Minnesota Lynx 76 @ Connecticut Sun 65
Lineups: Minnesota once again had everyone available, and could start the same core unit that led them to a title last year. Cheryl Reeve must be loving that after piecing her rotation together all season through various different injuries. Connecticut are still dealing with a few, with Kelsey Griffin (ankle), Allison Hightower (knee) and Danielle McCray (thumb) all still out. The starting five is the same group that they’ve used for the majority of the season, but their depth has taken a hit.
Story of the Game: This was a strange game, in that Minnesota never entirely turned it into a blowout on the scoreboard – but virtually from beginning to end it felt like they were in complete control. These are just two teams playing on very different levels, and in very different stages in their development, and you could feel that throughout.
It wasn’t until late in the first quarter that Minnesota’s impressive ball movement and teamwork started to translate into an overall advantage in the scoreline, with Alex Bentley managing to hit a couple of jumpers early on the keep Connecticut involved. But as the half wore on, Connecticut’s miserable shooting left their offense in tatters. Minnesota’s defense was structured to sag inside and protect against penetration or interior attacks, and yet the Sun were still incapable of hitting anything over the top of a defense that should’ve given them room to fire. With their roster intact again, Minnesota will be hoping to return to their previous defensive levels – which has always involved dropping inside but recovering fairly well to challenge shooters – but the Sun just couldn’t hit anything. Some decent offensive rebounding at least kept them within theoretical striking range.
But while Connecticut shot a little better in the second half, and cut a 17-point deficit down to eight midway through the fourth quarter when Bentley and Renee Montgomery finally connected a few times from outside, the Lynx were never in any real danger. The game wasn’t quite the varsity against the JV team, but it wasn’t far off.
Key Players: The Lynx had great balance, never needing to rely on anyone in particular to carry them. As in several previous visits, Maya Moore didn’t shoot particularly well back in Connecticut, but she did end up leading the scoring for Minnesota. It was a nice relaxing tune-up for Thursday’s big game against Phoenix, with no one other than Moore playing more than 29 minutes.
Center Kelsey Bone was Connecticut’s leading scorer, although she continues to miss a few too many straightforward finishes around the basket. For someone who doesn’t shoot much from beyond five feet, you’d really like to see a higher percentage from the field than 43%. Chiney Ogwumike gave them some energy in the second half as well, but the perimeter players were a combined 12-45. That’s not going to beat anyone, least of all Minnesota.
Atlanta Dream 67 @ Washington Mystics 77
Lineups: Both teams started the same groups we’ve become accustomed to. The only significant absence for Atlanta lately has been head coach Michael Cooper, away from the team recuperating from surgery for tongue cancer last week. They haven’t won a game since he left.
Story of the Game: Washington led for most of the first half, but without ever pulling away too far. Their ball movement and cutting into space has been better lately, but a lot of their improvement has simply come down to making some damn shots. Players like Ivory Latta, Kara Lawson and Monique Currie were shooting so poorly earlier in the season, but they’ve picked it up and that’s played a key role in their recent run of positive results.
With center Erika de Souza being significantly less productive in recent weeks than she was earlier in the season, frontcourt partner Sancho Lyttle has come to the fore more as a scorer, and that was the case again in the first half. Ever since someone somewhere convinced her to stop firing threes and take a big pace in to about 18 feet, Lyttle has become an extremely accurate jumpshooter from that mid-range area. It took the Dream a while to get into the game, but by halftime they were only trailing by a point.
Atlanta even led for a while in the third quarter, but eventually their terrible shooting came back to haunt them in the second half. Washington were matching them – or at least coming close enough – in the areas where Atlanta often dominate opponents. The Mystics were competing on the glass, avoiding giving up too many second-chance points; they were pushing in transition to pick up just as many fastbreak points as the Dream could gather; and they were drawing more fouls than Atlanta to create chances at the free throw line.
Eventually, Washington pulled ahead in part thanks to their depth. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Tianna Hawkins and Lawson all came off the bench to make important contributions, with Ruffin-Pratt combining with Currie to limit Angel McCoughtry. The Dream star didn’t take as many bad shots or give up as many cheap turnovers as we’d seen in their game against Chicago on Friday, but she ended up with the exact same 5-17 line from the field, which is pretty ugly.
And again, much of Washington’s advantage came down to simply making shots. Latta and Lawson outshot the Dream all on their own in the fourth quarter, and it was enough to pull away and complete their sixth win in seven games. For Atlanta, it was their fourth loss in a row.
Key Players: Latta led the way for Washington, but got solid support from Lawson, Currie, Ruffin-Pratt and Emma Meesseman. Mike Thibault has got his team back to playing their team-oriented, collective basketball in recent weeks, shifting the ball and taking whatever’s on offer, and it’s led to a run of wins and an increasingly solidified playoff spot. This victory leaves them only three games behind Atlanta for top spot in the East – and more importantly 2.5 ahead of Chicago in the race to at least make the postseason.
Lyttle was Atlanta’s best player, for what that’s worth, but these losses are becoming concerning now. When the system’s in place and everyone knows their role, losing your head coach for a couple of weeks shouldn’t be that big of a problem. But they do seem to have lost some of their shape and leadership without Cooper, and a late-season swoon isn’t the way you want to build for the playoffs. Cooper should be back fairly soon, but the players have to take responsibility for how they’re performing, regardless of his presence.
Notes of Interest: Celine Dumerc started the second half ahead of Jasmine Thomas at point guard, and the questions around who should be running this team probably aren’t helping their stability and leadership issues either. Thomas, Dumerc and Shoni Schimmel are all taking their turns, and everyone was happy when the team was winning. It might become more of an actual ‘controversy’ if they don’t turn their results around soon.
Chicago Sky 69 @ Tulsa Shock 79
Lineups: As expected for both teams, with the same injuries and illnesses hampering the Sky. Riquna Williams is back from her knee problem but barely playing for Tulsa, while Tiffany Jackson-Jones still hasn’t seen a single minute of action since preseason surgery on her shin.
Story of the Game: For the first 27 minutes or so, Chicago were on top in this game. Tulsa’s offense was incredibly predictable, with the only production coming from direct drives from Skylar Diggins and Odyssey Sims down the lane or quick transition attacks – usually by the same two players in the same ways. Even Diggins and Sims were missing layups in the paint, as Chicago increasingly collapsed on them in the knowledge that they weren’t going to be hurt any other way.
While the Sky turned the ball over too much – leading to those transition chances for Tulsa which kept the Shock in the game – Chicago ran some surprisingly decent offense in the first half and into the third quarter. They appeared to have introduced a few new sets that were designed to put scorers like Epiphanny Prince and Allie Quigley into motion more frequently before receiving the ball, rather than constantly expecting them to create for themselves with the ball in their hands. It led to some improved play from Prince compared to some of her recent performances, and while their posts were underused in the first half, both Jessica Breland and Sylvia Fowles came into the action in the third quarter. The Sky were on top, albeit never managing to extend their lead much beyond 10 points.
Then everything turned in a run to close the third period, which continued to roll into the start of the fourth. An 11-2 Shock push to close the third, with Sims leading the way both inside and out, tied up the game. Then a matching 11-2 run to open the fourth pushed the Shock out into their own commanding lead. There was no single element where the Shock managed to switch the course of the game, but they attacked with pace at every opportunity, Chicago missed a few jumpers to help them on their way, and between Sims and Jordan Hooper the Shock started hitting perimeter shots. Behind that, and the momentum that quickly gathered, Tulsa took control.
Chicago never looked likely to swing the game again with a comeback of their own. Fowles was in foul trouble, and eventually picked up her sixth in the waning minutes while trying to stop yet another Sims drive. The stuffing had been knocked out of the Sky with that 22-4 run across the end of the third and start of the fourth, and neither Quigley nor Prince ever got hot enough to drag them back into it.
Key Players: Sims and Diggins were the driving forces for Tulsa as usual, with the perimeter shooting of Sims and Hooper adding a dimension beyond the all-out drives to the basket. They also remembered the existence of Glory Johnson in the second half, and brought a bit more variety to their offense. Effective as their young guards can be, they have to mix things up a little just to keep opposing defenses a tiny bit off-balance. If a defense knows exactly what’s coming every time down the floor, they’ll eventually stop it even if the players are exceptional.
Everything seemed to be going pretty well for Chicago until it fell apart late in the game. The Breland/Fowles frontcourt still hasn’t quite clicked as a partnership, and that leaves them reliant on Prince and Quigley from the perimeter on a team that ought to be running through their posts. There’s still the hope that Elena Delle Done might return sometime soon, and that she could be this team’s salvation – and lead to a playoff charge. She’s good enough to make that difference, but without her they look flimsy and vulnerable to the kinds of collapses that took them out of this game.
Indiana @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET. An unusual Monday-night WNBA game, pitting two teams who could use a decent performance, regardless of the actual result. The Sparks have played three games under Penny Toler now, and looked unconvincing in all three of them. Indiana have played twice since the all-star break, and were awful in the first before being bailed out by their bench in the second. With all due respect to the likes of Lynetta Kizer and Layshia Clarendon, they’re not taking the Fever very far in the playoffs. Indiana need their starters to snap out of whatever funk they fell into during the midseason break and start performing more like themselves. Los Angeles are still trying to figure things out under their new leader, but haven’t exactly jumped a level in intensity or performance since Toler took over. Four of their next five games are at home, which ought to be a positive, except that they’ve lost their last five in a row at Staples Center. Turning their season around begins with remembering how to protect their home court.