The Daily W, 08/31/2014: Backcourt and defense carries Fever to hard-fought Game 1 win over Sky

 

Chicago Sky 70 @ Indiana Fever 77

 

Lineups: Both teams went with the same starters they used in the first round. On the bench, there was good news for Chicago with Jessica Breland dressed and ready to play a few minutes, albeit with heavy strapping surrounding her recently-injured right shoulder.

 

Story of the Game: It was clear from the opening minutes that I’d only been half-right in my preview yesterday when it came to the defensive matchups for Game 1. Chicago were keeping Elena Delle Donne away from Tamika Catchings as expected, with Tamera Young covering the Fever star. But rather than leaving the likes of Marissa Coleman and Karima Christmas to guard Delle Donne, Catchings took on that responsibility herself. As usual, Indiana were perfectly willing to switch on a lot of ball-screens, but their veteran leader – who’s built her career on defense and effort above all else – was the primary option to cover the Sky’s most dangerous weapon.

 

Indiana were the better team for most of the opening quarter, but without managing to pull away too far on the scoreboard. Point guard Briann January was aggressive offensively, hitting from outside and getting to the rim once or twice – although she let Courtney Vandersloot go by her a little too easily on the other end. The Fever were also running a lot of four-out, one-in plays, pulling the size of Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles out to the perimeter while posting up wings like Coleman and Shavonte Zellous, or Karima Christmas once she came off the bench. The Fever like to use Zellous in particular for those sets, because she’s usually got a size advantage on opposing shooting guards. Epiphanny Prince and Allie Quigley both give up several inches to her in this series.

 

Chicago stayed in it thanks to strong play from Fowles in the paint, running the floor hard and getting deep early position on Erlana Larkins. The Sky were also picking up offensive rebounds, partly because of the way Indiana’s defensive scheme works. Their bigs show so hard on screens to challenge the ballhandler that the Chicago posts were rolling into plenty of space behind them, and if the shot went up over the top, it was usually the Sky players who had interior position for the board. Also, with Delle Donne largely playing around the perimeter, Catchings was dragged outside leaving Larkins as the only Fever rebounder near the rim. Indiana led by just three after the opening quarter.

 

Bench-heavy lineups closed out the first quarter and opened the second for both teams, and scored reasonably well – although much of that was due to the respective defense of those reserves. Once most of the starters were back out, it was Indiana who closed the half strongly and established a lead going into the break. Larkins was in foul trouble thanks to her battle with Fowles and some silly swipes, leaving Krystal Thomas to play more minutes than anticipated. But she survived perfectly well – she’s done a solid job when called upon to guard the dominant centers around the league this season, while sitting on the sidelines for most other games – and Indiana did their damage from outside. Back-to-back threes from January and Zellous were key, with extra space offered up due to Vandersloot limping around the floor after being crushed by a screen her teammates failed to warn her about. Indiana had played with more pace throughout the first half, and it led to better rebounding in the second quarter and their own run of offensive boards. They led by nine at the break.

 

Both Catchings and Delle Donne were limited offensively in the first half. Delle Donne had a couple of early buckets and a couple right at the end, but wasn’t nearly as involved in the offense as Chicago would’ve liked. Catchings was having trouble converting anything with Young all over her. The Fever tried to post up Catchings on their opening possession of the second half – showing obvious intent to get her the ball inside where she could use her strength – but the entry pass was never on. The intent was there, but Young was doing her job.

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WNBA 2014 Playoff Previews – Eastern Conference Finals: Indiana Fever vs. Chicago Sky

 

Indiana Fever (#2 seed, 16-18) vs. Chicago Sky (#4 seed, 15-19)

 

Indiana

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 97.64, 5th in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 98.76, 7th 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: Fever won 3-2

05/16 @Chi: Sky won 74-71

06/20 @Chi: Fever won 83-75

07/17 @Ind: Fever won 82-64

07/22 @Chi: Sky won 82-64

08/16 @Ind: Fever won 71-67

 

—–

 

While the Western Conference Finals matchup has looked inevitable for quite some time, the East has been an entirely different story. A whole morass of teams have been playing at similar levels all season, Atlanta deteriorated back to the pack, and ultimately two sub-.500 teams have arrived in the Eastern Finals. But none of that matters now. The Indiana Fever have been here many times before, and know exactly what it takes to battle it out in the latter stages of the playoffs. The Chicago Sky just completed their first ever playoff series win, with a morale-boosting and shocking comeback to finish off the victory. There’s a little history between these two as well, after Chicago’s strong regular season last year was brought to a crashing halt in the first round of the playoffs when the experienced Fever stomped all over them in a two-game sweep. So can Chicago gain a little revenge and make their first ever visit to the WNBA Finals, or will it be Indiana returning for the second time in three years?

 

As with yesterday’s Western preview, this piece will focus on the direct matchups between the two squads (more detail on their inherent strengths and weaknesses in the first-round previews here and here). Both these teams had rocky regular seasons. Indiana were without their leader and driving force Tamika Catchings for the first half of the year with a back problem, and have still been up and down even since her return. Chicago have had a variety of health issues all year, with Elena Delle Donne, Sylvia Fowles, Epiphanny Prince and Courtney Vandersloot all missing significant time, before Jessica Breland suffered a shoulder injury in the first round of the playoffs to leave them shorthanded again. So cohesion and depth have been inevitable problems for both teams all season. The core of Indiana’s team has been together long enough that they’re reasonably smooth in working together at either end of the floor. Chicago are relatively healthy now, apart from the problem with Breland (which we’ll get to later). Part of the reason both sides have made it this far is that they came together at the right time.

 

Chicago’s offense is rarely the smoothest-running machine you’ll ever see. They try to use Sylvia Fowles in the low post, but their lack of ball rotation and Fowles’s own lack of range often makes it difficult to feed her. Indiana will have Erlana Larkins battling with Fowles inside and fighting for position, plus double-teams will come whenever Chicago do manage to get the ball into their big center. Then Fowles’s passing comes into focus, and she’s essentially terrible at it. Unlike someone like Brittney Griner in Phoenix, who draws double-teams and then shifts the ball away to open teammates, the play is usually over when Fowles touches it inside. She’s either going to score or turn the ball over.

 

That leaves Chicago heavily reliant on their perimeter scorers. Elena Delle Donne just illustrated in the charging finish to their win over Atlanta that she’s in solid health again and capable of carrying this team. She can score inside and out, is an expert at drawing fouls, and her size makes her a difficult cover for any opponent. Indiana have Catchings, a five-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, directly opposite her at power forward, but she’s unlikely to be the first option to guard Delle Donne. The Fever like to put Catchings on weaker offensive players so that she can maraud around the floor a little. If Indiana start what’s become their regular lineup, Marissa Coleman will probably open up trying to cover Delle Donne, with Karima Christmas seeing a lot of minutes as the alternative (just starting Christmas instead is also an option). Just as we saw Angel McCoughtry slide onto Delle Donne in the previous series, Catchings will probably take her turns when necessary, but it’ll be up to the Fever role players to do the best job they can on her most of the time.

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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

 

—–

 

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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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.

 

—–

 

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.

 

—–

 

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, 08/14/2014

 

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, 08/12/2014

 

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.

 

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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.

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