The Daily W, 06/20/2014

 

San Antonio Stars 87 @ Seattle Storm 82 (OT)

 

Lineups: As normal for San Antonio, but Tanisha Wright was out for Seattle with a right knee contusion. That was a significant loss for them, as she’s been playing well lately attacking the basket and providing their main penetrator from the perimeter. She’s also their first option as a defender on guards, and would’ve taken Danielle Robinson in this game. Noelle Quinn came into the starting lineup, while Sue Bird had the difficult task of covering Robinson for most of the night.

 

Story of the Game: The opening stages were pretty ugly offensively, with Seattle in particular unable to hit a shot. San Antonio led by as many as 12 points in the second quarter, thanks to Jia Perkins bombing from outside and some unusually effective minutes from backup center Kayla Alexander. Seattle’s ball movement wasn’t that bad, but the Stars were doing a better job defensively of sticking close to shooters, making it much tougher for the Storm than they’d found it in their game against the Stars a week earlier. Seattle cut the gap down to eight at the interval largely thanks to a little transition offense – it’s harder to miss when you break away for a layup without defenders anywhere near you.

Seattle were much better offensively in the second half. San Antonio had been mixing up their defenses throughout the evening, using their ‘wheel’ zone (that’s my name for it – I have no idea what they call it) to complicate Seattle’s offense. That zone starts off as a 3-2, but rotates around with the ball to become a 2-3 when it needs to (hence ‘wheel’). The Storm started doing a better job of cutting into the seams to find space and scoring against it in the second half, with Camille Little leading the way. It was also an impressive offensive outing from Sue Bird, more aggressive in attacking off the dribble than we’ve seen for quite some time. She clearly recognised that without Wright they needed her to step up as a scorer, and produced. There were at least three Bird drives that went right to the rim, which has been more like a month of work than a single evening for Bird in recent times.

But San Antonio kept coming up with answers. Seattle would pull close, and then Robinson would knife to the rim on a drive, or Perkins would drill another shot from deep. Seattle even took the lead in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter, only for San Antonio to produce a 10-0 run to take it right back.

So Seattle came again. Shekinna Stricklen produced a pair of huge threes to assist Bird and Little, while Alysha Clark had a backdoor cut for a layup and Bird added a big three of her own in the final minute. Nicole Powell went 1-of-2 at the free throw line to give the Storm a three-point lead with 18 seconds left in regulation. San Antonio set up a play that basically broke down. Becky Hammon tried to get open through a double-screen, but was caught in traffic. She penetrated and kicked to Robinson, who re-penetrated a swung a pass to the corner, where Hammon and Danielle Adams were almost standing on top of each other. Adams caught it, stepped back, and drained the three to tie the game. Exactly how they drew it up, honest. Out of timeouts, Seattle tried to push to answer, but Perkins poked the ball away from Bird and time expired. Overtime.

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The Daily W, 06/19/2014

 

Washington Mystics 73 @ Atlanta Dream 83

 

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.

 

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New York Liberty 100 @ Chicago Sky 105 (OT)

 

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.

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The Daily W, 06/18/2014

 

Indiana Fever 67 @ Connecticut Sun 89

 

Lineups: Chiney Ogwumike was back for the Sun, after missing one game to attend her graduation ceremony at Stanford. Allison Hightower was still out due to her knee problem, so Alyssa Thomas continued to start. Tamika Catchings is still out with her sore back, so it was the same group we’ve seen virtually all season for Indiana.

 

Story of the Game: It was a stuttering, messy first half, punctuated by endless whistles from the officials. I try to avoid discussing the referees here, because they have a tough job that they do to the best of their ability, and most complaints about them come from fans with an obvious bias. But sometimes it’s an unavoidable aspect of discussing the game. Besides some strong moves from Sun center Kelsey Bone late in the half, there wasn’t much worth talking about from the opening 20 minutes. Even those were aided by Natasha Howard being on the bench in foul trouble, and Erlana Larkins desperately trying to avoid picking up any more than she already had. The Sun held a four-point lead at the break, due largely to that late Bone burst and the number of free throws they’d shot already.

Then everything completely fell apart for Indiana in the third quarter. Credit Connecticut for pressing their advantage, running the floor hard, and attacking the Fever defense at every opportunity. Ogwumike in particular, after a completely anonymous first half, picked up nine points in the first five minutes of the third quarter, largely by running the floor as hard as possible to finish in transition and pick up scraps around the rim.

But after already being upset by the 15-8 personal foul discrepancy from the first half, Indiana lost their composure entirely in the third quarter when the whistles continued to go against them. Amongst the whining, Lin Dunn picked up a technical, probably to try to protect her players from getting them. But moments later Connecticut broke down the floor, and Ogwumike drove straight into Karima Christmas’s chest and knocked her over. Christmas had been stood there a long time, and it looked like a clear charge, but it was called as a block on Christmas. Shavonte Zellous showed her displeasure by leaping up and down, then probably added something with her mouth, and was tossed for two consecutive technicals.

The resulting free throws made the Connecticut lead 18 points, and the game was essentially over.

 

Key Players: I’ll resist just naming the three referees. Bone and Ogwumike combined to give Connecticut the focus and presence they needed in the paint, while Katie Douglas once again earned a load of free throws in a game against her former team. The one negative for the Sun was that point guard Alex Bentley hobbled off late in the third quarter, after her left leg slipped out from under her while trying to play defense. She never returned, but that may just have been due to the game being over as a contest. It didn’t look too serious.

Backup post Lynetta Kizer got a lot of minutes for Indiana due to the starters picking up so many fouls, and once again showed that she’s more than happy to shoot virtually every time she touches the ball. She can sometimes be pretty effective as an offensive player, but it’s the defensive end where she needs to improve and earn Dunn’s trust. It’s actually a similar story for Bone in Connecticut, where developing defensively is the clear requirement. Both can be too easy to escape from or back down in the low post.

 

Notes of Interest: Dunn was given a rocking chair and a Sun blanket by the Connecticut franchise, which was a sweet gesture to a coach who’s in her final season in charge and has done an enormous amount for the game of women’s basketball. She was probably happier when receiving the gifts before the game than she was for much of the rest of the evening.

 

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Minnesota Lynx 94 @ Los Angeles Sparks 77

 

Lineups: Same starters as expected for both sides. Rebekkah Brunson (knee), Kristi Toliver (overseas playing for Slovakia) and Candice Wiggins (knee) were still out for their respective teams. Los Angeles had made one change to their bench earlier in the day, releasing Samantha Prahalis and signing Darxia Morris instead, swapping one backup guard for another.

 

Story of the Game: When you’ve lost five of your last six, barely showed up for your last game, and are struggling badly on the defensive end, the last team you want to see is the reigning champs. The Lynx may have had their own problems of late, but they happily took LA apart from the very start of this game. Minnesota were pushing the ball for quick offense, driving into contact to earn free throws, and otherwise moving the ball with pace to find the open spaces in LA’s defense. As Carol Ross has admitted, the defensive communication is poor for the Sparks, so Minnesota were moving around the floor, forcing LA to either chase or actually talk to each other on switches. LA weren’t successful at either, so the points piled up for Minnesota. The Lynx shot 71% in the first quarter.

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The Daily W, 06/17/2014

 

Apologies for this post not arriving until now. The WNBA tends to take Mondays off, and occasionally I follow suit. Analysis of all Sunday’s action below, along with previews for tonight’s matchups.

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Phoenix Mercury 80 @ Minnesota Lynx 72

 

Lineups: The starters were as expected for Minnesota, but Phoenix promoted Penny Taylor for the first time this season, with Erin Phillips dropping to the bench. It was more to shift Sandy Brondello’s rotations than a benching of Phillips. The big perimeter of Diana Taurasi, DeWanna Bonner and Taylor have too often been playing together when Brittney Griner rests this year, highlighting their defensive deficiencies. Starting all three put Griner behind them immediately, helping to cover for them. Minnesota had sixth woman Monica Wright in uniform and available to play for the first time this season after recovering from her knee surgery.

 

Story of the Game: After winning their last 14 encounters with the Mercury, it’s fair to say the Lynx were strong favourites for this game. But it was Phoenix who dominated the first half. They outplayed Minnesota in virtually every area. They moved the ball better, and hit the shots they created around the perimeter. They attacked quickly when they had the chance, with the Lynx transition defense leaving a lot to be desired. They played good enough defense, leaving Minnesota mostly settling for jump shots, which weren’t dropping with their usual rate for the star perimeter of Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore. And at the head of it all, Diana Taurasi was leading the way, hitting shots, drawing fouls, and flashing the ball around the floor for her teammates to score as well. The Mercury led by 19 at halftime.

It was an odd, unfortunate combination of issues for Minnesota. Sometimes they looked like they were playing in a rush, firing up shots quickly rather than working their offense and picking Phoenix apart as they’ve done in the past. Sometimes they looked lifeless, the ball failing to move around the floor enough to open up the defense. Griner hadn’t even managed to finish any of her efforts in the paint and was barely a factor offensively in the first half, limited by Janel McCarville’s physical defense. Griner finally got involved in the third quarter, especially once McCarville was on the bench and Devereaux Peters was trying to defend her. Peters looked thoroughly overmatched.

There was no real hint of a comeback until late in the fourth quarter, by which stage Cheryl Reeve had given up on all her big names. Rookie big Damiris Dantas was the only starter left on the floor, with Wright making her first appearance of the season with under six minutes left in the game. Phoenix looked nervous in the final stages, almost shocked that they were on the brink of finally beating Minnesota, and unsure of how to finish it off. But ultimately the gap was just too big, and six points was a close as the Lynx came.

 

Key Players: Taurasi was at her imperious best, while Candice Dupree continues to play with her trademark smoothness and happily knocks down the open shots teams keep offering her. That’s how it’s supposed to work for this team on offense – put so many dangerous weapons on the floor that the opponent has to pick their poison, and then you kill them with whatever’s left open. The big starting group clearly worked, and Brondello will probably stick with it for the forseeable future. It’ll be interesting to see if it’s as effective against teams that start quick, nippy little guards, rather than the big, physical perimeter players that the Lynx use.

It was a pretty miserable game all around for Minnesota. None of their star scorers ever really found a flow, and it took players like Tan White and Asia Taylor to really give them any impetus. It’ll be a matchup of two teams trying to regain their energy and end ugly runs when they face the Sparks tonight in LA.

 

Notes of Interest: Griner finished with a +/- of -7 for the game, showing that much of Phoenix’s lead was built when she was on the bench. That’s a big positive for a Mercury team whose defense has been falling to bits when Griner rests for much of the season. They were flowing so nicely by the time she sat that the offense kept going and Minnesota never took advantage.

Reeve picked up two technical fouls, but didn’t get ejected. How did that happen? Well the first was a ‘non-unsportsmanlike’ technical for leaving the coaching box, similar to a delay of game, defensive three-seconds or hanging on the rim technical for a player. The second was the more traditional mouthing-off tech. Those don’t add up to ejection, under the rules, so Reeve got to stay.

 

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New York Liberty 72 @ Connecticut Sun 76

 

Lineups: Plenette Pierson was out for New York, after the renewed knee injury she picked up against the same opponent on Friday night. Avery Warley-Talbert stepped into the hole. Connecticut were also missing their starting power forward, with Chiney Ogwumike attending her graduation ceremony at Stanford. Kelsey Griffin filled that spot, with Alyssa Thomas continuing to start as well due to Allison Hightower’s knee strain keeping her out again.

 

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The Daily W, 06/15/2014

 

Los Angeles Sparks 74 @ San Antonio Stars 101

 

Lineups: As expected on both sides. At time of writing, Kristi Toliver is preparing to tip-off for Slovakia in Wladyslawowo, so obviously she still wasn’t available for the Sparks last night. The ‘professional business overseas’ excuse for her absence that commentators keep regurgitating is getting tiresome, but at least it’s more factually accurate than the ‘professional business in Russia’ the Sparks originally tried to spout.

 

Story of the Game: Neither side had much success stopping the other in the first half. As always, LA tried to push whenever they could to avoid playing halfcourt offense, but they were fairly successful in slicing through San Antonio’s defense even when forced to set up a play. Their only real difficulties came with turnovers – some offensive fouls, some sloppy passes. When they managed to hold on to the ball, the scoring was highly efficient.

But San Antonio were getting it all back at the other end. Danielle Robinson repeatedly went streaking by Lindsey Harding, leaving the Sparks point guard in her dust. Occasionally it led to baskets for her teammates, but mostly it resulted in layups for Robinson herself. It’s far too simplistic to blame Harding. Robinson’s lightning quick, but everyone on the floor knows that her main threat is the drive, and if she’s forced to shoot jumpers or pull up in the lane, you live with it. LA’s help defense behind Harding just wasn’t there in time, and it’s a fairly common failing with the Sparks. There needs to be a more collective responsibility in their defense.

The Stars also shot 19 free throws in the first half (and made all 19), a sign of reaching and late-arriving defense (and admittedly some bad luck with the officials). As a result of both that and the offensive foul issues, both Alana Beard and Nneka Ogwumike were in foul trouble and spent much of the first half on the bench. LA shot 58% in the first half and still trailed by five points at the break.

The game was decided in the third quarter, when San Antonio kept scoring but the Sparks could no longer keep up. Robinson had developed so much offensive rhythm and confidence by this point that she was knocking down shots from 15 feet with ease as well as the layups, and her teammates were joining in. Kayla McBride made a living all night by hanging out at the three-point line, watching her teammates force the LA defense to collapse, and then drilling shots when the ball was kicked to her. LA’s rotations weren’t even close to fast enough to challenge her shots and make her miss.

The Sparks tried some zone in the third to change the momentum, but their zone really is a last resort. Becky Hammon immediately nailed a deep open three over the top of it, then hit another one moments later when LA quickly quit on the zone. The Sparks missed a series of layups in the third quarter, which only helped San Antonio build momentum, but the major problem for LA was the ease with which the Stars were scoring points. San Antonio led by 18 at the end of the third.

The fourth quarter was largely garbage time, with LA playing five different kinds of defense simultaneously even before they totally quit and cleared the bench. The Stars and their fans enjoyed it immensely of course, and everyone was delighted when rookie guard Heather Butler made her first field goal as a pro, taking them over 100 points for the night.

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The Daily W, 06/14/2014

 

Chicago Sky 68 @ Washington Mystics 79

 

Lineups: Chicago had the same major injury problems as Tuesday night, with Elena Delle Donne (illness related to Lyme disease) and Jessica Breland (shin) joining Sylvia Fowles (hip) as absentees. Gennifer Brandon started at power forward again, while Epiphanny Prince got her first start of the season after her strong finish to the Seattle game on Tuesday. Allie Quigley went back to the bench.

Washington promoted Monique Currie back into the starting lineup, moving Tierra Ruffin-Pratt back to the bench.

 

Story of the Game: It was a scrappy first half, with Washington eventually developing a small lead via a few transition baskets in the second quarter. Emma Meesseman’s interior passing was an early highlight, while Kara Lawson came in and got the ball where it needed to be later in the half. Her shooting touch is still proving pretty elusive, but she’s an experienced guard who can run the team as well.

Chicago had Prince breaking down the defense early on, but it failed to result in many points. Quigley hit several shots once she came off the pine, which kept the game close. Washington weren’t really moving the ball well enough as a team to exploit all the holes in Chicago’s defense that Seattle had illustrated in their previous game.

Mike Thibault keeps talking in interviews about how they need Meesseman to be a more forceful player offensively, to look to score and be a central figure for them when they have the ball. She’s young and doesn’t have the selfish personality to make her naturally want to do that, but maybe Thibault reinforced the message again at halftime. We saw more aggression from Meesseman in the second half, finally going right at defenders like Brandon who really can’t guard her. When Brandon sat, Tamera Young was the emergency power forward, which gave Chicago even less chance of surviving inside.

The Mystics finally started to take over the game early in the fourth quarter, perhaps awakened by the scare from Chicago taking a brief lead. Washington used Meesseman and Tianna Hawkins together in the post for that stretch, a pair we haven’t seen much this season (they usually sub in and out for each other). They were both too big and too quick for the Chicago options. On the perimeter Washington had rookie guard Bria Hartley providing a scoring balance, and also ran a couple of plays specifically designed to get shots for Lawson – and she actually knocked them down.

After growing tired of the ineffectiveness of both Courtney Vandersloot and backup Jamierra Faulkner, Chicago had Epiphanny Prince playing as a virtual point guard for much of the second half. Just setting a high pick for Prince and letting her try to make something happen was typically a better option than trying to run an offensive set. It worked for a while, but didn’t hold up in the fourth, and Washington held on for a relatively comfortable final few minutes.

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The Daily W, 06/13/2014

 

Phoenix Mercury 95 @ Connecticut Sun 96

 

Lineups: Both teams started with the groups that have become their ‘regular’ lineups – Phoenix since the start of the season, Connecticut since Anne Donovan finally settled on a point guard and a center. The only unavailable players were the Mercury’s Shay Murphy and Ewelina Kobryn, both in Europe representing national teams in EuroBasket Women 2015 qualifiers.

 

Story of the Game: On a per 100 possessions basis, the best teams in the WNBA are averaging about 106 points so far this season, the worst about 92. For this game alone, both sides finished at over 120. It’s fair to say that offense ruled the roost virtually all night long.

Neither team led by more than five points in the first half. Connecticut had easily the most active, energetic post on the floor in Chiney Ogwumike, who’s already earning points on the pro level purely by outworking opponents on the glass or by running harder down the floor. Fellow Sun post Kelsey Bone struggled in the first half, and it’s not the first time she’s had problems defensively this season. She doesn’t always use her size and bulk to good effect on that end, and opponents bypass her too often. That was partly why Connecticut ended up using Kelsey Griffin at power forward for much of the first half, pushing Ogwumike over to do her best against Brittney Griner.

Phoenix were moving the ball with their typical fluidity and unselfishness, finding the open player – often Candice Dupree – and converting those chances into points. Griner is also developing as an offensive force, becoming a better roller after setting screens, and doing a better job at recognising and reacting to double-teams. Her instinct is still to turn away from the second defender and try to score, which can still be a good option, but she’s also realising that someone’s open when extra defenders come to her, and that with the offensive talent around her that person is likely to score. Phoenix had 13 assists on 18 baskets in the first half, and Griner had three of the dimes.

The Mercury continue to be a work in progress on defense. They’ve vastly better with Griner on the floor, inevitably, because she protects the paint against drivers and post-ups, even if she sometimes has problems when pulled into space. But their rotations and weak-side help still break down far too often, giving up open shots or easy layups. When Erin Phillips sits, it usually creates a perimeter of Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor and DeWanna Bonner (although Anete Jekabsone-Zogota and Shay Murphy, when she’s around, are also options). That group looks scarily long on paper, but none of them are great defenders (Taurasi’s never been too interested in defense, Taylor’s lost a step from all the injuries, and Bonner’s deteriorated horrendously on the defensive end). The similar sizes ought to make things easier by allowing them to switch almost anything, but sometimes it just makes them even more confused because the communication isn’t great. Switching is fine as long as both people involved know when it’s happening and do it in sync – it gets you in all kinds of trouble when you half-switch or take an extra half-second to agree on what you’re doing.

Alex Bentley was the most effective guard option for Connecticut, and she’s been giving the Sun a real weapon from the perimeter lately. Five different players made threes for them in the first half, helping keep up with the Mercury, and Renee Montgomery rounded off the scoring by banking in a 40-foot heave at the halftime buzzer.

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