The Daily W, 07/02/2014

 

San Antonio Stars 74 @ Connecticut Sun 71

 

Lineups: Same again for both teams, with Danielle Adams and Alyssa Thomas continuing to retain their spots ahead of former starters Sophia Young-Malcolm and Allison Hightower. Thomas was in a face-mask after breaking her nose in practice the day before.

 

Story of the Game: An utterly forgettable first half saw Connecticut lead for most of the 20 minutes, but not by much. The advantage they had was that a significant portion of their points were coming at the rim, by running out in transition or working on the offensive glass. San Antonio were relying more on jumpers, which typically produce a lower rate of success even with the shooters on the Stars roster.

The third quarter was thoroughly dominated by San Antonio. When they’re in full flow they’re a lovely team to watch on offense. Endlessly unselfish, always willing to give up a good shot for a great one, they took apart a Connecticut team that looked like they’d taken a nap at halftime and not woken up in time for the restart. Becky Hammon, Danielle Robinson and Kayla McBride were the key players doing the scoring, moving the ball beautifully and exploiting Connecticut’s overplaying defenders by getting in behind them. With everyone on the floor a threat to score, bar Jayne Appel, San Antonio have the luxury of not having to run plays for anyone in particular. They can put all the pieces in motion, watch the defense bend or break, and then take whatever gap opens up. Connecticut both left shooters open and gave up lanes to the basket in the third quarter, and San Antonio moved ahead by double-digits.

But it wasn’t quite over. Katie Douglas played the central role in dragging Connecticut back into the game, attacking the basket on drives rather than settling for jumpers. San Antonio had become a little too one-on-one offensively, losing the team flow from earlier, and a Kelsey Bone layup eventually tied the game with under three minutes to play.

Then it was San Antonio’s turn to bounce back. They scored the next seven points of the game, on a rare Appel post move, a McBride three off a nice staggered-screen play drawn up by Dan Hughes in a timeout, and then free throws once Connecticut started fouling to extend the game. At the other end, San Antonio’s 3-2 zone had the desired effect of slowing the Sun down, forcing a 24-second violation. Then Bone barreled over Young-Malcolm on a post move for another turnover, and the Stars were back in charge. Between Hammon, Robinson and McBride they were 8-8 at the foul line in the closing moments, helping San Antonio hold on despite some late threes from the Sun.

 

Key Players: The perimeter trio of Hammon, Robinson and McBride did most of the work for the Stars, especially in their push in the third quarter. That’s two wins out of two for San Antonio since losing Jia Perkins to her hamstring injury, both featuring strong performances from the remaining perimeter players. It’s a small sample-size to this point, but they’ve stepped up when they needed to without the usual burst of scoring from Perkins off the bench.

Douglas and Bone were the main weapons for Connecticut, although Bone would’ve been more efficient if not for several missed layups. It was a disappointingly quiet night for Chiney Ogwumike, and she’s had a couple of those lately. It’s always hard for rookies to keep playing to their absolute potential throughout their first professional seasons. They’re not used to playing this often, or against this level of competition night-in and night-out.

 

Notes of Interest: Bone was drawing a double-team from the Stars in the low post, which was interesting. There aren’t too many players around the league who gain that kind of respect, but clearly Bone’s offensive game is starting to earn it for her. The defensive end is still where she needs to put in the most work.

 

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Tulsa Shock 74 @ New York Liberty 90

 

Lineups: As expected for both teams. Riquna Williams didn’t even travel with the Shock due to her knee problem. Anna Cruz was playing with strapping on her left hand after dislocating a finger during New York’s previous game.

 

Story of the Game: The opening stages were a joy to behold for Bill Laimbeer and Liberty fans – this was the Tina Charles that they’d been waiting for all season. Charles was in the low post, demanding the ball, and then making aggressive moves towards the basket rather than drifting away from it. That led to baskets, fouls, free throws, and general positive outcomes for New York. Tulsa made things a little easier by trying to single-cover her most of the time, but the effort and method of attack was all Charles.

Behind their star center, New York led by double-digits in the first quarter, but Tulsa eased back into the contest. A few sloppy turnovers from the Liberty, some dribble-penetration from Odyssey Sims, and some work in the paint from Courtney Paris and Glory Johnson helped the Shock cut into their deficit. Although a spirited response from Cappie Pondexter and Cruz allowed New York to reestablish their advantage before halftime.

Tulsa were better in the third quarter. Much more help came in the low post to stop Charles from beating them, turning her into a passer and forcing New York’s offense to adapt. At the other end, Skylar Diggins started carrying the Shock forwards. An array of drives, jumpers and free throws led to 16 points for her in the third quarter alone, igniting two separate comebacks from deficits of at least nine. For a while the Liberty just couldn’t stop her, and it was only the work from Pondexter and Cruz on the offensive end that was keeping their noses in front.

But for once, the Liberty killed off the game in the fourth quarter and made the closing stages relatively comfortable, rather than letting the game slip through their fingers. Fittingly it was Charles with an offensive rebound and fadeaway finish on the second chance, then Pondexter with a coast-to-coast drive for a three-point play that virtually finished the game. Tulsa never looked like mounting another comeback after those buckets.

 

Key Players: Cruz had a very nice game as the important third-wheel, but this was a night where New York’s superstar tandem finally showed up together and carried the Liberty attack. Charles finished 13-20 for 28 points and 14 boards, with a very pleasing shot-chart featuring lots of makes right at the rim. Pondexter was 7-14 for 21, and actually had several buckets herself on drives directly to the hoop. Consistency has been a problem for New York all season, so we have no idea if this is a one-off or a sign of things to come. But for one game at least, Liberty fans got a glimpse of how this star duo thing was supposed to work.

Tulsa did what they could with Diggins’s perimeter scoring and the Johnson/Paris pair working as hard as ever on the glass, but it wasn’t close to enough. Fred Williams is also finding that he has to ride his starters hard to keep his team afloat, with only Jordan Hooper as a sixth woman and occasional spot minutes from players like Jen Lacy. He doesn’t have much depth at the moment, and it’s probably wearing on his key players, even though they’re young and full of energy.

 

Notes of Interest: Fred Williams made a strong entry in the competition for most wasted timeout of the year, calling for a break with 0.7 seconds left in the first half. New York had just scored four straight points, including a steal that led into a breakaway, but the halftime interval probably would’ve sufficed to break up their rhythm on its own.

Laimbeer and the New York commentators Mike Crispino and Ros Gold-Onwude talked during the broadcast about how much Tulsa like to work in transition, and how fast-paced they are under Williams. It’s not actually remotely true this season. They’re almost precisely league average in terms of pace, and pretty ordinary in transition points. But why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

 

—–

 

Indiana Fever 77 @ Atlanta Dream 70

 

Lineups: Rookie forward Natasha Howard came back into the starting lineup for Indiana, replacing center Krystal Thomas. Atlanta also reversed a change, with Jasmine Thomas starting again at point guard ahead of Celine Dumerc. The Indiana switch made some sense, because Thomas really doesn’t offer much besides her size and some defense. Why Michael Cooper went back to Thomas, having seemingly made the decision that Dumerc was ready to start, is less clear.

 

Story of the Game: Neither team played great basketball in the first half, although the first quarter was relatively high scoring. Atlanta had a little more in transition and in the post, while Indiana were shooting better from the perimeter – it all just about evened out. Besides the outside shooting, Indiana’s six-point halftime lead largely stemmed from better bench production, which isn’t something Lin Dunn’s team has offered much this season. Karima Christmas was her usual source of boundless energy and activity, and provided a level of driving aggression that we hadn’t seen from many of her teammates. But there was also the unusual sight of the Fever gaining ground when backup perimeter players like Layshia Clarendon, Sydney Carter and Maggie Lucas were all on the floor together – a group that are always a risk, especially when used collectively.

The second half was, in many ways, utterly excruciating to watch. Games covered by Pam Ward and Carolyn Peck are a trial at the best of times, but the officials called so many fouls that the game ground to a halt. These are two physical, battling teams, so there’s inevitably going to be plenty of contact. And the refs have to keep games under control. But they also have a responsibility to allow some level of entertainment for the viewing public – and there wasn’t much left from this game once they were done with it.

Sancho Lyttle and Natasha Howard played very little in the second half. In Lyttle’s case that was entirely due to foul trouble; in Howard’s there were some foul problems, but also the presence of Christmas as an effective alternative. With Angel McCoughtry cutting a frustrated figure and missing a lot of shots, much of Atlanta’s limited production was coming from the offensive glass, where their size and length is always a problem for the Fever. Indiana were ahead for the vast majority of the second half, but failing to pull away – and their inability to close games out recently left everyone a little nervous that this one could slip away as well.

But they clung on. The surprisingly central figure was Carter, the backup point guard who played the entire fourth quarter alongside regular starting PG Briann January. Carter gave Indiana quickness and off-the-dribble penetration that prevented their offense from becoming stagnant in the closing stages, as it’s prone to becoming. Carter and the Fever also benefitted from a huge call reversal, when replay showed Tiffany Hayes’s heel had been marginally inside the restricted area under the basket when Carter ran over her just inside the final minute. A charging foul became a block, and the layup Carter had completed counted as well. When she added the free throw, a one-point lead had become four, and a cheap turnover from Amanda Thompson on the next play virtually sealed Atlanta’s fate. She wouldn’t have been in the game if Lyttle hadn’t fouled out.

 

Key Players: Carter and Christmas, two Fever bench players, were the most significant figures in helping them pull out the win. When the starting perimeter players were settling for jumpers, and the posts couldn’t find much room to work, those two brought the direct attack that Indiana needed. They also combined to shoot 16 of Indiana’s 30 free throws, many of them drawn by those aggressive drives.

Erika de Souza was Atlanta’s most productive offensive weapon, finishing 9-12 for 23 points. Indiana’s only achievement in that area was restricting her to just 12 attempts – Atlanta undoubtedly would have liked to get her the ball more often. After her it was an inefficient McCoughtry and not a lot else, as the old rules worked against the Dream again – force them to beat you from outside, and get ready to chase after the bricks. 0-13 from three-point range was a significant part of Atlanta’s downfall.

 

Notes of Interest: Atlanta are working on a 2-3 zone, which Cooper seems to break out at random moments during games despite having comfortably the best defense in the league based on points conceded per possession. Presumably he wants to develop it for later in the season as a change-up option, but right now it’s a bit of a mess.

 

—–

 

Chicago Sky 90 @ Los Angeles Sparks 83

 

Lineups: With Chicago point guard Courtney Vandersloot out for 6-10 weeks due to her sprained MCL, rookie backup Jamierra Faulkner came in for her first start in the pros. Los Angeles stuck with the big starting group that had brought them three wins in four games. Apparently, backup guard Candice Wiggins is nearing a return, but for now she was in street clothes (and about three tons of makeup) on the bench.

 

Story of the Game: LA were the team in front for most of the first half. Chicago’s transition defense was too slow, and they gave up too many cheap turnovers, allowing LA to run into the quick offense that they love. Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike carried their offense, often by getting out on the break.

But Chicago weren’t going away, and for once it was their supporting players rather than their stars keeping them afloat. Epiphanny Prince didn’t hit a single shot in the first half, and Sylvia Fowles was barely involved, but the rest of the Sky roster stepped up. We’ve seen flashes from Faulkner all season, breaking opponents down off the dribble to drive right into the heart of their defense, and she was just as capable of it in a starting role as she had been as the backup. The only problem for her was foul trouble, which is a much bigger issue when you’re a starter expected to play 30 minutes, rather than a reserve playing ten. With Prince already on the bench with two fouls, Faulkner picked up her second late in the first quarter, then committed a silly reach-in foul only seconds later. As a result she spent the entire second quarter on the sidelines.

But with Allie Quigley and Tamera Young hitting a few shots, while Jessica Breland made the hustle plays around the rim, Chicago were still in the contest. Especially because LA’s offense had started to struggle once the Sky switched to their 2-3 zone. On their very first look at it, Parker cut to the soft spot in the middle, took a pass and finished in the lane. It seemed like LA had recognised the zone and knew exactly how to attack it. Then a whole swathe of possessions followed where they looked like they barely knew what a zone was. Apparently that first attack had been a complete fluke. The Sparks led by three at halftime, but their problems against the zone carried right on into the second half. They looked poorly prepared to attack it, and failed to adapt despite the halftime interval and many timeouts to be told what to do. Their lack of perimeter shooters besides Kristi Toliver doesn’t help with breaking a zone, but there are other ways to score against it besides just shooting over the top. Very occasionally we’d see baseline cuts behind the defense, or someone cut through the middle of it, but mostly the Sparks just stood around and look flummoxed.

Meanwhile at the other end of the floor, Faulkner was setting the place alight. LA were back to their old ways of switching at the drop of a hat, which only encouraged Faulkner to face up a Spark big, and fly right by her. There were some other contributors for Chicago, but she was easily the highlight.

In the fourth quarter, LA actually managed to string some points together by virtue of some backdoor cuts and transition offense, which tied the game with five minutes to play. Then Faulkner and the Sky took it away from them again. Prince drilled a pullup three, before LA’s own zone defense left Faulkner all alone on the perimeter to line up a triple of her own and knock it down. Parker had drifted inside when she didn’t need to, leaving the hottest player on the floor wide open. That’s not terribly smart.

There were still nearly four minutes left when Faulkner nailed her three, but it felt like Chicago’s game from there. Behind their newly-formed backcourt, the Sky closed the game out without too much trouble. Once again the clutch highlight was Faulkner’s, pulling up to hit a 17-foot jumper just as the game clock ticked under a minute. If she keeps playing like this, Vandersloot will be more worried about getting her starting spot back when she returns than how her team are going to cope without her.

 

Key Players: Chicago’s rookie point guard ended the game 9-11 for 27 points. She only had two assists – she always looked score-first as the backup, and that may need to change slightly – but also kept her turnovers down to four for the night. Four isn’t great, but it’s not a disaster when you’re playing starter’s minutes at the point. She’d been leading the league in turnovers per minute off the bench, so the fear with making her the starter was that those mistakes would make her a liability in more extended action. Instead she helped carry her team to victory. Her quickness off the dribble and all-around fearlessness also makes her a lot of fun to watch.

The Sky also got production from Prince and several of the supporting players, although Fowles was notable by her absence from the floor in crunch-time – Pokey Chatman decided to stick with the players who’d developed more chemistry together this season, and keep the lane open for her guards. Which turned out to be a good decision.

Parker and Ogwumike never did get much help on the offensive end, and they were much less effective themselves in the second half. LA have to be smarter in breaking down zone defenses, because they’ll see even more of them once other opponents watch the tape of this game. It was depressing how poor they were at picking apart a severely weakened Sky team. Three wins in four games had made it seem like their season was turning around – this one left spectators wondering about Carol Ross’s job all over again.

 

—–

 

Today’s Games

 

Indiana @ Washington, 7pm ET

Chicago @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

 

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