Connecticut Sun 71 @ Atlanta Dream 83
Lineups: No changes to the starters for either team from recent games. Connecticut had Briana Gilbreath-Butler available for the first time after signing her to a seven-day contract, made possible by the exception granted when Allison Hightower had arthroscopic surgery to clean out her knee. That’s expected to keep Hightower out for two-to-three weeks.
Story of the Game: The game was played at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavillion, due to a Microsoft convention forcing the Dream out of Philips Arena for much of July. The venue didn’t make much difference to the predictable direction of the game. As mentioned in yesterday’s preview, the contest was always likely to come down to which team could keep the other out of the paint, and Atlanta were significantly stronger in that area. Much of the first quarter went jumper-for-jumper, but the Dream started to pull ahead when they started finding a little pace in transition, and attacking the rim. Connecticut were still stuck firing away from outside.
The eight-point Atlanta lead at halftime was almost a positive for Connecticut – it felt like they’d been dominated to a significantly greater extent than that gap suggested. Atlanta’s ball movement and penetration, plus the vision and passing of players like Celine Dumerc and Shoni Schimmel, was creating good looks inside and piling up points in the paint for Atlanta. Connecticut were committing sloppy turnovers, failing to convert anything amongst Atlanta’s long arms on the rare occasions they did get inside, and staying remotely close only through hitting a few threes.
After a nasty landing late in the first half, Angel McCoughtry had gone off with a bruised elbow, but started the second half and immediately knocked down a jumper just to prove she was fine (an ‘elbow’ jumper, for those who enjoy irony). In the following minutes she added a transition layup, an offensive rebound into a putback, and a couple of nice passes for teammates to finish. At times, Atlanta are a prettier team to watch when Angel’s on the sidelines, because there’s a little more fluidity and teamwork to their play. But they’re almost always a more effective team when she’s on the floor, especially when she plays her part in the overall scheme rather than trying too hard to take over on her own.
Offensively, Connecticut were a little better in the second half. Alex Bentley hit a few shots, Chiney Ogwumike gave Atlanta more of a fight on the glass, and occasionally they even managed to finish in the paint. But they never could keep the Dream away from the rim, and Atlanta’s dominance became increasingly evident on the scoreboard. They coasted through the entire fourth quarter with a comfortable lead.
Key Players: McCoughtry helped kill the game in the fourth quarter, but overall it was a nice team effort from Atlanta. Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza did the work they needed inside, McCoughtry and Tiffany Hayes penetrated consistently from the wings, and the team finished with 24 assists on 33 buckets. Michael Cooper would probably like to see them get their turnovers more under control – they had 20 in this game, and continue to ‘lead’ the league in giveaways – but this was an illustration of the current state of the Eastern Conference. In theory this was the top two teams facing each other; in practice the top team is running well ahead of the remaining five.
For Connecticut, the backcourt of Douglas and Bentley hit some shots, and Ogwumike worked her butt off to give them something in the second half, but that was all the Sun had. They couldn’t slow Atlanta down, couldn’t keep them out of the paint, and the markedly more cohesive team ran away with the win.
Notes of Interest: Swin Cash gave Atlanta some solid minutes as the backup power forward in the first half, one of the few times that’s happened this season. Having someone else who can play a post spot that Cooper can rely on could be very important later in the season, especially if they pick up any injuries. It’s no coincidence that the teams atop the two conferences in the WNBA right now have been two of the healthier squads so far this season.
Indiana Fever 78 @ Tulsa Shock 76
Lineups: Both teams started the same fives as in their previous games, which for Indiana meant the second appearance of Tamika Catchings for the season. The Fever are still figuring out their rotations with her back in the mix, but trying to fit your leader and superstar back into your team is a nice problem to have.
Story of the Game: As with the game above, the course of this game for most of the night was defined by one team repeatedly breaking down the opposing defense and getting into the paint, while the other was largely kept away from the rim. It was Indiana who consistently found their way into the soft center of Tulsa’s defense, and converted high-percentage looks to gain the advantage. They were looking for Shavonte Zellous inside, often on those dive plays from the corner I’ve talked about before, utilising her height advantage over Skylar Diggins or Odyssey Sims. The other primary weapon for Indiana in the first half was Catchings, already back in her familiar role playing pseudo-point guard at the top of the arc. Tulsa couldn’t stop her from driving into the paint, or occasionally dropping down to post up smaller defenders if Tulsa’s defense got switched up and she was faced with a guard. She also gives Indiana another passer and creator in transition, another area where they hurt Tulsa for much of the game.
Tulsa were hanging around in contention by hitting some of those shots they tossed up from outside, and putting in their usual work on the offensive glass. With Glory Johnson and Courtney Paris, the Shock don’t need much help on the boards, but Indiana’s defensive scheme opened up some extra space for them at times. The Fever were dropping double-teams down on Paris whenever she touched the ball inside, then trying to rotate and recover around the rest of the floor if the ball moved back out. They’re good at it – their switching and rotating is, for example, far smoother than the theoretically-similar-in-principle schemes that LA use – but all the movement often shifts players out of rebounding position. So second-chance points allowed Tulsa to stay within seven at halftime.
Indiana appeared to have taken complete control in the third quarter. Tulsa had some early success using slip-screens and pick-and-rolls to get the ball inside to their posts, but that soon dried up as the Fever started an endless procession to the free throw line. They hit a couple of jump shots, opened up by the amount of help Tulsa was now sending to try to close off the paint, but most of Indiana’s points came at the line when they drove into contact and drew whistles. They were 13-15 at the free throw line in the third quarter alone, and their lead ballooned as high as 15.
But given the way these teams have played this season – Indiana have blown a lot of leads, Tulsa tend to fight their way into close games – we shouldn’t have been surprised when the score tightened up again in the fourth quarter. Indiana stopped converting on their drives, or getting the calls from the officials, and the Shock crept back. It started with a pair of Jordan Hooper threes, and continued largely at the foul line. Maybe the referees had seen how imbalanced the foul count was in the third quarter and were evening it up a little, but there were also some dumb reaches from the Fever in the closing stages, and a couple of even dumber technicals from Zellous and Briann January. The game was tied up for the first time since the second quarter when Erlana Larkins overcommitted on a hedge on the perimeter, Diggins went by her, and fed Paris for a layup with 17 seconds left in the game.
But maybe the return of Catchings really is going to help the Fever avoid some of these late game collapses. They put the ball in her hands up top, running their unusual off-balance horns set. Typically your two posts are at the elbows, but because Catchings – the nominal power forward – is handling the ball they use January as a de facto ‘post’. Catchings entered the ball to Larkins, then made to use January as a screener in the opposite direction – a very standard move from that set. But Catchings quickly reversed course, hopped inside Johnson down the lane instead of curling towards the wing, took the feed from Larkins and finished the layup. It was either a lovely play-design, or a very smart off-the-cuff cut from Catchings. Either way, it gave Indiana the lead with under six seconds left.
As usual, Tulsa gave Diggins the ball up top on their final possession, and she penetrated. But Catchings slid across to help and cut her off, Larkins slid across behind her to cover Johnson when Diggins dumped the ball off, and Johnson could only fling up a tough hook that never came close. Another play that Indiana might well not have made if Catchings wasn’t back in the mix.
Key Players: It might have been her second game since returning, but this was Catchings’s real comeback show. She finished 8-14 for 23 points, 11 boards, four assists and two blocks. She got some help from Zellous in the scoring column, and a little bonus production from Layshia Clarendon off the bench. Plus Larkins put in her usual work in the paint on the defensive end, while released from having to be as much of a scoring threat as they’ve needed from her for most of the season. But it was Catch’s show, and she made the plays at the end to make sure it wasn’t in vain.
Credit Tulsa for somehow finding a way to be in the game at the end, despite being outplayed for most of the night. Diggins was the primary scorer, as usual, but they struggled to break down Indiana’s defense and find space inside, which made scoring difficult. At least they did a better job of sagging inside and leaving most of the open looks for Indiana late in the game out on the perimeter, which the Fever helpfully missed. Even if they’re pretty open, giving up good looks around the arc is better than conceding layups and free throws. Hooper had a nice game again with her three-point shooting a significant threat. She’s looking like a bit of a steal as a second-round pick.
Notes of Interest: Remember when we thought Tulsa might’ve fixed their problems in close games? Recent results – losing five of their last six by three, three, six, two and two points respectively – would suggest that they might’ve just fluked a couple of wins. They still can’t close games out, and their interior defense is still decidedly suspect. Same old problems.
Los Angeles Sparks 72 @ Minnesota Lynx 83
Lineups: Seimone Augustus was still out for the Lynx due to left knee bursitis, so Monica Wright continued to fill in. Los Angeles stuck with Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard as their backcourt, leaving Armintie Herrington and Lindsey Harding to come off the bench. They also had Candice Wiggins available for the first time since their opening game of the season, returning from her own knee surgery.
Story of the Game: LA took too many shots that Minnesota would want them to take in the first quarter – jumpers from outside by anyone other than Toliver – but between hitting some of them and an endless supply of offensive rebounds, LA stuck with the Lynx. The Sparks even led for a while in the opening period. But the Lynx offense was too much for LA to cope with once Minnesota got rolling in the second quarter, and it became something of a layup line for the Lynx. Their unselfishness and movement off the ball was finding space amongst LA’s defense and piling up points. Tricia Liston had her best half in a Lynx jersey off the bench, making plays with passes, cuts and screens as well as hitting her typical threes. Janel McCarville and Lindsay Whalen linked up – in both directions – for several nice plays. And there was always Maya Moore as an outlet option to convert at the rim and provide points. Her jump shot was off for most of the night, but when she got to the basket she was as reliable as ever. Minnesota used her size to attack LA inside whenever one of their smaller defenders was on her, rather than someone like Candace Parker.
But between Jantel Lavender hitting her mid-range jumper, the offensive rebounds, and Parker hitting several threes, the Sparks were only down by six at halftime. And then a very shaky third quarter for Minnesota handed the initiative to LA. The Sparks came out in a zone defense to start the second half, which didn’t actually work at all and was forced back into a man-to-man after a few possessions where the Lynx got wide open looks. But it at least accomplished the intended effect of throwing Minnesota off their rhythm a little. They lost their momentum, LA started picking up points through Nneka Ogwumike running the floor hard and some of the transition game that the Lynx had kept in check for most of the night, and the Sparks moved into the lead. LA produced much better ball pressure in that third quarter, which made it much harder for Minnesota to initiate their offense. LA weren’t exactly dominating when they had the ball, but when you hold your opponent to eight points in a quarter, good things will happen.
But it didn’t take long for Minnesota to reassert themselves in the fourth quarter. Cheryl Reeve woke her team up, demanded better effort on the glass, and pulled her offense even further away from the basket – which opened up space behind to get to the rim. The Lynx always run a lot of their offense through their bigs in the high post. McCarville is most well-known for her passing, but the others often do similar jobs. They came higher and higher in the fourth quarter, while the perimeter players slashed past and around them, taking passes from the bigs and slicing to the rim for great chances to score. LA, whose help defense isn’t great at the best of times, didn’t know how to cope. They couldn’t clog the paint because they were chasing the ball and the opposing players out beyond the three-point line. So they just kept leaving huge spaces for the Lynx to exploit behind their defense.
Meanwhile at the other end, LA were tossing up a lot of jumpers and no longer hitting any of them. Play long enough against the Sparks, and that’ll usually happen eventually. Minnesota are well-drilled to know who the primary threats are, so Parker and Toliver were under pressure most of the night, and Parker didn’t touch the ball anywhere near enough in the fourth quarter. A 16-3 Lynx run covered most of the fourth, and the Sparks faded away with more of a whimper than a fight.
Key Players: Moore was Minnesota’s leading scorer, although she needed 23 shots to pick up her 30 points. Until a couple of important shots late in the game, she didn’t hit much from outside and sometimes seemed to be forcing the ball up in search of her jump shot. But with Whalen, McCarville, Wright and others helping out, the Lynx scored 52 points in the paint and had 27 assists on 33 baskets. Apart from the third quarter where they lost their way, it was a consummate team performance that took apart one of their regular rivals.
Outside of the 20 offensive rebounds leading to 21 second-chance points, LA didn’t have much of a night. Parker’s scoring was propped up by the three triples she managed to hit in the first half, but otherwise she was ineffective whether at small or power forward. But even in a game where they shot only 34% from the field, it’s the defense that continues to let them down. The Lynx broke them down all too frequently, and looked far better prepared for what they knew was coming from the Sparks than LA did to stop them. In the end, with Minnesota working hard enough to keep LA out of transition, the Sparks couldn’t create enough points to keep up with all the holes in their own defense.
Notes of Interest: Minnesota’s single possession of zone defense to start games (or halves, or occasionally out of timeouts) is backfiring a little this season. Much as its pointlessness entertains me, they’ve given up some wide open looks with that zone this year (Parker drilled a three to open this game, and LA got easy chances on the couple of other possessions where the Lynx tried the zone). Reeve may want to junk the idea entirely.
Reeve did provide some extra entertainment of her own between the third and fourth quarters, with a Popovichian interview with Rebecca Lobo where Reeve walked away before the second question could even be asked. She was that disgusted with how her team had been rebounding. On maybe her neck was tired from craning it to look Rebecca in the eye.
The All-Star starters were announced during ESPN2’s double-header last night, with few surprises but one or two ridiculous choices. Shoni Schimmel and Cappie Pondexter are the guards in the East, with Elena Delle Donne, Angel McCoughtry and Tamika Catchings in the frontcourt. Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins are the West guards, with Maya Moore, Candace Parker and Brittney Griner filling out their frontcourt spots. Schimmel’s obviously a bit of a reach in terms of deserving her place, and makes it largely because she’s such a fan favourite rather than because her play has been worthy of inclusion – although the East guards don’t offer a lot of obvious selections. Catchings being voted in is a little comical, considering she hadn’t played a single game until Saturday. But the fans got who they wanted, and now the coaches get to pick the reserves. My article covering who I feel should make the teams will be coming up later this week.
Washington @ Chicago, 12.30pm ET
Seattle @ Phoenix, 3.30pm ET
New York @ San Antonio, 8pm ET