Minnesota Lynx 80 @ New York Liberty 87
Lineups: Seimone Augustus was out again for the Lynx due to bursitis in her left knee, so Monica Wright continued to start at shooting guard. New York weren’t going to be changing anything after Cappie Pondexter and Tina Charles showed up as a tandem for one of the first times all season and led the Liberty to a convincing win over Tulsa on Tuesday night.
Story of the Game: Offense dominated the first half, with neither team capable of slowing the other down consistently. The Lynx were on top to start with, as their speed and unselfishness created quality scoring opportunities for a variety of different players. They pulled ahead by as many as 12 when supporting players like Tan White and Tricia Liston started hitting threes to add on to the expected contributions from Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen.
But even while they’d built that lead via their offensive success, the Lynx never looked convincing on the defensive end. Their transition defense was poor, allowing too many cheap points for New York on straightforward breaks, and the Pondexter/Charles duo was working as intended for New York once again. The aggressive, active, interior-attacking Charles had shown up again, and the Lynx had no answer for her whatsoever in the paint. Pondexter got her offense going with drives as well, and as is typically the case both of them were more successful with jumpers once they’d built their rhythm inside. Minnesota’s lead was gone by halftime, and the game was tied at 48. Just the kind of offensive showcase that ESPN wants from their WNBA games.
Unsurprisingly, the scoring tailed off somewhat in the second half. It’s hard to keep up that kind of production for 40 minutes, and undoubtedly both coaches were screaming about the defense during the interval. New York still seemed more up for the battle. It was as if the nationally televised contest against the reigning champs had inspired that extra edge for the Liberty, while it was just another game for the Lynx after all their big nights in recent years. But the worrying element for New York was that it seemed like they were playing harder and better, but the Lynx weren’t going away. Even with Moore failing to convert a single bucket in the second or third quarters under the attentions of Alex Montgomery and plenty of help defenders, the Lynx kept hanging around, and hanging around, and then Moore hit a three with five minutes left in the game to tie it all up again.
But that final five minutes saw New York make all the big plays, and finish with an 11-4 run that closed out the win. Anna Cruz made a couple of big shots on mid-range jumpers and tough finishes inside, Pondexter had stayed aggressive and continued going to the rim when her jumper wasn’t falling in the second half, and Minnesota missed a lot of jump shots. The Lynx tossed up some poor shots in the closing stages, between a combination of forced junk from White and Moore trying a little too hard to put the team on her back. With the respective effort levels over the course of the game, the victory was really no less than the Liberty deserved.
Key Players: Charles set a new WNBA career high with 32 points, and continued to work hard even though the Lynx dropped more defenders down on her in the second half and forced her to become more of a passer. This freshly aggressive Charles is fantastic to see, and the player the Liberty hoped they were acquiring when they traded several pieces for her in the offseason. But after two performances like this, the double-teams are going to be coming even faster and harder from upcoming opponents, along with efforts to prevent the ball getting to her in the first place. The Liberty need to remember that feeding her down low doesn’t have to be an end in and of itself. Even if the ball comes back out, all the attention she draws creates great looks for everyone else. It’s when she’s a passive non-factor barely even touching the ball that she fades out of games.
Pondexter didn’t shoot particularly well with players like Wright and White hounding her all afternoon, but she was still a positive balance for Charles, and between Cruz and the other supporting players the Liberty had enough. With their star duo as the ignition switch, this team’s finally looked like they have some life in them in their last two games. Running the floor, getting in the paint, attacking the glass – the lightbulb might just have come on. Of course, it’s only two games, and they were both at home. They’re 1-7 outside of Madison Square Garden this season, and seven of their next ten games are on the road. Now they have to prove they can keep this up wherever they’re playing.
The loss of Augustus (and continued absence of Rebekkah Brunson) makes things tough for Minnesota, but Cheryl Reeve won’t be happy at all with the way her team is playing defensively. That’s something that’s as much about collective movement, communication and effort as it is about the individuals available to play, and they’ve broken down too many times this year. The loss of key players tends to highlight it because the offense isn’t good enough to cover it up without a scorer like Augustus.
There also has to be a little touch of apathy setting in for a team like the Lynx that have had so much success. It’s hard to keep raising yourselves for the regular season grind. They’ll win plenty of games over the remainder of the season purely because of their talent and inbuilt chemistry, but if they could skip to the playoffs right now – as long as everyone was magically healed as part of the bargain – they’d probably settle for the second seed and happily get the real games underway.
Notes of Interest: Chucky Jeffery was back in uniform for New York and played a few seconds. No one ever announced a release or seven-day re-signing, but that’s what happened. Don’t you just love the WNBA information stream?
Phoenix Mercury 94 @ Los Angeles Sparks 89
Lineups: The two teams that both went big with starting lineup changes in midseason continued that way. Phoenix were hardly going to change anything after winning six straight since promoting Penny Taylor into the starting group, but Los Angeles made a switch on the perimeter with Kristi Toliver replacing Armintie Herrington. That swap’s about as clear of a declaration of “we need offense” as you’re ever likely to see.
Story of the Game: A messy opening saw Phoenix score the first nine points of the game and lead by as many as 13 in the first quarter, but in the end the first half was just like the previous game – lots of scoring at both ends and neither team coming out with much of an advantage.
With Candice Dupree and Brittney Griner finishing inside, and Diana Taurasi already looking red-hot from outside with her quick-trigger jump shot, Phoenix were rolling from the start on the offensive end. LA eventually got going when Candace Parker stopped standing around the perimeter as a theoretical floor-spacer, and started taking over the offense. Her one-on-one attacks gave them some direction and drive with the ball, and LA started making things happen rather than watching the game go on around them. The Sparks were also helped, inevitably, by substitutions for Phoenix taking Griner and Taurasi off the floor to rest. The Mercury made efforts to deepen their bench in the offseason, but there’s still a significant drop-off when they go to their reserves.
The reintroduction of Toliver back into the starting lineup worked nicely, giving LA another scorer around the perimeter to balance out their constant attempts to get into the paint. She hit a couple of threes to help take advantage of Phoenix’s defense, which is still the weakest part of their game however much they work on it, and LA led by a couple of points at halftime. It was another shootout with the big names leading the way – ESPN couldn’t have written the script any better themselves.
The third quarter was all Phoenix, with Taurasi leading the way. LA were lax about picking up in transition, either ending up mismatched defensively or just leaving Mercury scorers all on their own to hit shots. Now it was Phoenix taking advantage of transition opportunities and developing another double-digit lead.
But back LA came once again, digging themselves out of another hole, firstly behind Toliver threes and then a couple of moon-balls from Parker that dropped in from the perimeter. That made up the bulk of a 16-2 run to open the fourth quarter that turned a nine-point LA deficit into a five-point lead. After Toliver finally missed one from outside – her only missed three all day – the stretch was ended even more resoundingly by a Griner dunk, the first of the 2014 season. With LA’s defense failing to rotate underneath she was wide open when Taylor shovelled a pass to her, but it’s still a play that brings people off their feet when it happens in the women’s game. Even Griner hasn’t made it passé quite yet.
The dunk was part of a hell of a sequence of offensive basketball. Parker’s deep threes, the dunk, a couple of finishes for Nneka Ogwumike on a nice high-low pass and then a fastbreak, with a deep Taurasi three sandwiched between them – it was two teams who’d much rather be scoring points than slowing down their opponent just going toe-to-toe. In the final minutes, it turned out to be Phoenix who managed to make a few more plays and pull the game out. Griner had a huge block of another attempted Ogwumike finish at the rim; Parker was dragged inside to help on Dupree defensively, and left Taylor alone to drill the three when the ball was kicked out to her; Parker had a couple of missed jumpers and Toliver threw the ball out of bounds on a depressing miscommunication for a turnover; then Taurasi iced the game with yet another three from ridiculously deep over Ogwumike’s despairing arm.
Key Players: Taurasi was the Mercury’s star performer, finishing with 32 points including 7-10 shooting from beyond the arc. LA’s defense isn’t great by any means, and it’s a bit of a surprise that Herrington didn’t get more of an opportunity to try to cool her down, but sometimes great offense just needs to be applauded regardless of the defense. All the Mercury starters finished in double-digits, and they shot 56% as a team, but this was the first time in a while that we’d really seen Diana take over a game with her own scoring.
Parker and Toliver were the primary scorers for LA, with Ogwumike unsurprisingly quieter than she has been in other games lately – because most of her scoring comes at the rim, and Griner was there waiting for her all afternoon. It was nearly enough, and LA will win most games when their offense works like that, but remember when Carol Ross took the Sparks job with a reputation as a defensive coach? We’ve not seen a lot of that lately, and this game was no exception. The Mercury go marching on.
Notes of Interest: The ‘extended’ pick-and-roll where the post rolls to the rim from an initial screen on the side of the floor, then the ball is reversed to the top of the arc to a third player who makes the entry pass to the roller, has become a huge part of LA’s offense lately. Having Parker on the floor as a third big who can make that entry pass over the top makes it much more likely to succeed. But the problem against Phoenix is that the Mercury are just as big as the Sparks, and all those long limbs tend to get in the way. LA were okay in this game because they got into transition, and they shot unusually well from the perimeter. But not being able to rely on those three-part pick-and-rolls could be a big problem in future encounters with Phoenix.
Connecticut announced today that they’d signed Briana Gilbreath-Butler to a seven-day contract. She’s a long, rangy wing who spent the last couple of years with Phoenix, but got squeezed out when they went shopping for free agents in the offseason. She’ll fit in as a defensive option on the perimeter for the Sun, especially as they also announced that Allison Hightower will have an arthroscopic procedure on her injured left knee and will be out for two-to-three weeks. Clearly her knee hadn’t recovered properly from her injury earlier this season, even if she returned to play in four recent games. With two reasonably significant injuries – Danielle McCray is out as well with a broken thumb – the Sun received a hardship exception from the League and didn’t have to cut anyone to make room for Gilbreath-Butler. Although Kelley Cain and Kelly Faris both could’ve been released without any meaningful impact.
Candice Wiggins appears ready to make her return for LA in their game tomorrow in Minnesota, judging by her tweets. Another guard who can occasionally hit a three can only help the Sparks.
They’ll also be announcing the starters for the All-Star game during tomorrow night’s ESPN2 double-header. The 12 head coaches then vote for the reserves, with the results announced a week later on ESPN2’s July 15th double-header.
Connecticut @ Atlanta, 7pm ET. Technically, this is a clash between the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, but in reality it’s Atlanta and then the rest in the East so far. Also, while Connecticut held off Tulsa on Saturday, that was only their second road win of the season. This young Sun squad hasn’t been anywhere near as good on their travels this year as they have back home at the Mohegan Sun. With the length and strength of Lyttle and de Souza inside, the speed and passing of their perimeter options, and the all-purpose threat of Angel McCoughtry, it’ll be something of a surprise if Connecticut stay close to the Dream for 40 minutes. But Bone and Ogwumike fighting it out with Atlanta’s veteran posts should be fun to watch, and the length of Alyssa Thomas and Katie Douglas give the Sun options against McCoughtry. Both teams want to get to the rim as much as possible, either in transition, via drives, or by feeding their posts. The victors are likely to be the team most successful in keeping their opponent out of the paint.
Indiana @ Tulsa, 8pm ET. While most of the discussion will revolve around Skylar Diggins – who might be announced as making her first all-star appearance during the game, depending on the fan vote – the frontcourt is where much of the real intrigue lies here. Tulsa have the best offensive rebounding team in the league, almost entirely based around Glory Johnson and Courtney Paris. Meanwhile Indiana are trying to figure out who works with whom in their frontcourt now that Tamika Catchings is back in the mix. Erlana Larkins will probably have to play a lot of minutes to fight it out in the paint, which leaves Catchings, Natasha Howard and Karima Christmas working out the rest of the minutes between them. But defensively Tulsa are soft in the center, and Catchings will be part of the driving attack that Indiana will use to try to exploit that. They relied on far too many threes in her first game back – that’s unlikely to be quite so necessary against the Shock.
Los Angeles @ Minnesota, 9pm ET. Not so long ago, this was the premier matchup in the West, and arguably in the entire WNBA. Now the Lynx are trying to hang on to Phoenix’s coattails, while LA are just hoping to stick in the playoff spots (and Carol Ross is hoping to keep her job). The intriguing element to the matchup this time around is that Minnesota haven’t seen LA since they went to Parker as primarily a small forward. It’ll give Maya Moore a lot more work to do on the defensive end, but also opens up different ways for them to exploit LA’s fragile defense. Either Parker or Ogwumike is going to have to chase Moore around the floor, unless LA drop back out of their starting formation and slide Parker back to the 4. Minnesota’s interior defense has had plenty of problems of their own this year, and LA will likely take advantage of that on several occasions, but stopping the Lynx will be an entirely different matter.