The Daily W, 08/01/2014

 

Phoenix Mercury 67 @ Minnesota Lynx 75

 

Lineups: While both teams had their first-choice starters in place for this much-anticipated clash, it turned out that not everyone was available. Erin Phillips was missing for the Mercury due to a sprained left ankle, one of very few games that a rotation player has missed for Phoenix this year due to injury.

 

Story of the Game: As it turned out, the top two offenses in the WNBA didn’t produce anything remotely resembling a shootout. In fact, we saw a whole stream of misses from every conceivable angle over the course of the game. Lots of missed jumpers, many missed layups, pretty poor three-point shooting, and even mediocre production from the free-throw line. The game everyone had been anticipating for quite a while turned out to be a physical battle featuring more bricks and bruises than smooth offensive execution.

Which isn’t to say that it was a bad game. The Mercury opened up trying to go inside to Brittney Griner repeatedly, and had some success early on. Minnesota were firing a lot of jumpers, and not hitting many. Phoenix’s perimeter defense has gotten better since they’ve realised that Griner’s protecting behind them and they can adjust accordingly. It allows them to go over every screen and try to stay on the hip of the shooter, because they’re not nearly as afraid of that opponent turning the corner and driving for a layup. That leads to more closely contested jumpers, and more misses – even when Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus are the ones taking the shots.

The Lynx started building a lead late in the first quarter thanks to an old Mercury trick – force steals or grab long rebounds, and run. Phoenix don’t score quite as many transition points as they used to, and Minnesota might be the better fastbreak team of the two at this point. They pushed, got some layups while Phoenix were stalling at the other end, and led by 11 at the end of the first period. Tan White hitting a couple of threes helped as well.

But Phoenix wiped out most of the gap in the second quarter. They weren’t running their offense with their usual fluency, the ball sticking in the face of physical and smart Lynx defense. But Phoenix earned a few free throws by driving into contact, Griner, Candice Dupree and Penny Taylor hit a couple of shots apiece, and back they came. The Mercury also went to their 2-3 zone, and while Minnesota created some good looks against it, they didn’t knock many down. Phoenix were within three at the interval.

The scrappy, bitty game continued in the third, with neither offense showing much fluidity. Diana Taurasi was getting frustrated by the physical attention of Minnesota’s defenders, and missing more shots than anyone else in her attempts to respond. Sometimes, pissing her off works out well for a defense. But Minnesota’s offense was struggling as well, so they couldn’t pull away. The Lynx were achieving one of the key priorities of head coach Cheryl Reeve – take care of the ball to prevent Phoenix getting into an offensive flow off turnovers or mistakes – but they weren’t hitting shots. It was a struggle to score points for both teams almost all night long.

But finally, in the fourth quarter, some daylight. It became the ‘Maya and Mone Show’ for Minnesota, as their star wings suddenly found some rhythm and started knocking down shots. Moore hit a pair of threes, both on sideline plays where she inbounded the ball and got it straight back for clean looks. They snuck in for the occasional layup, but essentially two of the best jumpshooters in the women’s game finally started hitting jump shots, and that turned the contest. They were 8-13 combined in the fourth quarter, for 22 points, and with the vociferous home crowd behind them they took control of the game.

The Mercury hung around, with a Taurasi jumper and then a pair of Griner free throws (on a desperately soft call) bringing them within four points in the final minutes. But both times the Lynx answered with jumpers to hold them at bay. When Taurasi missed a three on the Mercury’s next possession with under a minute to play, their win streak was over at 16.

 

Key Players: On a night where they shot a combined 15-42 from the field, it was still Moore and Augustus who eventually played the central roles in finishing the game off for Minnesota. But it was the team defense that did the job for most of the night while they struggled to hit shots. The Lynx dealt better with the level of contact that the officials allowed throughout the game, and it was Phoenix who lost their composure a little in the second half. This game doesn’t win the Lynx anything in terms of the overall season, but it keeps them alive for the top seed in the West, and it’s a nice little reminder to the Mercury that the road to a WNBA championship in 2014 is still likely to go through Minnesota.

Outside of Taurasi, Phoenix actually didn’t shoot that badly. It was her 5-21 that really hurt – the most shots she’s taken in a game this season, and easily her most misses. Minnesota managed to take Phoenix out of their rhythm, and we never saw the smooth ball movement and seemingly effortless teamwork and cohesion that’s been the Mercury trademark all year. And while the Lynx obviously tried to make it difficult to feed her, Griner didn’t see nearly enough of the ball as the game wore on. Minnesota still don’t really have anyone who can guard her inside, whether it’s Janel McCarville trying to bump her off her spot or Devereaux Peters trying to use her length. Both teams will learn from this game, and it’ll be interesting to see what changes are made for their final regular season meeting on August 9th.

 

Notes of Interest: Minnesota had a significant advantage on the offensive glass, and Phoenix continue to be a strangely terrible rebounding team. With their size and length, even if the scheme sometimes takes them out of ideal position, they shouldn’t be beaten on the boards as often as they are.

Taurasi got frustrated enough to eventually whine her way into another technical, her sixth of the season. Numbers seven, nine, eleven etc. result in one-game suspensions. So lets hope she’s actually available for their remaining game against Minnesota.

 

—–

 

New York Liberty 74 @ Chicago Sky 87

 

Lineups: While the starting fives were the same as we’ve seen in recent games for both these teams, the big news surrounded a player coming off the bench for Chicago for the first time in her pro career. Elena Delle Donne was back after missing 17 of the Sky’s last 18 games due to illness relating to her battles with Lyme disease. Point guard Courtney Vandersloot is still out due to a knee problem, but at least the star who’d helped carry them through the opening weeks of the season was back in the fold.

 

Story of the Game: There wasn’t much between the teams in the first half. Chicago had difficulty getting the ball to Sylvia Fowles inside as usual, but they did pick up some early points in transition by pushing the ball through Epiphanny Prince and Jamierra Faulkner. Delle Donne made her first appearance late in the first quarter, and while she didn’t do much in that first stint, Fowles did pick up a layup immediately after she entered. Just the attention Delle Donne draws helps the Sky out, even if she isn’t at 100%.

The Liberty tried to attack Delle Donne when she came in, and make her work on the defensive end. Plenette Pierson was the main player going at her, and while that wasn’t particularly effective the Liberty’s bench in general once again produced and helped New York stay in the game. Shanece McKinney had some decent minutes after early foul trouble for Avery Warley-Talbert, Swin Cash had some extra pep in her step against one of her former teams, and guards Sugar Rodgers and Natasha Lacy provided their usual energy. Cappie Pondexter and Tina Charles hit a couple of shots in the first half, but Pondexter has been limited for much of the season and Fowles always makes scoring hard work for Charles. It was the rest of the Liberty squad that kept them level.

Fowles had grown increasingly – and visibly – frustrated at her team’s inability to get her the ball in the first half, and that didn’t improve much in the third quarter. But she continued to work, producing the defense and hustle plays that Chicago needed in the middle. Pokey Chatman also inserted Delle Donne surprisingly early in the third quarter after being deeply unimpressed with her team’s energy to start the second half, and it worked. Delle Donne immediately hit a runner in the lane for her first bucket of the night, followed it up with some useful help defense, and then a three. They kept her minutes heavily restricted, but that little burst in the third was important for kick-starting Chicago in the second half.

Even with Pondexter and Charles largely shut down, New York managed to hang around until the fourth quarter, when an early run for Chicago just about decided the game. Finally, they found ways to get Fowles the ball in position to score, and without much help coming down to aid Charles in stopping her she took advantage. Fowles added a bucket off an offensive board, then another from a pick-and-roll, and suddenly the Sky were in charge. The Liberty never showed any signs of making a meaningful comeback for the rest of the game.

 

Key Players: Allie Quigley shot well in a nice bounce-back game after some poor recent performances, but the big names were the story for Chicago. Fowles’s ability to defend Charles successfully one-on-one allows the Sky to cover her very differently from how most opponents take on that task, and on the rare occasions Chicago got their big center the ball in the paint she produced points as well. Meanwhile, Delle Donne played just over 10 minutes – less than the pre-game discussion had suggested – but she made an important contribution in the third quarter, and just her presence likely lifted the team. If this squad can sneak into the playoffs, and somehow arrive there largely healthy, there’s always that lingering chance that they could scare someone in the postseason.

Even with the supporting players performing much better of late, it’s always going to be hard for New York to win games when Charles and Pondexter are a combined 9-29 from the field. That’s not good enough. Bill Laimbeer will also be upset about a run of sloppy turnovers early in the fourth quarter when his team needed to hold it together to keep the game a contest, and instead let it slip away. The Liberty are still half a game ahead of Chicago for the final playoff spot after this result, but they’ve lost all four games against the Sky this year (and hence Chicago obviously hold the tiebreaker if they end up tied at the end of the season).

 

Notes of Interest: Delle Donne played all her minutes at power forward alongside Fowles, rather than the small forward spot she filled the majority of the time in the games before her illness. That may have been more due to how the partnership between Fowles and Jessica Breland has failed to click than a decision about how to use Delle Donne, but it’ll be interesting to see if it continues. Maybe the Sky feel more comfortable with her trying to defend inside right now rather than chasing around perimeter players.

 

—–

 

Atlanta Dream 85 @ Tulsa Shock 75

 

Lineups: For the second consecutive game, Atlanta started Celine Dumerc at point guard, rather than Jasmine Thomas. Considering the switch had helped them end a run of four losses, that was no surprise. There was good news and bad news for the Shock. The good news was that Tiffany Jackson-Jones was in uniform and available to play for the first time all year after preseason surgery on her shin. The bad news was that they’d finally pulled the plug on Riquna Williams’s faltering attempts to return from her knee injury (or injuries), and announced that she’d have surgery and miss the rest of the season. Exactly what the injury – or surgery – is, wasn’t revealed. It was a bruise way back when this saga began earlier in the season, but presumably it’s something rather more serious at this point.

 

Story of the Game: The first half was sloppy, with a combined 27 turnovers by the two teams. Several times, one side or the other would create a steal only to give the ball right back with an overthrown pass. As usual, both teams wanted to push the pace and attack in transition whenever they could. Atlanta were much more efficient, looking for Erika de Souza in the paint and finding her nicely, while Tiffany Hayes both attacked off the dribble and knocked down a couple of threes from outside. After a reasonably quiet half, Angel McCoughtry also joined in the scoring late in the second quarter.

Tulsa managed to hang around in the first half despite shooting 38% to Atlanta’s 61%, thanks to drawing enough fouls through Skylar Diggins and Glory Johnson, and hitting few threes via Odyssey Sims and Jordan Hooper. Then in the third quarter, with Jackson-Jones producing two quick buckets in her first minutes of the season, the Shock even briefly managed to sneak in front. It was still a messy game, and the Shock weren’t shooting as well as Atlanta, but they were hanging around.

The key run came fairly early in the fourth, starting with another Hayes three. That kicked off a 10-0 push for the Dream, taking them into a seven-point lead, and the Shock could never close that gap. Atlanta’s interior defense took a step up in the fourth quarter, with de Souza and Sancho Lyttle helping keep Diggins and Sims out of the paint, and Tulsa couldn’t hit the perimeter shots to punish the Dream defense for focussing on protecting the rim. A little more veteran experience, and a little more variety to Atlanta’s attack and skills, proved the difference.

 

Key Players: Hayes led the scoring for the Dream with 27, but McCoughtry and de Souza weren’t far behind. The turnovers were out of control for long stretches, and they gave up too many offensive boards, but when they managed to keep hold of the ball this was more like the style that Dream fans want to see. Erika gave them the base inside, Hayes and McCoughtry attacked, and the perimeter players hit enough shots from outside that the opposing defense couldn’t completely collapse into the paint. Dumerc hasn’t hit a shot since moving into the starting lineup again (she wasn’t hitting many coming off the bench), but 16 assists in two games is the more important stat. She creates more than Thomas, and she’s not afraid to tell McCoughtry what to do. They were hiding Dumerc defensively on Roneeka Hodges whenever possible, which is a switch from Thomas – who usually covered the opposing point guard and generally did a useful job. But if they have to rejigger their defense a little to wake up their offense, it’s likely a worthwhile tradeoff.

It was another one of those games where you look at the box score and wonder how the Shock managed to stay in it for so long. All of Atlanta’s turnovers helped, but the Shock are still heavily dependent on their two young guards leading the offense, and Diggins/Sims shot 12-37 on the night. Hard to win when that’s happening.

 

Notes of Interest: McCoughtry put in some nice work setting screens for her teammates in the paint in this game, as the Dream made efforts to get Erika back into her form from earlier in the season. See, I can praise McCoughtry when she deserves it.

 

—–

 

Indiana Fever 76 @ Seattle Storm 67

 

Lineups: No changes for either side from the groups we’ve seen in recent games. The tip-off was late due to a pre-game ceremony saying goodbye to Karen Bryant, the Storm’s retiring CEO and president. Considering everything she’s meant to women’s basketball in the Seattle area, it was richly deserved.

 

Story of the Game: Unfortunately, the game didn’t provide much of a send-off for Bryant. An endless stream of bricks stalled the Indiana offense in the second quarter, while an array of poor turnovers kept Seattle from taking much advantage. The Storm scored reasonably efficiently when they managed to keep hold of the ball, but the game was poor at both ends of the floor in the first half. Maybe the defenses deserved some of the credit, but it felt like neither team was producing anything worthwhile to attack them.

The scoring picked up in the second half, with both teams hitting a lot of the perimeter shots they’d been clanking off the iron before the break. Shekinna Stricklen was having one of her productive nights, raining in threes for the Storm, and Sue Bird hit a few shots in support as well. But Indiana kept pace, and they were the team playing with more conviction in the fourth quarter, looking like they honestly believed and expected that they could win the game.

Seattle kept hanging around, and a steal into a breakaway layup for Tanisha Wright pulled them within two points with three minutes left in regulation – only for Tamika Catchings to drill a three immediately at the other end to suck the air back out of the building. Moments later, a Seattle defensive breakdown on an inbounds play handed Indiana a wide open layup, and just about summed up the Storm’s season. Lots of effort, and plenty of close calls, but invariably a little short.

 

Key Players: It never felt like Indiana played particularly well – most of the game gave the impression of two poor teams that would be unlikely to beat a decent opponent – but they ended up with decent balance across their starting lineup. The Fever moved the ball better in the second half, made the shots they needed to, and executed better in the closing stages to pull out the win. It won’t make many highlight reels, but it counts 1 in the W column all the same.

Stricklen’s performance was the highlight for Seattle, and yet again raises those faint hopes that she can produce this kind of form on a more regular basis. At this point, after so many false dawns, we’ll all believe it when we see it.

 

—–

 

Today’s Game

 

Connecticut @ San Antonio, 8pm ET. The Sun need this game rather more than San Antonio do, but it’s hard to see that being enough. Connecticut have been a poor road team all season, and while they’re still in the playoff hunt in the East, that’s more through default than their own recent performances. While San Antonio aren’t good at defending the interior, or cleaning the glass, they showed in their last game at Chicago that they can collapse inside if they’re not remotely scared by the opposing perimeter players. And lately, Katie Douglas, Alex Bentley and Renee Montgomery haven’t been scaring anyone. San Antonio have better shooters, and if a couple of them get hot enough they should have what it takes to hold off the Sun – unless one or two of those Connecticut perimeter players actually discover their own shooting touch. I wouldn’t hold your breath.

 

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