After a couple of upsets shifted the balance of the WNBA playoffs on opening night, the second evening began with the series that always looked most likely to provide a lower seed surprise. The reigning champion Indiana Fever had struggled through the regular season and finished with a 16-18 record, but they were 3-1 against Chicago, and have repeatedly beaten the Sky over the years. When several players were given the night off for Indiana’s final regular season game, it became pretty clear that the Fever were happy to face Chicago in the first-round. The Sky may have been the best team in the East this season, but the Fever weren’t the least bit afraid to take them on.
However, the task appeared to become more difficult for Indiana before tip-off, when Katie Douglas was ruled out due to more back pain. The Fever had ended up losing out on two counts – Douglas’s return forced them to release backup post Jessica Breland, and now they didn’t have Douglas either. On the bright side, after a season of filling-in and stepping up quite nicely, Karima Christmas was well-prepared to slide back into the starting role that Douglas would’ve taken. Chicago had their regular group to start the game.
The first punch in the coaching battle was thrown by Indiana’s Lin Dunn, with a shift in the defensive matchups. The Fever switch enough that the initial assignments don’t always matter that much, but they had Tamika Catchings on Elena Delle Donne, Christmas on Epiphanny Prince, and Shavonte Zellous on Swin Cash to open the game. Christmas had done most of the work on Delle Donne in the regular season clashes between these teams, with Catchings on Cash and Zellous on Prince, in more ‘natural’ matchups along positional lines. They were obviously happy to take the minimal risk that Cash would use her size and strength to take advantage of being guarded by a perimeter player (and they were proven right). Maybe the changes came from preparing for the series with Douglas in mind as a starter rather than Christmas, but it’s equally possible that Dunn just wanted that extra little edge that nudging your opponent off-balance can provide.
The Sky tried to go inside to Sylvia Fowles, early and often. But Erlana Larkins was doing her typical impressive job of using her body to put Fowles under pressure, making it hard for Fowles to get deep position in the paint and equally tough to finish whenever she did receive the ball. It was very hard work for Big Syl inside early on. Fortunately for Chicago, Delle Donne drew some fouls to head to the free throw line, and exploited Indiana’s switching a couple of times for three-point plays over Briann January on the low block. Chicago’s offense was surviving okay.
By the Numbers (over entire regular season):
Chicago (24-10) vs Indiana (16-18)
Points scored per 100 possessions: 102.08 (3rd in WNBA) – 95.37 (8th)
Points conceded per 100 possessions: 94.95 (4th) – 95.27 (5th)
Rebounding percentage: .525 (1st) – .503 (5th)
Season series between the teams: Indiana won 3-1
06/22 @Ind, Sky won 71-61
08/03 @Ind, Fever won 79-58
08/06 @Chi, Fever won 64-58
09/06 @Chi, Fever won 82-77
It seemed only appropriate to start here. For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you’ve seen me talking about how interesting this matchup could be since sometime in June. Here we finally are in September, and I got what I wanted. The reasons this clash is so fascinating are pretty obvious. The Sky have been the best team in the Eastern Conference for most of the season (once Atlanta’s smoking hot start cooled off dramatically). They’ve got the player who reclaimed the ‘Best Center in the World’ crown this season in the paint, and the runaway Rookie of the Year, both of whom have been touted as MVP candidates. But they’ve literally never been here before. In their eighth year of existence, this is the franchise’s first visit to the postseason. In the other corner, we have the reigning champs. The Fever brought back virtually every meaningful piece from their title run last year, but a ridiculous run of injuries led to a difficult season where it sometimes looked like they’d struggle to even reach the playoffs. They eventually made it in, albeit with a losing record. But they’ve been here, done it, bought the T-shirt and won the ring. And they’re healthier now than they’ve been practically all season. So who triumphs – the experienced campaigners, or the young upstarts?
While the big news around the WNBA yesterday may have been the departure of Phoenix Mercury head coach Corey Gaines (read in depth coverage of that HERE), there were also two intriguing cross-conference basketball games to take in. Having gone the right way in both of them in my picks against the spread, forgive me if there’s a mildly smug hint to the coverage below. The predictions have been going surprisingly well since the All-Star break – for once, I’d actually be making money if I followed my own gambling advice.
The opener was in Indiana, where the Los Angeles Sparks made their yearly visit. After missing the first three games of LA’s post-All-Star road trip due to a right wrist injury, Candace Parker was back with the team and back in the lineup. There was some strapping around the wrist, and she grabbed it once or twice during the game, but obviously she and the medical staff felt she was ready to return. The Fever are as healthy as they look likely to get for a while. Center Jessica Davenport is done for the season after surgery on her tibia, and Katie Douglas’s back problem continues to leave her sidelined. But with the injuries they’ve battled all year, Indiana will settle for having 10 of their 12 first-choice options available to play.
The opening couple of minutes seemingly went perfectly for the Fever. LA looked unprepared for the energy and activity of Indiana’s defense, and repeatedly turned the ball over on passes into traffic or poke-aways by Fever defenders. Briann January even hit a layup, which has been about as common this season as seeing a pig drift by your window. But Indiana didn’t create any separation during that sequence because they couldn’t hit anything from the perimeter, and when they avoided turning the ball over LA weren’t missing. It didn’t help when January picked up her second early foul on a soft call while trying to play tight to Lindsey Harding on defense, sending her to the bench.
Once the Sparks started taking better care of the ball, they began to dominate. They were getting out in transition when they could, but even in halfcourt sets they were finding their bigs deep in the paint and converting at the rim. Without steals to run off, Indiana were taking a lot of jumpers, virtually none of which went in, merely helping LA push back the other way from the long rebounds. The officials also started calling almost everything, which hurt Indiana far more than LA. Suddenly those reach-ins or poke-away plays from Fever defenders were drawing whistles, sending LA to the line repeatedly, rather than resulting in turnovers. By the end of the first quarter LA already had 16 points in the paint, 9 more at the free throw line, and led 27-13.
A triple-header last night, as the WNBA tried to grab the attention of basketball fans who’ll be without NBA options for the next few months. On to the Bullet Point Breakdown to take a look at the action.
Seattle Storm 91 @ San Antonio Silver Stars 86
- Things aren’t getting any easier for San Antonio on the injury front. Starting center Jayne Appel was still out due to the concussion that led to her missing their last game (where the team capitulated in Los Angeles without her). Becky Hammon and Sophia Young remain in street clothes (although Hammon reportedly may return to practice next week). They’d already added Chante Black as extra post cover – or at least an extra body for practice – while Appel is out. So Danielle Adams got the start again at center, and Dan Hughes made another change by choice, promoting Shenise Johnson into the starting lineup over Shameka Christon. Johnson’s play this season has warranted a starting spot, but she’d been playing well off the bench. Maybe Hughes just wanted to try to inject some new life into his team after the horrible loss to the Sparks. Seattle had their usual 10 players available.
- Hughes has done an impressive job drawing good performances from what’s left of his roster this season, but I don’t quite understand his thinking with the defensive assignments at the start of this game. As has been the case most of the season, Jia Perkins was defending the opposing point guard. That’s fine – Perkins is a decent defender, bigger than Danielle Robinson (ignore the officially listed heights), and can use that size to disrupt her opponent. But Robinson was slid all the way over to Noelle Quinn, who’s spent most of this season (and much of her WNBA career) standing around doing virtually nothing. When Quinn was replaced by Alysha Clark – even less of a threat – Robinson stayed on Clark. It was almost like they were trying to hide Robinson defensively, despite her well-earned reputation and a quick and pesky defensive player. Maybe the thinking is that with Hammon sidelined Robinson needs to conserve her energy for offense, but they weren’t running much for her at that end early in the game either. I don’t get it.
- San Antonio came out of the gates slowly, with the carry over from the Sparks game seemingly a similar level of disinterest, rather than a determination to respond. Their effort to feed Adams in the post had led to an offensive foul, and Hughes eventually drew a technical for bitching about it a bit too long – possibly in a conscious effort to wake up his players. The technical free throw made it 15-4 Seattle, only for San Antonio to run off a 12-4 run to get themselves back in the game. Maybe it worked.
- There wasn’t great cohesion to the Silver Stars’ play, but as the first half went on they scraped together enough offense to hang around. Christon came into the game and showed no signs of pouting about being benched, doing exactly the same thing she’d been doing as a starter – bombing away from outside. Her threes and Perkins deciding she liked attacking Clark’s defense helped provide some points for San Antonio.
Everything below was written before Jennifer Gillom was replced by Joe Bryant as head coach of the Los Angeles Sparks late this evening. More on that tomorrow.
Some nights, it annoys me that I’m not a more adventurous gambler. You see, I don’t like losing money, so I tend to bet small, even when I’m convinced the odds are in my favour. I also don’t have an account anywhere that offers in-play betting, which was the second factor that stopped me making a bundle last night. But let’s just say that if a) I had more guts, and b) somewhere easily accessible actually took the bets, I could’ve made some nice coin out of yesterday’s WNBA schedule.
Some games start off going one way on the scoreboard, but if you’re watching closely enough and know a little about the squads, it’s pretty easy to gauge whether the pattern’s going to last. When one team gets all the breaks, shots are going in that they rarely manage to make, and the other team are contriving to miss countless point-blank layups, chances are things are going to swing round before the night is out. It happened a lot last night. Oh and by the way, gambling is legal where I live. If it happens not to be where you reside, please don’t take this as a suggestion that you break the law. That would be wrong.
The first game last night featured Washington in Indiana, and the first instance of me scouting around for a website that would let me open an account in seconds and bet on a complete collapse by the team in front. Continue reading
Apologies to anyone checking the site and expecting ‘WNBA Today, 06/11/11’. Technical difficulties, as LiveAccess would say, prevented it today. Check back tomorrow for a bumper weekend edition. Promise.
Proper daily column coming soon, but first a little housekeeping. My twitter account has been opened at @RichardCohen1, where I’ll link any columns and maybe provide a few of my delightful insights as well. Feel free to follow me there if that’s an easier way for you to keep updated (or there’s a ‘Subscribe’ option in the right-hand column of any page on this site, where you can click to receive emails every time I update, if you prefer).
Also added to the site today are a few links in the sidebar, where you can find some places that write about the WNBA and some useful resources if you want to find out more about the league. I’m sure I’ve forgotten several places that I ought to have linked to, so please don’t be offended if you’re not on there.
Back soon with today’s update.