The Daily W, 07/31/2014

 

Connecticut Sun 80 @ Atlanta Dream 89

 

Lineups: Still searching for their first win since head coach Michael Cooper left the team to deal with tongue cancer, stand-in Karleen Thompson pulled the trigger on the switch at point guard for Atlanta, promoting Celine Dumerc into the starting lineup ahead of Jasmine Thomas. They tried it earlier in the season, but the experiment only lasted one game (for no obvious reason). Connecticut had sometime-starter Kelsey Griffin available again, but she came off the bench with Kelsey Bone continuing to start at center. Allison Hightower and Danielle McCray were still injured; Kayla Pedersen and Ebony Hoffman both didn’t play (but no injuries were reported for either).

 

Story of the Game: Atlanta led for most of the first half, but rarely by much. Angel McCoughtry was slashing into the heart of Connecticut’s defense repeatedly, creating high-percentage chances for herself. While it was still a little focussed on her own offense – something I’ve criticised her for in recent games – it was a hell of a lot better than when she stands around the perimeter and jacks up jump shots. She was very effective, and the Dream also got out in transition and found Erika de Souza rolling to the basket more than they had been in recent games. Dumerc gave them more of a creative force on the ball, and they generally looked a bit more like the athletic and aggressive Atlanta Dream we’ve known in the past.

But Connecticut kept up with them, and were surprisingly successful themselves in getting into the paint and scoring inside. Bone, Chiney Ogwumike and Alyssa Thomas were all finding their way to the rim against Atlanta’s interior defense, which is typically very solid. It kept the game competitive.

The Sun didn’t get inside as much in the second half, but the combination of Katie Douglas and lots of help defenders did manage to cool off McCoughtry. Atlanta responded by going to the opposite wing, and letting Tiffany Hayes slash to the hoop instead. Connecticut settled for jumpers a little too much in the second half, partly because Atlanta knew the Sun’s success was coming in the paint so their defense collapsed further and further inside. The Dream allowed a 10-point lead to dwindle to just two in the fourth quarter – perhaps a touch nervous after failing to win any of their last four games – but a timeout, plus the return of Dumerc and Hayes from some rest, and Atlanta were quickly back in charge. Douglas hit a couple of threes to potentially make things interesting, but a dumb foul by Alex Bentley on a Hayes three-point attempt ended the game as a contest with a minute remaining.

 

Key Players: The combination of McCoughtry and Hayes on the wings for Atlanta – finishing the game a combined 18-29 from the field for 48 points – drove the scoring for the Dream, but there was better pace and energy all around. Erika finished with 17 points and was an important presence inside, while Dumerc was a solid controlling hand. Even Jasmine Thomas made a contribution, not pouting about being benched and bringing some energy when she came into the game. Five of Atlanta’s next six games are on the road, so they’ll need to keep working hard to maintain this level on their travels, but this was a good first step in righting the ship.

Alyssa Thomas started the game well, and the Bone/Ogwumike tandem gave the Sun a base inside, but it was another game where the Sun’s inability to hit shots from the perimeter let them down. Sometimes the likes of Douglas, Bentley and Renee Montgomery are hot, but often they’re not, and when that’s the case this team has trouble winning games.

 

Notes of Interest: There were a ridiculous number of video reviews in this game. The NBA and WNBA have to do something about the amount of time we’re all left sitting around twiddling our thumbs waiting for decisions to be made – often on plays that were pretty damn obvious to begin with. It’s excruciating.

 

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Washington Mystics 76 @ New York Liberty 80 (OT)

 

Lineups: Both teams started the same fives we’ve come to expect in recent weeks. The only real note worth making from the pre-game was that Washington were in their usual road red, with New York wearing pink for Breast Health Awareness week. It’s a worthy cause, but red versus pink in a sporting event is just asinine. They’re two shades of the same damn colour.

 

Story of the Game: The first half was controlled by New York, primarily by Tina Charles. She was constantly at the heart of their offense, with Washington sagging their defense inside but trying not to actively double-team when they could avoid it. She bullied Kia Vaughn and the other Washington posts, scoring at the rim and knocking down mid-rangers as well, while playing her part in the Liberty’s domination on the offensive glass. Even beyond Charles, New York comprehensively won the energy battle in the first half, with players like Avery Warley-Talbert, Anna Cruz and Sugar Rodgers flying around the floor to make all the little hustle plays. Alex Montgomery rounded off the strong half for New York by throwing in a heave from 50 feet at the halftime buzzer to send the Liberty in ahead by 15.

Mike Thibault wouldn’t have been impressed with what his team produced in that first half, but they were much better after the interval. They did a better job of keeping the ball away from Charles – especially in deep position inside – and took the game to New York to a much greater extent. Bill Laimbeer has done a nice job of rebuilding his bench on the fly this season, with the addition of players like Rodgers, Swin Cash, Natasha Lacy and Warley-Talbert (who now starts, allowing Plenette Pierson to help the bench crew) changing their impact entirely. Instead of the team trying to survive whenever the reserves are on the floor, they can now add something to the effort. But Washington have been deep for a while, and Thibault knows how to sift through his options to find what’s working on a given night. Stefanie Dolson, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Kara Lawson all saw significant minutes off the bench for the Mystics in the second half, and helped them back into the game.

Much of the comeback also came down to making perimeter shots, as is often the case – especially with this Mystics team. Lawson and Ivory Latta started hitting a few threes in the second half, and suddenly New York’s lead was disappearing. A crazy fling from Lawson with 20 seconds left in regulation somehow dropped in while she was fouled, and the free throw pulled Washington within a point. A terrible inbounds pass from Cash gave Washington the ball back, but Rodgers made a nice play on a Ruffin-Pratt drive to strip her and swipe the ball. Then Rodgers went 1-of-2 at the line, and Bria Hartley drove past Cappie Pondexter and finished at the rim – past a desperately backtracking Charles – to tie the game. Overtime.

Washington’s first lead of the night came on a Dolson hook to open the scoring in OT – a move she showed off with both hands during this game, which is a nice dual skill to possess. After being one of the key figures late in regulation – both in positive and negative ways – Rodgers was again central to the action in overtime. She drilled a three for the lead, and then converted a ridiculous driving finish. Hartley hit a three of her own to give Washington a chance, but she and Monique Currie both missed a pair of free throws in the extra period that proved crucial. Rodgers made two more big plays to halt Hartley drives and tie her up for jump-balls, and that iced the game.

 

Key Players: Charles was the centerpiece for New York when things were going well in the first half, but the depth they’ve engineered over the course of the season proved almost as important as the game wore on. The reserves aren’t consistent yet, but they eventually made enough positive plays to help get the Liberty over the line. Pondexter was relatively quiet, but when she and Charles get this kind of help the Liberty can survive that.

Considering how outplayed they were in the first half, Washington can be reasonably proud of the way they made it a game from there on. The rookie UConn duo of Hartley and Dolson made important plays late, with the veteran guards hitting the shots to get them in the game in the second half. It’s a game they’ll be disappointed to lose, but it shouldn’t break the momentum they’ve built up in recent weeks.

 

—–

 

Chicago Sky 74 @ San Antonio Stars 92

 

Lineups: The Sky had the same players available that we’ve seen in all their recent games for this one, although Elena Delle Donne is expected to return tonight against New York. San Antonio started the same five they’ve used in their last few games, with Sophia Young-Malcolm ahead of Danielle Adams at power forward. The boost for them came in the return of Jia Perkins to their bench crew.

 

Story of the Game: The first quarter of this game was even, because Epiphanny Prince went off for the Sky. With Danielle Robinson going under screens to contain the potential dribble-penetration, Prince was saying thankyouverymuch for the space that left her in and knocking down the open jump shots. She drove to the rim occasionally just to add a touch of variety, but she was generally racking up points from the perimeter.

However, Chicago weren’t stopping San Antonio at the other end, so the score stayed close in the first period, and when Prince cooled off the Stars began to pull away. San Antonio were sharing the ball nicely, spreading the wealth, and taking the open shots that resulted all around the floor. Perkins made a couple of shots off the bench, Young-Malcolm had one of her better offensive halves of the season, Shenise Johnson hit a pair of threes and Becky Hammon did her part to fit ESPN2’s narrative for the game. After recently announcing this will be her final season as a player, Hammon was central to the presentation, and she tossed some pretty passes in the first half to create baskets for her teammates. San Antonio led by 11 at halftime.

As the truly atrocious broadcasting team of Pam Ward and Carolyn Peck mentioned repeatedly, Chicago had trouble feeding Sylvia Fowles in the paint throughout the game. What they barely ever brought up is why the Sky found it so tough. The Stars weren’t respecting their perimeter players at all, so if the ball ever made it inside to Fowles she was instantly surrounded by a posse of defenders. She’s not a great passer, so the movement back out rarely results in great looks. And Chicago’s sets and spacing are just as bad as they’ve been for years. Jayne Appel often did a decent job fighting with Fowles to keep her out of optimum position, but Fowles jumping into the lane and waving her hands frantically isn’t much of a play to begin with. It’s depressing to see the Sky back to this, and it inevitably led to the Stars pulling even further clear in the second half. Without anything resembling decent offense, Chicago lost their spirit and their effort dropped, which helped San Antonio create even easier looks. Kayla McBride and Danielle Adams joined the shooting party, Hammon had a couple of trademark spinning layups, and the Stars ran away with the game.

 

Key Players: Everybody and anybody for San Antonio. They had five players in double figures, and the teamwork and collective effort was far too much for Chicago. This team’s going to be a heavy underdog in the first round of the playoffs to either Phoenix or Minnesota, but they’re not going to make it easy for whichever opponent they face.

Chicago, meanwhile, are hoping that the return of Delle Donne might be enough for them to at least make the playoffs. Because this was pretty depressing. Prince was hot in the first quarter, then disappeared; Jamierra Faulkner had some moments in her duel with Danielle Robinson at the point; and Fowles finished with 14 points on far too few touches. The defense was miserable, for a team that ought to be able to do much better with Fowles in the middle. Delle Donne returning can do a lot – her shooting spreads the floor, her ability to draw fouls prevents opponents from running as much, her length inside clogs the paint even more alongside Fowles – but they can’t just expect her to be their saviour. It’s sad how Chicago’s season has fallen apart, even if they have had to deal with significant injury issues.

 

Notes of Interest: Ward and Peck are just embarrassingly bad, to the extent that I think it insults women’s basketball to have them as one of the two national teams on WNBA games. The couple of contributions that LaChina Robinson got to make from her sideline spot were better than the drivel Peck spouted for two full hours.

 

—–

 

Seattle Storm 74 @ Tulsa Shock 80

 

Lineups: The same groups started as we’ve seen from these teams in recent games. Riquna Williams was missing again for the Shock after playing in a couple of games recently. The bruised knee she’s been struggling with virtually all season just doesn’t seem to want to heal.

 

Story of the Game: Seattle started better, and led for most of the first half. As has often been the case this season, Tulsa couldn’t hold up in the paint when Seattle used simple actions to attack the basket, so Camille Little and Crystal Langhorne were the major weapons for the Storm. They really only had any problems scoring when they settled for open jumpers and missed them, rather than continuing to force the ball inside.

But Tulsa kept it close thanks to some decent interior offense of their own from Glory Johnson, and some transition attacks from Odyssey Sims. Rather than improve their transition defense – which remains terrible, but Seattle almost never run, so it was irrelevant in this particular game – the Shock have just started to run more themselves. It’s like in the old days of the Phoenix Mercury, where if their opponent lit them up they’d just keep pushing and try to outscore them. Tanisha Wright was doing a solid job keeping Skylar Diggins quiet, but Sims compensated. Odyssey has had a few problems acclimatising to the pro game as a rookie, including difficulty finishing drives inside, but that lovely floater of hers in the lane is increasingly useful and effective. There aren’t many players in the women’s game that have that shot and can convert it consistently.

In the second half, the Shock increasingly sagged inside to protect against Little and Langhorne tearing them to pieces at the rim, which made offense more difficult for Seattle. We also saw Tulsa’s edge in offensive rebounding come into play, while they continued to benefit from their superiority in transition. Where Seattle had held a narrow lead for most of the first half, it was Tulsa who were in front by a few points for the vast majority of the second. They couldn’t pull away, but their noses were constantly in front. Down the stretch, Tulsa managed to make a play or two more – an offensive board here, a steal there; a cheap transition bucket here, an extra three there. An outstanding athletic finish in traffic from Vicki Baugh with 40 seconds left, followed by a travelling violation by Wright when she was caught in a trap, sealed the win for the Shock.

 

Key Players: Sims and Johnson were the scoring leaders for Tulsa, with a surprising 16 points from Roneeka Hodges balancing out a quiet night for Diggins. Baugh made important contributions even before that final layup, and played the entire fourth quarter ahead of Courtney Paris. That’s part of why Tulsa’s pick-and-roll coverage was a little better in the second half and Seattle resorted to a greater number of jumpers.

Seattle ended up pretty balanced offensively – which was unfortunate, because if the core of their scoring had continued to come from the posts they probably would’ve won the game. They’re easily the worst rebounding team in the league, which became a problem in the second half, and their lack of transition scoring was shown up by the running of the Shock. Seattle could desperately use some cheap points to prop up their offense, but they get out on the break so rarely that they barely ever create any. It leaves offense as something of a chore.

 

—–

 

Los Angeles Sparks 69 @ Phoenix Mercury 90

 

Lineups: Candace Parker was still out for Los Angeles with her knee problem, so Armintie Herrington started again for the Sparks. Lindsey Harding was available off the bench after missing the previous night’s game with a reported foot injury. She’s not been playing much recently even when healthy enough to suit up. The Mercury had all 11 available once again, and started the same five who’d led them to victories in their previous 15 games.

 

Story of the Game: For the first half, this was a contest. Maybe the Mercury were a little complacent after all those wins (including a blowout over LA just last week), because the Sparks came out with much better energy. Especially surprising were the amount of points LA managed to pick up right at the rim, with Nneka Ogwumike finding lanes and angles to slice past Brittney Griner for layups. Kristi Toliver was the provider on most of those plays, dropping pocket passes into gaps for Ogwumike to gather on her way to the basket. With good teamwork and rhythm to their offense, LA shot an unlikely 58% from the field in the first half.

But one of the many scary things about the Mercury this season is that they can carry on beating you even while they’re not playing particularly well. They got a little energy from their bench, Griner finished a couple of plays inside, Diana Taurasi hit a few shots and they attacked the offensive glass – and ended up ahead by three points at halftime. Outside of doing a better job on the boards, LA couldn’t have hoped to play much better in the first half and they were behind anyway.

Then in the third quarter, the Mercury ran LA off the floor as many had expected before the tip-off. Griner played the pick-and-roll slightly differently, cutting off the pocket pass to the roller even if it opened up the lane a little for the drive. That ended LA’s layup chances, and their offense dried up. Meanwhile Candice Dupree hit the shots she’d been missing in the first half, Taurasi dominated with her passing and jump shooting, and a few mental errors from LA led to transition points for Phoenix. Playing their fifth game in seven days, maybe fatigue was beginning to wear on the Sparks. Regardless of the cause, Phoenix led by as many as 17 in the third quarter and the game was essentially over.

 

Key Players: As usual for Phoenix, they were nicely balanced across their talented lineup. The bench was unusually important in getting them going, with Shay Murphy and Mistie Bass helping out, but Dupree, Griner, Taurasi and DeWanna Bonner led the way once they were rolling. Now just two wins short of the WNBA record for consecutive victories, it sets the scene nicely for tonight’s clash with Minnesota.

The first half was a nice display from the Sparks offensively. Without Parker to rely on, the ball moved a bit more, they played with some fluidity, and they weren’t afraid to attack inside despite the presence of Griner. But in the end they just couldn’t compete with the confident and cohesive Mercury squad, especially after all the games they’ve played lately (and Penny Toler is still working out how to run a rotation and get her players enough rest at the right times). They’re only a couple of games ahead of Tulsa, so they can’t afford to get complacent about their playoff spot – but LA are still likely to make the postseason. The thing is, games like this make it clear how hard it’s going to be to win any games once they get there.

 

—–

 

Today’s Games

 

Phoenix @ Minnesota, 8pm ET. The game everyone’s been looking forward to for weeks, a clash so appetising that it bumped Liberty-Sky off the NBA TV schedule. Phoenix have won 16 in a row, while Minnesota are the reigning champs, have won seven straight themselves, and now have their full roster available. It’s going to be fun. But it’ll be interesting to see how the teams play it. Obviously, both sides will be keen to win against their closest rivals, with the top seed in the West still up for grabs if the Lynx can win here. But they also know that this is likely to be the matchup in the Western Conference Finals. Neither side will want to give too much away if they’ve got change-up options in their locker that they think could be important in beating this specific opponent.

As always, Minnesota will drop inside to protect the paint, especially as they don’t really have posts with the size to trouble Griner. But Phoenix have been moving the ball so smoothly and shooting so well during this run that it’s dangerous giving them too much room outside. Of course, with players like Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus, Minnesota have some of the best jumpshooters the women’s game has ever seen, which also gives them a chance to exploit Phoenix’s weaknesses. The Lynx don’t necessarily have to go near Griner to score on the Mercury. They’ll try to shift her out of the paint, bringing Janel McCarville and their other posts up high to draw Griner out, but they’ll also just shoot over the defense fairly frequently. It could be a shootout if both teams find their rhythm. I’m looking forward to it like everyone else.

 

Atlanta @ Tulsa, 8pm ET. There could be even more offense in this one than we see in Mercury-Lynx. Both these teams love to push the pace, and Tulsa are soft enough in the middle that Atlanta should be able to attack the paint at will. It’ll be interesting to see whether they continue to look for ways to involve Erika de Souza, or if it all comes from the perimeter players driving. Getting Erika back to the level she was playing at early in the year would be huge for them heading into the playoffs.

 

New York @ Chicago, 8pm ET. Unless a gap starts to develop, there are going to be a lot of these games over the next few weeks – where two Eastern Conference rivals battling for a playoff spot run directly into each other. The extra interest here comes from the expected return of Elena Delle Donne from her long layoff due to complications from Lyme disease. She’s not expected to play more than 20 minutes, but it could give the Sky a big boost just to have her back in the fold. Otherwise, we’ll see the usual tussle between Team USA centers Sylvia Fowles and Tina Charles, which is always entertaining. Most teams double Charles with impunity, but Chicago will try to let Fowles handle her on her own most of the time. New York, unfortunately, will frequently slide Charles over and use players like Avery Warley-Talbert to defend Fowles instead. But New York drop defenders in to protect the paint anyway, so Fowles is much less likely to see a single defender to attack. They’ll need their perimeter players to show up and help the offense, whether it’s Epiphanny Prince, Allie Quigley, or, just maybe, Delle Donne.

 

Indiana @ Seattle, 10pm ET. The 2014 season is slipping away from the Storm. The schedule was tough on them early on, with a lot of road games, but they haven’t managed to take advantage of the home-heavy slate that naturally followed in the latter part of the year. In fact, they’ve lost their last six in a row, four of which were at home. The Fever haven’t been great lately either, playing some pretty poor basketball since the all-star break, so they’ll see this as a good opportunity to pick up a win and produce a better performance. Watch the secondary rotations defensively for both teams, where both have broken down at times this year. When an opponent is running a pick-and-roll against you, the first rotation is usually pretty straightforward defensively. You know where the space is likely to be, and who should be filling it. The problem is that next player over who’s left open by the initial rotating defender, and the recovery to get everyone lined up if you stop the first action. The team that makes that second defensive move better in this game probably wins.

 

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