The Daily W, 06/14/2014

 

Chicago Sky 68 @ Washington Mystics 79

 

Lineups: Chicago had the same major injury problems as Tuesday night, with Elena Delle Donne (illness related to Lyme disease) and Jessica Breland (shin) joining Sylvia Fowles (hip) as absentees. Gennifer Brandon started at power forward again, while Epiphanny Prince got her first start of the season after her strong finish to the Seattle game on Tuesday. Allie Quigley went back to the bench.

Washington promoted Monique Currie back into the starting lineup, moving Tierra Ruffin-Pratt back to the bench.

 

Story of the Game: It was a scrappy first half, with Washington eventually developing a small lead via a few transition baskets in the second quarter. Emma Meesseman’s interior passing was an early highlight, while Kara Lawson came in and got the ball where it needed to be later in the half. Her shooting touch is still proving pretty elusive, but she’s an experienced guard who can run the team as well.

Chicago had Prince breaking down the defense early on, but it failed to result in many points. Quigley hit several shots once she came off the pine, which kept the game close. Washington weren’t really moving the ball well enough as a team to exploit all the holes in Chicago’s defense that Seattle had illustrated in their previous game.

Mike Thibault keeps talking in interviews about how they need Meesseman to be a more forceful player offensively, to look to score and be a central figure for them when they have the ball. She’s young and doesn’t have the selfish personality to make her naturally want to do that, but maybe Thibault reinforced the message again at halftime. We saw more aggression from Meesseman in the second half, finally going right at defenders like Brandon who really can’t guard her. When Brandon sat, Tamera Young was the emergency power forward, which gave Chicago even less chance of surviving inside.

The Mystics finally started to take over the game early in the fourth quarter, perhaps awakened by the scare from Chicago taking a brief lead. Washington used Meesseman and Tianna Hawkins together in the post for that stretch, a pair we haven’t seen much this season (they usually sub in and out for each other). They were both too big and too quick for the Chicago options. On the perimeter Washington had rookie guard Bria Hartley providing a scoring balance, and also ran a couple of plays specifically designed to get shots for Lawson – and she actually knocked them down.

After growing tired of the ineffectiveness of both Courtney Vandersloot and backup Jamierra Faulkner, Chicago had Epiphanny Prince playing as a virtual point guard for much of the second half. Just setting a high pick for Prince and letting her try to make something happen was typically a better option than trying to run an offensive set. It worked for a while, but didn’t hold up in the fourth, and Washington held on for a relatively comfortable final few minutes.

 

Key Players: Meesseman, Hartley and Hawkins were the leading scorers for Washington, and the key figures in the run that finally allowed them to pull away late. Lawson also had a nice game, even if most of it was feeding other people rather than providing the outside shooting she’s more known for. It was another one of those games where Thibault eventually shuffled his deck enough to find the right cards to play towards the end to win. Against what was left of the Sky, it probably shouldn’t have taken the Mystics that long to take over.

Prince looks like she’s getting back to her old self, splitting defenders, forcing the team defense to collapse, and creating offense for both herself and her teammates. In some ways, these situations where she’s the dominant player on the team due to other players being out are made for her. She likes being on the ball and creating, rather than having to pick her moments in amongst the other stars or catch-and-shoot. Allie Quigley also shot well, back in her more familiar role as a reserve. But it wasn’t enough to carry the Sky. If Breland was healthy, they could give themselves a chance as a team unit without the star power of Delle Donne and Fowles. Without those two and Breland, it’s going to be very hard for this team to beat anybody. If it’s looking like being a remotely long-term situation, they probably need to cut someone and find a true power forward on the free agent market.

 

Notes of Interest: Chicago were within six points with 45 seconds left in the game, when Prince found Brandon as an escape valve when she was double-teamed. Brandon looked around at the acres of space she was in, and decided to let fly from 20 feet. Not a good idea. The shot wasn’t even close, and there’s a reason Washington were basically ignoring her. It just about summed up Chicago’s night, and their prospects with the current group.

 

—–

 

Connecticut Sun 83 @ New York Liberty 75

 

Lineups: It was as we’ve come to expect from New York, but Connecticut were without guard Allison Hightower due to a right knee strain. That slid Katie Douglas over to shooting guard – making her the primary defender on Cappie Pondexter – with Alyssa Thomas coming in to start at small forward.

 

Story of the Game: The first half was all Connecticut. They’d managed to carry over their hot streak from the night before against Phoenix, and were basically shooting New York off the floor. Then the Liberty’s heads started to drop, and they were repeatedly beaten in transition, simply because Connecticut were working harder to get up and down the floor. Being beaten by a team who just happen to shoot the lights out on a given night is understandable and can happen to anyone; being outworked over and over again really isn’t. The Sun led by 20 at halftime.

The second half proved that the Liberty do have a little self-respect, and maybe do actually give a crap. Maybe Bill Laimbeer used the interval to give them what became known as ‘the hairdryer treatment’ over here in my country – so named because soccer managers like Sir Alex Ferguson would scream so loudly right in players’ faces that it felt like a hairdryer. They played with much more energy in the second half, everything seemed quicker, and there was significantly more driving to the basket rather than settling for jump shots. Basically they’d started forcing the action, rather than sitting back and taking it from the Sun. Pondexter and Tina Charles were both primary elements in the charge, although they got useful support from reserves Sugar Rodgers and Avery Warley-Talbert.

But they’d dug such a huge hole. The Connecticut lead was 22 at its peak, and the Liberty managed to drag it down to two points in the middle of the fourth quarter – but that was as close as they got. Alex Bentley was once again the central figure for the Sun, hitting some ridiculous shots under pressure to stave off the Liberty. Laimbeer also stuck with the players who’d fought their way back into the game, after finally discovering a group who looked like they wanted to play, so they were tiring down the stretch. It’s always a judgement call when only one group have looked like they were worth a damn all night, but maybe he could’ve found a little rest for them (without playing that disastrous all-reserve lineup). The comeback finally ran out of steam, and the Sun held on.

 

Key Players: While Kara Lawson was the biggest name, and Matee Ajavon’s acquisition drew the most outrage, Alex Bentley has been the best player from that offseason three-way trade so far this year. Her ability to make shots off the dribble, and get to the rim occasionally to keep defenders honest, has helped provide that perimeter balance that Connecticut needed. Chiney Ogwumike produced her regular points, rebounds and effort, which is already becoming a little overlooked because it’s so consistent. Katie Douglas joined Bentley in hitting some important outside shots, and also took several turns running the offense so that Bentley could play off the ball. It’s a sign of how these players are starting to gel that they felt comfortable tweaking the balance like that.

If the Liberty had just shown up for the first half, they probably would’ve won this game. The energy and drive they showed in the second half, with players like Pondexter and Charles running the floor hard and attacking the rim, is what they need to see consistently from the whole group. It just took too long for them to get involved.

 

Notes of Interest: Warley-Talbert was a useful role player in the second half, but unfortunately it took another problem for Plenette Pierson to give Warley-Talbert her chance. Pierson went down holding her right knee moments into the second half, and limped off the floor. She walked off under her own steam, which is a somewhat positive sign, but she’s had so many knee problems at this stage that it’s always worrying when she hits to the floor yet again.

On the playing side, it was noticeable in the second half how often New York simply moved into quick drag screens or pick-and-rolls, without trying to run the triangle sets that Laimbeer has instituted as their base offense. Simplifying – and as a result speeding up – the Liberty offense seems like it would be a good idea in general. Why don’t we just see Pondexter/Charles pick-and-rolls in the middle of the floor about 20 times a night?

 

—–

 

Minnesota Lynx 82 @ Atlanta Dream 85

 

Lineups: Same starting groups as we’ve come to expect from these teams. Rebekkah Brunson and Monica Wright are still recovering from their preseason knee surgeries for Minnesota, while Matee Ajavon was out with a calf problem for Atlanta. But with the alternatives the Dream now have, she wouldn’t be playing much even if she was healthy.

 

Story of the Game: It took them a little while to take control, but Atlanta were the dominant team in the first half. They made it very difficult for the Lynx defense because they were hitting shots from the perimeter. For years the book on playing the Dream has been to collapse in the paint and make them beat you from outside, something which suits Minnesota’s style of defense nicely. But while they had Erika de Souza providing her usual presence under the rim, Atlanta also had Jasmine Thomas, Tiffany Hayes and Angel McCoughtry hitting from the perimeter. It kept the points flowing for the Dream, even without too many coming from their running game.

Minnesota were missing too many shots at the other end that they usually make. Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore weren’t hitting the jump shots that often carry their offense, and everyone missed their share of layups at the rim. The frustration was growing, and even Cheryl Reeve came charging off the bench following a particularly terrible offensive foul call against Asia Taylor. The Lynx trailed 50-33 at halftime.

There wasn’t the same startling change of energy from the Liberty-Sun game, but the Lynx inched their way back throughout the second half. Lindsay Whalen started early with her crunch time style, where she attacks off the dribble for layups and mid-range jumpers rather than calmly easing the ball around the floor to her teammates. That helped produce an early run in the third quarter that at least made a comeback realistic, rather than a distant prospect. McCoughtry ended that push with back-to-back pullup threes – shots the Lynx would typically let her have – but the progressive comeback continued for the rest of the half.

Minnesota went small with just under seven minutes left in the game, still trailing by 10 points. Moore slid to power forward, with rookie wing Tricia Liston – who’s barely played in recent weeks – providing the extra perimeter player. They were also helped out by McCoughtry sliding a little too far into hero-ball mode. She did a nice job of producing within the team framework in the first half, and playing solid, focussed defense. But the ball was sticking more for Atlanta in the second half, and McCoughtry started trying to do things on her own. She drew a couple of fouls, and some offensive boards from her own misses, but mostly it didn’t work.

McCoughtry also reverted to type a little in the final moments, and nearly hurt her team. The Lynx had pulled within two points in the final two minutes, and both Liston and Augustus had shots to tie or take the lead – Liston’s open look largely due to McCoughtry’s unnecessary gambling on defense. But both missed, and Angel drilled a jumper at the other end. Augustus answered, before McCoughtry missed on a drive, eventually giving the Lynx the ball back with 18 seconds left, still trailing by two. Again, McCoughtry gambled away from her man, unnecessarily opening up a driving lane for Whalen, but McCoughtry recovered and got a piece of Whalen’s running jumper from behind. McCoughtry was fouled and only made 1-of-2 at the line, but Sancho Lyttle snared the offensive rebound on the miss (after shoving Moore in the back), and that was the game.

 

Key Players: It was an exercise in clinging on for Atlanta in the second half, but they had a useful balance to their scoring for much of the night. They were 9-15 from beyond the arc as a team, with McCoughtry, Hayes and Thomas hitting three apiece, while Erika had 16 points in the middle. They couldn’t get much to work in the second half, but did just enough to hold on and beat a team that’s been their nemesis for several years. Of course, only beating them in a WNBA Finals – finally – would really feel like revenge.

Minnesota showed their grit and determination to fight their way back into the game, but without ever hitting full flow. Whalen and Augustus were the key offensive figures in dragging them back into the contest. Janel McCarville also shot confidently from the perimeter, dragging Erika further away from the basket than she ever wants to go. Maya Moore continues to struggle with her shooting, and is now 21-62 in June. It’s only anything close to a ‘slump’ because of how ridiculously good she usually is, and how hot she was to start the season. She didn’t do anything offensively in the second half besides toss up threes, which is a backwards step. When the jump shot isn’t falling, getting to the rim for easier looks is the best way to break out of it. Playing against Phoenix’s defense on Sunday afternoon might help, too.

 

Notes of Interest: Celine Dumerc is starting to settle in with the Dream as a distributor and a pesky defender, but is having some problems against the size and strength of WNBA-level guards (although Lindsay Whalen is admittedly an extreme example). That’s making scoring a bit difficult but she had seven assists in this game. Keep helping the other players score and she’ll be popular with her teammates, regardless of her own offensive production.

 

—–

 

Seattle Storm 79 @ San Antonio Stars 72

 

Lineups: Starting groups were as normal for both teams. The only change to the available players was Shenise Johnson returning – again – from her hamstring problem to deepen San Antonio’s bench.

 

Story of the Game: Seattle were heavily on top for the vast majority of this game. For the opening three periods they shot nearly 60% from the field, held San Antonio to 36%, and led by as many as 22 points.

The Storm created pretty much any kind of look they wanted, with San Antonio’s defensive rotations too slow to cope with them. Some of the same pick-and-roll plays that worked against Chicago on Tuesday night were just as effective against the Stars. They drew help defenders into the paint from the strong side, then found the open shooter left behind, who could line up the shot and hit before the defense could rotate or recover. They also had players like Tanisha Wright and Temeka Johnson driving into the heart of the defense, and Camille Little finishing both inside and out. It was one of the more effective offensive performances we’ve seen from the Storm in years.

In fact, one of the few options that wasn’t working for Seattle was Crystal Langhorne, who was being kept relatively quiet by Jayne Appel and interior help. But the Storm had plenty of alternatives. Virtually the only reliable offensive option for San Antonio was Danielle Adams, who Seattle struggled to cope with when she attacked in the paint. Seattle were back to switching a lot, and even the Storm’s actual post players had problems with Adams’s physicality. When smaller players were switched onto her they had no chance. But apart from a few drives where Danielle Robinson took advantage of her clear speed edge on Sue Bird, Adams had very little support from her teammates, and Seattle stayed in complete control.

But in the fourth quarter, the Stars finally started to make a game of it. A 13-0 run, primarily behind Robinson’s speed and Adams’s shot-making, dragged the San Antonio deficit down to six points midway through the final period. The Stars were mixing up their defenses, rather than switching to a specific option that had finally worked, and Seattle’s offense had stalled. With under four minutes left in the game, Brian Agler finally admitted that Bird couldn’t guard anyone San Antonio had on the floor – Robinson most obviously, but Jia Perkins and Kayla McBride as well – and replaced her with Temeka Johnson. It was the constant pace of San Antonio’s attack that had caused a lot of problems for the Storm in the fourth, so it made sense to counter with more speed. It was also Johnson who made two key plays down the stretch, first with a jumper off the glass when San Antonio had cut the gap to just three points, then with a feed to Langhorne deep in the paint to finish. That proved to be enough, and Seattle just barely hung on to win a game they’d dominated for 30 minutes.

 

Key Players: Wright has played some really nice stuff lately, and seems to be going to the basket more consistently rather than settling for jumpers. Johnson also provided a nice alternative at the point with her speed and greater willingness to drive than the modern version of Sue Bird. But this was a collective effort from the Storm, moving the ball and taking their chances wherever they presented themselves around the floor. Agler only used eight players, and seven of them had at least three baskets, while no one had more than six. Their lack of size and propensity to go cold is still a little worrying, but this squad might be starting to find their identity. And their nasty road-heavy early schedule finally starts to turn in their favour starting next week.

A little like New York in their game, it took the Stars too long to play with the necessary drive and energy to take the game to Seattle. But the bigger problem all night was their defense. Too many holes, and too easy for Seattle to score all over the floor. The rotations need to be sharper against teams that are unselfish and willing to move the ball. On offense, it’d be nice to see Robinson attack more. She’s become a much-improved distributor, and a willing creator for her teammates, but she’s ridiculously quick. Spreading the floor and just letting her go by people seems like it should be a more common option for San Antonio.

 

—–

 

Los Angeles Sparks 67 @ Tulsa Shock 69

 

Lineups: Starters as expected for both teams. With Kristi Toliver away representing Slovakia, this was Samantha Prahalis’s first game in a Sparks jersey, giving them a new guard option off the bench. Tulsa were missing their sixth woman, with a bruised right knee keeping Riquna Williams out of the game.

 

Story of the Game: The biggest lead in this entire contest was seven points, with the two sides pretty much playing each other to a standstill. It wasn’t a particularly watchable game, and was played at a surprisingly slow pace for two teams that look at their best when they keep the tempo high.

Los Angeles tried to push early on, as usual, but it didn’t last long. They don’t seem capable of keeping up that constant attack, despite still being a pretty deep team. It leaves them with their halfcourt offense, which isn’t as good as it should be. They’re still a very talented squad, even with the limited perimeter shooting that’s currently available. The ball doesn’t move enough to shift the defense and create openings, which leaves everything being contested and played in tighter spaces.

That said, both these teams missed far too many opportunities right at the rim in this game. Layups and short jumpers constantly rimmed out, stopping the offense in its tracks. The fourth quarter was the worst of the lot, with 21 total points scored as the teams combined to shoot 8-29 from the field. After missing an alley-oop finish, then missing a pair of free throws, Candace Parker finally gave the Sparks their first lead of the second half with 56 seconds remaining on another pair from the line. Skylar Diggins, who’d shown on a couple of occasions already during the game that she could go right and finish – albeit still with her left hand – re-tied the game by repeating the trick. Lindsey Harding showed her right, Diggins accepted the offer and also rounded Sandrine Gruda before sliding in to finish.

Parker blew by Jen Lacy at the other end, but then also blew the layup at the rim. After two jump balls, the second stolen (slightly illegally) by Diggins making a smart hop to where Nneka Ogwumike was tipping the ball, Tulsa had a chance to win it. We all know what they’ve typically done in this situation, and in one aspect they did the same again – Diggins kept the ball, and drove left. But unlike the many other times we’ve seen similar plays in the closing seconds, she managed to convert a tough floater in the lane, and give the Shock the lead with under two seconds remaining.

Out of a timeout (and then another timeout), the Sparks found Parker, who got a decent look from 15 feet with Shock defenders scared to get too close in case the officials bailed her out with another whistle. The shot came up short, and Tulsa had won their third straight game.

 

Key Players: Diggins made the key plays in the final seconds, and also made the most for Tulsa over the course of the game. Odyssey Sims is sharing the point guard responsibilities in the backcourt, but struggling to find her shot so far as a pro. Courtney Paris and Glory Johnson were both battling away in the paint and on the glass all night – there were plenty of rebounds to chase after – and Paris’s pure desire for boards wins out at times. She just seems to want them more than many of her opponents, and it leads to her winning the fight.

LA’s scoring was led by Parker and Ogwumike, with occasional contributions from everyone else. If they’d managed to finish better they’d have won the game. The defense wasn’t great – their zone, in particular, is a mess – but it was good enough.

 

Notes of Interest: LA went ‘big’ for most of the fourth quarter, but for a while it was with Parker on the bench. Sandrine Gruda was the pseudo-small forward most of the time, and it worked out okay at times. But then, they also scored just 12 points in the entire period, so it wasn’t exactly a raging success.

The Sparks continue to switch incredibly easily on defense, and it drives me a little nuts. But statistically speaking it generally seems to work. Other teams rarely seem to attack their willingness to switch on virtually any screen, then not try particularly hard to rotate back to natural matchups. When players like Prahalis are on the floor (or even the other smaller guards), why not set a pick, force them onto a post, and then attack them in the paint?

 

—–

 

Today’s Game

 

Los Angeles @ San Antonio, 8pm ET. An immediate chance to bounce back for both teams, and both are in desperate need of a win. The Sparks, in fact, are currently bottom of the Western Conference, which isn’t where they expect to be. San Antonio will shift them around and find space to shoot from the perimeter, but they’ll also struggle to contain Parker and Ogwumike in the paint. The Sparks need to move the ball. San Antonio have the speed and quickness to run with them and contain their transition attack, which means LA will have to force the defense to move in order to produce open seams in the halfcourt. It shouldn’t be that hard against a Stars defense that just gave us an illustration of their flaws in rotating and covering. But the Sparks need to play with energy and pace. We’ve not seen enough of that lately.

 

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