The Daily W, 08/30/2014: Mercury outwork, outhustle and outplay Lynx on way to Game 1 win

 

Minnesota Lynx 71 @ Phoenix Mercury 85

 

Lineups: The starting fives were as expected for Game 1 of this eagerly anticipated series. The only slight surprise among the available players was that Lynx post Damiris Dantas had recently returned from her personal issues back in Brazil, and was available again off the bench for Minnesota.

 

Story of the Game: The game started as much of it would go on – unfortunately for Minnesota. Buoyed by their noisy home crowd, the Mercury got out in transition early on and scored the first nine points of the game. They were challenging hard on all the jumpers the Lynx were tossing up, leaking out after making those challenges, and beating Minnesota down the floor at the other end. DeWanna Bonner also drilled a three in the opening 90 seconds of the game, which would be another bad sign for the rest of the night for the Lynx.

 

After an early Cheryl Reeve timeout to wake her team up, Minnesota came right back into it in the first period. Seimone Augustus was the primary driving force, making a couple of nice runners after early jump shots hadn’t fallen. But they’d needed to make some tough shots, and have Rebekkah Brunson come up with some offensive boards and hustle points, just to stay close. Phoenix were playing their natural game, moving the ball well and sharing it around the floor, and looked in control.

 

Diana Taurasi picked up her second personal foul for a push-off late in the opening period (right after being called for a carry, which itself was preceded by a defensive three-seconds call on Griner – referee Sue Blauch wasn’t doing the Mercury any favours). Then Brittney Griner was called for her second foul early in the second period on a Lindsay Whalen drive. But Minnesota weren’t able to take advantage. Taurasi came back in quickly, and played with the fouls without issue. Griner came back midway through the second quarter, and her team was still up by four. The Lynx have to be able to gain ground when those two are on the bench in this series, especially when they’ve forced them there with foul trouble.

 

Instead, Phoenix pressed home their advantage once their starters were reunited again. The Mercury’s team defense and energy level was winning the battle with the Lynx, with Bonner and help making Maya Moore a thoroughly peripheral part of Minnesota’s offense. Penny Taylor was offering lots of hustle work as well, tracking down loose balls and rebounds while always making the right pass to the next open teammate. With Griner always a target inside – and knocking down three mid-range jump shots just to make her even more scary – and the combination of Taurasi, Bonner and Candice Dupree producing elsewhere, Phoenix started to slide away late in the first half. Minnesota took a couple of bad shots, got beaten by Phoenix’s ball movement and basic work rate too often, and were down by 11 at the end of the half. The Mercury went on an 11-4 run after Griner came back in.

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WNBA 2014 Playoff Previews – Western Conference Finals: Phoenix Mercury vs. Minnesota Lynx

 

Phoenix Mercury (#1 seed, 29-5) vs Minnesota Lynx (#2 seed, 25-9)

 

Phoenix

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 106.21, 1st in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 93.89, 1st in WNBA

 

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

 

Season series: Mercury won 3-1

06/15 @Min: Mercury won 80-72

06/18 @Pho: Mercury won 92-79

07/31 @Min: Lynx won 75-67

08/09 @Pho: Mercury won 82-80

 

—–

 

Since the early weeks of the season, when the WNBA began to shake itself out for 2014, it’s felt like these two teams were on a collision course. In their three-year reign at the top of the Western Conference (and mostly at the top of the League), the Minnesota Lynx have had challengers. They’ve had occasional poor runs, or losses here and there throughout each season, along with the upset defeat to Indiana in the Finals in 2012. But with Sandy Brondello taking over in Phoenix, the 2014 Mercury have come together as a true WNBA powerhouse, and even took over Minnesota’s regular spot at the top of the Western standings. So here we finally are, about to begin a best-of-three for all the marbles in the West, between two superstar-laden squads who barely know how to lose.

 

We’ve been through the respective qualities of these teams in the past – there was plenty of detail on that in the previews for the first round here and here, if you fancy a refresher – so here we’re going to concentrate on the direct matchup between the two teams. Offensively, they share several characteristics. Both teams are fantastically unselfish, moving the ball smoothly around the floor to whoever’s open and taking the right shot. Superstars willing to take a back seat when it aids winning basketball, or give up a good shot for a great one, have made that easier in both cities.

 

Minnesota are a little more focussed on specific scorers. The majority of their points tend to come from Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen, with Moore usually leading the way. Their posts will chip in here and there, usually on mid-range jumpers, and they might get an occasional burst from Monica Wright or Tan White off the bench, but Phoenix’s focus will be to stop those three. Phoenix have two key cogs in Diana Taurasi outside and Brittney Griner in, but with Candice Dupree, Penny Taylor and DeWanna Bonner the scoring is typically a little more spread out. Minnesota will try to stop Taurasi and Griner first and foremost, with Dupree a close third, and make someone else beat them.

 

Defense is where, over the course of the season, there was the biggest gap between these teams. They were the top two offenses in the league, and scoring points was rarely a problem. But with Griner constantly lurking around the rim, the Mercury developed a successful defense for the first time in years (and years, and years). On a surface level, it seems like Minnesota should have the perfect arsenal to nullify Griner, or at least minimise her impact. They have posts who can all play up high, acting as passers and fulcrums for the offense, rather than low-post threats. And they all at least have to be respected a little from 15 feet, so the likes of Janel McCarville and Rebekkah Brunson will try to drag Griner out of the paint as often and as far as possible. Also, in Moore and Augustus, the Lynx have two of the greatest jumpshooters the women’s game has ever seen, so they should be able to score fairly consistently from the perimeter without going anywhere near Griner under the basket. We’ll certainly see plenty of wide curls, pin-down screens and back-picks just to create a little space for those two scorers to fire away.

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The Daily W, 08/24/2014: Fever and Lynx pushed hard, but complete sweeps to advance

 

Indiana Fever 81 @ Washington Mystics 76 (OT)

 

Lineups: No changes from Game 1, where Indiana just barely scraped out a win at home. Sydney Carter was out for the Fever, so Layshia Clarendon became the backup point guard for those rare minutes when Lin Dunn risked resting Briann January.

 

Story of the Game: It was Indiana who made the slightly better start, but in a scrappy early period that didn’t mean much. As in the first game, Tamika Catchings couldn’t hit a jump shot for love nor money, but she seemed to come to a quicker realisation that she needed to drive instead, and produced some points through that approach. Washington were clearly trying to guide her towards the middle of the court, where plenty of Mystics could clog the lane and help Emma Meesseman deal with her.

 

Washington lost Tierra Ruffin-Pratt early in the second quarter, when her arm got caught up with Shavonte Zellous while fighting for a rebound and she walked off holding her wrist (although it was later reported as a shoulder injury). But it was the remainder of Washington’s bench players that finally dragged them into the contest. Stefanie Dolson hit a couple of mid-range jumpers, and generally made a more visible impact on the action than starting center Kia Vaughn had done at any stage in the series. Kara Lawson came in and hit shots, replacing the ineffective and very quiet Bria Hartley. And then Tianna Hawkins joined in, working hard and sneaking into space for hustle points. It was classic Mystics under Thibault – try enough of your options, and a few of them will hopefully step up and demand you pay attention.

 

However, Washington were still turning the ball over too much, and the defensive attentions of Briann January and hedging help off ball-screens had kept Ivory Latta quiet. So despite shooting 30% from the field, Indiana led by three at halftime. Washington had occasionally gone to a bit of an unusual twist to their defense, which we saw even more of in the second half. It looked a lot like a 2-3 zone – which is unusual from Mike Thibault to begin with – but was fluid enough that sometimes it just became a switch-heavy man-to-man. At times, Indiana’s ball movement beat it and created wide open looks, but in general the Mystics did a decent job of limiting Indiana’s offense. It made it a little easier for Washington to slide inside and cut off the driving lanes for players like Catchings.

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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

 

—–

 

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.

 

—–

 

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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