Sun at the other end. Most of Sandy Brondello’s work for the rest of the season is still going to be centered around developing cohesion and concentration on defense.
Notes of Interest: Despite all that offense, the most memorable play of the night came on the defensive end. Griffin lost a shoe, and Taylor recognised that and attacked her off the dribble. Griffin kept playing, and came up with a block despite the semi-lack of footwear. Heck of a play.
Chicago @ Washington, 7pm ET. According to a Chicago Tribune report, Elena Delle Donne won’t travel with the Sky to Washington, which obviously puts them at a huge disadvantage. Fortunately for Chicago they don’t play again until Wednesday next week, so we’ll see if she’s feeling better by then. If Jessica Breland’s still missing as well due to her shin problem, the Sky remain desperately thin in the frontcourt. Washington don’t tend to blow teams away, regardless of the level of competition, but if they move the ball well they should get the same great looks from the perimeter that Seattle found against the weakened Sky on Tuesday. Even with a few extra days to work with what’s left of her roster, Pokey Chatman’s probably going to need something special from someone like Epiphanny Prince to pull this one off.
Connecticut @ New York, 7.30pm ET. New York’s inconsistencies continue to plague them, both in terms of the team performance and the production from stars Cappie Pondexter and Tina Charles. When they were hitting shots against Washington last weekend they looked fantastic; when they stopped hitting against Tulsa on Tuesday everything fell to pieces. Allison Hightower and Katie Douglas will both harass Pondexter, and the Sun will drop double-teams on Charles in the paint, so once again they’ll need the supporting cast to make shots. With the Sun on the second half of a back-to-back, and unlikely to shoot 10-13 from outside again, it should be a decent chance for New York to pick up a win.
Minnesota @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET. The matchup from two of the last three WNBA Finals, it’s always fun when these two clash. Angel McCoughtry’s forced to defend an elite perimeter player (something she rarely does), and Atlanta’s defense in general is tested by the precision and shooting talent of the Lynx scorers. But the Dream have produced some good performances themselves recently, settling in under Michael Cooper, and the strength of their frontcourt will be a challenge for Minnesota. Erika de Souza’s been outstanding so far this year, and her battle with Janel McCarville will be fascinating. The bigger question for the Lynx might be whether Damiris Dantas (and the other players who’ll see minutes at power forward) can cover Sancho Lyttle, who’s quietly become a more prominent part of Atlanta’s offense in recent games.
Seattle @ San Antonio, 8pm ET. Dan Hughes and Brian Agler know each other so well after all these years, it’s hard for there to be any surprises when these two match up – but interesting to see what they come up with to challenge each other. Agler’s been going small in recent games, and that’ll be an option again here because the Stars don’t tend to attack the paint much. The help-defense issues that can be presented by playing Nicole Powell or Jenna O’Hea at power forward won’t be as significant against a team firing from outside rather than slicing into the paint. But the offensive advantages of Camille Little and Crystal Langhorne may demand they’re used together more. San Antonio can be broken down inside, and the footwork and pick-and-roll finishing of those two is as good as anyone. At the other end, Seattle will need to be on their toes to cover all of San Antonio’s scorers. The Stars may just out-shoot the Storm from the perimeter.
Los Angeles @ Tulsa, 8pm ET. This could be a real test for Tulsa. The schedule finally broke nicely for them, and they’ve taken advantage by winning their last two games at home. But despite their occasional help-defense breakdowns, LA have perimeter defenders in Armintie Herrington, Alana Beard and Lindsey Harding who can make Skylar Diggins, Odyssey Sims and Riquna Williams work hard for every inch of space. If that group are limited, Glory Johnson and Courtney Paris are unlikely to be able to carry the Tulsa offense from the post. But the Sparks have their own problems. With Kristi Toliver overseas and Candice Wiggins hurt, they’re still looking for ways to score without much perimeter shooting. The posts can do a lot of damage, with Candace Parker leading the way, but with defenses swamping the paint it gets tougher. LA will need to move the ball, and the turnover battle will be key. Whichever team generates the most offense from their defense, preferably breaking into quick transition, is likely to come out on top.