The Daily W, 08/17/2014

 

New York Liberty 73 @ Washington Mystics 61

 

Lineups: After going smaller to try to combat Tamika Catchings in their previous game, New York switched back to a more regular lineup for this one, with Avery Warley-Talbert coming back in to start in the post. Swin Cash continued at small forward, with Alex Montgomery dropping to the bench. Washington, who needed a win to give themselves a chance at the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, started their usual five. Kara Lawson was still out due to her ankle issue.

 

Story of the Game: In many ways, this was a pretty depressing contest for fans of both teams. Mystics supporters saw their team produce a desperately flat performance, fall behind by double-digits in the second quarter, and then let the game drift away. Liberty fans saw their bench actually step up and produce, and their team win a game without Tina Charles or Cappie Pondexter needing to carry them. Which considering how poorly they’ve played for most of the season, can only have been frustrating to witness.

Plenette Pierson did a lot of good work for the Liberty, especially in the first half, and Washington couldn’t contain her, especially on the pick-and-roll. New York made some nice pocket passes to create points for her on the way to the hoop, but Washington’s defense was unusually slow in rotating and contesting to prevent the easy looks. With the Liberty also shooting well from the perimeter, they ran away with the game. They also had an extraordinary zero turnovers in the first half, which probably said even more about the lack of defensive energy from the Mystics than it did about New York’s own play.

Washington tried to shoot their way back into the game in the second half, and Mike Thibault tried some gimmicky lineups to shake things up, but they never came particularly close. If they play like this in the postseason, it’ll be a short-lived trip to the playoffs.

 

Key Players: Pierson finished with 20 on 7-8 shooting, with Swin Cash the only other Liberty player in double-figures. They went deep into their bench, shared out all the minutes, and Washington still never came close. Unfortunately for New York, their playoff hopes had been extinguished the day before, and this performance with the pressure off meant nothing.

Washington were really poor. After finally clinching their postseason berth in Connecticut the day before, maybe they relaxed too much when only seeding was on the line and weren’t mentally ready to play. But this is also the kind of game they’re vulnerable to without any real stars to just toss the ball to when they need a bucket. They’re a collective group that needs to become more than the sum of its parts, and when they all lack energy like this the results can be pretty awful.

 

Notes of Interest: This result meant the winner of the Chicago-Indiana game below would be confirmed as the #2 seed. Whether Washington were the #3 or #4 would then depend on Sunday’s game for the loser between the Sky and Fever.

 

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Chicago Sky 67 @ Indiana Fever 71

 

Lineups: Both teams started as they had in recent games, with Elena Delle Donne continuing to come off the bench for Chicago. Layshia Clarendon was still out for Indiana, making Sydney Carter the backup point guard instead. The Sky had a point guard returning, with Courtney Vandersloot in uniform and taking part for the first time in over seven weeks after her knee injury. That was a welcome boost for the Sky heading into the playoffs.

 

Story of the Game: Indiana started the game just as they had in recent big wins over New York – lots of energy, running the floor hard for transition points, and with Tamika Catchings hitting every shot she threw up. Briann January, Shavonte Zellous and Marissa Coleman joined in, Natasha Howard was a solid replacement when Catchings went to rest on the bench, and the Fever were utterly dominant in the opening stages. They ran away to a 16-point lead at the end of the opening quarter.

Chicago showed a little life in the second quarter with Delle Donne and Allie Quigley hitting a couple of shots off the bench, but the main difference was just Indiana falling off their scorching pace. The real comeback didn’t happen until the third quarter, when Indiana’s offense lost all its pace and momentum, they couldn’t hit a shot to save their lives, and Chicago crawled back into the game despite hardly lighting up the scoreboard themselves. Once again, the perimeter shooting of Delle Donne and Quigley was central to their offensive production, and even with Vandersloot back to help the offense run a bit more smoothly their playoff chances are likely to depend on those two hitting the shots to carry them through games.

It was Indiana who eventually made the plays down the stretch to cling on for the win, led by Catchings. Quigley and Tamera Young were hitting more jumpers than the Fever in the final period, keeping Chicago in it, but Catchings drove past Sylvia Fowles and converted a reverse layup with under a minute left to give Indiana a four-point lead. After Quigley cut that gap in half, January fell on a drive and had the ball blocked by Delle Donne, but Erlana Larkins was quickest to the loose ball – as Indiana had been for most of the night. Chicago stupidly fouled intentionally after that – the shot clock hadn’t re-set because the ball never hit the rim or changed possession – but Pokey Chatman appeared to be calling for the foul from the sidelines so you couldn’t blame the players. Catchings calmly made the pair at the line, Quigley missed a jumper at the other end, and that was the ballgame.

 

Key Players: Well at least Indiana held on for the win this time. We’ve seen them throw away so many huge leads this season that it’s become a little ridiculous, and they came close to blowing this one as well. But having Catchings back gives them a better chance of clinging on, and a leader to turn to when everything seems to be falling apart. She ended the game 10-19 for 25 points, and these are the kinds of performances they need from her in the postseason. Having the players around her hit shots for more than a quarter of the game would be useful as well.

Sylvia Fowles had a horrible game, missing layups and failing to convert opportunities on the rare occasions that her team found her, and only coming up with seven boards. It’s worrying how reliant Chicago have become on their perimeter game, and often on players simply creating offense for themselves. Quigley and Delle Donne have been successful at that recently, and Epiphanny Prince always has the potential to go off, but they should be able to contrive better offense from this roster.

 

Notes of Interest: Combined with the Washington loss, this win gave Indiana the #2 seed, and will allow them to rest players for today’s game in New York. Chicago go home to host San Antonio, and have some decisions to make. A win would earn them the #3 seed, and a matchup with Indiana in the first round. But they’ve often struggled against this Fever team, including being swept out of the playoffs by them in the first round last year. So maybe the Sky ‘rest’ some players for the San Antonio game, and happily settle for a loss and the #4 seed, which would mean facing Atlanta in the first round instead.

 

—–

 

Tulsa Shock 63 @ Minnesota Lynx 80

 

Lineups: Glory Johnson sat out the game for Tulsa, reportedly due to an illness, with Jennifer Lacy filling her starting spot. Johnson also only played 11 minutes in their previous, equally meaningless game. Maybe she’s sick with happiness after her recent engagement. Minnesota had Seimone Augustus back in the lineup after missing their last game due to swelling in her knee. They’d lost three in a row, and wanted to at least break that streak before the playoffs – otherwise the game meant nothing to them either.

 

Story of the Game: For three periods this was a relatively tight contest, with Tulsa actually the team that built a small lead midway through. Minnesota had huge problems keeping Tulsa’s drivers – primarily Odyssey Sims – out of the lane. Sims also lit them up from outside, producing one final outstanding performance to make the Rookie of the Year voting even more tricky.

But after some sloppy, sleepy basketball in the first half, Minnesota played with more energy in the second. Their defense created some turnovers to ignite their transition game, and they increasingly collapsed inside to cover the drives of Sims and Skylar Diggins. That led to some decent looks outside when the Tulsa guards remembered they had the option of kicking the ball back out, but Tulsa missed most of them and their offense disappeared.

The Lynx took over for good in the fourth quarter, when Tulsa went over eight minutes without scoring a point. Sims opened the period with a three, but Minnesota scored the next 19 in a row to blow the game out. Maya Moore’s scoring was inevitably a big piece of the run, but it was the increased intensity of the team as a whole that changed the game. They’ll be hoping to produce that level for 40 minutes in their playoff games, rather than just in inconsistent spurts.

 

Key Players: Moore and Augustus were the double-digit scorers for Minnesota, but Cheryl Reeve spread the minutes around a little more than usual so the production was relatively balanced. Lindsay Whalen couldn’t buy a bucket (or a call) for most of the night, but kept piling up assists even while her charging drives towards the basket were constantly being cut off. This team is almost always going to find a way to score in the end. They might get a little jump-shot happy at times, but they’re generally too potent offensively to be shut down for long. The questions still surround their defense, and whether it can reach their standards from previous years. Rebekkah Brunson’s been back for a while, and she helps both the defense and their rebounding, but there are still more holes than there used to be. At least they broke the losing streak before the real games begin.

Sims was the star for Tulsa, and only a cold streak from outside in the final period put a dampener on her numbers for the evening. She’s been very impressive in the second half of the season, and the combination of her and Diggins is a scary prospect for opposing teams for the future. They need more depth, more cohesion defensively, and more experience – but there’s more legitimate hope surrounding this Shock franchise than there’s been at any stage since they left Detroit.

 

Notes of Interest: Minnesota’s win made them the first team in WNBA history to win 25 or more games in four straight seasons. It’s one of those fairly arbitrary statistics that don’t mean much, but still another nice addition to their list of achievements. Everyone in Minnesota will care far more about playoff success than their number of regular season victories.

 

—–

 

Los Angeles Sparks 69 @ Phoenix Mercury 76

 

Lineups: Phoenix had their regular starting five back together after Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor took the last game off, but the matchup still meant nothing to them so they were always going to make heavy use of their bench. For Los Angeles, the result actually did mean something. A win would’ve confirmed the #3 seed in the Western Conference, and a first round meeting with Minnesota rather than Phoenix. But apparently they didn’t care too much about that, because Candace Parker and Candice Wiggins were both given the night off. Armintie Herrington started in Parker’s place.

 

Story of the Game: Early in the game when the players we’ll actually see in the postseason were on the floor, Phoenix blew LA away. The Sparks got inside to Jantel Lavender a couple of times, and Kristi Toliver made a tough jumper or two, but Phoenix were scoring at will at the other end. Brittney Griner in the paint, Candice Dupree with her mid-range jumper, DeWanna Bonner from all over the floor – the Mercury ran by LA and hit shots from wherever they chose. Even the Phoenix bench outhustled the Sparks and kept the lead growing.

LA were making basic errors, coughing up increasingly cheap turnovers, and Penny Toler largely turned the game over to her reserves and second-line players for the rest of the game. It was hard to tell whether that was always the plan from the start, or if she decided that was the best course of action once her remaining regulars were getting blown out. The Sparks might have to start a playoff series against this team in about five days, so even without Parker getting embarrassed wasn’t going to do them any favours.

With Phoenix going increasingly deep into their own bench, LA actually made a fight of it in the second half. They came within three points in the final minute of the game, but the Mercury made their free throws and hung on to the end. When the teams clearly didn’t care much about the game, it was hard to care much as a viewer.

 

Key Players: Griner led the scoring for Phoenix, and even with Parker back the Sparks are going to have a hell of a lot of trouble containing her if these teams face each other in the playoffs. Jantel Lavender was LA’s leading scorer, with little-used reserve Farhiya Abdi the other Spark in double-digits. Abdi played more minutes in this game than she had in the last seven weeks combined.

 

Notes of Interest: The loss means LA’s seeding is still up in the air. If San Antonio win in Chicago today, they jump up to the #3 seed and face Minnesota in the first round; the Stars lose then LA stay at #3 above them. Presumably the thinking for Penny Toler and the Sparks was that they’re likely to have to beat Phoenix and Minnesota to make the Finals anyway – so the order they play them in doesn’t really matter.

 

—–

 

League News

 

After Diana Taurasi and Sancho Lyttle started the run of late-season veteran contract extensions, Minnesota’s Rebekkah Brunson and Phoenix’s Candice Dupree followed suit in the last couple of days. As mentioned before, teams always try to get these done to tie players up for future years and make sure they have a maximum of one important player becoming an unrestricted free agent in any given offseason. Then they can use their core designation on that player if they feel they need to.

 

—–

 

Today’s Games

 

Atlanta @ Connecticut, 1pm ET (already took place, so no preview)

 

San Antonio @ Chicago, 6pm ET. The one remaining game that actually decides anything. The final seeding in both conferences depends on this game – whichever team wins gets the third seed in their conference, whichever team loses drops to #4. It’s questionable whether either team would actually prefer #3. As detailed in the review above, Chicago may well want to avoid Indiana for as long as possible, and San Antonio have given Phoenix some problems this year. So we’ll see what kind of teams they put out, and how many players are resting for the postseason instead.

 

Indiana@ New York, 6pm ET. Based on their last game, New York appear to enjoy playing with the pressure off, and might actually show up for the last game of their season. Having secured the #2 seed, Indiana are likely to rest anyone with any kind of minor injury, and with a veteran squad that could mean everybody. At the very least, Lin Dunn will go deep into her bench and hand out lots of minutes to the reserves.

 

Phoenix @ Seattle, 9pm ET. The final game of the regular season gives Phoenix a chance to become the first team in WNBA history to win more than 28 games, although Los Angeles finished 28-4 in the years when they set the record (Phoenix are currently 28-5). For lottery purposes, Seattle are better off losing to drop into a tie with Tulsa for the worst record in the WNBA, rather than winning to match Connecticut. But they’ll want to show some pride in front of their home fans on the final day of their first non-playoff season since 2003. So expect plenty of minutes for their reserves, but hopefully some fight as well.

 

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