Breaking down Lynx-Sparks, Battle of the Unbeatens

 

Apparently we here at WNBAlien have a new tradition. Whenever two WNBA teams are a combined 23-0 to start the season before finally facing each other, then play out a barnburner that almost goes to overtime on one of the most extraordinary near-miss plays you’ll ever see, in the middle of the day when many working fans couldn’t even watch – we break the damn thing down, old-school recap style. Except these days with the benefit of video, so that I don’t have to describe every important play in excruciating detail. Let’s get to it.

This was the very first possession of the game:

It immediately highlighted that this is a Los Angeles team (and head coach, in Brian Agler) who’ve faced the Lynx many, many times before. The first option is a high-low from Candace Parker to Nneka Ogwumike, but Kristi Toliver’s back screen doesn’t really work, so Alana Beard curls around into dribble-penetration. And that’s where the experience counts. Over the years, this is the way teams have had some success against Minnesota’s stout defense. The Lynx are so determined to protect the paint and the rim that they sag inside, which can leave shooters open on the perimeter if you find them quickly enough. Beard kicks to Toliver, who drills the three before Lindsay Whalen can recover (with a little help from Ogwumike blocking Whalen off). It’s a pretty play, that LA didn’t re-use enough over the rest of the game.

This is the first of a whole host of examples I could’ve picked of something that plagued LA throughout the game:

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The W Dozen: WNBA’s Super Tuesday, Spacey D, Crazy Stats, and more

 

1. Super Tuesday (part 1)

It’s a big day for the WNBA on Tuesday. June 21st is the anniversary of the inaugural game back in 1997, so the League has chosen it as the appropriate date to announce their ‘Top 20@20’ on ESPN – the WNBA’s 20 greatest players over its first 20 years. They did the same thing after both 10 and 15 years, so it was an expected element of the 20th season celebrations. However, only revealing that they had selected a Top 20 five days before the announcement date was a frankly ridiculous move by the WNBA, and yet another shortsighted and poorly thought-out misstep.

This group of stars and legends, who’ve made the league what it’s been for 20 years and provided a large part of the entertainment that the WNBA is celebrating, should’ve been a centerpiece of the 20th season festivities. It was made slightly more complicated by the lack of an All-Star Game this year – the natural stage for the announcement – but it still shouldn’t have been screwed up this badly. Why aren’t you giving all the fans and analysts weeks (or months) to debate the various members of the group? These arguments could’ve gone on at length among fans of the league, and features on the candidates could’ve filled various websites. Instead, everyone’s rushing to state their picks just in time to barely beat the announcement. It’s silly, and so easily avoidable.

On that note, I’ll try to get a piece on my own personal selection up on Monday, before the announcement. The league’s official release with the 60 nominations is here. Beyond that, if you want more information on how the league arrived at the 60 candidates, and on the information provided to the media who voted, Mel Greenberg helpfully provided that here. These things are always fun to argue about. I just wish we’d been given a little longer to do it.


2. Super Tuesday (part 2)

2016-06-10_SparksLogo2016-06-05_LynxLogo

The other reason Tuesday is big for the WNBA is that the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx will finally be facing off, and if the Lynx can beat Seattle on Sunday night they’ll both be undefeated. Currently sitting at 11-0, both have surpassed the old record for a perfect streak to start the WNBA season, set by Minnesota in 2012. It’s unfortunate that the clash takes place at 3.30pm ET (12.30pm local to the game in LA), so a lot of fans won’t be able to watch it live, but they didn’t know how big the game would be when they set the schedule.

Obviously, both teams have been playing great basketball. Brian Agler has the Sparks playing as a unit, and has found a rotation that works – with actual wings playing on the wing, rather than shifting square-ish pegs into round-ish holes. Between the all-court game of Candace Parker, the shooting of Kristi Toliver, and Nneka Ogwumike playing out of her mind – plus the best team defense they’ve pieced together in years –  the Sparks are looking like we always knew they could if they were healthy and their talent managed to gel. Meanwhile, Minnesota are doing what we’ve seen them do before so many times. Continuity helps a lot in this league, especially early in the season, and when you’re damn good as well that tops things off. Like LA, the Lynx are healthy, and taking care of business at both ends of the floor. Sylvia Fowles is more integrated into the team this season, and they even look a little deeper than in previous years with several backups Cheryl Reeve actually seems to trust (rather than the maybe two of many previous seasons).

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

 

1. Full Playoff Schedule

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


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

Wednesday, September 21st (both games)


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

Sunday, September 25th (both games)


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

(Game 1s) Wednesday, September 28th

(Game 2s) Friday, September 30th

(Game 3s) Sunday, October 2nd

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

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


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

(Game 1) Sunday, October 9th

(Game 2) Tuesday, October 11th

(Game 3) Friday, October 14th

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

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


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

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


2. Dallas’s Dismal Defense

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

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

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

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Los Angeles Sparks

 

PG: Kristi Toliver/Chelsea Gray

SG: Alana Beard/Ana Dabovic

SF: Candace Parker/Eugeniya Belyakova/Essence Carson

PF: Nneka Ogwumike/Jelena Dubljevic

C: Jantel Lavender/Ann Wauters

At time of writing, LA still officially have 18 freaking players on their roster, so you’ll have to forgive me if Brian Agler makes some unexpected choices and the list above proves inaccurate. If it’s correct, there’s one place left for Crystal Bradford, Brianna Butler, Jennifer Hamson, KK Houser, Whitney Knight, Jasmine Lister and Rebecca Tobin to fight over.


Significant additions
: Chelsea Gray was added in a draft-night trade from Connecticut, Essence Carson in free agency, and then they went international. You may not have heard of Dubljevic or Belyakova, but they’re well-established, veteran performers in Europe. Even more ‘veteran’ is Ann Wauters, returning to the WNBA for the first time since a brief stint with Seattle in 2012. They also signed-and-traded for Riquna Williams, only to see her rupture her Achilles before ever putting on a Sparks uniform. She’ll presumably be suspended for the year.

Significant losses: Despite all those additions, they haven’t lost many people that’ll matter. Marianna Tolo is still recovering from injury in Australia, Temeka Johnson wasn’t re-signed, and Phillips was traded. That’s about it.


Overview

I feel like it’s hard to say anything particularly new about the Sparks. They’ve got the same core that’s been there for years. They’ve got oodles of talent. There is no good reason why they shouldn’t be one of the best teams in the league, and a serious threat to win the championship. But year after year they come up short. Candace Parker is yet to make an appearance in the WNBA Finals, never mind win a title. So here we go again – if Agler can mesh the pieces together, they could be exceptional. But that niggling little feeling remains that they’ll find a way to screw it up.

At least they’ve got Parker from the start this year, after she skipped half of last season to rest. Once she returned in 2015 she was a star, encouraged by Agler into being more of a fulcrum and creator than other coaches had managed in the past. The fit in the frontcourt with Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender remains a little awkward, because they’re all good enough to demand playing time but none is at their best playing small forward. But we’ve seen it work in the past for extended stretches. They can all score in multiple ways, and with everyone in camp on time this year, Agler has a better chance at creating a solid team defense. They were messy on that end last season, despite his successes in the past.

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2015 WNBA Season Previews: Los Angeles Sparks

 

PG: Erin Phillips/Temeka Johnson

SG: Kristi Toliver/Andrea Hoover/Ana Dabovic

SF: Alana Beard/Jennifer Lacy/Farhiya Abdi

PF: Nneka Ogwumike/(Candace Parker)

C: Jantel Lavender/Marianna Tolo/Jennifer Hamson

 

Significant additions: Phillips, Johnson, Tolo, maybe Hamson, Lacy, and/or Dabovic, and definitely new head coach Brian Agler.

Significant losses: Candace Parker for an unknown period of time, Toliver for a more known period of time, Armintie Herrington, Lindsey Harding, Sandrine Gruda, Candice Wiggins, and the elite coaching skills of Penny Toler.

 

—–

 

Our first Western Conference team leads us right back into what sadly became one of the main themes of the WNBA offseason – players missing time. Diana Taurasi drew most of the initial attention by announcing she was skipping the 2015 season entirely, before LA’s Candace Parker semi-followed suit. Parker is sitting out to start the season, and hasn’t set any particular date to return. The Sparks say they’re expecting her to join them at some point, but don’t know when that might be. So for now, new head coach Brian Agler has to work with what he’s got – and that’s still a pretty talented group. In fact in some ways, while he’d obviously like to add a superstar like Parker into the mix, it might be easier for Agler to put his imprint on this team without her around. They’ll be smart and organised, and getting everyone to collectively buy in to his defensive schemes could be smoother without a star who can often be sleepy on that end of the floor. What this team is going to look like this year is one of the more interesting WNBA sub-plots heading into the season.

 

Between the players that were already there and those that Agler and general manager Penny Toler have added, this is a veteran squad with a big front line. They’ve had problems in the past working out how to mesh Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender, either platooning them or being forced to figure out how to play with one of them at small forward. Parker sitting out seemed to simplify that, except that a lot of their depth is still on the interior. Marianna Tolo is technically a WNBA rookie, but the Aussie post has plenty of international experience and should be ready to contribute right away. Jennifer Hamson missed the 2014 season to stay in school and play volleyball, but could also be a defensive presence in the paint even as a rookie. Even veteran forward Jennifer Lacy may be a more natural fit at the 4 rather than the 3. So in preseason we’ve seen Ogwumike playing plenty of small forward in big lineups. She has some range and the mobility to defend players at that spot, but it could take away from her impact as an interior scorer and rebounder. The opening weeks of the season will see Agler playing with lineups while he tries to figure out what works.

 

Part of the reason that Agler’s been shifting Ogwumike around is that this team isn’t remotely deep any more. Outside of Parker, they didn’t lose anyone you’d call a star in the offseason, but they lost enough pieces that the roster looks distinctly thinner – especially while Kristi Toliver’s in Europe representing Slovakia at EuroBasket Women 2015 for the opening month of the season. Alana Beard is back, and will once again be forced to play plenty of small forward unless Farhiya Abdi has finally become the player the Sparks have been waiting on for a couple of years (and she hasn’t shown many signs of that progress in the past). They’ll also be hoping that when Toliver returns she’s closer to the mercurial but explosive scorer from previous years, rather than the miserable and passive player that came back from Europe last season.

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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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