The Daily W, 08/05/2014

 

New York Liberty 83 @ Atlanta Dream 76

 

Lineups: Same as usual for New York, and Atlanta continued with Celine Dumerc at point guard for the third game in a row. The important news for them was that head coach Michael Cooper was back on the sidelines after recent surgery for tongue cancer.

 

Story of the Game: The first half was a strange combination of dominance and calamity for New York. Tina Charles did most of the dominating, hitting smoothly with her mid-range jumper and attacking both Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle inside as well. Alex Montgomery also hit several shots from outside, providing some punishment when Atlanta tried to drop extra defenders down to surround Charles. But the Liberty also gave up 14 turnovers in the opening 20 minutes, with three dreadful passes from Cappie Pondexter opening the floodgates early on and the waves just continuing from there. Atlanta’s aggressive, overplaying defense – led by Angel McCoughtry and Sancho Lyttle – always makes them a threat to grab steals like that. But these Liberty players, especially Pondexter, have played against McCoughtry and Lyttle umpteen times and know the dangers. There was some desperately sloppy passing from New York in the first half.

But while the steals and breakaways made it feel like Atlanta were in charge, they never led by more than six points and were only up by a point at halftime. The Liberty stifled their halfcourt offense entirely, with McCoughtry forcing up some awful shots and the other perimeter players cold as well. Lyttle was decent from mid-range, but when they weren’t running off steals the Dream produced minimal offense.

After Bill Laimbeer probably spent the entire halftime break screaming at his players, they did a much better job taking care of the ball in the second half. And while Montgomery disappeared, Anna Cruz stepped up as Charles’s sidekick and hit shots in the space that opened up away from the Liberty center. With Pondexter finally hitting a shot or two, and Atlanta’s offense drying up without the transition chances off steals, New York began to pull away in the third quarter.

The Dream could never quite climb back into the game in the fourth. They tried some bizarre lineups in the effort, including benching Tiffany Hayes in favour of Matee Ajavon for the entire period and trying little-used backup Nadia Colhado in the post, but it smacked of desperation. McCoughtry tried to gun them back into it, and hit a few threes to keep their faint hopes alive for a while, but New York made enough plays to hold on for the win.

 

Key Players: Charles, Charles, Charles. While Atlanta kept her a little quieter in the second half, even that just served to open things up for her teammates, who actually took advantage for once. Montgomery, Cruz and Pondexter provided enough support in the spaces that opened up, and the team rebounding against an Atlanta squad that’s very dangerous on the glass was big as well. New York had just three turnovers in the second half after the 14 in the first.

McCoughtry and Lyttle’s numbers ended up looking pretty good, but once the breakaways disappeared the Dream didn’t have a lot left to turn to. Hayes never go going, de Souza was rarely involved, and Charles was in the kind of mood where their defense couldn’t stop her whichever players they tried against her. This is the kind of game that illustrates how much of a crapshoot the Eastern Conference playoffs could be, yet again. Atlanta looked like the heavy favourites earlier in the season, but they’ve come back to the pack a little and anyone can beat anyone at this point. New York are still fighting to get in, but games like this will give them hope that if they can sneak into the postseason, anything could happen.

 

Notes of Interest: A sequence right at the end of the game, when the contest was essentially over, summed up the difference between the teams on the night. Charde Houston penetrated for New York, kicked out to an open Pondexter, and she knocked down the jumper. Atlanta went to the other end, and McCoughtry stepped directly into a three that hit nothing but backboard. The Liberty moved the ball, and hit shots in open space; the ball stuck too much for the Dream, and as a result they tossed up a lot of bricks.

 

—–

 

Connecticut Sun 69 @ Los Angeles Sparks 70

 

Lineups: The good news for Los Angeles was that Candace Parker was fit to play after her knee strain, and took her regular spot in the starting lineup back from Armintie Herrington. Connecticut put out the same group as usual.

 

Story of the Game: The first half is best left forgotten, preferably with the video buried in a deep, dark hole. Lots of turnovers – with the resulting breaks the primary way either team managed to score any points – and the 28-27 scoreline at halftime made the game sound about as exciting as it deserved.

The second half was a lot more fun. Chiney Ogwumike was outstanding for Connecticut, scoring around, over and through any defender LA threw at her (including her sister). The second-layer help defense from LA was atrocious, although Connecticut did come up with a couple of decent sets to create space for her. The Sun don’t run the most complex offense in the world by any means, but the ‘4-out, 1-in’ plays worked well, as did the pick-and-rolls, and even some dives from the corner. She was all over the Sparks.

But LA managed to counter, with a series of buckets from backup post Sandrine Gruda proving important in the third quarter against her old team. The other key player for LA in the second half was Alana Beard, who basically carried their offense for long stretches. She attacked once or twice off the dribble or in transition, but mostly she was scarily hot with her jump shot. A couple of times she took advantage of Connecticut going under screens and giving her room – exactly what you should do against Beard considering her typical offensive production – but once she got rolling she was just hitting everything.

But with Chiney helping Connecticut to a heavy dominance on the offensive glass, the Sun were up by six points with under 30 seconds left to play. Then Beard hit a three when the Sun gave her too much room yet again; Renee Montgomery went 1-of-2 at the free throw line; Candace Parker grabbed an offensive rebound for a putback that was her only basket of the entire second half; and then the pivotal moment happened. Why the Sun didn’t call timeout after Parker’s finish, only Alyssa Thomas and Anne Donovan could tell you. Whatever the excuse, it was pretty dumb. Thomas struggled to get the ball in, and then flung a horrible pass into traffic that Nneka Ogwumike picked off right in front of her sister. LA reversed the ball to Kristi Toliver, who hit a three for her only bucket of the entire game to give LA the lead. It was the sort of crazy finish that had won LA several games in Staples in recent years, but rarely occurred this season.

Connecticut still had nine seconds to salvage the game (they finally remembered to call timeout and advance the ball after Toliver’s three). The play put the ball in Montgomery’s hands, with Bone slipping to the basket and Katie Douglas popping out for three the passing options. She kept it, bricked a 20-footer, and LA had somehow won the game.

 

Key Players: Beard led the way for LA, with intermittent help from Nneka Ogwumike and that burst from Gruda helping out. Parker played 35 minutes, looked pretty mobile, but did virtually nothing. She played the entire second half, and was almost invisible throughout. Similarly, Toliver was very quiet, until that huge shot at the end. Maybe the grandstand finish can be a boost for LA’s season, but it really wasn’t much of a performance. The defense against Chiney Ogwumike in the second half was dismal, and the offense was propped up by the kind of shooting performance we see from Beard only two or three times a season. All accomplished at home against one of the worst road teams in the WNBA. LA can clinch a playoff spot if they win tonight, but even uplifting wins like this one don’t offer a great deal of hope that they’ll win any games once they get into the postseason.

Chiney ended the game 11-19 from the field for 23 points and 13 boards, and the Sun stopped going to her in the latter stages of the second half for no good reason. No one else was remotely consistent, with Douglas and Montgomery trying to fire shots in from outside to balance out the offense but missing more than they hit. LA are slipping through the backdoor into the postseason, while the Sun are starting to drop behind their rivals in the East.

 

Notes of Interest: Armintie Herrington limped off the court early in the third quarter after Bone ran into her on a spin move. It looked like a right knee injury, and she eventually headed back to the locker room after extensive treatment on the sidelines. The positive report from the broadcast team was that she could’ve returned if needed (although she never actually did).

 

—–

 

Washington Mystics 65 @ Chicago Sky 76

 

Lineups: The starters were as expected for both teams. Chicago continued to be boosted by the return of Elena Delle Donne, coming off the bench for the second time since returning from her illness. Washington had a much lower-profile returnee, with backup forward Jelena Milovanovic playing for the first time in over a month.

 

Story of the Game: Chicago were in charge for much of the first half. Even before Delle Donne came into the game, Epiphanny Prince was creating problems by beating Bria Hartley off the dribble, they actually found Sylvia Fowles a couple of times for finishes inside, and they were pushing with speed and aggression in transition for early offense. When Delle Donne arrived, she was her typical wonderful release valve, helping to spread the floor, hitting shots from the perimeter when given an inch of space, and being the perfect option to toss the ball to if the shot clock was running down and nothing else had presented itself. Chicago were up by as many as 16 in the first half.

Washington struggled to create good looks against Chicago’s defense, which was rotating quicker and playing with more strength and solidity than we’ve seen for quite some time. Delle Donne, while not a great defender, is still very big and long, and helps clog the paint for the Sky. Emma Meesseman made a couple of nice moves for Washington, and Ivory Latta hit some threes to give them hope, but their offense was limited.

The Mystics made a game of it for a while in the second half. They came out pushing the ball hard, moving better and quicker, and with Meesseman leading the way dragged the gap down to just three points late in the third quarter. But Delle Donne drilled a triple to push the lead instantly back to six, and Washington never got any closer than that for the rest of the night. For the second straight game since she returned, the Sky were able to rest Delle Donne for most of the fourth quarter because her teammates managed to maintain their lead without needing her on the floor. After sitting out the entire fourth last time, this time she got to come back in for the last few minutes and drill a couple more shots just to ice it for good.

 

Key Players: In just 16 minutes of action, Delle Donne shot 7-12 for 21 points to lead the Sky’s scoring. But more than that, Chicago look like a much more confident and relaxed team with her back in the fold. Even when she wasn’t on the floor, they were more active, more mobile, and generally looked like they believed they were going to win the game. Last year they finished the regular season top of the East, and their inexperience cost them against Indiana in a first round embarrassment. This year, if they can sneak in, the pressure will be off and they could scare someone in the postseason.

Meesseman was easily Washington’s best player, and her matchup with Delle Donne was a lot of fun to watch when they went head-to-head. The talented Belgian forward’s developing into a smooth, effective scorer, with lovely touch on both her finishing moves and passes. And she’s only 21, nearly four years younger than Delle Donne – there’s a lot more to come.

 

Notes of Interest: Delle Donne continues to play all her minutes at power forward. That’s not good or bad, it’s just intriguing considering the first-choice lineup at the start of the season was supposed to feature her at small forward, with Fowles and Jessica Breland inside. We’ll see how they shift things when she’s ready to play more minutes.

 

—–

 

San Antonio Stars 65 @ Seattle Storm 71

 

Lineups: As expected for both teams.

 

Story of the Game: Seattle dominated the first half. Early on, they cut through San Antonio’s defense for easy layups, with the secondary defensive rotations breaking down for the Stars as they have for much of the season. Then as San Antonio overcompensated to cover the paint, the Storm started knocking down wide open jump shots from the perimeter instead. They missed several as the half wore on, and perhaps settled for too many jumpers, but they also continued to attack the basket on a fairly regular basis. That was a positive for Seattle, who’ve drifted away from successful interior attacks in too many games this season.

San Antonio couldn’t get anything going offensively. The ball wasn’t moving, so Seattle’s defense had little trouble sticking with them and forcing misses. Danielle Robinson hit a few of her mid-range jumpers, but as a team they shot 28% in the first half for just 21 points. It was ugly.

But in the third quarter, the Stars fought their way back. Some early threes from Kayla McBride and Becky Hammon gave them something to build on, and defensively they were at least making the Storm work a little harder for their points. Crystal Langhorne missed an unusual number of finishes in the paint, trying to navigate her way around Jayne Appel, who remains a difficult defender to wrap your head around. Sometimes she’s very effective, using her size and strength to fight for position, and doing a good job of staying vertical to make it difficult to get past her. But sometimes – usually when teams put her into rotations and make her move – she looks pedestrian at best, statuesque at worst.

When Danielle Adams joined in the offense for San Antonio, both finishing inside and drilling shots from the perimeter, the Stars really began to charge. A 17-3 run from late in the third to midway into the fourth quarter turned the game on its head, and took San Antonio into the lead. While they’d picked things up and were playing with much greater speed and an attacking approach, Seattle had faded into that jump-shooting mentality and weren’t knocking anything down.

But for once, the Storm found an answer – a rare sight this season. Sue Bird and Langhorne made most of the key plays down the stretch, Bird hitting a jumper before feeding a pretty pass to Langhorne for a finish through contact. Then Bird added a steal and the resulting breakaway layup on top for a six-point lead with under two minutes to play. From there, Seattle just about made enough free throws to cling on and keep their faint glimmer of postseason hope alive.

 

Key Players: The Storm were at their best when they were attacking inside early on, which is why the stat-lines that jump out at you from the box score are Langhorne’s and Camille Little’s. While defenses obviously compensate and start to close off their lanes – San Antonio certainly collapsed more in the second half of this game – Seattle get into trouble when they start settling for the perimeter shots that opponents want them to take. Too often, it seems like it’s their own choice to stop feeding Langhorne and Little, rather than something they’ve been forced into by the defense.

Adams, McBride and Robinson were the primary scorers for San Antonio, who once again dug themselves too big a hole to climb out of. They’ve lost four of their last five now (or seven of their last nine if you want to go back a bit further), which isn’t the sort of form you want to take into the playoffs. Third or fourth place in the West isn’t going to make much difference – we don’t even know which will get Phoenix and which Minnesota yet – but the Stars have had trouble showing up for a full 40 minutes lately.

 

—–

 

League News

 

The NBA’s San Antonio Spurs announced today that Becky Hammon would be joining them as an assistant coach when she retires from playing at the end of the WNBA season. She’s obviously been part of the Spurs/Stars organisation for a long time, and has also worked with the Spurs for the last couple of years in an intern role during the WNBA offseason. She’ll be the first woman to join a regular season NBA coaching staff, and considering the Spurs are generally thought to be the model NBA organisation, it’s a very positive step for both Hammon and the women’s game. The Spurs aren’t the kind of franchise who’d be doing this as a gimmick or for publicity – they clearly think she has a lot to offer. As an incredibly smart player on the court, there’s every chance that she could make a very good coach. Good luck to her.

 

—–

 

Today’s Games

 

New York @ Washington, 7pm ET. There’s just one game separating four teams in the middle of the East right now, so games like this between two of them are crucial with only a couple of weeks left in the season. With Tina Charles coming alive and a deeper bench, the Liberty have become a much more dangerous team in the second half of the season, but they scraped past the Mystics in overtime a week ago and there’s every chance that this one will be just as tight. As usual, with the defense collapsing on Charles, it’ll be down to her teammates to take advantage and the result will likely depend on whether they’re successful.

 

Chicago @ Connecticut, 7pm ET. The Sun are still just about in the playoff hunt, and four of their final five games are at home, but they’ll need to win at least four of them. It starts against the Sky, who’ve had much better energy since Delle Donne’s return, but both of those games were on their home floor. Travelling creates a different atmosphere, and also puts different stresses on Delle Donne’s body, so we’ll see how they cope. Given recent performances, Chicago should probably be the favourites. Sylvia Fowles will clog the paint, making it more difficult for the Sun to score through Ogwumike and Bone inside, and then they’re praying Douglas and co. hit some shots. But the Sky are still proving that their rebound is going to last, even with Delle Donne back on the floor.

 

Minnesota @ Indiana, 7pm ET. The Fever have been largely unimpressive since the All-Star break, but a run of five straight road games didn’t help that. At least now they’re back home, even if the visitors are tough. The Lynx are 1.5 games behind Phoenix for top spot in the West – and likely home-court advantage throughout the playoffs – and may well need to run the table to catch the Mercury by the end of the regular season. More important is continuing to build momentum and cohesion with a roster that’s only recently gotten healthy. A battle with the only team that’s won a series against them in the postseason in the last three years should be a nice test.

 

Atlanta @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. A year or two ago, this matchup would’ve seen running, running and more running. Atlanta still play at comfortably the fastest pace in the league, but the Mercury have slowed down dramatically under Sandy Brondello and are considerably better for it. While both teams are still looking to clinch top spot in their respective conferences, the real interest here comes from the possibility that it could be a preview of the WNBA Finals coming up in about a month. The battle between Brittney Griner and Erika de Souza in the paint should be interesting, especially around whether Erika can shift Griner off the block or body her into missing inside without fouling her. At the other end, the question is whether Atlanta can score enough points when Griner’s in the paint waiting for the drives of McCoughtry and Hayes or the post moves of de Souza. We know Phoenix have shooters who can hurt Atlanta, but can the Dream hit the shots they’ll need to drain against the Mercury? They’ll also try to draw Griner out of the paint so they can attack the space behind her, but Phoenix have been pretty good at avoiding those issues this year, and finding ways to drop Griner back in regardless of the methods of attack.

 

Tulsa @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET. As mentioned earlier, a win for LA tonight seals their playoff spot. A loss for Tulsa doesn’t put the final nail in their coffin – they could still theoretically catch San Antonio – but the hammer would be on its way down. The Sparks should be able to score against Tulsa – the Shock’s interior defense is still suspect, so Ogwumike, Parker and Lavender should have space to finish. But Tulsa’s transition attack and dribble-penetration is likely to give them problems at the other end. If LA want to be taken seriously for the rest of the season and into the playoffs, they need to match the energy that teams like the Shock bring into their games, and try to build off that frankly very lucky win over Connecticut. This team really hasn’t looked a lot different under Penny Toler than it did under Carol Ross – except that Parker has mostly either been injured or subdued.

 

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