Connecticut Sun 89 @ San Antonio Stars 79
Lineups: The starters were as in recent games for both teams. Connecticut had Danielle McCray available for the first time since mid-June after recovering from her broken thumb. Her return had required the Sun to release Briana Gilbreath-Butler, who’d been used sparingly anyway by Anne Donovan during her brief stint in Connecticut. In the order of meaningful player swaps throughout basketball history, McCray for Gilbreath-Butler is not high on the list.
Story of the Game: Unfortunately, due to the vagaries of the WNBA’s LiveAccess service, I didn’t get to see much of the first meaningful stretch of this game. The video stopped at 5:41 in the first quarter with the score tied at 6-6, and returned early in the second period with Connecticut ahead 22-12 (and they haven’t fixed anything with the archived video). I can point out that San Antonio’s weak interior defense had already given up three easy layups before the feed died, but that the play-by-play tells us that much of Connecticut’s lead was built by hitting perimeter shots. The Sun haven’t done much of that recently, so it’s a little less embarrassing that the Stars would let them fire from there than give up the open lanes to the hoop.
San Antonio can be a pretty frustrating team. When they’re on-song, moving the ball around and hitting shots, they can be lovely to watch. But when they’re bad they’re terrible. They go cold from the perimeter, the ball stops moving, the shot clock dwindles, and they generally grind to a halt. Defensively they’ve been pretty poor all season, with the combination of a lack of size and some sloppy rotations leaving them weak inside and shaky on the glass. In this game, things only got worse in the second quarter, with Renee Montgomery scoring inside and out for the Sun while they gathered offensive boards and Chiney Ogwumike slashed to the rim with ease. It was especially disappointing how simple pick-and-rolls up top left Ogwumike a wide open lane to roll in for straightforward layups. San Antonio’s only remotely consistent offense came from Kayla McBride, and they were lucky to be down by just 13 at halftime.
The Stars still couldn’t slow down Ogwumike or Kelsey Bone in the third quarter, and the lead hit 20 at one stage. Dan Hughes screamed his way into a technical, and got desperate enough to try recent teenage signing Astou Ndour in the third period. She’s been shooting almost every time she touches the ball in her brief appearances, and that was no different in this game, but you can see the athleticism and potential. The constant firing is probably partly a product of wanting to make an impression, and partly because she doesn’t know the schemes yet so just lets fly.
San Antonio did finally show up to play, but they left it a little too late to get started. The collective work on the glass improved in the second half, and the shooting of McBride, Danielle Adams and Becky Hammon finally started producing some offense in the fourth quarter. In fact, with just under two minutes left, a three-point play by McBride pulled the gap down to five points. But when Alyssa Thomas missed on a runner, Ogwumike came up with the tap-back offensive rebound, and after a timeout Thomas converted in the post over McBride. When a Danielle Robinson driving layup rolled off on San Antonio’s next possession and the clock ticked under a minute, the game was essentially over. The Stars just gave themselves too much to do to recover.
Key Players: For the Sun, Ogwumike was a ridiculous 11-13 from the field for 24 points and 12 boards, leading the way for her team. San Antonio’s bigs couldn’t remotely handle her speed or athleticism, with Jayne Appel looking particularly at sea. Alex Bentley and Renee Montgomery hit some shots from the perimeter, which is always important to give the Sun some balance and stop teams from collapsing on their posts too egregiously.
The other contributor offensively for Connecticut was Thomas, who had an interesting matchup with McBride – intriguing partly because Thomas was the clear alternative in this year’s draft when Hughes decided to take McBride ahead of her. They weren’t guarding each other as much as you might expect, because McBride slid to shooting guard for extended stretches, but both showed off some of their talents. Thomas is a big wing, who can attack smaller perimeter players with her post game and helps out inside with her size and strength. McBride is quicker but smaller, and can light it up from outside (while Thomas’s main negative is her shaky jump shot and limited range). It’s going to be fun watching both for years to come.
Beyond McBride, the Stars didn’t get much offense from anyone until late, when Adams started to join in. San Antonio’s inconsistencies make it hard for them to join the elite part of the Western Conference, and it still feels like LA might be a more realistic challenger in the first round of the playoffs against Phoenix or Minnesota. The Stars are a good team on their day, but rarely great and they have too many games like this one. LA are wildly inconsistent as well, and have been a mess for much of the season, but if they happened to pull themselves together their ceiling seems higher right now.
Minnesota @ Tulsa, 8pm ET. Coming off their big win to break Phoenix’s streak, the Lynx have to be a little wary of the ‘let down game’ against the Shock. The quickness of the Diggins/Sims backcourt could give them problems, and we’ll probably see Monica Wright playing a bunch of minutes purely for her defense against one or the other. Considering Tulsa’s dismal transition defense, and Minnesota’s willingness to run right along with opponents that want to push the pace, it could be an up-and-down game, but the superior execution of the Lynx should give them the edge. We’ve seen the Shock blow close games all season long (and in previous years), so if it stays close Minnesota would be strong favourites to pull the game out. And a Tulsa blowout seems like a definite longshot.
Indiana @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. The clash of styles could be interesting here. After recent games against New York and Minnesota, Diana Taurasi and the Mercury have spent some time whining about the physicality of the games (despite Taurasi herself always being happy to dish out as much punishment as she takes). And while they’re not quite as physical as they once were, Indiana will happily turn games into a battle. Briann January will be all over Taurasi like a rash, they’ll likely use Krystal Thomas again to help compete with Brittney Griner’s size, and the Fever will generally just try to get under the Mercury’s skin. When it comes down to it, Indiana probably won’t have the offense to keep up with Phoenix however the game is played, but they might make it interesting along the way.