The Daily W, 08/25/2014: Dream streak past Sky to extend series, while Mercury blow Sparks away

 

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.

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The Daily W, 08/24/2014: Fever and Lynx pushed hard, but complete sweeps to advance

 

Indiana Fever 81 @ Washington Mystics 76 (OT)

 

Lineups: No changes from Game 1, where Indiana just barely scraped out a win at home. Sydney Carter was out for the Fever, so Layshia Clarendon became the backup point guard for those rare minutes when Lin Dunn risked resting Briann January.

 

Story of the Game: It was Indiana who made the slightly better start, but in a scrappy early period that didn’t mean much. As in the first game, Tamika Catchings couldn’t hit a jump shot for love nor money, but she seemed to come to a quicker realisation that she needed to drive instead, and produced some points through that approach. Washington were clearly trying to guide her towards the middle of the court, where plenty of Mystics could clog the lane and help Emma Meesseman deal with her.

 

Washington lost Tierra Ruffin-Pratt early in the second quarter, when her arm got caught up with Shavonte Zellous while fighting for a rebound and she walked off holding her wrist (although it was later reported as a shoulder injury). But it was the remainder of Washington’s bench players that finally dragged them into the contest. Stefanie Dolson hit a couple of mid-range jumpers, and generally made a more visible impact on the action than starting center Kia Vaughn had done at any stage in the series. Kara Lawson came in and hit shots, replacing the ineffective and very quiet Bria Hartley. And then Tianna Hawkins joined in, working hard and sneaking into space for hustle points. It was classic Mystics under Thibault – try enough of your options, and a few of them will hopefully step up and demand you pay attention.

 

However, Washington were still turning the ball over too much, and the defensive attentions of Briann January and hedging help off ball-screens had kept Ivory Latta quiet. So despite shooting 30% from the field, Indiana led by three at halftime. Washington had occasionally gone to a bit of an unusual twist to their defense, which we saw even more of in the second half. It looked a lot like a 2-3 zone – which is unusual from Mike Thibault to begin with – but was fluid enough that sometimes it just became a switch-heavy man-to-man. At times, Indiana’s ball movement beat it and created wide open looks, but in general the Mystics did a decent job of limiting Indiana’s offense. It made it a little easier for Washington to slide inside and cut off the driving lanes for players like Catchings.

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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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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.

 

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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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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.

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The Daily W, 08/16/2014

 

Washington Mystics 71 @ Connecticut Sun 67

 

Lineups: As detailed in yesterday’s previews, for a variety of reasons the Sun were better off losing this game, so it was no surprise that Katie Douglas was in street clothes for tip-off. She had missed the end of their last game after walking off holding her back, so maybe she would’ve been out anyway, but there was certainly no incentive to rush her back. Danielle McCray started in her place, with long-term absentee Allison Hightower the only other player missing. So to Connecticut’s credit, it’s not like they went into full-on tanking mode. Washington had Kia Vaughn back from her one-game suspension for elbowing Chiney Ogwumike the last time these teams met, and she took her starting spot back from Stefanie Dolson. Kara Lawson’s ankle continues to keep her off the floor.

 

Story of the Game: The first half was utterly forgettable. Washington led for most of it thanks to some nice post moves from Emma Meesseman, some shooting from Bria Hartley and Ivory Latta, and overall dominance on the glass. Connecticut hung around, and a couple of late driving buckets for McCray and Alex Bentley allowed them to pull within four at halftime.

The Sun emerged with much better energy in the third quarter and made the game a more interesting battle. They were finally putting up a fight on the glass, came up with some transition points, and the mediocre play Washington had been producing all evening was no longer enough to keep them in front.

All of which combined to give us a tight finish. Meesseman made some strong plays down the stretch, showing off her silky passing skills and attacking Ogwumike to draw fouls and free throws. In fact, Washington did most of their work at the foul line in the closing stages. While Renee Montgomery was jacking and missing threes, Meesseman and then Monique Currie were picking up points at the line. Although on the one late possession where Montgomery gave the ball up, Bentley drilled a three from the corner to keep things interesting. But the late-game plays that Anne Donovan drew up out of timeouts were a disaster (or worked perfectly, if you believe she had the benefits of losing in the back of her mind). A staggered screen for Bentley didn’t break her open at all, and the play didn’t appear to have a second option, so ended in a Montgomery turnover. Then the next time down, Montgomery drove the baseline and kicked to Alyssa Thomas in the corner, who slid her foot backwards before making a move and went out of bounds as a result. Not that you ever want Thomas taking an important shot from the corner anyway, unless you’re the opposition. That ended the game as a contest, and Washington had confirmed their playoff spot.

 

Key Players: Meesseman inside, and the backcourt of Hartley and Latta outside, were the only players who consistently made shots for Washington. Currie did a decent job of attacking late in the game and knocking down important free throws. It was a big win for the Mystics to cement their spot in the postseason, but it wasn’t exactly a confidence-builder for the playoffs. They looked thoroughly ordinary all night, and they’ll likely need to play significantly better to actually win any games in the postseason. Tayler Hill and Kalana Greene continue to offer very little, so they’ll be desperately hoping Lawson’s ankle heals quickly. Otherwise Latta and Hartley are going to verge on 40 minutes a night.

Considering they had essentially nothing to play for and were missing their veteran presence on the perimeter, it was a relatively creditable performance from Connecticut. Bentley made some shots, Kelsey Bone finished some plays inside once she woke up in the second half, and Alyssa Thomas was reasonably effective. But this is still a team that looks like it needs to reload – and maybe rethink a little – to make the next step.

 

Notes of Interest: For the third time this season in the WNBA, a team was eliminated from playoff contention by the result of a game they weren’t even playing in. This scoreline meant New York will miss the postseason for the second straight year since Bill Laimbeer took over, and due to the Tina Charles trade they don’t even have the consolation of a lottery pick in the draft. Connecticut receive that, which was part of why losing this game worked out well for them.

 

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Tulsa Shock 76 @ Atlanta Dream 92

 

Lineups: Regular group for Tulsa, while Atlanta started the same big lineup they’d used in the last couple of games with Angel McCoughtry out due to tendonitis in her feet. She was in uniform and played in this game, but came off the bench.

 

Story of the Game: Odyssey Sims made enough shots to keep Tulsa in the game in the first quarter, but there were already signs of the run that was on the way in the second. Atlanta were starting to dominate the glass, and playing with good pace and desire considering how little the game actually meant to them in the standings. Then in the second period the Dream blew it open. That was when we saw something that actually resembled the old Atlanta Dream – running the floor hard, attacking in transition, and rolling over an opponent once they gathered momentum. Erika de Souza picked up points by finding deep position in the paint and taking strong passes from Shoni Schimmel and Jasmine Thomas to finish. Then McCoughtry, Schimmel and their teammates just started charging up and down the court and running right by the Shock. Tulsa had no answer, their offense couldn’t penetrate and fell apart, and Atlanta roared into a 22-point halftime lead.

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The Daily W, 08/15/2014

 

New York Liberty 63 @ Indiana Fever 76

 

Lineups: New York made the change I suggested might happen in yesterday’s preview, benching Avery Warley-Talbert in favour of combining Swin Cash and Alex Montgomery at the forward spots. It was a clear effort to match up with Tamika Catchings, who helped tear New York apart when these teams met five days ago. The Fever, unsurprisingly, went with the same regular lineup they used in that previous game. Their bench was one player short, with Layshia Clarendon sidelined by a sore back if you believe the box score, or a hip spasm if you listen to Chris Denari, the Fever commentator. Probably just different descriptions for the same pain.

 

Story of the Game: The idea appeared to be that Montgomery would guard Catchings, but with Cash becoming the power forward when New York had the ball. Whatever the plan, it didn’t go well for the Liberty. Indiana were the team with all the confidence and energy, and it didn’t take long for that to show up on the scoreboard. The Liberty tried to go inside to Tina Charles as usual, but between Erlana Larkins and plenty of help, even that was largely unsuccessful – and unlike in Sunday’s clash between these teams, no one else was hitting anything for New York either.

Indiana pushed when they had the chance, looking to pick up cheap points whenever possible, but it was scarcely even necessary. They were moving the ball well, finding the open player, and knocking down shots. Catchings took a little while to come into the game, but attacked Plenette Pierson as soon as she came in at the first timeout, and joined in the scoring for Indiana. They led by 10 at the end of the first quarter, and the momentum was building.

Even with a bench-heavy lineup in the game – Sydney Carter, Maggie Lucas, Karima Christmas, Natasha Howard and Lynetta Kizer opened the second period for Indiana – the Fever just kept rolling. New York couldn’t find any rhythm offensively, couldn’t pierce the Indiana defense, so they just ground to a halt. The Fever starters gradually reintegrated, Catchings, Briann January and Shavonte Zellous continued to hit shots, and the lead just kept growing. By halftime Indiana were up by 25 and the Liberty were on course for another embarrassing hammering.

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The Daily W, 08/14/2014

 

Chicago Sky 72 @ Washington Mystics 69

 

Lineups: Same starters for Chicago that they’ve used in recent games, with Elena Delle Donne continuing to combine with Allie Quigley as a dangerous pair of scorers off the bench. For the first time since the end of June, Courtney Vandersloot was in uniform for the Sky – although she never actually made it off the bench. Still, a positive sign that she might be available for the playoffs. Washington were short a couple of players, with regular starting center Kia Vaughn suspended for the elbow she threw at Chiney Ogwumike in their last game, and Kara Lawson out for a week after spraining her ankle the same night. Stefanie Dolson started in place of Vaughn, while Kalana Greene and Tayler Hill both saw playing time on the perimeter that wouldn’t have been on offer with a full squad.

 

Story of the Game: Chicago led for virtually the entire first half, pushing their advantage as high as 11 points on a couple of occasions. The Mystics missed a lot of shots, both inside and out, but managed to keep hanging around. Dolson was doing a reasonable job battling for position with Sylvia Fowles, but struggling to convert anything when Washington tried to use her offensively. Chicago didn’t succeed in forcing the ball inside that consistently either, but with Quigley and Delle Donne making a couple of shots, they managed to build a lead. But Washington closed the half strong, with Bria Hartley nailing a three and throwing a pretty pass to lead Dolson in for a layup as part of the push, and the Mystics were within two points at the interval.

In many ways, the second half was very similar. Chicago were in front almost throughout – an Ivory Latta three put the Mystics ahead for a grand total of 21 seconds in the third quarter, before a Fowles layup took it back – but Washington wouldn’t go away. The absences hurt the Mystics. Fowles dominated the boards without Vaughn available to battle her, and both Hill and Greene looked like passengers. Greene’s barely been used by Mike Thibault this season, so will offer her usual effort but has no game rhythm whatsoever. Hill was basically terrible in her rookie season last year, so adding the fact that she gave birth less than eight weeks ago on top of that, she’s not really ready to contribute. She tried a three in the first half that was cleanly blocked by Epiphanny Prince, who’s about the size of your average garden gnome. They’ll really be hoping that Lawson’s ready to go for the playoffs – assuming they make it in.

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The Daily W, 08/13/2014

 

Phoenix Mercury 76 @ New York Liberty 64

 

Lineups: Same group as usual for Phoenix, but a change to the starters for the first time in a while for New York. Alex Montgomery was benched in favour of Swin Cash at small forward, maybe in the hope that Cash’s veteran smarts could help New York handle the Mercury. Or just to change something to try to kick-start a team that were dominated in two of their last three games.

 

Story of the Game: As an individual offensive force, Tina Charles probably quite enjoyed this game. Unlike most opponents, Phoenix largely covered Charles one-on-one, and even if that solo defender is Brittney Griner, Charles was clearly much happier attacking her than dealing with constant double-teams. In fact, Charles scored New York’s first 12 points of the game on a series of nice finishes inside and a couple of jumpers, but by then Phoenix were already pulling ahead. The Mercury had Griner scoring efficiently inside – with New York largely avoiding double-teams on her as well – Diana Taurasi firing from outside, and Candice Dupree providing her typical combination of mid-range shots and smooth finishes at the rim. New York had Charles and nothing much else.

That was basically the case for the rest of the first half. The Liberty got a little boost of energy from Anna Cruz – who was also beginning to really aggravate Taurasi with her physical defense – but without ever really putting their foot on the gas the Mercury were always in control. New York clawed their deficit down to three points late in the second quarter, before a 10-0 Phoenix run reestablished their dominance before the interval. Taurasi was still in the aggressive offensive mindset we saw in the games against Minnesota, and forced a couple of bad shots as a result, but converted a drive and drilled a three in that sequence to keep her team on top.

New York were often close enough to suggest a comeback was possible in the second half, without ever actually making the push to casue any real nerves for Phoenix. Cappie Pondexter hit a few shots to play the sidekick role for Charles, but as a team they missed a lot of jump shots, and the occasional double-teams that Phoenix sent towards Charles forced her to think a bit more about which move to make. With Dupree still hitting shots, and Erin Phillips providing some energy and perimeter shooting off the bench, Phoenix consistently managed to hold the Liberty at arm’s length until the end.

 

Key Players: The Griner-Charles matchup in the paint was a lot of fun, even if they weren’t always guarding each other. With Avery Warley-Talbert ineffective, they were directly against each other for much of the evening. Griner ended the game 7-12 for a typically efficient 14 points, and added 11 rebounds and three blocks. But she also had four teammates in double figures alongside her to help out.

Charles was a much more dominant figure within the Liberty offense, everything running through her and she was constantly trying to attack. She finished the night 11-22 for 26 points and 12 boards, but didn’t get a lot of help and New York never looked convinced that they could win the game. Phoenix beat them fairly comfortably, without ever really having to extend themselves.

 

Notes of Interest: While the loss certainly doesn’t help, the Liberty’s playoff future was always going to rely more on their other three remaining games – one against Washington, and a pair against Indiana. They’ll need to win at least two, and very possibly all three to sneak in. The performance in their previous game against the Fever wasn’t promising.

For Phoenix, this win confirmed their status as the #1 seed in the West, and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Their last three games are essentially meaningless, and we’ll probably see them rest some players or at least limit their minutes. They can’t beat the best ever winning percentage in a WNBA season, but they could win the most games in a season in the league’s history (they played fewer than 34 games in the early years).

 

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Los Angeles Sparks 71 @ Minnesota Lynx 63

 

Lineups: The starters were as expected for both teams. The Lynx were one short on their bench, as Brazilian post Damiris Dantas had flown home for personal reasons and will apparently miss their remaining regular season games. She’s expected to return for the playoffs.

 

Story of the Game: Minnesota started off just like they did in their previous game against Phoenix, taking a lot of jumpers but hitting virtually all of them, and therefore pulling in front. They were up by as many as 11 in the early minutes, despite Maya Moore limping off with a slight ankle sprain in the opening seconds. She came back in midway through the first quarter, to allay any fears Lynx fans may have had about something more serious.

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