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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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The Daily W, 07/24/2014

 

Connecticut Sun 75 @ Washington Mystics 89

 

Lineups: Kelsey Griffin was out for Connecticut with what was listed as a left ankle problem in the box score, although on a Washington broadcast we received no details on the injury. So after a couple of games coming off the bench, Kelsey Bone moved back into the starting lineup almost by default. As an extra option to help fill the hole left by Griffin, Ebony Hoffman was available in a Sun uniform for the first time after recently being signed to replace Kelley Cain. Washington started what’s become their regular starting five, and had Kara Lawson available again off the bench after missing a couple of games due to a back problem.

 

Story of the Game: Monique Currie was hot early for the Mystics, and between her and Ivory Latta the basic element of hitting some outside shots made Washington’s offense run a lot more smoothly. Unfortunately, they lost Currie for a while after she was chopped on a drive and had to receive treatment. She came back, but had to play the remainder of the game with heavy strapping around the thumb on her shooting hand.

Neither side managed to maintain control of the game for very long in the first half. Connecticut were trying to push the ball whenever they could, as usual, and a run of offensive boards late in the half for Bone and Chiney Ogwumike pulled them even on the scoreboard. Turnovers became an issue for Washington as the half wore on, but they shot well enough to mitigate it and the game was tied at 38-38 at the interval.

The third quarter was more of the same – offensive boards for Connecticut giving them easy second-chances inside, but with Washington clawing their way to enough points to always keep the game close, and the score still tied heading to the fourth. Then in the final period, one team finally managed to separate themselves. Latta led the way for the Mystics, hitting a couple of shots but also injecting the energy, passion and enthusiasm that the game had lacked for most of the afternoon. Then the post combination of Emma Meesseman and Stefanie Dolson took over the scoring load, with Meesseman’s vision and passing helping find Dolson inside to finish plays and produce the points. Washington scored 10 straight in the middle of the fourth in the space of less than two minutes, turning a three-point deficit into a seven-point lead, and that essentially decided the game. Connecticut couldn’t find any way to answer, the gap crept to double-digits, and the contest was over.

 

Key Players: Currie had one of those strong games that she pulls out of the bag every now and then, which are nice to see, but also frustrating because they make you wish they occurred more consistently. In fairness to her, she’s had several effective performances recently, and bounced back from an early-season slump where she couldn’t buy a basket. Latta finished 9-14 from the field, including 5-7 from beyond the arc, playing a key role for the Mystics as well. She might’ve made the All-Star team (via a ludicrous replacement choice), but she hasn’t played like one for most of the year. They need at least one of Latta, Lawson or Bria Hartley to be making shots on any given night to win games. Meesseman and Dolson came through late, even if Washington got killed on the offensive glass for most of the game.

Connecticut are a bad road team. There’s just no getting around that, with their record away from the Mohegan Sun dropping to 3-10 this season, and they’ve fallen down the standings ever since their schedule evened up and forced them to play away from home more. Ogwumike and Bone gave them a chance inside in this one, and Alex Bentley made some shots from the perimeter, but they couldn’t finish the game out in the fourth quarter. Which isn’t much of a surprise, considering how often that’s happened in previous games this year.

 

Notes of Interest: In a tightly compacted Eastern Conference, this win could be important for the Mystics beyond the single victory. It was their third over the Sun this season in three encounters, with two more left to be played, so they’ve already sewn up the tie-breaker over Connecticut should they be tied at the end of the season. With five teams fighting for three postseason spots in the East, picking up wins over any of those rivals is going to be especially important down the stretch.

 

—–

 

New York Liberty 66 @ Los Angeles Sparks 64

 

Lineups: The big news around the Sparks all week had been Carol Ross’s firing as head coach, and coaching novice Penny Toler adding that job to her general manager responsibilities. But the headline item before tip-off in Toler’s coaching debut was that superstar Candace Parker was a late scratch due to a left knee strain. The conspiracy theorist in the back of my head forces me to mention that it’s a hell of a coincidence that Parker’s first missed game of the year would come in the first game after a coaching change. But she was on the sidelines cheering the team on, so maybe she really did just tweak her knee. Even ignoring the new leadership, it’s a horrible time for an injury to their star, considering this started a run of five games in seven days for LA (including two against league leaders Phoenix). Hopefully she’ll recover quickly. Armintie Herrington came into the starting lineup as Parker’s replacement, with the other four starters remaining the same as in recent games under Ross.

New York had their regular starting five in place. Speedy guard Natasha Lacy made her debut in a Liberty uniform after recently being signed to a seven-day contract.

 

Story of the Game: There weren’t many conspicuous differences to how Los Angeles played under Toler, which is hardly a surprise considering she’s only been in charge for a couple of days. Also Gary Kloppenburg, an assistant who’s been there all season, seemed to be doing a lot of the actual coaching. Toler mostly appears to be there to act as a glorified cheerleader, and provide the typical ra-ra speeches.

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The Daily W, 07/18/2014

 

San Antonio Stars 90 @ Tulsa Shock 95

 

Lineups: As expected for both teams. Jia Perkins, Riquna Williams and Tiffany Jackson-Jones may all make appearances soon after the All-Star break, but exactly when is still up in the air.

 

Story of the Game: There was a lot of comically awful defense played in this game. Both teams did a dismal job of protecting the paint and preventing easy opportunities for their opponents. Tulsa started off with a run of layups for Courtney Paris inside, and then Danielle Robinson had trouble containing Skylar Diggins off the dribble – and got no help from any rotating teammates behind her. Meanwhile, Tulsa have been terrible at protecting the rim all season, and this game was no different, with various Stars scorers taking turns at slicing in for layups. Although funnily enough it was a string of threes for San Antonio from Danielle Adams, Kayla McBride and Shenise Johnson that allowed them to take a seven-point lead at halftime. Sometimes when you’re getting ripped apart inside, everyone overcompensates towards the middle and you start leaving shooters wide open.

But while San Antonio’s defense wasn’t great in the first half, it was absolutely disastrous in the second, with a miserable third quarter performance handing all the initiative to Tulsa. The Shock had the sense to attack the basket, resulting in either layups or free throws (or both), and San Antonio capitulated. No one on the perimeter could stay in front of their man, no one inside could rotate to help, and their transition defense was awful as well. And as often happens, when you start to fall apart at one end of the floor it transmits into your play at the other. San Antonio started settling for nothing but jumpers, missing most of them, and the offense ground to a halt. They lost the third quarter 25-8 and the game seemed to be slipping away.

While their scoring picked up, the Stars couldn’t get the stops to build a comeback in the third quarter, so eventually we saw a tactic that would’ve been seen in more Shock games this year if they’d had more leads – Hack-a-Paris. Dan Hughes called for his team to intentionally foul Courtney Paris, who’s shooting under 50% from the foul line this season, in a last-ditch effort to get back in the game in the final three minutes. While she went 3-of-6 on the intentionally gifted free throws – which is just about acceptable in those situations – San Antonio suddenly started nailing threes at the other end and clawed back within two points in the closing minutes. Tulsa actually produced a couple of good possessions of perimeter defense late in the game – running San Antonio off the three-point line by switching smoothly – and then a couple of misses from Adams and McBride finally ended any chances of San Antonio pulling off the comeback.

 

Key Players: The regular four scorers of Diggins, Sims, Paris and Johnson were Tulsa’s leaders yet again, and the Shock did an impressive job of exploiting San Antonio’s defense in the second half to take over the game. Even when one team is playing atrocious defense, the other side have to be playing well enough to take advantage. Tulsa also shot a ridiculous 32-39 from the foul line, illustrating how consistently they got inside and attacked the defense.

San Antonio actually shot an even higher percentage from the field than Tulsa, and went 11-21 from three-point range, but the porous defense killed them off. Usually Hughes has his teams well-drilled and organised to prevent such consistent breakdowns, but they’ve been a pretty poor defensive team for much of the season. This was the nadir.

 

Notes of Interest: For the third time this season, WNBA officials screwed up an ‘away from the play’ call in the final minute of a game. In that situation, if a defensive foul is committed away from the ball, it’s supposed to result in one free throw for the offensive team (taken by anyone on the floor) and they retain possession. Instead, yet again, the referees considered it a standard foul and sent Jen Lacy to the free throw line for two shots when she was fouled miles away from the ball with 33 seconds to play. It’s a pretty simple rule – and it’s in the rule book specifically to prevent things like ‘Hack-a-Paris’ extending into the closing moments of a game. You’d think they’d have been ready for it after the exact same mistake was made twice earlier this season when Brittney Griner was fouled late in Mercury games. Apparently not.

 

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Chicago Sky 64 @ Indiana Fever 82

 

Lineups: Same again for Chicago, with the same problematic injury list. Indiana had point guard Briann January back from her knee problem after missing just one game, and she slid straight back into the starting lineup ahead of Layshia Clarendon.

 

Story of the Game: The first quarter stayed close, with the more fluid and attractive offense coming from Indiana, but Sylvia Fowles bullying her way to points inside and Allie Quigley hitting from outside to keep Chicago even. Rookie Fever forward Natasha Howard had a nice run of points while Tamika Catchings was resting, but Howard’s defense doesn’t seem to be getting any better, and she had no hope at all against Fowles and Jessica Breland in the paint.

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The Daily W, 07/16/2014

 

Connecticut Sun 86 @ Seattle Storm 63

 

Lineups: The Storm’s starters were as they’ve been for a while, whenever everyone’s been healthy. Reserve wing Shekinna Stricklen was out after her nasty fall and resulting neck injury against Minnesota on Sunday. The Sun made a switch, benching center Kelsey Bone after several ineffective recent performances. Kelsey Griffin moved into the starting lineup.

 

Story of the Game: The game was fairly even in the first quarter, with Seattle using pick-and-rolls and slip-screens to find their way into the heart of Connecticut’s defense relatively easily. But that early stretch would prove to be one of the few periods where the Storm scored with any regularity over the course of the game. Once they started to make their first wave of substitutions, everything started to fall apart at both ends of the floor. The offense stopped flowing without Sue Bird at the point, and Nicole Powell remains a patchwork cover option at best at power forward.

Although, Connecticut largely started to creep into the lead thanks to a guard who was hitting shots. Seattle missed an endless stream of jumpers, especially in the second quarter, while Alex Bentley was lighting it up for Connecticut. Given an inch of space coming off ball-screens, she was pulling up to fire, and hitting nothing but net. The two shots she missed in the first half were both forced up in an effort to beat the shot-clock; the other six all went in.

Already up by nine at halftime, Connecticut took even further control of the game in the third quarter, dominating the offensive boards for second chance points, with Bentley and her backup Renee Montgomery continuing to pile up points from the perimeter. The Sun’s defensive rotations were unusually effective inside, leaving Seattle to settle for more jumpers and miss most of them. Maybe the tip-off was too early for the Storm, even in front of their own young crowd. It was a sleepy, tired performance from them for much of the game, and they rarely looked like making a comeback in the second half.

 

Key Players: Bentley’s hot streak in the first half set everything in motion for the Sun – if she doesn’t hit those shots then their confidence doesn’t build early on, and maybe the course of the game turns out to be rather different. But as a team, the Sun were 53% from the field and heavily out-shot the Storm throughout the contest. Much of Bentley’s backup on the scoreboard came from Bone and Chiney Ogwumike, who were also key in Connecticut’s dominance on the glass. Seattle got outworked in virtually every area.

There was little credit for any Storm player to come out of the game. This was the beginning of their run of nine home games in their final 11 outings this season, which was meant to give them the necessary burst to make a playoff push. It was a thoroughly inauspicious start.

 

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Los Angeles Sparks 86 @ Indiana Fever 78

 

Lineups: Los Angeles continue to roll with their triple-post starting lineup, alongside Alana Beard and Kristi Toliver in the backcourt. Indiana point guard Briann January was out with a hyperextended right knee suffered in their game against Atlanta in Saturday, pushing Layshia Clarendon into the starting lineup. Marissa Coleman kept her spot at small forward, in her first game against LA since leaving them as a free agent in the offseason.

 

Story of the Game: The first quarter, and indeed most of the first half, belonged to Indiana. Tamika Catchings didn’t even have to do much, with all the supporting players stepping up and producing. There weren’t many tears shed when Coleman walked away from the Sparks for nothing in the offseason, but apparently she was excited to remind them what she was capable of (albeit disappointingly infrequently). Candace Parker played some pretty insipid defense on her early in the game, but Coleman took full advantage to drill a couple of threes and then start firing in step-back jumpers from all over the floor. Indiana were also the team pushing in transition and creating cheap points for themselves early on – LA’s favourite trick being turned against them.

After being benched for a long stretch of the first quarter after barely involving herself in the game and playing with little energy, Parker was back out to start the second period and gave LA some life. She single-handedly drew the fouls that pushed Indiana into the penalty very quickly in the period, and her all-court offense at least gave the Sparks some kind of foothold in the game. But Indiana were doing a good job of both attacking the glass and getting back in transition – two tasks which can run counter to each other and prove difficult to combine – which allowed them to maintain their lead and be up by 10 at halftime. The lack of second-layer help in LA’s defense, and the rebounds they were giving up to the much smaller Fever, were pretty embarrassing for the Sparks – although if you’re surprised by disappointing sequences of play from LA at this point in 2014, you haven’t been paying attention.

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The Daily W, 07/15/2014

 

Los Angeles Sparks 90 @ Connecticut Sun 64

 

Lineups: As in recent games for both teams. Allison Hightower and Danielle McCray are still working their way back from their respective injuries for Connecticut so were still unavailable.

 

Story of the Game: All the talk around this game surrounded the Ogwumike sisters, facing each other for the first time in the WNBA. Both did indeed seem to have that extra spark of energy, and stretches of the first half felt like an energetic night in the Ogwumike back yard. Both were attacking the basket, both were finishing – often past or over each other – and both led their respective teams in scoring in the first half. LA also had Kristi Toliver looking for her own shot early and hitting a few, and were getting into the heart of Connecticut’s defense far too easily on simple middle-of-the-floor pick-and-rolls. But with some success on the offensive boards – even against the size of LA’s frontcourt – and just as many transition points as the Sparks, the Sun didn’t let the lead get too big in the first half and stayed in contention.

Until we hit the third quarter. Connecticut made a horribly slow start to the second half, with turnovers and missed Kelsey Bone layups scattering their offense. Meanwhile LA continued to pound the ball inside, finally using Candace Parker on the low block a little more, with Nneka Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender also taking advantage and transition speed adding cheap points on top. The resulting 17-4 run that opened the third quarter basically decided the game, and Connecticut were never in the contest from there on.

 

Key Players: Offensively, Parker had one of her quietest games of the season, only taking six shots. But the Sparks didn’t need any more from her. Ogwumike and Lavender were productive inside, the team as a whole hit enough jumpers and played good enough collective defense, and that eventually ran Connecticut out of the building. The Sun have now lost seven of their last eight, and haven’t been playing well for a while, but LA still had to show up and take advantage. For once, they did just that.

Chiney Ogwumike had a strong first half, but that was about it for any positive elements from the Sun. They fell apart in the third quarter, with their defense leaving big gaps through the middle and the offense stagnating against LA’s length. Their three primary guards – Alex Bentley, Katie Douglas and Renee Montgomery – combined to shoot 7-31, which didn’t leave them with much chance of staying in the game.

 

Notes of Interest: No one paid much attention to Sandrine Gruda until she threw an elbow into Briana Gilbreath-Butler’s gut late in the first quarter. Gruda used to be a Connecticut player, then decided she didn’t want to bother showing up to play for the Sun, then forced a trade to LA in the offseason. But with a four-year gap since she’d been seen in a Sun jersey, few people in the crowd seemed to remember – until she gave them something to boo about.

 

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Seattle Storm 60 @ Minnesota Lynx 77

 

Lineups: Seattle had what’s become their regular lineup in place, while Minnesota continued to play without Seimone Augustus or Rebekkah Brunson. It’s hoped that both could return soon after the All-Star break.

 

Story of the Game: The first half was reminiscent of the tight, low-scoring affairs we’ve gotten used to Seattle dragging the Lynx into. On the rare occasions that either team got the ball into the paint, both struggled to finish amongst all the defenders that collapsed on top of them to contest. That left both teams shooting a lot of jumpers, with Minnesota having to rely on a lot of those mid-range shots from their bigs that became so important in their previous clashes with Seattle this season. The Storm hit a few shots early on, and benefitted from a hot streak for Camille Little in the middle of the second period where she was successful inside and out, but spent most of the half bricking their own jumpers.

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The Daily W, 07/11/2014

 

Connecticut Sun 68 @ Indiana Fever 72

 

Lineups: Connecticut continued with what’s become they’re regular starting five (which features two rookies, two second-year players, and Katie Douglas trying to help the kids hold it all together). Indiana made their first switch since Tamika Catchings’s return, swapping Karima Christmas in for Marissa Coleman at small forward. Coleman made two poor errors in crunch time of their last game, nearly costing them the win against Tulsa, which may have been part of the motivation behind that change. The Fever’s bench was also a little shorter than usual, with Lynetta Kizer attending a family funeral and therefore unavailable.

 

Story of the Game: This was an odd game for the first three quarters. The strangeness came from the way that Indiana were largely creating better shots than Connecticut. They were finding their way into the opposing defense more consistently, and putting up their shots from significantly closer to the rim – but they couldn’t finish. They missed a ridiculous number of layups, shooting a hideous 5-17 around the rim in the first half, so creating straightforward chances proved largely pointless.

Meanwhile, much of Connecticut’s offense came on jump shots. In fairness, they moved the ball well enough to create some decent looks, but essentially they were shooting better from 15-20 feet than Indiana were shooting from 1-3. It wasn’t particularly pretty, but it gave the Sun a nine-point lead at halftime, and after leading by as many as 14 they were still up by eight at the end of the third.

But it never felt like Indiana were out of it. All they needed to do was start converting some of their chances, and the comeback was right there waiting for them. Connecticut’s offense hadn’t been good enough to truly punish them for all the misses and put the game away. Finally, in the fourth quarter, the Fever clicked into gear. It started, funnily enough, with some outside shots. Rather than continuing to miss inside under the challenges of the Sun defenders – and credit Connecticut for managing to put pressure on for most of the game without being called for fouls – Indiana kicked the ball out and hit a couple of threes. But then it was back to getting inside, and either finishing better or grabbing offensive rebounds and completing the play at the second time of asking.

The presence of Catchings was inevitably an important element in the fourth quarter charge. She’d played her part in all the missing earlier on, but she was up top with the ball in her hands for much of the fourth quarter, leading the way. The off-kilter horns set that Indiana run, where Catchings handles the ball and the nominal point guard is in the ‘post’ spot at one of the horns, is a little confusing for opposing defenses. They’re not used to defending a set like that, and switching or rotating schemes are mixed up by having the offensive players the wrong way round. Indiana used a lot of it in the fourth quarter, and Catchings went different directions on different possessions to confuse the Sun even more and produce layups.

Connecticut actually had their best offensive stretch of the game in the fourth quarter, with Douglas hitting from outside and Renee Montgomery going right by the defense for layups. But several turnovers helped Indiana’s push, with a Larkins steal on an entry pass and a Catchings poke-away in transition particularly vital. The Fever gave up a couple of late buckets to make them nervous again, but Larkins hit a pair at the line to ice the game and send all the camp day kids home happy.

 

Key Players: Catchings was the key piece once again for the Fever, finishing 8-15 for 21 points and seven boards. She’s mostly creating for herself at this point – the chemistry isn’t quite there with this set of teammates yet – but having her back is obviously crucially important for Indiana. She gives them a whole new look offensively, as well as her typical energy and aggression on the defensive end. Larkins and Briann January helped out with the scoring, while Coleman hit a couple of shots off the bench and Layshia Clarendon had her second straight productive game. Her shot’s still inconsistent, her defense isn’t great, and she’s still not really a point guard (which matters less with Catchings around to do some of the ballhandling), but on some nights Clarendon’s speedy offense clicks and she’s useful.

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The Daily W, 07/09/2014

 

Connecticut Sun 71 @ Atlanta Dream 83

 

Lineups: No changes to the starters for either team from recent games. Connecticut had Briana Gilbreath-Butler available for the first time after signing her to a seven-day contract, made possible by the exception granted when Allison Hightower had arthroscopic surgery to clean out her knee. That’s expected to keep Hightower out for two-to-three weeks.

 

Story of the Game: The game was played at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavillion, due to a Microsoft convention forcing the Dream out of Philips Arena for much of July. The venue didn’t make much difference to the predictable direction of the game. As mentioned in yesterday’s preview, the contest was always likely to come down to which team could keep the other out of the paint, and Atlanta were significantly stronger in that area. Much of the first quarter went jumper-for-jumper, but the Dream started to pull ahead when they started finding a little pace in transition, and attacking the rim. Connecticut were still stuck firing away from outside.

The eight-point Atlanta lead at halftime was almost a positive for Connecticut – it felt like they’d been dominated to a significantly greater extent than that gap suggested. Atlanta’s ball movement and penetration, plus the vision and passing of players like Celine Dumerc and Shoni Schimmel, was creating good looks inside and piling up points in the paint for Atlanta. Connecticut were committing sloppy turnovers, failing to convert anything amongst Atlanta’s long arms on the rare occasions they did get inside, and staying remotely close only through hitting a few threes.

After a nasty landing late in the first half, Angel McCoughtry had gone off with a bruised elbow, but started the second half and immediately knocked down a jumper just to prove she was fine (an ‘elbow’ jumper, for those who enjoy irony). In the following minutes she added a transition layup, an offensive rebound into a putback, and a couple of nice passes for teammates to finish. At times, Atlanta are a prettier team to watch when Angel’s on the sidelines, because there’s a little more fluidity and teamwork to their play. But they’re almost always a more effective team when she’s on the floor, especially when she plays her part in the overall scheme rather than trying too hard to take over on her own.

Offensively, Connecticut were a little better in the second half. Alex Bentley hit a few shots, Chiney Ogwumike gave Atlanta more of a fight on the glass, and occasionally they even managed to finish in the paint. But they never could keep the Dream away from the rim, and Atlanta’s dominance became increasingly evident on the scoreboard. They coasted through the entire fourth quarter with a comfortable lead.

 

Key Players: McCoughtry helped kill the game in the fourth quarter, but overall it was a nice team effort from Atlanta. Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza did the work they needed inside, McCoughtry and Tiffany Hayes penetrated consistently from the wings, and the team finished with 24 assists on 33 buckets. Michael Cooper would probably like to see them get their turnovers more under control – they had 20 in this game, and continue to ‘lead’ the league in giveaways – but this was an illustration of the current state of the Eastern Conference. In theory this was the top two teams facing each other; in practice the top team is running well ahead of the remaining five.

For Connecticut, the backcourt of Douglas and Bentley hit some shots, and Ogwumike worked her butt off to give them something in the second half, but that was all the Sun had. They couldn’t slow Atlanta down, couldn’t keep them out of the paint, and the markedly more cohesive team ran away with the win.

 

Notes of Interest: Swin Cash gave Atlanta some solid minutes as the backup power forward in the first half, one of the few times that’s happened this season. Having someone else who can play a post spot that Cooper can rely on could be very important later in the season, especially if they pick up any injuries. It’s no coincidence that the teams atop the two conferences in the WNBA right now have been two of the healthier squads so far this season.

 

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Indiana Fever 78 @ Tulsa Shock 76

 

Lineups: Both teams started the same fives as in their previous games, which for Indiana meant the second appearance of Tamika Catchings for the season. The Fever are still figuring out their rotations with her back in the mix, but trying to fit your leader and superstar back into your team is a nice problem to have.

 

Story of the Game: As with the game above, the course of this game for most of the night was defined by one team repeatedly breaking down the opposing defense and getting into the paint, while the other was largely kept away from the rim. It was Indiana who consistently found their way into the soft center of Tulsa’s defense, and converted high-percentage looks to gain the advantage. They were looking for Shavonte Zellous inside, often on those dive plays from the corner I’ve talked about before, utilising her height advantage over Skylar Diggins or Odyssey Sims. The other primary weapon for Indiana in the first half was Catchings, already back in her familiar role playing pseudo-point guard at the top of the arc. Tulsa couldn’t stop her from driving into the paint, or occasionally dropping down to post up smaller defenders if Tulsa’s defense got switched up and she was faced with a guard. She also gives Indiana another passer and creator in transition, another area where they hurt Tulsa for much of the game.

Tulsa were hanging around in contention by hitting some of those shots they tossed up from outside, and putting in their usual work on the offensive glass. With Glory Johnson and Courtney Paris, the Shock don’t need much help on the boards, but Indiana’s defensive scheme opened up some extra space for them at times. The Fever were dropping double-teams down on Paris whenever she touched the ball inside, then trying to rotate and recover around the rest of the floor if the ball moved back out. They’re good at it – their switching and rotating is, for example, far smoother than the theoretically-similar-in-principle schemes that LA use – but all the movement often shifts players out of rebounding position. So second-chance points allowed Tulsa to stay within seven at halftime.

Indiana appeared to have taken complete control in the third quarter. Tulsa had some early success using slip-screens and pick-and-rolls to get the ball inside to their posts, but that soon dried up as the Fever started an endless procession to the free throw line. They hit a couple of jump shots, opened up by the amount of help Tulsa was now sending to try to close off the paint, but most of Indiana’s points came at the line when they drove into contact and drew whistles. They were 13-15 at the free throw line in the third quarter alone, and their lead ballooned as high as 15.

But given the way these teams have played this season – Indiana have blown a lot of leads, Tulsa tend to fight their way into close games – we shouldn’t have been surprised when the score tightened up again in the fourth quarter. Indiana stopped converting on their drives, or getting the calls from the officials, and the Shock crept back. It started with a pair of Jordan Hooper threes, and continued largely at the foul line. Maybe the referees had seen how imbalanced the foul count was in the third quarter and were evening it up a little, but there were also some dumb reaches from the Fever in the closing stages, and a couple of even dumber technicals from Zellous and Briann January. The game was tied up for the first time since the second quarter when Erlana Larkins overcommitted on a hedge on the perimeter, Diggins went by her, and fed Paris for a layup with 17 seconds left in the game.

But maybe the return of Catchings really is going to help the Fever avoid some of these late game collapses. They put the ball in her hands up top, running their unusual off-balance horns set. Typically your two posts are at the elbows, but because Catchings – the nominal power forward – is handling the ball they use January as a de facto ‘post’. Catchings entered the ball to Larkins, then made to use January as a screener in the opposite direction – a very standard move from that set. But Catchings quickly reversed course, hopped inside Johnson down the lane instead of curling towards the wing, took the feed from Larkins and finished the layup. It was either a lovely play-design, or a very smart off-the-cuff cut from Catchings. Either way, it gave Indiana the lead with under six seconds left.

As usual, Tulsa gave Diggins the ball up top on their final possession, and she penetrated. But Catchings slid across to help and cut her off, Larkins slid across behind her to cover Johnson when Diggins dumped the ball off, and Johnson could only fling up a tough hook that never came close. Another play that Indiana might well not have made if Catchings wasn’t back in the mix.

 

Key Players: It might have been her second game since returning, but this was Catchings’s real comeback show. She finished 8-14 for 23 points, 11 boards, four assists and two blocks. She got some help from Zellous in the scoring column, and a little bonus production from Layshia Clarendon off the bench. Plus Larkins put in her usual work in the paint on the defensive end, while released from having to be as much of a scoring threat as they’ve needed from her for most of the season. But it was Catch’s show, and she made the plays at the end to make sure it wasn’t in vain.

Credit Tulsa for somehow finding a way to be in the game at the end, despite being outplayed for most of the night. Diggins was the primary scorer, as usual, but they struggled to break down Indiana’s defense and find space inside, which made scoring difficult. At least they did a better job of sagging inside and leaving most of the open looks for Indiana late in the game out on the perimeter, which the Fever helpfully missed. Even if they’re pretty open, giving up good looks around the arc is better than conceding layups and free throws. Hooper had a nice game again with her three-point shooting a significant threat. She’s looking like a bit of a steal as a second-round pick.

 

Notes of Interest: Remember when we thought Tulsa might’ve fixed their problems in close games? Recent results – losing five of their last six by three, three, six, two and two points respectively – would suggest that they might’ve just fluked a couple of wins. They still can’t close games out, and their interior defense is still decidedly suspect. Same old problems.

 

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Los Angeles Sparks 72 @ Minnesota Lynx 83

 

Lineups: Seimone Augustus was still out for the Lynx due to left knee bursitis, so Monica Wright continued to fill in. Los Angeles stuck with Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard as their backcourt, leaving Armintie Herrington and Lindsey Harding to come off the bench. They also had Candice Wiggins available for the first time since their opening game of the season, returning from her own knee surgery.

 

Story of the Game: LA took too many shots that Minnesota would want them to take in the first quarter – jumpers from outside by anyone other than Toliver – but between hitting some of them and an endless supply of offensive rebounds, LA stuck with the Lynx. The Sparks even led for a while in the opening period. But the Lynx offense was too much for LA to cope with once Minnesota got rolling in the second quarter, and it became something of a layup line for the Lynx. Their unselfishness and movement off the ball was finding space amongst LA’s defense and piling up points. Tricia Liston had her best half in a Lynx jersey off the bench, making plays with passes, cuts and screens as well as hitting her typical threes. Janel McCarville and Lindsay Whalen linked up – in both directions – for several nice plays. And there was always Maya Moore as an outlet option to convert at the rim and provide points. Her jump shot was off for most of the night, but when she got to the basket she was as reliable as ever. Minnesota used her size to attack LA inside whenever one of their smaller defenders was on her, rather than someone like Candace Parker.

But between Jantel Lavender hitting her mid-range jumper, the offensive rebounds, and Parker hitting several threes, the Sparks were only down by six at halftime. And then a very shaky third quarter for Minnesota handed the initiative to LA. The Sparks came out in a zone defense to start the second half, which didn’t actually work at all and was forced back into a man-to-man after a few possessions where the Lynx got wide open looks. But it at least accomplished the intended effect of throwing Minnesota off their rhythm a little. They lost their momentum, LA started picking up points through Nneka Ogwumike running the floor hard and some of the transition game that the Lynx had kept in check for most of the night, and the Sparks moved into the lead. LA produced much better ball pressure in that third quarter, which made it much harder for Minnesota to initiate their offense. LA weren’t exactly dominating when they had the ball, but when you hold your opponent to eight points in a quarter, good things will happen.

But it didn’t take long for Minnesota to reassert themselves in the fourth quarter. Cheryl Reeve woke her team up, demanded better effort on the glass, and pulled her offense even further away from the basket – which opened up space behind to get to the rim. The Lynx always run a lot of their offense through their bigs in the high post. McCarville is most well-known for her passing, but the others often do similar jobs. They came higher and higher in the fourth quarter, while the perimeter players slashed past and around them, taking passes from the bigs and slicing to the rim for great chances to score. LA, whose help defense isn’t great at the best of times, didn’t know how to cope. They couldn’t clog the paint because they were chasing the ball and the opposing players out beyond the three-point line. So they just kept leaving huge spaces for the Lynx to exploit behind their defense.

Meanwhile at the other end, LA were tossing up a lot of jumpers and no longer hitting any of them. Play long enough against the Sparks, and that’ll usually happen eventually. Minnesota are well-drilled to know who the primary threats are, so Parker and Toliver were under pressure most of the night, and Parker didn’t touch the ball anywhere near enough in the fourth quarter. A 16-3 Lynx run covered most of the fourth, and the Sparks faded away with more of a whimper than a fight.

 

Key Players: Moore was Minnesota’s leading scorer, although she needed 23 shots to pick up her 30 points. Until a couple of important shots late in the game, she didn’t hit much from outside and sometimes seemed to be forcing the ball up in search of her jump shot. But with Whalen, McCarville, Wright and others helping out, the Lynx scored 52 points in the paint and had 27 assists on 33 baskets. Apart from the third quarter where they lost their way, it was a consummate team performance that took apart one of their regular rivals.

Outside of the 20 offensive rebounds leading to 21 second-chance points, LA didn’t have much of a night. Parker’s scoring was propped up by the three triples she managed to hit in the first half, but otherwise she was ineffective whether at small or power forward. But even in a game where they shot only 34% from the field, it’s the defense that continues to let them down. The Lynx broke them down all too frequently, and looked far better prepared for what they knew was coming from the Sparks than LA did to stop them. In the end, with Minnesota working hard enough to keep LA out of transition, the Sparks couldn’t create enough points to keep up with all the holes in their own defense.

 

Notes of Interest: Minnesota’s single possession of zone defense to start games (or halves, or occasionally out of timeouts) is backfiring a little this season. Much as its pointlessness entertains me, they’ve given up some wide open looks with that zone this year (Parker drilled a three to open this game, and LA got easy chances on the couple of other possessions where the Lynx tried the zone). Reeve may want to junk the idea entirely.

Reeve did provide some extra entertainment of her own between the third and fourth quarters, with a Popovichian interview with Rebecca Lobo where Reeve walked away before the second question could even be asked. She was that disgusted with how her team had been rebounding. On maybe her neck was tired from craning it to look Rebecca in the eye.

 

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League News

 

The All-Star starters were announced during ESPN2’s double-header last night, with few surprises but one or two ridiculous choices. Shoni Schimmel and Cappie Pondexter are the guards in the East, with Elena Delle Donne, Angel McCoughtry and Tamika Catchings in the frontcourt. Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins are the West guards, with Maya Moore, Candace Parker and Brittney Griner filling out their frontcourt spots. Schimmel’s obviously a bit of a reach in terms of deserving her place, and makes it largely because she’s such a fan favourite rather than because her play has been worthy of inclusion – although the East guards don’t offer a lot of obvious selections. Catchings being voted in is a little comical, considering she hadn’t played a single game until Saturday. But the fans got who they wanted, and now the coaches get to pick the reserves. My article covering who I feel should make the teams will be coming up later this week.

 

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Today’s Games

 

Washington @ Chicago, 12.30pm ET

Seattle @ Phoenix, 3.30pm ET

New York @ San Antonio, 8pm ET

 

The Daily W, 07/06/2014

 

San Antonio Stars 71 @ Indiana Fever 70

 

Lineups: San Antonio were as expected, with Danielle Adams continuing to start ahead of Sophia Young-Malcolm at power forward, but the big news was among Indiana’s starters. Tamika Catchings made her first appearance of the season after recovering from her back problem, and went immediately into the starting lineup in place of Natasha Howard.

 

Story of the Game: Indiana were in charge in the first quarter, energised by the return of their leader and star. Catchings looked strong and mobile, making plays with her defense and her ability to attack the paint and draw help defenders on offense. Rather than forcing her to cover Danielle Adams and deal with her occasional physical post-up moves, Indiana smartly put Catchings on Jayne Appel, which allowed her to roam more defensively and make plays without taking a pounding inside. Her jump shot looked flat and rusty, and the Fever kept a tight rein on her minutes during the game, but otherwise Catchings seemed in pretty good shape.

All afternoon, Indiana went after Becky Hammon with whoever she was trying to guard. Danielle Robinson can cope with slightly bigger opponents, but the Stars still have a very small starting perimeter and try to hide Hammon as much as possible on defense. The Fever used players like Shavonte Zellous and Marissa Coleman to post-up Hammon or go by her, and eventually forced San Antonio into their zone defense just so that they could keep Hammon on the floor. The second quarter was earlier than Dan Hughes usually resorts to his zone, but it turned out to be a productive switch for the Stars. Indiana moved the ball well to shift the zone around, and clearly knew what they were supposed to do against it, but still had far more problems creating good looks than they’d had against the man-to-man. With Indiana’s bench players failing to produce as they had in recent games, San Antonio came into the game in the second quarter, started hitting some shots, and eventually took a narrow lead into halftime.

While neither team was particularly effective offensively in the second half, it was Indiana who eventually managed to inch out a lead. They rarely converted anything when they broke down the zone and got to the rim, but decent three-point shooting from Karima Christmas, Shavonte Zellous and Briann January helped them pull in front. They’ll get better, cleaner looks out there now, purely because of the attention that Catchings draws from opposing defenses. With just over five minutes left in the game, Indiana led by 13 points and seemed to be in control – while Hughes was going nuts on the sideline and drawing a technical for his screaming.

But then Hughes finally found a lineup that worked – bigger on the perimeter, with Robinson, Kayla McBride and Shenise Johnson; slightly more mobile inside, with Young-Malcolm and Adams playing together – and Indiana’s problems closing out games resurfaced. The Fever lost any offensive rhythm, and committed several turnovers, while San Antonio ran off those giveaways and used Adams as a focus inside and out when they were running halfcourt sets. 14 straight points, capped by two free throws by Robinson after a desperately soft foul call, gave San Antonio a one-point lead with 22 seconds left in the game.

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The Daily W, 07/04/2014

 

Tulsa Shock 96 @ Connecticut Sun 83

 

Lineups: No changes for either side, despite both having lost their last three games.

 

Story of the Game: Connecticut had one good quarter in this game – the second – and otherwise got outplayed for most of the night. They started atrociously, with a series of bricks and turnovers featuring consecutive travelling violations by Kelsey Bone, while layups and free throws helped Tulsa to the first 12 points of the game. Odyssey Sims got off to a hot start in what turned out to be her best game so far as a pro, hitting from the perimeter but also doing a lot of work at the rim. She’s had some of the same problems as a rookie that teammate Skylar Diggins had in her first year – the ability to get past people and into the heart of a defense but then missing a lot of shots among the trees once she gets inside. In this game she was finishing almost everything, including several floaters from a few feet beyond the rim, completing the play without having to directly challenge the opposing posts.

But the Sun finally woke up in time to even the game up in the second period, with Alyssa Thomas’s size from the wing and Renee Montgomery’s quickness off the bench helping drag them back into the game. Bone was also managing to finish plays inside rather than taking four steps before putting the ball on the floor, and Tulsa’s poor interior defense helped as well.

But that second quarter proved to be a brief respite. With Sims leading the way and Diggins joining in, plus the tandem of Glory Johnson and Courtney Paris dominating Connecticut on the offensive glass, Tulsa were in complete control for virtually all of the second half. The Sun briefly threatened a comeback when Katie Douglas got hot from outside early in the fourth quarter, but Jordan Hooper answered with threes of her own and the Shock were quickly back on track. Tulsa’s defense wasn’t that great for much of the night, but with the way their offense was ripping the Sun apart, it made little difference.

 

Key Players: Sims finished the night 11-17 for 30 points, and it was nice to see her as the primary weapon for once. That was the idea when they drafted her – that between her and Diggins in the backcourt, opponents would have trouble guarding both and at least one could explode in any given game. But it’s been Diggins doing most of the work on the offensive end, and drawing all the plaudits. This time it was Sims’s night.

Douglas and Thomas were easily the most effective offensive players for Connecticut, with Thomas quietly becoming more effective as the season progresses. Her jump shot’s still very much a work in progress, but her size, strength and athleticism from the small forward spot makes her dangerous even with limited shooting range. Connecticut’s main problem in this game was their complete inability to slow the Shock down. Also, why Anne Donovan took so long to give Montgomery a chance to help in the second half was mystifying. She woke the team up in the second quarter but didn’t get much of a chance to help in the second half.

 

Notes of Interest: For the second time this season, Kelsey Griffin lost a shoe during play, and carried on playing with just one. And again, the opposing team recognised it and attacked her. But unlike the block she pulled off against Penny Taylor earlier in the year, Glory Johnson managed to draw a foul while driving at her. She should probably tie her shoes a little tighter.

Thomas lost something during play as well, but dealt with it rather better. The face mask she was wearing to protect her recently injured nose was flapping behind her head while she completed a transition layup early in the second half, then she kicked it to the sidelines before grabbing a steal and leading the break for another layup for her team. All the sequence really needed was some dramatic music as she revealed herself to be someone else under the mask.

 

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San Antonio Stars 84 @ Minnesota Lynx 91

 

Lineups: Minnesota were without Seimone Augustus for the second straight game due to left knee bursitis, so Monica Wright started for them again. Danielle Adams continues to start ahead of Sophia Young-Malcolm for San Antonio at power forward, while Jia Perkins is still out due to her hamstring injury.

 

Story of the Game: Minnesota hit several threes early on, including three from Wright, which covered up the fact that there wasn’t a lot of flow to their offense. By contrast, San Antonio – a team that often lives and dies by the outside jumper – didn’t take many threes in the first half, but inched their way ahead on layups and mid-range jump shots. The Lynx defense still isn’t where Cheryl Reeve would like it to be on the interior rotations, although they did do a decent job of extending to San Antonio’s shooters in this game, making those outside shots more difficult.

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