The Daily W, 08/13/2014

 

Phoenix Mercury 76 @ New York Liberty 64

 

Lineups: Same group as usual for Phoenix, but a change to the starters for the first time in a while for New York. Alex Montgomery was benched in favour of Swin Cash at small forward, maybe in the hope that Cash’s veteran smarts could help New York handle the Mercury. Or just to change something to try to kick-start a team that were dominated in two of their last three games.

 

Story of the Game: As an individual offensive force, Tina Charles probably quite enjoyed this game. Unlike most opponents, Phoenix largely covered Charles one-on-one, and even if that solo defender is Brittney Griner, Charles was clearly much happier attacking her than dealing with constant double-teams. In fact, Charles scored New York’s first 12 points of the game on a series of nice finishes inside and a couple of jumpers, but by then Phoenix were already pulling ahead. The Mercury had Griner scoring efficiently inside – with New York largely avoiding double-teams on her as well – Diana Taurasi firing from outside, and Candice Dupree providing her typical combination of mid-range shots and smooth finishes at the rim. New York had Charles and nothing much else.

That was basically the case for the rest of the first half. The Liberty got a little boost of energy from Anna Cruz – who was also beginning to really aggravate Taurasi with her physical defense – but without ever really putting their foot on the gas the Mercury were always in control. New York clawed their deficit down to three points late in the second quarter, before a 10-0 Phoenix run reestablished their dominance before the interval. Taurasi was still in the aggressive offensive mindset we saw in the games against Minnesota, and forced a couple of bad shots as a result, but converted a drive and drilled a three in that sequence to keep her team on top.

New York were often close enough to suggest a comeback was possible in the second half, without ever actually making the push to casue any real nerves for Phoenix. Cappie Pondexter hit a few shots to play the sidekick role for Charles, but as a team they missed a lot of jump shots, and the occasional double-teams that Phoenix sent towards Charles forced her to think a bit more about which move to make. With Dupree still hitting shots, and Erin Phillips providing some energy and perimeter shooting off the bench, Phoenix consistently managed to hold the Liberty at arm’s length until the end.

 

Key Players: The Griner-Charles matchup in the paint was a lot of fun, even if they weren’t always guarding each other. With Avery Warley-Talbert ineffective, they were directly against each other for much of the evening. Griner ended the game 7-12 for a typically efficient 14 points, and added 11 rebounds and three blocks. But she also had four teammates in double figures alongside her to help out.

Charles was a much more dominant figure within the Liberty offense, everything running through her and she was constantly trying to attack. She finished the night 11-22 for 26 points and 12 boards, but didn’t get a lot of help and New York never looked convinced that they could win the game. Phoenix beat them fairly comfortably, without ever really having to extend themselves.

 

Notes of Interest: While the loss certainly doesn’t help, the Liberty’s playoff future was always going to rely more on their other three remaining games – one against Washington, and a pair against Indiana. They’ll need to win at least two, and very possibly all three to sneak in. The performance in their previous game against the Fever wasn’t promising.

For Phoenix, this win confirmed their status as the #1 seed in the West, and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Their last three games are essentially meaningless, and we’ll probably see them rest some players or at least limit their minutes. They can’t beat the best ever winning percentage in a WNBA season, but they could win the most games in a season in the league’s history (they played fewer than 34 games in the early years).

 

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Los Angeles Sparks 71 @ Minnesota Lynx 63

 

Lineups: The starters were as expected for both teams. The Lynx were one short on their bench, as Brazilian post Damiris Dantas had flown home for personal reasons and will apparently miss their remaining regular season games. She’s expected to return for the playoffs.

 

Story of the Game: Minnesota started off just like they did in their previous game against Phoenix, taking a lot of jumpers but hitting virtually all of them, and therefore pulling in front. They were up by as many as 11 in the early minutes, despite Maya Moore limping off with a slight ankle sprain in the opening seconds. She came back in midway through the first quarter, to allay any fears Lynx fans may have had about something more serious.

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The Daily W, 08/12/2014

 

Indiana Fever 90 @ New York Liberty 76

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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Washington Mystics 81 @ Connecticut Sun 89 (2OT)

 

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

 

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

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The Daily W, 08/09/2014

 

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

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Phoenix Mercury 78 @ San Antonio Stars 73 (OT)

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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Washington Mystics 74 @ Indiana Fever 61

 

Lineups: As expected for both teams.

 

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

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The Daily W, 08/07/2014

 

New York Liberty 46 @ Washington Mystics 79

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Minnesota Lynx 66 @ Indiana Fever 64

 

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

 

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

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

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The Daily W, 08/05/2014

 

New York Liberty 83 @ Atlanta Dream 76

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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Connecticut Sun 69 @ Los Angeles Sparks 70

 

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

 

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

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

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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, 07/29/2014

 

Indiana Fever 73 @ Los Angeles Sparks 77

 

Lineups: The same group that we’ve seen in recent games started for Indiana, but Los Angeles had problems again. A sore left knee took Candace Parker out for the second time in four games, and point guard Lindsey Harding was unavailable as well due to a right foot problem. Armintie Herrington started in Parker’s place, and seeing as Penny Toler has as much faith in Nikki Greene and Farhiya Abdi as Carol Ross did – i.e. none – the Sparks only used seven players all night. Toler the head coach would probably have to blame her general manager for having two apparently unusable options on the end of the bench, but if she stormed into the GM’s office to complain it’d probably just get confusing.

 

Story of the Game: The opening stages belonged to Indiana. LA couldn’t finish anything around the rim, with the Fever managing to pressure them into missing without giving up too many fouls. With their typical level of accuracy from the perimeter, if the Sparks can’t finish inside they’re going to be in trouble. Meanwhile Indiana moved the ball well, bullied their way inside, and generally looked like the team who believed they could win the game, rather than a group wondering where their superstar was.

But there were already hints of how the game was going to turn around. The Fever were starting to give up some pathetically cheap turnovers, which only got worse as the first half wore on. LA’s aggressive pressurising defense played a part, but the Sparks were given encouragement by several Indiana giveaways that didn’t have much to do with the defense. And of course, LA’s offense has been at its best all year long whenever they’ve managed to push in transition. If you allow them to take the ball away from you – or just hand it to them without much resistance – you’re inevitably going to kick-start their scoring. LA only shot 41% overall in the first half, but between steals, fastbreaks, offensive rebounds and free throws earned by attacking the basket in quick offense, they led by four at the break. LA dominated the second quarter, and it felt like they probably should’ve been up by more than that.

The game stayed tight in the second half. Indiana took slightly better care of the ball, trying to run through Erlana Larkins in the low post early on to give themselves a solid foundation. Without the transition chances to feed their offense, LA’s scoring took a step back and they had to come up with some different ideas. It took them a while. Meanwhile Indiana finally came up with the obvious response to LA’s overplaying, aggressive defense – moving the ball away from traps as quickly as possible to open shooters on the other side of the floor. Karima Christmas hit a couple of threes as a result, livening up the Fever offense a little. LA responded through the typical speed and aggression of Nneka Ogwumike, and Alana Beard having one of those unusual nights where she tosses up terrible-looking shots and they all go in anyway.

Lynetta Kizer gave Indiana some offensive pep off the bench in the fourth quarter, keeping the game close. Kristi Toliver had been kept very quiet all night by the defensive attentions of Briann January, Jantel Lavender was anonymous, and Armintie Herrington faded after a strong first half – but Ogwumike and Beard kept LA afloat. Tamika Catchings made plays for Indiana down the stretch, providing the focussed leadership that they were lacking in a lot of close games earlier in the season.

But it was LA who made the last couple of plays to earn the win. Beard hit a jumper for a one-point lead with 90 seconds left; then January and Ogwumike exchanged missed jump shots at either end, before January also blew a finish at the rim under pressure. With under 15 seconds left, and LA running down the clock, Ogwumike smartly slipped behind Larkins rather than setting the expected high screen, Toliver made a perfect lob pass over the top, and Ogwumike finished for a three-point advantage. LA’s defense on the ensuing Fever play was pretty terrible, but they got away with it. January ran a long curl along the baseline before popping back out up top to take the pass and fire for three. The defense basically appeared to lose track of her entirely, but the shot rimmed out. Then LA got lucky again, as Christmas was fouled on the attempted putback, just barely missing the chance for a three-point play that also would’ve tied the game. She made the first free throw, missed the second on purpose, but Ogwumike got to the rebound first (and got bailed out by the refs with an immediate foul call when she was about to toss the ball right back to Indiana). Ogwumike made both free throws to ice the game.

 

Key Players: Without Parker, it was Ogwumike and Beard who stepped up the most for LA over the course of the game, although Herrington was instrumental in the surge that got them into the game in the first half. It wasn’t an entirely convincing performance by the Sparks, but it was one that at least showed some energy and enthusiasm for the cause. Of course, if Beard doesn’t have one of her rare efficient shooting nights, it might not have mattered.

Even though they made a game of it in the second half, and with a couple of breaks could’ve come away with the win, it wasn’t an encouraging performance for Indiana. The pressure defense that LA unsettled them with in the first half was the sort of harrying that the Fever used to upset opponents with, rather than succumbing to it themselves. Catchings led their scoring, with positive stretches from Larkins, January, Kizer, Christmas and Natasha Howard, but without any real consistency. The Fever are still a team trying to work themselves out and figure out where the pieces all fit. In the utterly mediocre East, they’ll more than likely make the playoffs, but it’s a crapshoot as to whether they’ll produce any decent performances once they get there.

 

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Today’s Games

 

Connecticut @ Atlanta, noon ET (already played, so no preview)

 

Washington @ New York, 7pm ET. This one’s actually become more interesting in recent weeks. The Liberty have looked a little more lively, won three in a row, and then even gave Phoenix a bit of a scare for a moment or two. Washington have won six of their last seven and quietly snuck into second place in the East. All eight of the Mystics’ remaining games are against their four rivals still chasing Eastern playoff spots, so they’re not going to have any opportunities to relax for the rest of the year. While much of the focus tonight will be on Tina Charles in the paint, the game is likely to be decided by the perimeter shooting. Washington have won recently because they’ve moved the ball better and hit shots; New York are successful when their complementary players offer some support for Charles and Cappie Pondexter. It’s a make-or-miss league, as we know.

 

Chicago @ San Antonio, 8pm ET. If the Sky are going to be able to force feed Sylvia Fowles in the paint against anyone, they should be able to do it against San Antonio, who don’t protect the paint well at all. But knowing Chicago, we’ll still end up seeing 30 shots combined from Epiphanny Prince and Allie Quigley. Danielle Robinson versus Jamierra Faulkner at the point should be entertaining – pure speed against pure speed.

 

Seattle @ Tulsa, 8pm ET. Nothing’s a mathematical certainty at this point (besides Phoenix and Minnesota having qualified for the playoffs), but this is as close to a ‘must win’ game as we’ve seen so far this year. There’s a three-game gap right now between San Antonio and Los Angeles in the playoff spots, and Tulsa and Seattle below them looking up. Both teams should be able to score without too many problems in this game. Tulsa can’t protect the rim, so Crystal Langhorne and Camille Little should go to town in the paint; Seattle can’t rebound and have been disappointingly porous on defense all season, so Tulsa will pile up offensive boards while Diggins and Sims drive repeatedly all night. Both sides will likely be counting ping-pong balls at the end of the season, but at least tonight’s winner will have hope for a little longer.

 

Los Angeles @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. We saw this matchup five days ago, and LA got blown off the floor – even when they had Candace Parker. Considering the minimal likelihood of a Sparks victory whether she plays or not, it’d make sense for Parker to rest her knee for another night, and save her body for games her team has a greater chance to win. On the second half of a back-to-back, LA did the necessary work to ensure the split by beating Indiana last night. It’d be something of a success if they could just manage to keep this one competitive for a while and avoid being embarrassed like they were last week.

 

The Daily W, 07/27/2014

 

Los Angeles Sparks 77 @ Seattle Storm 69

 

Lineups: Seattle had Sue Bird back, after she’d missed one game due to a sore neck. So Temeka Johnson joined what is probably a very short list of basketball players who’ve been benched for the game following a triple-double. Los Angeles started their regular group, with Penny Toler still looking for her first win since taking over as head coach. If Seattle could’ve won this one it would’ve left them just a game behind LA in the standings, giving them realistic hopes of catching the Sparks for a playoff spot. Considering they’d already lost the tie-breaker to LA, a loss – and the resulting three-game gap – would leave the Storm a serious long-shot for the postseason.

 

Story of the Game: There wasn’t much between the teams in the first half. Easily Seattle’s most effective offensive weapon was Crystal Langhorne, who produced some lovely moves in the paint to finish past LA’s bigs. They hit an occasional three as well, and that was about the extent of the Storm offense.

But it was enough to avoid falling too far behind. LA were strong on the offensive glass, and had a brief sequence early in the second quarter where they looked good while running through Nneka Ogwumike in the low post. But she picked up her third foul and had to sit, which put an end to that. With Candace Parker looking fairly aimless and half-hearted, it was all the second-chances that kept LA just slightly on top. It was mostly the guards finding their way in to snare those loose balls, and then finishing off the plays – a welcome production for the Sparks from their perimeter players, even if it was via unusual methods.

So the Sparks led by just three at halftime, and the game remained close for much of the third quarter. But Parker had started to look a little bit more like she gave a crap about whether her team won the game, and she played a central role in a key run for LA to close the third period. Seattle went cold, and couldn’t hit a shot inside or out for a long stretch. Meanwhile Parker hit a couple of jumpers, Armintie Herrington sliced into the Seattle defense for a layup, and then Parker rounded off the period with a three in the waning seconds (Mark Jackson would’ve been screaming “hand down, (wo)man down!” in response to Nicole Powell’s lackadaisical defense on her, if he’d been broadcasting the game). In the final three minutes of the quarter, a two-point game that was anybody’s suddenly blew up to a 10-point LA lead.

And Seattle could never quite make it a contest again. It was always a bucket then a miss; or Kristi Toliver would hit a jumper; or most frequently, Nneka Ogwumike would make a play to continue holding the Storm at arm’s length. With under four minutes left, and LA inbounding with a single second left on the shot clock, Ogwumike took a pass and swished a turnaround three that made it clear it wasn’t going to be Seattle’s night.

 

Key Players: It was by no means an outstanding performance by LA, but Parker and Ogwumike showed up enough at different times to lead the offense, and they got enough support from Toliver, Herrington and Alana Beard to get over the line. It was an odd performance from Parker, who’s been a strange combination of disinterested and apparently trying to lead the team since Carol Ross was fired. If she could stay out of foul trouble, and therefore on the floor, Ogwumike’s actually looked the more effective player lately. As this game suggested within a single evening, even a mediocre version of the Sparks is likely to make the playoffs in this year’s Western Conference. But as LA’s destruction by the Mercury in their last game reminded everyone – it’s going to take significant improvement or something very unlikely for LA to go anywhere in the postseason.

Langhorne and Camille Little in the paint remain Seattle’s best options offensively, but they didn’t go there often enough or hit enough perimeter shots to balance the offense and help create room for them. It’s been a difficult year all around for the Storm, and this is their fourth loss in four games to the team that might’ve been most vulnerable to being caught for a playoff spot. The battle isn’t over yet, but lottery ping-pong balls look like they’re more likely to be a consideration for Storm fans than playoff tickets (and unfortunately for them, we’re in a year where the consensus is that it’s a terrible draft class).

 

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Indiana Fever 75 @ San Antonio Stars 68

 

Lineups: Same again for Indiana, with San Antonio choosing to start Sophia Young-Malcolm over Danielle Adams for the second game in a row at power forward. Maybe Dan Hughes realised that Adams was a contender for Sixth Woman of the Year, and he’d be making her ineligible if she continued to start for the rest of the season. Jia Perkins was still out, but could return on Tuesday against Chicago.

 

Story of the Game: Indiana started incredibly slowly, and were awful for most of the opening period. They weren’t doing enough to shift San Antonio’s defenders around, leading to contested jump shots or drives right into the Stars posts. None of that worked particularly well, as you might expect. It took the entrance of reserves like Lynetta Kizer and Layshia Clarendon to wake the Fever up, and then the starters came back in with better energy in the second quarter and picked it up. Shavonte Zellous, in particular, hit shots and drove right at the San Antonio defense in the second period, and the Stars couldn’t handle her. It took the Fever far too long to bring any directness or energy into their play.

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The Daily W, 07/25/2014

 

New York Liberty 84 @ Seattle Storm 80 (OT)

 

Lineups: Sue Bird was a late scratch for Seattle after coming out to try to warm up but being ruled out with a neck strain. Temeka Johnson stepped in to start in her place. Shekinna Stricklen retained her spot at small forward, suggesting that move was about more than just matching Phoenix’s size in the Storm’s previous game. New York opened with the same group as usual.

 

Story of the Game: Seattle got off to a great start, attacking the basket through Crystal Langhorne and Camille Little in the paint, with New York giving up a string of cheap turnovers and looking a little tired after their exertions the night before in Los Angeles. Defensively, Seattle inevitably leaned plenty of help towards Tina Charles and Cappie Pondexter, with many of Charles’s early efforts coming from outside the paint.

But as the first half wore on, Seattle didn’t manage to roll that start on into a significant advantage. New York got a boost from their reserves, with Plenette Pierson and especially Sugar Rodgers picking up the offensive slack. Rodgers remains a livewire option for the Liberty off the bench, whose quickness and offensive aggression can give them a real shot in the arm on certain nights. This was one of those nights. Seattle’s offense increasingly drifted away from the basket, disappointingly. In fairness to them, they shot well from three-point range with Stricklen leading the way, stretching out New York’s defense and taking the looks that were on offer when the Liberty sagged into the paint. But the Storm had done such an impressive job of shifting New York’s defense early on and using their skilled interior players to get high-percentage shots. It seemed like they went away from that without any real need to. But 45 points in a half is an astronomical amount for the slow-paced, low-scoring Storm, so the combination was working. It was just that they’d given up 41, so they weren’t exactly in total control.

Seattle used Little and Langhorne popping into space and hitting from the perimeter to break ahead again by nine points in the third quarter, but it was a short-lived advantage. Cappie Pondexter had shaken off the cobwebs, benefitting from a couple of second-chance opportunities when Seattle conceded offensive rebounds, and then started to attack more off the dribble. The Storm contained Charles in the second half, with their physical defense inside making her miss or keeping the ball away from her in the first place. But Pondexter compensated, with Rodgers continuing to play a strong sidekick role. Temeka Johnson used her speed to take Anna Cruz apart whenever the Spanish guard was on the floor, so Rodgers increasingly took the backcourt minutes instead.

With all the threes Seattle had jacked up – and almost invariably missed in the second half – the Storm took advantage of the Liberty expecting them to pop outside a couple of times down the stretch, with both Stricklen and Tanisha Wright faking outside and then cutting behind the defense. A Wright free throw on the second play gave the Storm a two-point lead with under a minute left in regulation. New York ran a set designed to feed Charles in the paint, but great denial from Little inside stopped to entry pass and eventually led to a Rodgers turnover. Noelle Quinn missed a jumper on a messy Storm possession that followed, giving the Liberty another chance with 18 seconds left in regulation. A triple-screen for Pondexter saw her curl around to receive the pass, with Wright right on her heels regardless of the picks. But Cappie faded away, and tossed up a fadeaway rainbow that dropped in and tied the game. Little couldn’t convert a fadeaway in the lane for Seattle, before Pondexter and Charles both missed in the final few seconds to send the game to overtime.

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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.

 

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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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