Phoenix Mercury 76 @ New York Liberty 64
Lineups: Same group as usual for Phoenix, but a change to the starters for the first time in a while for New York. Alex Montgomery was benched in favour of Swin Cash at small forward, maybe in the hope that Cash’s veteran smarts could help New York handle the Mercury. Or just to change something to try to kick-start a team that were dominated in two of their last three games.
Story of the Game: As an individual offensive force, Tina Charles probably quite enjoyed this game. Unlike most opponents, Phoenix largely covered Charles one-on-one, and even if that solo defender is Brittney Griner, Charles was clearly much happier attacking her than dealing with constant double-teams. In fact, Charles scored New York’s first 12 points of the game on a series of nice finishes inside and a couple of jumpers, but by then Phoenix were already pulling ahead. The Mercury had Griner scoring efficiently inside – with New York largely avoiding double-teams on her as well – Diana Taurasi firing from outside, and Candice Dupree providing her typical combination of mid-range shots and smooth finishes at the rim. New York had Charles and nothing much else.
That was basically the case for the rest of the first half. The Liberty got a little boost of energy from Anna Cruz – who was also beginning to really aggravate Taurasi with her physical defense – but without ever really putting their foot on the gas the Mercury were always in control. New York clawed their deficit down to three points late in the second quarter, before a 10-0 Phoenix run reestablished their dominance before the interval. Taurasi was still in the aggressive offensive mindset we saw in the games against Minnesota, and forced a couple of bad shots as a result, but converted a drive and drilled a three in that sequence to keep her team on top.
New York were often close enough to suggest a comeback was possible in the second half, without ever actually making the push to casue any real nerves for Phoenix. Cappie Pondexter hit a few shots to play the sidekick role for Charles, but as a team they missed a lot of jump shots, and the occasional double-teams that Phoenix sent towards Charles forced her to think a bit more about which move to make. With Dupree still hitting shots, and Erin Phillips providing some energy and perimeter shooting off the bench, Phoenix consistently managed to hold the Liberty at arm’s length until the end.
Key Players: The Griner-Charles matchup in the paint was a lot of fun, even if they weren’t always guarding each other. With Avery Warley-Talbert ineffective, they were directly against each other for much of the evening. Griner ended the game 7-12 for a typically efficient 14 points, and added 11 rebounds and three blocks. But she also had four teammates in double figures alongside her to help out.
Charles was a much more dominant figure within the Liberty offense, everything running through her and she was constantly trying to attack. She finished the night 11-22 for 26 points and 12 boards, but didn’t get a lot of help and New York never looked convinced that they could win the game. Phoenix beat them fairly comfortably, without ever really having to extend themselves.
Notes of Interest: While the loss certainly doesn’t help, the Liberty’s playoff future was always going to rely more on their other three remaining games – one against Washington, and a pair against Indiana. They’ll need to win at least two, and very possibly all three to sneak in. The performance in their previous game against the Fever wasn’t promising.
For Phoenix, this win confirmed their status as the #1 seed in the West, and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Their last three games are essentially meaningless, and we’ll probably see them rest some players or at least limit their minutes. They can’t beat the best ever winning percentage in a WNBA season, but they could win the most games in a season in the league’s history (they played fewer than 34 games in the early years).
Los Angeles Sparks 71 @ Minnesota Lynx 63
Lineups: The starters were as expected for both teams. The Lynx were one short on their bench, as Brazilian post Damiris Dantas had flown home for personal reasons and will apparently miss their remaining regular season games. She’s expected to return for the playoffs.
Story of the Game: Minnesota started off just like they did in their previous game against Phoenix, taking a lot of jumpers but hitting virtually all of them, and therefore pulling in front. They were up by as many as 11 in the early minutes, despite Maya Moore limping off with a slight ankle sprain in the opening seconds. She came back in midway through the first quarter, to allay any fears Lynx fans may have had about something more serious.
LA spent most of the first half slowly inching their way back into the game, and picking up worrying injuries of their own. Nneka Ogwumike landed on Moore’s foot late in the first quarter, and limped all the way back to the locker room. She rejoined the action midway through the second, but always looked a little gimpy and eventually subbed out for good in the middle of the third. Candace Parker also appeared to pick up an ankle problem in the second quarter, and missed the final seven minutes of the first half, but reappeared after the halftime break and looked fine for the rest of the game.
Meanwhile the Sparks were reliant on their defense and their guard play to keep them in the game – two elements which haven’t exactly been reliable this season. But between Alana Beard and Kristi Toliver making some shots, and some scrappy play by the Lynx, LA tied the game up in the second quarter. It took a Cheryl Reeve timeout and some Minnesota players actually attacking the rim afterwards to rebuild a seven-point Lynx lead at halftime.
From there, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see LA fade into the background and hand over another result to a more cohesive opponent. They’ve certainly done that plenty of times this season. But maybe the fact mentioned in yesterday’s preview – that this game actually meant a lot more to LA than to Minnesota – eventually came into play. Or maybe Kristi Toliver just happened to get crazy hot. Parker did a lot of the work for LA in the second half, actually attacking and trying to make something happen rather than letting the game drift by, but Toliver’s explosion made the difference. We’ve seen so little of it from her this season, but she had lots of energy from the start of this game, chasing after every loose ball on offer, and eventually her jump shot joined the party. Her gunning helped erase LA’s deficit in the third quarter, then took them into the lead, and for once the Minnesota credo of “our jumpshooters are better than your jumpshooters” wasn’t playing out.
Of course, the Lynx didn’t just go away. Their offense wasn’t particularly fluid in the second half, and Moore missed a lot of outside shots you typically expect her to knock down, but they were still right in the contest down the stretch. In fact a Moore pullup gave them the lead with two minutes remaining – only for Toliver to step up again. She hit a spinning turnaround jumper in the lane over Tan White – who’d been inserted into the game specifically to take her turn at trying to cool Toliver off – to take the lead back for the Sparks. Seimone Augustus airballed a three at the other end, before Toliver used a Jantel Lavender screen and drilled another three over Janel McCarville to make it a two-possession game. When Moore missed her own attempt at a three on the next possession, the result was essentially decided. LA had confirmed their playoff spot, by winning on the floor of the team they may well face in the first round.
Key Players: Toliver finished the game with 29 points on 11-18 shooting, producing the kind of remarkable scoring performance that she was known for in previous years – but which we’ve rarely seen this year. Penny Toler’s clearly been encouraging her to fire away whenever she has a glimpse of the basket, but this was the first time that Toliver’s gotten hot and started hitting everything in sight. It’s also the kind of performance that’s scary for opponents that might have to face LA in a best-of-three series. You could lose one of them to an out-of-this-world Toliver night, and then LA just have to find a way to scrap out one more win. Of course, they’ll be desperately hoping that Ogwumike’s ankle problem isn’t too serious.
Minnesota won’t be too worried about this game, even if they do have to face LA in the playoffs. They’ll be a little better prepared to cover Toliver and Parker in the postseason, and they know that they can out-execute the Sparks on most nights. Moore led the scoring for them, but was the only Lynx player in double-digits. They got a little too stagnant offensively in the second half, just expecting Moore’s shooting to bail them out, and trying too hard to post up their wings inside. They’re right to be looking for high-percentage interior opportunities, but they’re much better off creating them with cuts, screens and pick-and-rolls. The post ups are too slow developing, and allow even LA to react and drop help down to cover.
Notes of Interest: Minnesota still aren’t entirely sure how to cover Parker, and LA’s switch to playing her more at small forward has made it even more complicated (although Ogwumike’s injury scuppered that positional move for most of the second half of this particular game). Maya Moore’s the straightforward choice when Parker’s at the 3, and Rebekkah Brunson the best option at the 4, but when they rest the Lynx search through all kinds of strange options. Asia Taylor got some minutes, and did a reasonable job on Parker, after barely playing for over a month. And it might’ve only been on switches, but I swear Monica Wright ended up guarding Parker a couple of times – which did not end well for Minnesota.
I continue to believe that LA are the scarier lower seed in the West, purely because their ceiling is higher than San Antonio’s (or Seattle’s, who could also still sneak in). Minnesota and Phoenix are going to be huge favourites in the first round regardless of opponent, but in a three-game series funny things can happen.
The LA result above put the Sparks into the postseason, and also eliminated the Tulsa Shock. Seattle still have a chance because they’d win the tiebreaker with San Antonio, but Tulsa are done for another year.
Chicago @ Washington, 11.30am ET
Phoenix @ Atlanta, 7pm ET
(no previews for either, as this column’s going up too late for that to make sense)