Technical difficulties – i.e. my internet service broke down – mean that I havent finished watching the Phoenix-San Antonio matchup from last night. Coverage of that game will be included in tomorrow’s column.
Lineups: Same groups as in recent games for both teams, with Elena Delle Donne continuing to come off the bench for Chicago. Backup point guard Nadirah McKenith got to join in with the Lynx this time because the contest was in Minnesota, so they didn’t have to shell out for a plane ticket to get her to the game.
Story of the Game: The first half was an ugly offensive display, largely because neither team could hit a shot. Chicago in particular rained down bricks aplenty, with often fairly decent looks just repeatedly clanging off the iron. Minnesota did a better job of penetrating and attacking the basket, but still struggled to convert their chances and maintain any kind of meaningful advantage. Holding Minnesota to 30 points in the first half would’ve been considered a significant success by Pokey Chatman – the fact that the Sky were six points behind at halftime anyway would’ve been less pleasing.
When Epiphanny Prince finally started hitting shots in the third quarter, Chicago’s offense started to pick up steam. In the first half, Allie Quigley and Jessica Breland had been the only players making anything for the Sky, with Delle Donne looking tired and Sylvia Fowles barely an option due to early foul trouble. Prince gave Chicago a driving force, and the Lynx started to look vulnerable. They still weren’t hitting shots, weren’t imposing themselves on the game in their typical manner, and ESPN2 were having to make heavy use of their five-second delay whenever they went to the mic on Cheryl Reeve.
But without Prince getting a lot of help, Chicago only gained a narrow lead in the third quarter, and Minnesota finally joined the party in the fourth. Lindsay Whalen started things off, pushing the ball hard and attacking the basket to give them an alternative to all the jumpers they’d been missing all night. But after that, it was shocking how many layups the Lynx managed to create down the stretch. Crisper, smarter ball movement shifted the ball away from rotating defenders into the open player to finish off plays. But with Quigley hitting shots and her teammates chipping in, the game still came down to the final moments.
With just over a minute left, Maya Moore salvaged a completely broken possession for the Lynx by twisting and firing a jumper in the lane with a second left on the shot clock, which fell in for a one-point Lynx lead. Chicago ran their ‘triple-stack’ play (three consecutive screens for the ballhandler along the free throw line), and Quigley was left a lane to the basket for a layup but missed it under pressure from Devereaux Peters (playing crunch time minutes ahead of Janel McCarville as the preferred defender on Fowles). After a Minnesota timeout, Whalen hit a pullup jumper to extend the Lynx lead. On the ensuing Sky possession, McCarville came up with an opportunistic steal by poking the ball away from Fowles from behind, Whalen grabbed the loose ball and was fouled (eventually ruled ‘clear path’ after the usual tedious video review), and from there the Lynx hit the free throws to ice the game. After a tight, arduous game, the Lynx just had that little bit more composure and experience to close out the win.
Key Players: Moore finished the game as Minnesota’s leading scorer, despite being well covered by Tamera Young for the majority of the evening. Seimone Augustus had a hard time scoring as well, despite her significant size advantage over Prince. None of the Lynx players really shone on the night – it was just one of those games where you fight to the bitter end and try to crawl over the winning line by any means possible.
Quigley and Prince did most of the scoring for Chicago, with some help from Jessica Breland’s mid-range jumpshot. Fowles was kept quiet for most of the night, and it was the first game since her return where Delle Donne looked like she was struggling to keep up with the pace of the contest. Both teams will be fairly happy with their defense; neither is likely to be using the offensive production in their training videos.
Notes of Interest: Delle Donne is still playing almost exclusively at power forward rather than small forward. Clearly Chatman and Chicago feel that the banging she might have to do in the paint is less of a stress on her body than having to chase perimeter players around the floor. But it does mean that even in games like this where Breland’s playing fairly well, it’s almost impossible to keep her on the floor with Delle Donne.
Lineups: Erika de Souza returned to the starting lineup for Atlanta after missing one game due to a stomach ailment. They also had head coach Michael Cooper back on the sidelines after he’d skipped their previous game for extra rest as he continues to recover from his own recent surgery. Seattle had the same starters we’ve seen in their recent games, with Shekinna Stricklen continuing at small forward alongside the four players who’ve been starting all season when healthy.
Story of the Game: This turned out to be shockingly one-sided, and not in the direction that the performances over the course of the season might’ve suggested. Seattle got off to a hot start, pulled out to a double-digit lead after barely five minutes, and controlled the game for essentially the rest of the evening. A desperately lethargic and seemingly uninterested Dream squad showed occasional moments of life, but they were few and far between. In the previous seasons where they’ve made deep playoff runs, Atlanta have always had to fight their way into the playoffs or were battling for position right up until the final days of the regular season. After going so far clear in the East – although they haven’t clinched the #1 seed quite yet – maybe they just don’t have the same drive for these end-of-season games.
Which shouldn’t take away from just how well Seattle played. In easily one of their best performances of the season – until the latter stages of the second half when they understandably slowed down and lost their intensity – they were attacking the Dream and hitting shots from everywhere. Camille Little and Crystal Langhorne were the centerpieces of the offense, with Langhorne doing most of her work in the paint while Little often popped outside to hit jumpers, but players from across the roster contributed to their dominance.
Key Players: As mentioned, Langhorne and Little did a lot of the scoring work, but Temeka Johnson hit shots, other reserves like Angel Robinson and Alysha Clark chipped in, and the Storm dominated a team that usually gives them all kinds of problems. Their hopes are slim, but Seattle’s playoff dreams are still alive.
Atlanta’s scoring was led by Tiffany Hayes and Shoni Schimmel, but none of their players came out of the game with any real credit. Angel McCoughtry was benched for most of the second half after doing very little in the time she did see on the floor, while Celine Dumerc played barely four minutes despite starting at the point. It was a strange game all around for the Dream, and one they’ll hope to forget. But if they continue to perform like this heading into the playoffs, they’re playing a risky game, trusting themselves to ‘flip the switch’ when the matchups actually matter.
Notes of Interest: The Storm players may have been energised a little more than usual by the overwhelming number of people in the crowd who were there to cheer on Schimmel, rather than the home team. Shoni’s drawing big crowds as something of a celebrity for the Native American community, and it’s resulting in some strange atmospheres in visiting arenas. The Dream obliged by playing Schimmel for over 37 minutes, but screaming wildly when she scores a bucket that cuts her team’s deficit to 22 always comes off as a little ridiculous.
Washington @ Indiana, 7pm ET. As of right now, these teams are second and third in the Eastern Conference (so would face each other in the first round of the playoffs if the postseason began today). If Washington can pull off the win, they’ll start to create a small gap between themselves and the chasing pack, and maybe put a little pressure on Atlanta for the top seed in the East. But if Indiana win, they’ll seal the season series and resulting tie-breaker over the Mystics, leapfrog them in the standings, and leave Washington only a game ahead of fifth place and the lottery. It’s that tight in the East. While she’s struggled a bit for consistency since returning from her back injury, Tamika Catchings ought to be able to attack the Mystics. With Emma Meesseman and Tianna Hawkins, Washington have talented young players at power forward, but neither has the mobility to stay in front of Catchings off the dribble. Unless the Mystics are willing to change up their lineup and go small – and they’ve barely done that all season long – Catchings should be able to penetrate and collapse their defense, creating either layups or open shots for her teammates.
Connecticut @ New York, 7.30pm ET. The Liberty were a train wreck in their last game against Washington, so will be looking for some kind of bounce-back performance, and a home game against the Sun could be just the ticket. Connecticut will hope to have Chiney Ogwumike back after missing their last game with a dental problem, but with or without her they’ve struggled for the last four or five weeks. Teams have caught up with them, and eventually youthful energy can only make up for so much. That said, New York will try to run everything through Tina Charles, Connecticut will send plenty of help to try to cover her, and then the other Liberty players have to make shots. If they’re as lackluster as they were against the Mystics, a Sun win isn’t out of the question.
San Antonio @ Tulsa, 8pm ET. This has quietly become a pretty meaningful game in the Western Conference. The Shock are only two games behind the Stars for fourth place in the West, and the final playoff spot. San Antonio have already sealed the tie-breaker after beating Tulsa three times earlier in the season, but a Shock win tonight could put the cat amongst the pigeons for the final ten days of the regular season. Odyssey Sims and Skylar Diggins have only gotten scarier as the season’s gone along, and with San Antonio’s barely-mediocre defense you can expect to see the Shock guards barreling to the rim repeatedly tonight. It’s up to San Antonio to take advantage of Tulsa at the other end, and hopefully slow them down a little by forcing them to constantly take the ball out of their own basket. Sims and Diggins do enough damage in the halfcourt – you can’t let them get out and run off misses and turnovers as well.
Atlanta @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET. Good luck predicting what we’ll see in this one. The Sparks have been consistently inconsistent all season long, while Atlanta were desperately poor last night against Seattle. LA’s perimeter defense against penetration and second-layer help defense have been awful for much of the season, so Angel McCoughtry and Tiffany Hayes should be able to rack up layup after layup, or draw endless fouls and free throws. But if the lazy, aimless Dream from last night show up, they might make things easy for the Sparks to finally seal their postseason spot.