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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The Daily W, 07/26/2014

 

Tulsa Shock 77 @ Washington Mystics 82

 

Lineups: Same five starters as usual for both teams. Riquna Williams was available for the first time in over a month for Tulsa, but played so little and made so little impact in her one brief appearance that I didn’t even notice she’d played until checking the box score.

 

Story of the Game: I’ve repeated this to the point of admitted tedium, but Tulsa’s transition defense is horrendously bad. Mike Thibault was clearly well aware of this, and had his team primed to push the ball at every opportunity to exploit the chances on offer against the Shock. That resulted in a host of easy baskets, and combined with some decent outside shooting from Ivory Latta and Kara Lawson led to a double-digit advantage for Washington in the first half. Over and over again, Tulsa recover incredibly poorly from their own misses, and give up cheap points the other way. It’s been one of the central elements in digging all those holes they’ve had to try to climb out of many, many times this season.

Offensively, the Shock also looked short of ideas in the first half. Other than Skylar Diggins and occasionally Odyssey Sims creating off the dribble for themselves, or an occasional offensive rebound for Courtney Paris, they didn’t seem to know how else to create any decent offense against the Mystics. Diggins had several impressive finishes at the rim, but it wasn’t enough to keep pace with Washington, and Tulsa trailed by 12 at halftime.

Washington’s offense struggled badly for much of the second half, which eventually allowed Tulsa to inch back into the game. The Mystics had found some flow for their scoring in the first half thanks to their transition game, aided by Tulsa turnovers, and when those dried up in the second half so did their production. The comeback didn’t really kick into gear until the fourth quarter, when a bit of variation from Tulsa finally gave them some decent offense. They were finally using Glory Johnson and Paris in the paint, attacking Washington’s interior and not allowing the Mystics to key on just one area defensively. It took them long enough. The slew of offensive boards keeping Shock possessions alive helped them out as well.

Amazingly, Washington didn’t manage to score a single field goal in the fourth quarter until there were only 45 seconds left in the game – and yet still clung on to the lead. Their minimal scoring all came from the free throw line, and kept Washington just barely afloat. It was Lawson who broke the field goal drought in the final minute, and then Currie who made a crucial run of free throws to close the game out.

 

Key Players: Latta and Currie eventually led the scoring for Washington, although Latta did almost all her work early on and all 16 of Currie’s points came at the charity stripe. When their team defense was aggressive and they were in constant attack mode in the first half, they exploited all of Tulsa’s holes and picked up points across the board. When they slowed down in the second half, it became an attritional exercise in clinging on to their lead. But it’s their fifth win in six games, and in the tightly compacted Eastern Conference a run like that can go a long way towards cementing a playoff spot – however scrappy the performances might be.

Yet again, a poor start for Tulsa dug too big of a hole for one of their typical comebacks to drag them out of. It’s ridiculous how often they’ve done that this season. How many times can you pull out the “such a young team” excuse, rather than just admitting to a constant and repeating problem that needs to be dealt with, whether veteran or rookie? If they show up mentally focussed from the start of games, and actually work to defend in transition and rotate properly, there are straightforward improvements that can be made by this team. But it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen this season.

 

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Chicago Sky 79 @ Atlanta Dream 75

 

Lineups: No changes from recent games for either team. Chicago are still hoping that Elena Delle Donne may rejoin the team at the end of their current road trip, starting with their game against New York on Thursday night, but there’s been no confirmation just yet.

 

Story of the Game: The game was at McCamish Pavillion again, as Atlanta completed their brief run at a temporary home before returning to Philips Arena. Based on how they played in the opening stages, they’ll be happy to escape the memories of this performance. The Dream were awful in the first half, looking ponderous and sloppy at both ends of the floor. Their string of cheap, unnecessary turnovers gave away possession repeatedly, and slow, lazy defensive rotations gave up easy, open looks to the Sky.

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