The Daily W, 08/22/2014: Fever and Lynx scrape by to open playoffs with home wins

 

Washington Mystics 73 @ Indiana Fever 78

 

Lineups: The starting lineups were as expected for both teams. Fortunately for Washington, Kara Lawson had recovered enough from her ankle sprain to be the first (essentially only) guard off the bench for the Mystics. In fact, the only slight rotation surprise all night was that Indiana went to Sydney Carter ahead of Layshia Clarendon as their backup point guard behind Briann January.

 

Story of the Game: The opening encounter of the 2014 playoffs turned out to be the bruising, intense clash that we’d expect from two closely matched Eastern Conference teams. Indiana got off to a hot start yet again, something we’ve seen from them a lot recently, with everyone apart from Tamika Catchings hitting shots and piling up points. January and Marissa Coleman hit from outside, Erlana Larkins and Shavonte Zellous converted inside, and Washington were just trying to hang on in the early moments.

 

But while we’ve seen the Fever blow all kinds of leads this season, they didn’t even manage to hold on to this one until halftime. Late in the first quarter Lawson came off the bench to add some energy for the Mystics and helped them find a couple of buckets in transition. Then Emma Meesseman drove right past Catchings for a layup, before drilling a jumper over Catchings on Washington’s very next possession. That gave the Mystics something to build on, and when Indiana’s offense fell apart with their backups on the floor in the second quarter, the game swung around. Ivory Latta was the central figure for Washington, occasionally firing a little too quickly even for her own good, but drilling a series of threes that took her team into the lead. With Catchings still ice-cold, and her fellow starters unable to pick things up again when they came back in after brief rests, the Mystics led by six at halftime. Indiana scored a miserable eight points in the second quarter.

 

Once again Indiana were the team with better energy out of the locker room, but Washington responded and maintained a small lead throughout the third quarter. Catchings was continuing to produce the outstanding hustle and energetic rebounding that we’d seen in the first half – and throughout her career – but couldn’t hit a jump shot to save her life. When she attacked off the dribble she was slightly more productive, but those efforts were few and far between. As a team, Indiana were getting crowded out whenever they managed to get the ball inside. Most of the time they’d either blow the layup under pressure, or turn the ball over in traffic. But Washington also couldn’t produce the offense to take the game away from them.

 

With everything on the line, the game finally came to life in the fourth quarter. After a quiet third, Latta started stepping back up to lead Washington’s offense. But Indiana finally became the aggressors. They benefitted from almost every call in the fourth, with luck and the referees’ whistles definitely on their side, but they were the ones driving the action and forcing the officials to make calls. After barely hitting anything all night, Catchings subbed back in with seven minutes remaining, and immediately scored consecutive baskets by driving on Meesseman, rather than settling for trying to shoot over her. It was about damn time.

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WNBA 2014 Playoff Previews – First Round: Minnesota Lynx vs. San Antonio Stars

 

Minnesota Lynx (25-9, #2 seed) vs San Antonio Stars (16-18, #3 seed)

 

Minnesota

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 104.17, 2nd in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 98.68, 6th in WNBA

 

San Antonio

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 100.72, 4th in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 102.77, 11th in WNBA

 

Season series: Lynx won 4-1

5/30 @Min: Lynx won 88-72

6/1 @SA: Lynx won 87-79

7/3 @Min: Lynx won 91-84

7/25 @Min: Lynx won 88-78

8/15 @SA: Stars won 92-76

 

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Virtually every measurable metric and stat says that Minnesota should win this series, and it shouldn’t even be all that close. Even ignoring their overall success over the last few years, including two championships, the Lynx had won their last eight games against San Antonio before losing a game that was meaningless to Minnesota in the final days of the regular season. Their offense tends to pick San Antonio apart – not that it’s been particularly hard for any opponent to find gaps in the Stars’ defense this season – and while San Antonio can out-shoot some teams, Minnesota will put their jumpshooters up against anyone’s. So to see the Stars winning this series, you either have to search hard for reasons, or really believe that cracks were showing in the Lynx during their late-season games.

 

By now, everyone knows what Minnesota can do offensively. Between the all-court scoring of Maya Moore, the jump shooting of Moore and Seimone Augustus, the driving and finishing of Lindsay Whalen, and the willingness and ability of their posts to knock down mid-range jumpers, this team is hard to stop. They also love to get out on the break, and with Rebekkah Brunson back their rebounding has improved, which leads to more outlets and more running. San Antonio have rebounded much better this year, after many awful seasons on the glass, but the Lynx will test them in that area. We’ll also see plenty of the dive-in-from-the-corner post-ups that Minnesota like to run for their wings, because with a starting perimeter of Danielle Robinson, Becky Hammon and Kayla McBride, San Antonio are dangerously undersized against Moore and Augustus. Hammon will cover Whalen to try to stay away from those plays, and both Robinson and McBride are stronger than you think, but the Lynx are likely to find some success through those avenues.

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The Daily W, 08/17/2014

 

New York Liberty 73 @ Washington Mystics 61

 

Lineups: After going smaller to try to combat Tamika Catchings in their previous game, New York switched back to a more regular lineup for this one, with Avery Warley-Talbert coming back in to start in the post. Swin Cash continued at small forward, with Alex Montgomery dropping to the bench. Washington, who needed a win to give themselves a chance at the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, started their usual five. Kara Lawson was still out due to her ankle issue.

 

Story of the Game: In many ways, this was a pretty depressing contest for fans of both teams. Mystics supporters saw their team produce a desperately flat performance, fall behind by double-digits in the second quarter, and then let the game drift away. Liberty fans saw their bench actually step up and produce, and their team win a game without Tina Charles or Cappie Pondexter needing to carry them. Which considering how poorly they’ve played for most of the season, can only have been frustrating to witness.

Plenette Pierson did a lot of good work for the Liberty, especially in the first half, and Washington couldn’t contain her, especially on the pick-and-roll. New York made some nice pocket passes to create points for her on the way to the hoop, but Washington’s defense was unusually slow in rotating and contesting to prevent the easy looks. With the Liberty also shooting well from the perimeter, they ran away with the game. They also had an extraordinary zero turnovers in the first half, which probably said even more about the lack of defensive energy from the Mystics than it did about New York’s own play.

Washington tried to shoot their way back into the game in the second half, and Mike Thibault tried some gimmicky lineups to shake things up, but they never came particularly close. If they play like this in the postseason, it’ll be a short-lived trip to the playoffs.

 

Key Players: Pierson finished with 20 on 7-8 shooting, with Swin Cash the only other Liberty player in double-figures. They went deep into their bench, shared out all the minutes, and Washington still never came close. Unfortunately for New York, their playoff hopes had been extinguished the day before, and this performance with the pressure off meant nothing.

Washington were really poor. After finally clinching their postseason berth in Connecticut the day before, maybe they relaxed too much when only seeding was on the line and weren’t mentally ready to play. But this is also the kind of game they’re vulnerable to without any real stars to just toss the ball to when they need a bucket. They’re a collective group that needs to become more than the sum of its parts, and when they all lack energy like this the results can be pretty awful.

 

Notes of Interest: This result meant the winner of the Chicago-Indiana game below would be confirmed as the #2 seed. Whether Washington were the #3 or #4 would then depend on Sunday’s game for the loser between the Sky and Fever.

 

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Chicago Sky 67 @ Indiana Fever 71

 

Lineups: Both teams started as they had in recent games, with Elena Delle Donne continuing to come off the bench for Chicago. Layshia Clarendon was still out for Indiana, making Sydney Carter the backup point guard instead. The Sky had a point guard returning, with Courtney Vandersloot in uniform and taking part for the first time in over seven weeks after her knee injury. That was a welcome boost for the Sky heading into the playoffs.

 

Story of the Game: Indiana started the game just as they had in recent big wins over New York – lots of energy, running the floor hard for transition points, and with Tamika Catchings hitting every shot she threw up. Briann January, Shavonte Zellous and Marissa Coleman joined in, Natasha Howard was a solid replacement when Catchings went to rest on the bench, and the Fever were utterly dominant in the opening stages. They ran away to a 16-point lead at the end of the opening quarter.

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The Daily W, 08/16/2014

 

Washington Mystics 71 @ Connecticut Sun 67

 

Lineups: As detailed in yesterday’s previews, for a variety of reasons the Sun were better off losing this game, so it was no surprise that Katie Douglas was in street clothes for tip-off. She had missed the end of their last game after walking off holding her back, so maybe she would’ve been out anyway, but there was certainly no incentive to rush her back. Danielle McCray started in her place, with long-term absentee Allison Hightower the only other player missing. So to Connecticut’s credit, it’s not like they went into full-on tanking mode. Washington had Kia Vaughn back from her one-game suspension for elbowing Chiney Ogwumike the last time these teams met, and she took her starting spot back from Stefanie Dolson. Kara Lawson’s ankle continues to keep her off the floor.

 

Story of the Game: The first half was utterly forgettable. Washington led for most of it thanks to some nice post moves from Emma Meesseman, some shooting from Bria Hartley and Ivory Latta, and overall dominance on the glass. Connecticut hung around, and a couple of late driving buckets for McCray and Alex Bentley allowed them to pull within four at halftime.

The Sun emerged with much better energy in the third quarter and made the game a more interesting battle. They were finally putting up a fight on the glass, came up with some transition points, and the mediocre play Washington had been producing all evening was no longer enough to keep them in front.

All of which combined to give us a tight finish. Meesseman made some strong plays down the stretch, showing off her silky passing skills and attacking Ogwumike to draw fouls and free throws. In fact, Washington did most of their work at the foul line in the closing stages. While Renee Montgomery was jacking and missing threes, Meesseman and then Monique Currie were picking up points at the line. Although on the one late possession where Montgomery gave the ball up, Bentley drilled a three from the corner to keep things interesting. But the late-game plays that Anne Donovan drew up out of timeouts were a disaster (or worked perfectly, if you believe she had the benefits of losing in the back of her mind). A staggered screen for Bentley didn’t break her open at all, and the play didn’t appear to have a second option, so ended in a Montgomery turnover. Then the next time down, Montgomery drove the baseline and kicked to Alyssa Thomas in the corner, who slid her foot backwards before making a move and went out of bounds as a result. Not that you ever want Thomas taking an important shot from the corner anyway, unless you’re the opposition. That ended the game as a contest, and Washington had confirmed their playoff spot.

 

Key Players: Meesseman inside, and the backcourt of Hartley and Latta outside, were the only players who consistently made shots for Washington. Currie did a decent job of attacking late in the game and knocking down important free throws. It was a big win for the Mystics to cement their spot in the postseason, but it wasn’t exactly a confidence-builder for the playoffs. They looked thoroughly ordinary all night, and they’ll likely need to play significantly better to actually win any games in the postseason. Tayler Hill and Kalana Greene continue to offer very little, so they’ll be desperately hoping Lawson’s ankle heals quickly. Otherwise Latta and Hartley are going to verge on 40 minutes a night.

Considering they had essentially nothing to play for and were missing their veteran presence on the perimeter, it was a relatively creditable performance from Connecticut. Bentley made some shots, Kelsey Bone finished some plays inside once she woke up in the second half, and Alyssa Thomas was reasonably effective. But this is still a team that looks like it needs to reload – and maybe rethink a little – to make the next step.

 

Notes of Interest: For the third time this season in the WNBA, a team was eliminated from playoff contention by the result of a game they weren’t even playing in. This scoreline meant New York will miss the postseason for the second straight year since Bill Laimbeer took over, and due to the Tina Charles trade they don’t even have the consolation of a lottery pick in the draft. Connecticut receive that, which was part of why losing this game worked out well for them.

 

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Tulsa Shock 76 @ Atlanta Dream 92

 

Lineups: Regular group for Tulsa, while Atlanta started the same big lineup they’d used in the last couple of games with Angel McCoughtry out due to tendonitis in her feet. She was in uniform and played in this game, but came off the bench.

 

Story of the Game: Odyssey Sims made enough shots to keep Tulsa in the game in the first quarter, but there were already signs of the run that was on the way in the second. Atlanta were starting to dominate the glass, and playing with good pace and desire considering how little the game actually meant to them in the standings. Then in the second period the Dream blew it open. That was when we saw something that actually resembled the old Atlanta Dream – running the floor hard, attacking in transition, and rolling over an opponent once they gathered momentum. Erika de Souza picked up points by finding deep position in the paint and taking strong passes from Shoni Schimmel and Jasmine Thomas to finish. Then McCoughtry, Schimmel and their teammates just started charging up and down the court and running right by the Shock. Tulsa had no answer, their offense couldn’t penetrate and fell apart, and Atlanta roared into a 22-point halftime lead.

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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, 08/10/2014

 

Minnesota Lynx 80 @ Phoenix Mercury 82

 

Lineups: For the first time in their four meetings this season, the two best teams in the WNBA had their entire rotations fit and ready to play. There were no surprises in the starting lineups.

 

Story of the Game: The Lynx, led by Maya Moore, lit Phoenix up in the opening quarter. Apart from a couple of breakaways that Moore created with a block and a steal it was all on jump shots, but that didn’t seem to matter – everything was dropping. Moore was electric, hitting from everywhere, including a couple of threes. One of them was on the same sideline play – where she inbounds the ball, gets it back immediately and fires – that resulted in two vital buckets in the fourth quarter of the previous Lynx-Mercury game. Phoenix might want to actually prepare for that next time these teams meet. And while Moore was the leader, everyone else was making shots for Minnesota as well, including Janel McCarville nailing a three when the defense left her alone, and Monica Wright adding a pair of jumpers after coming off the bench.

It was all Phoenix could do to cling on, and they just about managed it. They went inside to Brittney Griner a few times, and while she came up with a couple of buckets McCarville was also doing a good job of pushing Griner off the block before the ball could arrive. When Griner did get open, it was usually thanks to a physical screen from Diana Taurasi, who was clearly up for this game from the very beginning. She whined about how physical the previous meeting with Minnesota was – despite never shying away from creating contact herself – and it was clear that she was determined to get the first hit in this time around. She was also much more aggressive in looking for her own shot than we’ve seen in most of Phoenix’s games this season, where she’s often been as much of a creator as a scorer. It was the same in the last game against the Lynx – for such a big game, she wants the scoring responsibility in her hands.

The Mercury were only down by eight after that explosive opening period for Minnesota, which felt like a victory for Phoenix. Then in the second quarter, they came right back into the game. The Lynx inevitably cooled off, and their efforts to get the ball inside and create some paint points resulted in more turnovers than baskets. Phoenix were the team getting into the lane, and they were still clearly the aggressors in the contest, making things happen. DeWanna Bonner was looking to attack and score, Penny Taylor was driving into the defense, and a spinning Taurasi baseline jumper for the final points of the first half gave Phoenix their first lead of the night. The fact that it came after an uncalled (yet blatant) push-off to shed the defense of Lindsay Whalen just helped sum up the first half.

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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, 08/03/2014

 

Minnesota Lynx 84 @ Tulsa Shock 75

 

Lineups: Nothing new for either team, with the regular starters in place as normal. Backup point guard Nadirah McKenith, who hasn’t played much since joining the Lynx in midseason, wasn’t with the team. Exactly why was unknown.

 

Story of the Game: The Lynx started better and led by nine in the early stages behind the scoring of Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus (that’s going to become a theme over the course of this recap). They worked the lanes and cut through the defense for layups at times – and inevitably tried to run some of their dive plays to post up the smaller Tulsa perimeter players – but mostly it came down to the ridiculous shooting ability of the All-World Minnesota wings.

Tulsa tried to go through the low-post early on, which got them nowhere, and Skylar Diggins was just at the start of a tough night where she’d struggle to score. But the Shock came back into the game in the second quarter when Minnesota cooled off and started handing over some cheap turnovers, enabling Tulsa to get into transition and Odyssey Sims to start rolling. She had some difficulties adapting to the pro game earlier in the season, and due to that her shooting averages for the season still aren’t great, but she’s been steadily improving. Rather than missing finishes under pressure at the rim, we’re seeing more and more of her little floater when she gets into the lane, which is remarkably consistent and accurate for a difficult shot. As a team, the Shock became the aggressors in the second quarter, driving to the rim and earning trips to the free throw line. With Glory Johnson attacking from the high post area to add balance with Sims, Tulsa were only down by a point at halftime.

In the second half the lights came on and we got the kind of showcase you might’ve expected from two of the top-three offenses in the league. The ‘Maya and Mone Show’ was in full effect for the Lynx, with Moore in particular an unstoppable force for much of the half. She’s athletic and mobile and an excellent finisher at the basket, but the classic image of Moore that sticks in your head is her curling up to take a pass and then rising like a salmon into her effortless shooting motion to knock down an unguardable jump shot. That happened a lot in the second half of this game.

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The Daily W, 08/01/2014

 

Phoenix Mercury 67 @ Minnesota Lynx 75

 

Lineups: While both teams had their first-choice starters in place for this much-anticipated clash, it turned out that not everyone was available. Erin Phillips was missing for the Mercury due to a sprained left ankle, one of very few games that a rotation player has missed for Phoenix this year due to injury.

 

Story of the Game: As it turned out, the top two offenses in the WNBA didn’t produce anything remotely resembling a shootout. In fact, we saw a whole stream of misses from every conceivable angle over the course of the game. Lots of missed jumpers, many missed layups, pretty poor three-point shooting, and even mediocre production from the free-throw line. The game everyone had been anticipating for quite a while turned out to be a physical battle featuring more bricks and bruises than smooth offensive execution.

Which isn’t to say that it was a bad game. The Mercury opened up trying to go inside to Brittney Griner repeatedly, and had some success early on. Minnesota were firing a lot of jumpers, and not hitting many. Phoenix’s perimeter defense has gotten better since they’ve realised that Griner’s protecting behind them and they can adjust accordingly. It allows them to go over every screen and try to stay on the hip of the shooter, because they’re not nearly as afraid of that opponent turning the corner and driving for a layup. That leads to more closely contested jumpers, and more misses – even when Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus are the ones taking the shots.

The Lynx started building a lead late in the first quarter thanks to an old Mercury trick – force steals or grab long rebounds, and run. Phoenix don’t score quite as many transition points as they used to, and Minnesota might be the better fastbreak team of the two at this point. They pushed, got some layups while Phoenix were stalling at the other end, and led by 11 at the end of the first period. Tan White hitting a couple of threes helped as well.

But Phoenix wiped out most of the gap in the second quarter. They weren’t running their offense with their usual fluency, the ball sticking in the face of physical and smart Lynx defense. But Phoenix earned a few free throws by driving into contact, Griner, Candice Dupree and Penny Taylor hit a couple of shots apiece, and back they came. The Mercury also went to their 2-3 zone, and while Minnesota created some good looks against it, they didn’t knock many down. Phoenix were within three at the interval.

The scrappy, bitty game continued in the third, with neither offense showing much fluidity. Diana Taurasi was getting frustrated by the physical attention of Minnesota’s defenders, and missing more shots than anyone else in her attempts to respond. Sometimes, pissing her off works out well for a defense. But Minnesota’s offense was struggling as well, so they couldn’t pull away. The Lynx were achieving one of the key priorities of head coach Cheryl Reeve – take care of the ball to prevent Phoenix getting into an offensive flow off turnovers or mistakes – but they weren’t hitting shots. It was a struggle to score points for both teams almost all night long.

But finally, in the fourth quarter, some daylight. It became the ‘Maya and Mone Show’ for Minnesota, as their star wings suddenly found some rhythm and started knocking down shots. Moore hit a pair of threes, both on sideline plays where she inbounded the ball and got it straight back for clean looks. They snuck in for the occasional layup, but essentially two of the best jumpshooters in the women’s game finally started hitting jump shots, and that turned the contest. They were 8-13 combined in the fourth quarter, for 22 points, and with the vociferous home crowd behind them they took control of the game.

The Mercury hung around, with a Taurasi jumper and then a pair of Griner free throws (on a desperately soft call) bringing them within four points in the final minutes. But both times the Lynx answered with jumpers to hold them at bay. When Taurasi missed a three on the Mercury’s next possession with under a minute to play, their win streak was over at 16.

 

Key Players: On a night where they shot a combined 15-42 from the field, it was still Moore and Augustus who eventually played the central roles in finishing the game off for Minnesota. But it was the team defense that did the job for most of the night while they struggled to hit shots. The Lynx dealt better with the level of contact that the officials allowed throughout the game, and it was Phoenix who lost their composure a little in the second half. This game doesn’t win the Lynx anything in terms of the overall season, but it keeps them alive for the top seed in the West, and it’s a nice little reminder to the Mercury that the road to a WNBA championship in 2014 is still likely to go through Minnesota.

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The Daily W, 07/28/2014

 

Minnesota Lynx 76 @ Connecticut Sun 65

 

Lineups: Minnesota once again had everyone available, and could start the same core unit that led them to a title last year. Cheryl Reeve must be loving that after piecing her rotation together all season through various different injuries. Connecticut are still dealing with a few, with Kelsey Griffin (ankle), Allison Hightower (knee) and Danielle McCray (thumb) all still out. The starting five is the same group that they’ve used for the majority of the season, but their depth has taken a hit.

 

Story of the Game: This was a strange game, in that Minnesota never entirely turned it into a blowout on the scoreboard – but virtually from beginning to end it felt like they were in complete control. These are just two teams playing on very different levels, and in very different stages in their development, and you could feel that throughout.

It wasn’t until late in the first quarter that Minnesota’s impressive ball movement and teamwork started to translate into an overall advantage in the scoreline, with Alex Bentley managing to hit a couple of jumpers early on the keep Connecticut involved. But as the half wore on, Connecticut’s miserable shooting left their offense in tatters. Minnesota’s defense was structured to sag inside and protect against penetration or interior attacks, and yet the Sun were still incapable of hitting anything over the top of a defense that should’ve given them room to fire. With their roster intact again, Minnesota will be hoping to return to their previous defensive levels – which has always involved dropping inside but recovering fairly well to challenge shooters – but the Sun just couldn’t hit anything. Some decent offensive rebounding at least kept them within theoretical striking range.

But while Connecticut shot a little better in the second half, and cut a 17-point deficit down to eight midway through the fourth quarter when Bentley and Renee Montgomery finally connected a few times from outside, the Lynx were never in any real danger. The game wasn’t quite the varsity against the JV team, but it wasn’t far off.

 

Key Players: The Lynx had great balance, never needing to rely on anyone in particular to carry them. As in several previous visits, Maya Moore didn’t shoot particularly well back in Connecticut, but she did end up leading the scoring for Minnesota. It was a nice relaxing tune-up for Thursday’s big game against Phoenix, with no one other than Moore playing more than 29 minutes.

Center Kelsey Bone was Connecticut’s leading scorer, although she continues to miss a few too many straightforward finishes around the basket. For someone who doesn’t shoot much from beyond five feet, you’d really like to see a higher percentage from the field than 43%. Chiney Ogwumike gave them some energy in the second half as well, but the perimeter players were a combined 12-45. That’s not going to beat anyone, least of all Minnesota.

 

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Atlanta Dream 67 @ Washington Mystics 77

 

Lineups: Both teams started the same groups we’ve become accustomed to. The only significant absence for Atlanta lately has been head coach Michael Cooper, away from the team recuperating from surgery for tongue cancer last week. They haven’t won a game since he left.

 

Story of the Game: Washington led for most of the first half, but without ever pulling away too far. Their ball movement and cutting into space has been better lately, but a lot of their improvement has simply come down to making some damn shots. Players like Ivory Latta, Kara Lawson and Monique Currie were shooting so poorly earlier in the season, but they’ve picked it up and that’s played a key role in their recent run of positive results.

With center Erika de Souza being significantly less productive in recent weeks than she was earlier in the season, frontcourt partner Sancho Lyttle has come to the fore more as a scorer, and that was the case again in the first half. Ever since someone somewhere convinced her to stop firing threes and take a big pace in to about 18 feet, Lyttle has become an extremely accurate jumpshooter from that mid-range area. It took the Dream a while to get into the game, but by halftime they were only trailing by a point.

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