Washington Mystics 81 @ San Antonio Stars 70
Lineups: The starting groups were the same as in recent games for both teams, but there was also some good news among the reserves. Rookie center Stefanie Dolson was wearing some protection on her right knee, but she was ready and available to play after an awkward looking fall in their game on Sunday night in Seattle.
Story of the Game: This one was pretty close for most of the first three periods. Danielle Robinson was hitting her mid-range jumper early on, as a key part of San Antonio’s offense. Once Kayla McBride stopped firing up bricks from outside and started attacking off the dribble a little, she joined in later in the game. Meanwhile Washington ran a lot through the post, with Kia Vaughn the early beneficiary and Dolson increasingly involved as the game progressed.
The Mystics pulled in front in the second quarter, hitting some of the mid-range shots that opened up once San Antonio started sending extra help into the paint to keep them away from the rim. But the Stars were hitting enough to hang around, and a trio of three-point plays from Sophia Young-Malcolm in the third quarter helped San Antonio turn the tide. Washington countered with three threes from Ivory Latta, one in transition and two from so deep that the defense was understandably a step off her. They were mostly those “No… no… no… yes!” shots that Latta tends to specialise in on her good nights.
So the game was decided in the fourth quarter. San Antonio missed some good looks, both inside and out, which ground their offense to a halt. They also went away from what had been working – we saw very little of Robinson attacking with her speed, or McBride getting to the rim. The star of the closing period was Dolson, who scored on whichever San Antonio defender happened to be near her in the paint. Kayla Alexander, Danielle Adams and Jayne Appel were all victims, as the big rookie converted on post moves and putbacks for her most productive offensive sequence as a pro. San Antonio were also dominated on the boards in the final period, which isn’t a new experience for them. The Stars couldn’t come up with any answers, and Washington eased home for a much-needed win.
Key Players: In the fourth it was mostly Dolson for Washington, but Latta made the big shots in the third and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt was effective in spurts for most of the afternoon. It won’t work against everyone – many WNBA teams are better at defending the paint than San Antonio – but the interior attack gave Washington a grounding throughout the game. Even if the points ultimately came from outside, it often started by getting the ball inside.
McBride and Robinson were the most effective offensive weapons for San Antonio, although it was nice to see Young-Malcolm finishing through contact in the third quarter. As we’ve seen over the years, the Stars have a tendency to live or die by the jump shot, and 2-15 from beyond the arc was too much to survive in this one
Notes of Interest: San Antonio switched to their 3-2 zone early in the fourth quarter, a common move by Dan Hughes to try to unsettle opponents. The interesting thing was that Washington appeared to have a set intended to force a defensive three-seconds violation, and it worked. It earned the Mystics a free throw, and pushed San Antonio to switch back to their man-to-man the next time down the floor. We’ve so rarely seen opposing teams try to actively force those issues against zones since the rule was introduced last season, so it was nice to see a counter-move work exactly as planned.
Seattle Storm 57 @ Los Angeles Sparks 65
Lineups: Both teams started the same units that had begun their previous games. So Temeka Johnson was in the lineup again for Tanisha Wright, still out due to her bruised knee, while Los Angeles once again went big with Candace Parker at small forward and point guard Lindsey Harding on the bench.
Story of the Game: This was a game that LA led almost from beginning to end, but never managed to put to bed until the final moments. It was an odd kind of game, considering Seattle’s offense has been working fairly well in their recent outings while LA have been trying to fix their leaky defense – the Storm ended up having great difficulty scoring despite a painfully slow-paced game that was exactly to their liking.
LA were quicker to try to post-up Parker this time around, and Seattle sent a stream of extra defenders to help cover her. She finished the game with seven assists, and many of them came from the fear that Seattle had of her scoring ability. Storm defenders were distracted by their instinct to help, or sliding across into position, leaving other Sparks in far too much space to take her feeds and finish.
At the other end of the floor, Seattle missed a lot of good looks. It would be inaccurate to use this game as a suggestion that LA have fixed their defense, but apart from a game or two the defense also wasn’t quite as bad as many people had started claiming. One impressive – and visibly different – element of LA’s defense is that they’re switching less. There seems to be at least a little more effort to get around some screens and stick to assignments, switching only when they get caught on picks or it’s absolutely necessary. There have been times in the past when they’ve just absently switched because it seemed easier. Communication and effort are still the primary elements that they need to consistently bring to their defense to keep it working.
Seattle wiped out most of a 10-point deficit in the third quarter when they started hitting threes. Parker lost Jenna O’Hea on multiple occasions, and she hit a couple of them, while Noelle Quinn and Camille Little also joined in. The Storm didn’t really move the Sparks around enough over the course of this game. Against LA you need to force them to make decisions defensively, and hopefully screw some of those up to give you opportunities. Seattle were too static to do that, but the ball movement created good looks in the third, and they started to threaten.
But Seattle went cold again in the fourth. They got a few decent looks, but hit very few of them, and LA eased away again. The Sparks played the entire fourth quarter in their old alignment with Parker and one other post, showing that they’re willing to fluctuate between the two approaches based on what seems to be working. Parker was still the fulcrum of their offense, and combined with Nneka Ogwumike to help LA hold on.
Key Players: As mentioned above, it was mostly Parker and Nneka for LA. While they led the scoring, they also led the rebounding attack, and dominated Seattle on the glass. That’s something that’s been happening to the Storm rather a lot this season, as they’ve been far and away the worst rebounding team in the WNBA. It’s partly the basic lack of size that comes from starting Little and Crystal Langhorne, while backing them up with transplanted small forwards. But it’s also because of the amount of help they consistently have to send to defend the paint against post players, or corral drivers. It swings the posts out of rebounding position, so opposing players like Parker and Ogwumike are left in too much space to chase balls that bounce off the iron. It’s unlikely to be fixed any time soon, as well.
But Seattle will feel like they could’ve been in this to the end if they’d just shot a little better. LA’s rotations were improved when it came to protecting the rim and the paint, but there were still openings around the perimeter, and some issues handling the penetration and quickness of players like Temeka Johnson. Seattle just weren’t able to take advantage.
Minnesota made a rare midseason roster move yesterday, although it wasn’t much of a surprise if you’ve been paying attention (or reading these columns regularly). Backup point guard Lindsey Moore had struggled badly to even bring the ball up the floor and initiate the offense this year, and completely lost the trust of head coach Cheryl Reeve. So the Lynx cut her, and brought in former Mystic Nadirah McKenith to hopefully do a better job in the same role. McKenith had some productive appearances for Washington last season, showing quickness and the ability to break down a defense, while also being effective in limited and inconsistent minutes. That final one is a skill that many players don’t possess, so it’s a positive that she’s shown it already. It was certainly worth trying something different for the Lynx.
In related news, the mid-point of the season arrives in the middle of next week. Wednesday is the start of the second-half, and is therefore the date on which contracts become guaranteed for the rest of the season. We’ll likely see a few a few fringe players being cut by Monday night (players have to clear waivers before the Wednesday deadline, and that takes 48 hours) to avoid locking in their deals. Then seven-day contracts become an option as well, to start trying out reserves for the end of the bench.
Chicago @ Connecticut, 7pm ET. While the Sun have been whining about largely minor injuries – the recent missed games for Allison Hightower have been unfortunate, but the problems for Kelly Faris and Danielle McCray mean they lose two players who’ve barely played anyway – Chicago have had the real issues. But the news is improving markedly. Reports suggest that both Elena Delle Donne (missed five games due to illness related to Lyme disease) and Sylvia Fowles (out all season due to hip surgery) are expected to return for this game. That would be huge for the Sky, who’ve lost six of their last seven games after making a surprisingly strong start. They’ll probably need time to reestablish their chemistry and cohesion, not to mention shake off the rust, but putting Delle Donne, Fowles and Epiphanny Prince back on the court together would be a fresh start for their season. The Sun have won five in a row, and are just hoping to keep everything rolling. They haven’t played in over a week, which feels like an eternity in this league.
Tulsa @ Indiana, 7pm ET. The Shock finally picked up their first road win of the season, by scraping past the shorthanded Sky in overtime on Sunday night. Indiana should present a more difficult test, and won’t offer up as many open lanes as Chicago. But with the way Courtney Paris and Glory Johnson have been working in the paint lately, Erlana Larkins better get some help on the glass to handle them inside. On the offensive end, Indiana should be able to score on the Shock, who are still essentially the worst defensive team in the WNBA, just covering it up with much-improved offense. It’ll be interesting to see if the Fever stick with the defensive-minded Karima Christmas in the starting lineup, when the Shock don’t have much of a threat at small forward – of if they go back to Marissa Coleman in the hope that a brief benching might’ve woken her up. Or of course, there’s always the neverending hope that Tamika Catchings might make her first appearance of the year. Don’t hold your breath.
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