Tulsa Shock 77 @ Washington Mystics 82
Lineups: Same five starters as usual for both teams. Riquna Williams was available for the first time in over a month for Tulsa, but played so little and made so little impact in her one brief appearance that I didn’t even notice she’d played until checking the box score.
Story of the Game: I’ve repeated this to the point of admitted tedium, but Tulsa’s transition defense is horrendously bad. Mike Thibault was clearly well aware of this, and had his team primed to push the ball at every opportunity to exploit the chances on offer against the Shock. That resulted in a host of easy baskets, and combined with some decent outside shooting from Ivory Latta and Kara Lawson led to a double-digit advantage for Washington in the first half. Over and over again, Tulsa recover incredibly poorly from their own misses, and give up cheap points the other way. It’s been one of the central elements in digging all those holes they’ve had to try to climb out of many, many times this season.
Offensively, the Shock also looked short of ideas in the first half. Other than Skylar Diggins and occasionally Odyssey Sims creating off the dribble for themselves, or an occasional offensive rebound for Courtney Paris, they didn’t seem to know how else to create any decent offense against the Mystics. Diggins had several impressive finishes at the rim, but it wasn’t enough to keep pace with Washington, and Tulsa trailed by 12 at halftime.
Washington’s offense struggled badly for much of the second half, which eventually allowed Tulsa to inch back into the game. The Mystics had found some flow for their scoring in the first half thanks to their transition game, aided by Tulsa turnovers, and when those dried up in the second half so did their production. The comeback didn’t really kick into gear until the fourth quarter, when a bit of variation from Tulsa finally gave them some decent offense. They were finally using Glory Johnson and Paris in the paint, attacking Washington’s interior and not allowing the Mystics to key on just one area defensively. It took them long enough. The slew of offensive boards keeping Shock possessions alive helped them out as well.
Amazingly, Washington didn’t manage to score a single field goal in the fourth quarter until there were only 45 seconds left in the game – and yet still clung on to the lead. Their minimal scoring all came from the free throw line, and kept Washington just barely afloat. It was Lawson who broke the field goal drought in the final minute, and then Currie who made a crucial run of free throws to close the game out.
Key Players: Latta and Currie eventually led the scoring for Washington, although Latta did almost all her work early on and all 16 of Currie’s points came at the charity stripe. When their team defense was aggressive and they were in constant attack mode in the first half, they exploited all of Tulsa’s holes and picked up points across the board. When they slowed down in the second half, it became an attritional exercise in clinging on to their lead. But it’s their fifth win in six games, and in the tightly compacted Eastern Conference a run like that can go a long way towards cementing a playoff spot – however scrappy the performances might be.
Yet again, a poor start for Tulsa dug too big of a hole for one of their typical comebacks to drag them out of. It’s ridiculous how often they’ve done that this season. How many times can you pull out the “such a young team” excuse, rather than just admitting to a constant and repeating problem that needs to be dealt with, whether veteran or rookie? If they show up mentally focussed from the start of games, and actually work to defend in transition and rotate properly, there are straightforward improvements that can be made by this team. But it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen this season.
Chicago Sky 79 @ Atlanta Dream 75
Lineups: No changes from recent games for either team. Chicago are still hoping that Elena Delle Donne may rejoin the team at the end of their current road trip, starting with their game against New York on Thursday night, but there’s been no confirmation just yet.
Story of the Game: The game was at McCamish Pavillion again, as Atlanta completed their brief run at a temporary home before returning to Philips Arena. Based on how they played in the opening stages, they’ll be happy to escape the memories of this performance. The Dream were awful in the first half, looking ponderous and sloppy at both ends of the floor. Their string of cheap, unnecessary turnovers gave away possession repeatedly, and slow, lazy defensive rotations gave up easy, open looks to the Sky.
Chicago made plenty of mistakes themselves, but compared to what Atlanta were producing they were the Harlem Globetrotters. A whole series of short jumpers and straightforward finishes dropped in when the Sky managed to avoid turning the ball over, with Tamera Young and Jessica Breland in particular taking advantage of Atlanta’s miscues. Chicago led by as many as 18 in the first half, 14 at halftime.
Angel McCoughtry did not help the Dream in this game. Maybe the absence of Michael Cooper, away from the team dealing with tongue cancer, affected her the most among the Dream players. She played with her head down for most of the night, only ever looking for her own offense and only passing as an absolute last resort. So the ball stopped moving whenever it reached her, she gave up many of Atlanta’s turnovers, and Karleen Thompson didn’t have the guts to bench her for any extended period of time. It wasn’t pretty.
But Chicago are a pretty flawed team right now, and were always going to be vulnerable to a second half comeback if the Dream could pull themselves together. Allie Quigley still isn’t a point guard, but Pokey Chatman used her in that role for much of the night, wanting to keep Epiphanny Prince off the ball and uncomfortable with Jamierra Faulkner running the offense. Quigley at least adds an extra shooting threat the opposing defense has to respect, but she doesn’t exactly make an offense purr.
The comeback didn’t begin in earnest until the fourth quarter, and it was no coincidence that the momentum began when McCoughtry was on the bench, and continued with her playing a minor role while on the floor. Threes from Tiffany Hayes and Celine Dumerc gave Atlanta real hope, and Dumerc continued to play a central role in the Atlanta surge. Her defense troubled Quigley, she had a couple of assists to Sancho Lyttle and hustle plays that kept possessions alive, and her basic energy gave the Dream belief that the game wasn’t over. Prince was the only source of any decent offense for Chicago in the fourth quarter, and even that was pretty intermittent. But she was aggressive enough to draw fouls, and her free throws were important in at least picking up a few points to keep Chicago barely on top.
Hayes had a great look at a three to tie the game with just under a minute to play, but hit the iron. Then with 30 seconds left, Prince broke down the Sky defense beautifully and found a wide open Breland on the baseline, but she blew the layup to give Atlanta a final chance. Trailing by three, they sent Shoni Schimmel on a wide curl around the perimeter, and she fired from outside but missed as well. Appropriately, Prince iced the game at the foul line.
Key Players: It might be a little cruel, but the key player in Chicago’s win was probably Angel McCoughtry. In an actual Sky jersey, Prince did a lot of the work offensively when the team offense broke down in the second half. Sylvia Fowles didn’t see a lot of the ball inside, but she was the center of Chicago’s defense. Between Prince, Young, Breland and Quigley, the Sky just barely made enough shots to cling on to the lead they established when Atlanta sleepwalked through the first half.
Lyttle and Dumerc were Atlanta’s best players, but when McCoughtry has one of those games – and a head coach who can’t/won’t restrain or bench her, things get difficult for the Dream. That’s three losses in a row for them now, and while there’s little chance of them being caught for the top spot in the East, they’ll want to right the ship as quickly as possible for the run into the playoffs. They’ve always been a streaky team in the past, but they seemed to have found some consistency under Cooper this year. Maybe they miss him more than we thought they would.
San Antonio Stars 78 @ Minnesota Lynx 88
Lineups: For the first time all season, Cheryl Reeve had her entire roster to utilise and could start the five that led Minnesota to a championship last year. After Rebekkah Brunson returned for Tuesday’s win over Atlanta, Seimone Augustus was back from her knee bursitis to re-take her regular spot in the starting lineup. Dan Hughes swapped his power forwards round again, starting Sophia Young-Malcolm after several games where Danielle Adams had opened ahead of her. Jia Perkins was still out with her hamstring problem, but is targeting a return on Tuesday against Chicago. The Stars had Spanish teenager Astou Ndour available for the first time after she signed her rookie contract and joined the team last week.
Story of the Game: It was a fairly quiet and surprisingly pedestrian first half, as the game struggled to catch fire. There was some nice passing and unselfishness from both teams, with particularly balanced scoring from the Lynx. San Antonio were led by Danielle Robinson, whose raw speed often gives Minnesota problems, and she was hitting her mid-range jumper as well. Both teams shot poorly from three-point range in the first half, but the Lynx developed a narrow lead in the second quarter by getting the ball into the paint and attacking the offensive glass.
Minnesota carried that determination to force the ball inside into the second half, running their dive plays from the corner for Maya Moore and Augustus. The size difference on the perimeter is often a problem for San Antonio when these teams meet, with players like Robinson and Becky Hammon forced to try to cover much bigger and/or stronger opponents. But with Kayla McBride leading the way, San Antonio found their range from outside to keep themselves in the game in the third quarter.
In fact, the Stars were repeatedly right on the tails of the Lynx, but could never quite score that final bucket to take the lead. Then a 10-0 run to open the fourth quarter for Minnesota – keyed by Augustus jumpers, hard work from Damiris Dantas and Devereaux Peters in the paint, and San Antonio missing jump shots – pretty much decided the game. The Stars could never put together enough decent possessions to build a comeback in the remaining minutes, and Minnesota eased home for the win.
Key Players: Augustus led six Lynx players in double-figures, with Moore able to take a bit of a backseat for once (and able to miss a bunch of shots without it hurting her team too badly). In the second half, it was interesting to see Reeve sub out Brunson and Janel McCarville with four minutes left in the third quarter, and then stick with Dantas and Peters instead for the rest of the game when they produced. It was a clear reminder that with a full squad to choose from, Reeve finally has eight or nine players available who she’s legitimately comfortable using in meaningful situations. Augustus and Moore still played 34 and 35 minutes respectively, but maybe this team finally has the depth that they can get some better rest down the stretch before the playoffs begin.
San Antonio produced a reasonable game, but came up just a little short. Robinson was in some foul trouble in the second half, and missed several shots she’d typically convert, which put a significant dent in their chances. Shenise Johnson had a decent game, and the one positive from Perkins’s injury is that she’s stepped up and played some useful basketball in recent weeks. McBride might be the central figure in replacing Hammon when she calls it quits at the end of the season, but Johnson’s supposed to be part of the future here too. They’re still waiting for her to really fulfil her promise.
Notes of Interest: Ndour only played the final minute when the game was already decided. Hopefully we see a little more of her in the coming weeks, and she enjoys the experience enough to come back in upcoming years. Signing this season begins the clock on her rookie-scale contract, regardless of whether she actually shows up in 2015, 2016 or 2017. It’d be nice if we didn’t have to wait until she can be paid significantly more in 2018 to see one of the most talented young prospects in the world in the WNBA again.
Los Angeles @ Seattle, 4pm ET (no preview, as it’s already finished while you’re reading this)
Indiana @ San Antonio, 8pm ET. The Fever need to bounce back from a dismal game against Chicago on Tuesday, which they somehow almost managed to pull out despite an awful performance. The Stars are on a back-to-back, which could help, and Indiana should enjoy playing against a team with limited interior weapons. Also, expect Indiana to run several of the same plays Minnesota used to exploit their size advantage on the wings, just with Shavonte Zellous and Marissa Coleman instead of Augustus and Moore.
New York @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. After 14 consecutive wins, we’ve long passed the point where any loss for Phoenix is going to be considered a significant upset (except maybe when they visit Minnesota next week). Obviously, the Mercury are huge favourites tonight, even if New York have just won two in a row on the road. Tina Charles will probably be up for the battle with Brittney Griner inside initially, but then start drifting away from the basket and firing from mid-range. She’s been hitting those shots fairly consistently of late, but with Cappie Pondexter likely to struggle to penetrate against Phoenix’s size and length, New York will have to find other ways to score. At least one of their role players will need to go off – like Sugar Rodgers did against Seattle – or Phoenix are liable to roll over them like they have many other recent opponents. New York have a solid team defense that protects the basket, but the Mercury are happy to shoot right over the top of defenses like that. And they’re usually pretty accurate.
Nice blog. By the way, Currie’s 16 points from the line are the most without a field goal in league history.