The Daily W, 08/12/2014

 

Indiana Fever 90 @ New York Liberty 76

 

Lineups: Same groups we’ve come to expect from these teams.

 

Story of the Game: In the first of three games between these teams in the final eight days of the regular season, it was Indiana who imposed themselves on the game from the start. Tamika Catchings looked more like her old self than we’ve seen in most of their games since the All-Star break, drilling open jumpers when Avery Warley-Talbert gave her too much room and generally attacking much more effectively on offense. The Fever as a team did a nice job of moving the ball and knocking down shots in the first half, sliding into a comfortable lead.

New York’s shooting percentage was high when you checked the box score (and would remain so through the entire game), but it wasn’t nearly enough to stay competitive in this game. Erlana Larkins was doing an impressive job on Tina Charles defensively, forcing misses and then increasingly distant jump shots. Larkins was producing more points with her own post efforts against Charles than the Liberty center was scoring herself. Indiana’s fluid defense, willing to switch and rotate whenever necessary, forced turnovers from the Liberty and helped the Fever lead continue to grow. They were up by as many as 23 in the second quarter, 19 at halftime.

The closest New York came in the second half was nine points with five minutes left in the game, and Catchings immediately answered that threat with a three. Indiana lost a little bit of their pace and rhythm in the second half, but contributions from the likes of Maggie Lucas and Sydney Carter off the bench helped out Catchings and Larkins and kept them in front. New York shot even better in the second half, and still never really came close.

 

Key Players: Catchings has the line that jumps out at you from the box score, finishing 11-19 for 29 points. Warley-Talbert, Charles, Plenette Pierson and Swin Cash all took their turns trying to cool her off, but none of them had much success. This is the Catchings Indiana need if they’re going to make the postseason and then try to make a run. But Larkins was equally important, essentially outplaying Charles in their duel in the paint. She was active and strong, and always looking for the ball inside on offense so that Charles could never rest. Between Lucas, Carter, Natasha Howard and Karima Christmas, it was also one of the solid days for Indiana’s bench.

It’s not often that you’ll shoot 55% from the field and get blown out, but that’s what happened to New York in this one. It was an unfortunate waste of an offensive performance for them, because they produced those numbers even with Charles being kept quiet for much of the game. Instead, Cappie Pondexter led the way, and the supporting players hit their shots – it was just never enough to get them back in the contest. Some of it was just a freak shooting night for the Fever, but the Liberty will have to do a better defensive job in their remaining games against Indiana (and avoid costly turnovers), or they’ll be watching the playoffs from home.

 

Notes of Interest: For now, Indiana are half-a-game up on New York in the standings, and also have a 2-0 advantage in the season series between the teams. The Eastern Conference is too much of a mess to start digging into the scenarios, but suffice it to say that this was a big win for Indiana.

 

—–

 

Washington Mystics 81 @ Connecticut Sun 89 (2OT)

 

Lineups: Connecticut had Chiney Ogwumike back in their lineup after missing two games due to an abscessed tooth. Allison Hightower is still missing due to the knee surgery from well over a month ago that was only supposed to keep her out for a couple of weeks. Washington went with their regular starting five.

 

Story of the Game: There was very little worth reporting from the first half. Ogwumike looked a little rusty early but she was hardly the only Sun player making mistakes. Meanwhile Washington were blowing easy chances, and Kia Vaughn was busy illustrating how much of a fluke her offensive explosion in their previous game had been. Emma Meesseman had a couple of decent finishes inside, and Kara Lawson hit a pair of late pullup threes to help the Mystics take a narrow lead at halftime.

Continue reading

The Daily W, 08/09/2014

 

First the catchup game from Thursday night, then all the action from Friday follows below it.

—–

 

Phoenix Mercury 78 @ San Antonio Stars 73 (OT)

 

Lineups: Danielle Adams moved into the starting lineup for San Antonio over Sophia Young-Malcolm again, in another spin of the revolving door Dan Hughes has created at power forward this season. No changes for Phoenix.

 

Story of the Game: Phoenix started stronger and built a lead largely thanks to San Antonio’s inability to contain Brittney Griner in the paint. An aggressive, driving DeWanna Bonner also helped Phoenix out, and her improvement over the course of the season has helped solidify the Mercury starting lineup across the board. But while Phoenix are deeper than they used to be, there’s still often a noticeable drop-off when their reserves start coming into games. Late in the first quarter and early in the second, opponents often come back at the Mercury after their strong start. With Danielle Robinson attacking the rim, Kayla McBride and Shameka Christon hitting a couple of threes, and Candice Dupree missing a shocking number of shots she’d normally make, the Stars were back in this game by halftime after trailing by double-digits early on.

San Antonio made a big push late in the third quarter, keyed by the energy of Young-Malcolm and the shooting of Jia Perkins – two players giving the Stars a boost from the bench that Phoenix’s reserves couldn’t match. San Antonio’s lead stretched as high as six points in the fourth quarter, but the Mercury answered behind Dupree and Penny Taylor. Griner had faded out of the game with the Stars sending double-teams at her from a variety of angles, and Diana Taurasi was having one of her quietest performances of the year, but Phoenix are so talented that they still had other options to pick up the slack. Dupree’s mid-range jumper was falling again, while Taylor continues to be the only one of Phoenix’s perimeter players with the post game to exploit the size advantage she usually has over her defender.

The Mercury were up three with 14 seconds left in regulation. Adams forced up an effort from deep under heavy pressure when she could’ve reversed the ball to an open Becky Hammon, and missed badly, but McBride won the fight for the rebound. She kicked the ball back to Perkins, who drilled the three to tie the game against a scrambling defense. Phoenix had 1.7 seconds to win it before overtime, and ran essentially the same play that beat Los Angeles in their playoff series last year, but this time Griner missed the short turnaround on the inbounds play.

Both sides missed a lot of shots in overtime, with Griner sitting out much of it after picking up her fifth foul. Perkins again hit a jumper to tie the scores with a minute remaining, before a lovely Mercury possession took back the lead. They went inside to Griner, the double-team started to come, she moved the ball back out, they swung it around to Dupree in the corner, who had an open lane to drive for a layup. Pretty, unselfish basketball, and exactly how you’re supposed to score when teams send extra defenders to cover your dangerous post threat. Becky Hammon tried to force a pass on the ensuing San Antonio possession, Taylor picked it off, and Taurasi scored her only basket of the night on the fastbreak that followed. That just about iced the game, although Phoenix still got the benefit of a generous call in the final seconds that helped finish San Antonio for good.

 

Key Players: It was Taylor and Dupree who did most of the offensive work for Phoenix in the second half, after Griner and Bonner were the central figures in the first. The hedging defense from San Antonio on ball screens helped turn Taurasi into a passer rather than a scorer, but she was still desperately quiet by her standards. Maybe she was saving herself for the big game against Minnesota tonight, or maybe the effort to keep her emotions in check and avoid her seventh technical of the season subdued her a little. Regardless, the Mercury had enough elsewhere to pull off the win.

Perkins was the highlight for San Antonio, in a disappointing loss. They’ve lost so many games lately that it’s becoming worrying, but at least this one was tight against the team with the best record in the league. Robinson was good when she could attack the basket, but Taurasi went further and further under every screen as the game wore on, giving Robinson the mid-range jumper while protecting against the drive. Robinson wasn’t hitting that 15-footer, so her offense stalled.

 

Notes of Interest: Griner’s five blocks in this game took her past Margo Dydek’s single-season WNBA record of 114. Dydek set that mark when the WNBA only played a 30-game schedule, so it was nice that Griner passed her in just 29, avoiding any debate about ‘asterisks’ or dual records. To beat the per game average Dydek had that year, Griner would need to hit 130 by the end of the regular season.

 

—–

 

Washington Mystics 74 @ Indiana Fever 61

 

Lineups: As expected for both teams.

 

Story of the Game: There wasn’t much between the teams for most of the first half. Washington looked the more fluent side, with their confidence high after destroying New York on Tuesday night, but it took a while for that to translate into real production on the scoreboard. Indiana’s offense was struggling all over the floor. Erlana Larkins was finding good position deep in the paint, but couldn’t finish when the ball was entered to her. Tamika Catchings did very little to attack her matchup with Emma Meesseman, who Catchings should’ve been able to go by off the dribble. Lynetta Kizer hit a couple of shots off the bench for the Fever, but points were generally hard to come by. Eventually Washington took advantage, with Ivory Latta keying a run late in the first half. She started hitting from outside, then attacking the rim, and Bria Hartley joined in. The Mystics were up by eight at halftime as a result.

Continue reading

The Daily W, 08/07/2014

 

New York Liberty 46 @ Washington Mystics 79

 

Lineups: Both teams opened with their usual starters, and both actually had 12 players fit and ready to play. That’s been incredibly rare this season.

 

Story of the Game: After some decent performances of late, and a few victories, New York came into this game with some optimism. A win would’ve seen them leapfrog Washington in the Eastern Conference standings, and potentially finish the night as high as second in the East. It didn’t take long for those hopes to be emphatically dashed.

As usual, the Liberty tried to run through Tina Charles inside, but Washington were smart and effective in defending her. Rather than send double-teams at her constantly, opening up spaces elsewhere on the floor, they sagged inside and always had extra players waiting in the paint if she attacked initial defenders like Kia Vaughn and Stefanie Dolson. So she had a little success, but nowhere near the dominance we’ve seen in some other recent Liberty games. Meanwhile, whenever the ball rotated away from Charles or someone else in a Liberty jersey tried to get something done, everything was going wrong. No one could hit a shot, then turnovers started to pile up, and the game slipped further and further away from New York as the first half progressed.

It was actually Washington who were the far more effective and efficient offensive team, primarily running through their own posts. The tandem of Vaughn and Emma Meesseman worked nicely early on, with Vaughn hitting her mid-range shot and Meesseman showing off some nifty passing. Then Dolson and Tianna Hawkins replaced them and kept the momentum going. After some recent positive contributions from their reserves, New York got absolutely nothing from their bench in this one, and were lucky to trail by just 15 at halftime. It could easily have been worse.

Then in the third quarter it did get worse, with whatever Bill Laimbeer said at halftime failing to inspire his troops into any increase in energy, effort or performance. The turnovers continued for the Liberty, everyone was hitting shots for Washington – led by Ivory Latta, who’s played much better since being handed a then-undeserved All-Star spot – and the gap hit 29. The fourth quarter was merely extended garbage time, and offered the opportunity for Tayler Hill to make her season debut for the Mystics. She gave birth barely six weeks earlier, so it’s an impressively quick return, although she’s unlikely to play in any meaningful moments until next season.

 

Key Players: Washington had nice balance across most of their roster, with the bigs doing a lot of the early work but the guards making sure they kept rolling later on. It was a team performance, and the team utterly dominated. On the other side, it’s impossible to pick anyone out for New York because the entire group was so poor. In a stretch run of vital games in their effort to make the playoffs, it was a shockingly half-hearted and aimless performance from the Liberty.

 

Notes of Interest: New York shot 29% from the field and trailed by as many as 35. It was really bad.

 

—–

 

Minnesota Lynx 66 @ Indiana Fever 64

 

Lineups: It was the regular group for the Lynx, with 12th woman Nadirah McKenith left behind in Minnesota again. After shaking up their starting lineup to deal with Phoenix’s size in their previous game, Indiana switched back to their standard five for this one. Krystal Thomas went from a starter to being glued to the end of the bench once again.

 

Story of the Game: The opening stages belonged to Indiana. They did a nice job of attacking the Minnesota defense, penetrating into the lane and only taking outside shots if they’d collapsed the defense beforehand and rotated the ball back out. Their strong, physical defense limited Minnesota as well, preventing the Lynx from getting inside. With their jumpers not falling either, Minnesota trailed by as many as 15 early in the second quarter.

But inevitably, the Lynx started to ease their way back into the game. Some transition buckets and quick offense helped them get going, Indiana cooled off a little, and scoreline started to creep closer. Maya Moore didn’t hit her first shot until midway through the second period, but she started to attack more off the dribble in response to her jump shot being a little off. Combined with some production from Tan White against her old team, the Lynx were right back in the game by halftime.

Continue reading

The Daily W, 08/05/2014

 

New York Liberty 83 @ Atlanta Dream 76

 

Lineups: Same as usual for New York, and Atlanta continued with Celine Dumerc at point guard for the third game in a row. The important news for them was that head coach Michael Cooper was back on the sidelines after recent surgery for tongue cancer.

 

Story of the Game: The first half was a strange combination of dominance and calamity for New York. Tina Charles did most of the dominating, hitting smoothly with her mid-range jumper and attacking both Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle inside as well. Alex Montgomery also hit several shots from outside, providing some punishment when Atlanta tried to drop extra defenders down to surround Charles. But the Liberty also gave up 14 turnovers in the opening 20 minutes, with three dreadful passes from Cappie Pondexter opening the floodgates early on and the waves just continuing from there. Atlanta’s aggressive, overplaying defense – led by Angel McCoughtry and Sancho Lyttle – always makes them a threat to grab steals like that. But these Liberty players, especially Pondexter, have played against McCoughtry and Lyttle umpteen times and know the dangers. There was some desperately sloppy passing from New York in the first half.

But while the steals and breakaways made it feel like Atlanta were in charge, they never led by more than six points and were only up by a point at halftime. The Liberty stifled their halfcourt offense entirely, with McCoughtry forcing up some awful shots and the other perimeter players cold as well. Lyttle was decent from mid-range, but when they weren’t running off steals the Dream produced minimal offense.

After Bill Laimbeer probably spent the entire halftime break screaming at his players, they did a much better job taking care of the ball in the second half. And while Montgomery disappeared, Anna Cruz stepped up as Charles’s sidekick and hit shots in the space that opened up away from the Liberty center. With Pondexter finally hitting a shot or two, and Atlanta’s offense drying up without the transition chances off steals, New York began to pull away in the third quarter.

The Dream could never quite climb back into the game in the fourth. They tried some bizarre lineups in the effort, including benching Tiffany Hayes in favour of Matee Ajavon for the entire period and trying little-used backup Nadia Colhado in the post, but it smacked of desperation. McCoughtry tried to gun them back into it, and hit a few threes to keep their faint hopes alive for a while, but New York made enough plays to hold on for the win.

 

Key Players: Charles, Charles, Charles. While Atlanta kept her a little quieter in the second half, even that just served to open things up for her teammates, who actually took advantage for once. Montgomery, Cruz and Pondexter provided enough support in the spaces that opened up, and the team rebounding against an Atlanta squad that’s very dangerous on the glass was big as well. New York had just three turnovers in the second half after the 14 in the first.

McCoughtry and Lyttle’s numbers ended up looking pretty good, but once the breakaways disappeared the Dream didn’t have a lot left to turn to. Hayes never go going, de Souza was rarely involved, and Charles was in the kind of mood where their defense couldn’t stop her whichever players they tried against her. This is the kind of game that illustrates how much of a crapshoot the Eastern Conference playoffs could be, yet again. Atlanta looked like the heavy favourites earlier in the season, but they’ve come back to the pack a little and anyone can beat anyone at this point. New York are still fighting to get in, but games like this will give them hope that if they can sneak into the postseason, anything could happen.

 

Notes of Interest: A sequence right at the end of the game, when the contest was essentially over, summed up the difference between the teams on the night. Charde Houston penetrated for New York, kicked out to an open Pondexter, and she knocked down the jumper. Atlanta went to the other end, and McCoughtry stepped directly into a three that hit nothing but backboard. The Liberty moved the ball, and hit shots in open space; the ball stuck too much for the Dream, and as a result they tossed up a lot of bricks.

 

—–

 

Connecticut Sun 69 @ Los Angeles Sparks 70

 

Lineups: The good news for Los Angeles was that Candace Parker was fit to play after her knee strain, and took her regular spot in the starting lineup back from Armintie Herrington. Connecticut put out the same group as usual.

 

Story of the Game: The first half is best left forgotten, preferably with the video buried in a deep, dark hole. Lots of turnovers – with the resulting breaks the primary way either team managed to score any points – and the 28-27 scoreline at halftime made the game sound about as exciting as it deserved.

The second half was a lot more fun. Chiney Ogwumike was outstanding for Connecticut, scoring around, over and through any defender LA threw at her (including her sister). The second-layer help defense from LA was atrocious, although Connecticut did come up with a couple of decent sets to create space for her. The Sun don’t run the most complex offense in the world by any means, but the ‘4-out, 1-in’ plays worked well, as did the pick-and-rolls, and even some dives from the corner. She was all over the Sparks.

Continue reading

The Daily W, 08/01/2014

 

Phoenix Mercury 67 @ Minnesota Lynx 75

 

Lineups: While both teams had their first-choice starters in place for this much-anticipated clash, it turned out that not everyone was available. Erin Phillips was missing for the Mercury due to a sprained left ankle, one of very few games that a rotation player has missed for Phoenix this year due to injury.

 

Story of the Game: As it turned out, the top two offenses in the WNBA didn’t produce anything remotely resembling a shootout. In fact, we saw a whole stream of misses from every conceivable angle over the course of the game. Lots of missed jumpers, many missed layups, pretty poor three-point shooting, and even mediocre production from the free-throw line. The game everyone had been anticipating for quite a while turned out to be a physical battle featuring more bricks and bruises than smooth offensive execution.

Which isn’t to say that it was a bad game. The Mercury opened up trying to go inside to Brittney Griner repeatedly, and had some success early on. Minnesota were firing a lot of jumpers, and not hitting many. Phoenix’s perimeter defense has gotten better since they’ve realised that Griner’s protecting behind them and they can adjust accordingly. It allows them to go over every screen and try to stay on the hip of the shooter, because they’re not nearly as afraid of that opponent turning the corner and driving for a layup. That leads to more closely contested jumpers, and more misses – even when Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus are the ones taking the shots.

The Lynx started building a lead late in the first quarter thanks to an old Mercury trick – force steals or grab long rebounds, and run. Phoenix don’t score quite as many transition points as they used to, and Minnesota might be the better fastbreak team of the two at this point. They pushed, got some layups while Phoenix were stalling at the other end, and led by 11 at the end of the first period. Tan White hitting a couple of threes helped as well.

But Phoenix wiped out most of the gap in the second quarter. They weren’t running their offense with their usual fluency, the ball sticking in the face of physical and smart Lynx defense. But Phoenix earned a few free throws by driving into contact, Griner, Candice Dupree and Penny Taylor hit a couple of shots apiece, and back they came. The Mercury also went to their 2-3 zone, and while Minnesota created some good looks against it, they didn’t knock many down. Phoenix were within three at the interval.

The scrappy, bitty game continued in the third, with neither offense showing much fluidity. Diana Taurasi was getting frustrated by the physical attention of Minnesota’s defenders, and missing more shots than anyone else in her attempts to respond. Sometimes, pissing her off works out well for a defense. But Minnesota’s offense was struggling as well, so they couldn’t pull away. The Lynx were achieving one of the key priorities of head coach Cheryl Reeve – take care of the ball to prevent Phoenix getting into an offensive flow off turnovers or mistakes – but they weren’t hitting shots. It was a struggle to score points for both teams almost all night long.

But finally, in the fourth quarter, some daylight. It became the ‘Maya and Mone Show’ for Minnesota, as their star wings suddenly found some rhythm and started knocking down shots. Moore hit a pair of threes, both on sideline plays where she inbounded the ball and got it straight back for clean looks. They snuck in for the occasional layup, but essentially two of the best jumpshooters in the women’s game finally started hitting jump shots, and that turned the contest. They were 8-13 combined in the fourth quarter, for 22 points, and with the vociferous home crowd behind them they took control of the game.

The Mercury hung around, with a Taurasi jumper and then a pair of Griner free throws (on a desperately soft call) bringing them within four points in the final minutes. But both times the Lynx answered with jumpers to hold them at bay. When Taurasi missed a three on the Mercury’s next possession with under a minute to play, their win streak was over at 16.

 

Key Players: On a night where they shot a combined 15-42 from the field, it was still Moore and Augustus who eventually played the central roles in finishing the game off for Minnesota. But it was the team defense that did the job for most of the night while they struggled to hit shots. The Lynx dealt better with the level of contact that the officials allowed throughout the game, and it was Phoenix who lost their composure a little in the second half. This game doesn’t win the Lynx anything in terms of the overall season, but it keeps them alive for the top seed in the West, and it’s a nice little reminder to the Mercury that the road to a WNBA championship in 2014 is still likely to go through Minnesota.

Continue reading

The Daily W, 07/31/2014

 

Connecticut Sun 80 @ Atlanta Dream 89

 

Lineups: Still searching for their first win since head coach Michael Cooper left the team to deal with tongue cancer, stand-in Karleen Thompson pulled the trigger on the switch at point guard for Atlanta, promoting Celine Dumerc into the starting lineup ahead of Jasmine Thomas. They tried it earlier in the season, but the experiment only lasted one game (for no obvious reason). Connecticut had sometime-starter Kelsey Griffin available again, but she came off the bench with Kelsey Bone continuing to start at center. Allison Hightower and Danielle McCray were still injured; Kayla Pedersen and Ebony Hoffman both didn’t play (but no injuries were reported for either).

 

Story of the Game: Atlanta led for most of the first half, but rarely by much. Angel McCoughtry was slashing into the heart of Connecticut’s defense repeatedly, creating high-percentage chances for herself. While it was still a little focussed on her own offense – something I’ve criticised her for in recent games – it was a hell of a lot better than when she stands around the perimeter and jacks up jump shots. She was very effective, and the Dream also got out in transition and found Erika de Souza rolling to the basket more than they had been in recent games. Dumerc gave them more of a creative force on the ball, and they generally looked a bit more like the athletic and aggressive Atlanta Dream we’ve known in the past.

But Connecticut kept up with them, and were surprisingly successful themselves in getting into the paint and scoring inside. Bone, Chiney Ogwumike and Alyssa Thomas were all finding their way to the rim against Atlanta’s interior defense, which is typically very solid. It kept the game competitive.

The Sun didn’t get inside as much in the second half, but the combination of Katie Douglas and lots of help defenders did manage to cool off McCoughtry. Atlanta responded by going to the opposite wing, and letting Tiffany Hayes slash to the hoop instead. Connecticut settled for jumpers a little too much in the second half, partly because Atlanta knew the Sun’s success was coming in the paint so their defense collapsed further and further inside. The Dream allowed a 10-point lead to dwindle to just two in the fourth quarter – perhaps a touch nervous after failing to win any of their last four games – but a timeout, plus the return of Dumerc and Hayes from some rest, and Atlanta were quickly back in charge. Douglas hit a couple of threes to potentially make things interesting, but a dumb foul by Alex Bentley on a Hayes three-point attempt ended the game as a contest with a minute remaining.

 

Key Players: The combination of McCoughtry and Hayes on the wings for Atlanta – finishing the game a combined 18-29 from the field for 48 points – drove the scoring for the Dream, but there was better pace and energy all around. Erika finished with 17 points and was an important presence inside, while Dumerc was a solid controlling hand. Even Jasmine Thomas made a contribution, not pouting about being benched and bringing some energy when she came into the game. Five of Atlanta’s next six games are on the road, so they’ll need to keep working hard to maintain this level on their travels, but this was a good first step in righting the ship.

Alyssa Thomas started the game well, and the Bone/Ogwumike tandem gave the Sun a base inside, but it was another game where the Sun’s inability to hit shots from the perimeter let them down. Sometimes the likes of Douglas, Bentley and Renee Montgomery are hot, but often they’re not, and when that’s the case this team has trouble winning games.

 

Notes of Interest: There were a ridiculous number of video reviews in this game. The NBA and WNBA have to do something about the amount of time we’re all left sitting around twiddling our thumbs waiting for decisions to be made – often on plays that were pretty damn obvious to begin with. It’s excruciating.

 

—–

 

Washington Mystics 76 @ New York Liberty 80 (OT)

 

Lineups: Both teams started the same fives we’ve come to expect in recent weeks. The only real note worth making from the pre-game was that Washington were in their usual road red, with New York wearing pink for Breast Health Awareness week. It’s a worthy cause, but red versus pink in a sporting event is just asinine. They’re two shades of the same damn colour.

 

Story of the Game: The first half was controlled by New York, primarily by Tina Charles. She was constantly at the heart of their offense, with Washington sagging their defense inside but trying not to actively double-team when they could avoid it. She bullied Kia Vaughn and the other Washington posts, scoring at the rim and knocking down mid-rangers as well, while playing her part in the Liberty’s domination on the offensive glass. Even beyond Charles, New York comprehensively won the energy battle in the first half, with players like Avery Warley-Talbert, Anna Cruz and Sugar Rodgers flying around the floor to make all the little hustle plays. Alex Montgomery rounded off the strong half for New York by throwing in a heave from 50 feet at the halftime buzzer to send the Liberty in ahead by 15.

Continue reading

The Daily W, 07/28/2014

 

Minnesota Lynx 76 @ Connecticut Sun 65

 

Lineups: Minnesota once again had everyone available, and could start the same core unit that led them to a title last year. Cheryl Reeve must be loving that after piecing her rotation together all season through various different injuries. Connecticut are still dealing with a few, with Kelsey Griffin (ankle), Allison Hightower (knee) and Danielle McCray (thumb) all still out. The starting five is the same group that they’ve used for the majority of the season, but their depth has taken a hit.

 

Story of the Game: This was a strange game, in that Minnesota never entirely turned it into a blowout on the scoreboard – but virtually from beginning to end it felt like they were in complete control. These are just two teams playing on very different levels, and in very different stages in their development, and you could feel that throughout.

It wasn’t until late in the first quarter that Minnesota’s impressive ball movement and teamwork started to translate into an overall advantage in the scoreline, with Alex Bentley managing to hit a couple of jumpers early on the keep Connecticut involved. But as the half wore on, Connecticut’s miserable shooting left their offense in tatters. Minnesota’s defense was structured to sag inside and protect against penetration or interior attacks, and yet the Sun were still incapable of hitting anything over the top of a defense that should’ve given them room to fire. With their roster intact again, Minnesota will be hoping to return to their previous defensive levels – which has always involved dropping inside but recovering fairly well to challenge shooters – but the Sun just couldn’t hit anything. Some decent offensive rebounding at least kept them within theoretical striking range.

But while Connecticut shot a little better in the second half, and cut a 17-point deficit down to eight midway through the fourth quarter when Bentley and Renee Montgomery finally connected a few times from outside, the Lynx were never in any real danger. The game wasn’t quite the varsity against the JV team, but it wasn’t far off.

 

Key Players: The Lynx had great balance, never needing to rely on anyone in particular to carry them. As in several previous visits, Maya Moore didn’t shoot particularly well back in Connecticut, but she did end up leading the scoring for Minnesota. It was a nice relaxing tune-up for Thursday’s big game against Phoenix, with no one other than Moore playing more than 29 minutes.

Center Kelsey Bone was Connecticut’s leading scorer, although she continues to miss a few too many straightforward finishes around the basket. For someone who doesn’t shoot much from beyond five feet, you’d really like to see a higher percentage from the field than 43%. Chiney Ogwumike gave them some energy in the second half as well, but the perimeter players were a combined 12-45. That’s not going to beat anyone, least of all Minnesota.

 

—–

 

Atlanta Dream 67 @ Washington Mystics 77

 

Lineups: Both teams started the same groups we’ve become accustomed to. The only significant absence for Atlanta lately has been head coach Michael Cooper, away from the team recuperating from surgery for tongue cancer last week. They haven’t won a game since he left.

 

Story of the Game: Washington led for most of the first half, but without ever pulling away too far. Their ball movement and cutting into space has been better lately, but a lot of their improvement has simply come down to making some damn shots. Players like Ivory Latta, Kara Lawson and Monique Currie were shooting so poorly earlier in the season, but they’ve picked it up and that’s played a key role in their recent run of positive results.

With center Erika de Souza being significantly less productive in recent weeks than she was earlier in the season, frontcourt partner Sancho Lyttle has come to the fore more as a scorer, and that was the case again in the first half. Ever since someone somewhere convinced her to stop firing threes and take a big pace in to about 18 feet, Lyttle has become an extremely accurate jumpshooter from that mid-range area. It took the Dream a while to get into the game, but by halftime they were only trailing by a point.

Continue reading

The Daily W, 07/26/2014

 

Tulsa Shock 77 @ Washington Mystics 82

 

Lineups: Same five starters as usual for both teams. Riquna Williams was available for the first time in over a month for Tulsa, but played so little and made so little impact in her one brief appearance that I didn’t even notice she’d played until checking the box score.

 

Story of the Game: I’ve repeated this to the point of admitted tedium, but Tulsa’s transition defense is horrendously bad. Mike Thibault was clearly well aware of this, and had his team primed to push the ball at every opportunity to exploit the chances on offer against the Shock. That resulted in a host of easy baskets, and combined with some decent outside shooting from Ivory Latta and Kara Lawson led to a double-digit advantage for Washington in the first half. Over and over again, Tulsa recover incredibly poorly from their own misses, and give up cheap points the other way. It’s been one of the central elements in digging all those holes they’ve had to try to climb out of many, many times this season.

Offensively, the Shock also looked short of ideas in the first half. Other than Skylar Diggins and occasionally Odyssey Sims creating off the dribble for themselves, or an occasional offensive rebound for Courtney Paris, they didn’t seem to know how else to create any decent offense against the Mystics. Diggins had several impressive finishes at the rim, but it wasn’t enough to keep pace with Washington, and Tulsa trailed by 12 at halftime.

Washington’s offense struggled badly for much of the second half, which eventually allowed Tulsa to inch back into the game. The Mystics had found some flow for their scoring in the first half thanks to their transition game, aided by Tulsa turnovers, and when those dried up in the second half so did their production. The comeback didn’t really kick into gear until the fourth quarter, when a bit of variation from Tulsa finally gave them some decent offense. They were finally using Glory Johnson and Paris in the paint, attacking Washington’s interior and not allowing the Mystics to key on just one area defensively. It took them long enough. The slew of offensive boards keeping Shock possessions alive helped them out as well.

Amazingly, Washington didn’t manage to score a single field goal in the fourth quarter until there were only 45 seconds left in the game – and yet still clung on to the lead. Their minimal scoring all came from the free throw line, and kept Washington just barely afloat. It was Lawson who broke the field goal drought in the final minute, and then Currie who made a crucial run of free throws to close the game out.

 

Key Players: Latta and Currie eventually led the scoring for Washington, although Latta did almost all her work early on and all 16 of Currie’s points came at the charity stripe. When their team defense was aggressive and they were in constant attack mode in the first half, they exploited all of Tulsa’s holes and picked up points across the board. When they slowed down in the second half, it became an attritional exercise in clinging on to their lead. But it’s their fifth win in six games, and in the tightly compacted Eastern Conference a run like that can go a long way towards cementing a playoff spot – however scrappy the performances might be.

Yet again, a poor start for Tulsa dug too big of a hole for one of their typical comebacks to drag them out of. It’s ridiculous how often they’ve done that this season. How many times can you pull out the “such a young team” excuse, rather than just admitting to a constant and repeating problem that needs to be dealt with, whether veteran or rookie? If they show up mentally focussed from the start of games, and actually work to defend in transition and rotate properly, there are straightforward improvements that can be made by this team. But it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen this season.

 

—–

 

Chicago Sky 79 @ Atlanta Dream 75

 

Lineups: No changes from recent games for either team. Chicago are still hoping that Elena Delle Donne may rejoin the team at the end of their current road trip, starting with their game against New York on Thursday night, but there’s been no confirmation just yet.

 

Story of the Game: The game was at McCamish Pavillion again, as Atlanta completed their brief run at a temporary home before returning to Philips Arena. Based on how they played in the opening stages, they’ll be happy to escape the memories of this performance. The Dream were awful in the first half, looking ponderous and sloppy at both ends of the floor. Their string of cheap, unnecessary turnovers gave away possession repeatedly, and slow, lazy defensive rotations gave up easy, open looks to the Sky.

Continue reading

The Daily W, 23/07/2014

 

Atlanta Dream 108 @ Minnesota Lynx 112 (2OT)

 

Lineups: Atlanta started the post-All-Star part of their schedule with the same starting five that helped them to easily the best record in the East so far this season. They had a difference on the sidelines, where Karleen Thompson was in charge for the first time during Michael Cooper’s absence for treatment for tongue cancer. Minnesota welcomed back power forward Rebekkah Brunson for the first time this year after recovering from offseason knee surgery. She went straight into the starting lineup in place of Damiris Dantas. Seimone Augustus was still out with left knee bursitis, but may well return for Friday’s game against San Antonio.

 

Story of the Game: The rematch of last year’s WNBA Finals produced a barn-burner to get the season’s ‘second half’ underway (unfortunately while a far less entertaining game was playing out on ESPN2 at the same time). Brunson’s impact was immediately obvious for the Lynx, with their rebounding improving just by virtue of having her on the floor. From the opening moments she was grabbing balls off the glass with authority, fitting in like she’d never been gone.

But the star was Maya Moore, a trend that would persist for much of the night. The Lynx ran pin-down screens, and staggered screens, and back-screens, and generally just set picks all over the floor all night long, for Moore to curl up and around and fire up her ridiculously smooth jumper and hit repeatedly. This wasn’t a night where we saw much of her on drives, or attempted post-ups. It was old-school Lynx, with perimeter shots from one of the best shooters the women’s game has ever seen their first option.

But in another element that we’d see recur throughout the game, Atlanta always found ways to respond. They were hyper-aggressive in attacking with pace in transition, picking up far more points just moments after Minnesota baskets than Cheryl Reeve could’ve possibly been happy with. Angel McCoughtry was attacking off the dribble and firing away at every chance she got, while Shoni Schimmel gave the Dream a three-point threat and was happy to rain them down after her success at the All-Star Game over the weekend. Minnesota were collapsing their defense inside at every opportunity, looking to protect the rim, preventing layups and offensive rebounds as their first priority on defense. But Sancho Lyttle was doing some Brunson-y things for the Dream, with some second-chance points and mid-range jumpers, and Atlanta were still within four at halftime. Moore already had 23.

The Lynx appeared to take over the game late in the third quarter, inevitably with Moore leading the way again. Lindsay Whalen was an excellent sidekick, and happy to keep feeding the ball Maya’s way when not driving for her own occasional scores, but it was another run of jumpers from Moore that gave Minnesota a nine-point lead at the end of the third. When McCoughtry picked up her fifth foul in the opening moments of the fourth on a Moore cut, and the Lynx extended their lead to 14 in the minutes that followed, Minnesota seemed relatively comfortable.

Only for the Dream to come again. Lyttle was huge for Atlanta down the stretch, in a role that made it surprising she hadn’t been more successful earlier in the game. Minnesota’s concentration on collapsing inside had nullified center Erika de Souza all night, but Lyttle loves to pop into that mid-range zone 15-18 feet from the basket, which is often left open when everyone revolves around and sags into the paint. So Lyttle hit a bunch of jumpers from that area, Minnesota missed a few shots while McCoughtry chased Moore and Atlanta finally forced someone else to try to beat them, and the lead quickly dwindled. The Dream tied it with a Tiffany Hayes free throw with under two minutes to play, and should’ve taken the lead – but Hayes and Lyttle missed three straight efforts at the line.

Janel McCarville gave the Lynx the lead again briefly on a nice bank shot, before Hayes charged to the other end and contrived a finish in traffic to tie it again. After McCoughtry and Monica Wright exchanged misses, the Lynx had 27 seconds to win it. The ball inevitably went to Moore, but Atlanta knew just as well as everyone else in the building that the Lynx wanted her taking the shot. She tried to dribble through a triple-team, lost the ball, and Schimmel took off upcourt the other way. She put up a little hook that was just off, de Souza couldn’t finish the putback, and the buzzer sent us to overtime.

Continue reading

The Daily W, 07/21/2014

 

While the All-Star festivities were taking place in Phoenix over the weekend, the Los Angeles Sparks were making moves that might affect actual meaningful games in the WNBA. They relieved head coach Carol Ross of her duties on Sunday night, replacing her with long-time Sparks general manager Penny Toler until the end of the season.

As has been mentioned here several times this season, Ross’s job was inevitably going to come under threat as a team that was supposed to contend for a championship sat under .500 and barely clinging to a playoff spot. The Sparks have been a disjointed team all season, inconsistent at both ends of the floor, and the head coach is invariably the person who has to pay. Ross floated between different lineups and systems this year, searching for something that would click and have the Sparks playing closer to their potential, but never managed to find it. Injuries and absences didn’t help, primarily Candice Wiggins (knee) and Kristi Toliver (missing several games due to joining the Slovak national team), the two guards on the roster with remotely consistent three-point range. But either the team had tuned her out, or Ross had run out of ideas – either way, it’s a little surprising that the decision took this long.

Toler taking over is a shocking move. She has absolutely no coaching experience, having gone directly from playing the game to the LA front office. Assistant coach Gail Goestenkors resigned in apparent solidarity with Ross, but Gary Kloppenburg is sticking around to help out while Steve Smith returns after previous stints as an assistant with the Sparks several years ago (not the NBA player with the Hawks and several other teams, by the way – different Steve Smith). Without being inside the franchise, it’s hard to know what the process was here. Maybe Goestenkors and/or Kloppenburg were offered the top chair, and didn’t want to touch it with the state the team are currently in. Maybe the relatively new Sparks owners told Toler to go down to the bench and sort out her own mess, refusing to pay a second head coach on top of whatever Ross is still getting. Maybe Toler’s just a complete egomaniac who feels like the roster she assembled should’ve been playing much better, so she’s pushed Ross out of the way in anticipation of being able to do better herself. Regardless of the process, putting the team in the hands of a complete coaching novice – assisted by one of the people who helped create the current situation and guy even Sparks lifers would struggle to remember – seems a hell of a hail mary. When Phoenix dumped Corey Gaines in midseason last year, and didn’t want to hand the reins over to an existing assistant, they at least went out and found an experienced coach to take over for the rest of the year. They didn’t just send someone down from the office, hand her a whistle, and tell her to get on with it.

Continue reading