The Daily W, 06/17/2014

 

Apologies for this post not arriving until now. The WNBA tends to take Mondays off, and occasionally I follow suit. Analysis of all Sunday’s action below, along with previews for tonight’s matchups.

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Phoenix Mercury 80 @ Minnesota Lynx 72

 

Lineups: The starters were as expected for Minnesota, but Phoenix promoted Penny Taylor for the first time this season, with Erin Phillips dropping to the bench. It was more to shift Sandy Brondello’s rotations than a benching of Phillips. The big perimeter of Diana Taurasi, DeWanna Bonner and Taylor have too often been playing together when Brittney Griner rests this year, highlighting their defensive deficiencies. Starting all three put Griner behind them immediately, helping to cover for them. Minnesota had sixth woman Monica Wright in uniform and available to play for the first time this season after recovering from her knee surgery.

 

Story of the Game: After winning their last 14 encounters with the Mercury, it’s fair to say the Lynx were strong favourites for this game. But it was Phoenix who dominated the first half. They outplayed Minnesota in virtually every area. They moved the ball better, and hit the shots they created around the perimeter. They attacked quickly when they had the chance, with the Lynx transition defense leaving a lot to be desired. They played good enough defense, leaving Minnesota mostly settling for jump shots, which weren’t dropping with their usual rate for the star perimeter of Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore. And at the head of it all, Diana Taurasi was leading the way, hitting shots, drawing fouls, and flashing the ball around the floor for her teammates to score as well. The Mercury led by 19 at halftime.

It was an odd, unfortunate combination of issues for Minnesota. Sometimes they looked like they were playing in a rush, firing up shots quickly rather than working their offense and picking Phoenix apart as they’ve done in the past. Sometimes they looked lifeless, the ball failing to move around the floor enough to open up the defense. Griner hadn’t even managed to finish any of her efforts in the paint and was barely a factor offensively in the first half, limited by Janel McCarville’s physical defense. Griner finally got involved in the third quarter, especially once McCarville was on the bench and Devereaux Peters was trying to defend her. Peters looked thoroughly overmatched.

There was no real hint of a comeback until late in the fourth quarter, by which stage Cheryl Reeve had given up on all her big names. Rookie big Damiris Dantas was the only starter left on the floor, with Wright making her first appearance of the season with under six minutes left in the game. Phoenix looked nervous in the final stages, almost shocked that they were on the brink of finally beating Minnesota, and unsure of how to finish it off. But ultimately the gap was just too big, and six points was a close as the Lynx came.

 

Key Players: Taurasi was at her imperious best, while Candice Dupree continues to play with her trademark smoothness and happily knocks down the open shots teams keep offering her. That’s how it’s supposed to work for this team on offense – put so many dangerous weapons on the floor that the opponent has to pick their poison, and then you kill them with whatever’s left open. The big starting group clearly worked, and Brondello will probably stick with it for the forseeable future. It’ll be interesting to see if it’s as effective against teams that start quick, nippy little guards, rather than the big, physical perimeter players that the Lynx use.

It was a pretty miserable game all around for Minnesota. None of their star scorers ever really found a flow, and it took players like Tan White and Asia Taylor to really give them any impetus. It’ll be a matchup of two teams trying to regain their energy and end ugly runs when they face the Sparks tonight in LA.

 

Notes of Interest: Griner finished with a +/- of -7 for the game, showing that much of Phoenix’s lead was built when she was on the bench. That’s a big positive for a Mercury team whose defense has been falling to bits when Griner rests for much of the season. They were flowing so nicely by the time she sat that the offense kept going and Minnesota never took advantage.

Reeve picked up two technical fouls, but didn’t get ejected. How did that happen? Well the first was a ‘non-unsportsmanlike’ technical for leaving the coaching box, similar to a delay of game, defensive three-seconds or hanging on the rim technical for a player. The second was the more traditional mouthing-off tech. Those don’t add up to ejection, under the rules, so Reeve got to stay.

 

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New York Liberty 72 @ Connecticut Sun 76

 

Lineups: Plenette Pierson was out for New York, after the renewed knee injury she picked up against the same opponent on Friday night. Avery Warley-Talbert stepped into the hole. Connecticut were also missing their starting power forward, with Chiney Ogwumike attending her graduation ceremony at Stanford. Kelsey Griffin filled that spot, with Alyssa Thomas continuing to start as well due to Allison Hightower’s knee strain keeping her out again.

 

Story of the Game: This was a scrappy, broken game for most of the afternoon, without much to choose between the teams at any stage. Connecticut tried to post up Kelsey Bone early on, which seems to be a common theme in their games. They want to get the big girl involved and make sure she’s engaged from the beginning. Unfortunately for Liberty fans, Bone posting-up Tina Charles was a much more common sight than the reverse in the recent clashes between these teams. And Bone always wants to bully her way to the basket, rather than drift away into a jumper.

New York had developed a small lead in the second quarter, with reserves like DeLisha Milton-Jones and Shanece McKinney actually helping them for once rather than hurting. The momentum turned when Cappie Pondexter gave up a cheap turnover which led directly to a Connecticut layup, before swinging her arm into Danielle McCray on the ensuing inbounds play and picking up a flagrant foul. That led directly into a strong finish to the half for the Sun, and played its part in easily McCray’s best half of basketball this season.

The second half wasn’t much better in terms of entertainment value. Connecticut kept their noses in front by being the aggressors, pushing more than New York, earning free throws, and generally looking the more active team. They also had Katie Douglas making a few shots and leading the way, ultimately converting a sweeping left-handed drive with 22 seconds left to essentially ice the game.

 

Key Players: Pondexter was the only real highlight for New York, unless you count some energy plays from Warley-Talbert. Judging by all the treatment she’s getting on the sidelines, Cappie’s playing through some pain, but she’s also been more aggressive in recent games. She’s not just settling for an endless stream of jump shots, but driving to the rim instead – and getting to the free throw line as a result. That’s a positive for the Liberty. The negative is virtually everything else, with Charles a fairly ineffective figure (giving them no more than the Sun are getting from Bone, just one of three pieces traded away to acquire New York’s supposed second superstar). Against a mediocre Sun team, missing two of their best players, the Liberty once again didn’t have enough to come away with the win.

Connecticut pieced together enough for the victory, with all five starters scoring in double-figures. Douglas was the leader in the second half, but they all produced at different times. When she plays, they’re trying to take advantage of the size and strength edge that Thomas has over most opposing small forwards. They’re running the same duck-in plays that Minnesota introduced for Augustus and Moore last year, where she hangs out in the corner and then dives inside for a quick post-up, with both posts up at the free-throw line to create space. It gets her closer to the rim, where she’s more comfortable, and keeps her away from firing jump shots, which are hit or miss. She’s still a work-in-progress on the pro level, but it’s nice to see them looking for ways to capitalise on her skills. She’s a dangerous rebounder from that small forward spot, too.

 

Notes of Interest: It’s bizarre how often New York end up with four players on the same side of the floor, making it much easier for the defense to cover. It seems to happen at least once a game, often more than that. It’s a sign that they’re not all comfortable with the offense yet, and hinders their dubious floor-spacing even further. We’re a third of the way into the season – the Liberty look like they’ve still got a long way to go.

And Essence Carson is increasingly looking like she won’t be part of the solution this year. She’s spending more and more time on the bench because she’s not helping much on the floor. It’s not that she can’t hit a shot or be in the right place on defense – she just barely seems involved in anything. Alex Montgomery may take her starting spot soon. Who knows, maybe that’ll help Carson wake up a little, unless it’s all down to the continuing recovery from her ACL tear.

 

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Atlanta Dream 75 @ Washington Mystics 67

 

Lineups: It was the same as in their previous games for both teams, so Monique Currie was the starting small forward for Washington, tasked with covering Angel McCoughtry to begin the game. Matee Ajavon is still out with her calf problem for Atlanta, for what that’s worth, so couldn’t face her former team.

 

Story of the Game: Atlanta were the slightly better team in a messy first half. Washington gave up too many cheap turnovers, and while they didn’t lead directly to many transition chances for Atlanta, they gave away possessions without any reward. McCoughtry made some nice plays to create points late in the first quarter, and Atlanta held a narrow lead for the rest of the half. Sancho Lyttle continues to drill home mid-range jump shots for fun, and it’s so nice to see after the couple of years where she was bricking threes instead. From 15-17 feet she’s deadly; from 20+ she’s ugly.

Washington came back into the game in the third quarter. Currie was doing a much better job on McCoughtry, staying in front of her, frustrating her, and forcing misses. Atlanta had also started having turnover issues of their own, and then injuries helped the Mystics out a little as well. For the second time in the game, Lyttle took a smack to the face from a flailing arm. Kia Vaughn had caught her with an elbow in the opening minutes, and then it was Currie’s turn during the fight for a rebound. Minutes later, Erika de Souza took a hit to the nose from Vaughn, and joined Lyttle on the sidelines. It forced Atlanta into an Amanda Thompson/Aneika Henry frontcourt, which gave Washington the chance to take advantage.

But both Erika and Lyttle were back for the fourth quarter, and the Mystics hadn’t managed to build a lead against their backups. Atlanta shot 1-13 in the third, scoring just eight points, but still led by a couple going into the final period. Lyttle stepped up again in the closing stages, hitting both from midrange and with drives, while Erika and Tiffany Hayes played able supporting roles. The Mystics couldn’t keep up, and Atlanta pulled away for their fourth straight win.

 

Key Players: Lyttle was the star in crunch time for the Dream, despite taking two hits during the game that might’ve sent many off to lie down in a darkened room. McCoughtry, Hayes and de Souza all produced at different stages of the evening, although McCoughtry had a rough second half.

Washington were balanced, but maybe a little too balanced, if there can be such a thing. No one across the roster really stepped up and excelled, and moments from Bria Hartley, Monique Currie, Ivory Latta and others just didn’t add up to enough

 

Notes of Interest: We’re going to talk a lot about offensive rebounds in the next game, but it was a big factor here as well. Atlanta finished with a 17-4 edge on the offensive glass, and a resulting 18-0 advantage in second-chance points. It was especially important in the fourth quarter, when Atlanta kept extending possessions while Washington were forced to expend more and more energy on the defensive end.

Stefanie Dolson had purple hair, and looked a bit like a troll doll. Nope, no idea why.

 

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Seattle Storm 79 @ Tulsa Shock 85

 

Lineups: As expected for both teams. Tulsa are still without Tiffany Jackson-Jones due to her preseason shin surgery, and Riquna Williams missed her second straight game due to a bruised knee.

 

Story of the Game: For the vast majority of this game, there was very little to complain about with Seattle’s offense. They shot 53% for the evening, moving the ball well, pushing when they could, and hitting open shots. Tanisha Wright gave them a willing driver, attacking Odyssey Sims and frequently going by her. As she’s shown in the past, Wright becomes a much better shooter when she sets it up by getting to the rim first, building her own confidence and forcing the defense to respect the drive. She was Seattle’s most effective weapon for much of the game, but several other players played their part. One of those was Sue Bird, willing to turn the corner off pick-and-rolls when that was what was offered up by the defense, which was nice to see.

But Tulsa kept up, and actually held a narrow lead at halftime, largely because of their dominance on the boards. The post pairing of Glory Johnson and Courtney Paris beat Camille Little and Crystal Langhorne for rebounds all night long, and it led to a ridiculous number of second chances for the Shock. A few were just lucky, with the ball dropping nicely for Tulsa. A few were due to Seattle being so concerned about Tulsa’s ballhandlers that their bigs were out of position to box out after shots, leading to Shock boards. But several were just down to Johnson and Paris fighting harder for the ball and bullying Langhorne or Little (or their even smaller backups) out of the way. Seattle were the better team, or at the very least equal, in most areas during this game. The offensive glass was the only place where they lost out dramatically.

The Storm’s offense was still good enough to carry them into the lead, and they were up by seven with five minutes left. Skylar Diggins made the initial plays to help turn the game in Tulsa’s favour, hitting a huge three, then forcing her way to the rim, then ‘earning’ a series of calls from the officials at either end of the floor. After that the ball was in Sims’s hands, running pick-and-rolls with Johnson or Paris that Seattle couldn’t manage to rotate fast enough to cover. Nicole Powell is still limited as a post defender, by both her size and her instincts, which makes Seattle’s weak-side help that fraction slower when she’s on the floor.

All it took was a couple of turnovers and a missed shot or two at the other end for Seattle’s lead to disappear, because they couldn’t get a single stop in the closing stages. The final nail came when a pick-and-roll found Langhorne deep in the paint, and she turned the ball over under heavy pressure. That was one occasion where the help had arrived quickly, and forced a mistake, helping Tulsa hold on for their fourth consecutive victory.

 

Key Players: The leading scorer for Tulsa was Diggins, and her production was definitely important. Her increased confidence also seems to be transferring to her teammates, who are playing like they expect to be winning games now.

But the Johnson/Paris pairing in the paint were key, combining for 12 offensive rebounds, leading directly to the 17-6 edge in second-chance points (which felt much bigger during the course of the game). Paris has taken a big step forward this season, given the starting spot by Fred Williams and the positive attitude that comes from knowing she’ll be playing heavy minutes and can afford to make a mistake or two. Her outstanding field goal percentage (67%) doesn’t come just from taking the vast majority of her shots within a foot of the basket, but also from lovely soft hands and strong finishing at the rim. Their team defense is still prone to mistakes and breakdowns – in this very game, Seattle scored without many problems – but Paris isn’t being individually targeted and exploited quite so much any more. Some of that comes from personal development, some from simply covering better for her within the scheme.

Wright led the way for Seattle, who’ll be happy with the way their offense seems to be finding its feet. Langhorne’s been very quiet recently, but the rest of the team has stepped up and made shots – partly because opponents are so concerned about her and are dropping inside, leaving shooters in acres of space. Brian Agler will feel like he can fix the defensive rotation issues they had in this game, and that Langhorne and Little will rarely be so comprehensively outfought on the glass.

 

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League News

 

The Los Angeles Sparks today cut Samantha Prahalis, and signed Darxia Morris instead. It’s a switch of reserve guards, trying to fill a hole while Kristi Toliver is overseas. Prahalis hadn’t done much besides turn the ball over and watch opponents drive by her in her two brief appearances, so they’re trying a different option.

 

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Today’s Games

 

Indiana @ Connecticut, 7pm ET. Assuming Chiney Ogwumike has made it back from the West coast, this’ll be another matchup between rookie power forwards, with Natasha Howard providing the youthful energy for the Fever. With Kelsey Bone and Erlana Larkins inside as well, it’ll generally be an all-out scrap in the paint. With the Fever not having played since last Wednesday, hopefully Briann January’s had time to rest her sprained ankle, which forced her out again late in their last game. If she plays, Alex Bentley may find it significantly tougher to light up the scoreboard as she has recently with January pestering her all night. Alongside Bentley, Katie Douglas has stepped up her production lately, and it’ll be interesting to see if facing her former teammates encourages that further or stops it in its tracks. She’s still shooting 34% for the season, which isn’t good, but the other clashes against the Fever this season have seen her make frequent visits to the free throw line. That’s not a coincidence – she wants to attack against her old team.

 

Minnesota @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET. Two teams, bizarrely, in real need of a win. The Lynx are still alone atop the Western Conference, but have lost three of their last four games (the one win in that group coming against these same Sparks). Maya Moore is still looking for her shot, and that fragility seemed to seep into the play of some of her teammates against Phoenix on Sunday. Cheryl Reeve will most want to see a response on the defensive end, although giving up shots to the Mercury and giving them up to LA isn’t quite the same. The Sparks’ inability to hit those shots has been a big problem lately, and their energy has dropped as the losses have piled up, turning into an unfortunate spiral. But after several close losses, they were embarrassed by San Antonio on Saturday. Carol Ross will hope that it’s finally enough to spark a response from her team, who can still score even without many perimeter shooters. But expect to see the Lynx sagging into the paint even more than usual, and using their 2-3 zone as well until LA prove they can pierce it. The Sparks need to keep the pace high and move the ball – and hope Minnesota stay cold from the perimeter.

 

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