Lineups: Same starters for Chicago that they’ve used in recent games, with Elena Delle Donne continuing to combine with Allie Quigley as a dangerous pair of scorers off the bench. For the first time since the end of June, Courtney Vandersloot was in uniform for the Sky – although she never actually made it off the bench. Still, a positive sign that she might be available for the playoffs. Washington were short a couple of players, with regular starting center Kia Vaughn suspended for the elbow she threw at Chiney Ogwumike in their last game, and Kara Lawson out for a week after spraining her ankle the same night. Stefanie Dolson started in place of Vaughn, while Kalana Greene and Tayler Hill both saw playing time on the perimeter that wouldn’t have been on offer with a full squad.
Story of the Game: Chicago led for virtually the entire first half, pushing their advantage as high as 11 points on a couple of occasions. The Mystics missed a lot of shots, both inside and out, but managed to keep hanging around. Dolson was doing a reasonable job battling for position with Sylvia Fowles, but struggling to convert anything when Washington tried to use her offensively. Chicago didn’t succeed in forcing the ball inside that consistently either, but with Quigley and Delle Donne making a couple of shots, they managed to build a lead. But Washington closed the half strong, with Bria Hartley nailing a three and throwing a pretty pass to lead Dolson in for a layup as part of the push, and the Mystics were within two points at the interval.
In many ways, the second half was very similar. Chicago were in front almost throughout – an Ivory Latta three put the Mystics ahead for a grand total of 21 seconds in the third quarter, before a Fowles layup took it back – but Washington wouldn’t go away. The absences hurt the Mystics. Fowles dominated the boards without Vaughn available to battle her, and both Hill and Greene looked like passengers. Greene’s barely been used by Mike Thibault this season, so will offer her usual effort but has no game rhythm whatsoever. Hill was basically terrible in her rookie season last year, so adding the fact that she gave birth less than eight weeks ago on top of that, she’s not really ready to contribute. She tried a three in the first half that was cleanly blocked by Epiphanny Prince, who’s about the size of your average garden gnome. They’ll really be hoping that Lawson’s ready to go for the playoffs – assuming they make it in.
Chicago did a slightly better job of getting the ball inside in the second half, while Washington continued to live or die on jump shots, but the Mystics still had a chance down the stretch. Quigley made mistakes in the final minutes – a clear push-off on Hartley for an offensive foul, a bricked jumper too early in the shot clock, then a terrible inbounds pass that was picked off by Hartley and taken the length of the court by the Washington guard for a layup. It’s not the first time this season that Quigley’s screwed up on a crucial late inbounds pass, and you wonder if it might be time to hand the responsibility off to someone else. After Prince hit a pair of free throws to follow that Hartley finish, Washington were down by three with eight seconds remaining. Out of timeouts, they had to push and create something off the bounce, and it didn’t really work. Hartley unwisely gave the ball up to a trailing Emma Meesseman, who has range but not to that kind of distance, and not when she has to create separation on her own. She forced up a heave from her shoulder that didn’t come close – and her toe appeared to be on the line, so it wouldn’t have been enough anyway – and the Sky had clung on for the win.
Key Players: Fowles led the scoring for Chicago, despite never seeming to see much of the ball in traditional half-court sets and post ups. She did the dirty work on the boards, took her chances when they were available, and finished 7-11 for 21 points and 16 rebounds. Vaughn wouldn’t have stopped her, but she might’ve helped contain her. Quigley and Delle Donne both made some tough shots at vital times, although those errors by Quigley late in the game continued to highlight that she’s a makeshift point guard at best. Having Vandersloot back as an alternative, more secure ballhandler would be a nice boost for the postseason – if they can get in.
Monique Currie was Washington’s highest scorer, and has generally had a much stronger second half to the season after shooting horrifically poorly to start the year. But for a team known for their depth, the Mystics came off looking very thin due to just two injuries (or maybe three – it’s hard to know if Jelena Milovanovic is feeling her knee again, or Mike Thibault just chose not to use her). Tierra Ruffin-Pratt was the emergency backup power forward, and did okay in that role, but they never quite had the strength to overhaul the Sky in this one.
Notes of Interest: So it’s still three from four in the East. One win for Washington in their last two games will get them in, and they might even make it if they lose both, but they’d be relying on help. Chicago currently sit in second – because the season series with Washington is tied 2-2, but they have a better conference record – but are just as vulnerable as the Mystics. The final spot might still come down to Sunday afternoon’s games on the last day of the regular season.
Lineups: Angel McCoughtry sat out her second straight game for the Dream due to tendonitis in her feet, despite their need for one more win to cement the #1 seed in the East. That likely says as much about their confidence in the chasing pack failing to win enough games to catch them as it does about McCoughtry’s need for rest. Once again, Aneika Henry started in the post with Sancho Lyttle sliding over to small forward. Having sealed everything up in their previous game, Phoenix began their effort to rest up for the postseason. Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor were both given the night off, with Erin Phillips and Shay Murphy coming into the starting lineup to replace them.
Story of the Game: Phoenix actually started out pretty well, even without their missing parts. The offense ran through Brittney Griner in the post even more conspicuously than usual, but other players made shots as well and the Mercury pulled out an eight-point advantage late in the first quarter. But Griner was subbed out to start the second period, and Atlanta inevitably began to slide back into the game. Phoenix are a deeper team than they used to be, and they’ve got much more shooting to space the floor than they had last season, but there’s still a very significant drop-off when they go to their reserves. That becomes even more evident when two of your regular starters are skipping the game.
Atlanta also have Shoni Schimmel, who came into the game and went off in the second quarter. She scored a remarkable 20 points in the period, and for once it wasn’t all built on firing away from deep. There was a fair amount of that as well, but she attacked in transition, finished at the rim, and drew a host of fouls to help create points. With the Mercury losing their way, and failing to rediscover it even once their starters came back out, Schimmel and the Dream took control in the second quarter and led 55-41 at halftime.
Atlanta killed it off for good in the third quarter. Phoenix looked like they’d lost the desire for the battle – Griner’s rebounding was even more half-hearted than usual – and the Dream were repeatedly picking up points deep in the paint. Tiffany Hayes was strong and aggressive off the dribble, all their posts were having some success inside whether Griner was out there or not, and the benches were left to play out the fourth quarter.
Key Players: Schimmel will draw all the headlines for her 20-point period – she only scored four in the rest of the game – but it was a fairly solid team performance from the Dream all around. And those have been few and far between from Atlanta of late. The shift to use Lyttle at small forward doesn’t make a lot of sense, assuming they’re expecting McCoughtry back for the games that matter in the postseason. Once she returns, Lyttle is unlikely to see much time – if any – at small forward. Which makes all the effort she and her teammates are putting in to understand their roles in the shifted lineup potentially worthless. Maybe they’re thinking about using it as a change-up option in the playoffs, despite never trying it all season long until the last two games. Or maybe McCoughtry’s injury is a little more serious than we think (that’s probably unlikely). Regardless of the thought process, they won the game, and finally sealed the top seed in the East after a dismal swoon in the second half of the season.
Phoenix won’t be particularly bothered by the loss. They signalled how much they cared about the result before tip-off with the lineup decisions, and after a decent start the rest of the team played like they barely cared as well. Erin Phillips was the only one to really come away with any credit, hitting perimeter shots and looking like she enjoyed returning to a starting role. Don’t get used to it, Erin.
Notes of Interest: Atlanta will be the only team in the East to finish the season with a record above .500, which is a little bit pathetic. But at least this win finally confirmed that they’d creep above 17 wins for the year.
New York @ Indiana, 7pm ET. The second in the trio of late-season matchups between these teams that are likely to decide which of them makes the postseason. Indiana won the first one in a shockingly high-scoring and offensively efficient game on Sunday. New York shot 55% from the field despite Tina Charles being outplayed by Erlana Larkins, and still lost by 14. It wouldn’t be a big surprise if Bill Laimbeer changed his starting lineup, because Avery Warley-Talbert really had no answer for Tamika Catchings in that previous game. Plenette Pierson wasn’t much better, but if Catchings starts the game shooting as well as she did last time, the Liberty will have to try something different to slow her down. Maybe Swin Cash or Alex Montgomery take a turn, or they could even shift Charles away from her fight with Larkins and let her try. The law of averages says Catchings won’t score as well this time around, but it also says New York are unlikely to be at 55% again – so they’ll need options. That said, the Fever have bizarrely been a far worse team on their own home court this season, which might help New York out. If they lose this one, the resulting two-game gap would start to look worryingly large in the standings. The Liberty won’t be finished mathematically, but their chances will be hanging by a thread.