The Daily W, 08/12/2014

 

Indiana Fever 90 @ New York Liberty 76

 

Lineups: Same groups we’ve come to expect from these teams.

 

Story of the Game: In the first of three games between these teams in the final eight days of the regular season, it was Indiana who imposed themselves on the game from the start. Tamika Catchings looked more like her old self than we’ve seen in most of their games since the All-Star break, drilling open jumpers when Avery Warley-Talbert gave her too much room and generally attacking much more effectively on offense. The Fever as a team did a nice job of moving the ball and knocking down shots in the first half, sliding into a comfortable lead.

New York’s shooting percentage was high when you checked the box score (and would remain so through the entire game), but it wasn’t nearly enough to stay competitive in this game. Erlana Larkins was doing an impressive job on Tina Charles defensively, forcing misses and then increasingly distant jump shots. Larkins was producing more points with her own post efforts against Charles than the Liberty center was scoring herself. Indiana’s fluid defense, willing to switch and rotate whenever necessary, forced turnovers from the Liberty and helped the Fever lead continue to grow. They were up by as many as 23 in the second quarter, 19 at halftime.

The closest New York came in the second half was nine points with five minutes left in the game, and Catchings immediately answered that threat with a three. Indiana lost a little bit of their pace and rhythm in the second half, but contributions from the likes of Maggie Lucas and Sydney Carter off the bench helped out Catchings and Larkins and kept them in front. New York shot even better in the second half, and still never really came close.

 

Key Players: Catchings has the line that jumps out at you from the box score, finishing 11-19 for 29 points. Warley-Talbert, Charles, Plenette Pierson and Swin Cash all took their turns trying to cool her off, but none of them had much success. This is the Catchings Indiana need if they’re going to make the postseason and then try to make a run. But Larkins was equally important, essentially outplaying Charles in their duel in the paint. She was active and strong, and always looking for the ball inside on offense so that Charles could never rest. Between Lucas, Carter, Natasha Howard and Karima Christmas, it was also one of the solid days for Indiana’s bench.

It’s not often that you’ll shoot 55% from the field and get blown out, but that’s what happened to New York in this one. It was an unfortunate waste of an offensive performance for them, because they produced those numbers even with Charles being kept quiet for much of the game. Instead, Cappie Pondexter led the way, and the supporting players hit their shots – it was just never enough to get them back in the contest. Some of it was just a freak shooting night for the Fever, but the Liberty will have to do a better defensive job in their remaining games against Indiana (and avoid costly turnovers), or they’ll be watching the playoffs from home.

 

Notes of Interest: For now, Indiana are half-a-game up on New York in the standings, and also have a 2-0 advantage in the season series between the teams. The Eastern Conference is too much of a mess to start digging into the scenarios, but suffice it to say that this was a big win for Indiana.

 

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Washington Mystics 81 @ Connecticut Sun 89 (2OT)

 

Lineups: Connecticut had Chiney Ogwumike back in their lineup after missing two games due to an abscessed tooth. Allison Hightower is still missing due to the knee surgery from well over a month ago that was only supposed to keep her out for a couple of weeks. Washington went with their regular starting five.

 

Story of the Game: There was very little worth reporting from the first half. Ogwumike looked a little rusty early but she was hardly the only Sun player making mistakes. Meanwhile Washington were blowing easy chances, and Kia Vaughn was busy illustrating how much of a fluke her offensive explosion in their previous game had been. Emma Meesseman had a couple of decent finishes inside, and Kara Lawson hit a pair of late pullup threes to help the Mystics take a narrow lead at halftime.

Connecticut took control for a large chunk of the second half. Alex Bentley’s perimeter gunning helped carry the Sun, before Ogwumike, Kelsey Bone and Kelsey Griffin gave them some interior presence and allowed them to stop relying entirely on jump shots. Ivory Latta kept the Mystics in it initially with her own perimeter shooting, but Washington got dangerously stagnant, missed a bunch of jumpers, and fell behind by double-digits.

As with the Indiana-New York game above, the trailing team managed to drag themselves within nine points with just under five minutes to play – but this one went very differently from there. Latta hit a couple of huge threes while Monique Currie gave the Mystics some aggression off the dribble, and when Bria Hartley drilled a three of her own – off a Latta feed – with just over a minute left Washington took back the lead. Trailing by two with 15 seconds left, Connecticut were lucky to retain possession when an initial attempt at a backdoor lob was tipped out of bounds. Their second try led to an open baseline jumper for Bone, which missed, but Griffin won the battle for the rebound and tossed in the tying putback at the buzzer. Griffin wouldn’t have even been in the game if Ogwumike hadn’t taken a hard hit earlier in the game and presumably felt some delayed effects (she saw nearly ten minutes of action after the contact).

The first overtime period was a tight affair, with Washington creating a three-point lead on a Vaughn finish deep in the paint, before Renee Montgomery tied things up with a triple when Latta was caught behind a screen. From there, Washington had a turnover, Katie Douglas bricked a jumper, Hartley threw the ball out of bounds after being blocked off on a drive, and then Griffin missed after spinning into the lane. Connecticut had a final chance to win it, but took too long to make their move, allowing Hartley to use Washington’s foul-to-give to essentially end the period. More extra basketball.

Eventually, there was more scoring in the second added period, although much of it came at the free throw line. Griffin was working her backside off for the Sun, charging after rebounds, flying around on help defense, and basically being a pest. She also stepped outside to nail a three, moments before taking a charge from Hartley – much as the Sun would’ve liked to have Ogwumike in the game, Griffin came up big as her replacement. From there, Washington could never make it a one-possession game again, with Montgomery hitting a series of free throws after her teammates had been missing them all afternoon. That was enough for the Sun to hold on for a win that – at the time – preserved their playoff hopes. Due to other results, that wouldn’t be the case for long.

 

Key Players: Connecticut had five players in double-digits, with Bentley probably the most impressive. Griffin made big plays down the stretch, and Bone gave them a presence inside. If the big center had been able to take advantage of the space Washington kept leaving her in around the free throw line, the game might’ve ended earlier. It was a disappointing game for a whole host of reasons for Washington. Latta, Meesseman and Currie were their best offensive performers, but it wasn’t quite the smooth, team-oriented effort that we’ve seen from them lately.

 

Notes of Interest: At times it felt like the game would never end, and many players picked up injuries along the way. Kara Lawson limped off midway through the fourth quarter, and the Mystics later reported that she’d miss a week with a left ankle sprain. The Mystics will also be without Kia Vaughn for their game against Chicago on Wednesday, due to a one-game suspension handed down by the league for the elbow that felled Ogwumike early in the third quarter. While no one really noticed it when it happened – it was called a common foul by an official who clearly didn’t have a good view – on reexamination it was a pretty vicious forearm swing towards the back of Ogwumike’s head. You can’t do that, and the suspension was definitely warranted.

Beyond the health concerns that leaves around Ogwumike, Alyssa Thomas also needed treatment (although she eventually came back in) and Katie Douglas was back in the locker room for the closing minutes after walking off holding her back. Later results meant Connecticut became the first team eliminated from playoff contention, and we can only guess who’ll actually suit up for them in their two remaining games.

 

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Los Angeles Sparks 76 @ San Antonio Stars 82

 

Lineups: The starters were as in recent games for both teams, with Danielle Adams retaining her starting spot ahead of Sophia Young-Malcolm for San Antonio.

 

Story of the Game: Neither side could take control for most of a closely contested first half. San Antonio lost Adams midway through the first quarter when Jantel Lavender lowered her shoulder on a post move and Adams banged her head against the floor when she fell after the contact. Due to ‘concussion-related symptoms’, Adams didn’t return for the rest of the game.

The Stars did a nice job of keeping their offense moving from side to side, and constantly rotating and cutting to keep the LA defense thinking, but they missed an unusual amount of outside shots so failed to turn it into much of an advantage. The Sparks were running most of their attacks through their posts as normal, but too many of them were ending in mid-range jumpers for the bigs rather than interior chances. And with Candace Parker desperately cold from everywhere, LA’s offense was poor. The attack of Danielle Robinson, both on drives to the rim and mid-range jump shots, gave San Antonio a small lead at the break.

The Stars extended their lead in the third quarter, with Kayla McBride effective inside and out, Young-Malcolm and Jia Perkins providing energy, and Jayne Appel maintaining the same dominance on the boards that she’d contributed in the first half. LA finally had Nneka Ogwumike rolling, and were attacking the basket much better than they had in the first half, but couldn’t get the defensive stops they needed to even out the scoreline.

When San Antonio went cold early in the fourth period, LA eventually made it all the way back and took the lead on a Lindsey Harding pullup jumper with under five minutes to play. From there, the teams traded punches (metaphorically speaking) until the finish. Another Harding jumper gave LA the lead again with under two minutes to play, but a Perkins runner in the lane took it back for San Antonio. After an Alana Beard turnover on an attempted pass to Lavender – with Robinson and Appel applying the pressure – it was San Antonio who came up with the final big shot. She hadn’t even been on the floor for most of crunch time, but Becky Hammon came off the bench, took a pass from Robinson, and drilled a crucial deep three. Harding had helped far too far off Hammon to give her room for the shot, in the latest in a million defensive breakdowns for LA this season. After sitting out virtually the whole fourth quarter herself, Kristi Toliver came in and got a clean look at a three on LA’s next possession, but came up short. Appropriately, the rebound bounced into Appel’s hands – giving her a round 20 for the game.

 

Key Players: San Antonio shared the wealth around. Robinson keyed them in the first half, but with Beard and Armintie Herrington doing a better job corralling her in the second half, Young-Malcolm, Perkins and McBride stepped up. Throughout the contest, Appel dominated the glass against LA’s big front line. Some of that is down to LA’s defensive scheme, which tends to rotate their bigs out of rebounding position, but much of it was just desire. She wanted the ball more.

LA were actually pretty effective offensively, with the guards hitting some shots, and Lavender and Ogwumike producing at different times. Parker could never get going, and missed all kinds of efforts throughout the game. It wasn’t one of those days where she just drifts around and is barely involved – she just couldn’t find her range.

 

Notes of Interest: This result, combined with the Tulsa-Seattle game covered below, leaves everything still in flux in the Western Conference. None of the bottom four teams are definitively in the playoffs, and none of them are out. Even a four-way tie (which would send San Antonio and Los Angeles into the postseason) is still a possibility. The first tie-breaker is always head-to-head (or head-to-head-to-head, or head-to-head-to-head-to-head), then conference record. Right now it looks like those should be enough to separate the vast majority of potential outcomes, and the Sparks and Stars are still the favourites. They’ve just made it unnecessarily difficult for themselves.

 

—–

 

Atlanta Dream 69 @ Chicago Sky 80

 

Lineups: The big news before this one was that Angel McCoughtry was sitting out due to tendonitis in both feet. While the earlier loss for Washington had made Atlanta’s spot a little more secure at the top of the Eastern Conference, nothing was certain yet so she must’ve needed the rest. It’s still unlikely that the Dream will be caught for the #1 seed, but with their awful run of results it’s become a plausible scenario. They went big in McCoughtry’s absence, sliding Sancho Lyttle to small forward and adding post Aneika Henry to their starting lineup. Hopefully everyone ignored the misinformed and generally pretty awful commentating duo of Lisa Byington and Brooke Weisbrod, who kept claiming that Celine Dumerc owed her starting spot to McCoughtry’s absence. It was actually Dumerc’s seventh straight start at the point. Chicago stuck with the same starters, with Elena Delle Donne’s minutes still carefully managed while bringing her off the bench.

 

Story of the Game: Neither team was able to sustain much of a run for most of the first half or create a significant gap. Lyttle didn’t look entirely comfortable at small forward, but Atlanta did have the sense to post her up on the smaller Tamera Young to create some easy looks early in the game. The Dream eventually went in at halftime with a small advantage thanks to superior outside shooting, which isn’t something we’ve said about Atlanta very often over the years. Early on it was Dumerc, drilling threes over the top of Chicago’s efforts at a zone defense. Later in the half it was Shoni Schimmel, who added a pair of triples on top of a couple of nice assists.

After trailing by four at the break, Chicago fell further behind in the third quarter thanks largely to more Schimmel gunning from the perimeter. She was making occasional rookie mistakes as well, trying to do a little too much and turning the ball over, but her shooting and the highlight-reel passing more than made up for it. Chicago were making a better effort to go inside to Sylvia Fowles after she’d been largely ignored in the first half, but a fairly stagnant offense was still struggling to get into a flow. Their key plays came from Allie Quigley in the closing moments of the third quarter. Dumerc helped too far off her, allowing her to nail a three, and then Matee Ajavon lost track of her to let her rain down another one. After spending most of the period just hanging around, those shots took the Sky into an unexpected lead.

That seemed to knock the stuffing out of the Dream, and it didn’t take long for Chicago to extend their lead in the fourth. The post pairing of Fowles and Jessica Breland – which hasn’t really clicked since Fowles returned from injury – had a strong sequence, coming up with hustle rebounds, finishes at the rim, and interior defense that kept the Dream quiet. Delle Donne played more minutes in the fourth quarter than Breland, and made more shots, but the crucial push came when Breland was out there providing her usual energy. Atlanta never managed to get back into it the rest of the way.

 

Key Players: Chicago were unusually balanced, with Fowles, Quigley, Delle Donne, Epiphanny Prince and Jamierra Faulkner all scoring in double-digits. 8-14 shooting from beyond the arc proved crucial, after it had been Atlanta hitting all the outside shots early on. Quigley’s been a vital piece of the puzzle for Chicago lately. She still isn’t a point guard, and there were times during this game when you held your breath while her ballhandling was put under pressure by Atlanta’s defense, but she can hit shots and her confidence is growing.

Schimmel was the highlight for Atlanta, who came up with some bizarre rotations in the final period when they were trying to fight back into the game (Matee Ajavon played the entire fourth quarter, again, and it was just as mystifying as last time). Losing McCoughtry for the night was a handy excuse – and obviously it hurt – but the downward spiral continues for this squad. They’ve now lost nine of their last eleven games, and their #1 seed seems more likely to be confirmed by the failure of the chasing pack than their own results.

 

Notes of Interest: The injury situation also got worse for the Dream, with Jasmine Thomas limping out of the game with what looked like an ankle problem late in the first half. Her minutes have dwindled since being replaced by Dumerc in the starting lineup, but she can still be a viable option on the perimeter and a steady hand. Or at least help keep Ajavon off the floor.

 

—–

 

Tulsa Shock 68 @ Seattle Storm 74

 

Lineups: The starters and available options were as expected for both teams. Odyssey Sims had been a doubt due to a shoulder injury for Tulsa, but she was suited up and ready to play.

 

Story of the Game: The first half belonged to Tulsa, with Seattle merely doing their best to hang around in contention. For once it wasn’t just the Shock’s guards doing the damage, with Courtney Paris dominating Crystal Langhorne inside and finishing at the rim, and Glory Johnson attacking as well. The Shock were all over the glass, which was hardly a surprise given how these teams have rebounded this season. Skylar Diggins also came up with several jumpers and drives to keep the Tulsa offense rolling while Seattle sputtered.

The Storm did manage to pierce Tulsa’s defense on several occasions, but missed far too many layups in the first half. They’d dragged the game down to their favoured pedestrian pace, but couldn’t convert and found themselves down by 13 at halftime.

Unfortunately for the Shock, the second half was an entirely different animal. While the opening 20 minutes had looked like a bunch of kids with too much energy and vitality for the old fogies to keep up with, the second 20 saw the youngsters run out of steam while the intelligence and precision of the experienced campaigners took over. Langhorne and Camille Little both played the entire second half, and Seattle repeatedly found them in the middle of Tulsa’s defense to finish inside. The Storm were finally moving the ball quickly enough and shifting the defenders around as they should’ve been since the start, opening up the seams in Tulsa’s defense.

The Storm also did a better job of clogging the lane in the second half, making it tough for Tulsa to feed their bigs or find lanes to the hoop through Diggins and Sims. Diggins continued to provide most of the offense for the Shock – even picking up a rare technical foul in the fourth to show just how frustrated she was with her team’s performance – but it was almost all coming around the perimeter.

The game was still close with a few minutes remaining, but it was Seattle with all the momentum and they made the crucial plays down the stretch. Lovely interior passing from Sue Bird and then Langhorne created layups for Little, and the Shock couldn’t hit the shots to answer. It would’ve been overstating it to say Seattle had ‘worked them out’, but there were constantly defenders sat in the lane waiting for the inevitable drives from Diggins, Sims and Johnson. Tulsa have been fairly predictable all season and Seattle eventually took advantage. It was appropriate that Tanisha Wright took a charge from Diggins to essentially ice the game.

 

Key Players: Bird actually led the scoring for Seattle, hitting some important threes to keep them in the game until they eventually got rolling inside. Then it became the Lang and Little Show, dragging the Storm to their third straight win and keeping their postseason hopes alive. They still need to win their two remaining games, and get a little help elsewhere, but they’re clinging on.

Tulsa are too, despite this result (and some misleading tweets floating around during the game). They can no longer pass San Antonio, but they could still catch Los Angeles if they won their final two games and LA lost their last three. It’s a thin thread, but it’s still there. Diggins was their driving force in this one, after Sims had been the backcourt leader for the last few weeks. Paris and Johnson were both strong at times, but faded out of the game once Seattle woke up. The four key starters continue to play very heavy minutes, which may well have contributed to their collapse in this game. Some of the bench players have produced this season when given a chance, but Fred Williams doesn’t seem to trust any of them besides Jordan Hooper. The return of Riquna Williams and maybe Liz Cambage could offer some extra depth next season – one way or another the starters need to be given a bit more rest.

 

—–

 

League News

 

If you skipped that game review above, Washington’s Kia Vaughn picked up a one-game suspension for an elbow, and Kara Lawson’s ankle injury will likely see her miss their remaining regular season games. After a run that was starting to make Atlanta nervous at the top of the East, now all Washington want is to make sure they get into the playoffs despite those setbacks.

 

—–

 

Today’s Games

 

Phoenix @ New York, 7pm ET. After Phoenix’s win over Minnesota on Saturday, they’ve now got a bit of a cushion at the top of the West. Even if the Lynx win out, the Mercury could afford to lose three of their remaining four games and retain home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. So the Liberty can hold on to the hope that Phoenix might relax and become a little complacent. New York also gave Phoenix some problems in their previous matchup with their physical style, so they at least know they can compete with the Mercury. The problem is that Phoenix eventually had too much firepower for New York in that game, and that could well be the case again. If the Liberty play like they have in recent games against Washington and Indiana, they’ll simply be trying to avoid being completely embarrassed.

 

Los Angeles @ Minnesota, 8pm ET. At this point, this game means a lot more to Los Angeles than it does to Minnesota. The Lynx are trying to build rhythm and confidence heading into the playoffs, but they’re virtually cemented in that #2 seed after the loss to Phoenix. Meanwhile, LA have been on the brink of qualifying for the playoffs for a while, without being able to crawl over the line. While players like Candace Parker and Kristi Toliver may raise their game for a star-studded rival like the Lynx, their performances all season haven’t indicated much likelihood of success against opponents like Phoenix and Minnesota. In fact, they’re 0-7 against those two league powers so far this year. Minnesota have only lost once at home all season, and however meaningless the result is likely to be in the grand scheme of things, they won’t want another blemish on that record.

 

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