The Daily W, 08/16/2014

 

Washington Mystics 71 @ Connecticut Sun 67

 

Lineups: As detailed in yesterday’s previews, for a variety of reasons the Sun were better off losing this game, so it was no surprise that Katie Douglas was in street clothes for tip-off. She had missed the end of their last game after walking off holding her back, so maybe she would’ve been out anyway, but there was certainly no incentive to rush her back. Danielle McCray started in her place, with long-term absentee Allison Hightower the only other player missing. So to Connecticut’s credit, it’s not like they went into full-on tanking mode. Washington had Kia Vaughn back from her one-game suspension for elbowing Chiney Ogwumike the last time these teams met, and she took her starting spot back from Stefanie Dolson. Kara Lawson’s ankle continues to keep her off the floor.

 

Story of the Game: The first half was utterly forgettable. Washington led for most of it thanks to some nice post moves from Emma Meesseman, some shooting from Bria Hartley and Ivory Latta, and overall dominance on the glass. Connecticut hung around, and a couple of late driving buckets for McCray and Alex Bentley allowed them to pull within four at halftime.

The Sun emerged with much better energy in the third quarter and made the game a more interesting battle. They were finally putting up a fight on the glass, came up with some transition points, and the mediocre play Washington had been producing all evening was no longer enough to keep them in front.

All of which combined to give us a tight finish. Meesseman made some strong plays down the stretch, showing off her silky passing skills and attacking Ogwumike to draw fouls and free throws. In fact, Washington did most of their work at the foul line in the closing stages. While Renee Montgomery was jacking and missing threes, Meesseman and then Monique Currie were picking up points at the line. Although on the one late possession where Montgomery gave the ball up, Bentley drilled a three from the corner to keep things interesting. But the late-game plays that Anne Donovan drew up out of timeouts were a disaster (or worked perfectly, if you believe she had the benefits of losing in the back of her mind). A staggered screen for Bentley didn’t break her open at all, and the play didn’t appear to have a second option, so ended in a Montgomery turnover. Then the next time down, Montgomery drove the baseline and kicked to Alyssa Thomas in the corner, who slid her foot backwards before making a move and went out of bounds as a result. Not that you ever want Thomas taking an important shot from the corner anyway, unless you’re the opposition. That ended the game as a contest, and Washington had confirmed their playoff spot.

 

Key Players: Meesseman inside, and the backcourt of Hartley and Latta outside, were the only players who consistently made shots for Washington. Currie did a decent job of attacking late in the game and knocking down important free throws. It was a big win for the Mystics to cement their spot in the postseason, but it wasn’t exactly a confidence-builder for the playoffs. They looked thoroughly ordinary all night, and they’ll likely need to play significantly better to actually win any games in the postseason. Tayler Hill and Kalana Greene continue to offer very little, so they’ll be desperately hoping Lawson’s ankle heals quickly. Otherwise Latta and Hartley are going to verge on 40 minutes a night.

Considering they had essentially nothing to play for and were missing their veteran presence on the perimeter, it was a relatively creditable performance from Connecticut. Bentley made some shots, Kelsey Bone finished some plays inside once she woke up in the second half, and Alyssa Thomas was reasonably effective. But this is still a team that looks like it needs to reload – and maybe rethink a little – to make the next step.

 

Notes of Interest: For the third time this season in the WNBA, a team was eliminated from playoff contention by the result of a game they weren’t even playing in. This scoreline meant New York will miss the postseason for the second straight year since Bill Laimbeer took over, and due to the Tina Charles trade they don’t even have the consolation of a lottery pick in the draft. Connecticut receive that, which was part of why losing this game worked out well for them.

 

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Tulsa Shock 76 @ Atlanta Dream 92

 

Lineups: Regular group for Tulsa, while Atlanta started the same big lineup they’d used in the last couple of games with Angel McCoughtry out due to tendonitis in her feet. She was in uniform and played in this game, but came off the bench.

 

Story of the Game: Odyssey Sims made enough shots to keep Tulsa in the game in the first quarter, but there were already signs of the run that was on the way in the second. Atlanta were starting to dominate the glass, and playing with good pace and desire considering how little the game actually meant to them in the standings. Then in the second period the Dream blew it open. That was when we saw something that actually resembled the old Atlanta Dream – running the floor hard, attacking in transition, and rolling over an opponent once they gathered momentum. Erika de Souza picked up points by finding deep position in the paint and taking strong passes from Shoni Schimmel and Jasmine Thomas to finish. Then McCoughtry, Schimmel and their teammates just started charging up and down the court and running right by the Shock. Tulsa had no answer, their offense couldn’t penetrate and fell apart, and Atlanta roared into a 22-point halftime lead.

The second half was basically playing out the string. Sims and Diggins improved significantly, and provided some offensive fightback for the Shock – they even came within 10 late in the game – but the Dream were too far in front for the comeback to ever really become an issue.

 

Key Players: While I’m still not convinced that playing Sancho Lyttle at small forward while McCoughtry’s been hurt made a lot of sense, it has allowed Aneika Henry to get more minutes inside, and remind Michael Cooper that he has at least three viable post players for the playoffs. Besides Henry, de Souza played well, McCoughtry looked healthy and energetic in limited minutes, and Schimmel provided her regular dose of crowd entertainment. She fits right in on this team with her speed, attack mentality, and the passes she tosses around the floor with a heavy dose of flair. Celine Dumerc and Jasmine Thomas may be the ‘safer’ choices for a head coach worried about defense, but the crowds are always going to love Schimmel more.

Outside of Diggins and Sims trying to drag their team through the second half, this looked very much like an end-of-season display for the Shock. For most of the game, they were playing the Washington Generals to Atlanta’s Schimmel-led Globetrotters.

 

Notes of Interest: Tiebreakers aren’t used to split teams tied for lottery chances. They just add the ping-pong ball combinations together and split them evenly between the tied teams. That’s looking likely to come into play for Tulsa, although they could still separate themselves in one direction or the other over the final weekend.

 

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Minnesota Lynx 76 @ San Antonio Stars 92

 

Lineups: Seimone Augustus stayed home to rest her knee, so Monica Wright started for Minnesota instead. San Antonio started the same group we’ve seen in recent games, with Danielle Adams apparently healthy to play after a bang on the head in their previous outing. It was Becky Hammon Night in San Antonio, with her retirement ceremony taking place after the game, so it seemed like a good night to pick up the final win they needed to secure a playoff spot and ensure it wouldn’t be Hammon’s last game – as a player – at the AT&T Center.

 

Story of the Game: Offense thoroughly dominated the first half, at both ends of the floor. While neither coach would’ve been overly happy with their team’s defense, it felt more like impressive offensive execution and outstanding shot-making were ruling the day, rather than the defenses repeatedly breaking down. For Minnesota, Maya Moore was at her usual ridiculous level, hitting shots from everywhere. She got some help from Monica Wright and Tan White, two players the Lynx will be relying on to play well enough in spurts to let Moore and Augustus get some rest during playoff games. Appropriately enough, Hammon was San Antonio’s best player early on, but Danielle Adams was effective in minutes limited by foul trouble, Jia Perkins hit shots off the bench, and Sophia Young-Malcolm impressive in extended floor time due to Adams having to sit. The Stars were up by three at the half.

San Antonio began to take the game away from Minnesota in the third quarter, and there wasn’t a lot of fight to hold on from the Lynx. Obviously, the game meant a lot less to them than to the Stars, but even without a key piece like Augustus it would’ve been nice to see them battle a little harder. Lindsay Whalen attacked more in the early minutes of the second half, but San Antonio were consistently the more active team, with their quick hands and effort on the defensive end cooling Minnesota off.

Between some early outside shooting from Adams, Perkins continuing to hit at important times, and Kayla McBride and Danielle Robinson chipping in, San Antonio pulled away. Knowing the game didn’t mean much to her team in the grand scheme of things, Cheryl Reeve threw in the towel earlier than she would have normally, turning most of the fourth quarter over to her bench. It was just unfortunate that in some ways it felt like she was doing that in exasperation at what her starters had produced, rather than to rest them for more important games to come.

 

Key Players: Adams and Perkins were the primary scorers for San Antonio, with the Robinson/Hammon backcourt combining for 17 assists and just one turnover. In a fitting finish to her last regular season home game as a player, Hammon’s final assist went to 19 year-old Astou Ndour, drafted to be part of the generation that takes this franchise on after Hammon’s retirement. An emotional Hammon was subbed out to rapturous applause moments later.

While their #2 seed and home-court advantage over everyone bar Phoenix was secured long before this game took place, and it therefore didn’t mean much, Minnesota won’t be too happy with how they played. It was their third loss in a row after 11 straight wins, which just isn’t the way you want to head into the playoffs. And while they know they can beat this Stars team – they’ve done it four times already this season – this result gives San Antonio hope for the potential playoff series between the two. The Lynx are a veteran team who know how to step up when the games matter, but momentum and rhythm can be important attributes going into the playoffs. Minnesota don’t have a lot of either right now.

 

Notes of Interest: The win secured San Antonio’s playoff spot, eliminating Seattle before the Storm even had the chance to tip-off their game last night. So oddly enough, not a single WNBA team was knocked out of playoff contention for good this year by losing a game themselves. The final nail was driven in all four times by a game the lottery team weren’t involved in.

 

—–

 

Seattle Storm 65 @ Los Angeles Sparks 77

 

Lineups: Both teams started their regular lineups, with Nneka Ogwumike ready to play after missing most of the second half in Los Angeles’s previous game due to an ankle issue.

 

Story of the Game: This was a strange game. It meant a little more to Los Angeles, assuming they’d prefer to play Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs rather than Phoenix. Seattle started the contest looking exactly like a team who’d been eliminated from the playoffs 30 minutes before the start – no energy, little apparent interest, and quickly falling behind. So Brian Agler virtually turned the game over to his reserves. Sue Bird, Tanisha Wright and Camille Little played barely five minutes each all night, while players like Waltiea Rolle and Jenna O’Hea took over instead.

At times it worked. O’Hea was the energy boost Seattle needed to get started in the opening quarter, providing a run of points against deplorable defense from Candace Parker. Then Rolle and Alysha Clark joined in, to at least give the Storm something to build from. But between Parker and Kristi Toliver, plus reasonably efficient contributions from their teammates, LA were still on top and led by 16 at halftime.

In many ways, the second half was encouraging for Storm fans who’ve wanted to see their bench players be given more of an opportunity, and generally see the Storm do more to develop some youth on the roster. Rolle looked like she might have some promise as a project post, Angel Robinson also offered some decent minutes inside, and the bench generally came up with more energy and pace than we’ve seen from the Storm core for much of the season. They even pulled the gap down to six points early in the fourth quarter.

But when you make heavy use of young, raw players, who aren’t used to playing extended minutes, plenty of bad usually comes along with the good. It was a scrappy second half all around, with lots of turnovers breaking up play, and eventually LA made the shots to re-take and keep hold of their advantage. The Storm reserves forced the Sparks to keep their starters in the game for most of the second half, but in the end LA had a little too much for them.

 

Key Players: While they probably had to play more minutes than Penny Toler would’ve liked, Parker and Toliver were the ones who made the plays for LA. Alana Beard and Nneka Ogwumike were solid as well, and have probably been the more consistently reliable players all season long, but they’re likely to go as far as Parker and Toliver can take them.

Rolle and O’Hea were the bright spots for Seattle, and it was lovely to see the regular starters going crazy on the bench when their lesser-used teammates made plays on the court, but their night was doomed by the result in San Antonio.

 

Notes of Interest: LA are a game up on San Antonio in the standings, but the Stars hold the tiebreaker, so things could still change. If LA win tonight in Phoenix, they secure the third seed and will face Minnesota in the first round. If they lose, San Antonio have the chance to overtake them by winning in Chicago on Sunday afternoon.

 

—–

 

League News

 

Sancho Lyttle signed a multi-year contract extension in Atlanta, as the second in the usual run of deals made in the closing days of the regular season (Diana Taurasi in Phoenix was the first). Teams try to get these extensions signed with their key players so that a maximum of one important piece becomes an unrestricted free agent in any given offseason, who can then be cored if the team feels that’s necessary to retain them. Re-signing Lyttle was a no-brainer for the Dream, for whom she’s been a vital player for many years. Although she may miss games next season to represent Spain in EuroBasket Women, and with the WNBA’s new rules on fining players who skip games that could cause a little friction.

 

—–

 

Today’s Games

 

New York @ Washington, 7pm ET. Now that we know who the four playoff teams are going to be in the East, the struggle for seeding comes into focus. Washington are half-a-game up on Chicago and Indiana, who are playing each other tonight. All the head-to-head series between the three are currently tied, but due to conference records both Chicago and Indiana would win tiebreakers with the Mystics. So all Washington can do is take care of their own business in this game, and hope the winner of the Chicago-Indiana game loses on Sunday, which would allow them to retain the #2 seed. Simple, right? Anyway, New York have nothing to gain by winning or losing, considering they don’t even own their first-round draft pick, so they’ll either be relaxed or completely uninterested – take your pick. Cappie Pondexter may well take the night off, considering Ros Gold-Onwude has been telling us all season long (over, and over, and over…) that Pondexter’s been playing through pain. Expect at least 15 shots from Sugar Rodgers.

 

Chicago @ Indiana, 7pm ET. As mentioned above, this is an important game for seeding in the East. The loser loses the tiebreaker between these two, even if they should happen to win their last game on Sunday while the other team loses. So it’s not definitive, but there’s a strong chance that the team that loses this game will end up as the #4 seed and face Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs. After being in uniform for their last game but not playing, it’ll be interesting to see if point guard Courtney Vandersloot makes her return for the Sky tonight, in the hope that she could build a little fitness for the playoffs. For Indiana, with a veteran squad and a back-to-back to close out the regular season, we’ll see how much they actually care about their seeding. They may be more interested in rest and recuperation than trying to finish second or third in the East and avoid the Dream.

 

Tulsa @ Minnesota, 8pm ET. Another utterly meaningless game in terms of everything bar lottery percentages and momentum. After their third consecutive loss last night, the Lynx would probably like to take a win into the postseason, but they won’t exactly be energised for the game. Tulsa will probably put the ball in the hands of Sims and Diggins and let them go to work again. It might end up being fun to watch at times, but there isn’t likely to be a lot of interest in the result.

 

Los Angeles @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. The Sparks will probably actually want to win this. They’ve won in Minnesota this year, but are yet to beat the Mercury, and a victory tonight would allow LA to avoid Phoenix in the first round. It would also give them a little confidence should they pull the upset and then make their way to the WNBA Finals to likely face the Mercury. But Phoenix probably won’t care. Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor took their previous game off, and Sandy Brondello will be going deep into her bench again during this game. Taurasi and Taylor are apparently expected to play, but other players may take the night off instead, or at least be given limited minutes. Beating half the Mercury won’t mean as much emotionally to LA, but it would still clinch the #3 seed in the West.

 

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