Lineups: Same starting groups as in recent games for both teams, so the same initial matchups we saw when these teams met on Sunday night in Washington.
Story of the Game: There wasn’t much between the teams in the first half, but Washington held a narrow lead for most of it. They had the majority of their success from beyond the three-point line, which has been a rarity for the Mystics this year – they’ve been shooting the worst percentage in the WNBA on threes. Bria Hartley and Ivory Latta led the barrage, with Atlanta collapsing to protect the paint, Washington moving the ball back out, and knocking down the open looks.
The Mystics also managed to stay even with Atlanta on the boards, where they’d been destroyed by the Dream on Sunday night. And while Angel McCoughtry was aggressive and broke down the Washington defense off the dribble repeatedly, she wasn’t converting her drives at the rim very often, which kept Atlanta’s offense in check. The Dream were always in touch, but trailing.
Atlanta came out with better energy for the second half. Center Erika de Souza seemed a little banged up, and Michael Cooper subbed her out early to put in the slighty more mobile Aneika Henry, which gave the Dream better coverage and rotation defensively. It worked, and several steals led to Atlanta points. Alongside the defense, better conversion from McCoughtry and more of those offensive rebounds that helped them beat the Mystics on Sunday allowed Atlanta to turn the game around and take the lead. Turnovers have been a problem for Washington in many games this season, and it’s especially dangerous to give the ball away against a team that enjoys running as much as the Dream.
Atlanta didn’t exactly take control and charge away into the distance in the fourth quarter, but they did enough. Washington hit an offensive drought, where they failed to score a point for nearly six minutes while a series of jump shots bounced off the iron, and that killed their chances. Mike Thibault got so desperate that he even went super-big for a couple of minutes, with Emma Meesseman, Stefanie Dolson and Kia Vaughn all on the floor simultaneously. It didn’t work at all, and merely signalled how emphatically they’d run out of answers.
Key Players: This was one of those Dream games where McCoughtry was front and center from the start, and refused to be anywhere else all afternoon. She finished the game 10-22 from the field, while none of her teammates attempted more than nine shots. She gave them impetus when they needed it, and she’s been a much improved passer the last couple of years, but there was maybe a little bit too much of the old greedy-McCoughtry on show. Still, they got the win, and she carried the scoring load. You can hardly complain too much.
Henry had a useful game off the bench, and it’s a good sign for the Dream that Cooper’s realising she can be effective in slightly different ways from de Souza, so can sometimes be a necessary alternative.
Hartley and Meesseman led the scoring for Washington, who rather lost their way once those threes stopped dropping. They were 5-6 from beyond the arc in the first quarter, but only 3-11 the rest of the game (with just one make in the entire second half). They couldn’t contrive enough points via other avenues to keep up with Atlanta in the second half.
Notes of Interest: Teams continue to pick on Shoni Schimmel’s defense when she enters games, which is probably the main reason that her minutes have dwindled since she exploded onto the scene in her opening games as a pro. She’s getting better, but it’s veteran French point guard Celine Dumerc who’s most likely to take Jasmine Thomas’s spot in the starting lineup at some point, rather than Schimmel. With the Dream having won their last five games, Cooper probably won’t be changing anything any time soon.
Lineups: New York had Plenette Pierson back in uniform after she missed a game with another knee problem, but Avery Warley-Talbert stayed in the starting lineup while Pierson came off the bench. Bill Laimbeer finally bit the bullet and relegated Essence Carson to the bench, making the switch to Alex Montgomery at small forward. As mentioned here after the Liberty’s loss in Connecticut on Sunday, that’s a swap that had been coming for a while.
The Sky were still without Elena Delle Donne due to illness related to her past Lyme disease issues, but had power forward Jessica Breland back from her shin problem. She went straight back into the starting lineup, moving Gennifer Brandon to the bench (and Brandon stayed there most of the afternoon – Tamera Young was the makeshift backup power forward when Breland rested).
Story of the Game: Tina Charles destroyed Chicago in the paint in the early stages of this game. The Sky tried single-covering her, and neither Breland or Sasha Goodlett could do anything to stop her. When they finally started sending some double-teams, it didn’t seem like there was any kind of plan. The extra defender just wandered over from whatever direction she felt like, which didn’t help much. When Sylvia Fowles isn’t around, there needs to be a better concept of how to deal with Charles before the game begins.
But she didn’t get much help until late in the first half, when Cappie Pondexter and Anna Cruz started stepping up, so Chicago kept pace. In fact, the Sky led for most of the half, behind a far more balanced attack. They had Epiphanny Prince and Courtney Vandersloot both attacking at times, and virtually everyone making a trip or two to the free throw line – there were a lot of fouls, and a lot of free throws in the first half, at both ends. Only once Charles got some help did New York take a small lead.
With Charles rather fading out of the game, Chicago dominated most of the third quarter. They were hiding Epiphanny Prince on the defensive end on whoever New York had on the floor at small forward, but she was driving much of the Sky’s offense. She can still break down a defense, and hit big shots from outside, and that helped Chicago lead by as many as 10 points in the third quarter. Prince scored 15 in the period.
But the Liberty weren’t done. Cruz was having a dynamic game, showing the aggression offensively that New York need from someone on the perimeter besides Pondexter. Cappie did a lot of the work, but for once she had a sidekick on the outside rather than just trading off possessions with Charles. It was Pondexter who dragged the game to overtime, with a three-point play on a drive and a trio of free throws (Tamera Young got too close when challenging a three) erasing a late six-point Sky lead. Pondexter also had a chance to win the game at the end of regulation, but her pullup jumper was long at the buzzer.
Much of overtime was Prince vs. Pondexter, with the former Rutgers guards charged with creating – and often finishing – most of the offense. But Chicago also had Jessica Breland, who stepped up for the Sky. They ran the same play about 50 times in this game, with the point guard (usually Vandersloot) using a screen from the center (usually Markeisha Gatling) at the right elbow, before the center rolled down towards the basket and Breland popped high on the opposite side of the lane. More often than not, the ball went to Breland, and she could either fire the mid-range jumper, attack the rim, or hand off to Prince coming over from the wing. In overtime, Breland finished a series of plays – and left a couple of Liberty defenders on the floor with mean screens – which helped Chicago hold on for the win. Defensively they’d taken to trapping Pondexter off any ball-screen, and while she nailed one three right over the trap, a forced effort that only hit glass was the end of New York’s chances.
Key Players: This was the perfect illustration of what I talked about after Chicago’s last game – add Breland back into the mix, and they’ve got a chance to win games even without Delle Donne and Fowles. She gives them another legitimate threat alongside Prince, and their alternatives at power forward were so limited with Breland and Delle Donne both on the sidelines that they really couldn’t cope. Without Breland, they lose this game.
Gatling also had a nice performance, showing off her soft hands in the paint and impressive footwork. She was far more effective than Goodlett, although she still has major fouling issues. She basically needs to learn how to play defense at the pro level, but she’s got some of the natural attributes she needs to be a productive player in the pros. Vandersloot also had one of her best games for quite some time, although Prince was the star with 30 points, seven assists and six steals.
Despite the loss, yet again, to a shorthanded opponent, there were some positives for New York. Cruz’s offensive outburst – finishing 7-11 for 17 points, seven boards and eight assists – provided the much-needed third wheel for Charles and Pondexter. The unfortunate element was that Charles and Pondexter once again seemed to take it in turns being effective – Charles in the first half, Pondexter in the second – rather than melding into a whole. On the bright side, at least they both showed up within the same game, even if it was different halves.
Notes of Interest: The power forward spot was a nightmare for New York, with Pierson, Warley-Talbert and DeLisha Milton-Jones combining to shoot 3-15 and producing only five rebounds. This team desperately misses a healthy Plenette Pierson, but that player will probably never exist again.
Lineups: Bad news for the Lynx, with a sore left knee leaving Seimone Augustus on the sideline in sweats and forcing Tan White into the starting lineup. On the second night of a back-to-back, erring on the side of caution was absolutely the right way to go with Augustus, but it put a significant dent in Minnesota’s chances for this game. Phoenix stuck with the big starting group that helped them beat the Lynx for the first time in 15 tries on Sunday. Their bench is still shortened by Ewelina Kobryn and Shay Murphy being in Europe with their national teams.
Story of the Game: Mercury center Brittney Griner had one of her best outings as a professional in this game, and it began right from the start. Janel McCarville is the only one of Minnesota’s available posts who’s had any success limiting Griner – and was fairly successful in doing so on Sunday – but McCarville and Damiris Dantas were both dominated in the opening stages. Griner’s various short jumpers, hooks and long-stepping post moves were enhanced by an aggression on the boards that we’ve rarely seen from her in a Mercury jersey. That led to offensive rebounds, and easy chances at putbacks. Rebounding is an area where she should be better than she’s shown so far in the WNBA, and more games like this would be huge for the Mercury and Griner’s own development.
Maya Moore was the only one propping up the Lynx offense early on, picking up where she’d left off the night before in Los Angeles by hitting every shot in sight. It wasn’t until Lindsay Whalen got involved, driving hard to the rim late in the first quarter and on into the second, that Minnesota started to even out the score. However, all those drives were happening while Griner rested on the bench, so there was always the sense that it would soon be getting much harder to convert.
Basically, both offenses were highly effective in the first half, with both teams getting to the rim consistently. But Phoenix’s ball movement was a little better, and Griner had help from Diana Taurasi, Candice Dupree and even a moderately aggressive DeWanna Bonner, while Whalen and Moore were doing most of the work on their own for Minnesota. The Mercury led by 10 at halftime.
The second half wasn’t quite as smooth for either side offensively. Neither team shot as well from the perimeter, and the extra help that the Lynx were sending down on Griner did a better job of restricting her (although Dantas spent a lot of time on the bench, and her defensive flaws have been an issue in too many games recently). Phoenix led by as many as 16 in the third quarter, but never looked in complete control. Whalen led the Lynx back into contention, always willing to drive regardless of who might be waiting for her in the paint – with Minnesota doing a better job of dragging Griner into space so that Whalen had some room. Then they tried to climb on Maya’s back in the fourth quarter.
It never quite worked, although it came close. Moore was firing up almost indiscriminately in the final stages, knowing that her team was relying on her to be their offense virtually on her own. She was also basically playing point guard whenever Whalen needed a rest, and often defending Taurasi at the other end. But Moore missed a lot of threes, and in the end a few too many. The Lynx came within five points a couple of times in the fourth quarter, but Taurasi hit a couple of huge bombs from deep, Dupree had some nice finishes inside, and Phoenix held on. They may have lost 14 in a row to Minnesota, but now they’ve won two straight.
Key Players: Griner finished 11-15 for 27 points and 18 boards, the kind of huge game that Phoenix want to see from her more often – especially against the Lynx. While Rebekkah Brunson returning – hopefully, sometime after the all-star break – would give Minnesota more in the paint, Griner should be one of the Mercury’s key advantages against the Lynx. They can’t match her size, and she needs to exploit that as much as possible, including on the glass. The road to the WNBA Finals will likely go through Minnesota at some stage, and Phoenix have to be able to beat this team when it counts.
Alongside her it was the usual suspects, with Taurasi and Dupree making plays when it counted down the stretch. It was also one of Bonner’s better games this season, attacking the rim first before shooting from outside later on when she’d gained confidence and rhythm. That’s how it should always work for her. She did the best she could as the primary defender on Whalen as well, although with limited results.
Minnesota had Whalen and Moore, and nothing much else. They missed Augustus, and no one stepped up to be the third option on offense – although they virtually stopped looking in the latter stages. Monica Wright looks very rusty after recently returning from her knee surgery, and getting her up to speed would be a big help for this team. These squads don’t meet again until July 31st, by which stage they may look rather different. At the moment, this matchup is also looking like the most likely pairing for the Western Conference finals – but of course there’s a long way to go.
Notes of Interest: Part of the reason the Lynx need Wright all the way back is that Cheryl Reeve appears to have decided that Lindsay Moore is no longer an option. She was supposed to be Whalen’s backup at the point, but her appearances this season show little development from her rookie year, and teams instantly attack her whenever she comes into games – and her ballhandling isn’t good enough to handle it. It won’t be a surprise if they cut her and starting looking around for an alternative sometime soon, but until then makeshift options like Wright, White, Augustus and Maya Moore have to take on the point guard responsibilities when Whalen rests.
San Antonio @ Seattle, 10pm ET. When these teams met in San Antonio a week ago, the Storm won by seven but it should’ve been much more. They dominated most of the game, and the Stars struggled badly to handle their pick-and-roll attack and ball movement. Dan Hughes will have his team better prepared this time, and Seattle may not shoot as well, but the same defensive rotation issues are likely to present themselves. At the same time, both Danielle Robinson and Danielle Adams are tough matchups for the Storm, and if their various gunners can hit shots around them San Antonio may keep pace simply by scoring better.
Tulsa @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET. This is something of a ‘prove it’ game for both sides, although in very different ways. Los Angeles need to show that they actually want to be playing WNBA basketball right now, and that they want Carol Ross to keep her job. At 3-7, rock bottom of the Western Conference, the Sparks are floundering and have lost six of their last seven games. Their defense has been deplorable in their last couple of appearances, and the team has lacked life and energy. This is the second game in a four-game homestand, and unless they turn it around soon the changes on the sidelines and/or in the front office are surely inevitable. Tulsa have won four in a row to get their season started, but they were all at home. The question for them is whether they can take those performances on the road and keep winning. This is the start of a four-game roadtrip, and playing the shaky Sparks might be the easiest of the four – they’ll be desperate to maintain the momentum from their run of home victories.