Lineups: Both sides went with the starting fives we’ve come to expect. Matee Ajavon played for the first time in weeks for Atlanta off the bench, albeit very briefly. Swin Cash didn’t play at all, but as far as anyone reported that was only a coach’s decision
Story of the Game: San Antonio started so poorly that Dan Hughes called a timeout after only 70 seconds of play, and subbed out four of his starters. Danielle Robinson was the only player to escape the cull. Having made his point, he sent them all back in three minutes later. Regardless of which group was in the game for the Stars, Atlanta were the team playing with pace and energy early on. They were repeatedly finding their way right into the heart of the San Antonio defense, and converting at the rim. Erika de Souza was the main threat in the paint, but Sancho Lyttle was an option as well, with Angel McCoughtry making her presence known as always by attacking off the dribble.
San Antonio came back into it largely by figuring out their own offense, rather than improving their defense. Once they started playing with more mobility and creating good looks at the offensive end, it slowed down Atlanta’s offense because they had to pull the ball out of the basket. It’s much harder to run when you can’t get stops. Shoni Schimmel’s wide open three at the first quarter buzzer summed up how the Stars had played defense – but it only extended Atlanta’s lead to seven points, rather than the blowout that looked imminent in the early moments. The pattern continued in the second quarter, where San Antonio continued to slide back into the game by hitting shots and finding their own gaps in Atlanta’s defense, draining much of the Dream’s momentum. Atlanta were up by just three at halftime, despite shooting 51% from the field.
But the Dream reasserted themselves in the third quarter, and took control of the game again. San Antonio had gotten stagnant on offense, leading to breakdowns and turnovers. Apart from occasional forays by Danielle Adams, the Stars really don’t have a threat in the paint that they can toss the ball to for a good look inside, which means that when they stop moving their offense can end up looking horrible. They also got painfully outworked on the glass in the third quarter allowing Atlanta to push their lead back out to double-digits. The only things that even kept San Antonio within shouting distance were a couple of Jia Perkins threes, aided by some shoddy transition defense from the Dream. The shine was taken off that when Perkins appeared to pull her right hamstring in the waning seconds of the period, while simply dribbling the ball upcourt. Considering Shenise Johnson has already missed several games this season with hamstring problems, it makes you wonder whether the Stars stretch properly before games.
This game looked pretty much over, and appeared to be drifting to a conclusion as the perimeter of Celine Dumerc, Shoni Schimmel and Tiffany Hayes offered energy and creativity that extended Atlanta’s lead to 14 midway through the fourth quarter. But once Angel McCoughtry came back in, and the Dream started firing quick, forced shots and acting like their work was done for the night, the Stars made a charge. Most of the comeback came on threes from Shameka Christon, hitting one of her all-too-rare hot streaks from outside. Becky Hammon nailed a triple as well, and had a trademark spinning layup in the closing seconds. Christon’s third three in the final two minutes made it a one-point game, but with just two seconds left on the clock. Hayes went 1-of-2 at the line, but without timeouts San Antonio had to try to push the length of the court to answer. Robinson was fouled by Dumerc (with Atlanta’s foul-to-give) to slow her down, and then her heave came after time expired on the ensuing inbounds (and wasn’t close anyway). The Stars had run out of time, and Atlanta had just barely clung on.
Key Players: Hayes, de Souza, McCoughtry and Lyttle were all in double-figures for Atlanta. McCoughtry had an uneven night, trying to attack and create offense but forcing up some awful shots late in the game. At times, the Dream look like a better team without her on the floor – but sometimes they seem to need her desperately to give them a focus to revolve around. She had some miserable moments defensively as well, often being the player out of position while San Antonio were firing the threes that kept them in the game.
As a team, Atlanta just took their foot off the gas far too early, relaxing and playing like the game was over. It was a pretty poor effort, but better to get that warning now than in the playoffs when it might really matter.
The Stars were 12-23 from three-point range, but just 15-41 from inside the arc. Perkins was probably their most effective offensive player until she pulled up lame, and they’ll miss her if she’s out for any significant time with that injury. Even if she hasn’t torn anything, hamstring pulls can often take weeks to recover from, and just a couple of weeks would mean six or seven games out.
It continues to perplex me as to why simple high screens for Danielle Robinson, with the three remaining players spreading the floor, aren’t a more significant part of San Antonio’s offense. She sprayed the ball around fairly nicely in this game, and played nearly 35 minutes, but we didn’t see an awful lot of her as an offensive threat. Atlanta are going to try to swamp the paint and protect the basket as much as possible, but that’s hard to do against a team with as many shooters as San Antonio. Let Robinson be even more of a weapon than she’s being allowed to be at present.
Notes of Interest: McCoughtry didn’t start the second half, entering a few minutes into the action after Celine Dumerc had taken her place to begin the third quarter. No idea why.
Dumerc’s finding her rhythm with this team, and already developing pick-and-roll chemistry with de Souza. The fact that the same chemistry was quickly evident with Schimmel earlier in the season shows just how good a target de Souza is for anyone who can remotely pass the ball. Dumerc has still barely hit a shot in a Dream jersey, but the passing and leadership is already evident.
Sadly, it emerged today that Chicago’s Elena Delle Donne has returned home to Delaware due to the recent recurrence of her problems with Lyme disease. She played her first game in over two weeks on Wednesday night, but was constantly in and out of the game and didn’t perform like everyone knows she can. So it’s not a surprise that she’s decided she isn’t actually ready to return. We can only hope that she’ll recover and return at some point soon, but right now there’s no indication of when that might be. As the pivotal figure in Chicago’s strong start to the season, the Sky will miss her, even with Sylvia Fowles and Epiphanny Prince back in the lineup. She’s not a player that can be easily replaced.
Connecticut @ Washington, 7pm ET. The fortunes of these two teams have changed pretty dramatically since they met early in June. Washington won that game, taking them to 4-2 to start the season, while the loss dropped Connecticut to 2-6. Since then the Mystics have lost seven of nine, while the Sun have reeled off six straight wins, waving at each other as they crossed over in the standings. A recent home-heavy schedule has helped the Sun, but they’re clearly playing markedly better, and even managed to beat Chicago on Wednesday without Chiney Ogwumike having a great game. Meanwhile Washington finally found a win in San Antonio at the end of their road-trip, and will be happy to be home. The Mystics probably need the win more, but the Sun will be full of confidence, and will be hoping to maintain that. Connecticut play 11 of their next 15 on the road, and young teams sometimes struggle to maintain their form away from friendly confines. This is the start of the test to see if they’re for real.
Phoenix @ Indiana, 7pm ET. The Fever will be anxious to make amends for blowing a game they really should’ve won against Tulsa on Wednesday night. The good news from that game was the continuing reemergence of Shavonte Zellous as an aggressive offensive threat, something they need desperately with Tamika Catchings still on the sidelines and Briann January’s production dropping off since her ankle injury a few weeks ago. The Mercury haven’t played for a week, and will be happy to get going again. Their offense has been flowing nicely, and they’ll presumably start with the big lineup that has led to recent victories. In fact, their size will be an issue all around the floor, with Erlana Larkins trying to use her physicality and bulk to make up for a distinct size disadvantage against Brittney Griner, while the three-guard lineups we’ve seen Indiana use in recent games would look incredibly small against Phoenix’s length. Indiana will likely need to shoot very well from outside to keep up with the Mercury, and they’ll have to move the ball quickly to keep it away from Phoenix’s long arms.
Chicago @ New York, 7.30pm ET. The Tina Charles-Sylvia Fowles matchup is one that usually draws a lot of interest and attention, and this is the first time it’s occurred since Charles pushed through her move to New York – yet most of the focus is elsewhere. Chicago now know they’re likely to be without Elena Delle Done for a while, but have to figure out how to integrate Fowles back into their offense without grinding everything to a halt. We’ve seen how the Prince & Fowles Show tends to bog down in previous years, and it hasn’t been pretty. New York’s troubles this season, despite their own ‘big two’ at center and scoring guard, offer a similar mirror image. Both teams should be desperate for a win – New York to build off their upset over Atlanta, while Chicago have been floundering and are 1-7 in June. It’s likely to be a tight, scrappy game that could easily go either way.
Minnesota @ Seattle, 10pm ET. The Storm were disappointing in Los Angeles on Tuesday night, failing to produce the more effective offense that we’ve seen in other recent games. But they do tend to make life difficult for Minnesota, and throw the Lynx off their typical free-flowing offensive rhythm. The availability of Tanisha Wright will again be important, as she’d be a key part of their defensive effort on Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore. She’s missed Seattle’s last three games due to a bruised knee, and while alternatives like Noelle Quinn, Shekinna Stricklen and Temeka Johnson have done a decent job in her absence, they’re different kinds of defenders. And the Lynx are hard enough to stop when you’re at full strength.