Lineups: Connecticut continued with what’s become they’re regular starting five (which features two rookies, two second-year players, and Katie Douglas trying to help the kids hold it all together). Indiana made their first switch since Tamika Catchings’s return, swapping Karima Christmas in for Marissa Coleman at small forward. Coleman made two poor errors in crunch time of their last game, nearly costing them the win against Tulsa, which may have been part of the motivation behind that change. The Fever’s bench was also a little shorter than usual, with Lynetta Kizer attending a family funeral and therefore unavailable.
Story of the Game: This was an odd game for the first three quarters. The strangeness came from the way that Indiana were largely creating better shots than Connecticut. They were finding their way into the opposing defense more consistently, and putting up their shots from significantly closer to the rim – but they couldn’t finish. They missed a ridiculous number of layups, shooting a hideous 5-17 around the rim in the first half, so creating straightforward chances proved largely pointless.
Meanwhile, much of Connecticut’s offense came on jump shots. In fairness, they moved the ball well enough to create some decent looks, but essentially they were shooting better from 15-20 feet than Indiana were shooting from 1-3. It wasn’t particularly pretty, but it gave the Sun a nine-point lead at halftime, and after leading by as many as 14 they were still up by eight at the end of the third.
But it never felt like Indiana were out of it. All they needed to do was start converting some of their chances, and the comeback was right there waiting for them. Connecticut’s offense hadn’t been good enough to truly punish them for all the misses and put the game away. Finally, in the fourth quarter, the Fever clicked into gear. It started, funnily enough, with some outside shots. Rather than continuing to miss inside under the challenges of the Sun defenders – and credit Connecticut for managing to put pressure on for most of the game without being called for fouls – Indiana kicked the ball out and hit a couple of threes. But then it was back to getting inside, and either finishing better or grabbing offensive rebounds and completing the play at the second time of asking.
The presence of Catchings was inevitably an important element in the fourth quarter charge. She’d played her part in all the missing earlier on, but she was up top with the ball in her hands for much of the fourth quarter, leading the way. The off-kilter horns set that Indiana run, where Catchings handles the ball and the nominal point guard is in the ‘post’ spot at one of the horns, is a little confusing for opposing defenses. They’re not used to defending a set like that, and switching or rotating schemes are mixed up by having the offensive players the wrong way round. Indiana used a lot of it in the fourth quarter, and Catchings went different directions on different possessions to confuse the Sun even more and produce layups.
Connecticut actually had their best offensive stretch of the game in the fourth quarter, with Douglas hitting from outside and Renee Montgomery going right by the defense for layups. But several turnovers helped Indiana’s push, with a Larkins steal on an entry pass and a Catchings poke-away in transition particularly vital. The Fever gave up a couple of late buckets to make them nervous again, but Larkins hit a pair at the line to ice the game and send all the camp day kids home happy.
Key Players: Catchings was the key piece once again for the Fever, finishing 8-15 for 21 points and seven boards. She’s mostly creating for herself at this point – the chemistry isn’t quite there with this set of teammates yet – but having her back is obviously crucially important for Indiana. She gives them a whole new look offensively, as well as her typical energy and aggression on the defensive end. Larkins and Briann January helped out with the scoring, while Coleman hit a couple of shots off the bench and Layshia Clarendon had her second straight productive game. Her shot’s still inconsistent, her defense isn’t great, and she’s still not really a point guard (which matters less with Catchings around to do some of the ballhandling), but on some nights Clarendon’s speedy offense clicks and she’s useful.
Douglas did her best to drive Connecticut’s offense, but once Indiana finally started producing late in the game they just didn’t have enough. The team defense was effective for much of the afternoon, but there was always the feeling that Indiana were missing makable shots, rather than being forced into empty possessions by the Sun. Connecticut are 2-8 on their travels now, and six of their next eight games are on the road as well. With the way they’ve played lately, it’s tough to see them holding on to that third spot in the East through that stretch. A playoff spot in general might be looking unlikely soon, even with the mediocre challengers in the lower reaches of the East.
Notes of Interest: After Christmas picked up a knee injury in the first half (which she later returned from), Indiana started the third quarter with Catchings at small forward, and Natasha Howard at power forward, rather than just inserting Coleman as a straight swap for Christmas. So the Fever are at least willing to try Catchings as a perimeter player. But it didn’t last long, and Alyssa Thomas had her best offensive stretch of the game going against Catchings. We’re probably not going to see too much of Catch at anywhere other than the 4.
Lineups: Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson are still out for Minnesota with their respective knee problems, so the Lynx started the same group as in their last few games. Tulsa’s starting five was as it’s been for the vast majority of the season. Apparently Riquna Williams is back practicing with the team, and therefore might be available again soon after missing several games with her own bruised knee.
Story of the Game: The first half of this game was dominated by offense, with neither team able to stop the other consistently. Minnesota were in front for the vast majority of the opening 20 minutes, with their mobility, passing and unselfishness picking Tulsa apart. Their younger posts almost seem to be gaining passing skills via osmosis, with the example of Janel McCarville alongside them showing how much they can help put their teammates in a position to succeed. The Lynx also ran a lot of those dive plays from the corners, first with Maya Moore and then through Lindsay Whalen (usually it’s Moore and Augustus, but Whalen is strong and physical enough to finish those plays as well). It’s another scoring action that’s opened up by Minnesota bringing their posts so high up the floor, creating space under the rim for the perimeter players to duck in and take passes to finish. With Skylar Diggins, Odyssey Sims and Roneeka Hodges on the perimeter, Tulsa aren’t exactly big or strong out there, and the Lynx attacked that. They shot 66% from the field in the first half.
But Tulsa wouldn’t go away. They had some problems containing Diggins off the dribble, although admittedly that’s been difficult for virtually every opponent this season. With Courtney Paris in foul trouble and spending a lot of time on the bench, Glory Johnson was the one offering a post threat for the Shock and her mobility and athleticism was tough for McCarville to handle. Tulsa were only down by six at halftime despite having missed a lot of perimeter shots, not produced their typical domination on the offensive boards, and given up that scary shooting percentage to the Lynx. Being that close was a success.
And while the second half was nowhere near the offensive showcase of the first at either end of the floor, Tulsa continued to hang close. Hodges hit a couple of threes as a reminder of her near-forgotten days as a perimeter gunner, and forcing the pace to pick up as many points in transition as they could – often at the free throw line when fouling was the only avenue to slow them down – kept the Shock in the game.
Meanwhile, the Lynx became significantly less balanced in the second half. While they were still moving the ball nicely at times, and the team defense had become more effective in holding up against the Shock inside, the offense climbed on the backs of Whalen and Moore and held on for the ride. They had to keep fighting to hold on to their lead, all the way to the end, but with Moore finishing plays right at the rim they managed to stay in front. It was an important shift from what we’ve seen in several recent Lynx games, where she was forcing up too many jumpers in an effort to carry Minnesota’s offense down the stretch. Instead they were running proper sets, she was darting and cutting into space around the basket, and her teammates were finding her to finish. Even with Maya, you’re better off putting the shot up from 2 feet than from 20.
Moore had three layups in the final three minutes, the first two on nice high-low passes from Devereaux Peters, then a lovely give-and-go with Damiris Dantas where the extra two passes made all the difference. When Diggins made her customary barreling drive down the left side of the lane on the next possession, and didn’t get the bail-out call she wanted from the officials, that was the ballgame.
Key Players: For the eighth time this season, Moore broke the 30-point barrier, and this time she did it on just 21 shots. The WNBA record for 30-point games in a season is apparently 10 by Diana Taurasi in 2008, by the way. Whalen was inches away from a triple-double, ending the game 8-14 from the field for 21 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds. After the consummate team performance offensively in the first half, the stars took over and led the Lynx to the win as the game wore on.
Paris’s foul trouble didn’t help the Shock, even though Vicki Baugh’s produced some decent performances lately as her backup. Their team defense in general still has too many holes, with rotation problems allowing opponents to get to the basket, and too much reaching and grabbing resulting in too many fouls. But they still managed to hang close with the reigning champs, which once again is becoming a theme for the Shock – staying in games, but not being able to win them in the closing moments. Anyone who’s watched Tulsa would agree that there’s been significant progress made in their performances this season, and they’re now a much more competitive team. But they’re also on course to win essentially the same number of games that they did last year. It’d be nice to see more signs of their progress in the standings.
Los Angeles @ New York, 7.30pm ET. It’s been said several times before this season, but these are two teams in desperate need of a win, or at least a creditable performance. After their two best games of the season, the Liberty were blown off the floor by Kayla McBride and the Stars on Wednesday night and need to bounce back. Meanwhile Los Angeles have lost three of their last four, with the only win coming against floundering Seattle – and the rumblings continue to grow about whether they need to make a change on the sidelines. The positive for New York is that LA’s defensive rotations are often poor, and they may try to cover Tina Charles one-on-one more than San Antonio were willing to. If that’s the case, maybe the Liberty can return to the strong, aggressive style led by Charles and Cappie Pondexter that led to the two impressive wins in their previous games. Also they’re back home, and the Liberty have been a vastly better team at Madison Square Garden this year. LA should have a significant advantage at both forward spots, but the Liberty will collapse help on Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike as much as possible. The Sparks need to move the ball, and Kristi Toliver probably needs to hit a few shots, if they’re going to pull this one off.
Seattle @ San Antonio, 8pm ET. These games are usually a lot of fun, with old friends and adversaries Brian Agler and Dan Hughes trying to outthink each other. But recent performances have to make San Antonio reasonably strong favourites, even if they’ve bizarrely been playing better away from home this year. Seattle’s defense, typically their strong suit under Agler, has broken down far too often this season, with their rotations too slow to keep up with opponents who move the ball well. San Antonio are unselfish to a fault and usually have at least four scoring threats on the floor at any given time, which will be a problem for the Storm. Seattle will likely need to rediscover some of their offensive flow – evident in recent weeks only against the weakened Sky and their favourite opponents from Minnesota – to keep up with the Stars.
Phoenix @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET. This could be a nasty mismatch if recent performances are anything to go by – Chicago have lost three in a row even with Sylvia Fowles back, while league-leading Phoenix have won their last eight. In fact the Mercury took the Sky apart just nine days ago back in Phoenix. But there are still some interesting matchups to watch. Fowles is gaining some of her strength back, which offers the enticing prospect of seeing her go up against Brittney Griner inside, maybe without either team sending too many double-teams. The power forward clash between Candice Dupree – who dominated in that previous game against Chicago – and Jessica Breland should be fun too, with both capable of lighting the other up offensively (and not doing a lot to stop each other on the defensive end). Basically, our hope for a watchable contest here comes down to Pokey Chatman making some worthwhile adjustments from that last encounter, and either Fowles or Epiphanny Prince exploding. Expect to see a lot of zone from the Mercury, which was how they kept Prince and Jamierra Faulkner quiet in the previous game.