The W Dozen: Playoff Schedule, Defensive Doubts, Pretty Plays and more

 

1. Full Playoff Schedule

I realised this week that for some dumb reason the WNBA haven’t released this in full, so for those who want to take a leap of faith and start booking flights and hotels really early, here’s the expected 2016 WNBA playoff schedule:


First Round
(single-elimination: #5 seed vs #8, and #6 vs #7)

Wednesday, September 21st (both games)


Second Round
(single elimination: #3 vs lowest 1st-rnd winner, #4 vs other 1st-rnd winner)

Sunday, September 25th (both games)


Semi-Finals
(best-of-5, 2-2-1 format: #1 vs lowest 2nd-rnd winner, #2 vs other 2nd-rnd winner)

(Game 1s) Wednesday, September 28th

(Game 2s) Friday, September 30th

(Game 3s) Sunday, October 2nd

(Game 4s) Tuesday, October 4th (if necessary)

(Game 5s) Thursday, October 6th (if necessary)


WNBA Finals
(best-of-5, 2-2-1 format)

(Game 1) Sunday, October 9th

(Game 2) Tuesday, October 11th

(Game 3) Friday, October 14th

(Game 4) Sunday, October 16th (if necessary)

(Game 5) Thursday, October 20th (if necessary)


All weekend games in the afternoon, all weekday games in the evening. Obviously, all subject to potential change due to ESPN’s whims or arena availability.

Those double-headers for the first couple of rounds should be exciting, essentially fast-forwarding to the deciding games that we only got in the past when a series went the distance. Whether it’s fair or not is a different debate, but the entertainment should be there. We’ll also have the inevitable ‘rest vs rust’ debates this year in the WNBA, with the top two seeds having 10 days off before joining the competition at the semi-final stage. At least some of the games should be better attended this year – both thanks to the immediate excitement of single-elimination, and the extra time teams will have to sell tickets for the second round and semis. The hosts will know the dates as soon as the playoff seeding is set, and can start the publicity and sales immediately. Early playoff games have been sparsely attended in previous years because teams only have a couple of days’ notice to draw fans.


2. Dallas’s Dismal Defense

I’m going to get into this in more detail in a future piece, but this is why the Wings aren’t going to go anywhere meaningful this season unless things change dramatically.

This is the first basket of the game on Wednesday night:

There’s a half-hearted switch on the initial 4/5 screen-the-screener action (top-left of video), when Plenette Pierson kinda quits halfway through. Then Courtney Paris jumps out a mile to chase Natasha Cloud while Odyssey Sims tries to recover, before the ball goes back to Emma Meesseman. Here’s where Dallas repeatedly struggle. They like to trap and pressure so hard on ball-screens, but they’re a) not that good at it, and b) terrible at the help rotations necessary behind it. In that video above, both Erin Phillips and Karima Christmas take steps towards Meesseman (showing confusion on whose job it is) and Meesseman takes one dribble away from Phillips into a wide open shot. And that’s better than what Dallas offers up on a lot of similar plays. Often there’s no rotation at all, and Meesseman would’ve just been left standing on her own. Or one player moves but there’s no secondary movement, so one extra pass leads to a wide open shot (or easy lane to the hoop) instead.

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WNBA Early-Season Surprises: Dreaming big in Atlanta, Phoenix failing to rise

 

Early season hot streaks can be a bit of a masquerade in the WNBA. Training camp is so short, often with players arriving late due to overseas commitments, so the squads that are ready for the first couple of weeks may not actually be the best teams. Connecticut got everyone excited by opening last season 7-1, then went 8-18 the rest of the way when they fell back to Earth. But at the same time, it’s a short season in the WNBA. This isn’t the 82- or 162-game slog of other US sports leagues. The Sun ultimately didn’t make the postseason last year, but they would have tied for the 8th spot under the new playoff system. A hot start can take you a long way towards the playoffs, even if a collapse follows. So it’s worth paying attention to the surprises of the young 2016 WNBA season.

Let’s start with the most obvious pleasant surprise. After an ugly 2015 and most prognosticators dumping them in the lottery before this season began, the Atlanta Dream have opened the year 5-1 and resembling their old selves. I mentioned that this was a possibility in my season preview, even if it didn’t seem likely. Three key pieces of their successful teams were still in town in Angel McCoughtry, Tiffany Hayes and Sancho Lyttle. They had a new center in Elizabeth Williams who in an ideal world would replace what Erika de Souza used to give them. And while no one was quite sure what they’d get from the point guard spot, they’ve survived before without much more than replacement-level talent in that spot. So far, it’s working like a dream (sorry).

The new acquisitions have fitted in well, exceeding the expectations of virtually everybody. Layshia Clarendon was a late addition from Indiana for minimal cost, and has slid into the starting point guard spot, so far looking a more impressive player than she ever did for the Fever. She always seemed like something of a square peg being asked to fit a round hole in Indiana, who always wanted her to become a point guard despite her scorer’s instincts. And even now in Atlanta she’s not really playing as a true point. But she looks freed up to play her more natural game, driving and scoring whenever the opportunity presents itself. Between her, Hayes and McCoughtry they don’t have anyone who particularly likes to pass on the perimeter, but they’re all creative enough to get the job done. And they can all initiate the offense or bring the ball up the floor when they need to. Clarendon’s backup, Carla Cortijo, is more of a true point guard, looking to probe the defense or create for others to a greater extent, and between them they’ve solidified the spot for Atlanta. I’m not as convinced by Clarendon’s defense as Dream head coach Michael Cooper keeps claiming to be, but she’s solid enough after three years learning at the feet of Tamika Catchings, Lin Dunn and Stephanie White.

In the middle, Elizabeth Williams looks like a very nice fit at the heart of Atlanta’s defense. She had a quiet, relatively anonymous rookie year in Connecticut, seeing limited playing time behind Kelsey Bone’s breakout season. Giving up the 4th overall pick for her seemed expensive when Atlanta made the move, considering most front offices tend to prefer the unknown of college kids over players they’ve already seen look fairly unimpressive in the pros. But combined with Lyttle and McCoughtry in the frontcourt, Williams makes the Dream annoyingly long and athletic. And she can do things like this:

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Atlanta Dream

 

Yes, I’m back, hopefully with more content this year. We’re kicking off with the usual team-by-team previews, in the traditional Eastern Conference first, alphabetical order (even though the WNBA essentially destroyed conferences this offseason – more on that later). Enjoy, and as always feel free to comment underneath or contact me at @RichardCohen1

—–

 

PG: Matee Ajavon/Carla Cortijo

SG: Tiffany Hayes/Layshia Clarendon/Meighan Simmons

SF: Angel McCoughtry/Bria Holmes

PF: Sancho Lyttle/Reshanda Gray/Cierra Burdick

C: Elizabeth Williams/Rachel Hollivay


Significant additions
: Williams and Clarendon, to be generous. Cortijo is virtually new after playing two games last year. Holmes was their first-round pick. But nothing much to get excited about.

Significant losses: Shoni Schimmel’s gone, after head coach Michael Cooper finally grew tired of her issues with staying in shape. Damiris Dantas has been suspended for the season, presumably after choosing to stay with the Brazilian national team rather than show up in Atlanta. They also chose not to match the restricted free agent offer sheet Connecticut handed Aneika Henry-Morello.


Overview

The Dream were a mess last year, and there aren’t many signs that they’re likely to drag themselves out of it in 2016. McCoughtry’s a star, Hayes and Lyttle are two very good pieces, and there are some youngsters dotted around that might make progress, but you need to be a distinct optimist to be hopeful about their upcoming season. The revolving door at point guard remains a gaping question mark, with no one quite sure how Cooper’s going to try to fill it. In recent days they waived a couple of drafted options in Niya Johnson and Ariel Massengale, picked up another off waivers in Jordan Jones (before waiving her as well), and traded for a pseudo-point in Layshia Clarendon. All after dumping Schimmel for a second-round pick to New York. Ajavon isn’t a point guard, Cortijo’s a virtual unknown, and if they’ve signed a couple more options by the time you’re reading this it wouldn’t be a surprise. It’s a shambles.

In an Olympic year they’re also likely to lose Lyttle for several games midseason to help Spain qualify, assuming she shows up in the first place (having already lost fellow post Damiris Dantas to Brazil). They sent the 4th overall pick in the draft, who could’ve provided some hope and excitement for the fan-base, to Connecticut for Elizabeth Williams. After giving up on the deteriorating Erika de Souza last season, the Dream needed a new option at center, but Williams looked pretty ordinary in her rookie year with the Sun last season. She’ll probably fill the hole well enough, but dumping the #4 pick for her was a high price to pay.

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The Daily W, 08/27/2014: Delle Donne leads staggering Sky comeback to eliminate the Dream

 

Chicago Sky 81 @ Atlanta Dream 80

 

Lineups: The starters were the same as in Game 2. Celine Dumerc was wearing warmups rather than street clothes this time, but never made it onto the court after the knee injury she picked up in Game 1. So Jasmine Thomas continued to deputise at point guard for Atlanta. Once again, Jessica Breland was out due to her injured shoulder for Chicago, leaving them short on the front line behind Elena Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles.

 

Story of the Game: Atlanta dominated the first half. It looked a lot like Game 2, with the pace and energy of the Dream utterly overwhelming the Sky. It wasn’t all Angel McCoughtry this time, but with Thomas, Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza joining in, everything was working for Atlanta. They grabbed defensive rebounds and streaked immediately to the other end of the floor and directly to the rim. They drilled open shots on the rare occasions they were forced into halfcourt sets. They were dominating the offensive glass, so that when they did miss it typically ended up with a bucket anyway via the second chance. All the energy, all the hustle plays, all the momentum was in Atlanta’s favour. They were up by double-digits at the end of the first quarter, and by as many as 20 in the second period.

 

Offensively, nothing much was working for Chicago. Tamera Young was surprisingly effective making jump shots in the space Atlanta afforded her, but the Sky were never going to win a game behind the scoring of Tamera Young. They weren’t penetrating the Dream defense at all, constantly ending sets with perimeter jump shots. Delle Donne hit a few early in the second quarter, and she and Young combined to hit a couple more late in the period, but it felt like someone was going to have to get ridiculously hot from outside to shoot Chicago back into the game. They couldn’t find Sylvia Fowles inside, and even when Delle Donne posted up much smaller guards after defensive switches, they couldn’t feed her either. And it all ran together. The inability to score or penetrate led to long rebounds, which created momentum and speed for Atlanta’s offense on the break. The Sky trailed by only 13 at halftime thanks to those late jumpers, but it felt like a chasm.

 

There weren’t many signs of hope for Chicago in the third quarter. Atlanta started it with another burst of energy, fastbreaks and offensive boards, just to twist the knife a little further. From there, the Sky did manage to slow the game down, but their offensive opportunities continued to come from the perimeter, and the likes of Epiphanny Prince and Allie Quigley weren’t hitting. Atlanta had been mixing up their defenses on Delle Donne all night – a little Sancho Lyttle, plenty of Angel McCoughtry, some of that 1-2-2 zone we saw debut in Game 2 – to try to keep her off-balance, and she faded into the background in the third. Her help defense had also been a problem for much of the night. With Fowles frequently rotating over to help on penetrators or off screens, Delle Donne was often a step late with the second layer help behind Fowles, which left too much room inside. Atlanta were up by 16 heading into the final period, and there didn’t seem to be much hope for the Sky.

 

In fact, I checked the in-play betting odds between the third and fourth quarters, and Chicago were 22-to-1 to win the game (so bet 10 bucks to win 220, for the non-gamblers out there). Those are long odds in a two-horse race, and it still didn’t seem like enough. Which is all a prelude to saying that we witnessed one of the more remarkable comebacks you’re likely to see in a WNBA game in the fourth quarter.

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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, 08/23/2014: 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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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

 

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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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