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

 

1. Full Playoff Schedule

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


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

Wednesday, September 21st (both games)


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

Sunday, September 25th (both games)


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

(Game 1s) Wednesday, September 28th

(Game 2s) Friday, September 30th

(Game 3s) Sunday, October 2nd

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

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


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

(Game 1) Sunday, October 9th

(Game 2) Tuesday, October 11th

(Game 3) Friday, October 14th

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

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


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

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


2. Dallas’s Dismal Defense

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

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

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

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: New York Liberty

 

PG: Brittany Boyd/Lindsey Harding/Shoni Schimmel

SG: Tanisha Wright/Sugar Rodgers/Ameryst Alston/(Epiphanny Prince)

SF: Shavonte Zellous

PF: Tina Charles/Adut Bulgak

C: Kiah Stokes/Amanda Zahui B./Carolyn Swords

Presumably, Prince will be temporarily suspended, allowing the Liberty to carry 12 players plus her. They have the cap space to manage that, thanks to the youth of much of the roster.


Significant additions
: Zellous as a free agent from Indiana, Harding as a vet option to help at the point, and both Schimmel and Zahui B in trades for minimal cost during training camp.

Significant losses: Prince tore her ACL overseas and is far and away the most meaningful loss. Essence Carson left for LA and Candice Wiggins retired, but neither will be hugely missed. Swin Cash was a late cut when the roster crowding forced a tough decision.


Overview

The Liberty were a surprise last season. After a couple of years in the lottery, then an offseason of turmoil where head coach Bill Laimbeer was fired and re-hired, and Isiah Thomas joined the front office, few were expecting such a dramatic turnaround. But Laimbeer finally got his squad playing as a unit, hit a shock home run in the draft with Kiah Stokes to help knit together a league-leading defense, and somehow they finished with the best record in the entire WNBA. It all ended in disappointment when Indiana upset them in the Eastern Conference Finals, but overall it was a dramatic step forward from where they’d been. Now the question is whether they can repeat the trick, and how much damage Prince’s injury will do to their prospects.

Tina Charles remains the fulcrum for everything New York does offensively, and while she still had her moments of drifting too far away from the basket and firing bad shots last season, it was better than in the previous couple. But the loss of Prince could hurt her, allowing defenses to pay even more attention to collapsing around her and forcing her teammates to make shots. Zellous was the best replacement they could’ve hoped for in free agency, with players of her calibre rarely available on the open market in this league, but they’ll need the Zellous of a couple of years ago to return. Last season she was limited by injuries and an aborted trip overseas, and never really got going.

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2015 WNBA Season Previews: New York Liberty

 

PG: Tanisha Wright/Brittany Boyd

SG: Epiphanny Prince/Candice Wiggins/Sugar Rodgers

SF: Essence Carson/Rebecca Allen

PF: Tina Charles/Swin Cash

C: Kiah Stokes/Carolyn Swords/Avery Warley-Talbert

 

Significant additions: If everything goes to plan, Prince, Wright, Boyd, Stokes, Allen, Wiggins and Swords. There’s been a lot of turnover in New York.

Significant losses: Cappie Pondexter, Plenette Pierson, Anna Cruz, Alex Montgomery, and any fans who can’t stomach giving money to an organisation run by Isiah Thomas.

 

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It’s been a bizarre, tumultuous offseason in New York – and that’s before you even consider that they eventually turned over more than half the roster. First Bill Laimbeer was let go, then he was brought back again when they couldn’t come up with a preferable alternative. Then the roster moves started to happen, turning an aging, fraying roster into one that at least has a little youth and energy to take heart from. Then the Isiah Thomas story exploded, and became all anyone wanted to talk about in relation to the Liberty. The League are still assessing whether they’re going to allow Thomas to become part-owner of the franchise, but hopefully the team have been able to put all those distractions aside and prepare to actually play some basketball. For the rest of this piece at least, we’ll focus on their prospects on the court.

 

The first move they made was perhaps the most significant, shipping the face of the franchise Cappie Pondexter to Chicago in a straight-up trade for Epiphanny Prince. They’re somewhat similar players, perimeter scorers who like to have the ball in their hands, although Prince has never reached the heights that Cappie ascended to at her peak. But the primary effect of the trade is the clear statement that this is now Tina Charles’s team. Realistically that was already the case, but with Cappie gone Charles has to know that the buck now stops with her. She’s capable of carrying that load, and seemed to settle in as her first season in New York progressed last year. But she does still have a tendency to slip too far away from the basket and rely on her mid-range shot, which needs to be the secondary option after punishing teams inside, not the first choice.

 

Beyond Charles, there’s talent on this roster, but questions abound. Can the collection of backups, youngsters and retreads do a good enough job filling the post spot next to Charles? Is Essence Carson ever going to bounce back to anything like the player she once was? Between the swath of veteran combo-guards and rookie point guard Brittany Boyd, can they combine to run a cohesive offense? Are there enough players on the roster who can hit a shot to keep defenses away from swamping Charles in traffic? It’s a long list, and even Laimbeer probably isn’t too sure about the answers just yet.

 

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The Daily W, 08/18/2014

 

Atlanta Dream 55 @ Connecticut Sun 84

 

Lineups: Atlanta were back to their regular starting lineup, after going big for a few games while Angel McCoughtry was suffering with tendonitis in her feet. Katie Douglas sat out again for Connecticut due to her back issues, and Allison Hightower never did make it back from midseason knee surgery that was only meant to keep her out for two-to-three weeks.

 

Story of the Game: With nothing on the line besides lottery percentages for Connecticut, there was an inevitable lack of energy and intensity in the game. Or more succinctly, it was dull. Michael Cooper will still be a little disappointed with how his team performed. He made heavier use of his bench than usual, but his rotation players still played significant minutes in the first half, and they were a mess. The Dream had a ludicrous 16 turnovers in the first half, and Connecticut inevitably slid into the lead.

Alex Bentley was lighting up her old team, and only went to the bench due to some foul trouble in the first half. Chiney Ogwumike played the complementary role in the paint, and Connecticut killed the game off for good in the third quarter with Atlanta losing interest to an even greater extent.

The one slightly worrying and potentially meaningful moment in the second half was Tiffany Hayes taking a heavy fall, and sitting out the rest of the game with her left (shooting) hand wrapped in ice. Hayes hits the deck and requires treatment at least once per game, but she throws her body around so much that there’s always a danger that she’ll get more seriously hurt. Hopefully the ice was just precautionary – she usually carries on and plays right through all the knocks and bruises.

 

Key Players: Bentley and Ogwumike did most of the work for the Sun, with a few buckets from UConn product Kelly Faris exciting the crowd. No one for Atlanta did anything worth talking about, and they’ll be hoping to flip the switch to a vastly better performance for the meaningful games that begin next week.

 

Notes of Interest: The Sun actually hurt their lottery chances with this win, decreasing their odds of getting the #1 pick in the 2015 draft (where they’d be expected to take yet another UConn grad, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis). Sometimes playing for pride has minor negative repercussions.

 

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San Antonio Stars 84 @ Chicago Sky 72

 

Lineups: This was the game that had a chance to decide playoff seeding in both conferences (it wasn’t actually quite as clear-cut as I described in yesterday’s column – apologies for the inaccuracy). A win for San Antonio would earn them the third seed in the West and a matchup with Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs, rather than a clash with Phoenix. A win for Chicago would’ve potentially seen them finish third in the East (although not necessarily, as a loss for Indiana would’ve created a three-way tie even if Chicago won, and forced the Sky down to fourth). But Pokey Chatman made her feelings on that #3 seed clear with her lineup choices. Star trio Epiphanny Prince, Elena Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles all began the afternoon on the bench and stayed there throughout. Courtney Vandersloot started for the first time since returning from her knee injury, with Courtney Clements and Markeisha Gatling filling the spots opened up by Prince and Fowles. San Antonio had left point guard Danielle Robinson back home to rest a turned ankle – so maybe they weren’t that worried about #3 or #4 either – but that was nothing compared to the talent Chicago left on the sidelines.

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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, 08/15/2014

 

New York Liberty 63 @ Indiana Fever 76

 

Lineups: New York made the change I suggested might happen in yesterday’s preview, benching Avery Warley-Talbert in favour of combining Swin Cash and Alex Montgomery at the forward spots. It was a clear effort to match up with Tamika Catchings, who helped tear New York apart when these teams met five days ago. The Fever, unsurprisingly, went with the same regular lineup they used in that previous game. Their bench was one player short, with Layshia Clarendon sidelined by a sore back if you believe the box score, or a hip spasm if you listen to Chris Denari, the Fever commentator. Probably just different descriptions for the same pain.

 

Story of the Game: The idea appeared to be that Montgomery would guard Catchings, but with Cash becoming the power forward when New York had the ball. Whatever the plan, it didn’t go well for the Liberty. Indiana were the team with all the confidence and energy, and it didn’t take long for that to show up on the scoreboard. The Liberty tried to go inside to Tina Charles as usual, but between Erlana Larkins and plenty of help, even that was largely unsuccessful – and unlike in Sunday’s clash between these teams, no one else was hitting anything for New York either.

Indiana pushed when they had the chance, looking to pick up cheap points whenever possible, but it was scarcely even necessary. They were moving the ball well, finding the open player, and knocking down shots. Catchings took a little while to come into the game, but attacked Plenette Pierson as soon as she came in at the first timeout, and joined in the scoring for Indiana. They led by 10 at the end of the first quarter, and the momentum was building.

Even with a bench-heavy lineup in the game – Sydney Carter, Maggie Lucas, Karima Christmas, Natasha Howard and Lynetta Kizer opened the second period for Indiana – the Fever just kept rolling. New York couldn’t find any rhythm offensively, couldn’t pierce the Indiana defense, so they just ground to a halt. The Fever starters gradually reintegrated, Catchings, Briann January and Shavonte Zellous continued to hit shots, and the lead just kept growing. By halftime Indiana were up by 25 and the Liberty were on course for another embarrassing hammering.

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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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