The Daily W, 06/28/2014

 

Phoenix Mercury 81 @ Indiana Fever 76

 

Lineups: Phoenix stuck with the big lineup that’s been working for them lately, but Indiana made yet another switch to their starting lineup, this time specifically tailored to the Mercury. Former Phoenix center Krystal Thomas, who’s barely played for most of the season in Indiana, came in to start the game and guard Brittney Griner. Karima Christmas dropped to the bench, while Erlana Larkins slid over to power forward.

 

Story of the Game: Indiana were in front and on top for the vast majority of this game, but could never quite kill it off. They played with fantastic energy in the first half, doubling and rotating when they needed to on defense but recovering well to challenge every shot. They got caught out a couple of times with Candice Dupree scoring over smaller defenders in the post after switches, but in general they kept Phoenix very quiet.

On offense, the Fever did a good job of attacking the rim and maintaining their aggression despite the Mercury’s size and length. Obviously, that was easier when Griner was resting, but they kept it up even when she was in the game. Marissa Coleman was also having one of those nights when pullup jumpers and fadeaways were dropping, which helped boost the offense.

Thomas had the first half of her WNBA life, playing effective defense against Griner and the Mercury drivers in the paint, and even chipping in with a couple of buckets when the ball fell her way. She was getting lots of help whenever necessary, and Phoenix struggled to get Griner the ball in the first place, but when Lin Dunn dreamed how inserting Thomas into the lineup would play out, that first half was almost exactly it. Indiana led by nine at the break.

The Fever looked outstandingly well prepared for playing Phoenix, knowing where the holes in the Mercury’s defense were going to crop up before they showed themselves. But Phoenix wouldn’t go away. They still had Dupree finishing plays inside, and Penny Taylor helped in the third quarter as well with her familiar tricky spinning drives into the lane. Phoenix were also starting to shoot a heap of free throws, with Diana Taurasi leading the way after being antagonised by Briann January’s physical defense earlier in the game. Opponents often find they don’t like Diana when she’s angry.

January had a poor game, and was the central figure in the turnover problems that seriously damaged Indiana in the second half. Too many passes went flying out of bounds, or hit a teammate in the feet rather than the hands. And in the final period Phoenix finally completed the comeback. Indiana’s offense had tired and stagnated, while the Mercury were still energised by their charge back into the game. DeWanna Bonner – whose defense has been deservedly castigated here many times in recent years – had two crucial steals in the latter stages. The first created four points because it led to a clear path foul, the two resulting free throws, and then a Dupree finish in the lane. The second came on the ensuing inbounds play, just to further demoralise the Fever.

Indiana were given a chance when Taurasi fouled Shavonte Zellous on a late three, with the resulting foul shots making it a one-point game. But Sandy Brondello drew up a beautiful play in the timeout that followed, confusing the Indiana defense and leaving Taurasi open for three. She drilled it, and that was just about the end of Indiana’s chances.

 

Key Players: Dupree was the most consistent threat for Phoenix over the course of the night, but Taylor’s ‘old man game’ moves helped drag them back, and Taurasi’s driving and big-shotmaking finished it off. Griner was swallowed whole by Indiana’s defense and faded from the game badly, which was a discouraging sign, despite her six blocks.

Indiana actually played a heck of a game, but just couldn’t keep it up for all 40 minutes. After recent close losses to Tulsa and Minnesota, they’ll be very disappointed to let this one slip away as well. Thomas did what was asked of her on the defensive end, and may well have earned more minutes even against other opponents. Lynetta Kizer is the far more talented offensive player, but Thomas is the vastly better defender. Coleman and Zellous did most of their scoring, with some help from Larkins and Christmas, but it was a collective effort that nearly held off one of the better teams in the league. Unfortunately, ‘nearly’ doesn’t count for anything in the standings.

 

Notes of Interest: Fever rookie Natasha Howard’s slammed into the rookie wall with a vengeance, and has virtually fallen out of the Indiana rotation. She’s at least a step slow defensively, even before you worry about her missing too many straightforward chances on the offensive end. She’ll come again, but with Tamika Catchings still out it’s left Dunn looking for alternatives – like Thomas, or Christmas playing more power forward – that weren’t remotely necessary earlier in the season.

 

—–

 

Connecticut Sun 63 @ Washington Mystics 69

 

Lineups: The starting lineups were the same as both teams have put out in recent games. Washington’s bench was shortened by the absence of Kara Lawson due to ‘dehydration’ (she had the flu, according to the commentators) and Jelena Milovanovic with a strained knee. Connecticut’s reserves were strengthened by the return of Allison Hightower from her own knee problem. She had been starting, but with the Sun having won their previous six games she had to settle for coming off the bench.

 

Story of the Game: Washington made the far stronger start, running the floor and moving the ball quickly to pick up points in the paint, leading by as many as 12 in the opening period. But once Connecticut woke up, that advantage was quickly wiped away. The game drifted towards halftime without much to choose between the teams.

The third quarter was where the vital push was made. Washington post Emma Meesseman had already produced a strong first half, and she continued to slice up the Sun in the third. Her post moves look awkward and slow at times, because she doesn’t have the raw athleticism to fly by defenders or jump over them, but she navigates her way around them to score. It’s effective when she’s on her game and aggressive. She was also hitting everything she threw up from midrange, and playing her part in Washington’s dominance on the glass – Connecticut couldn’t handle her. Rookie guard Bria Hartley provided the perimeter balance to Meesseman with drives and an occasional outside bomb, and the Mystics were up by 11 at the end of the third.

The Mystics looked relatively comfortable until the last few minutes, when they showed how little experience of closing out games they’ve had recently. Katie Douglas hit some big outside shots for the Sun – although two of them were twos due to a toe on the three-point line, which is a mistake you don’t expect from her – and Ivory Latta had some sloppy turnovers, and suddenly the result was in doubt. But it was just barely too little too late, as the closest the Sun came was four points, and Washington held on.

 

Key Players: Meeeeeeese! The Belgian forward – who’d be preparing for her senior year in college if she were American – finished the game 11-14 for 22 points and 13 rebounds. These are the kind of explosive performances that Mike Thibault has been trying to draw out of her on a more regular basis. She’s had three double-doubles this season, and they’ve come in the three games Washington have won in their last ten. That’s not a coincidence, and her development is a huge part of the Mystics’ future (assuming she continues to show up every year, which is always somewhat in doubt with non-American players). Kia Vaughn and Stefanie Dolson had some moments during the game as well, as Washington won this one inside.

After adding Chiney Ogwumike and watching Kelsey Bone continue to develop, Connecticut don’t expect to lose the battle in the paint quite so conclusively. But it was a very quiet night for the Sun posts, with Douglas and Alex Bentley trying to carry them from the perimeter. Until the last few moments, they didn’t shoot well enough to compete. The Sun won’t win many games when they only get 14 points and seven boards from their starting frontcourt.

 

—–

 

Chicago Sky 73 @ New York Liberty 69

 

Lineups: As reported yesterday, Elena Delle Donne was no longer with the Sky, after returning home to Delaware in hope of recovering from her recent illness related to Lyme disease. Tamera Young took her spot in the starting lineup. New York went with the five they’ve used in recent games, and had Charde Houston in uniform and available for the first time (although she never made it off the bench).

 

Story of the Game: Epiphanny Prince was lighting it up for Chicago early on, carrying them into the lead. Without Delle Donne, she’s the primary individual creator on the Sky, and she looked like she was enjoying that role from the start. New York were using Alex Montgomery on her, hiding Cappie Pondexter on Young (Chicago did the same thing at the other end, using Young on Pondexter, hiding Prince on Montgomery). Prince fired in shots from outside to begin with, then started driving and drawing fouls. The Liberty couldn’t handle her.

Defensively, Pokey Chatman’s job was made much easier by the return of Sylvia Fowles. It meant that while an occasional extra defender came over when it made sense, the Sky didn’t have to double-team Tina Charles, but could leave the job to Fowles on her own for most of the night. With Pondexter very quiet, that left the Liberty searching for options on offense, and finding very few. Sugar Rodgers provided a little off the bench as the first half wore on. At the other end of the floor, Charles wasn’t even covering Fowles, switching off and letting either Avery Warley-Talbert or Shanece McKinney take on that task. Fowles wasn’t seeing much of the ball anyway, so Charles actually had the tougher task chasing after Jessica Breland.

Chicago led by 13 at halftime, putting up 50 points on New York – who’ve been relying on their defense to keep them even remotely competitive all season. The second quarter had seen better mobility and team offense from Chicago, with Young sliding over to power forward and being left in acres of space by the Liberty defense. She hit some wide open looks, and New York failed to exploit her lack of size at the other end.

A 13-2 spurt for New York to start the second half made the game a contest again. There was a clear effort to feed the ball to Charles on the low block and run their offense from there, either with Charles looking to score herself or find teammates left open once she drew extra attention. It worked initially, although after three hot minutes the Liberty went ice-cold for the rest of the period. Prince continued to be Chicago’s offense virtually on her own, and initial signs of covering her more closely after the interval quickly faded away. Laimbeer and his team really should’ve done a better job sending extra defenders at her – she was literally the only one hurting them for most of the night – but it just kept going.

With Pondexter having never come into the game as an offensive force, and Charles fading out of the action, New York kept hanging around in the second half but never had enough to push past Chicago and wrestle away the lead. The defensive job on everyone bar Prince was keeping them in it. A Charles finish when Fowles was pulled out of position dragged the gap down to two points with 46 seconds left, and an awful Sky possession gave them the ball back on an eventual Courtney Vandersloot travel (Chicago were always going to turn it over, it was just a matter of how). Plenette Pierson found a lane to the hoop after faking a handoff, but was rejected at the basket by Breland. Then Pondexter forced up a three under close attention from Young, drew nothing but air, and that was pretty much it. Prince, appropriately enough, made the free throws to ice the game.

 

Key Players: Prince, obviously. She finished the game 9-17 for 30 points, five assists and five steals, including shooting 5-7 from beyond the arc. It was a classic Prince game, brought into even starker relief by Pondexter’s 0-7 for zero points. Chicago won’t want to rely on such one-on-one heroics every night – Fowles didn’t touch the ball much, and scored only three points – but it was impressive to watch. Prince took the Liberty apart.

New York just didn’t have enough on the offensive end to keep up with Prince, although if they’d produced their usual level of defense it could easily have done the job – even with Pondexter struggling. Montgomery and Anna Cruz look like they’re starting to listen when Laimbeer and Liberty fans tell them to look to score more, and Rodgers has been a little more efficient lately, but the wins are still proving very hard to come by. And it’s teams like Chicago that they need to hunt down if they want to make some kind of playoff push.

 

Notes of Interest: Essence Carson was wearing a knee brace for the first time this season, in an effort to give her more confidence in it and more willingness to trust the knee to hold up when she moves around the court. In her brief minutes, it didn’t seem to make much difference.

Vandersloot was creamed by a Pierson screen in the closing seconds of the game. She had to be carried back to the bench, and looked to be favouring her knee, but hopefully she just had her bell rung and will recover quickly. With so many key players in and out of the lineup this season, Chicago won’t want to lose their starting point guard, even if she’s had some poor games in recent weeks.

 

—–

 

Minnesota Lynx 71 @ Seattle Storm 81

 

Lineups: With Tanisha Wright still missing for Seattle due to her bruised knee, Noelle Quinn filled the gap this time around. It had been Temeka Johnson in their recent games, but Quinn was needed for her ability to defend Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore on the wing. Minnesota had this season’s regular starters in place again, with recently signed backup point guard Nadirah McKenith available off the bench for the first time (although like Houston in New York, she didn’t play).

 

Story of the Game: This turned out to be yet another game where the Storm defense gave Minnesota more problems than their respective records suggest they should. Apart from some occasional production from Moore, no one in a Lynx jersey found their offense all night long, as Minnesota were dragged into Seattle’s kind of game. It was a slow, low-scoring contest, and the Storm were on top virtually all night.

While they tried to get Crystal Langhorne involved early on, it was Camille Little who became the far more productive post player for Seattle – which has been a familiar story lately. Little was finding her way into the heart of Minnesota’s defense, with the Lynx rotations looking a step slow, and finishing at the rim. Seattle’s other main avenue for scoring was bombing from deep, with Jenna O’Hea keeping up the hot form from the perimeter that she’s shown ever since returning from her broken toe (weeks ahead of schedule). Just to combine everything, it was Little who popped out for a three to round off the first half scoring, and take Seattle in ahead by seven.

It’s funny that Minnesota find themselves restricted by Seattle so often, because these teams defend in very similar ways. You’d think the Lynx would be ready for what’s coming, because they do many of the same things in practice every day. Seattle were cutting off the paint with rotations and extra help, conceding long jumpers to posts like Janel McCarville and Damiris Dantas, but closing out hard on Moore and Augustus when they had to. The Storm were also creating many of their threes of those same pin-down screens that Minnesota have been using for years to help Augustus and Moore get open. But Seattle were hitting the threes, and the Lynx weren’t hitting anything, hence the Storm retaining control of the game.

But because Seattle play such slow-paced, precision-oriented basketball, leading to low-scoring games, it usually only takes a couple of buckets to change the look of the scoreboard significantly. Some energy from Asia Taylor off the Minnesota bench, a few jump shots dropping for Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Monica Wright, and the Lynx were briefly in front late in the third quarter. Suddenly it looked like a game they’d dominated might slip away from the Storm.

But Seattle responded. A 19-4 run straddling the end of the third and start of the fourth quarter decided the game, with Little playing the central role. She had 10 of those points, slicing in off the pick-and-roll, or schooling Janel McCarville with her moves in the low post. When Minnesota tried their zone defense to mix things up in the middle of the fourth, Little nailed a three right over the top of it. Everything was going her way.

The Storm got a little nervous down the stretch, and their lead came down to six points with three minutes left. But Quinn slid in for a layup behind the defense, the comeback was quelled, and Seattle came away with a richly deserved win. Minnesota will be delighted to hear that – bar a trip in the playoffs – this was their last visit to Key Arena this season. Although they do have to play the Storm again on Sunday night back in Minneapolis.

 

Key Players: Little finished 11-15 for 31 points, dominating inside and also shooting pretty well when she stepped back. O’Hea was the main support, firing 5-6 on threes for 15 points. But the collective effort defensively, chasing after the Lynx scorers, and constantly making the right rotations to the right players when they had to, got the job done. Players like Quinn and Alysha Clark were quiet offensively, but played significant roles in the win. Sue Bird had nine assists, many when hooking up with Little on her way to the rim.

For the Lynx it was Moore and not a lot else, which was a central reason behind the loss. And even she only came up with 20 points, which is hardly an explosion compared to many of her performances this season. Augustus may be feeling that knee despite having had a week to rest, and had a very quiet night. Cheryl Reeve will say that she’s happy to be facing the Storm again so soon – an immediate chance for her players to show how unhappy they are with how they played – but she’d probably happily never play Seattle again.

 

Notes of Interest: Brian Agler has started using O’Hea and Nicole Powell as a small forward/power forward tandem at times, rather than solely as post backups. It offers even more perimeter shooting, spreading out opposing defenses even further. But his attempts to stretch out other teams has led to fewer minutes for Langhorne and Little, because at least one of the smaller shooters is often on the floor at the 4. That hasn’t helped with the efforts to get Langhorne back involved in their offense, and she continues to be a peripheral figure. Of course, when Little explodes instead, it’s much less of an issue.

 

—–

 

Today’s Game

 

Los Angeles @ Tulsa, 6pm ET. Tulsa arrive home on a high, after figuring out a way to win their last two road games, both in overtime. Winning on their travels and winning tight contests have both been issues for them, so that was a big pair of victories. Now they’re back home, and a win tonight would take them to the heady heights of a .500 record. LA have been a little improved lately, clawing their way to two wins in their last three games behind the big lineup with Candace Parker at small forward and Lindsey Harding on the bench. This is an important game for them, because their terrible run of results means Tulsa are one of the teams they’re chasing down to get back into the playoff spots. It was a win over Tulsa where starting Parker at the 3 first bore fruit, so expect to see more of that lineup again, and Jen Lacy and Jordan Hooper trying to guard her. At the defensive end, LA need to keep the interior secure, which has often been a problem for them this year, with Skylar Diggins a constant driving threat while Glory Johnson and Courtney Paris attack the glass. If Armintie Herrington and Alana Beard could stay in front of their assignments on the perimeter it would help – but it’s the rotations behind them that have often been lacking.

Slovakia played their final EuroBasket Women 2015 qualifier on Wednesday, so Kristi Toliver may well have returned to help the Sparks out. Anyone capable of hitting from outside – and we know that Kristi can do that – ought to help out LA.

 

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