The Daily W, 07/01/2014

 

Connecticut Sun 65 @ New York Liberty 67

 

Lineups: Both teams used the same starting lineups we’ve seen in recent games. So Allison Hightower continues to come off the bench for Connecticut since returning from her knee problem.

 

Story of the Game: This was not an offensive showcase, by any means. Credit the defenses to some extent, but basically both teams struggled to hit shots all afternoon. Connecticut in particular had problems knocking down anything from more than two feet, but compensated to some extent by working harder than New York in transition and on the offensive glass. It was a little embarrassing for the Liberty how often Connecticut produced layups simply by beating their opponents down the floor.

After her first ever zero-point game in the WNBA on Friday night against Chicago, Cappie Pondexter still wasn’t afraid to let fly, and hit a few shots in the first half. Also, with the addition of Charde Houston and incremental development of Sugar Rodgers, for the first time it seemed like New York had a bench group that might help them rather than lead to a collapse. It all balanced out to a fairly even first half.

New York crept ahead by as many as nine points in the third quarter, without seeming to do anything particularly special. Connecticut still couldn’t hit a shot unless they were right at the rim, so breakaways and offensive rebounds remained their only forms of attack with any real success. Tina Charles was drawing all kinds of attention whenever she touched the ball in the low post, but still not seeing enough of it down there. New York need to realise that even if she doesn’t score, when the ball reverses out of there they’ll generally get great shots. They often seem to start games and second halves by looking for her inside, and then she drifts away as the play progresses. But she did at least produce a few finishes for the Liberty to help the offense in the second half.

With Katie Douglas and Alex Bentley finally starting to make a few shots – Douglas’s first bucket came on a deep three when New York ignored her, and she almost seemed to shoot out of disgust – Connecticut made it a game in the fourth quarter. It was a one-point game for almost the entire last two minutes, while both sides traded misses. A dismal ‘play’ from Connecticut in the final seconds saw Bentley go nowhere, eventually reverse the ball to Douglas, who had to force up a three that never had a chance. After Anna Cruz added a free throw for New York, another Douglas heave was nowhere near at the buzzer, and New York had clung on.

 

Key Players: Pondexter and Charles led the scoring for New York with 14 apiece, without either playing particularly well. Plenette Pierson and Rodgers had productive appearances off the bench. But the game was won with their team defense and the awful shooting from Connecticut.

Chiney Ogwumike finished 8-14 for 22 points and 17 rebounds, including 8 offensive boards. Between her and Kelsey Bone the Sun thoroughly outworked New York on the glass and in running the floor, but it just wasn’t quite enough without their teammates being able to hit anything from outside. Ogwumike herself repeatedly turned down the mid-range jumpers that New York were offering her all afternoon. She’s extending her range – as all posts working under Anne Donovan are generally tasked to do – but for now she’s much more comfortable doing her work right around the rim.

 

Notes of Interest: Essence Carson didn’t make it off the bench at all, drawing her first ‘Did Not Play – Coach’s Decision’ for a long time. While Anna Cruz and Alex Montgomery have started to become more effective offensively as role players, the complete lack of production from Carson this season has been a major problem for New York. She was meant to be the third wheel for Pondexter and Charles, even if she wasn’t entirely back from her ACL tear. Instead she’s gotten progressively worse, and finally fallen off the end of the rotation. Hopefully she rebounds next year.

 

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San Antonio Stars 73 @ Washington Mystics 65

 

Lineups: Dan Hughes changed up his lineup for the first time in a while, with Danielle Adams supplanting Sophia Young-Malcolm in San Antonio’s starting lineup. Adams has been finishing plenty of games ahead of Young-Malcolm, but it still sends something of a message to remove the veteran from her long-established starting spot. Coming off her own ACL tear, Young-Malcolm hasn’t been as poor as Essence Carson in New York, but there hasn’t been that much in it. The Stars were also without key reserve Jia Perkins, who’s out for at this road trip after straining her hamstring in the game against Atlanta on Thursday night. Washington opened with the same group we’ve seen in their recent games, and had Kara Lawson available again off the bench after missing one game due to dehydration/flu.

 

Story of the Game: The main difference for much of this game was simply shooting. Emma Meesseman produced some points early for Washington, while Ivory Latta drives and Stefanie Dolson finishes added on later in the first half, but San Antonio consistently out-shot them from the perimeter. The ball movement to create the looks for the Stars was pretty good, but having people like Becky Hammon who are a threat to drill threes as soon as they cross half-court was the key element. She had four triples in the first half, three of them from so deep that normally you wouldn’t worry about the player letting fly. But Becky Hammon isn’t exactly a ‘normal’ player, even in the midst of – for her – a pretty mediocre season.

So San Antonio led by eight at the break behind Hammon’s bombing, but eventually had to work hard to pull the game out in the second half. Adams hit a couple of threes – Meesseman’s instincts are to help inside, but you can’t leave Adams alone out there – but that was the extent of San Antonio’s production from beyond the arc in the second half. The problem for Washington was that while Latta hit a couple of triples, and Monique Currie showed up offensively, that was all they had. After hitting everything in her previous game, Meesseman’s mid-range jumpers weren’t falling this time around, and San Antonio were sagging away to leave that as her primary open option. With Lawson cold as well, the Mystics were a little short of offensive options in the final stages, even after they’d balanced out the scoreline.

San Antonio did a better-than-usual job of staying aggressive and attacking the basket in the closing stages. Danielle Robinson was flying past defenders and getting to the rim, with Young-Malcolm and Kayla McBride helping her out as well. Their ‘wheel’ zone played its part in keeping the Mystics away from the basket and unsure of how to attack, and San Antonio scored the final seven points of the game to close it out. Washington missed a bunch of perimeter jumpers, and coughed up some poor turnovers, in the closing three minutes when they failed to score a point.

 

Key Players: Hammon was the highlight early on, but it was generally one of those days where San Antonio’s pieces combined into a greater whole than Washington’s. Robinson, Young-Malcolm, Adams and McBride all contributed to the offense as well, and the 7-15 on threes – compared to Washington’s 2-17 – was the glaring difference in the box score.

Washington need to shoot better. It seems ludicrously simple to say, and people like myself are always searching for reasons why teams aren’t shooting well, but in many ways it’s as simple as that. They’re missing a lot of pretty good looks, which then snowballs into a loss of confidence and occasional over-passing. They sometimes stagnate a little, but in general the ball movement is good enough, and they remain one of the better defensive teams in the league. They just have to hit some damn shots.

 

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Phoenix Mercury 80 @ Tulsa Shock 77

 

Lineups: The starting groups were as expected for both teams, and the missing players also the same as in recent games. Riquna Williams and Tiffany Jackson-Jones are still out for Tulsa, while Phoenix’s only absentee was backup center Ewelina Kobryn. She picked up an ankle problem while in Europe with the Polish national team, and hasn’t played since.

 

Story of the Game: After a very even opening 15 minutes, Tulsa eventually managed to develop a lead towards the end of the first half. They struggled to make shots all afternoon, especially in the paint where the threat of Brittney Griner either blocked shots, altered them, or scared off opponents entirely for much of the game. But the Shock did dominate the offensive glass, which remains one of their strengths and one of the Mercury’s weaknesses. A team as big and long as Phoenix shouldn’t be so poor on the boards, but they are. 11 offensive rebounds, leading to 13 second chance points, gave Tulsa a 37-31 lead at halftime in a surprisingly low-scoring game.

Phoenix seemed to dominate most of the second half, and quickly wiped away most of their deficit, but never took complete control on the scoreboard. They used Griner in the paint to help boost their offense, but a lot of their work was done at the free-throw line. This is a veteran Mercury squad that are very good at drawing fouls, initiating and exaggerating contact when necessary, and then knocking down the shots when they get to the line. It led to a pretty staccato, tedious game, but the Mercury were producing points.

To Tulsa’s credit, they continued to stay aggressive and attack the basket when they could, despite the number of shots Griner had already sent back. The refs sent them to the line plenty of times as well, even if they rarely managed to turn those drives into made baskets, and the Shock kept hanging around. In the fourth quarter they also finally realised that having Courtney Paris simply stand at the three-point line dragged Griner out of the paint at least a little, opening up room for Glory Johnson and their drivers. We probably should’ve seen more of that early on.

Despite all of Griner’s blocks, and the energy-sapping effects of playing the Mercury on the second-half of a back-to-back after three consecutive overtime games, Tulsa were in this one right to the death. Diana Taurasi hit a big elbow jumper inside the final minute, but missed a pullups three, while Tulsa were trying to keep up at the foul line. Odyssey Sims made a pair, but Diggins missed her second attempt with nine seconds left, which would’ve tied the game again. After Penny Taylor made two to extend Phoenix’s lead to three points, Diggins twice had attempts from outside to tie the game. DeWanna Bonner extended a go-go-gadget arm to block the first, and the second was long under tight pressure from Taylor. Ballgame over, and for the second night in a row Tulsa had unfortunately rediscovered their talent for losing close games.

 

Key Players: Griner drew all the headlines for her 11 blocks, a single-game WNBA record. With a home-town scorer, she actually could’ve had a couple more – 11 was the bare minimum she should’ve been credited with. Her interior presence was a big problem for the Shock all day, forcing misses and retreats even when she wasn’t actually blocking anything. She also led the Mercury’s scoring, although all of their starters made significant contributions offensively. The rebounding was a problem, and that’s not new for the Mercury or Griner herself. She chases after blocks and tries to help defensively to such an extent that it takes her out of rebounding position. She also just needs to work harder on the glass, as do her teammates. A squad this big shouldn’t lose repeatedly on the glass.

Shooting 31% from the field, with Phoenix piling up trips to the foul line, it’s a wonder that Tulsa were in this game right to the end. Diggins couldn’t hit anything all day, outside or inside, and most of her teammates were in a similar state. The 18 offensive boards, which came from all across the roster, kept them afloat.

 

Notes of Interest: Phoenix’s zone, which looks like a 2-3 matchup at its core, is still basically a mess. The players don’t seem sure what they’re supposed to be doing within it, and they get confused on whether to pass assignments along or stick with them. But it’s nice to be able to win games while developing it, hopefully building it as an option for the postseason.

Just in case you were interested, Griner’s blocks came on Courtney Paris (three times), Sims (twice), Diggins (twice), Johnson (twice), Jordan Hooper and Vicki Baugh.

 

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Atlanta Dream 76 @ Indiana Fever 68

 

Lineups: Atlanta made the change to their starting group that had been anticipated for a while, with French ‘rookie’ point guard Celine Dumerc taking over from Jasmine Thomas in the backcourt. Dumerc has still barely hit a shot since reaching US shores, but her passing and defense has been useful and it’s not like Thomas has been lighting it up. Dumerc gives them a more natural leader and creator at the point. Indiana stuck with the same lineup as in their previous game, with center Krystal Thomas keeping her spot after an impressive performance in helping contain Brittney Griner. Tamika Catchings is apparently nearing a return, with the Indiana commentators suggesting she might even make an appearance before the All-Star break – but for now she’s still in street clothes.

 

Story of the Game: This was a tight contest virtually all evening. Besides a brief run of buckets for Atlanta late in the first half – quickly wiped out by a countering Indiana run – neither side led by more than five points until the final seconds. Indiana had turnover problems in the first half – an all-too-common issue for them recently – which gave up some cheap points in transition to the Dream. Sancho Lyttle also had a strong half, hitting her mid-range jumpers and finishing in the paint. Meanwhile Indiana shot well from the perimeter, with Marissa Coleman and Shavonte Zellous the primary weapons. They also got a nice offensive boost from rookie forward Natasha Howard, her first good game since being demoted to the bench.

The second half was fairly similar fare, albeit with both teams scoring at a slightly less efficient rate. Both teams had turnover problems now – not a big surprise with two of the most turnover-prone teams  in the WNBA facing each other, and two aggressive defenses trying to take the ball away. Angel McCoughtry was aggressive, looking to score and push the Atlanta offense, while the Fever continued to stay in the game largely with their shooting around the perimeter. Karima Christmas gave them a bit more drive later in the game, with her willingness to attack the basket and try to score against anyone. It didn’t often result in baskets, but she did draw several fouls.

When Zellous nailed a tough pullup jumper with just under four minutes left in regulation, it gave Indiana a four-point lead. Those turned out to be the last points Indiana scored all night. Yet again, they couldn’t finish a game off and come away with the win, something which has been the case for the Fever several times recently. They missed all kinds of shots down the stretch. Briann January blew a straightforward layup; Christmas missed a pair of free throws and a wide open three; Coleman turned down a great look at a three before wildly overshooting an attempt from the corner moments later. Meanwhile, McCoughtry sank a triple from the corner – she’s shot surprisingly well from deep this year, helped by being a little more selective – and then Atlanta iced the game when Dumerc leapt out to block a Zellous three and finished the resulting breakaway layup.

 

Key Players: 46 points in the paint were the central part of Atlanta’s offense, built by the four starters besides Dumerc. It wasn’t a particularly convincing performance from the Dream, but they stepped up in the final stages and made the clutch plays to close it out.

January, Coleman and Zellous all hit some threes, but Indiana’s offense wasn’t consistently productive in any other area. However, they were close enough if they just could’ve played 40 minutes instead of 36. Lin Dunn will be worried by her team’s inability to finish games off, and they can’t just assume that Catchings’s eventual return will fix all those problems. That’s four losses in a row, including three at home, and now they have to play three of their next four on the road. That run starts in Atlanta against this same opponent, on national TV tonight. Maybe the cameras and bright lights will encourage them to step up right to the final buzzer.

 

Notes of Interest: As Phoenix eventually did, Atlanta used their center (Erika de Souza) to guard Erlana Larkins while their power forward (Sancho Lyttle) took Krystal Thomas early in the game. It helps avoid Thomas opening up the paint by simply standing around the perimeter, keeping the center on the legitimate post-up threat.

 

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Seattle Storm 69 @ Minnesota Lynx 74

 

Lineups: Seimone Augustus sat out for the second time this season due to bursitis in her left knee, which brought Monica Wright into the starting lineup for Minnesota. The Storm unsurprisingly stuck with the same group that helped them beat the Lynx on Friday night. Tanisha Wright was still out with her own knee problem.

 

Story of the Game: From the opening minutes, there was one clear difference between this game and the Storm victory 48 hours earlier, that had very little to do with scheme or effort – Minnesota’s bigs were hitting their mid-range shots. In the previous game, Seattle had sagged into the paint to protect against penetration, along with sending help whenever necessary to contain the likes of Maya Moore and Augustus. They were doing the same again, and once again it was leaving open shots for players like Janel McCarville, Damiris Dantas and Devereaux Peters. Instead of bricking them – that trio combined to shoot 8-21 on Friday – they were knocking them down, and providing a significant boost to Minnesota’s scoring.

Defensively, the Lynx did a slightly better job in this game of sticking with the Storm shooters around the perimeter, or at least managing to recover back outside to challenge shots when they’d been drawn in by help defense responsibilities. Sue Bird was hitting from outside in the first half, but she didn’t have an awful lot of help, and the Lynx led by 10 at the break.

But Seattle refused to go away in the second half, their defense continued to limit the Lynx, and the Storm crept back into the game. Moore had a very quiet night offensively, as did Lindsay Whalen, and turnovers were also a significant problem for Minnesota in the second half. While they were still in front for the vast majority of the half, it was another uncomfortable night for them against Seattle. Noelle Quinn, Alysha Clark and Jenna O’Hea – the most frequent defender on Moore – have done impressive defensive jobs on the wings in Seattle’s games against the Lynx.

Unusually for Brian Agler, he went deep down his bench in the fourth quarter to find help for Bird, O’Hea and Camille Little. Angel Robinson, a backup center who’s barely played this season, was on the floor for the entire fourth quarter, using her length to help Seattle’s interior defense. She also had a nice baseline jumper and a spinning finish in the lane, suggesting she might be able to contribute more frequently if Agler gave her a chance. But after a deep three from O’Hea was answered by a tough baseline jumper from Whalen, and then Robinson’s finish was followed by a missed Whalen jumper in the lane, Seattle were down a point with 34 seconds left. And I jinxed it. Sorry Storm fans, but my tweet that Robinson was showing she could contribute was almost immediately followed by the vital Storm possession – where a pick-and-roll eventually found Robinson wide open under the basket. And she missed. That’s one of the perils of sticking with the reserves when they’ve helped you fight out a game successfully – they might not complete plays that someone like Crystal Langhorne probably would.

Another Storm blunder followed after Whalen had extended the gap to three at the foul line, when Bird’s inbounds pass took Little too close to the mid-court line, forcing an eventual turnover as Little tried to avoid the backcourt violation. That pretty much finished it.

 

Key Players: McCarville was the unlikely offensive star for Minnesota, finishing the game 9-16 for 22 points, mostly on those wide open mid-range jumpers that Seattle were happy to give her. She’ll rarely have to take that many, but she has to remain a threat on those shots so that teams respect her with their defense – or get punished. Peters produced similarly when she replaced McCarville off the bench, and it was just enough to make up for the trinity of Moore/Augustus/Whalen scoring only 24 points between then (yes, Augustus was on the sidelines in a snazzy outfit, which explains part of that).

Bird and O’Hea were the only Storm players who finished the game in double-digits, which in some ways made their ability to hang around in contention even more impressive. The disappearance of Langhorne sadly continues for yet another game, but maybe Robinson has earned a few minutes in future nights.

 

Notes of Interest: Sorry again about that tweet.

 

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League News

 

More bad news for the Chicago Sky yesterday, as point guard Courtney Vandersloot was ruled out for 6-10 weeks with a Grade 3 sprain of her MCL. That’s the same ligament that Carolyn Swords tore last year when playing for the Sky. Six weeks would bring Vandersloot back just before the playoffs, while ten would mean her season’s essentially over. In her absence, rookie backup Jamierra Faulkner will probably see more time, and she has looked capable at times this season despite turnover problems. Otherwise we’ll see Epiphanny Prince running the offense even more, and likely becoming the offense at times. We can only hope that Allie Quigley doesn’t see much time at the point, because we’ve seen how badly that turns out in the past.

 

Cheryl Reeve and Michael Cooper were announced as the head coaches for the All-Star teams this season. Reeve gets the job by virtue of her team winning the West last season; Cooper gets it because his team are currently top of the East (Fred Williams was the head coach of the team that won the East last year, but got fired and is now working in the West, so they had to resort to the secondary method of selection).

 

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Today’s Games

 

Tulsa @ New York, 7pm ET.

San Antonio @ Connecticut, 7pm ET.

Indiana @ Atlanta, 8pm ET.

Chicago @ Los Angeles, 10pm ET.

 

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