The Daily W, 09/14/2014: Even without Griner, Mercury sweep Sky away to take WNBA title

 

Phoenix Mercury 87 @ Chicago Sky 82

 

Lineups: The big news before tip-off was that Brittney Griner was out after an outpatient procedure on her right eye the day before. Missing the game was a precautionary measure advised by her doctors, and she would’ve likely been available for future games in the series. If Phoenix hadn’t been up 2-0 and utterly dominant so far in the series, they might’ve pushed the medical staff a little harder to clear her. Ewelina Kobryn came into the starting lineup to fill her spot, as the slightly bigger and more physical option ahead of Mistie Bass. Importantly, Kobryn is also a better defender than Bass, although obviously either was going to be a significant drop-off from Griner.

 

Story of the Game: In the previous two games, the teams had been closely matched during the minutes that Griner spent on the bench. So it was no surprise that we ended up with a tight contest while she watched from the sidelines. As you’d expect, the Sky looked to feed Sylvia Fowles in the paint early on. Kobryn did a decent job battling with her and playing the Griner-role guarding the pass on the pick-and-roll, but the basic gaps in size and athleticism between her and Griner made the passes and finishes easier for Chicago. That said, Fowles still missed some straightforward layups around the rim, and Kobryn was getting most of the points back at the other end with finishes over and around Fowles. Unfortunately for Phoenix, Kobryn picked up a cheap early foul, and then a desperately soft call added her second. She was back on the bench after barely five minutes of play.

 

The problem for Chicago was that while the absence of Griner had opened up some room for their offense, they still couldn’t stop the Mercury. A couple of early fouls for Tamera Young didn’t help, sending one of the Sky’s key defenders back to the bench, and Phoenix continued to score just as smoothly and easily as they had in the previous games. Kobryn and Bass had too much room to finish inside as Fowles continued to show hard on high screens without decent rotation help behind her. Diana Taurasi continued to shoot and score over Courtney Vandersloot whenever she felt like it. And as they’d done throughout the series, Phoenix attacked Elena Delle Donne with whoever she happened to be guarding. Delle Donne looked relatively mobile and healthy in this game on offense, joining Fowles as Chicago’s primary threats in the early stages. But her defense isn’t great to begin with, and with her back problems limiting her physically the Mercury have been exploiting her since Game 1. She started the game on DeWanna Bonner, slid over to Candice Dupree when Young sat down, and both scored with relative ease. The Sky were right in the contest, but they were doing no better defensively than in previous games.

 

Behind jump shots from Delle Donne and Allie Quigley, Chicago actually led midway through the second quarter, a rare occurrence in this series. But Phoenix responded through Candice Dupree, who carried most of their offense in the second period. Her regular display of smooth finishes inside and mid-range jump shots that dropped like layups kept the points rolling for Phoenix (and considering Young only had two fouls and had done a solid job defending Dupree whenever given the chance in this series, you’d have to ask Pokey Chatman to find out why Young never came back in during the second quarter to try to cool Dupree off). Fowles and Kobryn both came back in to resume their battle in the paint (and Kobryn picked up another foul when Fowles backed her under the rim), while Taurasi got a little too aggressive with her jumper and started forcing – and missing – a few. She scored consistently and often easily when defended by Vandersloot in this series, but when Chicago slid someone else over to cover her – even similarly small or weak defenders like Quigley or Epiphanny Prince – she wasn’t quite as successful. The Sky were only down by two at the break, which was a lot better than where they’d been at halftime in the previous games.

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The Daily W, 09/11/2014: Mercury on the brink of a title thanks to another dominant win over Sky

 

Chicago Sky 68 @ Phoenix Mercury 97

 

Lineups: The same fives that opened Game 1 came out for Game 2, so Elena Delle Donne was ready to play despite the problems with her back.

 

Story of the Game: There was an immediately obvious switch for the Sky from Game 1, with Tamera Young sliding over to guard Candice Dupree while Delle Donne tried to hide on DeWanna Bonner. It wasn’t the move to having Young guard Diana Taurasi that I’d been hoping for, but it at least made use of Young being on the floor. Of course, the hope for Chicago would’ve been that it put less stress on Delle Donne (and that she wouldn’t give up so many points defensively, after Dupree lit up the Sky in Game 1).

 

The energy and attack mentality of the Sky was a little better in the early stages than we’d seen for much of Game 1, but we also saw Sylvia Fowles blow yet more finishes around the rim under pressure from Brittney Griner, while Griner converted over or around Fowles at the other end. That was the same as 48 hours earlier. Then Fowles inadvertently took Griner out of the game for several minutes after catching her in the face with a swipe of her arm while fighting for a rebound. Griner was left lying on the court for several seconds while play continued, and went to the sidelines for treatment on a scratch near her right eye. Ewelina Kobryn was the choice to fill in, rather than Mistie Bass, due to her greater size and bulk to match up with Fowles.

 

Whether Griner was in the game or not, Chicago still weren’t particularly effective in running anything offensively, but they did have Delle Donne looking relatively mobile and hitting a couple of shots. Phoenix largely scored with the same regularity that they had in Game 1, with Bonner more aggressive in an effort to exploit Delle Donne’s defense. The Mercury were hurt by foul trouble for Taurasi, after she’d taken one intentionally to stop the game for Griner’s injury, then was called for a push-off after barely five minutes of action. But Chicago still weren’t exactly effective in slowing them down. By the end of the first quarter Phoenix were up by seven, and both Fowles and Griner had joined Taurasi on two fouls apiece (Fowles picking up both of hers while defending Kobryn, Griner adding her second on an illegal screen – so all pretty dumb).

 

The early stages of the second quarter were Chicago’s most positive minutes of the series. Griner started it on the bench, and the Sky finally found some success with their pick-and-roll game, working it mostly with Markeisha Gatling and Epiphanny Prince. Without Griner’s movement and long arms there to block the way, either the dump-off pass to Gatling was available, or Prince pulled up and hit shots in space. Even once Griner came back in, the Sky had finally discovered some offensive rhythm, and Prince was joined by Delle Donne and Allie Quigley in hitting some shots from the perimeter. This was the other element the Sky had missed in Game 1 – basic shot-making. Some of them were tough, some were contested, but they dropped and we had a tight contest on our hands.

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The Daily W, 09/08/2014: Mercury dominate Sky for blowout win to open WNBA Finals

 

Chicago Sky 62 @ Phoenix Mercury 83

 

Lineups: The starters were as expected. Phoenix inevitably went with the five that have been dominating for them for much of the season, while Chicago resisted any temptation to make immediate changes to try to match up with Phoenix’s size.

 

Story of the Game: It was ugly for Chicago right from the start. They were trying to feed Sylvia Fowles in the paint, and she actually managed to back her way into deep position on Brittney Griner a couple of times, but they either couldn’t make the entry pass or Fowles couldn’t finish under pressure from Griner. When the Sky brought Fowles out high to try to run pick-and-rolls, they quickly found that it was a much more difficult proposition than it had been against Indiana. Griner would show briefly on the ballhandler, then drop quickly back into the lane to cover the rolling Fowles, and Chicago couldn’t connect on the feed back to their center. Either Griner would snake a long arm into the way, or help defenders would come across in time. It took a long and painful 5 minutes and 10 seconds for the Sky to score their first points of the afternoon.

 

Meanwhile, Phoenix’s offense wasn’t actually running that smoothly, which prevented their immediate lead from growing too big. Diana Taurasi and Candice Dupree gave the Sky a couple of lessons in how to run the pick-and-roll to perfection, and Taurasi hit a couple of quick pullup jumpers, but most of their dominance was coming on the defensive end. They were so dominant defensively that they could hardly help but start to pull away.

 

Both teams began with fairly straightforward defensive matchups. Dupree took Elena Delle Donne, rather than trying to twist the Mercury defense to slide someone like DeWanna Bonner onto her. That left Bonner to cover Epiphanny Prince, Taurasi on Courtney Vandersloot, and Penny Taylor on Tamera Young. Chicago opened with the same matchups in reverse, which continues to make little sense to me. As I mentioned in the preview for this series, they had some success using a small point guard on Taurasi in their second regular season encounter with the Mercury, but it makes Young’s presence on the floor virtually redundant. She’s not a great offensive player at all – she’ll hustle, she’ll hit an occasional jump shot, but opponents will essentially let her shoot all she wants. She’s out there for her defense. For all her qualities, Penny Taylor will only occasionally make a significant impact on games these days – and while Taylor was relatively quiet, Young didn’t even do that great a defensive job on her. It was almost like Young subconsciously felt she was being wasted out there as well. Taurasi’s the one that makes Phoenix tick. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Chicago start Game 2 with Young on Taurasi, while trying to hide their guards on Bonner and Taylor.

 

Because in the second quarter Phoenix’s dominance on the floor finally started to show on the scoreboard. Delle Donne had been fairly quiet, and after being nudged in her already-injured back midway through the second quarter she went to the sidelines for rest and more treatment. She’d had far more trouble containing Dupree than the reverse matchup had caused problems for Phoenix. Everything started flowing for the Mercury. Dupree was hitting her mid-range jumper repeatedly off the pick-and-roll. Griner was converting inside when Phoenix went to her in the paint. Taurasi was knocking down jumpers whenever she was given an inch of space, and spraying passes around the floor. It was far too easy for them. Meanwhile Prince tried to step up and carry the offense for the Sky, but that didn’t last for long, and Fowles still rarely managed to finish inside. A gorgeous no-look 30-foot bullet pass from Taurasi to Dupree under the basket closed the scoring for the half, and Phoenix were up by 22 points at the break. It was a blowout, and there wasn’t even a hint of a comeback in sight for Chicago.

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The Daily W, 09/04/2014: Sky finish off Fever on the road, head to WNBA Finals for the first time

 

Chicago Sky 75 @ Indiana Fever 62

 

Lineups: Starters were the same as in previous games. Elena Delle Donne was still struggling with her back problem, but fit enough to get out on the court and at least play a heavy decoy role, even if she was no longer carrying the offense.

 

Story of the Game: After the Lynx and Mercury started the previous night’s Game 3 smoking hot, the Sky and Fever went with an ice cold shower instead. There was a lot of messy basketball played early on, a lot of bricks tossed up from the perimeter, and Indiana looked oddly nervous while committing several unforced turnovers. There wasn’t much worth talking about from the first quarter, except that Epiphanny Prince actually hit her first perimeter jump shot, and while Shavonte Zellous hit a couple from outside as well, the Sky were doing a better job of cutting off her flex-cut post-ups. That’s the play where she starts out in the corner, then uses a screen to dive into the space under the rim, looking for a pass deep in the paint to finish over her smaller defender. Prince was battling well to keep her from getting position in the first place, and the other Sky players were getting hands into the passing lanes as well. Basically, the play was no longer working. However, Indiana were already showing signs of dominating the offensive glass yet again, which kept the scores close.

 

It wasn’t until late in the second quarter that we saw the first meaningful lead of the night, and it came thanks to the play of the woman who’s been increasingly stealing minutes away from Prince this season. Allie Quigley was the first player who’d managed to discover a consistent run of accuracy on her jumper all night, which helped the Sky turn a tied game into an eight-point lead by halftime. At times, Quigley’s still a shaky ballhandler, and she’s not a natural point guard at all despite being used by Pokey Chatman at that spot many times in the last two years. But she can shoot, and having that scoring threat on the ball sometimes pays off more than her negatives leave Chicago vulnerable. Lin Dunn called a timeout in the middle of her scoring run, and both Zellous and Tamika Catchings attacked the basket for Indiana on the series of possessions that followed, resulting in better shots and points for the Fever. But with Briann January coughing up yet another pair of unnecessary turnovers on their closing plays, Chicago went into the break on top.

 

Catchings had struggled with her jump shot throughout the series, and Game 3 was no different. The Fever tried at times to feed her the ball inside, but she’s not a natural post-up player. She’s been the nominal power forward for the Fever for several years now, but at her heart she’s still a perimeter player on offense. She gets her points in the paint off drives or hustle plays for rebounds and putbacks, rarely on true low-post moves. And with her jump shot failing to drop, Tamera Young could afford to give her a little more room to shoot, and play her for the drive. After three games chasing Angel McCoughtry, Young spent three more covering Catchings, and did an admirable job.

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The Daily W, 09/03/2014: Taurasi and Mercury offense prove too much for Lynx, as Phoenix head to WNBA Finals

 

Minnesota Lynx 78 @ Phoenix Mercury 96

 

Lineups: As expected, once again.

 

Story of the Game: Minnesota got off to a much better start offensively in this game than they had in the previous two – but unfortunately for them Phoenix were scoring even more effectively. Sandy Brondello had clearly drummed into her team the need to attack the paint, either by feeding Brittney Griner inside or driving off the bounce. For the entire first half, Griner scored efficiently when they fed her inside, but she was almost more important as a decoy. She’d come out high to set screens, Minnesota’s perimeter defenders would shift themselves dramatically to try to prevent the ballhandler using the pick, and then the Mercury player would happily reject the screen and drive into the space to the rim instead. Just the threat of Griner rolling to the basket was bending the defense to such an extent that Phoenix were lighting up the scoreboard, almost entirely on layups.

 

Diana Taurasi in particular – after I had the temerity to point out how poorly she’d shot in her last four games against the Lynx – was still looking for her own offense, but taking much better shots. They weren’t quick-fire jumpers, but rather aggressive drives right to the basket, often after screening, rescreening, and maybe even rescreening again from her posts. Between her, Griner, a better attack mentality from DeWanna Bonner, and chip-in contribution from Candice Dupree and Penny Taylor, this was the best we’d seen Phoenix’s offense running for a while, and Minnesota couldn’t slow them down or keep them from getting to the basket.

 

But the Lynx stayed in it thanks to better offensive production than we’d seen from them for most of the series. Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore all hit their fair share of shots in the first half, as much of the Lynx offense continued to come on jumpers, but the motion and movement was noticeably better. Phoenix seemed to have loosened up their scheme a little, and were slightly more willing to switch defensive assignments than they’d been in Games 1 and 2, but much of that was forced by the pick-and-rolls and off-ball movement of the Lynx. Rebekkah Brunson’s mid-range jumper was cold, which hurt because it allowed Griner to sag off her and help more elsewhere, but Minnesota’s perimeter trio wasn’t allowing Phoenix’s offensive success to blow them off the court.

 

In fact, Minnesota never trailed by more than nine points under Phoenix’s opening barrage, and when Griner rested to start the second period they actually took advantage – something they hadn’t done enough in this series. They attacked the rim a little more, created some transition chances when Phoenix’s offense stuttered slightly, and got some production from Monica Wright off their bench – after she’d been virtually anonymous in the previous games.

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The Daily W, 09/02/2014: Sky need double OT, but battle past Fever to force Eastern decider

 

Indiana Fever 84 @ Chicago Sky 86 (2OT)

 

Lineups: No changes from Game 1.

 

Story of the Game: The early stages of this game were pretty dull and very even. Chicago got Sylvia Fowles involved, and got out in transition a little, which were both good signs for the Sky. Briann January and Shavonte Zellous weren’t shooting as well from the perimeter as they had in stretches of Game 1 for Indiana, but the Fever were already picking up offensive boards and second-chance points. It all balanced out.

 

Fowles hurt her own team with silly mistakes early in the second quarter – although Pokey Chatman’s scheme was arguably just as much to blame. As we’ve seen several times before, Fowles picked up a foul 30 feet away from the hoop trying to hedge hard on a screen, only to make too much contact with the ballhandler. That was her second foul of the game, and was immediately followed by an easy Karima Christmas layup for Indiana when Fowles let her go to avoid adding her third. Minutes later, Fowles hedged hard again, picked up that third foul, and spent the last 6:34 of the first half on the bench as a result. When you’ve got a franchise center who you desperately need on the court, it’s insane to have her using up her six fouls – and forcing herself to the bench – by hedging so hard a mile away from the basket.

 

Chicago were down by six when Fowles sat down, and that gap grew as high as 14 in the second quarter with her on the bench. The Sky’s help defense collapsed as Chatman cycled through Sasha Goodlett and Markeisha Gatling in the search for someone to fill the center spot, Erlana Larkins suddenly started scoring inside, and a tight game became one-sided. It also allowed Indiana to be even more obvious in sending extra defenders to stop Elena Delle Donne whenever she tried to attack Tamika Catchings, and slow down Chicago’s scoring even further.

 

Chatman went a little gimmicky with her lineup to close out the first half, using Gatling for the first time in the entire playoffs and going small on the perimeter with Courtney Vandersloot, Epiphanny Prince and Allie Quigley all playing together. With Quigley hitting a couple of threes in the closing stages, it helped to give the Sky a small foothold back in the game, and pull within eight at halftime. Considering how the second quarter had gone, the amount of time Fowles had spent on the bench and the significant rebounding advantage Indiana had achieved, only being down eight felt like a win for Chicago.

 

It took just under three minutes of the third quarter for Chatman to realise something that had become increasingly obvious to everybody during the first half – that her best lineup on this particular night involved gluing Prince’s backside to the bench. She hadn’t been able to hit anything all night, whether on jumpers or layups, and considering her ability to create her own offense is the main reason to have her on the floor, that made her a liability. Quigley came in instead, and Prince wouldn’t return for a long time.

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The Daily W, 09/01/2014: Star trio hit the shots for Lynx to force Game 3 against Mercury

 

Phoenix Mercury 77 @ Minnesota Lynx 82

 

Lineups: Nothing changed. Neither of these teams was going to mess with something as basic as their starting lineup after the success they’ve had with their established groups. Phoenix did change their defensive matchups at halftime in Game 1, with Candice Dupree taking Janel McCarville and Brittney Griner switching to Rebekkah Brunson. They went with that from the start in Game 2, although essentially Griner’s guarded whichever opposing post hangs closer to the rim all season long.

 

Story of the Game: With their home crowd primed to explode and loving that Diana Taurasi was called for a push-off on the opening possession, Minnesota nonetheless got off to another awful start. They had no offensive rhythm, the ball was static once again, and they settled for – and missed – a lot of jump shots. They also saw Janel McCarville pick up two fouls in under three minutes, then Devereaux Peters sub in for her and do the same in less than two minutes of action. So not only were they falling behind, but two of their primary post defenders were already in foul trouble – and they hadn’t even picked the fouls up while defending Griner. The calls hadn’t gone Minnesota’s way, but it was still a horrible start and much of it self-inflicted.

 

The Lynx had at least managed to disrupt Phoenix’s flow a little with their defense. They’d extended out higher on the perimeter, making it harder for Phoenix to initiate their offense and get the ball moving. They were also mixing up the matchups, with Maya Moore often on Penny Taylor while Seimone Augustus (or Monica Wright, after an early sub) took DeWanna Bonner. The more straightforward matchup, which they stuck with for most of Game 1, was to have Moore guard Bonner. As Bonner was always guarding Moore, it made things easier to stay the same at the other end. But the Lynx cross-matched more in Game 2, and considering both Bonner and Taylor were much quieter than in Game 1, it ultimately had to be considered a success.

 

But in the opening period the Mercury were still racking up enough points to move into a double-digit lead. With a Lindsay Whalen driving layup the only Lynx success in their first 12 shots, the Mercury could hardly avoid it.

 

Minnesota finally started to pick things up in the second quarter. A few jumpers fell in for Whalen, Moore and Augustus early in the period to kick-start the offense, and there was a little more penetration and ball movement to create the space for those shots. McCarville’s minutes were once again limited by foul trouble, although the return of Damiris Dantas from overseas had at least given the Lynx another post that Cheryl Reeve was willing to use. The game got increasingly chippy in the second period as well, with Taurasi called for a technical after bitching a little too long and hard about the lack of a call on one of her missed shots, then Reeve adding her own tech after an argument with official Amy Bonner about staying in the coaching box. According to ESPN reports from the sideline, it was Taurasi who suggested to Bonner that she should keep an eye on Reeve’s movements, just to add an extra level to it all.

 

Phoenix responded to the Minnesota push late in the first half, with Taurasi nailing a pair of threes when left in too much space, and Dupree continuing to finish with her typical smoothness both at the rim and from mid-range. The Lynx forcing a few turnovers and hitting some jumpers in the second period was a good sign for the second half, but they still trailed by eight at the interval.

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