The Daily W, 07/03/2014

 

Indiana Fever 80 @ Washington Mystics 77

 

Lineups: Washington went with the same group they’ve been starting for a while now. Indiana also resisted making any more changes – for the first time in several games – sticking with Natasha Howard at power forward to begin the game.

 

Story of the Game: The first quarter was thoroughly tedious, with Indiana in particular failing to wake up in time for tip-off. But Washington couldn’t make enough shots to take full advantage, and the Fever quickly wiped out most of an early nine-point deficit. Both teams struggled with cheap turnovers, while the viewers struggled to maintain any interest.

The second quarter finally gave us something worth paying attention to, as Indiana took control of the game. As with the night before in Atlanta, the Fever got a boost from their bench with guards Sydney Carter and Maggie Lucas being joined by post Lynetta Kizer in igniting Indiana’s offense. Carter also made a couple of nice recovery plays defensively, while Kizer just kept raining in free throw line jumpers. She’s always more than happy to take those shots, and unfortunately for the Mystics this was one of those nights when they were all dropping. When Howard came back in, she started hitting those same shots, and the Fever had developed such rhythm and confidence that everything was falling inside as well. They shot 14-17 in the second quarter, and ran away with the lead.

Washington were only even mildly involved in the contest thanks to a few trips to the free throw line, as they continued to brick almost every shot they tossed up. Mike Thibault was thoroughly disgusted in his halftime interview, both with the way Indiana were outworking his team and due to the jump shots that they were hitting that don’t typically go in.

Lin Dunn illustrated just how happy she was with her reserves by starting two of them in the second half, with Carter and Karima Christmas opening the third quarter ahead of Shavonte Zellous and Marissa Coleman. But it didn’t work out so well. A 10-0 run for the Mystics early in the third made it a game again, with six Indiana turnovers in less than three minutes of game time helping them out. Washington had started the half with much better energy to force the mistakes, while Indiana seemed to think the job was finished after 20 minutes.

But from there, the second half kept inching along with the Fever holding the Mystics at arm’s length. Every time Washington would convert a bucket or two, Indiana would have an answer, whether it was another Howard jumper, or a Christmas drive, or Zellous and Coleman making shots once Dunn brought them back in off the bench. It wasn’t until the final four minutes of the game that Washington finally pulled within four points, and even then the Fever kept countering – including through two rainbow jump shots from Howard. Thibault would likely have happily told his team to let her take those in the pregame instructions.

A Bria Hartley drive, Christmas turnover, and Kia Vaughn hook shot got Washington within two points with 15 seconds to play, and when Howard went 1-of-2 at the line the Mystics had the ball back in a one-possession game. But they’ve shot so poorly from three-point range this season that there was a pretty small chance they’d complete the comeback. Ivory Latta’s step-back three looked like it might’ve been tipped by Carter, and came up a mile short. Washington got a second chance when Emma Meesseman was fouled going after the airball, and she made the first at the line before intentionally missing the second. But the bounce went Indiana’s way. After Erlana Larkins went 1-of-2 the Mystics had a final prayer, but without timeouts Monique Currie had to fling the ball from halfcourt, and wasn’t close. That summed up Washington’s night – and their season – from distance.

 

Key Players: Indiana’s three double-digit scorers were the three posts who saw any time – Howard, Larkins and Kizer. It was huge for Indiana that they were hitting from 15-17 feet, opening up the defense a little more and punishing Washington for sagging inside defensively away from the Fever bigs. But there was also some pretty useful ball movement and conversion inside from the Fever, and hopefully this was the start of a bounce-back from Howard after a stretch of weak performances. The pressure should also be coming off her a little in coming games with Tamika Catchings returning, but there’ll still be plenty of minutes and shots available.

It’s also vital for Dunn that she’s discovered some depth in recent games, giving her alternatives among her reserves when the starters aren’t performing. Briann January played less than 20 minutes in this game because Carter was doing the job in her place, and Kizer showed that on occasion she can be the offensive alternative to Krystal Thomas’s defensive presence as a backup post.

Credit Washington for producing the effort to make a game of it in the second half. Thibault was disappointed with his team’s work rate in the first half, and they were much better after the interval. But once again their inability to shoot was their downfall. They ended the game 2-17 from three-point range, and are now shooting a dismal 28% from out there over the season. I watched those 17 attempts again, and there were a host of great looks for Currie, Latta, Lawson and the rest. Their ball movement isn’t always great, and they force up a few when the shot clock’s running down like everyone else, but a lot of it just comes down to some really poor shooting. These are players who’ve been able to shoot over their careers, repeatedly missing makable shots. They should probably be trying to get inside more, to minimise their reliance on hitting from outside, but it’s also as simple as shooting better.

 

Notes of Interest: Great news for the Fever today, to be found in the ‘League News’ section later in this piece…

 

—–

 

Chicago Sky 69 @ Phoenix Mercury 87

 

Lineups: Same again for both teams. So Phoenix’s only injury issue was backup center Ewelina Kobryn, who still hasn’t suited up since hurting an ankle while representing the Polish national team. Chicago’s problems were much more significant, with Elena Delle Donne back in Delaware trying to recover from her chronic Lyme disease flare-up, and Courtney Vandersloot out for 6-10 weeks with her MCL sprain. Sylvia Fowles has also only recently returned from her hip surgery and isn’t yet at full speed. All eyes were on point guard Jamierra Faulkner after her impressive performance replacing Vandersloot against Los Angeles the night before. Could she keep it up against a team playing much better than LA so far this season?

 

Story of the Game: Chicago tried to go inside early to Sylvia Fowles, hoping to pick up fouls on Brittney Griner and take her out of the game. But they only managed to draw one in the first quarter, and it was ultimately Fowles who ended up on the bench after picking up her second just seven minutes into the game. The Sky also started out in the 2-3 zone that had given LA such problems the night before, only for Phoenix to move the ball nicely and drill open threes over the top through Penny Taylor and DeWanna Bonner. Chicago quickly switched back to man-to-man.

But after watching Faulkner rip the Sparks to bits the night before, the Mercury opened the game in their own zone defense – a 3-2 that tries to allow Griner to camp in the lane as much as possible. It kept Chicago very quiet in the early stages, with two quick fouls on Epiphanny Prince also limiting their offense when she had to sit. Phoenix led by as many as 13 in the opening period.

In fact, it felt like Phoenix were dominating the first half, with their ball movement, shooting and finishing keeping them well on top, but Chicago hung around and started to creep back into the contest. Griner picking up two quick fouls in the middle of the second quarter while wrestling with Fowles helped, as did Prince heating up from the perimeter. She started raining threes down on the Mercury, and Chicago were right back in the game. Although Diana Taurasi closed out the half with a triple of her own to take Phoenix in ahead by six points at the break.

The second half started strangely. Phoenix ran a nice set that resembled their tip-off play from last season – a back screen for Griner and an alley-oop pass for her over the top of the defense to the rim. Then Fowles was blocked by Griner in the paint at the other end, and immediately subbed out by Pokey Chatman to bring in Sasha Goodlett instead. Fowles isn’t at full speed yet, and they were better with her on the bench against LA, but it was still a bizarre switch after less than a minute of second half action.

And with Fowles on the bench, the game started to drift away from Chicago in the third quarter. They couldn’t handle Candice Dupree’s movement and smooth finishing, whether with starter Jessica Breland or undersized backup Tamera Young. It was a more obvious mismatch when Young swung over to power forward, but Breland didn’t have much more success. With Prince cooling off and fading into the background, and little alternative offense for Chicago, the Mercury’s continued dominance from the first half translated back to a big advantage on the scoreboard. Faulkner had some decent moments, offering occasional reminders that she can break people down off the dribble and penetrate into the heart of a defense, but also settled for a lot more jumpers against Phoenix’s lengthy defense. And she’s not that great of a shooter. The Mercury were up by 16 at the end of the third quarter, and the game was over as a contest.

 

Key Players: Dupree ended the game 12-19 for 26 points and 14 boards, part of a solid effort on the glass from the Mercury which we need to see more often from them. The rest of their scoring was fairly balanced around the roster with Taylor and Taurasi the main supporting elements. Their offensive firepower was too much for Chicago to handle, and the 3-2 zone that they used for most of the night had the desired effect against the Sky’s penetration. Without Delle Donne and Vandersloot, and Fowles at half-speed, Chicago couldn’t keep up.

However much attention she draws from defenses – and it’s going to be a lot with the current state of Chicago’s roster – the Sky need more from Prince. Outside of that burst of threes in the second quarter she was very quiet, and that won’t cut it even if Faulkner finds some consistency and Fowles gets healthier. Allie Quigley hit a few shots – and with the lack of alternatives around the league is becoming a viable Sixth Woman of the Year candidate – but it was nowhere near enough.

 

Notes of Interest: Diana Taurasi passed Katie Smith for second place on the WNBA all-time scoring list. She’s got about 1,000 more to go to catch Tina Thompson at the top, which means another couple of years.

 

—–

 

League News

 

That good news for Indiana initially came in the form of a tweet. with Tamika Catchings announcing that she’ll be returning to action for the Fever in Saturday’s game against San Antonio. While they’ve won their last two games, and clawed their way to a near-.500 record so far this season, Indiana will be delighted to have their star and talisman back on the floor. Any time a superstar of the women’s game returns to action it’s a good thing for the sport.

 

Yesterday was the mid-point of the regular season, the date at which all regular contracts become guaranteed for the rest of the year and seven-day contracts become an option for teams with room to use them. It appears that only two teams cut players to beat the deadline, with Heather Butler in San Antonio and Chucky Jeffery in New York being waived (although neither ‘release’ was announced by the league or the respective teams). Butler has already been re-signed to a seven-day deal by the Stars, and Jeffery was sat behind the Liberty bench in street clothes on Tuesday night – presumably waiting until she cleared waivers before also being signed to a seven-day contract. For one example of someone else who could’ve been released, it’s a little surprising that Chicago held on to Gennifer Brandon, who Chatman has no faith in at the moment – especially considering they may need another guard at some point to help cover for Vandersloot.

Under the new CBA, teams are only allowed to sign players to a maximum of three seven-day deals, rather than the unlimited stream of them that was permissible before. So in a few weeks, the Liberty and Stars will either have to decide to keep Jeffery and Butler for the rest of the year, or move on to somebody else.

 

—–

 

Today’s Games

 

Tulsa @ Connecticut, 7pm ET. Both these teams could use a win, each having lost their last three in a row. They’re playing a home-and-home over Thursday and Saturday nights, and both will probably see the games as a chance to gain ground in the standings, but considering their combined road records are 3-13 the most likely result is each team defending their home court. Watch out for transition scoring, because Tulsa are often decidedly lax about getting back on defense while Connecticut have been beating teams down the floor for easy buckets lately. The Sun will try to create an edge through those cheap points. The war in the paint between Ogwumike/Bone on one side and Johnson/Paris on the other should be fun to watch – these are two of the better rebounding teams in the league, but they can’t both come out on top on the glass.

 

San Antonio @ Minnesota, 8pm ET. The Lynx have already beaten the Stars twice this year, and the scoring ability of their stars has a tendency to be too much for San Antonio to compete with. The size of Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus is difficult to handle when you start three guards, two of whom would fit right in if they were painted orange and moved to Oz. But we don’t know if Augustus is going to play after struggling with bursitis in her left knee recently, and the Lynx still haven’t fixed all of their defensive issues. If San Antonio can move the ball as smoothly as they do at their best, and attack the spaces we’ve seen Minnesota leave open this season, an upset is more likely than it usually would be in this matchup. Plus we’ve seen the Lynx give up open threes on many occasions in the past, and San Antonio are the best in the league at lighting it up from outside. Even without Jia Perkins, if the remaining Stars shooters are given an inch, they could punish Minnesota from distance.

 

Los Angeles @ Seattle, 10pm ET. We’re once again back in a position where Los Angeles need to produce a performance to convince everyone that they know what they’re doing and/or give a damn. They were pretty awful against Chicago on their home floor on Tuesday night, failing to attack a zone with any intelligence and constantly being broken down off the dribble by Jamierra Faulkner. Now they play five of their next six on the road, starting in Seattle. Brian Agler doesn’t like playing zone, so we probably won’t see the Storm use it much tonight even after LA’s performance against the Sky, but Seattle can go switch-heavy and present some of the same problems with their defense. At the other end of the floor, the Storm didn’t shift LA around enough in their clash last week, failing to open up the holes and expose the communication issues that have plagued LA all season. But Agler and his team should’ve learned from that game, and may well exploit the Sparks more effectively this time around. At some point, Carol Ross’s job has to be in jeopardy in LA, and this stretch of games may well be her last chance if the Sparks are going to make a midseason change rather than let her finish out the year. Her players need to perform like they want her to keep the job – assuming they actually do, of course.

 

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