Atlanta Dream 93 @ Indiana Fever 74
Lineups: Considering they’ve been comfortably the best team in the Eastern Conference so far this season, Michael Cooper has decided it wouldn’t be wise to change his starting lineup after all, so Jasmine Thomas continues at point guard in the same group we’ve seen for most of the year. Off the bench, they had DeLisha Milton-Jones available for the first time after trading Swin Cash for her a few days ago. When healthy, Indiana seem relatively certain about four of their starters, but continue to play around at the small forward spot. This time it was Karima Christmas’s turn to be demoted, with Marissa Coleman coming back into the starting lineup. The Fever also had a little extra depth on their bench, with Lynetta Kizer back from the family funeral that caused her to miss one game.
Story of the Game: For the opening ten minutes or so, this was a very even, back-and-forth contest. The speed and energy of Indiana’s defense created offense in the opposite direction, as did the Fever’s ability to draw fouls and generate free throws with their driving attack – something they’d been good at this year even before Tamika Catchings returned. We also saw two examples of inside-out ball movement, started by Catchings, creating the catch-and-shoot three-pointers that Coleman should’ve been living off all season. But Atlanta were just as effective going the other way, running in transition at every opportunity, and dominating the offensive glass to create multiple second-chance opportunities. Often the activity and energy of players like Catchings and Erlana Larkins keeps Indiana even on the glass, but the length and athleticism of Atlanta can give them serious problems in that area. Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza are just so big compared to the Fever frontcourt.
It all started to go wrong for Indiana when they had to go beyond the top-six in their rotation (Christmas being relatively interchangeable with Coleman). Their offense lost all its movement and mobility without Briann January, Shavonte Zellous or Catchings on the floor, which also led directly into breakdowns at the other end, with the Dream feeding off Indiana’s misses and turnovers to generate offense for themselves. With unlikely players hitting from outside as well – Jasmine Thomas had barely made a shot for a month, and Celine Dumerc’s jump shot hadn’t made it through customs until last night – Atlanta utterly dominated the second quarter. Lin Dunn threw her starters back out once it quickly became apparent how badly the Fever reserves were being outplayed, but by then Atlanta’s momentum was away and rolling. A 20-1 run to open the second period created a 17-point Dream lead, and they’d pushed the gap to 21 by halftime.
Indiana put up a fight in the second half, but it was never quite enough. Again, they started well with their favoured group on the floor, but couldn’t quite manage to keep it going. They even showed some 3-2 zone to shake things up, something you rarely see from the Fever. To some extent it worked and they even managed to rebound better out of it than they had been from their man-to-man – something you rarely see from anyone.
But with the speed and driving tenacity of Tiffany Hayes continuing to be effective for Atlanta, plus de Souza’s size inside and more threes than the Dream ever expect to hit, Atlanta always had an answer. The gap never dropped below 10, and things got worse for Indiana when January limped out of the game with right knee pain after a collision late in the third quarter that was hard to pick out on video. She never returned, which also didn’t help the comeback effort.
Key Players: For once, Angel McCoughtry played a lot of minutes but was largely unproductive – and the Dream played some great stuff anyway. Hayes led the scoring with her kamikaze drives a constant source of danger (to both the scoreboard and her own limbs) with the offensive rebounding a familiar source of scoring for Atlanta as well – and the perimeter shooting an unfamiliar one. They shot 10-18 from beyond the arc, on shots that Indiana would likely have wanted them to take in the gameplan before tip-off. But Thomas, Dumerc, Hayes and Shoni Schimmel all shot well from outside, and presented yet another threat for a team that becomes virtually unguardable if they can shoot well from outside on top of everything else.
The game got away from Indiana in the second quarter, and they never quite managed to pull it all the way back. Larkins and her teammates produced a much better effort on the boards as the game wore on, and the 3-2 zone might be a nice piece to have in their armoury for the rest of the year, but they were pretty soundly beaten in this one. The main worry will surround January, who they won’t want to lose for any extended period. With Dumerc and Schimmel coming off the bench behind Thomas for Atlanta, this game highlighted how much of a drop-off Indiana has when January is replaced by Layshia Clarendon or Sydney Carter. They need their starter healthy and available.
Notes of Interest: This was the fifth and final regular season clash between these teams this year, and oddly all five have been won by the road team. Three of those victories went to the Dream, so they own the tie-breaker should their record collapse and Indiana catch them in the standings before the end of the season.
Milton-Jones played surprisingly significant minutes off the bench for Atlanta in her first game with the Dream, at both small forward and power forward. She was a little too willing to fire up shots from her opening seconds on the floor – this team has more weapons than the Liberty, so she needs to curb that impulse and move the ball – but after three days in Atlanta, Cooper already seems to have more faith in her than he ever did in Swin Cash.
Washington Mystics 91 @ Tulsa Shock 74
Lineups: Both teams used the same starting lineups as usual, and had the same reserves out due to injury. Riquna Williams is apparently nearing a return, but no sign of her yet.
Story of the Game: I’ve mentioned the old British sporting cliché “a game of two halves” in this venue before, and this was a contest that certainly fit that description. For most of the first half, offense ruled. Washington, in particular, were strikingly successful all over the floor when they had the ball. They got inside far too easily on wing drives and then post moves from Kia Vaughn or Stefanie Dolson; they found points on the break against Tulsa’s consistently terrible transition defense; they were surprisingly dominant on the offensive glass against a Shock team that usually rebounds well (although Tulsa are much better on the offensive, rather than defensive, glass); and the Mystics even made some perimeter shots, with Kara Lawson and Ivory Latta both more accurate from outside than they’ve been for most of the season. Tulsa basically couldn’t slow them down.
But until midway through the second quarter, when they started firing up some quick shots and went cold, Tulsa were going shot for shot with Washington. They had their own successes in transition, something they seem to have been focussing on lately. It’s almost like Fred Williams has given up on trying to get his team’s transition defense to improve, and decided to get the points back through fastbreaks the other way. It’s entertaining in a helter-skelter kind of way, but it hasn’t led to many wins lately. The Shock also had some nice interior passing early on that led to buckets, and Skylar Diggins appears to have added Odyssey Sims’s 5-foot floater to her own arsenal of ways to score in the paint. But the inability to stop the Mystics led to a 13-point halftime deficit and the now-familiar hole for Tulsa to try to dig themselves out of.
The “game of two halves” came from the fact that the offense died in the second half. Tulsa made their usual push to get back in the game, largely ignited by steals and transition layups that were driving Mike Thibault insane on the sidelines. If his team could just take care of the ball they were clearly on course to win the game. Eventually, they did enough to pull it out. Washington’s defensive scheme was dropping a lot of bodies into the paint to make things difficult for Glory Johnson and Courtney Paris inside, and present a lot of traffic for Sims and Diggins on their drives. It also helped out Washington’s rebounding, purely by having so many players in red jerseys around the rim. Playing their eighth game in 16 days, and with the dispiriting impact of only having won one of them, Tulsa couldn’t maintain their comeback effort and the game tailed off into a lot of meaningless fourth quarter minutes.
Key Players: Washington had six players in double-digits, but no one scoring more than 15, as the team effort got the job done. Emma Meesseman had a quietly impressive bits-and-pieces game, picking up most of her points off hustle plays, broken sets and occasional mid-range jumpers. Many other players contributed over the course of the evening, with the 7-13 shooting from beyond the arc as a team helping out for once. They don’t need to light it up from outside – they just need to hit enough to keep the defense honest and provide some balance to the offense.
Not for the first time – it feels more like the thousandth – Tulsa’s deplorable defense let them down. It was a tired performance against a well-organised opponent, but the problems were painfully familiar. The Shock don’t get back in transition, they don’t move their feet, rotate well or help consistently in the halfcourt, and on this particular night they didn’t even prop themselves up with their rebounding. Glory Johnson and Diggins were the only effective players offensively, with Courtney Paris in foul trouble again at center and Sims as cold from outside as she’s been for most of the season. Offensively, Vicki Baugh’s been filling in nicely for Paris when she picks up fouls, but Baugh might be an even worse defender than Paris herself. And that’s pretty bad to begin with.
Notes of Interest: In fairness to the Shock, this game shared a similarity with the earlier contest last night – the winning team shot freakishly well from the perimeter, compared to how they’ve shot all season. That’s always a problem, because you usually plan to give something up as a defense, and if the other team is better at exploiting it than they ‘should’ be, you’re in trouble.
Los Angeles @ Connecticut, 1pm ET. All the focus leading up to this game has understandably been around the first clash of the Ogwumike sisters in the WNBA. Two outstanding talents, who’ve rarely been seen on opposing sides, who’ll even end up guarding each other for stretches of the game. It should be interesting to watch. But this is an important game for both teams beyond the family intrigue. It’s one of the Sun’s rare home games in their upcoming slate, for a team that’s much better on their own floor. So while the Sparks need the win to keep trying to salvage their season and secure a playoff spot in the West, Connecticut need it for much the same reasons in the East – and it might be one of their better chances in the next few weeks.
Seattle @ Minnesota, 3pm ET. Starting a game at exactly the same time as the World Cup final is not my idea of quality scheduling. It’s safe to say that I’ll be catching this one via the archive. But it’s an interesting matchup solely because of how much trouble the Storm have given Minnesota in previous games. Seattle have become something of a bogey team for the Lynx, and it’s mental now as much as anything. The Lynx are expecting their offense to become bogged down by the Storm, so everything slows down from the second they hit the floor. If Minnesota can keep their pace up and play as natural a game as possible, they ought to win fairly comfortably, even if Seimone Augustus continues to sit out. But they have trouble doing that against Seattle. Also watch out for Shekinna Stricklen – after a great game last time out for the Storm, it’d be nice to see her show up two games in a row. But we haven’t often seen that.
San Antonio @ Phoenix, 6pm ET. San Antonio need to bounce back from a moribund performance against Seattle on Friday night, but this might be the hardest place in the league to do that right now. Phoenix have won nine in a row, and even clawed past Chicago on Friday when playing pretty poorly. The Stars often have the ball movement and creativity to exploit the holes in Phoenix’s defense, which are still evident despite Sandy Brondello’s improvements and the presence of Brittney Griner. But slowing Phoenix down on the other end is an entirely different matter. The Mercury come in to this one as heavy favourites.
Chicago @ Atlanta, 6pm ET. Similarly, Atlanta will be strong favourites to win here as well. Chicago’s defense has improved with Sylvia Fowles back in the middle, and she’ll give Atlanta’s drivers something to think about, but the Dream will shift her around and look for other weaknesses. Offensively, Chicago need Epiphanny Prince to pick it up, will hope that Jamierra Faulkner’s raw speed causes some problems for the Dream, and will force the ball inside to Fowles even if Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle will be surrounding her. The Sky need to utilise Jessica Breland better as an outlet valve better than they have in recent games, and there should be some room for her to fire her mid-range jumpers if Lyttle’s forced to help elsewhere.