The Daily W, 23/07/2014

 

Atlanta Dream 108 @ Minnesota Lynx 112 (2OT)

 

Lineups: Atlanta started the post-All-Star part of their schedule with the same starting five that helped them to easily the best record in the East so far this season. They had a difference on the sidelines, where Karleen Thompson was in charge for the first time during Michael Cooper’s absence for treatment for tongue cancer. Minnesota welcomed back power forward Rebekkah Brunson for the first time this year after recovering from offseason knee surgery. She went straight into the starting lineup in place of Damiris Dantas. Seimone Augustus was still out with left knee bursitis, but may well return for Friday’s game against San Antonio.

 

Story of the Game: The rematch of last year’s WNBA Finals produced a barn-burner to get the season’s ‘second half’ underway (unfortunately while a far less entertaining game was playing out on ESPN2 at the same time). Brunson’s impact was immediately obvious for the Lynx, with their rebounding improving just by virtue of having her on the floor. From the opening moments she was grabbing balls off the glass with authority, fitting in like she’d never been gone.

But the star was Maya Moore, a trend that would persist for much of the night. The Lynx ran pin-down screens, and staggered screens, and back-screens, and generally just set picks all over the floor all night long, for Moore to curl up and around and fire up her ridiculously smooth jumper and hit repeatedly. This wasn’t a night where we saw much of her on drives, or attempted post-ups. It was old-school Lynx, with perimeter shots from one of the best shooters the women’s game has ever seen their first option.

But in another element that we’d see recur throughout the game, Atlanta always found ways to respond. They were hyper-aggressive in attacking with pace in transition, picking up far more points just moments after Minnesota baskets than Cheryl Reeve could’ve possibly been happy with. Angel McCoughtry was attacking off the dribble and firing away at every chance she got, while Shoni Schimmel gave the Dream a three-point threat and was happy to rain them down after her success at the All-Star Game over the weekend. Minnesota were collapsing their defense inside at every opportunity, looking to protect the rim, preventing layups and offensive rebounds as their first priority on defense. But Sancho Lyttle was doing some Brunson-y things for the Dream, with some second-chance points and mid-range jumpers, and Atlanta were still within four at halftime. Moore already had 23.

The Lynx appeared to take over the game late in the third quarter, inevitably with Moore leading the way again. Lindsay Whalen was an excellent sidekick, and happy to keep feeding the ball Maya’s way when not driving for her own occasional scores, but it was another run of jumpers from Moore that gave Minnesota a nine-point lead at the end of the third. When McCoughtry picked up her fifth foul in the opening moments of the fourth on a Moore cut, and the Lynx extended their lead to 14 in the minutes that followed, Minnesota seemed relatively comfortable.

Only for the Dream to come again. Lyttle was huge for Atlanta down the stretch, in a role that made it surprising she hadn’t been more successful earlier in the game. Minnesota’s concentration on collapsing inside had nullified center Erika de Souza all night, but Lyttle loves to pop into that mid-range zone 15-18 feet from the basket, which is often left open when everyone revolves around and sags into the paint. So Lyttle hit a bunch of jumpers from that area, Minnesota missed a few shots while McCoughtry chased Moore and Atlanta finally forced someone else to try to beat them, and the lead quickly dwindled. The Dream tied it with a Tiffany Hayes free throw with under two minutes to play, and should’ve taken the lead – but Hayes and Lyttle missed three straight efforts at the line.

Janel McCarville gave the Lynx the lead again briefly on a nice bank shot, before Hayes charged to the other end and contrived a finish in traffic to tie it again. After McCoughtry and Monica Wright exchanged misses, the Lynx had 27 seconds to win it. The ball inevitably went to Moore, but Atlanta knew just as well as everyone else in the building that the Lynx wanted her taking the shot. She tried to dribble through a triple-team, lost the ball, and Schimmel took off upcourt the other way. She put up a little hook that was just off, de Souza couldn’t finish the putback, and the buzzer sent us to overtime.

Threes from Hayes and McCoughtry gave Atlanta a big advantage early in the first extra period, but Moore answered with a three of her own to quickly halve the deficit. With the game tied again in the closing seconds, Minnesota again turned the ball over as an attempted hook pass by Whalen was tipped by Schimmel, leaving Atlanta four seconds to steal it. After the Lynx used their foul-to-give to take some time off, McCoughtry forced a three under pressure which hit nothing but air, and we went to another extra five minutes.

OT2 opened with the Lynx finally doing a better job of exploiting all the extra attention Moore was drawing. She passed out of the trap, leading Brunson to the rim for a finish through contact. Then normal service resumed, and Moore hit a pair of jumpers to take their lead back out to five points – the second was a ludicrous fading shot over McCoughtry’s despairing arm. Two equally impressive buckets from McCoughtry gave Atlanta hope, but Whalen had a layup after a Schimmel defensive gamble backfired, Tan White hit a big jumper, and the Lynx had a sliver of control again. Down three with six seconds left, Atlanta had a chance to extend the game even further, but Schimmel’s effort hit the back iron and that was about it for the Dream. McCoughtry finally fouled out when she hacked to stop the clock, and Moore made the free throw that iced the game.

 

Key Players: Moore was insane, finishing the game 16-30 from the field for 48 points (it felt even better than that, and included 7-9 from three-point range). McCoughtry took on the task of chasing her in the fourth quarter and actually did an admirable job of cooling her off for a while, but eventually Moore came through again. Brunson’s 17 points and 12 rebounds in an impressive return, and Whalen’s 10-17 for 26 points and 9 assists were utterly overshadowed.

The Dream put up a hell of a fight, with Lyttle’s 13-21 for 26 points a key contribution. They shot 10-33 from three-point range as a team, with the number of attempts an illustration of how Minnesota defended them all night. Atlanta have more players who can make those shots these days (Schimmel, Hayes, occasionally Dumerc, McCoughtry or Jasmine Thomas) but in general they don’t want to be firing up that much from beyond the arc. In a playoff series, we’d likely see them come back in the next game with more creative ways of getting to the basket, or at least the free throw line, and they’d use Lyttle more consistently in that mid-range space. If we see these teams clash yet again in the Finals come September, and the games are anything like this, it’ll be a very entertaining series.

 

Notes of Interest: I know this recap was too long for one game. Sorry. The game was that good.

 

—–

 

Indiana Fever 57 @ Chicago Sky 60

 

Lineups: Both teams were unchanged from their games just before the break. According to Chicago head coach Pokey Chatman, Elena Delle Donne could be back for their game against New York at the end of July if her workouts go well, which would be huge for the Sky.

 

Story of the Game: While the points and excitement were all flowing in Minnesota, this one could generously be called a defensive struggle. Perhaps more accurately, you could call it a mess where the slightly less-terrible offense was eventually going to end up on top. It was a slow-paced, halfcourt game, and Chicago eventually slid in front in the second quarter thanks to a seemingly endless series of unforced errors from Indiana. Chicago’s defense had done a better job of holding up against the Fever’s dribble-penetration than we saw last week when these teams faced each other, but most of Indiana’s turnovers were still desperate and had little to do with Chicago’s defense. There were just lots of basic errors and giveaways, and even with the Sky’s offense being pretty poor itself, they could scarcely avoid moving into the lead. They shot 32% in the first half, and led by nine points at the interval.

The Fever were a little better in the second half, at least avoiding the most egregious of their unforced turnovers. They also spent much of it in their 3-2 zone, which forced the Sky into taking – and bricking – even more jumpers. Indiana’s offense was still pretty stagnant and ineffective, but they got some energy from a bench group late in the third quarter – helped significantly by the fact that Sylvia Fowles was on the bench resting, opening up the middle of Chicago’s defense – and the scoreline crept closer. Indiana made things even harder on themselves by shooting atrociously at the free-throw line, which made the comeback an even slower process.

Tamika Catchings tied the game for the first time since the opening period with a drive-and-fling with a minute left in regulation. A defensive mix-up on Indiana’s switching rotations – something you rarely see from them – let Fowles in for a layup to take the lead back, only for Marissa Coleman to draw a foul and actually convert a pair of foul shots to tie the game again with 38 seconds left. Chicago went in front again on an Epiphanny Prince drive that she managed to finish over Catchings, leaving Indiana 16 seconds to answer.

Appropriately for a team that had made mistakes all night and shot an awful 7-16 from the free-throw line to that point, Indiana then blew it on foul shots. Fowles inadvertently fouled Erlana Larkins 20 feet from the hoop, but Larkins only made 1-of-2. Indiana fouled to extend the game, Jamierra Faulkner made 1-of-2 for Chicago to give the Fever a lifeline, and then Catchings drew a very generous call on a drive to give her another chance to tie the game. But she missed the first, and with only four seconds left and no timeouts remaining probably should’ve intentionally missed the second. But that one went in, Allie Quigley made a pair for the Sky, and Indiana’s long inbounds pass was intercepted to finally put this game out of its misery.

 

Key Players: Unless you could give the game ball to the rims that apparently added a lid whenever Indiana were at the line, the plaudits had to go to Fowles. With Indiana double-teaming whenever they could inside, she didn’t see that much of the ball in the paint, but still ended the game 10-12 from the field for 21 points. Prince was the only other Sky player in double-digits with 13. Fowles is also, of course, at the heart of Chicago’s defensive efforts, and while Indiana made plenty of errors on their own, they also got nothing easy all night.

Maybe the Fever partied too hard over the All-Star break, or lost track of when the games restarted. This was an ugly performance from the Fever, and they’ll be looking for much better from everyone in their remaining games. For now it’s just an aberration, and if nothing else the 9-20 at the foul line is something that should be better on almost any other night.

 

Notes of Interest: Watching on a relatively fuzzy stream due to LiveAccess struggling to run smoothly for much of the night, it was difficult to separate Prince from Faulkner in the first half with both playing with their hair loose. So thanks go out to Jamierra, who emerged for the second half with her locks tied back in a ponytail, making them easy to tell apart. It probably wasn’t specifically for us viewers, but it worked out well.

 

—–

 

Tulsa Shock 93 @ San Antonio Stars 95

 

Lineups: The starting lineups were the same as in other recent appearances for these teams, and despite all the claims of a return ‘after the All-Star break’ for various injured players, all the same reserves who were out when these teams clashed five days earlier in Tulsa were still out for this one.

 

Story of the Game: Remember how the previous game between these teams turned into a shootout because neither of them could play anything remotely resembling successful defense? Well it took a little while, but that essentially happened all over again.

The first half was relatively uneventful without much to talk about, although you could already see the scoring trends for the game. Apart from a couple of buckets for backup San Antonio center Kayla Alexander, almost all the production came from the perimeter players for both teams. Many of the points were scored in the paint, but it was the diminutive, quicker players providing the offense. The posts were there to set screens and chase rebounds, and that was about it.

In the second half the scoring exploded, although it was still coming from the same channels. San Antonio led for the vast majority of the third and fourth quarters, repeatedly breaking down Tulsa’s defense to create either layups or kick-outs for wide-open perimeter shots. Danielle Robinson and Becky Hammon were doing a lot of the creative work, with Kayla McBride benefitting and hitting shots, and Danielle Adams joining in down the stretch. Tulsa’s typically porous defense couldn’t keep out the penetration, or stick to the shooters, or get back in transition and prevent quick buckets for the Stars on the break.

But the Shock never went away, because Odyssey Sims and Skylar Diggins were ripping San Antonio apart just as badly at the other end. There was a lot less variation in the way Tulsa scored their points. Time and time again, Sims and Diggins used high screens in the middle of the floor, attacked the backpedaling defenders, and finished with layups or floaters in the lane. Courtney Paris and Glory Johnson are good at disguising their picks, confusing the defender as to where they’re going to be, then rumbling down the lane creating an extra bit of chaos. But they very rarely saw the ball on those rolls. Sims and Diggins just kept it, and kept piling up points. Two for Diggins, then two more for Sims tied the game at 91-91 with barely a minute remaining.

Adams slipped a screen and took a nice feed from Hammon, before being fouled in the paint – a pleasant variation on the other ways San Antonio had picked apart Tulsa’s defense on the night. She made the pair at the line, only for yet another Sims drive and finish to tie the game again with 20 seconds left. San Antonio smartly chose not to call a timeout and allow Tulsa to set their defense, simply allowing Robinson to attack like she had been all night. Adams came out to set a high screen for her, she used it and arced around Paris, before finishing over Johnson at the rim with under four seconds left on the clock. After a timeout, Jordan Hooper paused for too long while trying to inbound the ball, Sophia Young-Malcolm was then able to tip the ball away when Hooper eventually tried to pass it, and the game was over.

 

Key Players: Robinson’s speed and finishing around the rim were vital, and McBride and Adams’s shooting helped keep San Antonio narrowly on top for most of the game. But with some significant news about her career on the way the next day, Hammon was also excellent down the stretch making smart passes and hitting occasional clutch shots. The defense was consistently awful against Sims and Diggins, but the constant attack and level of playmaking allowed the Stars to sneak out the win.

Tulsa’s young starting backcourt finished a combined 29-43 from the field for 73 points, to absolutely carry the Shock offense on their backs. Sims played the entire 40 minutes, only missed five of her 20 attempts all night – including hitting many of those tricky floaters over bigger defenders in the paint – and generally took San Antonio apart. Unfortunately for Tulsa, their shocking defense continues to come back to haunt them.

 

Notes of Interest: Important news about San Antonio’s roster emerged today, detailed in the League News section below.

 

—–

 

Phoenix Mercury 89 @ Seattle Storm 71

 

Lineups: After 12 straight wins, Phoenix weren’t going to be changing anything. By the way, all three teams in WNBA history that won 13 in a row went on to win the title that season. Seattle had Shekinna Stricklen back from the neck injury she suffered in Minnesota when she hit her head on the floor, and promoted her into the starting lineup ahead of Alysha Clark. That fifth starting spot has always been open for competition for the Storm, but it may just have been to get some extra size on the floor to compete with the giant Mercury lineup. Or a better three-point shooter to fire away from beyond the reach of Brittney Griner.

 

Story of the Game: Phoenix got off to a quick start, mostly behind the smooth passing and mid-range shooting of Diana Taurasi and Candice Dupree. But when they started missing a few, Seattle slid into the game and we had a bit more of a contest on our hands than might’ve been expected. Crystal Langhorne had a strong first half, always willing to go at Griner or navigate her way around the Mercury center to create buckets.

But Phoenix started to pull away in the second quarter, led by threes from Taurasi and Seattle missing a string of jumpers. The physical battles between Taurasi and Tanisha Wright are always fun to watch, but Wright’s aggressive defense sometimes backfires on Seattle against the Mercury. It’s like poking a bear, or making Bruce Banner angry – you’re usually better off making friends, because the Incredible Hulk is a lot more difficult to cope with. Phoenix led by 11 at halftime.

Seattle kept up the fight in the second half, and they ran some lovely sets to drag Griner into uncomfortable situations and create points for themselves. But they could never string enough stops together to drag the scoreline close enough to make things truly interesting. Phoenix’s ball movement and unselfishness is still outstanding, and obviously there’s a wave of confidence running through them at the moment with the long winning streak. Plus they’ve got threats all over the floor, and it’s just hard to cover everybody. When DeWanna Bonner is your least-threatening starter – for all the criticism I may have thrown Bonner’s way over recent years – you’re in damn good shape. Phoenix led by double-digits throughout the second half, and killed the game off for good early in the fourth quarter.

 

Key Players: Taurasi was outstanding, energised as usual by the battle with Wright. Griner’s too big and too skilled for Seattle’s undersized posts to handle, even if they can create ways to score around her on offense. And Dupree did her usual job of knocking down shots in the spaces left behind by an opposing defense. Seattle’s defensive structure is always built around rotating to cover the basket, which often opens up the ‘pop’ while everyone’s worrying about the ‘roll’. That’s perfect for Dupree, who’ll happily slip into that gap all night long. The Mercury got a few useful minutes from Shay Murphy off the bench as well.

As mentioned already, Seattle were pretty good offensively, and others picked up the slack when Langhorne cooled off in the second half. But it was never enough without being able to slow the Mercury down. Right now, these teams are playing on very different levels.

 

Notes of Interest: Noelle Quinn didn’t play at all, which was a little odd and may mean there was an injury we didn’t hear about. Neither did Waltiea Rolle, a big rookie center recently signed to a seven-day contract by the Storm.

 

—–

 

League News

 

The San Antonio Stars announced today that star guard Becky Hammon will be retiring at the end of the season, calling it a day after one of the more impressive careers in WNBA history. As everyone knows, she went undrafted (largely because the draft was filled with ABL players that year, but still true), and played her way onto the New York Liberty roster. From there she developed her game, and became a superstar for both the Liberty and (Silver) Stars. She’s always been a unique player who somewhat defies comparisons and parallels. She’s tiny, and she’s never been lightning quick, but she always found ways to carve into the paint and somehow spin the ball in off the glass. Plus, of course, she became one of the best outside shooters the women’s game has ever seen, and was always a very creative player for her teammates. She’s leaving when there’s still a little left in the tank – the news emerged only a day after she played a key role in San Antonio’s win over Tulsa – and admirably avoiding the long ‘celebration tour’ that some players end up with by announcing their final year before it even begins. She’ll be missed, but she’s smart and telegenic, so coaching and broadcasting are both options that will inevitably open up for her. Apparently coaching is the first choice, and she might even be on a WNBA sideline as soon as next season.

 

In a nice parallel of ending and beginning, old and young, San Antonio also announced today that they’d signed 2014 draft pick Astou Ndour. She hadn’t been expected to join the team until next year at the earliest, but it makes sense for all involved for her to join up now. San Antonio can use all the help they can get in the paint, and as a raw 19-year old with lots of talent and potential but a long way to go, Ndour can use the development time. Also, it knocks a year off her rookie contract, getting her one year closer to picking up a much bigger contract, assuming she continues to show up and play in the WNBA. She’s 6’6″, long and athletic, and already put up very impressive numbers against strong professional competition in Europe. She can play, but she might need some time, and San Antonio under Dan Hughes should be a good place for her to grow. As a side-note, as long as Sancho Lyttle continues to play for the Spanish national team, the one-naturalised player rule should keep Ndour away from missing WNBA games to represent Spain. On the day a legend announced she was almost done, the Stars added a player who could be a huge part of their future.

 

Today was also the trade deadline in the WNBA, and as tradition dictates, absolutely nothing happened.

 

—–

 

Today’s Games

 

Connecticut @ Washington, 11.30am ET (long finished, so no preview)

 

New York @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET. The Liberty have been going up and down their usual rollercoaster lately, and are fighting for their lives in the Eastern Conference playoff race, but for once there’s much more attention on their opponents. It’s Penny Toler’s first game as a coach of any kind, after Carol Ross was fired and Toler came down from her general manager spot to take over for the rest of the season. It’s going to be fascinating to see what changes Toler tries to make – most people in this situation would probably try to keep things as smooth as possible and rely on their assistants, but Toler’s always been decidedly strong-willed and may have some unusual ideas of her own. If nothing else, there’s usually a small boost on any team when a leadership change takes place, as everyone tries to impress the new coach. We’ll see how this touchy, inconsistent Sparks team responds.

 

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