New York Liberty 64 @ Atlanta Dream 85
Lineups: Same again for both teams. So recent additions to the starting lineup in New York, Alex Montgomery and Avery Warley-Talbert, retained their spots ahead of Essence Carson (poor performance) and Plenette Pierson (semi-injured). Atlanta continue to start Jasmine Thomas at the point, sliding Shoni Schimmel and Celine Dumerc in during the course of the game.
Story of the Game: By some distance, this was the most comprehensively we’ve seen a team approach New York with a “someone other than your stars must beat us” attitude this season. Every time Cappie Pondexter used an on-ball screen, the two defenders involved both went to her, trapping the ball out of her hands. Similarly, double-teams dropped down on Tina Charles whenever she touched the ball inside, although she had trouble converting anything all night even when she got shots up before extra defenders arrived. Atlanta trusted their defensive rotations and help behind the traps to cover the gaps, and understandably felt they were better off conceding good looks to Montgomery, Warley-Talbert, Anna Cruz and the other role players – rather than letting Pondexter or Charles carry the offense. Other teams have beaten New York without being quite so overt in their efforts to limit New York’s stars, but essentially the plan worked. Pondexter kept passing, Charles either missed or disappeared, and Atlanta moved in front.
Angel McCoughtry drove much of Atlanta’s offense in the first half, although once again she was a little too focussed on her own scoring. But she was attacking the rim, always giving the Dream an option offensively if nothing else presented itself. They had better energy than New York, better ball movement, and their defensive intensity fed into their offense, which has always been the case when Atlanta are at their best. Aneika Henry had another strong half as well, in what’s becoming a legitimate three-post rotation, rather than Sancho Lyttle, Erika de Souza, and hoping you can find some rest for that pair. Atlanta led by 14 at halftime, despite dismal outside shooting. They were getting to the rim and the free throw line more than often enough, while dominating the glass, and the Liberty couldn’t keep up.
Both teams went deep into their benches in the second half, when Atlanta’s lead was rarely threatened. These teams are on very different paths at the moment, with Atlanta winning their sixth straight while New York lost their eighth in nine games. It was pretty easy to tell which was which from their confidence levels and performance on the floor.
Key Players: McCoughtry led Atlanta’s scoring, but needed 19 shots for 18 points, and was benched in the second half when Michael Cooper seemed to tire of her selfishness as much as I did. She finished with six assists, which shows how far her game has come in the last couple of years – she still makes passes and finds her teammates, even when it feels like she’s hogging the ball a little during the play. In years past, she’d have had one assist in a game like that, on an airball that the scorer generously counted as a pass.
Tiffany Hayes had fantastic energy throughout the game, throwing herself around the court as usual. It’s not a real Hayes game unless she hits the floor at least four or five times – which unfortunately leads to too many problematic little injuries. But for now, she’s settling into her starting role, bringing the same fire that she used to add from the bench. It’s Schimmel who’s taken on that sixth woman role now, and she had some of her typical highlight-reel passes, while shooting pretty poorly.
New York had nothing much offensively from anyone, although Montgomery shot pretty well when she occasionally let fly. We’d see more teams approach playing them this way – with an overwhelming focus on defending Pondexter and Charles – if the Liberty were playing well enough for opponents to feel they needed to bother adapting that heavily.
Notes of Interest: While it would’ve made little difference for this game, it’s hard to understand why Charles and Pondexter are ever on the bench at the same time. This is a team built around two stars, with other players essentially told they’re supporting acts from the start. Surely it’s possible to stagger the rest for Charles and Pondexter so that one of them is always on the floor to help her teammates? They seem to rest simultaneously for stretches of every single Liberty game.
Washington Mystics 65 @ Minnesota Lynx 75
Lineups: There was good news for Minnesota before tip-off, with Seimone Augustus returning to the starting lineup after missing a game due to bursitis in her left knee. The Mystics started the same group that we’ve seen in recent games. Washington’s Tayler Hill has now had her baby, and is apparently expected to return before the end of the season – but obviously was still unavailable for this game. Minnesota are down to just one player still out due to preseason knee surgery, with Rebekkah Brunson still on the sidelines.
Story of the Game: Augustus didn’t look like someone worrying about knee pain, with a three and a spinning drive into the lane in the opening minutes. Maya Moore joined in the scoring and the Lynx took control of the game late in the first quarter and early in the second. A stretch of three cheap Washington turnovers, while Minnesota hit three jumpers at the other end before rounding it off with a transition layup, left the Lynx up by 17.
All three of those jumpers came through sets that ran through Moore in the post, and we saw a lot more use of both Moore and Augustus on post-ups in this game than has been the case for much of the season. Those dive-in plays from the corners have been seen more for players like Alyssa Thomas in Connecticut than we’ve seen them for the Lynx, but clearly they felt they had an advantage over Washington with their size on the wings, and wanted to exploit it.
Defensively, Minnesota pulled their regular trick of helping inside whenever necessary, giving up perimeter looks if they were going to concede anything. Washington basically didn’t hit enough of them all night long to be competitive. It was an oddly drifting game for most of the last 25 minutes, with Washington occasionally pulling the gap down to single-digits but Minnesota rarely looking legitimately troubled. It was one of those games where one team just looked a bit better than the other from the start, and held their opponent at bay all night.
The final nail came when Washington pulled within nine points on a Bria Hartley layup with just over three minutes left in the game. Cheryl Reeve called a timeout just to make sure Washington didn’t start rolling, and then out of the timeout Lindsay Whalen hit a jumper off a broken play as the shot clock expired. Tan White did the same thing the next time down the floor, with an even more ridiculously off-balance effort that dropped. That was the end of any small chance Washington may have had.
Key Players: Moore and Augustus were back together again, and finished with a combined 39 points on 16-29 shooting. Basically they had elite talent that Washington couldn’t match. Rookie wing Tricia Liston had a decent stretch in the first half, and looks to be gaining some confidence. She looks like she honestly believes her shots are going in now, rather than like she’s just throwing them up because that’s supposed to be her role. Devereaux Peters also played most of the second half ahead of Damiris Dantas in the post, getting much-needed floor time in her continuing recovery from knee surgery. It also seems like Reeve is getting a little weary of Dantas’s errors, especially on the defensive end, and would like to have a legitimate alternative to turn to. At this point that alternative probably has to be Peters, bar using Moore as a power forward more often. There are still minutes up for grabs at power forward for Minnesota until Brunson returns.
Washington tried to run through Emma Meesseman early on, but it never really flowed. Kara Lawson was the only Mystic who hit a few perimeter shots, as the team combined to shoot 5-23 from beyond the arc. Poor three-point shooting is becoming a significant problem for Washington, despite having players on their roster who ought to be able to hit those shots. Opponents are going to follow Minnesota’s lead and just sag into the paint until Washington prove they can consistently punish that approach.
Notes of Interest: Minnesota have started trapping the ballhandler on end-of-quarter possessions where their opponent is running down the clock for the final shot. It’s obviously a little risky if the ball is rotated out for an open look, but it forces the action, and potentially creates a turnover or a quick shot so that they get the ball back before time expires. I like it. It worked perfectly at the end of the first half, with Hartley coughing up the ball and Moore feeding Janel McCarville for a breakaway layup at the buzzer.
Indiana Fever 83 @ Chicago Sky 75
Lineups: Unfortunately, the lineup news was that there was no new news. Tamika Catchings still out due to her back, Elena Delle Donne still out due to illness related to Lyme disease, and Sylvia Fowles still working her way back from her hip surgery. Fowles has apparently started practicing with the Sky, which is a positive step, so hopefully she’ll make her season debut sometime soon. With the absentees the same, both teams used the same starting lineups we’ve seen in previous games.
Story of the Game: This was a pretty close contest for most of the night, although often without much for anyone to get excited about. Indiana ran a lot of their offense through the post, and created much of their 10-point second quarter lead at the free throw line. Chicago couldn’t seem to stop them inside without hacking, with rookie forward Natasha Howard the most common beneficiary. The Fever were also doing a decent job of challenging Jessica Breland on those free-throw line jumpers she’s been raining in all season, well aware of her threat considering she played for them last season.
But Chicago wiped out their deficit before halftime, led back into the game by Epiphanny Prince. She still has that same off-the-dribble creative game, and she gives the Sky an offensive leader that they need in the absence of Delle Donne. Point guard Courtney Vandersloot had another tough half, making moves that were too predictable and dribbling herself into trouble. Rookie backup Jamierra Faulkner is sometimes a little too shoot-first for someone who’s meant to be running the offense, but she gives them a more direct, aggressive alternative to Vandersloot. She’s already stealing a few more minutes away from Sloot than was probably intended at the start of the season.
It continued to be a broken, staccato game in the second half, with whistles and free throws constantly interrupting the action. Prince’s defense was becoming an issue for the Sky almost as much as her offense had helped them. They don’t want to trust her to guard a significant threat, so once again they were trying to hide her on the opposing small forward. So Indiana ran those same dive-in plays from the corner that I’ve talked about with Moore and Augustus in Minnesota, or Alyssa Thomas in Connecticut. The posts come up high to the elbow to create space, and then the wing cuts in from the corner into an immediate post-up deep in the paint, taking the pass from up high. Indiana did it with Marissa Coleman and Karima Christmas, and it led to either good looks or yet more free throws. At some point, Chicago might’ve been better off just letting Prince try to guard Briann January or Shavonte Zellous, making the post-ups less likely (although Zellous probably would’ve tried it as well).
Chicago got better production from Vandersloot and Breland in the second half, and even made many of their own trips to the foul line – but couldn’t make them count. While Indiana were 15-21 at the free throw line in the second half, Chicago were 4-14. In such a tight game those were crucial misses, coming from all across the squad.
A tricky layup from Vandersloot and rainbow jumper from Breland pulled Chicago within two points with barely a minute left in the game, but Indiana answered with a tough catch and finish from Erlana Larkins in traffic under the rim. Chicago bizarrely ran a play that appeared to be drawn up for Allie Quigley out of a timeout – she’d had a poor game – and she dribbled the ball out of bounds off her own foot once Indiana closed off the three she probably wanted. Zellous sliced in for a layup at the other end – going backdoor past a sleeping Prince to illustrate why Chicago had kept her away from that assignment – and that was just about it. The Fever made their free throws to ice the game.
Key Players: Indiana had six players with at least eight points, and no one with more than 14. It was a collective, gritty effort, won through contact and hard work, and 28-35 shooting at the free throw line. It often wasn’t pretty, but it got them over the line. It was nice to see Christmas involved again, after a series of games where she’d barely been sighted, and even Layshia Clarendon contributed.
The numbers look decent for Chicago on the surface. They shot a much better percentage than the Fever, and their starting backcourt was a combined 13-23 from the field. But their 7-16 at the foul line paled in comparison to all the efforts made there by Indiana, and they were outworked on the glass as well. They looked like a team missing important pieces – which of course is exactly what they are.
Tulsa Shock 80 @ Phoenix Mercury 91
Lineups: Phoenix stayed big, after the success of starting Penny Taylor rather than Erin Phillips against Minnesota. They also had Shay Murphy back from Europe to deepen their bench (Montenegro haven’t actually qualified for EuroBasket Women 2015 yet, but they went 4-0 while Murphy was there to give themselves a strong chance). Tulsa started their regular group, and presumably Riquna Williams was feeling her knee again, because she didn’t play. It’s possible that she just isn’t ready to play back-to-backs yet, and Tulsa had played the night before in Los Angeles.
Story of the Game: The highlights of the early stages of this game were flashes of classic Penny Taylor. She was all over the floor just like the old days, running hard to finish in transition, posting up Skylar Diggins to attack the mismatch created by Phoenix’s big lineup, and then popping out to drill a three. Maybe it doesn’t happen as often these days, and maybe she can barely jump over a sheet of paper at this point, but the all-court game is still there.
The difference between the teams in the first half came in transition, where Phoenix were picking up some cheap points on quick breaks that Tulsa didn’t match. Otherwise everything was pretty even, with Glory Johnson Tulsa’s most effective offensive threat. She hit a couple of mid-range jumpers when left in space, and found room to attack along the baseline several times. Phoenix’s ball movement created good looks as usual, and Brittney Griner came into the game in the second quarter with various finishes in the paint. The Mercury are increasingly finding more interesting ways to involve her in the offense, besides basic post-ups. There was a lovely alley-oop finish from a Taylor pass in the second quarter, after they opened Griner up with a back-screen – just for one example.
After using it sparingly in the first half, Phoenix started the second half in their 3-2 matchup-ish zone. It still needs plenty of work, but they were helped out by Tulsa’s general inability to hit outside shots for most of the night. It’s hard to ‘bust’ a zone if you can’t knock down anything over the top of it, however open you might be.
Tulsa did dominate the glass in the second half, with Glory Johnson and Courtney Paris leading the Shock to a staggering 16 offensive boards in the closing 20 minutes. Phoenix only had nine defensive rebounds in the second half – so any Tulsa miss was almost twice as likely to result in a second chance as it was to hand the ball back to Phoenix.
But the Mercury still held on to their lead, and rarely looked under threat. A lot of Tulsa’s extra rebounds came on Paris and Johnson’s own misses around the rim, and the misses were piling up just as fast as the offensive boards. Phoenix were taking a lot fewer shots but hitting them at a far higher rate, and most of their efforts were coming right at the rim as well. Between Griner, DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree, they always had an answer for any hint of a Shock run
Key Players: Griner had another big scoring night, with 28 points on 12-15 shooting. The rebounding the Mercury gave up was disappointing, especially after Griner’s 18-board outburst in their previous game against Minnesota, but Tulsa couldn’t stop her when she had the ball inside. Taylor was their next-highest scorer, the one Mercury player with the post game to take advantage of the smaller matchups created by their huge starting five. Skylar Diggins didn’t have a particularly happy night.
Diana Taurasi was quiet as a scorer, but spread the ball around the floor for 12 assists, moving past Dawn Staley and Teresa Weatherspoon into sixth place on the WNBA all-time assist leaderboard.
For the Shock it was another game where the post pairing of Paris and Johnson produced, snatching rebounds repeatedly and eventually gathering points inside – but none of the perimeter players offered much support. Diggins and Odyssey Sims were a combined 7-28 from the field, and without Riquna Williams they didn’t have anyone else to pick up the slack. DeWanna Bonner is starting to look slightly more competent as a defender now that she’s been given one single role and responsibility – cover the opposing point guard, and try to use your length to make her life difficult. Diggins didn’t have much success against her.
Notes of Interest: Tulsa intentionally fouled Griner off the ball in the final minute of the game, and the officials failed miserably to implement the rule as they’re supposed to. It should be one free throw (taken by anybody, like a technical) and the Mercury retain possession. Instead they treated them as normal fouls, just adding them to the team foul count until Tulsa were over the limit, then sending Griner to the line. Hopefully they’ll get a refresher course on the rules before someone tries it again – although Griner’s shooting free throws at an 83% clip this season, so grabbing her intentionally probably isn’t too smart.
New York made another cut today, releasing forward Toni Young. She was the 7th overall pick in last year’s draft, and supposed to be an exceptional athlete that Bill Laimbeer could mold into a more rounded basketball player – so this is a pretty clear admittance of a mistake and/or failure. Young’s a tweener, trapped somewhat by not being strong enough to play the post, but not having the perimeter game to play small forward. But she also barely got a chance to play this season, despite the struggles of virtually everyone else in a Liberty jersey – which suggests she’s been thoroughly unimpressive in practice. Athletes like her don’t come around too often in the women’s game, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see another team or two take a look, to see if Laimbeer missed something. As for New York, they clearly need some help offensively, but it’s hard to find players on the street who can make an immediate impact at WNBA level. Charde Houston might be an option, if Bill thinks he can put up with her defense. Otherwise it’ll probably be a case of sifting through the usual youngsters and hoping he strikes it lucky.
Tulsa @ Chicago, 1pm ET. Well somebody has to win. The Shock are 0-6 on the road so far this season, failing to carry over the home form that led to a four-game winning streak. Chicago are trying to scrape things together without Elena Delle Donne, and struggling. Both will see this as one of their better chances to find a win despite those issues. Both will also probably struggle to contain dribble-penetration, and if the defenses over compensate, leave shooters wide open around the perimeter. Then it’s back to the make-or-miss question – simply who can find their stroke more consistently.
Atlanta @ New York, 3pm ET. A rematch from Friday, and despite the change of venue it’s hard to see why much would change. Atlanta will offer the same defense, focussed on Pondexter and Charles, and New York’s other pieces will have to step up and produce – which they’ve rarely manged to do this season. The Dream didn’t hit many shots from outside on Friday night – if they’re a little hotter from the perimeter, this encounter could be over even quicker than that one was.
San Antonio @ Los Angeles, 3.30pm ET. The Sparks need to show that Thursday night’s win over Tulsa wasn’t just a flash in the pan. They’ll presumably start the same big lineup, forcing Candace Parker to guard Kayla McBride to start the game, and potentially players like Jia Perkins later in the game. Obviously that can be a huge mismatch in LA’s favour when they have the ball, and San Antonio will probably play a lot of zone to try to cover for their smaller lineups, but it’s LA’s defense that’s really under the microscope. Can they communicate well enough to stay with San Antonio’s shooters, and create enough turnovers to ignite their own offense?
Indiana @ Minnesota, 7pm ET. The Lynx would probably be quite happy to sit around at home and let these Eastern Conference opponents fly in to visit for the rest of the season. If Indiana try to attack through the post as they did against Chicago, they’re going to find a lot of extra Lynx defenders in the paint waiting for them, likely forcing the ball to be kicked back out a lot more than the Sky managed with their defense. If the Fever shoot as many free throws as they did against Chicago, Cheryl Reeve will probably get thrown out at some point. Indiana have shown in the past that they’re capable of giving the trio of Moore, Augustus and Whalen some problems with their defense, but it’s still going to be a tough task for the Fever to keep up – especially as Moore seems to have found her stroke again, and the Coleman/Christmas duo will struggle to cool her off.
Washington @ Seattle, 9pm ET. Maybe this is the perfect opportunity for Crystal Langhorne to wake up again. She didn’t do much in her first game against her former team back at the start of the season, but this is still the coach and franchise that decided they didn’t want her any more. She’s been so quiet lately, and while the Storm’s team offense has done a decent job of stepping up during that time, adding her threat back in would be very useful. They’ll also be hoping that Tanisha Wright returns from her knee contusion, because otherwise the scoring options amongst the perimeter players can look a little sparse. The Mystics have quietly dropped into something of a slump, losing six of their last seven games. Brian Agler will have noticed how poorly they’ve shot from outside, and the interior help will be as extensive as ever from the Storm on defense. The likes of Latta, Hartley and Lawson will need to hit shots from outside to open up the scoring for Washington, or it could be another long night.