San Antonio Stars 71 @ Indiana Fever 70
Lineups: San Antonio were as expected, with Danielle Adams continuing to start ahead of Sophia Young-Malcolm at power forward, but the big news was among Indiana’s starters. Tamika Catchings made her first appearance of the season after recovering from her back problem, and went immediately into the starting lineup in place of Natasha Howard.
Story of the Game: Indiana were in charge in the first quarter, energised by the return of their leader and star. Catchings looked strong and mobile, making plays with her defense and her ability to attack the paint and draw help defenders on offense. Rather than forcing her to cover Danielle Adams and deal with her occasional physical post-up moves, Indiana smartly put Catchings on Jayne Appel, which allowed her to roam more defensively and make plays without taking a pounding inside. Her jump shot looked flat and rusty, and the Fever kept a tight rein on her minutes during the game, but otherwise Catchings seemed in pretty good shape.
All afternoon, Indiana went after Becky Hammon with whoever she was trying to guard. Danielle Robinson can cope with slightly bigger opponents, but the Stars still have a very small starting perimeter and try to hide Hammon as much as possible on defense. The Fever used players like Shavonte Zellous and Marissa Coleman to post-up Hammon or go by her, and eventually forced San Antonio into their zone defense just so that they could keep Hammon on the floor. The second quarter was earlier than Dan Hughes usually resorts to his zone, but it turned out to be a productive switch for the Stars. Indiana moved the ball well to shift the zone around, and clearly knew what they were supposed to do against it, but still had far more problems creating good looks than they’d had against the man-to-man. With Indiana’s bench players failing to produce as they had in recent games, San Antonio came into the game in the second quarter, started hitting some shots, and eventually took a narrow lead into halftime.
While neither team was particularly effective offensively in the second half, it was Indiana who eventually managed to inch out a lead. They rarely converted anything when they broke down the zone and got to the rim, but decent three-point shooting from Karima Christmas, Shavonte Zellous and Briann January helped them pull in front. They’ll get better, cleaner looks out there now, purely because of the attention that Catchings draws from opposing defenses. With just over five minutes left in the game, Indiana led by 13 points and seemed to be in control – while Hughes was going nuts on the sideline and drawing a technical for his screaming.
But then Hughes finally found a lineup that worked – bigger on the perimeter, with Robinson, Kayla McBride and Shenise Johnson; slightly more mobile inside, with Young-Malcolm and Adams playing together – and Indiana’s problems closing out games resurfaced. The Fever lost any offensive rhythm, and committed several turnovers, while San Antonio ran off those giveaways and used Adams as a focus inside and out when they were running halfcourt sets. 14 straight points, capped by two free throws by Robinson after a desperately soft foul call, gave San Antonio a one-point lead with 22 seconds left in the game.
Indiana looked like they might’ve snatched victory from the jaws of defeat when Larkins made a smart pass from the high post to the weak side, and January drilled a three to take the lead with seven seconds remaining. But Hughes came up with a nice play design that took advantage of how scared Indiana were of Robinson’s speed and Adams’s scoring. Instead of the pick-and-roll between those two that seemed to be starting, McBride curled behind them both, took the dribble-handoff from Robinson, and nailed her own three to take the lead back with under two seconds remaining. A slight miscommunication between January and Catchings on the ensuing inbounds meant that the Fever didn’t even get a final shot off before the buzzer.
Key Players: No one in particular jumped out for San Antonio, which is a credit to how they turned the game around as a collective unit. It took a long time, but Hughes eventually found a group that worked together, and didn’t have any problem with leaving typically key cogs like Hammon and Appel on the bench once other players were getting the job done. They’re a flexible, mobile team and in the end they just made one more shot than the Fever.
Indiana will be sick about giving away another game down the stretch, and this was probably the worst of their recent late collapses. The scoring in the second half dropped off badly, and a team that tends to draw more fouls than any other in the WNBA only shot five free throws in the final 20 minutes. Credit San Antonio’s zone for some of that, but the Fever lost much of their edge in the second half. In a game where their star forward returned, they got more of their scoring from the perimeter than we’ve seen in the vast majority of their games this season.
Notes of Interest: With Catchings back, Lin Dunn has to work out her rotations and lineup groupings all over again. We saw some unusual and occasionally shaky frontcourt combinations in this game, and it’s a work-in-progress for her as much as for the players. At least they’ve still got nearly half the season to work it out before the playoffs, where they’ll still expect to be competing.
Washington Mystics 73 @ Atlanta Dream 86
Lineups: Same as expected for both teams. Apparently it was just a one-game experiment putting Celine Dumerc in the starting lineup for Atlanta, because Jasmine Thomas has been back there ever since. Maybe Michael Cooper just wrote the names down in the wrong order one day and didn’t want to admit it.
Story of the Game: Technical difficulties kept us from seeing much of the first quarter, but neither team managed to take control in the first half anyway. Atlanta had an early lead, but Washington quickly wiped it away by actually making a few perimeter jump shots, something they’ve been struggling with for much of the season. Led by Kara Lawson and Tianna Hawkins, for once the shots were dropping rather than clanking off the iron.
The Mystics were dropping a lot of help inside to aid Kia Vaughn and Stefanie Dolson in keeping Erika de Souza quiet, and Angel McCoughtry wasn’t managing to finish much either. But the midrange game of Sancho Lyttle and even some outside shooting from Shoni Schimmel and Celine Dumerc helped compensate, along with the typical flying drives from Tiffany Hayes. The game was tied at the half.
Most of the third quarter stayed close, but the final minute or two of the period was where the game began to swing towards Atlanta. They had a mobile, aggressive lineup on the floor, with Swin Cash and Aneika Henry inside, and Dumerc/Schimmel/Hayes on the perimeter. With Lawson going cold outside, Monique Currie missing layups and every call going the Dream’s way, Atlanta finished the third with an 11-1 run capped by a ridiculous three from Schimmel off one leg.
Washington gave it a go in the fourth, but never came closer than five points and never really looked like bridging the gap. Emma Meesseman hit a couple of shots, but couldn’t do enough to counter Lyttle’s production from the same spot for Atlanta. They also weren’t able to exploit Schimmel’s defense the way they’d managed in the first half, because the shooting just wasn’t there from their perimeter players. Running Schimmel off screens to create open looks when she gets lost in traffic doesn’t result in much if your shooters miss anyway. A lovely sequence where Hayes drove around the defense and dumped off for de Souza to finish, then took a Schimmel baseball pass in for a layup on the break, before Schimmel made a pretty feed to Lyttle at the rim, killed the game off for good. The passing and creation from the likes of Schimmel, Hayes and even McCoughtry in the closing stages was more than Washington could cope with.
Key Players: Atlanta can be a lot of fun to watch when they’re a free-flowing collective rather than Angel and the McCoughtryteers. That’s what we saw once they got going in the second half. Hayes was important with her driving, and Schimmel’s outside shooting and passing vision brought back a few memories of how she’d started the season many weeks ago. Lyttle showed what Atlanta had missed when she was in foul trouble and sat out much of their previous game against Indiana, with her efficient finishing and long-armed defense a vital part of the Dream’s success.
The positive signs from the first half when the Mystics shot well faded away in the second under Atlanta’s onslaught and a rain of bricks. Hawkins had a nice first half, showing her versatile offensive game, and Mike Thibault probably needs to find more ways to get her on the floor – even if it means playing her with Meesseman rather than platooning them at power forward.
Notes of Interest: For someone who doesn’t speak that much English, and has only been on her new team for a few weeks, it’s really impressive the way Dumerc is already instructing teammates on where they should be and where to move the ball. She’s a natural leader at the point guard spot, and Cooper has a lot of options to go to now around the perimeter.
Connecticut Sun 78 @ Tulsa Shock 76
Lineups: Same starting groups for both teams as we’ve come to expect, and as we saw when they clashed two nights earlier when Tulsa came out on top. Allison Hightower didn’t play for Connecticut, so maybe her knee was acting up again. She’s struggled to make much of an impact since returning from her left knee sprain four games ago.
Story of the Game: Connecticut got off to the much faster start, dominating the early stages by doing a much better job attacking the basket than they did on Thursday night, while restricting Tulsa to jump shots at the other end. If you can keep the Shock away from the rim – whether on drives by Skylar Diggins and Odyssey Sims, or post moves and putbacks by Glory Johnson and Courtney Paris – then you have a much better chance of limiting their scoring. Once Katie Douglas and Renee Montgomery started hitting from outside as well, Connecticut led by as many as 12 in the second quarter.
But Tulsa didn’t go away. Diggins was the key figure in dragging them back into it, leading the break in transition and starting to light it up from outside. You might be better off forcing the Shock to shoot from the perimeter, but that doesn’t mean they’re short of players who like taking those shots.
Sims was much less effective than she had been in the previous game, even though Douglas was watching her drive past almost as easily as on Thursday. There was slightly better help behind, and the law of averages simply meant that fewer of those tough finishes in the lane were falling in for Sims.
The score was tight for most of the third quarter, but Connecticut began to pull away slightly late in the period, and then extended their lead early in the fourth. Kelsey Griffin gave them energy and activity from the bench, and the favoured post pairing for the Sun for most of the second half was Griffin and Chiney Ogwumike. Even though that meant giving up a few inches compared to starting center Kelsey Bone, it led to the Sun putting up a better fight on the boards and largely keeping Tulsa off the offensive glass.
But the Shock still had one last push in them. Trailing by 11 with four minutes remaining, a 12-1 run – led again by Diggins and transition aggression – tied the game with 25 seconds remaining. They could’ve taken the lead after a breaking layup by Diggins drew a foul while she finished, but she missed the free throw attempt that followed. Connecticut’s offense in those closing minutes was a mess, riddled with turnovers and constantly running the shot-clock down while they went nowhere. It was a night when they’d needed Renee Montgomery on the floor to offer her speed and attack mentality from the point guard spot, and the Sun lost their momentum when she was rested in the fourth quarter.
But the ball was in Montgomery’s hands for their final possession, and she delivered. Connecticut either ran a lot of misdirection action under the rim with Douglas and Alyssa Thomas, or Montgomery broke the play off when she saw it was falling apart and attacked on her own. Either way, she drove baseline past Diggins, and finished a double-clutch layup past a helping Glory Johnson. Tulsa had six seconds to answer, and for once it was something other than the predictable Diggins drive (although given that she’d been their best player all night, that might’ve been a decent idea). The ball went to Paris inside, but she missed a hook in the paint, and Jordan Hooper’s putback attempt came up short just before the buzzer went off.
Key Players: Douglas and Montgomery carried most of the offensive load for Connecticut from the perimeter, with Ogwumike offering a little balance from the paint. Griffin was important in the second half as well, helping prevent the runaway dominance on the boards that often plays a big part in Tulsa wins.
Diggins finished with another 30-point game, but didn’t get quite enough help. Paris and Johnson had their finishes inside, but Sims was relatively quiet, and no one beyond those four produced anything much at all. It’s a limited list of players that Tulsa have to turn to for offensive production.
Notes of Interest: See, it always looked like a split was the most likely outcome from the home-and-home between these evenly-matched squads. They just did it the wrong way round, for two teams with terrible road records.
Chicago Sky 73 @ Seattle Storm 80
Lineups: Seattle had their preferred starting five back together for the first time in quite a while, with Camille Little returning after missing one game due to the death of her grandfather. Before that, Tanisha Wright had been missing due to her bruised knee, so finally Brian Agler had the whole band back together (apart from Lauren Jackson, of course, who sadly doesn’t really count at this point). For some bizarre reason Sylvia Fowles started the game on the bench for Chicago, with Sasha Goodlett opening the game at center. Otherwise their lineup was the same, with the same long-term absentees in Courtney Vandersloot (knee) and Elena Delle Donne (illness).
Story of the Game: This was a shockingly well-executed game on the offensive end. Both teams have had problems defensively this season, which undoubtedly made things easier, but both sides kept the turnovers under control and there was some lovely offensive play, especially in the first half.
Seattle played with some pace for once, looking to get up and down the floor quickly and find early offense if it was available. But they also had Crystal Langhorne involved from the opening moments and hitting her elbow jumper, and Camille Little popping out to hit threes along with her usual work rate inside. It was some of the nicest, most free-flowing basketball we’ve seen from Seattle in quite some time.
But Chicago were essentially matching their production at the other end. Fowles was in almost immediately after Goodlett picked up two quick fouls, and set about dominating Seattle in the paint. They had no answer for her size inside, and she had able sidekicks in Epiphanny Prince and Jessica Breland. Prince was hitting from the perimeter, and while Seattle had clearly been drilled on closing out to challenge Breland’s mid-range jumpers, she was smart about taking them when open or driving to the rim if that was a better alternative. By halftime the game was tied at 45, in one of the highest-scoring halves Key Arena had seen in eons.
The game came back down to Earth in the third quarter, with Chicago managing to slow Seattle’s transition game down, leading to most of the Storm’s production coming at the free throw line. Breland and Fowles kept Chicago’s scoring ticking over and we were still tied after three periods.
Then for the fourth. Replacement point guard Jamierra Faulkner had largely been contained by Sue Bird and the help defense of her teammates, but Faulkner’s speed and ability to break down a defense gave the Storm some problems in the final period. She even hit a three, just to really scare everyone (if Faulkner becomes a reliable, knock-down shooter on top of her speed and ballhandling, the sky could be the limit for her). Chicago had also been dominating the offensive glass in the second half, and the second-chance points were piling up for the Sky.
But Chicago never managed to extend their lead beyond three points, and down the stretch it was Seattle who made the clutch plays. Bird had two huge jumpers; Langhorne and Little were both popping outside into space to knock down shots; Wright was the one spraying the passes around that led into all these shots; and then finally they got the crucial stop. A terrible, messy possession where they’d tried to force the ball to Bird had been blown up and ended in a shot-clock violation, giving Chicago the ball back down three, with 32 seconds left. Seattle rotated their help well to make Prince and Fowles give up the ball, and while both made the right passes, Breland dropped the ball when receiving the second one. Seattle grabbed it, made their free throws from there, and that was the game.
Key Players: It was a combination of the four names Brian Agler writes down as starters without even thinking that carried Seattle to the win. Bird, Wright, Little and Langhorne were a combined 23-41 for 65 of Seattle’s 80 points. They also had 17 assists between them (11 of them Wright’s) to just four turnovers. Officially the Storm only scored eight fastbreak points on the night, but in practice it was an illustration of how much their offense is helped if they can play with speed and roll into quick offense or pick up transition buckets. Their halfcourt scheme can get too bogged down, and they won’t always shoot as well from the perimeter. They have to create those cheap points to bolster their scoring.
Pokey Chatman will continue to worry about her team’s defense, and Fowles still clearly isn’t moving at 100%, which means she can’t yet cover up some of their flaws like she used to. But at least this game was a sign that she’s on her way back, because the offensive aggression was there, and she always wanted the ball. Seattle couldn’t stop her whenever Chicago actually fed her in the paint. Breland and Prince were the other productive players on offense, with Faulkner an occasional livewire but generally unable to convert amongst the trees. Considering the pieces missing, and the ones they’re still trying to fit in, it was a decent performance. But this might be the group that they’re working with for the remainder of the season, or at least many upcoming weeks. Moral victories and decent performances aren’t going to be worth much if they can’t improve their team defense and come up with wins.
Minnesota @ New York, 2pm ET
Phoenix @ Los Angeles, 4pm ET