Atlanta Dream 75 @ New York Liberty 77
Lineups: Both teams started the same fives they’ve been using for a while, so Cappie Pondexter was healthy enough to play after missing most of the second half in the Liberty’s last game. According to the New York commentators, it was a groin problem that took her out then, possibly caused by overcompensating for the achilles issues she’s been fighting for much of the season. Natasha Lacy was available for New York for the first time after she replaced Chucky Jeffery on a seven-day deal earlier in the week (although she didn’t play). Swin Cash was facing the Dream for the first time since they traded her after barely half a season in Atlanta. DeLisha Milton-Jones – swapped for Cash – is out for the rest of the season after rupturing an achilles tendon.
Story of the Game: The first half was close, and the only time either side led by more than four points was when Anna Cruz hit the final shot of the half to give New York a five-point lead at the break. Perhaps energised by all the screaming kids packed into Madison Square Garden for the early tip-off, the Liberty played with a lot of energy and drive, matching Atlanta in the areas where the Dream often dominate teams. New York had just as much pace to their game, were far more successful on the offensive glass, and for once their supporting players stepped up. Tina Charles made a couple of nice plays, but was largely kept quiet by Atlanta’s length and the double-teams they sent down towards her. Pondexter showed a willingness to attack the basket, but couldn’t convert anything when she got there (and limped back to the bench at one stage in the first quarter). But Sugar Rodgers made shots and attacked the basket; Plenette Pierson was effective off the bench; Avery Warley-Talbert crashed the glass; Anna Cruz hit a few jumpers; and the combination of Alex Montgomery and Swin Cash made life difficult for Angel McCoughtry. For once the team effort around the superstars was carrying the Liberty.
Having Erika de Souza in foul trouble for much of the first half created problems for Atlanta, as did some horrible ball-stopping from McCoughtry at times, but they pieced together enough offense to stay right with New York in the opening 20 minutes. They opened the second half without McCoughtry absent for some unknown reason – she didn’t appear from the locker room until three minutes of the third quarter had already elapsed – and then New York proceeded to dominate most of the third period. Their energy and aggression was outworking the Dream. Pondexter drew de Souza’s fourth foul early in the period, sending her back to the bench, and making it easier for Charles to attack the rim rather than settle for her mid-range jumper. Rodgers continued to make plays, Atlanta couldn’t buy a bucket, and New York led by double-digits.
But basketball is a fickle game. Behind a couple of friendly calls from the officials, some missed Liberty jumpers and a little transition speed, Atlanta scored the first 10 points of the fourth quarter to tie up the game – and then we had a real fight on our hands. In a game where she finished with nine assists – so she was moving the ball to the right places at times – McCoughtry forced some horrible jump shots to kill several possessions down the stretch for Atlanta. But with Charles and Pondexter both fairly ineffective, New York couldn’t pull away.
Cruz hit a tough pullup jumper with 90 seconds left, on a play that looked like it was designed for Charles until she gave it up. Then Pondexter did a nice job containing Tiffany Hayes on a drive, but the offensive rebound was kicked back out and Jasmine Thomas nailed a three to tie the game again. Cash and Hayes had poor passes at either end for cheap turnovers before Pondexter went around staggered screens at the top of the arc and bricked a jumper with 12 seconds left. With the game tied, Atlanta didn’t call timeout, instead allowing McCoughtry to attack immediately. Montgomery tracked her down the lane, got a hand on top of the ball, and drew a jump ball rather than giving up a foul. McCoughtry tapped the ensuing toss too hard, and the ball went straight out of bounds, leaving New York five seconds to win it.
And however many shots she may have missed already, Pondexter is always going to want the game-decider in her hands. She inbounded to Pierson, took the handoff straight back, and banked in a jumper from 17 feet. Whether it was actually meant to hit the glass first, or she just got a little lucky, it didn’t really matter. With only 0.4 seconds left, Atlanta tried a lob pass to the basket for Hayes, but it was easily cut out and New York had their win.
Key Players: To the delight of Liberty fans everywhere, they had lots of key players for once. This is kind of the secondary option of how it’s supposed to work with the two superstars – some days they won’t hit, but they’ll still draw so much attention from the defense that the rest of the team can take advantage. Pondexter and Charles were a combined 10-36 from the field, but their teammates were 21-40, with Cruz, Rodgers and Pierson leading the way, while Cash and Montgomery played important defensive roles. It was a strong team effort, and could be a big win for the Liberty’s season. Of course, there’ve been so many false dawns for this team this year, so it could just be one good performance that’ll be quickly forgotten. New York play six of their next seven games on the road, where they’re 1-8 so far this year. Even in the East, if they go something like 1-6 over that stretch, their season may well be toast.
Meanwhile for Atlanta this is more likely to be a minor bump in the road. They still sometimes struggle to find the balance between just being Angel McCoughtry’s team, and being a team led by Angel McCoughtry. Occasionally that tipped the wrong way in this game. But giving up 15 offensive boards to an opponent that’s not usually that great on the glass will also have upset Michael Cooper. Size and rebounding is a big part of Atlanta’s dominance, and it wasn’t really on show in this one.
Notes of Interest: In the final few minutes, Bill Laimbeer subbed out Pierson and replaced her with Montgomery, sliding Cash over to power forward. So he’s already comfortable being a little more fluid with his players than he was before Cash was acquired.
Tulsa Shock 82 @ Minnesota Lynx 93
Lineups: The same long-term injuries continued to keep two players out per team in this contest, with Riquna Williams and Tiffany Jackson-Jones still out for Tulsa, and Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson still out for Minnesota. That magical time of ‘after the All-Star break’ continues to be thrown out as a return date for many of the walking wounded.
Story of the Game: I’ve said this many times before, but Tulsa’s transition defense really is terrible. Minnesota clearly knew that, and with Lindsay Whalen in particular looking to push the ball, tried to exploit that weakness all afternoon. Being insistent on attacking the offensive boards often plays its part in making a team poor in defensive transition – the players are moving towards the glass looking for the rebound, rather than stepping backwards looking to contain their opponent – but a lot of it’s just effort. Courtney Paris and Glory Johnson are the ones doing the vast majority of the work on the boards, which still leaves three players to work back the other way. They’re just much more interested in working hard to score than they are in exerting the required effort necessary to stop the opponent.
All of that said, Minnesota didn’t exactly run away with this game. They were in front for virtually the entire first half, but Tulsa managed to hang on to their coattails and never allowed the lead to get out of hand. As the half wore on, Tulsa did a slightly better job of keeping Minnesota out of the paint without hacking them. Instead it was the Shock managing to penetrate the Lynx defense, and either finishing inside or drawing fouls. Both Glory Johnson and Skylar Diggins managed to break down Minnesota’s defense at times, and by the break Tulsa were back within a single point after trailing by as many as 11.
The Lynx came out for the second half with a much greater focus on forcing the ball into the paint and exploiting Tulsa’s weak interior defense. Whether it was Whalen penetrating from the top, or Maya Moore diving in for quick post-ups, or bigs like Damiris Dantas slipping into space to finish at the rim when defenders were drawn elsewhere – the Lynx were getting high-percentage looks deep in the paint. That inevitably led to Minnesota reestablishing their lead in the third quarter, although they still couldn’t kill the Shock off.
This has been a common theme for the Shock, especially over the last month. They’re invariably trailing, but they refuse to go away. With Johnson and Paris initiating a lot of contact in the paint but either drawing fouls against the Lynx or simply no call at all, Tulsa pulled within five points on four separate occasions in the final period. But every time the Lynx had an answer, usually through Whalen or Moore. Minnesota’s two remaining healthy stars would hit a shot, or get into the paint, or find a teammate for a layup, or generally do something to keep the Lynx in front. The only time Tulsa dragged the gap below five in the fourth quarter, when Odyssey Sims hit a pair of free throws, Whalen found Devereaux Peters slipping behind Johnson at the rim for an easy finish. The experience and star power of Minnesota was just too much for Tulsa, and the Lynx held on for the win.
Key Players: Obviously, Whalen and Moore were key, with Maya finishing with yet another 30-point game (actually 32 this time, her ninth of 30+ this season). But they didn’t have to do it all on their own. The supporting pieces – Dantas, Peters, Monica Wright, Janel McCarville – were all effective at different times, appearing in the right spots to help out. If Augustus and Brunson come back and everyone ends up healthy at the same time, this team might even be able to consider itself reasonably deep.
The usual four led the scoring effort for Tulsa, with Diggins and Johnson at the head of the pack. The Lynx had trouble stopping Paris from scoring when she got the ball deep in the paint, but that happened very rarely. Largely it was Shock drives that caused them problems, and led to a lot of Shock free throws. There was the inevitable supply of second chances from Tulsa’s offensive rebounds, but the likes of Dantas and Peters put up a decent fight on the glass – and Minnesota’s 23-4 advantage in fastbreak points was huge.
San Antonio @ Tulsa, 12.30pm ET (already played, so no preview)
Chicago @ Indiana, 7pm ET. The Sky have lost five in a row (or 12 of their last 15 if you want to go back further) and the moral victory of a game they should have won in Atlanta on Sunday doesn’t count for much. The speed of Epiphanny Prince and Jamierra Faulkner, and the size of Sylvia Fowles, ought to give Indiana a few problems. But the Fever will be well-organised and ready for what the Sky will throw at them, and Erlana Larkins will enjoy the fight with Fowles in the paint. If they’re without Briann January again, the ball movement and organisation will have to originate from other areas, but the Fever ought to be able to find holes in Chicago’s defense. The problem is that most of the holes are around the perimeter now, with Fowles back and prowling the paint – so Indiana will need to make some shots. That’s always a hit-or-miss concept with the Fever.
Connecticut @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. Upsets happen, right? The Mercury have won 11 in a row now, and Connecticut’s main chance in this game might be the Mercury becoming complacent and looking ahead to the All-Star festivities. The Sun have been inconsistent from the perimeter this year, but they won’t win this game unless at least a couple of their shooters get hot, likely Alex Bentley, Katie Douglas or Renee Montgomery. They might pick up some scraps around the basket against a Mercury team that don’t rebound as well as they should, but otherwise they’ll need to hit from outside. Defensively, Connecticut will struggle to rotate and cover all of Phoenix’s scorers, even if they collapse inside enough to protect the rim. The Mercury have the shooters to hurt you from outside instead if you over-help.
Washington @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET. After a difficult, flaky season so far, Los Angeles have won their last three games and could go into the All-Star break on a bit of a high if they make it four against the Mystics. Nneka Ogwumike missed the second half of their last game, but all the noises suggested it was a very minor right ankle strain, so hopefully she’ll be back. Whether she is or not, the Sparks will look to go inside, and use their height and power to attack Washington in the paint. Mike Thibault’s team will collapse on LA and try to force the ball back out, and make the Sparks to beat them from the perimeter. That’s where Kristi Toliver comes into the conversation, and her success on any given night continues to play a key role in deciding LA’s fate. At the other end, Washington will likely move the ball well enough to create decent looks against LA, whose rotations tend to be mediocre at the best of times. But whether Washington can actually hit those open looks is always debatable.