The Daily W, 08/09/2014

 

First the catchup game from Thursday night, then all the action from Friday follows below it.

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Phoenix Mercury 78 @ San Antonio Stars 73 (OT)

 

Lineups: Danielle Adams moved into the starting lineup for San Antonio over Sophia Young-Malcolm again, in another spin of the revolving door Dan Hughes has created at power forward this season. No changes for Phoenix.

 

Story of the Game: Phoenix started stronger and built a lead largely thanks to San Antonio’s inability to contain Brittney Griner in the paint. An aggressive, driving DeWanna Bonner also helped Phoenix out, and her improvement over the course of the season has helped solidify the Mercury starting lineup across the board. But while Phoenix are deeper than they used to be, there’s still often a noticeable drop-off when their reserves start coming into games. Late in the first quarter and early in the second, opponents often come back at the Mercury after their strong start. With Danielle Robinson attacking the rim, Kayla McBride and Shameka Christon hitting a couple of threes, and Candice Dupree missing a shocking number of shots she’d normally make, the Stars were back in this game by halftime after trailing by double-digits early on.

San Antonio made a big push late in the third quarter, keyed by the energy of Young-Malcolm and the shooting of Jia Perkins – two players giving the Stars a boost from the bench that Phoenix’s reserves couldn’t match. San Antonio’s lead stretched as high as six points in the fourth quarter, but the Mercury answered behind Dupree and Penny Taylor. Griner had faded out of the game with the Stars sending double-teams at her from a variety of angles, and Diana Taurasi was having one of her quietest performances of the year, but Phoenix are so talented that they still had other options to pick up the slack. Dupree’s mid-range jumper was falling again, while Taylor continues to be the only one of Phoenix’s perimeter players with the post game to exploit the size advantage she usually has over her defender.

The Mercury were up three with 14 seconds left in regulation. Adams forced up an effort from deep under heavy pressure when she could’ve reversed the ball to an open Becky Hammon, and missed badly, but McBride won the fight for the rebound. She kicked the ball back to Perkins, who drilled the three to tie the game against a scrambling defense. Phoenix had 1.7 seconds to win it before overtime, and ran essentially the same play that beat Los Angeles in their playoff series last year, but this time Griner missed the short turnaround on the inbounds play.

Both sides missed a lot of shots in overtime, with Griner sitting out much of it after picking up her fifth foul. Perkins again hit a jumper to tie the scores with a minute remaining, before a lovely Mercury possession took back the lead. They went inside to Griner, the double-team started to come, she moved the ball back out, they swung it around to Dupree in the corner, who had an open lane to drive for a layup. Pretty, unselfish basketball, and exactly how you’re supposed to score when teams send extra defenders to cover your dangerous post threat. Becky Hammon tried to force a pass on the ensuing San Antonio possession, Taylor picked it off, and Taurasi scored her only basket of the night on the fastbreak that followed. That just about iced the game, although Phoenix still got the benefit of a generous call in the final seconds that helped finish San Antonio for good.

 

Key Players: It was Taylor and Dupree who did most of the offensive work for Phoenix in the second half, after Griner and Bonner were the central figures in the first. The hedging defense from San Antonio on ball screens helped turn Taurasi into a passer rather than a scorer, but she was still desperately quiet by her standards. Maybe she was saving herself for the big game against Minnesota tonight, or maybe the effort to keep her emotions in check and avoid her seventh technical of the season subdued her a little. Regardless, the Mercury had enough elsewhere to pull off the win.

Perkins was the highlight for San Antonio, in a disappointing loss. They’ve lost so many games lately that it’s becoming worrying, but at least this one was tight against the team with the best record in the league. Robinson was good when she could attack the basket, but Taurasi went further and further under every screen as the game wore on, giving Robinson the mid-range jumper while protecting against the drive. Robinson wasn’t hitting that 15-footer, so her offense stalled.

 

Notes of Interest: Griner’s five blocks in this game took her past Margo Dydek’s single-season WNBA record of 114. Dydek set that mark when the WNBA only played a 30-game schedule, so it was nice that Griner passed her in just 29, avoiding any debate about ‘asterisks’ or dual records. To beat the per game average Dydek had that year, Griner would need to hit 130 by the end of the regular season.

 

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Washington Mystics 74 @ Indiana Fever 61

 

Lineups: As expected for both teams.

 

Story of the Game: There wasn’t much between the teams for most of the first half. Washington looked the more fluent side, with their confidence high after destroying New York on Tuesday night, but it took a while for that to translate into real production on the scoreboard. Indiana’s offense was struggling all over the floor. Erlana Larkins was finding good position deep in the paint, but couldn’t finish when the ball was entered to her. Tamika Catchings did very little to attack her matchup with Emma Meesseman, who Catchings should’ve been able to go by off the dribble. Lynetta Kizer hit a couple of shots off the bench for the Fever, but points were generally hard to come by. Eventually Washington took advantage, with Ivory Latta keying a run late in the first half. She started hitting from outside, then attacking the rim, and Bria Hartley joined in. The Mystics were up by eight at halftime as a result.

Then in the third quarter, Washington blew the game open for good. Indiana’s offense was actually a little improved, with Briann January penetrating to the basket and everyone else hitting a shot or two around the floor – but they couldn’t get any stops. Kia Vaughn took over for the Mystics, with post moves and short jumpers starting her run, before she extended her range even further. Eventually, she could’ve tossed the ball up blindfolded from halfcourt and it would’ve gone in – she was that hot. With a little help from Monique Currie, the Mystics shot 11-13 in the third quarter, and the game was essentially over by the end of the period. Some late scoring for the Fever put a generous gloss on the final scoreline – it felt like more than a 13-point win for the Mystics.

 

Key Players: Vaughn ended the game 10-16 for 22 points, thanks to her freakishly productive second half. She has a couple of inches on Larkins, so she had a clear line of sight to the basket on the little turnaround and jumpers she likes to take, but she still largely hit shots that Indiana would happily let her take on most nights.

No one particularly stood out for Indiana, who dropped to a shocking 5-10 on their home floor for the season. Their results have actually been significantly better on their travels. Maybe it’s a good thing for them that two of their three upcoming games against New York are at Madison Square Garden. They need more from Catchings if they’re going to fight their way into the postseason and hopefully make an impact once they get there. Meesseman’s the kind of power forward she would’ve happily attacked in the last couple of years, but she rarely looked like taking advantage of that matchup in this game. Indiana’s complementary players show up at times – none of them have been entirely consistent this season – but they need their star to play more like a star.

 

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Connecticut Sun 66 @ New York Liberty 71

 

Lineups: With their playoff hopes hanging by a thread, Connecticut played it safe with their rookie star Chiney Ogwumike and held her out for the second straight game due to an abscessed tooth. Maybe they’d be happier with a lottery pick than a playoff berth. Kayla Pedersen filled the hole this time instead of Kelsey Griffin. New York went with the same five we’ve grown accustomed to.

 

Story of the Game: The first half of this one was even uglier offensively than the first half of the game above. New York pulled into the lead behind a few buckets from Tina Charles and several free throws, but that was about it for their offense in the opening 20 minutes. Fortunately for the Liberty, Connecticut’s offense was even worse. Jumper after jumper clanged off the iron, and without Ogwumike around the Sun were getting outworked on the glass as well. Only a few late drives from Katie Douglas, drawing fouls and free throws, dragged the Sun’s deficit into single-digits before halftime.

But New York started the second half sleepily, like they felt the victory had already been secured. Connecticut might not be great, but they’re good enough to take advantage of that. Douglas started to hit from outside, the Liberty were giving up possessions incredibly cheaply with lazy turnovers, and the Sun were swiftly right back in it. Connecticut’s double-teaming had turned Charles into a passer, but she also saw far too little of the ball in the second half. She can’t even draw attention and kick the ball to open shooters if the Liberty forget she exists and stop passing her the ball.

Eventually, New York came up with just enough to beat the worst team in the league without their best player. Sugar Rodgers and Anna Cruz both produced a couple of buckets in the second half to help prop up the offense, Cappie Pondexter drilled a big pullup jumper in the closing moments, and the team in general stayed aggressive enough to draw a lot of fouls and shoot a bunch of free throws. It wasn’t pretty, but at this stage of the season all that counted was the W.

 

Key Players: Charles was decent early on, and led the scoring for New York, but Connecticut quieted her as the game went on. The energy of Avery Warley-Talbert alongside her in the post was important, as were the occasional contributions of players like Rodgers, Cruz and Swin Cash. The Liberty – a team that sometimes struggles to draw fouls despite the physical style preached by Bill Laimbeer – shot 31-37 at the free throw line, and that was crucial.

Douglas was the driving force for Connecticut, dragging them back into the game and giving them a chance down the stretch, but eventually she tired. Even when Ogwumike’s around, the Sun have to either develop a more fluid, creative offensive system, or they need to find better shooters. Ideally both. Right now, they spend far too much time forcing contested jumpers and watching them repeatedly bounce away off the rim.

 

Notes of Interest: Mathematically, the Sun are still in the playoff hunt. But they need an awful lot of help at this point, and even that’s based on the optimistic assumption that they can win their remaining three games.

 

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San Antonio Stars 62 @ Tulsa Shock 79

 

Lineups: Danielle Adams started again for the Stars, with Tulsa sending out their usual five.

 

Story of the Game: A fairly dull opening period was enlivened by a pair of flashing Odyssey Sims drives for acrobatic layups late in the first quarter. Earlier in the season, Skylar Diggins was carrying the perimeter offense for the Shock, with the hope that Sims might help out a little. In recent weeks, even Diggins has been overshadowed by several outstanding performances from her rookie backcourt partner. With Chiney Ogwumike sitting out a couple of games, Sims is definitely creating some debate around the Rookie of the Year award.

Glory Johnson was aggressive in driving to the hoop for Tulsa as well, clearly liking her chances in the matchup against Adams, but San Antonio stayed right with the Shock in the first half. The Stars had some surprising success on the offensive glass, Kayla McBride finished some sweeping drives around the defense, and the pairing of Jia Perkins and Sophia Young-Malcolm again gave them energy off the bench. There was only a point in it at halftime.

But Tulsa came out of the traps quickly in the second half, and San Antonio struggled to keep up with them. Sims continued to be her scary self – a player that can go shooting past you or pull up and hit the three is a perimeter defender’s worst nightmare – and every miss or turnover from San Antonio became a chance for the Shock to run. Tulsa were up by eight at the end of the third, and the Stars inevitably tried their 3-2 zone to open the fourth quarter. Tiffany Jackson-Jones scored inside it, then Sims drilled a pair of threes – one over the zone, then one from the corner after they’d switched back to man-to-man – and the game was essentially over with most of the fourth quarter still to play.

Unfortunately for Tulsa, Sims took a heavy fall with a couple of minutes left, chasing a loose ball and landing on her shoulder. They were up 16 at the time, so you could argue she shouldn’t have been in the game at that point, but the Shock have had such problems closing games out that you could understand Fred Williams making absolutely sure of the victory. According to Tulsa’s twitter feed, she’s ‘day-to-day’ at the moment – which could mean anything.

 

Key Players: Before that worrying finish, Sims once again led the way for the Shock, finishing the game 9-16 for 22 points. This win pulled them within one game of the Stars in the standings, and while San Antonio own the tie-breaker the Shock have given themselves a legitimate shot at overhauling the Stars to sneak into the playoffs. But even with Diggins, Johnson and Courtney Paris producing decent basketball, they’ll need Sims healthy enough to play to make the final push.

Young-Malcolm, McBride, Perkins and Becky Hammon all had their moments, but a poor passage of play in the third quarter killed off San Antonio’s chances in this one. That’s been their problem lately – they look great in stretches, but they can’t put together 40 minute performances. Also opponents are increasingly giving that mid-range shot to Danielle Robinson, and she’s missed a lot of them in recent games. The Stars have now lost nine of their last eleven games, and have three left to hold on to the playoff spot they’ve been sitting in all season long.

 

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Atlanta Dream 77 @ Los Angeles Sparks 80 (OT)

 

Lineups: Both teams stuck with their regular starters, despite some woeful performances in recent games.

 

Story of the Game: The Sparks started much better, with Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike leading the way. They even took a couple of charges in the opening quarter, an unusual occurrence for a team that often fails to rotate on opposing drives at all, never mind get there in time to draw an offensive foul.

But in a desperately sloppy first half, featuring an array of turnovers at both ends, Atlanta kept hanging around. Erika de Souza’s work in the paint was the most effective offense Atlanta could find, along with some second-chance points from offensive boards. With Parker filling it up inside and out, it felt like LA should’ve been ahead by more than six at halftime.

After missing most of the first half with foul trouble, it took less than a minute for Tiffany Hayes to pick up her fourth in the third quarter. But that inadvertently helped Atlanta discover a way back into the contest. They brought in an extra post, sliding Sancho Lyttle over to small forward for the first time all season, and when Angel McCoughtry picked up her own fourth foul minutes later it was a position Lyttle stayed in for the rest of the period. That finally put someone at the 3 for the Dream who could slow Parker down, and Atlanta finally had a foothold in the game.

Although the real excitement came in the fourth quarter, when Shoni Schimmel started raining down threes and sending her legion of fans into rapture. Penny Toler made the mistake of resting both Parker and Ogwumike at the same time to start the fourth quarter, which also helped Atlanta back into the game. Too much of LA’s offense in the second half consisted of Kristi Toliver firing up jump shots, and she hasn’t been shooting well for most of the season. The final basket of regulation came when she made a nice pass to Ogwumike for a layup with over a minute still to play. From there, de Souza missed a point-blank layup, Toliver missed a step-back jumper, Toliver was way long on a three, and then McCoughtry missed a desperation heave at the buzzer. It wasn’t exactly glorious stuff, even if it was reasonably exciting.

Both teams looked tired in the extra period, with a lot of poor shots coming up short. But as with their win over Connecticut a week earlier, Toliver made a big shot after producing little of value in the entire game to that point. She drilled a three just as the shot clock was about to expire to give LA the lead with under 40 seconds remaining. On the possession that followed, Schimmel penetrated and appeared to have a clean look to finish herself at the rim, but tried to kick the ball out and threw it straight to Alana Beard. That was the crucial mistake that finally helped LA over the line, although after Schimmel came up with a triple the Dream did have one final chance – only to fail to get a shot off in time when inbounding with 1.8 seconds left and trailing by three.

 

Key Players: Parker was easily LA’s leading scorer, but did the vast majority of her work in the first half before the game got complicated. Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender also produced at times for the Sparks, but most of the second half seemed to feature Toliver firing away. It was another dubious, shaky Sparks performance that somehow resulted in a win.

Panic is starting to set in for Dream fans. This was Atlanta’s eighth loss in ten games, and some of them have been desperately ugly. McCoughtry is putting up some terrible shots in trying to lead her team and force her way to offensive production, the point guard spot continues to be a game-by-game question mark, and even de Souza has been less reliable in the second half of the season. They’ve always been a streaky team, and it still wouldn’t be surprising to see them turn it on for the playoffs, but at this point even the #1 seed in the East is coming into question. They own the tiebreaker over the Mystics, which might prove to be important. It wasn’t meant to matter a couple of weeks ago.

 

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Today’s Game

 

Minnesota @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. Apart from the game where they faced each other, neither of these teams have lost a game since July 6th. The Lynx have won 11 in a row, while the Mercury have won 19 of their last 20, with the only blemish that loss to Minnesota just over a week ago. So you can see why people are eagerly anticipating this clash, even if their last meeting was a little disappointing. Both sides struggled to hit shots in that previous game, with Diana Taurasi particularly cold for Phoenix and the usual suspects kept quiet for much of the evening for Minnesota. It’s hard to believe that such talented scorers will be stifled again, but we’ll see similar tactics. Brittney Griner only took nine shots last time, a total which should be much higher against a Lynx team that don’t have the raw size to handle her inside. Phoenix need to feed her and work from there, and put Moore and Augustus under as much pressure as they did last time. The Mercury can still win the West even if they lose this game – victories in their other four remaining games would be enough, even if the Lynx win out – but they’ll want the mental boost of beating a full-strength Minnesota team before the Western Conference Finals, where these teams should run into each other again. Let’s hope they’re both there, anyway. An upset in the first round in the West, robbing us of a series between these two, would be very disappointing at this point.

 

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