The Daily W, 08/23/2014: Sky steal one on the road while Sparks rue missed opportunity in Phoenix

 

Chicago Sky 80 @ Atlanta Dream 77

 

Lineups: Atlanta stuck with the same starting five that’s been their regular group since midseason, but Chicago made some changes for the playoffs. Elena Delle Donne came in for her first start since returning from her Lyme disease flare-up, which sent Jessica Breland to the bench (after starting in all 32 of her regular season appearances this year). Courtney Vandersloot also started after appearing in just two games before the end of the regular season since returning from her knee injury. The presence of Angel McCoughtry at small forward for Atlanta would’ve made it difficult for Pokey Chatman to start both Delle Donne and Breland, because neither is particularly suited to guarding McCoughtry. That was Tamera Young’s job for most of the night.

 

Story of the Game: Chatman and Michael Cooper were battling with each other to find any possible edge throughout the game. Chicago dropped into a 2-3 zone on their second defensive possession, just to set the tone from early on and hopefully begin confusing the Dream. Both Vandersloot and Erika de Souza picked up two early fouls, which also led to more lineup complications, although Cooper took the risk of sending Erika back into the game late in the first quarter, and got away with it.

 

It was Atlanta who were in front for the majority of the first half, with the game largely being played at their prefered frantic pace. Even with McCoughtry and Sancho Lyttle missing a lot of makable shots, they led by as many as 12 points in the second quarter. They’d been helped by an injury to Chicago’s Jessica Breland, who fell heavily on her hands late in the opening period, and appeared to injure her shoulder, possibly dislocating it. She’d played less than three minutes, and never returned. That forced Delle Donne into playing more minutes than was probably intended, but the Sky had few other viable alternatives. They’ve got three backup posts on the bench that Chatman doesn’t want to use, making Young the de facto reserve power forward with Breland out – except that they were trying to match Young up with McCoughtry as often as possible. Atlanta went big early in the second quarter with McCoughtry at shooting guard, Lyttle at small forward and Aneika Henry joining de Souza in the post. Chicago looked unprepared for it and were lost for several possessions, with Epiphanny Prince forced to try to guard McCoughtry – which didn’t go well for the Sky.

 

But importantly, Chicago ended the first half on a strong note. After some shambolic offensive possessions, largely featuring either dreadful attempts at entry passes to Sylvia Fowles or Prince bricks from the perimeter, everything improved with Vandersloot back on the floor. Finally they had someone who knew where to look and how to make a pass, which led to consecutive buckets for Delle Donne. She added another ridiculous jumper, McCoughtry played some awful defense on the final possession of the half to leave Prince wide open to drill a three, and somehow Chicago were back within a point at the break.

 

There was a little less playing around with lineups in the second half, as Chatman in particular realised how few usable options she had. Delle Donne got a grand total of 1 minute and 36 seconds of rest in the third quarter, because Atlanta were so quick to recognise that the Sky had gone small with Vandersloot, Prince and Allie Quigley on the perimeter, and Young trying to survive at the 4. The Dream scored consecutive post buckets, and Delle Donne was back in at the next stoppage.

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The Daily W, 08/22/2014: Fever and Lynx scrape by to open playoffs with home wins

 

Washington Mystics 73 @ Indiana Fever 78

 

Lineups: The starting lineups were as expected for both teams. Fortunately for Washington, Kara Lawson had recovered enough from her ankle sprain to be the first (essentially only) guard off the bench for the Mystics. In fact, the only slight rotation surprise all night was that Indiana went to Sydney Carter ahead of Layshia Clarendon as their backup point guard behind Briann January.

 

Story of the Game: The opening encounter of the 2014 playoffs turned out to be the bruising, intense clash that we’d expect from two closely matched Eastern Conference teams. Indiana got off to a hot start yet again, something we’ve seen from them a lot recently, with everyone apart from Tamika Catchings hitting shots and piling up points. January and Marissa Coleman hit from outside, Erlana Larkins and Shavonte Zellous converted inside, and Washington were just trying to hang on in the early moments.

 

But while we’ve seen the Fever blow all kinds of leads this season, they didn’t even manage to hold on to this one until halftime. Late in the first quarter Lawson came off the bench to add some energy for the Mystics and helped them find a couple of buckets in transition. Then Emma Meesseman drove right past Catchings for a layup, before drilling a jumper over Catchings on Washington’s very next possession. That gave the Mystics something to build on, and when Indiana’s offense fell apart with their backups on the floor in the second quarter, the game swung around. Ivory Latta was the central figure for Washington, occasionally firing a little too quickly even for her own good, but drilling a series of threes that took her team into the lead. With Catchings still ice-cold, and her fellow starters unable to pick things up again when they came back in after brief rests, the Mystics led by six at halftime. Indiana scored a miserable eight points in the second quarter.

 

Once again Indiana were the team with better energy out of the locker room, but Washington responded and maintained a small lead throughout the third quarter. Catchings was continuing to produce the outstanding hustle and energetic rebounding that we’d seen in the first half – and throughout her career – but couldn’t hit a jump shot to save her life. When she attacked off the dribble she was slightly more productive, but those efforts were few and far between. As a team, Indiana were getting crowded out whenever they managed to get the ball inside. Most of the time they’d either blow the layup under pressure, or turn the ball over in traffic. But Washington also couldn’t produce the offense to take the game away from them.

 

With everything on the line, the game finally came to life in the fourth quarter. After a quiet third, Latta started stepping back up to lead Washington’s offense. But Indiana finally became the aggressors. They benefitted from almost every call in the fourth, with luck and the referees’ whistles definitely on their side, but they were the ones driving the action and forcing the officials to make calls. After barely hitting anything all night, Catchings subbed back in with seven minutes remaining, and immediately scored consecutive baskets by driving on Meesseman, rather than settling for trying to shoot over her. It was about damn time.

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WNBA 2014 Playoff Previews – First Round: Phoenix Mercury vs. Los Angeles Sparks

 

Phoenix Mercury (#1 seed, 29-5) vs Los Angeles Sparks (#4 seed, 16-18)

 

Phoenix

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 106.21, 1st in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 93.89, 1st in WNBA

 

Los Angeles

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 97.19, 6th in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 97.24, 5th in WNBA

 

Season series: Mercury won 5-0

5/18 @LA: Mercury won 74-69

7/6 @LA: Mercury won 94-89

7/24 @LA: Mercury won 93-73

7/29 @Pho: Mercury won 90-69

8/16 @Pho: Mercury won 76-69

 

—–

 

Upsets happen in sport. Especially in best-of-three series, and where the underdog is a team with as much talent as Los Angeles who could randomly pull themselves together on any given night. But you have to try incredibly hard to talk yourself into believing LA will win this series. Maybe they can win it, if everything went right for them, if the Mercury picked up an injury or two, if Kristi Toliver or Candace Parker explode and light up the scoreboard. If we could play this series 100 times in 100 parallel universes, the Sparks would undoubtedly win a few of them. But talking yourself into believing it’s in any way likely in the one universe we’re living in? Good luck with that.

 

Over the course of a dominant season, Phoenix eventually ended up as statistically both the best offensive team in the WNBA and the best defensive team. They don’t play at the same breakneck speed offensively that we’ve seen in the past, but they’re unselfish to a fault and have so many threats around the floor that they’re just as dangerous as they’ve always been. Diana Taurasi makes them tick, moving the ball around and finding the open scoring option but always capable of pulling up to fire or driving to the rim herself. Brittney Griner has increasingly become a solid option to run the offense through, capable of finishing over anyone in the paint, but also a skilled and smart passer when opponents send extra defenders to stop her. Candice Dupree plays off both Taurasi and Griner perfectly, sliding into space for her near-automatic mid-range jumper or occasional dives to the basket. Penny Taylor has shown flashes of her old self this year, scoring from outside or on tricky drives to the basket, and even DeWanna Bonner sometimes remembers that she’s capable of hitting shots or attacking the rim if teams forget about her. Opponents might be able to pick their poison, but most of the time they’re going to get killed one way or another.

 

And it’s just as tough at the other end. Under Sandy Brondello, the Mercury’s defense has finally come around, with Griner the obvious centerpiece at the core. Her length and athleticism in the middle deters drivers from entering the paint, makes it difficult for posts to finish, and generally changes the way other teams have to run their offense. She also allows her teammates to play differently on the perimeter, chasing over screens because they’re not afraid of being beaten on drives. She’s not quite the finished article – she can still jump off-balance on pick-and-roll coverage, not quite finding the middle-ground between showing on the ballhandler and being able to recover back to the big – but that just makes her scarier for the future. LA will try to drag her out of the paint, but Brondello’s schemes have done a good job of allowing her to hang around the basket this year regardless of the efforts of other teams. And while all of LA’s posts can hit the mid-range jumper, they won’t be nearly as effective if they can’t find ways to create layups.

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WNBA 2014 Playoff Previews – First Round: Atlanta Dream vs. Chicago Sky

 

Atlanta Dream (19-15, #1 seed) vs. Chicago Sky (15-19, #4 seed)

 

Atlanta

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 97.06, 7th in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 95.05, 2nd in WNBA

 

Chicago

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 97.00, 8th in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 99.51, 9th in WNBA

 

Season series: Sky won 3-2:

5/24 @Chi: Sky won 87-73

6/7 @Atl: Dream won 97-59

7/13 @Atl: Dream won 81-79

7/25 @Atl: Sky won 79-75

8/10 @Chi: Sky won 80-69

 

—–

 

This is one of the more intriguing 1-4 matchups in recent memory in the WNBA playoffs. Taking the regular season as a whole, Atlanta were comfortably the best team in the Eastern Conference. They were dominant in the first half of the year, broke out to a huge lead, and finished as the only team in the conference above .500. But their second-half swoon was scary, losing 10 of their final 14 games of the season. While head coach Michael Cooper was absent for a little while dealing with surgery for tongue cancer, and the urgency for wins was removed by the big gap over their Eastern rivals, the drop-off in performance and energy was definitely worrying. Meanwhile Chicago spent the year scraping out just enough wins, and trying to get everyone healthy. Heading into the playoffs, it’d be a stretch to say they’re 100% again, but they do have all their key players back and available to play. For a team that won 24 games in 2013 when they were in one piece, that makes them a dangerous underdog going into the postseason.

 

Atlanta were once again the fastest-paced team in the WNBA this year, extending their lead in that category over the rest of the league from previous years. They love to run, and they love to attack. Angel McCoughtry and Tiffany Hayes are at their best in the open court, flying to the rim, although both can also drive and attack the basket within halfcourt sets. Erika de Souza is outstanding at running hard from basket-to-basket, contorting her body to take any kind of pass and finish at the rim. And with Sancho Lyttle’s consistency from mid-range along with more three-point shooting threats than they’ve had in the franchise’s history, they can still score when teams manage to get back in transition and slow them down. Turnovers have been a big problem, and the uncertainty at the point guard spot hasn’t helped that, but this is a team that can score in a variety of different ways. Sometimes McCoughtry or Shoni Schimmel get a little too focussed on just one or two of those ways – their own gunning – but when they move the ball and take what defenses are giving them, they’re a smooth and talented offensive team.

 

Which is only burying the lede to a certain extent. Atlanta do a lot of their best work on the defensive end of the floor. They’re quick and very aggressive, striving for steals, but also managing to stay solid and secure behind the gambling with de Souza, Lyttle and Aneika Henry in the paint. Chicago do try to feed Sylvia Fowles in the low post at times – they’re often not very good at it, but they do try – and her physical tussle with de Souza in the paint is going to be one of the main attractions in this series. Even beyond feeding the post, simply taking care of the ball is going to be vital for Chicago, because defense is where much of Atlanta’s best offense begins. Steals feed their running game, and just as importantly create momentum and get the Dream offense flowing. While Chicago would love to get some cheap points themselves on the break, slowing the games down will largely be in their favour in this series.

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WNBA 2014 Playoff Previews – First Round: Minnesota Lynx vs. San Antonio Stars

 

Minnesota Lynx (25-9, #2 seed) vs San Antonio Stars (16-18, #3 seed)

 

Minnesota

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 104.17, 2nd in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 98.68, 6th in WNBA

 

San Antonio

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 100.72, 4th in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 102.77, 11th in WNBA

 

Season series: Lynx won 4-1

5/30 @Min: Lynx won 88-72

6/1 @SA: Lynx won 87-79

7/3 @Min: Lynx won 91-84

7/25 @Min: Lynx won 88-78

8/15 @SA: Stars won 92-76

 

—–

 

Virtually every measurable metric and stat says that Minnesota should win this series, and it shouldn’t even be all that close. Even ignoring their overall success over the last few years, including two championships, the Lynx had won their last eight games against San Antonio before losing a game that was meaningless to Minnesota in the final days of the regular season. Their offense tends to pick San Antonio apart – not that it’s been particularly hard for any opponent to find gaps in the Stars’ defense this season – and while San Antonio can out-shoot some teams, Minnesota will put their jumpshooters up against anyone’s. So to see the Stars winning this series, you either have to search hard for reasons, or really believe that cracks were showing in the Lynx during their late-season games.

 

By now, everyone knows what Minnesota can do offensively. Between the all-court scoring of Maya Moore, the jump shooting of Moore and Seimone Augustus, the driving and finishing of Lindsay Whalen, and the willingness and ability of their posts to knock down mid-range jumpers, this team is hard to stop. They also love to get out on the break, and with Rebekkah Brunson back their rebounding has improved, which leads to more outlets and more running. San Antonio have rebounded much better this year, after many awful seasons on the glass, but the Lynx will test them in that area. We’ll also see plenty of the dive-in-from-the-corner post-ups that Minnesota like to run for their wings, because with a starting perimeter of Danielle Robinson, Becky Hammon and Kayla McBride, San Antonio are dangerously undersized against Moore and Augustus. Hammon will cover Whalen to try to stay away from those plays, and both Robinson and McBride are stronger than you think, but the Lynx are likely to find some success through those avenues.

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WNBA 2014 Playoff Previews – First Round: Indiana Fever vs. Washington Mystics

 

Indiana Fever (16-18, #2 seed) vs Washington Mystics (16-18, #3 seed)

 

Indiana

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 97.64, 5th in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 98.76, 7th in WNBA

 

Washington

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 96.15, 10th in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 95.40, 3rd in WNBA

 

Season series tied 2-2:

5/23 @Ind: Mystics win 79-63

6/6 @Was: Fever win 64-61

7/2 @Was: Fever win 80-77

8/8 @Ind: Mystics win 74-61

—–

 

The Eastern Conference was a mess this season, with a host of teams on very similar levels battling it out until the end. Most observers still have Atlanta as the favourites despite their second half swoon, but will admit that it’s wide open in the East. Which makes this 2-3 matchup especially hard to call. Indiana have been inconsistent all season long, even since Tamika Catchings returned from the back injury which kept her out for the first half of the year. Only a couple of dominant late-season wins over New York secured their playoff spot, and somehow allowed them to sneak into the #2 seed in the East despite a losing record. Washington aren’t so much inconsistent as they’re worryingly vulnerable. They win games by being organised and playing team-oriented basketball, which has a tendency to fall apart when they’re not hitting shots or things start to turn against them. This series is just as open as the overall chase in the East.

 

This isn’t the same Fever team that we used to watch, known for their hard-nosed and dominating defense, while they slowed things down and almost bored teams into submission on the offensive end. Perhaps more than any other team in the league, they were negatively affected by the introduction of the defensive three-seconds rule before last season, despite not having a big rim-protecting center. It’s changed how and when they can double-team, and removed some of the swarming, threatening aspects of their defense which used to unsettle opponents. At their best, they can still be a very effective, fluid defensive club, and they’re still strong and physical. They tend to rotate and switch a lot, but do it with more security and confidence than teams like Los Angeles who have a similar basic scheme. The core of this team has been together for a long time, so they communicate well, and the rotations are often strong. But they’re not big, and there have been seams to attack in their defense for the last couple of years.

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The Daily W, 08/18/2014

 

Atlanta Dream 55 @ Connecticut Sun 84

 

Lineups: Atlanta were back to their regular starting lineup, after going big for a few games while Angel McCoughtry was suffering with tendonitis in her feet. Katie Douglas sat out again for Connecticut due to her back issues, and Allison Hightower never did make it back from midseason knee surgery that was only meant to keep her out for two-to-three weeks.

 

Story of the Game: With nothing on the line besides lottery percentages for Connecticut, there was an inevitable lack of energy and intensity in the game. Or more succinctly, it was dull. Michael Cooper will still be a little disappointed with how his team performed. He made heavier use of his bench than usual, but his rotation players still played significant minutes in the first half, and they were a mess. The Dream had a ludicrous 16 turnovers in the first half, and Connecticut inevitably slid into the lead.

Alex Bentley was lighting up her old team, and only went to the bench due to some foul trouble in the first half. Chiney Ogwumike played the complementary role in the paint, and Connecticut killed the game off for good in the third quarter with Atlanta losing interest to an even greater extent.

The one slightly worrying and potentially meaningful moment in the second half was Tiffany Hayes taking a heavy fall, and sitting out the rest of the game with her left (shooting) hand wrapped in ice. Hayes hits the deck and requires treatment at least once per game, but she throws her body around so much that there’s always a danger that she’ll get more seriously hurt. Hopefully the ice was just precautionary – she usually carries on and plays right through all the knocks and bruises.

 

Key Players: Bentley and Ogwumike did most of the work for the Sun, with a few buckets from UConn product Kelly Faris exciting the crowd. No one for Atlanta did anything worth talking about, and they’ll be hoping to flip the switch to a vastly better performance for the meaningful games that begin next week.

 

Notes of Interest: The Sun actually hurt their lottery chances with this win, decreasing their odds of getting the #1 pick in the 2015 draft (where they’d be expected to take yet another UConn grad, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis). Sometimes playing for pride has minor negative repercussions.

 

—–

 

San Antonio Stars 84 @ Chicago Sky 72

 

Lineups: This was the game that had a chance to decide playoff seeding in both conferences (it wasn’t actually quite as clear-cut as I described in yesterday’s column – apologies for the inaccuracy). A win for San Antonio would earn them the third seed in the West and a matchup with Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs, rather than a clash with Phoenix. A win for Chicago would’ve potentially seen them finish third in the East (although not necessarily, as a loss for Indiana would’ve created a three-way tie even if Chicago won, and forced the Sky down to fourth). But Pokey Chatman made her feelings on that #3 seed clear with her lineup choices. Star trio Epiphanny Prince, Elena Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles all began the afternoon on the bench and stayed there throughout. Courtney Vandersloot started for the first time since returning from her knee injury, with Courtney Clements and Markeisha Gatling filling the spots opened up by Prince and Fowles. San Antonio had left point guard Danielle Robinson back home to rest a turned ankle – so maybe they weren’t that worried about #3 or #4 either – but that was nothing compared to the talent Chicago left on the sidelines.

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