Atlanta Dream 92 @ Chicago Sky 83
Lineups: Atlanta were forced into a switch, after point guard Celine Dumerc banged knees with Courtney Vandersloot in Game 1 and didn’t feel it was strong enough to support her in Game 2. So Jasmine Thomas took back the starting spot that was hers for over half the season, after only playing three minutes in the first game of the series. Chicago’s starting lineup was the same, but power forward Jessica Breland was unavailable due to the shoulder injury she picked up two nights earlier. That left the Sky looking very thin on the front line, and Elena Delle Donne likely to have to play heavy minutes due to a lack of viable alternatives.
Story of the Game: For the first few minutes, Atlanta looked awful. Michael Cooper had made some tweaks to the defensive scheme, in terms of where and when they were switching or rotating, and his team looked confused. Chicago were also hitting a lot of tough shots, led by Delle Donne, which always makes things look worse whether you’re playing bad defense or not. The Sky were looking to get the ball inside to Sylvia Fowles, but when they couldn’t find room or create the right angle, hitting the shots that were left around the perimeter anyway.
But it didn’t take long for the momentum to turn in the Dream’s favour. Tamera Young picked up two fouls in the opening four minutes of the game, both while trying to stay tight to Angel McCoughtry, and that was a big problem for Chicago. She’s their only natural option to defend McCoughtry, and with Breland out she’s also Pokey Chatman’s preference as their backup power forward (although very undersized, especially against a team like Atlanta). Young went to the bench, Allie Quigley came in, and the Dream had even more opportunity to attack. And attack is exactly what they did well in this game. They played with speed and aggression, constantly pushing the ball in transition, and they drove to the rim. McCoughtry did her best to either post-up inside or attack off the dribble even when Young was in the game, and when options like Quigley were in front of her, she just ghosted right by and took the easy layup. Despite their messy start, Atlanta were up by two at the end of the first quarter and McCoughtry already had 11.
There was more of the coaching chess match that we saw play out in Game 1 as we went into the second quarter. Chatman was trying some unusual lineups due to Young’s foul trouble and the need to find Delle Donne at least a little rest, which meant minutes for players like Courtney Clements and Sasha Goodlett. Cooper had come up with a flimsy-looking 1-2-2 zone to cover Chicago’s base horns set, and the absence of Dumerc left him going deeper down his bench than usual as well, with even Matee Ajavon seeing some time (which was a bad idea, and didn’t last long). It all led to some pretty scrappy basketball, with too many turnovers at either end, but being played at Atlanta’s favoured frantic pace. They were only up by a point at halftime, but they’d made it their kind of game.
From the opening moments of the second half, it was clear that Cooper had thrown in another defensive shift, with McCoughtry sliding over as the primary defender on Delle Donne. Sancho Lyttle had covered her for most of the first half, but McCoughtry showed how effective she could be on Delle Donne when she shut her down in the fourth quarter of Game 1. Clearly Cooper had just been waiting until the time was right. It worked nicely, and Atlanta started the second half very strongly. Their offense was still rolling in transition and getting to the basket at will, while Chicago’s offense ground to a halt for much of the third quarter. They looked slow and ponderous without being able to get Delle Donne the ball in any space, or find Fowles underneath. Epiphanny Prince had shot better – and more selectively – than in Game 1, but she went quiet as well until the late minutes of the third period. A little transition of their own and some isolation points for Prince gave the Sky hope.
But it was always Atlanta taking the game to Chicago, and that carried on through the fourth quarter. McCoughtry had been on a roll all night, and while Young tried to stay tight to her to throw her off rhythm, often that just made it easier for McCoughtry to go by her to the basket. This was Angel at her best – capable of pulling up to hit tough shots once she’d built her confidence, but scoring most of her points on drives and fastbreak finishes, rather than jacking away from outside. That said, threes were big for the Dream in the final period, with Tiffany Hayes hitting once over Chicago’s 2-3 zone, then again in semi-transition, then Shoni Schimmel tossing one in from deep. But it was all coming in rhythm, often after the ball had moved inside first to shift the defense. Thomas had done a very useful job setting the tone for the Dream and pushing the ball in Dumerc’s absence, but Schimmel added her typical flair and shot-making in the backup role. Dumerc wasn’t particularly missed.
The Dream’s lead stretched to 14 with under four minutes to play, and the game was virtually over. Chicago snuck back within six in the closing seconds, but still needed a miracle and it didn’t happen. Atlanta had forced a Game 3 back at Philips Arena on Tuesday night.
Key Players: McCoughtry finished the game 13-20 for 39 points, doing the vast majority of her work right around the rim or at the free throw line. Basically, if Atlanta can create the kind of contest where they get that kind of game from McCoughtry, they’re going to be very tough to beat. When she’s streaking to the rim repeatedly, and the team as a whole is charging up and down the court, the Dream are in their element. And with McCoughtry on her, Delle Donne didn’t have a single field goal in the second half. Tiffany Hayes did a nice job on the opposite wing from McCoughtry, hitting some big shots, while the Thomas/Schimmel pairing drove the action in the way Cooper wanted. It was a game where they didn’t need much from posts like Lyttle and Erika de Souza, and scored a heap of points in the paint through their guards anyway.
Chicago ran out of ideas in the second half. Fowles is doing what she can in terms of hustle work and energy inside, but they can’t get her the ball consistently. Even with Vandersloot back at the controls, it leaves them very reliant on Delle Donne, Prince and Quigley to shoot them out of trouble. For a while that worked out okay, and all three were effective in stretches, but eventually they couldn’t hold on to the Dream while playing Atlanta’s game. They couldn’t slow the Dream down, and ultimately got steamrollered. For Game 3, we’ll surely see more help sent towards McCoughtry to make a more concerted effort to turn her into a jumpshooter. Young didn’t actually do that badly when she was on the floor – she ended the game with a positive plus/minus rating, illustrating that she was at least somewhat successful in containing McCoughtry – but they can’t let Atlanta’s superstar get rolling like that again. At the very least, they have to make someone else beat them in the deciding game of the series.
Notes of Interest: The road team gets to decide which direction the teams start games playing in, and therefore which half of the game they’re defending or attacking in front of their own bench. Atlanta’s unusual zone required a lot of shouting and pointing from their bench in the first half of this game to get players where they were supposed to be. So with Chatman having the choice for Game 3, don’t be surprised if she flips it, and makes the Dream defend away from their own bench in the first half of the decider. Atlanta didn’t have to talk as much in the second half of this game, because they stuck to man-to-man more consistently and left McCoughtry on an island with Delle Donne. If they planned to do the same in Game 3, switching the benches around might make it more difficult.
Phoenix Mercury 93 @ Los Angeles Sparks 68
Lineups: There were no changes for either side. Although with Ryan Ruocco and Rebecca Lobo taking over commentary duties, Ogwumike was only pronounced one way all night long.
Story of the Game: From the opening moments, this was more like the expected result of these two teams clashing, rather than the tight contest we saw in Game 1. Los Angeles were trying to play aggressive defense, trying to pressurise and go after the ball, hopefully to create turnovers, but Phoenix’s ball movement tore them apart. The Mercury went inside to Brittney Griner early and often, and the Sparks didn’t have any success bumping her off her spots like they had in Game 1. She either finished or got fouled, or made the smart passes we’ve seen all year long out of double-teams. Phoenix got behind LA’s defense repeatedly in the opening minutes, or hit open shots when they moved the ball away from the LA defenders, and led by 16 after less than six minutes had elapsed.
From there, the Sparks were in desperation mode for basically the rest of the night. Candace Parker largely looked to score on her own, and had occasional success, but not enough to make any significant impact on the deficit. Sandrine Gruda came in due to early foul trouble for Jantel Lavender and was as good as anyone else in a Sparks jersey, but nowhere near as effective on Griner as she had been in the previous game. Basically, this was the Phoenix team we’d seen for most of the season, playing with a speed and slickness that LA couldn’t compete with. Mistie Bass and Erin Phillips gave the Mercury solid minutes off the bench so that there was no real lull, and with Griner, Candice Dupree and Penny Taylor producing, Phoenix didn’t need Diana Taurasi to light up the scoreboard as she had in Game 1. The Mercury were up by 19 at halftime and in complete control.
Nothing really changed in the second half. LA looked resigned to their fate, and Phoenix had the chance to give Taurasi, Griner and Taylor plenty of rest. Throughout the game, the Mercury ball movement was simply faster than LA’s defensive rotations, and that huge gap was the primary difference. The exclamation point came as early as the middle of the third quarter, when Griner tipped away a lazy pass to create her own fastbreak, and threw down a two-handed dunk. It gave the Mercury a 25-point lead, and there was never a hint of a comeback the rest of the way.
Key Players: While Griner’s return to steady play and solid finishing inside was important, as was Dupree hitting her mid-range shots, Taylor attacking the basket and Taurasi being willing to switch back to her facilitator role after the gunning of Game 1, it wasn’t about individuals for the Mercury. It was about getting back to the pick-your-poison teamwork and ball movement that’s been propelling their offense all year long. They didn’t need any drastic changes from the previous game, they just needed to get back to their natural style, and let that finish off LA. The sweep was virtually complete after five minutes.
This was really just a reminder of what had become clear over 34 games of the regular season – the Mercury and Lynx have been playing on a different level from the Sparks all year. Parker did what she could to carry the offense for her team, but a lot of the points in her stat line came when the game was already decided. The core of this LA team went 24-10 in both 2012 and 2013, so the calls that have been going up for LA to blow up the roster might be premature. Yes, they need more perimeter shooting. Yes, they clearly need to find the right coach to build a better system that has them playing as a unit. But a lot of the pieces for a very good team are already here. Nonetheless, there could be some serious changes coming for this franchise, in the front office, on the sidelines and on the court. Last year they needed to find new owners to keep the Sparks alive; this year they need to find a way to rejuvenate the team to compete with the other powers in the Western Conference.
Notes of Interest: So we get the Western Finals that everyone’s been anticipating for months. It almost feels like a shame that it’ll only be best-of-three, but that certainly places immediate urgency on the games right from the start. Phoenix have home-court advantage over Minnesota thanks to their strong season, and it’ll be the first series the Lynx have played without home-court since 2004 (including a six-year stretch where they didn’t make the postseason, but we’ll ignore that). It should be a hell of a lot of fun to watch, and the WNBAlien preview will be on its way once the first round is complete.
Chicago @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET, best-of-three tied at 1-1