Lineups: As expected for both teams. Jia Perkins, Riquna Williams and Tiffany Jackson-Jones may all make appearances soon after the All-Star break, but exactly when is still up in the air.
Story of the Game: There was a lot of comically awful defense played in this game. Both teams did a dismal job of protecting the paint and preventing easy opportunities for their opponents. Tulsa started off with a run of layups for Courtney Paris inside, and then Danielle Robinson had trouble containing Skylar Diggins off the dribble – and got no help from any rotating teammates behind her. Meanwhile, Tulsa have been terrible at protecting the rim all season, and this game was no different, with various Stars scorers taking turns at slicing in for layups. Although funnily enough it was a string of threes for San Antonio from Danielle Adams, Kayla McBride and Shenise Johnson that allowed them to take a seven-point lead at halftime. Sometimes when you’re getting ripped apart inside, everyone overcompensates towards the middle and you start leaving shooters wide open.
But while San Antonio’s defense wasn’t great in the first half, it was absolutely disastrous in the second, with a miserable third quarter performance handing all the initiative to Tulsa. The Shock had the sense to attack the basket, resulting in either layups or free throws (or both), and San Antonio capitulated. No one on the perimeter could stay in front of their man, no one inside could rotate to help, and their transition defense was awful as well. And as often happens, when you start to fall apart at one end of the floor it transmits into your play at the other. San Antonio started settling for nothing but jumpers, missing most of them, and the offense ground to a halt. They lost the third quarter 25-8 and the game seemed to be slipping away.
While their scoring picked up, the Stars couldn’t get the stops to build a comeback in the third quarter, so eventually we saw a tactic that would’ve been seen in more Shock games this year if they’d had more leads – Hack-a-Paris. Dan Hughes called for his team to intentionally foul Courtney Paris, who’s shooting under 50% from the foul line this season, in a last-ditch effort to get back in the game in the final three minutes. While she went 3-of-6 on the intentionally gifted free throws – which is just about acceptable in those situations – San Antonio suddenly started nailing threes at the other end and clawed back within two points in the closing minutes. Tulsa actually produced a couple of good possessions of perimeter defense late in the game – running San Antonio off the three-point line by switching smoothly – and then a couple of misses from Adams and McBride finally ended any chances of San Antonio pulling off the comeback.
Key Players: The regular four scorers of Diggins, Sims, Paris and Johnson were Tulsa’s leaders yet again, and the Shock did an impressive job of exploiting San Antonio’s defense in the second half to take over the game. Even when one team is playing atrocious defense, the other side have to be playing well enough to take advantage. Tulsa also shot a ridiculous 32-39 from the foul line, illustrating how consistently they got inside and attacked the defense.
San Antonio actually shot an even higher percentage from the field than Tulsa, and went 11-21 from three-point range, but the porous defense killed them off. Usually Hughes has his teams well-drilled and organised to prevent such consistent breakdowns, but they’ve been a pretty poor defensive team for much of the season. This was the nadir.
Notes of Interest: For the third time this season, WNBA officials screwed up an ‘away from the play’ call in the final minute of a game. In that situation, if a defensive foul is committed away from the ball, it’s supposed to result in one free throw for the offensive team (taken by anyone on the floor) and they retain possession. Instead, yet again, the referees considered it a standard foul and sent Jen Lacy to the free throw line for two shots when she was fouled miles away from the ball with 33 seconds to play. It’s a pretty simple rule – and it’s in the rule book specifically to prevent things like ‘Hack-a-Paris’ extending into the closing moments of a game. You’d think they’d have been ready for it after the exact same mistake was made twice earlier this season when Brittney Griner was fouled late in Mercury games. Apparently not.
Lineups: Same again for Chicago, with the same problematic injury list. Indiana had point guard Briann January back from her knee problem after missing just one game, and she slid straight back into the starting lineup ahead of Layshia Clarendon.
Story of the Game: The first quarter stayed close, with the more fluid and attractive offense coming from Indiana, but Sylvia Fowles bullying her way to points inside and Allie Quigley hitting from outside to keep Chicago even. Rookie Fever forward Natasha Howard had a nice run of points while Tamika Catchings was resting, but Howard’s defense doesn’t seem to be getting any better, and she had no hope at all against Fowles and Jessica Breland in the paint.
The Fever blew the game open in the second quarter. Chicago’s stagnant offense stopped being able to claw out enough points to stay afloat, and Indiana started picking them apart when they had the ball. Simple crossing movements, cuts and screens were exposing big holes in Chicago’s defense, and Indiana are smart enough to be able to drag Fowles away from the basket and force the rest of the Sky to play defense. It didn’t work out well for Chicago, and they broke down repeatedly. Mental errors – including two illegal inbound passes after made baskets, which shouldn’t happen twice in a year never mind in a quarter – crept into Chicago’s game, and Indiana led by 14 at halftime. It looked like the Sky had been waiting for everything to fall apart, and then the self-fulfilling prophecy came to pass.
There were three distinct passages of play in the second half. Indiana seemed in cruise control for the first seven minutes, even if there wasn’t much scoring going on at either end of the floor. Then Lin Dunn got a little too comfortable, and put five bench players on the floor together for the Fever to close out the third quarter. In the space of less than three minutes, a 17-point lead plummeted down to just five by the end of the period. Chicago had gone to a desperation lineup themselves, with Markeisha Gatling and Gennifer Brandon – barely used at all in recent weeks – as their post pairing. But they had some energy, Quigley and Epiphanny Prince hit a couple of shots, and suddenly Chicago were back in the game.
Then Dunn put her starters back in to start the fourth quarter, and just as quickly Chicago were back out of it again. Indiana scored the first 11 points of the final period, led by Catchings on drives and jumpers while the team defense was forcing Sky turnovers. The Fever reserves had let Chicago back in it, and then the starting five had killed it off again. Indiana have had problems holding onto leads this season, and it looked like they might be giving away another one – until Catchings and her cohorts took charge.
Key Players: Catchings led the scoring inside and out for Indiana, with a little jump-shot help from January and Marissa Coleman. After the early burst from Fowles, Indiana collapsed their defense on her effectively for the rest of the game and she disappeared. It was telling that Chicago’s only good run in the second half happened when she was on the bench – even if the lineup the Fever had on the floor was more important to that stretch than Chicago’s group.
The Sky have lost 13 of their last 16 now, and after a hot start they amazingly hit the All-Star break rock-bottom of the Eastern Conference. Losing Elena Delle Donne and Courtney Vandersloot have obviously been heavy blows, but their problems have become mental at this point. They look a dispirited bunch, expecting the worst every time out. And without Delle Donne as an escape valve, the offense has devolved into the same junk we used to see them produce. Fowles tries hard to post up and screams for the ball in the paint, her teammates stand around watching her hoping a passing lane might appear out of thin air, and then they pray that either Quigley or Prince gets hot from outside because that’s what’s left for the offense. It’s not pretty, and it’s not effective – and with no sign of Vandersloot or Delle Donne returning any time soon, there aren’t many signs of things changing.
Lineups: Phoenix started the same group that’d led them to 11 straight wins. Despite the size of the Mercury, including Brittney Griner at center, Connecticut stuck with Kelsey Griffin in the starting lineup alongside Chiney Ogwumike in the post to begin the game. For the second game in a row, center Kelsey Bone came off the bench instead.
Story of the Game: The decision to start Griffin over Bone swiftly backfired. That lineup choice pushes Ogwumike to center, and hence she was guarding Griner in the opening possessions. That led to two quick fouls for Ogwumike, and Connecticut’s star rookie had to sub out. Meanwhile Griffin was being destroyed by Candice Dupree, sliding past her for a series of early layups. Phoenix were in control from very early on.
To Connecticut’s credit, they managed to hang around within range in the first half. They worked hard on the offensive glass to exploit one of Phoenix’s few weaknesses, and Katie Douglas and Alex Bentley hit a few shots to keep the offense ticking over. But Penny Taylor was exploding for Phoenix when the Mercury had the ball. In a classic, throwback Taylor performance, she was producing points in every way you could think of. Cuts, drives, threes, transition finishes, hustle steals creating points for her teammates – she had a dominant period that left everyone wondering exactly how the WNBA’s coaches and President Laurel Richie had overlooked her for the upcoming All-Star game. Phoenix were up by 12 at halftime – Taylor already had 19 points, 4 boards, 4 assists and 3 steals. All on knees that leave her slow and barely able to jump over your average paperback these days. It’s an absolute pleasure to see her back and still capable of producing performances like that with smarts, skill and all-around basketball nous.
The Sun threatened a comeback a couple of times in the third quarter. Douglas was still hot, Ogwumike was back in and working hard on the glass, and every now and then they’d string a couple of buckets together. But Phoenix always had an answer. Connecticut couldn’t handle Griner in the paint, and while Diana Taurasi didn’t do an awful lot in the game, she made a couple of key jumpers in the third to quell Connecticut pushes. Phoenix were back up by 15 at the end of the third, and the game was in the bag.
Key Players: Taylor’s virtuoso first half was followed by an utterly anonymous second – she’d made her point, and the Mercury didn’t really need her in the latter stages. Griner, Dupree and Taurasi were the other primary scorers, with some useful contributions from Erin Phillips and Mistie Bass off the bench as well. Everything’s working for Phoenix right now, from the defense that scares opponents because no one wants to go anywhere near Griner, to the offense that moves the ball so fluidly and can hurt you all over the floor. Sandy Brondello would probably like her team to rebound better – with their size and length they shouldn’t be beaten on the glass so regularly – but at this point they’re having to look hard to find things to work on. With a 12-game winning streak going into their home All-Star Game, they don’t have much to complain about.
Inevitably, Douglas and Bentley were the main weapons for Connecticut – the two players most likely to fire away and have some success from outside, beyond the reach of Griner. Ogwumike also did some solid work inside when she could stay on the floor. But the Sun couldn’t really compete, and are another Eastern team who’ll be happy they only have to play Phoenix twice a year.
Lineups: Same again for both teams. Nneka Ogwumike had overcome the ankle problem that kept her out for the second half of LA’s previous game, and took her regular spot in the starting lineup. Washington were still without Jelena Milovanovic and Kara Lawson.
Story of the Game: It was a typical rollercoaster, messy, flawed first half from Los Angeles. Early on, Jantel Lavender carried the offense, producing points in a variety of ways both in the paint and on her mid-range jumper. Then Sandrine Gruda and Ogwumike had a positive stretch of offense in the second quarter, pushing the ball and finishing inside. But amongst all that, the Sparks gave up a ridiculous number of offensive boards to the Mystics, often without much of a fight. Then there was a string of desperately cheap turnovers, given away with little apparent care. And they got nothing from Candace Parker, or from any of their guards. In fact, the only points scored by a guard in the entire first half were on a three by Kristi Toliver from the corner midway through the second quarter. That was it.
So despite some turnover issues of their own, Washington stayed even with LA in the first half, and the game was tied at the break. Ivory Latta and Monique Currie were both shooting reasonably well from the perimeter, which helped enormously, but the errors from LA and the rebounding discrepancy were doing the rest of the work.
Then in the third quarter, it was all Washington. LA couldn’t get out of their own way, as more turnovers and some lazy, confused play at both ends of the floor handed the initiative to the Mystics. But Washington did a good job of taking the game to the Sparks and taking advantage. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt in particular had her best passage of play all season, hitting jumpers and attacking the basket, finishing much more successfully than any of the Sparks. Ogwumike and Lavender had faded completely out of the game as Parker tried unsuccessfully to carry the offense, and Washington pulled ahead by as many as 15 points in the period. It was another horrendous collapse from LA in a season littered with painful performances.
The Sparks did at least make a game of it in the fourth quarter. Carol Ross happened across a lineup that gave them some life, and stuck with the same five for the entire period – the starting group, but with Candice Wiggins in place of Ogwumike. Wiggins gave them energy, and her on-ball pressure on Latta made it more difficult for Washington to initiate anything offensively. Wiggins even hit a three from the corner, the first perimeter shot she’s made all season.
In the latter stages of the fourth it became a procession to the free throw line for LA, and they eventually managed to tie the game up with under two minutes to play. But they immediately gave up a layup to Kia Vaughn when Monique Currie went past the aggressive perimeter defense, drew help across and then dumped the ball off. Then Toliver threw a pass straight out of bounds, and Parker coughed the ball up for yet another turnover on the possession that followed. When Emma Meesseman grabbed yet another offensive board for Washington and LA had to start fouling to extend the game, it just about summed up LA’s night – maybe their season. Washington clung on for the win their play had just about deserved on the night.
Key Players: The duo of Ruffin-Pratt and Currie produced offensively and did their part in keeping Parker quiet for most of the game for Washington. Meesseman and Vaughn outworked the big LA frontcourt on the glass. Basically, it was one of those games where the Mystics took advantage. They do this, and it’s how they end up around .500 even when you don’t feel like they’ve been playing that well. They show up, they work hard, and if you’re not ready for the fight they’ll sneak in and steal games they’re not supposed to win.
It was an oddly fitting way for LA to go into the All-Star break. Coming off three wins they had the chance to go in on a high, with a thoroughly winnable home game against a mediocre opponent – and they thoroughly blew it. So many of their mistakes were basic, ballhandling or mental errors, the rebounding issues were often down to effort, and when they woke up and started to fight in the fourth quarter it proved to be too late. There’s still hope for LA, because two-thirds of the teams in this league make the playoffs. Even this inconsistent, unreliable version of the Sparks are likely to be good enough to hold off Tulsa and Seattle for a postseason berth, and they might even finish above mediocre San Antonio for third. If they somehow flip the switch and turn it on in the postseason, no one will care about games like this. But it’s not exactly promising.
Connecticut cut backup center Kelley Cain and signed Ebony Hoffman for the rest of the season instead. Hoffman’s a fairly immobile post who likes to fire away from outside – fitting Anne Donovan’s fondness for bigs with some range – and spent most of the last three years sitting around on the bench in LA. She was cut from New York’s training camp before this season began. If she’s in shape, which is a pretty big ‘if’ based on her history, she might be able to give the Sun more post depth than Cain was offering.
East @ West, All-Star Game in Phoenix, Arizona, 3.30pm ET. I’m not previewing this. Expect at least one Griner dunk, lots of points, no defense, and as many nonsensical broadcasting gimmicks as ESPN can cram in. Back to the real games on Tuesday night.