The Daily W, 08/05/2014

 

New York Liberty 83 @ Atlanta Dream 76

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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Connecticut Sun 69 @ Los Angeles Sparks 70

 

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

 

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

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

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The Daily W, 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, 07/31/2014

 

Connecticut Sun 80 @ Atlanta Dream 89

 

Lineups: Still searching for their first win since head coach Michael Cooper left the team to deal with tongue cancer, stand-in Karleen Thompson pulled the trigger on the switch at point guard for Atlanta, promoting Celine Dumerc into the starting lineup ahead of Jasmine Thomas. They tried it earlier in the season, but the experiment only lasted one game (for no obvious reason). Connecticut had sometime-starter Kelsey Griffin available again, but she came off the bench with Kelsey Bone continuing to start at center. Allison Hightower and Danielle McCray were still injured; Kayla Pedersen and Ebony Hoffman both didn’t play (but no injuries were reported for either).

 

Story of the Game: Atlanta led for most of the first half, but rarely by much. Angel McCoughtry was slashing into the heart of Connecticut’s defense repeatedly, creating high-percentage chances for herself. While it was still a little focussed on her own offense – something I’ve criticised her for in recent games – it was a hell of a lot better than when she stands around the perimeter and jacks up jump shots. She was very effective, and the Dream also got out in transition and found Erika de Souza rolling to the basket more than they had been in recent games. Dumerc gave them more of a creative force on the ball, and they generally looked a bit more like the athletic and aggressive Atlanta Dream we’ve known in the past.

But Connecticut kept up with them, and were surprisingly successful themselves in getting into the paint and scoring inside. Bone, Chiney Ogwumike and Alyssa Thomas were all finding their way to the rim against Atlanta’s interior defense, which is typically very solid. It kept the game competitive.

The Sun didn’t get inside as much in the second half, but the combination of Katie Douglas and lots of help defenders did manage to cool off McCoughtry. Atlanta responded by going to the opposite wing, and letting Tiffany Hayes slash to the hoop instead. Connecticut settled for jumpers a little too much in the second half, partly because Atlanta knew the Sun’s success was coming in the paint so their defense collapsed further and further inside. The Dream allowed a 10-point lead to dwindle to just two in the fourth quarter – perhaps a touch nervous after failing to win any of their last four games – but a timeout, plus the return of Dumerc and Hayes from some rest, and Atlanta were quickly back in charge. Douglas hit a couple of threes to potentially make things interesting, but a dumb foul by Alex Bentley on a Hayes three-point attempt ended the game as a contest with a minute remaining.

 

Key Players: The combination of McCoughtry and Hayes on the wings for Atlanta – finishing the game a combined 18-29 from the field for 48 points – drove the scoring for the Dream, but there was better pace and energy all around. Erika finished with 17 points and was an important presence inside, while Dumerc was a solid controlling hand. Even Jasmine Thomas made a contribution, not pouting about being benched and bringing some energy when she came into the game. Five of Atlanta’s next six games are on the road, so they’ll need to keep working hard to maintain this level on their travels, but this was a good first step in righting the ship.

Alyssa Thomas started the game well, and the Bone/Ogwumike tandem gave the Sun a base inside, but it was another game where the Sun’s inability to hit shots from the perimeter let them down. Sometimes the likes of Douglas, Bentley and Renee Montgomery are hot, but often they’re not, and when that’s the case this team has trouble winning games.

 

Notes of Interest: There were a ridiculous number of video reviews in this game. The NBA and WNBA have to do something about the amount of time we’re all left sitting around twiddling our thumbs waiting for decisions to be made – often on plays that were pretty damn obvious to begin with. It’s excruciating.

 

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Washington Mystics 76 @ New York Liberty 80 (OT)

 

Lineups: Both teams started the same fives we’ve come to expect in recent weeks. The only real note worth making from the pre-game was that Washington were in their usual road red, with New York wearing pink for Breast Health Awareness week. It’s a worthy cause, but red versus pink in a sporting event is just asinine. They’re two shades of the same damn colour.

 

Story of the Game: The first half was controlled by New York, primarily by Tina Charles. She was constantly at the heart of their offense, with Washington sagging their defense inside but trying not to actively double-team when they could avoid it. She bullied Kia Vaughn and the other Washington posts, scoring at the rim and knocking down mid-rangers as well, while playing her part in the Liberty’s domination on the offensive glass. Even beyond Charles, New York comprehensively won the energy battle in the first half, with players like Avery Warley-Talbert, Anna Cruz and Sugar Rodgers flying around the floor to make all the little hustle plays. Alex Montgomery rounded off the strong half for New York by throwing in a heave from 50 feet at the halftime buzzer to send the Liberty in ahead by 15.

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The Daily W, 07/27/2014

 

Los Angeles Sparks 77 @ Seattle Storm 69

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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Indiana Fever 75 @ San Antonio Stars 68

 

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

 

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

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The Daily W, 07/25/2014

 

New York Liberty 84 @ Seattle Storm 80 (OT)

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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The Daily W, 07/24/2014

 

Connecticut Sun 75 @ Washington Mystics 89

 

Lineups: Kelsey Griffin was out for Connecticut with what was listed as a left ankle problem in the box score, although on a Washington broadcast we received no details on the injury. So after a couple of games coming off the bench, Kelsey Bone moved back into the starting lineup almost by default. As an extra option to help fill the hole left by Griffin, Ebony Hoffman was available in a Sun uniform for the first time after recently being signed to replace Kelley Cain. Washington started what’s become their regular starting five, and had Kara Lawson available again off the bench after missing a couple of games due to a back problem.

 

Story of the Game: Monique Currie was hot early for the Mystics, and between her and Ivory Latta the basic element of hitting some outside shots made Washington’s offense run a lot more smoothly. Unfortunately, they lost Currie for a while after she was chopped on a drive and had to receive treatment. She came back, but had to play the remainder of the game with heavy strapping around the thumb on her shooting hand.

Neither side managed to maintain control of the game for very long in the first half. Connecticut were trying to push the ball whenever they could, as usual, and a run of offensive boards late in the half for Bone and Chiney Ogwumike pulled them even on the scoreboard. Turnovers became an issue for Washington as the half wore on, but they shot well enough to mitigate it and the game was tied at 38-38 at the interval.

The third quarter was more of the same – offensive boards for Connecticut giving them easy second-chances inside, but with Washington clawing their way to enough points to always keep the game close, and the score still tied heading to the fourth. Then in the final period, one team finally managed to separate themselves. Latta led the way for the Mystics, hitting a couple of shots but also injecting the energy, passion and enthusiasm that the game had lacked for most of the afternoon. Then the post combination of Emma Meesseman and Stefanie Dolson took over the scoring load, with Meesseman’s vision and passing helping find Dolson inside to finish plays and produce the points. Washington scored 10 straight in the middle of the fourth in the space of less than two minutes, turning a three-point deficit into a seven-point lead, and that essentially decided the game. Connecticut couldn’t find any way to answer, the gap crept to double-digits, and the contest was over.

 

Key Players: Currie had one of those strong games that she pulls out of the bag every now and then, which are nice to see, but also frustrating because they make you wish they occurred more consistently. In fairness to her, she’s had several effective performances recently, and bounced back from an early-season slump where she couldn’t buy a basket. Latta finished 9-14 from the field, including 5-7 from beyond the arc, playing a key role for the Mystics as well. She might’ve made the All-Star team (via a ludicrous replacement choice), but she hasn’t played like one for most of the year. They need at least one of Latta, Lawson or Bria Hartley to be making shots on any given night to win games. Meesseman and Dolson came through late, even if Washington got killed on the offensive glass for most of the game.

Connecticut are a bad road team. There’s just no getting around that, with their record away from the Mohegan Sun dropping to 3-10 this season, and they’ve fallen down the standings ever since their schedule evened up and forced them to play away from home more. Ogwumike and Bone gave them a chance inside in this one, and Alex Bentley made some shots from the perimeter, but they couldn’t finish the game out in the fourth quarter. Which isn’t much of a surprise, considering how often that’s happened in previous games this year.

 

Notes of Interest: In a tightly compacted Eastern Conference, this win could be important for the Mystics beyond the single victory. It was their third over the Sun this season in three encounters, with two more left to be played, so they’ve already sewn up the tie-breaker over Connecticut should they be tied at the end of the season. With five teams fighting for three postseason spots in the East, picking up wins over any of those rivals is going to be especially important down the stretch.

 

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New York Liberty 66 @ Los Angeles Sparks 64

 

Lineups: The big news around the Sparks all week had been Carol Ross’s firing as head coach, and coaching novice Penny Toler adding that job to her general manager responsibilities. But the headline item before tip-off in Toler’s coaching debut was that superstar Candace Parker was a late scratch due to a left knee strain. The conspiracy theorist in the back of my head forces me to mention that it’s a hell of a coincidence that Parker’s first missed game of the year would come in the first game after a coaching change. But she was on the sidelines cheering the team on, so maybe she really did just tweak her knee. Even ignoring the new leadership, it’s a horrible time for an injury to their star, considering this started a run of five games in seven days for LA (including two against league leaders Phoenix). Hopefully she’ll recover quickly. Armintie Herrington came into the starting lineup as Parker’s replacement, with the other four starters remaining the same as in recent games under Ross.

New York had their regular starting five in place. Speedy guard Natasha Lacy made her debut in a Liberty uniform after recently being signed to a seven-day contract.

 

Story of the Game: There weren’t many conspicuous differences to how Los Angeles played under Toler, which is hardly a surprise considering she’s only been in charge for a couple of days. Also Gary Kloppenburg, an assistant who’s been there all season, seemed to be doing a lot of the actual coaching. Toler mostly appears to be there to act as a glorified cheerleader, and provide the typical ra-ra speeches.

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The Daily W, 07/17/2014

 

Atlanta Dream 75 @ New York Liberty 77

 

Lineups: Both teams started the same fives they’ve been using for a while, so Cappie Pondexter was healthy enough to play after missing most of the second half in the Liberty’s last game. According to the New York commentators, it was a groin problem that took her out then, possibly caused by overcompensating for the achilles issues she’s been fighting for much of the season. Natasha Lacy was available for New York for the first time after she replaced Chucky Jeffery on a seven-day deal earlier in the week (although she didn’t play). Swin Cash was facing the Dream for the first time since they traded her after barely half a season in Atlanta. DeLisha Milton-Jones – swapped for Cash – is out for the rest of the season after rupturing an achilles tendon.

 

Story of the Game: The first half was close, and the only time either side led by more than four points was when Anna Cruz hit the final shot of the half to give New York a five-point lead at the break. Perhaps energised by all the screaming kids packed into Madison Square Garden for the early tip-off, the Liberty played with a lot of energy and drive, matching Atlanta in the areas where the Dream often dominate teams. New York had just as much pace to their game, were far more successful on the offensive glass, and for once their supporting players stepped up. Tina Charles made a couple of nice plays, but was largely kept quiet by Atlanta’s length and the double-teams they sent down towards her. Pondexter showed a willingness to attack the basket, but couldn’t convert anything when she got there (and limped back to the bench at one stage in the first quarter). But Sugar Rodgers made shots and attacked the basket; Plenette Pierson was effective off the bench; Avery Warley-Talbert crashed the glass; Anna Cruz hit a few jumpers; and the combination of Alex Montgomery and Swin Cash made life difficult for Angel McCoughtry. For once the team effort around the superstars was carrying the Liberty.

Having Erika de Souza in foul trouble for much of the first half created problems for Atlanta, as did some horrible ball-stopping from McCoughtry at times, but they pieced together enough offense to stay right with New York in the opening 20 minutes. They opened the second half without McCoughtry absent for some unknown reason – she didn’t appear from the locker room until three minutes of the third quarter had already elapsed – and then New York proceeded to dominate most of the third period. Their energy and aggression was outworking the Dream. Pondexter drew de Souza’s fourth foul early in the period, sending her back to the bench, and making it easier for Charles to attack the rim rather than settle for her mid-range jumper. Rodgers continued to make plays, Atlanta couldn’t buy a bucket, and New York led by double-digits.

But basketball is a fickle game. Behind a couple of friendly calls from the officials, some missed Liberty jumpers and a little transition speed, Atlanta scored the first 10 points of the fourth quarter to tie up the game – and then we had a real fight on our hands. In a game where she finished with nine assists – so she was moving the ball to the right places at times – McCoughtry forced some horrible jump shots to kill several possessions down the stretch for Atlanta. But with Charles and Pondexter both fairly ineffective, New York couldn’t pull away.

Cruz hit a tough pullup jumper with 90 seconds left, on a play that looked like it was designed for Charles until she gave it up. Then Pondexter did a nice job containing Tiffany Hayes on a drive, but the offensive rebound was kicked back out and Jasmine Thomas nailed a three to tie the game again. Cash and Hayes had poor passes at either end for cheap turnovers before Pondexter went around staggered screens at the top of the arc and bricked a jumper with 12 seconds left. With the game tied, Atlanta didn’t call timeout, instead allowing McCoughtry to attack immediately. Montgomery tracked her down the lane, got a hand on top of the ball, and drew a jump ball rather than giving up a foul. McCoughtry tapped the ensuing toss too hard, and the ball went straight out of bounds, leaving New York five seconds to win it.

And however many shots she may have missed already, Pondexter is always going to want the game-decider in her hands. She inbounded to Pierson, took the handoff straight back, and banked in a jumper from 17 feet. Whether it was actually meant to hit the glass first, or she just got a little lucky, it didn’t really matter. With only 0.4 seconds left, Atlanta tried a lob pass to the basket for Hayes, but it was easily cut out and New York had their win.

 

Key Players: To the delight of Liberty fans everywhere, they had lots of key players for once. This is kind of the secondary option of how it’s supposed to work with the two superstars – some days they won’t hit, but they’ll still draw so much attention from the defense that the rest of the team can take advantage. Pondexter and Charles were a combined 10-36 from the field, but their teammates were 21-40, with Cruz, Rodgers and Pierson leading the way, while Cash and Montgomery played important defensive roles. It was a strong team effort, and could be a big win for the Liberty’s season. Of course, there’ve been so many false dawns for this team this year, so it could just be one good performance that’ll be quickly forgotten. New York play six of their next seven games on the road, where they’re 1-8 so far this year. Even in the East, if they go something like 1-6 over that stretch, their season may well be toast.

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The Daily W, 07/12/2014

 

Los Angeles Sparks 68 @ New York Liberty 54

 

Lineups: Same again for both teams, with Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard continuing to start in the backcourt for Los Angeles. New York had Swin Cash available for the first time after they acquired her in a trade for DeLisha Milton-Jones on Wednesday night.

 

Story of the Game: While we’ll go into a little more detail, the story of this one for New York wasn’t particularly complicated. The newly rejuvenated Tina Charles showed up for them again – but no one else did. And however good your one player may be, it’s very hard to win a basketball game with only one offensive weapon.

But for three periods, the Liberty gave it a decent shot. In the first quarter, it looked like Charles might get some help. Alex Montgomery hit a couple of shots when the ball was reversed back out to her away from the attention Charles drew, Plenette Pierson and Cash were hitting from mid-range just like Charles herself when LA left them in space, and the team defense was good enough to at least keep them within striking distance.

The Sparks got most of their offensive production from their starting frontcourt, with the offense initially waking up when Candace Parker started to take over in the second quarter. Some fairly pathetic turnovers from the Liberty helped as well, but it was Parker’s ability to grab rebounds or loose balls and immediately turn up-court and create quick offense that spurred LA on and pushed them into a nine-point halftime lead. Then it was Jantel Lavender going shot-for-shot with Charles in the third quarter that carried LA’s offense for a long stretch, either finishing efficiently in the lane or hitting from mid-range with her standard consistency. And she was doing all that with Charles as her primary defender, while Tina was answering at the other end over a variety of opponents, mostly with the spinning jump hook that she often resorts to in order to score before extra defenders arrive.

Behind that offense from Charles, New York managed to pull within two points late in the third quarter, but it had become glaringly obvious that Charles was the only reliable option that New York had left. Cappie Pondexter had been ineffective all night, failing to score a single point on five attempts from the field, and never came back in after subbing out three minutes into the third quarter. The MSG network were utterly useless in providing any information as to exactly why New York’s star guard and leader wasn’t playing, but the achilles problem she’s been fighting through for quite some time seemed the likely culprit. With the Sparks able to collapse even more defenders and attention on Charles than they’d been doing for the rest of the game, New York’s offense collapsed entirely in the fourth quarter. They couldn’t get her the ball, and when they did and multiple defenders forced the ball back out, no one could make a shot for the Liberty – or even seemed to want to take one. The Sparks’ offense also devolved in the fourth quarter, with a lot of one-on-one play and minimal ball movement, but with the Liberty only scoring four points in the entire period, it was still more than enough for LA to coast home.

 

Key Players: Parker, Lavender and Nneka Ogwumike were once again the most effective parts of LA’s offense, although the guards did manage to hit a few shots here and there to provide some balance. Credit the team defense for playing its part in keeping New York’s non-Charles pieces quiet, and forcing some of the demoralising turnovers that eventually finished off the Liberty. But New York gave up many of those in ways that didn’t have a great deal to do with LA.

Charles finished 10-17 for 20 points and eight boards, carrying New York’s offense for long stretches on her own. You can’t really blame her for continuing to call her own number when she was virtually the only one producing, but failing to attempt a single free throw illustrates the way jumpers and fading hooks produced much of her offense, which doesn’t tend to draw fouls. And maybe another pass or two away from the LA defenders would’ve kept her teammates more involved and more likely to keep helping her out as the game wore on. But that’s probably a vain hope. No one else in a Liberty jersey looked like they were going to score in the second half.

 

Notes of Interest: Cash looked frisky in her opening moments in a Liberty uniform, which surprisingly came as early as the first quarter. Clearly her familiarity with the sets and plays Laimbeer likes to run from their Detroit days made him more willing to throw her into the fray than he had been with new signings like Shanece McKinney and Charde Houston earlier in the season.

In news of another player we haven’t seen much of this season, Candice Wiggins looks mobile and lively after returning from her knee injury, but her shot looks painfully flat and isn’t even coming close to going in. Hopefully it’ll improve once she gets her legs under her again, because LA really don’t need another perimeter player who can’t shoot, even if she’s a reasonably active defender.

 

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Seattle Storm 88 @ San Antonio Stars 67

 

Lineups: Both teams started the groups we’ve seen in their recent games. The news on San Antonio sixth woman Jia Perkins is that her hamstring injury will keep her out at least until the All-Star break, at which point she’ll be reassessed. It looked pretty bad when she pulled up lame against Atlanta, so it’s not really a surprise that it’s proven to be a relatively serious injury. San Antonio have done a good job of surviving without her – winning four of five since she went down – but this was one game where it finally felt like they missed her contributions.

 

Story of the Game: The first quarter stayed fairly even, with a brief early lead for San Antonio developing when the game strayed into becoming a jump-shooting contest, but Seattle doing enough to quickly pull it back. Then the Storm started to pull away in the second quarter, with Shekinna Stricklen providing the impetus. Stricklen’s a frustrating player, because she’s got all the attributes – size, range, mobility, good speed, a reasonable handle – and occasionally she has breakout games like this. She’ll hit a bunch of threes, leak out on the break for transition finishes, make some hustle plays for rebounds or steals, and get everyone excited for the one hint of youthful potential on Seattle’s roster. And then she’ll disappear into obscurity for three weeks’ worth of games and we’ll all forget she exists again. Performances like she produced in this game on a regular basis would make her an all-star, or at the very least a building block for Seattle’s future. Doing it once every two or three weeks just makes you tantalising and often distinctly disappointing.

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The Daily W, 07/10/2014

 

Washington Mystics 72 @ Chicago Sky 65

 

Lineups: The Mystics started the same five that they’ve used in recent games. They continue to work with ten players, with Tayler Hill still recuperating from giving birth, and Jelena Milovanovic out due to a right knee strain. Chicago are still piecing things together without Elena Delle Donne and Courtney Vandersloot. For the second game in a row, Sasha Goodlett pointlessly started at center with Sylvia Fowles coming off the bench.

 

Story of the Game: Sometimes you hope that the kids that come to these camp day games are too busy screaming their heads off to watch the basketball and consider it an accurate representation of WNBA entertainment. This was one of those times. Ugly, ugly game.

There wasn’t much to choose between the sides in the first half. As usual, Washington struggled to hit any perimeter shots, but between Kia Vaughn and Emma Meesseman they managed to produce points through their posts. Early on it was inside, with Vaughn abusing Goodlett, later both started to hit the mid-range shots that Chicago were largely willing to concede.

But the Sky hung around, thanks to their own premiere mid-range shooting post Jessica Breland – who only seems to be getting more accurate from 15-18 feet – and the Mystics’ turnovers helping out their transition game. Virtually all of Jamierra Faulkner’s points came off breakaway layups created by Washington giveaways. Otherwise, with Epiphanny Prince cold, most of Chicago’s production came at the free throw line when Washington were dumb enough to foul them.

Offensively, the second half somehow managed to be significantly worse. The Mystics shot 6-19 in the third quarter yet extended their lead by eight points. Neither team could find any space, or hit a shot, or generally do anything much worth talking about when they had the basketball. Washington are a well-drilled and organised defensive team, so they were conscious of the threats. They were barely guarding people like Tamera Young, they were going under every possible screen for Faulkner, and they were sending lots of help to cover Prince and Fowles whenever they posed any kind of danger. Without Delle Donne and Vandersloot, Chicago don’t have a lot of people who scare you offensively, and it makes it harder for the ones that are left. On the bright side for Chicago, their own defense is starting to improve with Fowles rediscovering some of her old spring in the middle. She had some blocks and some mobile weak-side help that shored up a few of the holes the Sky have been leaving open in recent weeks. Of course, the fact that Washington have barely hit a shot since the season started made defense easier for the Sky as well.

Washington crept out to lead by as many as 13 points, but without any consistent offense to keep it going, Chicago made a ‘run’. The quote marks are because it was pretty extended, slow progress, and ‘run’ typically suggests some kind of pace or speed. But the Sky did start looking to feed Fowles more consistently in the post in the fourth quarter – exactly why they hadn’t been doing that all afternoon, I have no idea – and it paid dividends. She either finished or got fouled, and the Sky scored seven straight to pull within five points with just under three minutes remaining. Then no one scored, at all, for several minutes, until a pair of Ivory Latta free throws iced the game in the waning seconds. It was an appropriate way for the game to end – a long period of futility at both ends of the floor.

 

Key Players: In a game of little production, Meesseman and Vaughn gave Washington a base to work from in the first half. Rookie guard Bria Hartley hit three threes in the second half, which were important in producing just enough offense to hold Chicago at bay. The Mystics still shot 6-20 from beyond the arc as a team, and would’ve lost against a better opponent.

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The Daily W, 07/07/2014

 

Minnesota Lynx 80 @ New York Liberty 87

 

Lineups: Seimone Augustus was out again for the Lynx due to bursitis in her left knee, so Monica Wright continued to start at shooting guard. New York weren’t going to be changing anything after Cappie Pondexter and Tina Charles showed up as a tandem for one of the first times all season and led the Liberty to a convincing win over Tulsa on Tuesday night.

 

Story of the Game: Offense dominated the first half, with neither team capable of slowing the other down consistently. The Lynx were on top to start with, as their speed and unselfishness created quality scoring opportunities for a variety of different players. They pulled ahead by as many as 12 when supporting players like Tan White and Tricia Liston started hitting threes to add on to the expected contributions from Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen.

But even while they’d built that lead via their offensive success, the Lynx never looked convincing on the defensive end. Their transition defense was poor, allowing too many cheap points for New York on straightforward breaks, and the Pondexter/Charles duo was working as intended for New York once again. The aggressive, active, interior-attacking Charles had shown up again, and the Lynx had no answer for her whatsoever in the paint. Pondexter got her offense going with drives as well, and as is typically the case both of them were more successful with jumpers once they’d built their rhythm inside. Minnesota’s lead was gone by halftime, and the game was tied at 48. Just the kind of offensive showcase that ESPN wants from their WNBA games.

Unsurprisingly, the scoring tailed off somewhat in the second half. It’s hard to keep up that kind of production for 40 minutes, and undoubtedly both coaches were screaming about the defense during the interval. New York still seemed more up for the battle. It was as if the nationally televised contest against the reigning champs had inspired that extra edge for the Liberty, while it was just another game for the Lynx after all their big nights in recent years. But the worrying element for New York was that it seemed like they were playing harder and better, but the Lynx weren’t going away. Even with Moore failing to convert a single bucket in the second or third quarters under the attentions of Alex Montgomery and plenty of help defenders, the Lynx kept hanging around, and hanging around, and then Moore hit a three with five minutes left in the game to tie it all up again.

But that final five minutes saw New York make all the big plays, and finish with an 11-4 run that closed out the win. Anna Cruz made a couple of big shots on mid-range jumpers and tough finishes inside, Pondexter had stayed aggressive and continued going to the rim when her jumper wasn’t falling in the second half, and Minnesota missed a lot of jump shots. The Lynx tossed up some poor shots in the closing stages, between a combination of forced junk from White and Moore trying a little too hard to put the team on her back. With the respective effort levels over the course of the game, the victory was really no less than the Liberty deserved.

 

Key Players: Charles set a new WNBA career high with 32 points, and continued to work hard even though the Lynx dropped more defenders down on her in the second half and forced her to become more of a passer. This freshly aggressive Charles is fantastic to see, and the player the Liberty hoped they were acquiring when they traded several pieces for her in the offseason. But after two performances like this, the double-teams are going to be coming even faster and harder from upcoming opponents, along with efforts to prevent the ball getting to her in the first place. The Liberty need to remember that feeding her down low doesn’t have to be an end in and of itself. Even if the ball comes back out, all the attention she draws creates great looks for everyone else. It’s when she’s a passive non-factor barely even touching the ball that she fades out of games.

Pondexter didn’t shoot particularly well with players like Wright and White hounding her all afternoon, but she was still a positive balance for Charles, and between Cruz and the other supporting players the Liberty had enough. With their star duo as the ignition switch, this team’s finally looked like they have some life in them in their last two games. Running the floor, getting in the paint, attacking the glass – the lightbulb might just have come on. Of course, it’s only two games, and they were both at home. They’re 1-7 outside of Madison Square Garden this season, and seven of their next ten games are on the road. Now they have to prove they can keep this up wherever they’re playing.

The loss of Augustus (and continued absence of Rebekkah Brunson) makes things tough for Minnesota, but Cheryl Reeve won’t be happy at all with the way her team is playing defensively. That’s something that’s as much about collective movement, communication and effort as it is about the individuals available to play, and they’ve broken down too many times this year. The loss of key players tends to highlight it because the offense isn’t good enough to cover it up without a scorer like Augustus.

There also has to be a little touch of apathy setting in for a team like the Lynx that have had so much success. It’s hard to keep raising yourselves for the regular season grind. They’ll win plenty of games over the remainder of the season purely because of their talent and inbuilt chemistry, but if they could skip to the playoffs right now – as long as everyone was magically healed as part of the bargain – they’d probably settle for the second seed and happily get the real games underway.

 

Notes of Interest: Chucky Jeffery was back in uniform for New York and played a few seconds. No one ever announced a release or seven-day re-signing, but that’s what happened. Don’t you just love the WNBA information stream?

 

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Phoenix Mercury 94 @ Los Angeles Sparks 89

 

Lineups: The two teams that both went big with starting lineup changes in midseason continued that way. Phoenix were hardly going to change anything after winning six straight since promoting Penny Taylor into the starting group, but Los Angeles made a switch on the perimeter with Kristi Toliver replacing Armintie Herrington. That swap’s about as clear of a declaration of “we need offense” as you’re ever likely to see.

 

Story of the Game: A messy opening saw Phoenix score the first nine points of the game and lead by as many as 13 in the first quarter, but in the end the first half was just like the previous game – lots of scoring at both ends and neither team coming out with much of an advantage.

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