The W Dozen: Lauding Loyd, Lynx, Triple-Stack and more

 

First up, I already wrote at length this week about the surprise starts for the Atlanta Dream and Phoenix Mercury HERE. So if you haven’t read that yet, please take a look. Now, on to the 12 items that have caught my eye, drawn my attention or rattled my brain in the WNBA this week.


1. If you haven’t seen this yet, then you damn well ought to

This one’s nice:

But this one’s just special


Enjoy the next decade, Storm fans.


2. Y’know what? That’s not enough on Loyd

Breanna Stewart’s the big story around Seattle this season, and that’s understandable. After four national championships at UConn, making the Olympic team, being the #1 pick, and just how damn good she is, there should be plenty of talk surrounding her. But don’t lose sight of how much Loyd has improved in just her second WNBA season, and the kind of performances she’s putting in alongside Stewie.

You could already see the improvements coming last season, where Loyd grew as the year went along and started to become more comfortable. But beyond that, her offseason under a heavy spotlight at Galatasaray has done her the world of good. She’s playing with much greater confidence, there are finishes at the rim sliding in that weren’t always there last year, and oh my – the jump shot. It’s so pretty now. That was the primary thing holding her back last season, when absolutely no one was scared of her jumper, so they all sat way off her and just let her shoot. Now it looks great, and opponents are going to have to respect that jumper (although at time of writing her three-point percentage has dropped to 29%, I’d expect that to rise).

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Indiana Fever

 

PG: Briann January/Erica Wheeler/Brene Moseley

SG: Shenise Johnson/Tiffany Mitchell/Maggie Lucas

SF: Marissa Coleman

PF: Tamika Catchings/Devereaux Peters/Lynetta Kizer

C: Erlana Larkins/Natalie Achonwa

And that’s it. Thank you Indiana for being the rare team that makes their cuts early enough for me to preview the actual roster. Unless they cut one of the guards to save cash and preserve some extra flexibility.


Significant additions
: Mitchell adds to the guard corps, Peters to the posts. That’s it.

Significant losses: Shavonte Zellous left for nothing in free agency (and I’m still not really sure why they didn’t core her and extract some value in a trade); they gave up on Natasha Howard to acquire Peters; and Layshia Clarendon was traded to Atlanta after three years of trying to convert her into something resembling a point guard.


Overview

While she won’t really want it to be, this season will likely be all about Tamika Catchings for the Indiana Fever. When one of the greats announces their retirement with over a season to go, it inevitably becomes something of a farewell tour. But Catch has always been the ultimate competitor and she won’t be fading away with a whimper, or with a trainwreck season like Kobe Bryant and the Lakers (although based on last year, her shooting percentage might not be that much better than Kobe’s). While Catchings remained the leader of this squad last season, for the first time they looked capable of surviving and winning games without her always being at the controls. It looked like the pieces were starting to move into place for when she’s gone. So one last hurrah while she’s still part of the equation is certainly in play.

The Fever haven’t always been the prettiest team to watch in action. While they were one of the first WNBA teams to embrace ‘smallball’ when Catchings slid down to power forward full-time a few years ago, they’ve always been more about guts than glitz. The approach changed a little last year when Stephanie White took over from Lin Dunn, and demanded that her team speed things up a little. They won games with depth, and with contributions from a variety of different places on different nights. Shenise Johnson looked more comfortable and effective than she ever did in three years in San Antonio. Marissa Coleman had her best season in the WNBA in her seventh year. They pieced together a post rotation with the likes of Kizer, Achonwa and Howard helping out a limited Catchings and a beaten up Larkins. It felt like there was smoke and mirrors involved at times, but as the Fever have been doing for over a decade under Catchings’s leadership, they battled through and won games. Then tossed in a playoff run that came up just one game short of another title.

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2015 WNBA Season Previews: Indiana Fever

 

PG: Briann January/Layshia Clarendon

SG: Shavonte Zellous/Shenise Johnson/Maggie Lucas

SF: Marissa Coleman/Briana Butler/Jeanette Pohlen

PF: Tamika Catchings/Natasha Howard/Lynetta Kizer

C: Erlana Larkins/Natalie Achonwa

 

Significant additions: Johnson, Achonwa.

Significant losses: Lin Dunn and Lin Dunn’s accent, Karima Christmas, Zellous for a month while she represents Croatia at EuroBasket Women 2015.

 

—–

 

A little like Atlanta, Indiana are one of the traditionally strong Eastern teams and are largely relying on their established core to carry them again in 2015. They’ve made some tweaks around the edges, signing Marissa Coleman and drafting Natasha Howard last year, adding Shenise Johnson and Natalie Achonwa for this season, but the heart remains the same. Head coach Lin Dunn may have stepped down, but the expectation from the Fever hasn’t changed. We’ll see a hard-nosed, gritty team that builds from their aggressive defense, and Tamika Catchings will still be front and center leading the way.

 

Catchings has set an end date for her glittering career, signing a two-year contract in the offseason and stating that she’ll retire when it’s completed. She’s also suffered with injuries in recent years, and skipped Indiana’s preseason games. It’s like she knows there are only so many minutes left in her body, so she’s trying to portion them out efficiently. And despite her aging limbs, the success of the Fever still depends heavily on how much Catchings herself can offer. If she can stay healthy all season, and more importantly be 100% to lead them in the playoffs, Indiana are always a dangerous opponent.

 

She does have some help, but as we saw last season it’s not always that reliable. Shavonte Zellous has become a useful scorer from the shooting guard spot, although they’ll have to cope without her for the first few weeks of the season while she represents Croatia in EuroBasket Women. Briann January can hit an open shot from outside (fortunately, because her finishing at the rim often leaves plenty to be desired) and is a versatile and physical perimeter defender. Erlana Larkins has also become a strong complement for Catchings in the post, battling bigger opponents in the paint and often outfighting them for rebounds (although like Catchings she missed Indiana’s preseason games, which is a little worrying). The pairing often leaves the Fever undersized inside, but they make up for it with their mobility and defensive cohesion.

 

Beyond that core, it’s hard to know what they’ll get from the remainder of the roster. Multiple injuries in previous years have given their bench players the opportunities to step forward, but few have really flourished in those situations. They asked more of Coleman than she was capable of last season, which backfired and often led to her forcing too many shots. Hopefully the addition of Shenise Johnson as an alternative on the perimeter, and ideally some growth from the likes of Maggie Lucas and Layshia Clarendon, will take the pressure off. Although January better stay healthy, because Clarendon has been a disaster as a point guard in her first two WNBA seasons and they’ve left themselves without any other real alternative as January’s backup.

 

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The Daily W, 09/04/2014: Sky finish off Fever on the road, head to WNBA Finals for the first time

 

Chicago Sky 75 @ Indiana Fever 62

 

Lineups: Starters were the same as in previous games. Elena Delle Donne was still struggling with her back problem, but fit enough to get out on the court and at least play a heavy decoy role, even if she was no longer carrying the offense.

 

Story of the Game: After the Lynx and Mercury started the previous night’s Game 3 smoking hot, the Sky and Fever went with an ice cold shower instead. There was a lot of messy basketball played early on, a lot of bricks tossed up from the perimeter, and Indiana looked oddly nervous while committing several unforced turnovers. There wasn’t much worth talking about from the first quarter, except that Epiphanny Prince actually hit her first perimeter jump shot, and while Shavonte Zellous hit a couple from outside as well, the Sky were doing a better job of cutting off her flex-cut post-ups. That’s the play where she starts out in the corner, then uses a screen to dive into the space under the rim, looking for a pass deep in the paint to finish over her smaller defender. Prince was battling well to keep her from getting position in the first place, and the other Sky players were getting hands into the passing lanes as well. Basically, the play was no longer working. However, Indiana were already showing signs of dominating the offensive glass yet again, which kept the scores close.

 

It wasn’t until late in the second quarter that we saw the first meaningful lead of the night, and it came thanks to the play of the woman who’s been increasingly stealing minutes away from Prince this season. Allie Quigley was the first player who’d managed to discover a consistent run of accuracy on her jumper all night, which helped the Sky turn a tied game into an eight-point lead by halftime. At times, Quigley’s still a shaky ballhandler, and she’s not a natural point guard at all despite being used by Pokey Chatman at that spot many times in the last two years. But she can shoot, and having that scoring threat on the ball sometimes pays off more than her negatives leave Chicago vulnerable. Lin Dunn called a timeout in the middle of her scoring run, and both Zellous and Tamika Catchings attacked the basket for Indiana on the series of possessions that followed, resulting in better shots and points for the Fever. But with Briann January coughing up yet another pair of unnecessary turnovers on their closing plays, Chicago went into the break on top.

 

Catchings had struggled with her jump shot throughout the series, and Game 3 was no different. The Fever tried at times to feed her the ball inside, but she’s not a natural post-up player. She’s been the nominal power forward for the Fever for several years now, but at her heart she’s still a perimeter player on offense. She gets her points in the paint off drives or hustle plays for rebounds and putbacks, rarely on true low-post moves. And with her jump shot failing to drop, Tamera Young could afford to give her a little more room to shoot, and play her for the drive. After three games chasing Angel McCoughtry, Young spent three more covering Catchings, and did an admirable job.

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The Daily W, 09/02/2014: Sky need double OT, but battle past Fever to force Eastern decider

 

Indiana Fever 84 @ Chicago Sky 86 (2OT)

 

Lineups: No changes from Game 1.

 

Story of the Game: The early stages of this game were pretty dull and very even. Chicago got Sylvia Fowles involved, and got out in transition a little, which were both good signs for the Sky. Briann January and Shavonte Zellous weren’t shooting as well from the perimeter as they had in stretches of Game 1 for Indiana, but the Fever were already picking up offensive boards and second-chance points. It all balanced out.

 

Fowles hurt her own team with silly mistakes early in the second quarter – although Pokey Chatman’s scheme was arguably just as much to blame. As we’ve seen several times before, Fowles picked up a foul 30 feet away from the hoop trying to hedge hard on a screen, only to make too much contact with the ballhandler. That was her second foul of the game, and was immediately followed by an easy Karima Christmas layup for Indiana when Fowles let her go to avoid adding her third. Minutes later, Fowles hedged hard again, picked up that third foul, and spent the last 6:34 of the first half on the bench as a result. When you’ve got a franchise center who you desperately need on the court, it’s insane to have her using up her six fouls – and forcing herself to the bench – by hedging so hard a mile away from the basket.

 

Chicago were down by six when Fowles sat down, and that gap grew as high as 14 in the second quarter with her on the bench. The Sky’s help defense collapsed as Chatman cycled through Sasha Goodlett and Markeisha Gatling in the search for someone to fill the center spot, Erlana Larkins suddenly started scoring inside, and a tight game became one-sided. It also allowed Indiana to be even more obvious in sending extra defenders to stop Elena Delle Donne whenever she tried to attack Tamika Catchings, and slow down Chicago’s scoring even further.

 

Chatman went a little gimmicky with her lineup to close out the first half, using Gatling for the first time in the entire playoffs and going small on the perimeter with Courtney Vandersloot, Epiphanny Prince and Allie Quigley all playing together. With Quigley hitting a couple of threes in the closing stages, it helped to give the Sky a small foothold back in the game, and pull within eight at halftime. Considering how the second quarter had gone, the amount of time Fowles had spent on the bench and the significant rebounding advantage Indiana had achieved, only being down eight felt like a win for Chicago.

 

It took just under three minutes of the third quarter for Chatman to realise something that had become increasingly obvious to everybody during the first half – that her best lineup on this particular night involved gluing Prince’s backside to the bench. She hadn’t been able to hit anything all night, whether on jumpers or layups, and considering her ability to create her own offense is the main reason to have her on the floor, that made her a liability. Quigley came in instead, and Prince wouldn’t return for a long time.

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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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