Minnesota Lynx 84 @ Tulsa Shock 75
Lineups: Nothing new for either team, with the regular starters in place as normal. Backup point guard Nadirah McKenith, who hasn’t played much since joining the Lynx in midseason, wasn’t with the team. Exactly why was unknown.
Story of the Game: The Lynx started better and led by nine in the early stages behind the scoring of Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus (that’s going to become a theme over the course of this recap). They worked the lanes and cut through the defense for layups at times – and inevitably tried to run some of their dive plays to post up the smaller Tulsa perimeter players – but mostly it came down to the ridiculous shooting ability of the All-World Minnesota wings.
Tulsa tried to go through the low-post early on, which got them nowhere, and Skylar Diggins was just at the start of a tough night where she’d struggle to score. But the Shock came back into the game in the second quarter when Minnesota cooled off and started handing over some cheap turnovers, enabling Tulsa to get into transition and Odyssey Sims to start rolling. She had some difficulties adapting to the pro game earlier in the season, and due to that her shooting averages for the season still aren’t great, but she’s been steadily improving. Rather than missing finishes under pressure at the rim, we’re seeing more and more of her little floater when she gets into the lane, which is remarkably consistent and accurate for a difficult shot. As a team, the Shock became the aggressors in the second quarter, driving to the rim and earning trips to the free throw line. With Glory Johnson attacking from the high post area to add balance with Sims, Tulsa were only down by a point at halftime.
In the second half the lights came on and we got the kind of showcase you might’ve expected from two of the top-three offenses in the league. The ‘Maya and Mone Show’ was in full effect for the Lynx, with Moore in particular an unstoppable force for much of the half. She’s athletic and mobile and an excellent finisher at the basket, but the classic image of Moore that sticks in your head is her curling up to take a pass and then rising like a salmon into her effortless shooting motion to knock down an unguardable jump shot. That happened a lot in the second half of this game.
But Tulsa stayed in the contest. Sims was still doing most of the offensive work, with the Lynx cycling through virtually every perimeter player they had in search of someone to guard her. She added some threes to go with all the drives, and then early in the fourth quarter finally got a little help from Diggins. With just over five minutes left in the game, Tulsa even managed to tie up the scores on a Tiffany Jackson-Jones free throw – moments before Moore popped up with another three that broke the WNBA record for 30-point games in a single season. That began a 13-2 run for Minnesota – with 11 of their points in the sequence scored by Moore – that won the game. Ironically, after all the jumpers that had been raining in, Moore and Augustus iced the game with drives, slicing into the defense for layups or earning free throws by drawing contact. A few consecutive misses from Sims and Diggins, and the Lynx were too far gone to catch.
Key Players: For all the talent on Minnesota’s roster, this one really was a two-woman show for most of the night, and even within the pair the star was pretty clear. Moore finished 14-22 for 40 points (also tying the WNBA record for 40-point games in a season, with two), with Augustus one of the best ‘sidekicks’ you’re likely to see at 9-16 for 22. The only surprise from the boxscore is that the Lynx actually scored 38 points in the paint, when it felt like jumpers were raining in from outside all night. That illustrates how smart Moore and Augustus are about cutting into space behind defenses when they start to overplay the jump shots, and how good their teammates are at finding them.
Sims’s line of 9-21 for 25 points isn’t reflective of just how good she was for much of the game, the numbers taking a hit because of the extent to which she ended up trying to carry her team. For a while Minnesota really couldn’t handle her, but in the end she didn’t have enough support and the offense was too focussed on her and Diggins. Make it that obvious where 90% of your offense is going to come from, and eventually a smart team like the Lynx is probably going to cool you off.
Notes of Interest: Janel McCarville ended up with one of the rare ejections in the WNBA this season, after picking up a pair of technicals over the course of the game. The first was after a clash with Glory Johnson – two physical post players who won’t back down from anyone, so not really a surprise; the second appeared to be for suggesting to an official that Courtney Paris was camping in the lane and should be called for a defensive three-seconds violation. Considering the latter tech was with less than 30 seconds left in the game, it was meaningless to the result, but it’ll still cost McCarville a slice of her next paycheck.
Indiana Fever 69 @ Phoenix Mercury 79
Lineups: Phoenix had their regular starters in place, and also welcomed back Erin Phillips to their bench crew after she missed their loss to Minnesota with an ankle sprain. So I guess Phillips can still claim to be chasing the 2001 Los Angeles Sparks for the longest winning-streak in WNBA history. Indiana shook up their starting lineup in an effort to match up with the Mercury. Krystal Thomas came in at center as she had done in their previous game this season against Phoenix, as the designated ‘Griner-Stopper’. But it was shooting guard Shavonte Zellous who moved to the bench, so Marissa Coleman, Tamika Catchings and Erlana Larkins all slid over a spot. It’s probably the first time Catchings has started at small forward since the Fever shifted her to the four in their championship season in 2012.
Story of the Game: While Griner led the scoring for Phoenix in the first half by a decent margin, Thomas did a very useful job. She allowed Indiana to avoid double-teaming for the most part, staying home on the Mercury shooters and making it more difficult for them to find space around the floor. Thomas also forced several misses from Griner on interior shots that she’d usually make, and even came up with several buckets of her own on hustle plays and simple finishes inside. Basically it was a reminder of what the Mercury had in Thomas before they cut her in preseason to make room to keep Ewelina Kobryn (who didn’t play at all in this game) – a solid, big, hard-working post, who can be useful in the right situations.
Indiana kept the game close in the first half, with Zellous providing much of their offense via her perimeter game when she came off the bench. With Diana Taurasi making no impact on the scoreboard at all until a couple of threes late in the half, Phoenix were scoring at a decent rate but not pulling away. Catchings was even quieter than Taurasi, not hitting a single shot, and played very limited minutes.
Despite Griner’s apparent success in the first half – if you just looked at the box score she was 6-11 for 15 points – it was a surprise when Indiana opened the second half with Thomas on the bench and Zellous back in the lineup. While getting Zellous back on the floor made sense after the way she’d scored in the first half, leaving Thomas on the bench really didn’t. But maybe they wanted to speed up their team defense and hopefully create some more transition opportunities. The Mercury had given up just one turnover in the entire first half.
To some extent it worked – the scoring pace slowed significantly in the second half, and Griner was relatively quiet. But the Fever offense was even more dramatically stalled than the Mercury’s, with only Indiana’s continuing dominance on the offensive glass keeping them afloat. They got a little burst of energy from Layshia Clarendon off the bench late in the third and early in the fourth, but in general they found scoring a problem for the entire second half.
It wasn’t until the middle of the fourth quarter that Phoenix managed to take advantage, but when they finally did it decided the game. Taurasi hit a couple of shots, DeWanna Bonner took a charge, they got a couple of layups in transition – all while Indiana continued to brick jumper after jumper – and suddenly a 14-0 run had taken Phoenix into an unassailable lead. It wasn’t a classic Mercury performance by any means, but they’d stuck around long enough for their offense to piece together a stretch that won the game.
Key Players: Griner at the core of the defense, scaring Indiana into spending the second half clanking jump shots off the iron, was probably the major figure for Phoenix. She also led the Mercury scoring, with Taurasi and Bonner the other Phoenix players in double-figures. Candice Dupree pulled one of her disappearing acts, which fortunately for Phoenix have been pretty rare this season.
Thomas played 21 minutes and finished with a positive +/- in a game her team lost by 10, which is an illustration of how effective she was in her time on the floor. But with Catchings going 0-10 from the field (and Karima Christmas 0-8 as the primary backup at that spot) the Fever offense just didn’t produce enough. 4-21 from three-point range isn’t going to cut it, even when you’re heavily on top on the boards.
New York @ Atlanta, 3pm ET. The center matchup between Tina Charles and Erika de Souza will be interesting here, because Charles has taken such a signficant step forward in the second half of the season but de Souza always gives her trouble. And the Dream have clearly been making an effort to get de Souza more involved in their last few games, after she faded in midseason after a very strong start to the year. New York snuck a win over Atlanta on a late Cappie Pondexter jumper when these teams met a couple of weeks ago, but it took significant production from Sugar Rodgers and Plenette Pierson off the Liberty bench to keep them in that game. Seeing their reserves step up has been a more common occurrence for New York lately, and they’ll probably need something like that again to pull off another victory over the Dream.
Connecticut @ Los Angeles, 3.30pm ET. Who knows what you’re going to get from these two. The Sun managed a win in San Antonio on Friday night despite woeful road form over the course of the season and they’ll be looking to a similar equation to try to win this one – offensive boards, interior attack from their posts, and hope that the guards hit a few shots to help out. Los Angeles have been without Candace Parker for their last couple of games, but played some decent stuff at times without her. As with Connecticut, they’ll be looking to their Ogwumike sister for a lot of their energy and scoring inside, and the focus will inevitably fall on those two going at each other for the third time this season (if you count the all-star game).
Washington @ Chicago, 6pm ET. Yet another meaningful clash in the chase for the three remaining playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. The Mystics have won six of their last eight to go to the head of that pack, primarily thanks to improved shooting from their perimeter players. But it was Chicago who picked up a recent boost thanks to the return of Elena Delle Donne from her illness for Thursday’s win over New York. After playing barely ten minutes in that game, it’ll be interesting to see how long she’s capable of featuring for in this one – the first game goes by on adrenaline; then it becomes about real fitness. Washington will collapse their defense on Sylvia Fowles to try to force other Sky players to beat them, something which Chicago have struggled with all season – but which becomes much more plausible if Delle Donne is on the floor.
San Antonio @ Seattle, 9pm ET. The Storm have quietly lost their last seven straight games, as the home-heavy schedule that was supposed to save their season in the closing weeks ultimately failed to help. The playoffs aren’t mathematically gone yet, but it’s becoming a distant possibility. Meanwhile, San Antonio will be looking to bounce back from a poor performance against Connecticut on Friday, and their typical inconsistencies mean it’s a crapshoot as to what we’ll get from them. Seattle’s defense tries to protect the rim above all else – although they haven’t been up to much at that this season either – which tends to leave perimeter shooters open. So San Antonio will get the outside looks that they love, and then it’s just a case of knocking them down. Seattle will be hoping to see another strong performance from Shekinna Stricklen after she was the only real positive about their last game in a loss to Indiana.