Los Angeles Sparks 90 @ Connecticut Sun 64
Lineups: As in recent games for both teams. Allison Hightower and Danielle McCray are still working their way back from their respective injuries for Connecticut so were still unavailable.
Story of the Game: All the talk around this game surrounded the Ogwumike sisters, facing each other for the first time in the WNBA. Both did indeed seem to have that extra spark of energy, and stretches of the first half felt like an energetic night in the Ogwumike back yard. Both were attacking the basket, both were finishing – often past or over each other – and both led their respective teams in scoring in the first half. LA also had Kristi Toliver looking for her own shot early and hitting a few, and were getting into the heart of Connecticut’s defense far too easily on simple middle-of-the-floor pick-and-rolls. But with some success on the offensive boards – even against the size of LA’s frontcourt – and just as many transition points as the Sparks, the Sun didn’t let the lead get too big in the first half and stayed in contention.
Until we hit the third quarter. Connecticut made a horribly slow start to the second half, with turnovers and missed Kelsey Bone layups scattering their offense. Meanwhile LA continued to pound the ball inside, finally using Candace Parker on the low block a little more, with Nneka Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender also taking advantage and transition speed adding cheap points on top. The resulting 17-4 run that opened the third quarter basically decided the game, and Connecticut were never in the contest from there on.
Key Players: Offensively, Parker had one of her quietest games of the season, only taking six shots. But the Sparks didn’t need any more from her. Ogwumike and Lavender were productive inside, the team as a whole hit enough jumpers and played good enough collective defense, and that eventually ran Connecticut out of the building. The Sun have now lost seven of their last eight, and haven’t been playing well for a while, but LA still had to show up and take advantage. For once, they did just that.
Chiney Ogwumike had a strong first half, but that was about it for any positive elements from the Sun. They fell apart in the third quarter, with their defense leaving big gaps through the middle and the offense stagnating against LA’s length. Their three primary guards – Alex Bentley, Katie Douglas and Renee Montgomery – combined to shoot 7-31, which didn’t leave them with much chance of staying in the game.
Notes of Interest: No one paid much attention to Sandrine Gruda until she threw an elbow into Briana Gilbreath-Butler’s gut late in the first quarter. Gruda used to be a Connecticut player, then decided she didn’t want to bother showing up to play for the Sun, then forced a trade to LA in the offseason. But with a four-year gap since she’d been seen in a Sun jersey, few people in the crowd seemed to remember – until she gave them something to boo about.
Seattle Storm 60 @ Minnesota Lynx 77
Lineups: Seattle had what’s become their regular lineup in place, while Minnesota continued to play without Seimone Augustus or Rebekkah Brunson. It’s hoped that both could return soon after the All-Star break.
Story of the Game: The first half was reminiscent of the tight, low-scoring affairs we’ve gotten used to Seattle dragging the Lynx into. On the rare occasions that either team got the ball into the paint, both struggled to finish amongst all the defenders that collapsed on top of them to contest. That left both teams shooting a lot of jumpers, with Minnesota having to rely on a lot of those mid-range shots from their bigs that became so important in their previous clashes with Seattle this season. The Storm hit a few shots early on, and benefitted from a hot streak for Camille Little in the middle of the second period where she was successful inside and out, but spent most of the half bricking their own jumpers.
Sadly the most memorable moment of the first half was an injury, when Tan White ran over Shekinna Stricklen late in the second quarter. Stricklen cracked her head against the court after taking the charge, and required extended treatment from trainers and doctors on the court. They stabilised her, and stretchered her off to a standing ovation from the Minnesota crowd. It was nice to see such respect and concern from the opposing fans, and even better to hear later on that the diagnosis was only a ‘neck sprain’ and she’s listed as day-to-day. Questions about her play or which team is going to win the game become startlingly insignificant when such a potentially serious injury occurs on the floor.
The game itself was decided in the third quarter, when Maya Moore took over. Minnesota’s six-point lead at halftime had seemed relatively insignificant, but a pick-and-pop play for a Moore three to open the half, followed by a Moore steal and layup, then a jumper and a fadeaway, and suddenly the Lynx were up by double-digits and in complete control. With Alysha Clark unable to do anything to cool Moore off, Brian Agler switched Tanisha Wright onto the Lynx star, only to see Wright pick up her fourth foul moments later. So Wright went to the bench, Moore carried on scoring while the Storm scrambled to find anyone else to cover her, and the game was quickly all but over. There was still very limited scoring by either team in the paint in the third quarter, but the Lynx (primarily Moore) hit a string of jumpers while Seattle missed all of theirs. “Our jumpshooters are better than your jumpshooters” still applies as a credo for the Lynx in most of their games.
Key Players: She didn’t quite hit 30 this time, but Moore was the vital piece for Minnesota and decided the game with her third quarter dominance. The only other Lynx players in double-digits were Janel McCarville and Devereaux Peters, illustrating how central those mid-range jumpers from the posts become for Minnesota against Seattle. The Lynx tried to use similar sets to set up high-low passes from one big to the other, but with Seattle collapsing the shot on offer was often the open jump shot. Or just wait for Maya to curl around, give her the ball, and get out of the way.
Little had a decent stat-line for the Storm, but they never really found any offensive rhythm over the course of the game. Seeing their teammate stretchered off wouldn’t have helped, although it’s not like their play was significantly different before and after Stricklen’s scary fall.
Notes of Interest: Please, please ignore idiotic broadcasters who continue to use points per game as a measure of offensive or defensive excellence – as we heard the inept duo of Pam Ward and Carolyn Peck do during the broadcast of this game. Seattle have not been a good defensive team this season. Their opponents have the lowest points per game average because the Storm slow games down to such an extent that their games feature far fewer possessions than most others. On points conceded per possession, Seattle have the third-worst defense in the WNBA this year. Hence the lottery-bound record.
San Antonio Stars 61 @ Phoenix Mercury 90
Lineups: As in recent games for both teams.
Story of the Game: While it took until the third quarter for the two games above to turn into blowouts, the Mercury got this one finished in the second period. Up to the end of the first, San Antonio had hung with the Mercury behind Danielle Robinson, Jayne Appel and Sophia Young-Malcolm managing to make a couple of shots apiece. But they already looked scared and unsettled by Brittney Griner’s presence in the middle. They’re a perimeter-oriented team anyway, but they had no interest in going anywhere near the rim on most possessions, which was already making offense a tricky process.
Then Phoenix started to exploit the gaps in San Antonio’s rotations on defense. It started by entering the ball to Griner, drawing the inevitable extra defender, then kicking the ball out for open threes by Erin Phillips and Anete Jekabsone-Zogota. Phoenix realised over the following minutes that they could create a similar effect with virtually any screen. Set a pick, wait for both defenders involved to go to the ballhandler, reverse the ball, hit the open jump shot (or wander through the open lane to the basket). Rinse and repeat. With San Antonio’s transition defense also looking a little ponderous – something you just won’t get away with against Phoenix – the Mercury quickly streaked ahead. They were up by 20 at halftime.
There was a four-minute scoring drought for both teams to open the second half, but once it got going the gap only increased. The Mercury were able to give lots of rest to their key players in the second half while the reserves finished off the game.
Key Players: Phoenix finished with the inevitable balance in the box score that comes from an early blow out when no one needed to dominate the scoring. Candice Dupree led the way, unsurprising when the central failing of the opponent was rotating onto players after screens. She rolls into space with such smoothness and ease on those plays, and having Diana Taurasi around to feed her the ball in perfect position – and Griner to draw attention inside – makes things particularly easy for her. Taurasi finished with a quiet near-triple-double – nine points, eight boards and eight assists. As a team, the Mercury shot 8-17 from three-point range, a key difference from the squad they had last year. Last season they couldn’t stretch the floor, because outside of Taurasi they had very few players who scared you from outside. Now, leave Phillips, Jekabsone-Zogota, Penny Taylor or even Shay Murphy alone and there’s every chance you’ll get punished. That’ll matter even more in the playoffs when teams are geared to gameplanning for a specific opponent.
San Antonio will be hoping that all tapes of this game are burned. There were very few positives for them to take from any area – except that they only have one regular-season matchup with Phoenix left this year.
Chicago Sky 79 @ Atlanta Dream 81
Lineups: Same again for both teams, with Chicago continuing to work without Courtney Vandersloot (knee) and Elena Delle Donne (illness) – and no return reported to be anywhere near for either. Atlanta continue to be one of the healthiest teams in the league.
Story of the Game: This was the first time this season that Atlanta have faced Chicago with Sylvia Fowles in the lineup, and it didn’t take long for them to be reminded that she makes the Sky a very different prospect. While Atlanta got off to a quick start behind their transition game, Chicago responded by forcing the ball into Fowles and Atlanta couldn’t handle her. She was finishing everything inside, and making it very difficult for Atlanta’s posts to produce anything on the offensive end, and the undermanned Sky led by as many as 11 points in the second quarter. But for the final three minutes of the half Pokey Chatman bizarrely had Fowles, Jamierra Faulkner and Epiphanny Prince all on the bench together – none of them with more than two fouls – and the Sky lost all their impetus. Allie Quigley and Tamera Young had been hitting jumpers during the half, but that was with the other threats around the floor. Atlanta were back within four points by halftime, and unless those three key starters were all exhausted, Chatman had to take a significant portion of the blame.
The game got significantly scrappier in the second half, a process that had already begun in the second quarter. Angel McCoughtry picked up a technical for excessive whining in the second period, unhappy about the physicality of the Sky and that Chicago were getting more calls. That made McCoughtry more aggressive offensively for the rest of the game, constantly looking for her own shot. Both teams lost much of their composure amongst all the complaining, and tossed up an awful lot of bricks.
Atlanta had switched up their assignments in the second period, moving Sancho Lyttle onto Fowles and leaving their centers to follow Jessica Breland. It had the desired effect of keeping Fowles much quieter in the second half, although much of the time Chicago also seemed to stop looking for her. It’s depressing how often that happens with the Sky. Fowles isn’t the easiest post to feed, because she has virtually no range so she always wants the ball in deep post position rather than anywhere remotely towards the perimeter. But basketball teams have been finding ways to clear space to feed low-post bigs for an awfully long time. Even in games where Fowles is dominating, she often fades out of the action simply because she’s no longer touching the ball. Which is ridiculous.
With Fowles unused, Prince in foul trouble all night and Faulkner unable to finish at the rim amongst traffic, it was Allie Quigley that Chicago relied on for much of their offense. She doesn’t possess anything even resembling the passing gene – which makes using her at point guard a thoroughly dubious concept – but when she’s hot she can rack up points in a hurry. Her constant tendency to fire up shots made it particularly stupid when Dream guard Celine Dumerc ran into her on a three-point attempt with 38 seconds left in regulation – Quigley was never going to do anything other than pull-up and fire. She hit two-of-three at the line to cut the gap to a point. McCoughtry bricked a jumper at the other end – we’d seen plenty of those in the second half – before Prince was tripped and sent to the line. But like Quigley she missed one, so only managed to tie the game rather than take the lead with four seconds left.
Atlanta’s inbounds pass was tipped straight back out of bounds, and after review the ball went to Chicago, giving them 2.5 seconds to win the game. Chatman’s play worked to perfection, with distraction runs to the perimeter by Prince, Quigley and Breland drawing defenders outside, opening up space for a lob over the top to Fowles, only for her to blow the easy finish at the basket. It must’ve been a sickener for Chatman to see the play work so well, only for her star center to miss a shot she’d convert 99 times out of 100.
Neither team led by more than two points in overtime, with both sides scrapping for everything but not executing particularly well. Mix-ups on switches between Breland and Young led to mistakes for the Sky, including a wide open jumper for McCoughtry that you never want to give her however poorly she’s been shooting. The same two players miscommunicated again with under a minute to play, leading a Breland pass to go flying straight into the stands. Tiffany Hayes gave Atlanta a two-point lead by driving into the paint with her typical speed and aggression, drawing a foul from Fowles and hitting the resulting free throws.
Then we had a crazy sequence over the final 30 seconds to finish off the contest. Dumerc went under a high screen, so Quigley pulled up for three, but missed. Fowles knifed in for the offensive rebound, but missed the tip-in. Erika de Souza grabbed that rebound, but turned the ball over when she tried to outlet the ball to a teammate. It went to Quigley, who flung the ball towards the middle of the floor after barely staying inbounds, and Young collided with teammate Fowles while trying to catch the pass, dropping it back into the Dream’s hands. Time expired, ballgame over.
Key Players: McCoughtry finished the game with 33 points, although it took her 28 shots to get there. Once she got pissed off in the second quarter, she was determined to take the game into her own hands, which tends to lead to somewhat selfish play on the floor. With Hayes the only other productive offensive weapon for much of the game, maybe that was reasonable – but there’s always the chicken/egg argument that no one else had a chance to help because Angel was dominating possession to such an extent.
Quigley finished 12-22 for a career-high 27 points, and Chicago needed her offense in the second half with no one else doing a thing. But even with Lyttle hounding her and Atlanta sending all the help you’d expect, Fowles should’ve seen more of the ball in the second half. They’ve got two score-first shooting guards and a rookie point guard who also likes to drive for her own offense running the team right now, which creates problems. But they fed Fowles early on. They can’t go away from her like that, even if she did miss the game-winning shot at the end of regulation.
Connecticut @ Seattle, 3pm ET (already completed by the time you’re reading this, so I’m not going to ‘preview’ it)
Los Angeles @ Indiana, 8pm ET. There’s a fascinating matchup/potential-non-matchup of superstars in this game. Tamika Catchings has become a power forward in recent years, exploiting her ballhandling and quickness edge at that spot after spending nearly a decade as the consummate small forward. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Candace Parker has made the reverse move this year, sliding outside to spend more time on the perimeter. The Sparks have ended up using her as a floor-spacer because it gets Jantel Lavender and Nneka Ogwumike into the paint more, and because they have so few alternatives on the outside who can shoot. Undersized Indiana struggle sometimes against teams with size and length, which LA’s frontcourt certainly provides, so that battle will also be key. Both teams like to force turnovers and push the ball whenever they can, so taking care of the ball when you have it also becomes a priority. Hopefully point guard Briann January is fit to play after sitting out the end of the Fever’s last game with a knee problem.
Washington @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. The Mystics have won two in a row, both on the road, but undermanned Chicago and porous Tulsa are two of the friendliest places to visit in the WNBA right now. This is a whole different kettle of fish. The Mercury have won 10 in a row, are likely to take advantage of any sloppy rotations in Washington’s defense, and have Brittney Griner in the middle to scare Washington into trying to live off jumpers all night. Living and dying from the perimeter has generally led to death for the Mystics this season. Washington have also had some heavy turnover games this year, and they can’t afford to give up cheap points to the Mercury when it’s already so hard to slow them down in the halfcourt. Basically, if Mike Thibault’s team keep this close to the finish, it’ll be a surprise.