New York Liberty 46 @ Washington Mystics 79
Lineups: Both teams opened with their usual starters, and both actually had 12 players fit and ready to play. That’s been incredibly rare this season.
Story of the Game: After some decent performances of late, and a few victories, New York came into this game with some optimism. A win would’ve seen them leapfrog Washington in the Eastern Conference standings, and potentially finish the night as high as second in the East. It didn’t take long for those hopes to be emphatically dashed.
As usual, the Liberty tried to run through Tina Charles inside, but Washington were smart and effective in defending her. Rather than send double-teams at her constantly, opening up spaces elsewhere on the floor, they sagged inside and always had extra players waiting in the paint if she attacked initial defenders like Kia Vaughn and Stefanie Dolson. So she had a little success, but nowhere near the dominance we’ve seen in some other recent Liberty games. Meanwhile, whenever the ball rotated away from Charles or someone else in a Liberty jersey tried to get something done, everything was going wrong. No one could hit a shot, then turnovers started to pile up, and the game slipped further and further away from New York as the first half progressed.
It was actually Washington who were the far more effective and efficient offensive team, primarily running through their own posts. The tandem of Vaughn and Emma Meesseman worked nicely early on, with Vaughn hitting her mid-range shot and Meesseman showing off some nifty passing. Then Dolson and Tianna Hawkins replaced them and kept the momentum going. After some recent positive contributions from their reserves, New York got absolutely nothing from their bench in this one, and were lucky to trail by just 15 at halftime. It could easily have been worse.
Then in the third quarter it did get worse, with whatever Bill Laimbeer said at halftime failing to inspire his troops into any increase in energy, effort or performance. The turnovers continued for the Liberty, everyone was hitting shots for Washington – led by Ivory Latta, who’s played much better since being handed a then-undeserved All-Star spot – and the gap hit 29. The fourth quarter was merely extended garbage time, and offered the opportunity for Tayler Hill to make her season debut for the Mystics. She gave birth barely six weeks earlier, so it’s an impressively quick return, although she’s unlikely to play in any meaningful moments until next season.
Key Players: Washington had nice balance across most of their roster, with the bigs doing a lot of the early work but the guards making sure they kept rolling later on. It was a team performance, and the team utterly dominated. On the other side, it’s impossible to pick anyone out for New York because the entire group was so poor. In a stretch run of vital games in their effort to make the playoffs, it was a shockingly half-hearted and aimless performance from the Liberty.
Notes of Interest: New York shot 29% from the field and trailed by as many as 35. It was really bad.
Minnesota Lynx 66 @ Indiana Fever 64
Lineups: It was the regular group for the Lynx, with 12th woman Nadirah McKenith left behind in Minnesota again. After shaking up their starting lineup to deal with Phoenix’s size in their previous game, Indiana switched back to their standard five for this one. Krystal Thomas went from a starter to being glued to the end of the bench once again.
Story of the Game: The opening stages belonged to Indiana. They did a nice job of attacking the Minnesota defense, penetrating into the lane and only taking outside shots if they’d collapsed the defense beforehand and rotated the ball back out. Their strong, physical defense limited Minnesota as well, preventing the Lynx from getting inside. With their jumpers not falling either, Minnesota trailed by as many as 15 early in the second quarter.
But inevitably, the Lynx started to ease their way back into the game. Some transition buckets and quick offense helped them get going, Indiana cooled off a little, and scoreline started to creep closer. Maya Moore didn’t hit her first shot until midway through the second period, but she started to attack more off the dribble in response to her jump shot being a little off. Combined with some production from Tan White against her old team, the Lynx were right back in the game by halftime.
The second half was a desperately tight affair, with neither side leading by more than three points at any stage after the Lynx tied the game up in the early moments. The defenses dominated at both ends, either preventing penetration at the point of attack on the perimeter, or collapsing inside to contest at the rim and force misses or kick-outs. With both sides missing shots from outside repeatedly – including several good looks – scoring was at a premium.
That was especially true in the fourth quarter, which featured a grand total of six field goals. An unlikely Layshia Clarendon three, and an Erlana Larkins finish on a fastbreak were Indiana’s only baskets of the entire period. But a Larkins drive from the elbow with a minute left did draw a foul, and the resulting free throws tied the game. Tamika Catchings stripped Rebekkah Brunson on the ensuing possession, but Briann January missed a jumper at the other end after the Lynx shut down the alternative options yet again. That left Minnesota 13 seconds to find a winning shot and avoid overtime.
The Lynx tried to post up Seimone Augustus, the only player on the floor who’d scored remotely consistently in the second half and someone with a distinct size advantage over her defender (January). But Indiana were ready for that, and two extra defenders collapsed inside to cover the entry pass to Augustus. Instead the feed went to an open Lindsay Whalen on the baseline, who fired a jumper. It rimmed out, but January had briefly lost Augustus while turning to go after the rebound, so Augustus had space to rise and tip in the winning shot at the buzzer. Time expired as the ball went through the hoop.
Key Players: Augustus led the scoring for Minnesota, with that final tip rounding off a decent night for her. In a desperately low-scoring game, 9-12 for 18 points was a big contribution. Various Fever defenders made her work hard for everything she got, but on a night where Maya Moore could never quite find her range, she helped the offense provide just enough to keep them going. Moore contributed in other ways, adding 12 rebounds and six assists, combining with Brunson to create several second-chance opportunities for the Lynx in the second half.
Indiana actually had rather more impressive individual sequences, but it just didn’t quite add up to enough in the end. Karima Christmas was strong in the first half, finishing drives and hitting threes; Marissa Coleman hit shots from outside when the ball was kicked to her in space; Larkins was strong inside at times; and Catchings looked far more comfortable back at home after a rocky road trip. But they came up just short in a hard-fought, tight contest. For a game with scores in the 60s, it was surprisingly entertaining.
Chicago Sky 82 @ Connecticut Sun 66
Lineups: Chicago continued to bring Elena Delle Donne off the bench, understandably considering that policy had brought them two wins since she’d returned from her illness. Connecticut were without star rookie post Chiney Ogwumike due to a tooth abscess that had needed to be drained earlier in the day. Kelsey Griffin replaced her in the starting lineup. Allison Hightower is also still out due to her knee surgery, which was initially supposed to keep her out for only two-to-three weeks. It’s now been a month.
Story of the Game: Despite the absence of Ogwumike, Connecticut were on top early on. Alyssa Thomas made a strong start, attacking inside and coming up with a couple of impressive finishes at the rim. Meanwhile when Chicago tried to force the ball inside – ideally to Sylvia Fowles – the Sun were dropping multiple defenders into the paint and forcing turnovers.
But after hitting some shots early, the Sun cooled off in the second quarter and Chicago came into the game. They still couldn’t score inside, but part of the reason for that was that Connecticut tended to foul them before they had a chance. The Sun players and crowd were growing increasingly irate, but Delle Donne has always been an expert at drawing fouls and teammates like Epiphanny Prince were following suit. Between free throws and a few Allie Quigley jumpers, Chicago stayed in the game until halftime.
And in the second half, Connecticut couldn’t hit a shot to save their lives. Bricks were raining down and clanking off the rim, and it seemed ridiculous that it was taking Chicago so long to force their way into the lead. They finally took over the game with a 15-0 run across the end of the third and start of the fourth quarters. Prince did all the work to end the third, scoring 10 straight on her own by attacking the rim for layups and free throws. Delle Donne completed the streak with a pair of deep jumpers to open the final period and push Chicago’s lead to double-digits – where it would stay for the rest of the game. Credit Chicago’s defense for keeping Connecticut out of the lane far better in the second half, but the Sun really did settle for an awful lot of jump shots, even when they weren’t hitting any of them. Maybe if Ogwumike had been around some of them would’ve turned into putbacks.
Key Players: With Kelsey Bone and a fair amount of help keeping Fowles quiet for most of the night, it was down to Prince, Delle Donne and Quigley to carry the Sky offense, and eventually they managed it. It’s tempting to say that Prince’s life is made easier by Delle Donne because she spreads the floor and draws attention, creating more space for Prince’s off-the-dribble skills – and to some extent that’s true. But Prince was more effective and dynamic even when Delle Donne wasn’t on the floor. It’s like the return of Chicago’s star forward just takes the pressure off everyone else – emotionally and mentally, as much as actually on the court – and frees the Sky up to play less constricted basketball. They weren’t great in this one, and they were playing a fairly poor team lacking their best player, but they got the job done.
Thomas had her strong start, and Bone had her moments, but that was about it for Connecticut. With four games left, they’ll need to win all of them to have any chance at the playoffs – and even that may well not be enough. Maybe Ogwumike’s tooth problems should ‘persist’ and ensure they’ve got the maximum number of ping-ping ball combinations in the lottery for the 2015 draft.
Notes of Interest: The Sun crowd, coaches and players were complaining about calls all night, but one whine-fest in particular was especially annoying. Sylvia Fowles tipped an offensive rebound away from the basket back towards the perimeter, and it went into the Sky backcourt before being chased down by one of Chicago’s guards. Katie Douglas and the Sun were convinced it should’ve resulted in a backcourt violation, which just means that she doesn’t know the rules. Tips don’t count as possession, and can therefore go into the backcourt without penalty. Of course, the Sun commentators didn’t know that either, so whined right along with their team and supporters.
Atlanta Dream 67 @ Phoenix Mercury 75
Lineups: Unfortunately, we were robbed of the full-strength matchup between two teams that could easily contest the WNBA Finals in September, because Dream center Erika de Souza was out due to a stomach ailment. Aneika Henry moved into the starting lineup in her place. The only other person missing from their usual spot for either team was Dream head coach Michael Cooper, who stayed home to continue his recovery after recent surgery for tongue cancer.
Story of the Game: It took them a while to get started, but once they did Phoenix controlled most of the first half. They moved the ball well, Candice Dupree was her usual smooth self from mid-range, Brittney Griner eventually went to work inside, and that built a double-digit advantage. Surprisingly, the Mercury were also creating just as many transition points as Atlanta, despite having become far less reliant on fastbreak basketball this year. The Dream’s aggressive defense did create a few steals and an occasional break, but it also resulted in far too many cheap fouls. And their own turnovers were more costly than the Mercury’s.
With Griner and the length of the other Phoenix defenders waiting for them in the paint, Atlanta forced up a lot of ugly jumpers in the first half, with Angel McCoughtry and Shoni Schimmel two of the major culprits. With Sancho Lyttle and Tiffany Hayes also struggling to hit anything, Atlanta were down by 12 at the interval and it looked like they might drift away and blame de Souza’s absence for their lack of competitiveness.
But then the third quarter struck, and we had a game on our hands. Atlanta’s offense didn’t exactly take flight – they only shot 40% in the period – but lots of little things added up to turn the game on its head. The Dream were stronger defensively, putting better pressure on the Phoenix players to force misses or turnovers that fed into Atlanta transition. That brought Hayes into the game, attacking the basket and bringing energy to their attack. With Henry keeping plays alive on the offensive boards, Phoenix’s offense losing all its momentum while Dupree missed shots she’d normally make, and Griner trying to make passes that you just can’t force against a gambling defense like Atlanta’s, the Dream took control. A 16-2 run to close the third took them into a four-point lead in a game they looked likely to fade out of at halftime.
But with the confidence they’ve built from all their winning this season, the Mercury weren’t going to quit, especially on their home floor. They tried some zone defense to open the fourth, which looked a mess but still unsettled the Dream a little with its awkwardness. On offense, Diana Taurasi led the way with a couple of aggressive early drives, a nice pass or two and a save on a ball heading out of bounds. Many in the crowd appeared to have shown up solely to see exciting rookie Shoni Schimmel, but Taurasi was around to remind them that there’s still a little life in the old dogs yet. With some help from Dupree and Penny Taylor, and a corner three from reserve Shay Murphy, Phoenix took back their lead.
While some attacking from McCoughtry and Hayes – and a ridiculous three from Schimmel where she snatched the ball just before it went out of bounds and fired instantly – kept Atlanta close for a while, the game started to slip away from them in the fourth. They forced up more ugly jumpers, with the conscienceless Schimmel still a little too prone to calling her own number at times. She did come up with a poke-from-behind steal with a minute left, leading to a breakaway layup that pulled Atlanta within four points, and when DeWanna Bonner was stripped Atlanta had another break that could’ve given us a grandstand finish. But Hayes went right at the rim, Taylor backed away to avoid the foul, and Hayes blew the layup without the contact she’d been expecting. Phoenix went to the other end, and a pretty three-part pick-and-roll went tic-tac-toe from Taurasi to Dupree to Griner for an alley-oop finish that sealed the win for the Mercury.
Key Players: While the box score shows balanced production across four of Phoenix’s starters, and they all had their moments, it was Taurasi who really ignited them when they needed to be picked up in the fourth quarter. She even did it without adding another technical foul, and seemed like she might’ve been making a particular effort to keep her mouth shut. One more tech would be her seventh for the season, resulting in a one-game suspension, and costing her over $3,000 in salary. That’d shut me up for a little while too, even if I made as much money as Diana.
It was a tough night for the Dream, with McCoughtry, Hayes and Schimmel all making plays at times but missing a lot of shots across the rest of the evening. These sides still have another regular season matchup to come, and it’ll be interesting to see what difference having de Souza in the middle might make to the clash. Although with only a couple of games left on the schedule by that point, one or both of them may be resting players at that stage. We might not see them face each other at full strength unless they do both win through to the Finals.
Notes of Interest: The Mercury tried out a new broadcast style, with the left-hand side of the screen devoted to isolation cameras on individual players and occasional tweets about the game. It marginalised the actual game into about half the screen-space it usually occupies. Combined with the typically one-sided and annoying Phoenix commentary, it didn’t work out well. Hopefully it’s an experiment that won’t be repeated. Offering those extra angles as options for people who want to follow a specific player, or for replays, could be useful. Having them on-screen throughout the game is just annoying.
Tulsa Shock 96 @ Los Angeles Sparks 90
Lineups: As expected for both teams. The Shock are without Riquna Williams after she finally had surgery on her knee, but they’ve basically been without her for most of the season. Los Angeles were in one piece, with Armintie Herrington fit to play after limping out of their last game when Kelsey Bone ran into her knee. A win would’ve confirmed their playoff spot.
Story of the Game: As you’d expect with two teams who like to push the ball at every opportunity, the first half was a fast-paced, high-scoring affair. LA still managed to look like a disappointing mess for much of it. Lots of turnovers led to many, many breaks for the Shock, and whether in transition or in the halfcourt Skylar Diggins and Odyssey Sims were penetrating into the heart of the Sparks defense with ease. LA’s attempts to defend them were embarrassing, with the guards being beaten far too easily on the perimeter, and the help behind them virtually non-existent. Those two have been a nightmare to stop for teams around the league this year, especially since Sims stepped up her game later in the season, but LA were particularly terrible at handling them.
The Sparks stayed in the game largely thanks to Nneka Ogwumike. Candace Parker produced a few buckets as well, mostly when she tried to take over on her own late in the first quarter, but it was Ogwumike who was lighting Tulsa up. She had several athletic finishes inside, and with the confidence built from that started knocking down her mid-range jumper smoothly as well. She had 24 points and was already on the brink of a career-high scoring night at halftime.
Ogwumike was still tossing in some crazy finishes in the third quarter, and Parker was drawing fouls to add points from the free throw line, allowing LA to hang around and eventually take the lead in the final seconds of the period. But the fourth began with some unusual twists to the lineups, and the game swung immediately. LA had gone smaller, with Parker sliding to power forward and three natural perimeter players on the outside. Tulsa had gone bigger, with Sims and Jordan Hooper at the guards, and Jennifer Lacy at the 3. With Jantel Lavender resting on the bench, LA’s interior help defense inside got even worse, and the Shock reeled off a 14-2 run to open the final quarter. Sims did most of the work offensively, breaking down the defense for layups, hitting a couple of jumpers, and throwing a nice pass or two for assists. The charge might’ve come just too late, but she’s at least creating a little conversation around Rookie of the Year, rather than just letting Chiney Ogwumike walk away with the award.
LA’s communication defensively was awful during that Shock run, the same flaw that’s been central to many of their breakdowns this season. Their offense devolved into a host of jump shots, and not enough dropped to ever really make it a game again down the stretch. They also got dramatically outworked and outfought on the glass in the second half, with Lacy, Courtney Paris and Glory Johnson constantly keeping possessions alive for the Shock. The supposed boost of energy and confidence from LA’s last-second win over Connecticut in their previous game was swiftly wiped away. Considering how they actually played in most of that game against the Sun, it was hardly a surprise that the positives turned out to be something of a mirage.
Key Players: Sims was outstanding, and once again an opponent just couldn’t handle her off the dribble. The roles in the Tulsa backcourt have become more defined as the season’s gone along, and she’s clearly become more of the point guard while Diggins is the shooting guard (although they still share the jobs to some extent). But Sims is part of the modern breed of point guard, who’s just as talented as a scorer as she is as a creator. It’s her ability to put the ball in the bucket that really scares defenses, more than the way she can spread it around and feed her teammates.
Ogwumike and Parker scored 63 of their team’s 90 points, which might not be entirely healthy but would’ve been fine if they’d been able to stop the Shock, or at least slow them down. LA’s defense couldn’t hold up against dribble-penetration for the umpteenth time this season, and they lost the rebounding battle by an astounding 37-17. That’s effort and heart as much as anything, and to barely put up a fight on the glass in a game that could’ve secured a postseason berth was pretty pathetic. This Sparks team continues to infuriate and disappoint, and while they’ll still likely make the playoffs it remains hard to see them going anywhere once they’re faced with Phoenix or Minnesota in the postseason.
New York announced that they’ve waived Leilani Mitchell, who’s currently with the Australian national team preparing for the upcoming World Championships. Assuming she clears waivers, that’ll make the diminutive point guard an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, and if she wants to play in the WNBA she’ll have plenty of offers. Teams may not have wanted to trade for her at her previous inflated salary, but when you can consistently shoot around 40% from three-point range there’ll always be someone who wants you on their bench at the veteran minimum. Maybe even a little more.
Phoenix @ San Antonio, 8pm ET. The Stars have lost seven of their last nine games, and were blown out in their most recent clash with Phoenix – so considering how unpredictable they tend to be maybe they’ll win this one by 20. More realistically, Phoenix’s slick passing is likely to slice through San Antonio’s defense and create a host of open looks, and the Mercury are likely to knock them down at a decent clip. Keeping the game competitive will depend on San Antonio finding rhythm of their own offensively and hitting shots. That’s been escaping them in many games recently, and this won’t be the easiest opponent to help them rediscover some form.
Chicago @ Minnesota, 8pm ET. This could be interesting, purely because Chicago have found a way to win all three of their games since Elena Delle Donne returned, but a visit to Minnesota is just about the hardest possible game to keep a run like that going. The Lynx will drop help down to cover Sylvia Fowles when they need to, so as with many Sky games they’ll be dependent on their perimeter players taking advantage. You can get decent looks around the perimeter against Minnesota, and if you move the ball well enough you can penetrate against them, but with all their players back the Lynx defense is rounding into better shape. This is a severe test of whether Chicago are really a contender, or if Delle Donne’s return just provided a momentary boost.
Atlanta @ Seattle, 10pm ET. Their narrow win over San Antonio on Sunday kept faint playoff hopes alive, but this is just about the last opponent Seattle would’ve chosen to try to build from that win. Atlanta’s speed and athleticism tends to overwhelm Seattle, and then the Dream run away from them. The Storm’s best method of attack remains feeding Crystal Langhorne and Camille Little inside, and it’s hard to succeed that way against Atlanta’s long and strong interior defenders. The Dream haven’t been the most consistent team in the world lately either, but after coming close in Phoenix, this should be an easier opportunity to come up with a road win.