Lineups: Seattle had Sue Bird back, after she’d missed one game due to a sore neck. So Temeka Johnson joined what is probably a very short list of basketball players who’ve been benched for the game following a triple-double. Los Angeles started their regular group, with Penny Toler still looking for her first win since taking over as head coach. If Seattle could’ve won this one it would’ve left them just a game behind LA in the standings, giving them realistic hopes of catching the Sparks for a playoff spot. Considering they’d already lost the tie-breaker to LA, a loss – and the resulting three-game gap – would leave the Storm a serious long-shot for the postseason.
Story of the Game: There wasn’t much between the teams in the first half. Easily Seattle’s most effective offensive weapon was Crystal Langhorne, who produced some lovely moves in the paint to finish past LA’s bigs. They hit an occasional three as well, and that was about the extent of the Storm offense.
But it was enough to avoid falling too far behind. LA were strong on the offensive glass, and had a brief sequence early in the second quarter where they looked good while running through Nneka Ogwumike in the low post. But she picked up her third foul and had to sit, which put an end to that. With Candace Parker looking fairly aimless and half-hearted, it was all the second-chances that kept LA just slightly on top. It was mostly the guards finding their way in to snare those loose balls, and then finishing off the plays – a welcome production for the Sparks from their perimeter players, even if it was via unusual methods.
So the Sparks led by just three at halftime, and the game remained close for much of the third quarter. But Parker had started to look a little bit more like she gave a crap about whether her team won the game, and she played a central role in a key run for LA to close the third period. Seattle went cold, and couldn’t hit a shot inside or out for a long stretch. Meanwhile Parker hit a couple of jumpers, Armintie Herrington sliced into the Seattle defense for a layup, and then Parker rounded off the period with a three in the waning seconds (Mark Jackson would’ve been screaming “hand down, (wo)man down!” in response to Nicole Powell’s lackadaisical defense on her, if he’d been broadcasting the game). In the final three minutes of the quarter, a two-point game that was anybody’s suddenly blew up to a 10-point LA lead.
And Seattle could never quite make it a contest again. It was always a bucket then a miss; or Kristi Toliver would hit a jumper; or most frequently, Nneka Ogwumike would make a play to continue holding the Storm at arm’s length. With under four minutes left, and LA inbounding with a single second left on the shot clock, Ogwumike took a pass and swished a turnaround three that made it clear it wasn’t going to be Seattle’s night.
Key Players: It was by no means an outstanding performance by LA, but Parker and Ogwumike showed up enough at different times to lead the offense, and they got enough support from Toliver, Herrington and Alana Beard to get over the line. It was an odd performance from Parker, who’s been a strange combination of disinterested and apparently trying to lead the team since Carol Ross was fired. If she could stay out of foul trouble, and therefore on the floor, Ogwumike’s actually looked the more effective player lately. As this game suggested within a single evening, even a mediocre version of the Sparks is likely to make the playoffs in this year’s Western Conference. But as LA’s destruction by the Mercury in their last game reminded everyone – it’s going to take significant improvement or something very unlikely for LA to go anywhere in the postseason.
Langhorne and Camille Little in the paint remain Seattle’s best options offensively, but they didn’t go there often enough or hit enough perimeter shots to balance the offense and help create room for them. It’s been a difficult year all around for the Storm, and this is their fourth loss in four games to the team that might’ve been most vulnerable to being caught for a playoff spot. The battle isn’t over yet, but lottery ping-pong balls look like they’re more likely to be a consideration for Storm fans than playoff tickets (and unfortunately for them, we’re in a year where the consensus is that it’s a terrible draft class).
Lineups: Same again for Indiana, with San Antonio choosing to start Sophia Young-Malcolm over Danielle Adams for the second game in a row at power forward. Maybe Dan Hughes realised that Adams was a contender for Sixth Woman of the Year, and he’d be making her ineligible if she continued to start for the rest of the season. Jia Perkins was still out, but could return on Tuesday against Chicago.
Story of the Game: Indiana started incredibly slowly, and were awful for most of the opening period. They weren’t doing enough to shift San Antonio’s defenders around, leading to contested jump shots or drives right into the Stars posts. None of that worked particularly well, as you might expect. It took the entrance of reserves like Lynetta Kizer and Layshia Clarendon to wake the Fever up, and then the starters came back in with better energy in the second quarter and picked it up. Shavonte Zellous, in particular, hit shots and drove right at the San Antonio defense in the second period, and the Stars couldn’t handle her. It took the Fever far too long to bring any directness or energy into their play.
Meanwhile, San Antonio were ambling along, not doing anything much to take advantage of Indiana’s sleepy play, sliding into an early lead almost by accident. Then giving it up when the Fever started to perform in the second quarter. It was a fairly passive performance, with the game seemingly at the whims of the Fever.
But another dreadful start for Indiana – this time to the second half – put the Stars on top again. Static, sloppy play from the Fever allowed San Antonio to take a six-point lead in a quarter where they originally trailed by three and only scored 13 total points. Tamika Catchings, who had a miserable night, was subbed out midway through the third quarter and never returned. There didn’t seem to be anything physically wrong with her, she just wasn’t remotely effective so Lin Dunn went a different way.
In fact, it was that ‘different way’ that finally turned the game in Indiana’s favour. Kizer’s entrance helped again, with her high-post/low-post combination with Erlana Larkins kick-starting the Fever offense late in the third quarter. But Kizer picked up her fifth foul late in the third, which sent rookie forward Natasha Howard into the game instead, and she picked up where Kizer left off. Howard’s energy and activity around the basket produced points for Indiana, and finally they had something to work with. It was an unusual frontcourt of Karima Christmas, Howard and Kizer that played down the stretch for the Fever.
San Antonio didn’t get much offense in the fourth quarter from anyone besides their backcourt of Danielle Robinson and Becky Hammon, and that proved to be not quite enough. They were mostly facing Indiana’s reserves, but those were the players who produced for the Fever on the night and offered worthwhile energy to close out the game. The range of Kizer, mobility of Howard, and energy of Christmas and Clarendon helped the Fever hold on without too many nerves in the final moments.
Key Players: As mentioned above, it was all about the backups for the Fever. Credit Lin Dunn for sticking with her unheralded players rather than forcing her underperforming starters back out on the floor, but most coaches probably would’ve done the same in a game like this. The players who deserved to be on the floor had become pretty obvious.
The Hammon/Robinson backcourt didn’t get the help they needed for San Antonio to take advantage of Indiana’s poor night offensively. They didn’t shoot well from the perimeter as a team, and they don’t have the post game to compensate.
Notes of Interest: Indiana were clearly prepared for Dan Hughes’s 3-2 zone when he pulled it out, as usual, early in the fourth quarter. They had plays that were obviously designed to drag the two posts across, and create mismatches on the back side with a post against one of the perimeter players under the rim. It left San Antonio mixing their defenses up in the fourth quarter to try to avoid being picked apart, but it was a little strange that they felt the need to use the zone at all. Indiana had hardly been destroying their basic man-to-man.
Lineups: As expected for both teams. Neither of these sides has anyone at all being kept out by injuries right now.
Story of the Game: While people might talk about the clash at center between Tina Charles and Brittney Griner ahead of matchups like this, the Liberty have actually been using Avery Warley-Talbert to defend opposing centers for a while now. And with the threat of Phoenix’s shooters, New York tried to avoid doubling Griner early on, leaving Warley-Talbert to do the best she could on her own. On Griner’s first post touch, it worked perfectly, with Warley-Talbert forcing a miss. On the many that followed, it wasn’t quite so successful. New York had problems stopping Griner all night, whenever Phoenix got her the ball inside.
That played its part in Phoenix breaking out to the lead everyone had expected in the first half. So did the fact that after a couple of early jumpers fell in, Cappie Pondexter couldn’t hit a thing for the rest of the half. Charles tried to attack inside a couple of times, but also settled for a bunch of jumpers, and without much help from any of their Liberty teammates the Mercury advantage steadily grew.
As many other opponents have found this season, the variety of weapons for Phoenix was just too much for New York to handle. If it wasn’t Griner hitting her smooth, unblockable turnaround jumper, it was Diana Taurasi knocking down shots or Candice Dupree finishing off plays. Probably the most dangerous set in WNBA basketball right now is the pick-and-roll between Taurasi and Griner, where Dupree either sets a second pick or just pops high on the opposite side of the lane. With Taurasi supreme at deciding where to go with the ball, the defense is left with three ridiculously dangerous scorers to cover, and any one of them is a high-percentage finisher if you give them an inch of space. The Mercury led by 17 at halftime, and it felt like another cakewalk for the team on a seemingly endless winning streak.
But not quite so fast. Rather than giving up the ghost and letting the game slip away, New York made a fight of it in the third quarter. Anna Cruz had already gotten under Taurasi’s skin a little with her physical defense in the first half, and that continued into the third. Pondexter hit a couple of jumpers, while Charles had clearly been encouraged to attack Griner and the basket during the halftime interval. The Liberty weren’t exactly rolling, but Phoenix missed a few shots, lost their rhythm a little, and the gap came down to seven points in the third quarter.
Maybe to protect her star center from further foul trouble (Griner had three at that point), Sandy Brondello made the strange decision to replace Griner with Ewelina Kobryn just as New York’s push was gathering steam in the third quarter. Unsurprisingly, Phoenix began to reassert themselves when Griner came back in. She had an emphatic block moments after returning, and it was her turnaround that pushed the gap back to double-digits with the first bucket of the fourth quarter. From there, New York never really managed to put the result in question again. There was a little more testiness, as the Liberty continued to put their head coach’s instructions and attitude into practice on the floor, but the Mercury were in control on the scoreboard. They eased home for consecutive win number 15.
Key Players: Griner, Dupree and Taurasi led the scoring for Phoenix, as their teamwork and balance – along with the basic talent level across the board – continues to be a central part of their dominance. New York made them uncomfortable, which is more than most opponents have managed lately, but they responded well when they were challenged in the second half (bar the occasional moments of whingeing)
New York gave it a decent attempt, but they shot 33% for the night and that’s not going to cut it against Phoenix. This is the basic problem versus the Mercury – it’s incredibly hard to get inside and shoot a high percentage in the paint because Brondello actually knows what she’s doing and has Griner there 90% of the time waiting for you. But it’s also very hard to win a jump-shooting contest against them, because they have so many effective offensive weapons who’ll happily score right back. The anticipation is already high for Thursday night’s Mercury-Lynx clash (and for the potential Western Conference Finals between the same two teams in about a month).
Notes of Interest: Taurasi picked up her fifth technical of the season for saying one of the magic words during that third quarter sequence where everyone got a little upset. Just two more to hit the one-game suspension threshold that she’s reached in the past.
Minnesota @ Connecticut, 3pm ET. With their roster finally intact, Minnesota will be looking to build their chemistry and rotation over their final games heading into the playoffs, with an eye on catching the Mercury if Phoenix slip up. Connecticut’s best chance in this game may be if the Lynx are already looking forward to their meeting with Phoenix on Thursday, and aren’t paying full attention to today’s game. Otherwise they’ll need players like Alex Bentley or Katie Douglas to light it up from outside, because the Lynx will be collapsing on Chiney Ogwumike and Kelsey Bone in the paint. Solidifying the defense will be Cheryl Reeve’s main focus over the closing weeks of the season. The yearly homecoming for Maya Moore means you may hear as many cheers for the Lynx as for the Sun if she starts to put on a show.
Atlanta @ Washington, 4pm ET. This one’s become a little more interesting over recent weeks, with Atlanta losing three games in a row and Washington winning five of their last six. Currently four games behind the Dream, if the Mystics can win tonight maybe there’s still a chance that Atlanta could be caught at the top of the East before the end of the regular season (although the Dream already own the tie-breaker in this matchup from their three wins earlier this year). Washington have been hitting some shots lately, with the likes of Ivory Latta and Monique Currie playing closer to their potential, which has given the Mystics a boost. Atlanta will want to end this losing run as quickly as possible, and get back on the right path. Michael Cooper’s absence is no excuse for performances like the one they produced against Chicago on Friday, and they’re still easily the best team in the East when they play like they can. Hopefully we see Angel McCoughtry play a little more like a part of the unit rather than a ball-dominant solo performer this time.
Chicago @ Tulsa, 4.30pm ET. Two teams desperately scrapping to keep their seasons alive, who’ll see each other as ripe opportunities to pick up a win. Chicago have somehow won their last two games, although came close to blowing leads against both Indiana and Atlanta. Having Sylvia Fowles in the paint ought to make it more difficult for Skylar Diggins and Odyssey Sims to carry the Shock offense via drives down the gut of the defense, so Tulsa may need to branch out a bit more. And it’d be helpful if they could avoid digging a huge hole early in the game for once. The matchup on the perimeter between Sims and Epiphanny Prince should be fun, with much of Chicago’s offense running through Prince lately and Sims likely to be tasked to cover her.