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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The W Dozen: Lauding Loyd, Lynx, Triple-Stack and more

 

First up, I already wrote at length this week about the surprise starts for the Atlanta Dream and Phoenix Mercury HERE. So if you haven’t read that yet, please take a look. Now, on to the 12 items that have caught my eye, drawn my attention or rattled my brain in the WNBA this week.


1. If you haven’t seen this yet, then you damn well ought to

This one’s nice:

But this one’s just special


Enjoy the next decade, Storm fans.


2. Y’know what? That’s not enough on Loyd

Breanna Stewart’s the big story around Seattle this season, and that’s understandable. After four national championships at UConn, making the Olympic team, being the #1 pick, and just how damn good she is, there should be plenty of talk surrounding her. But don’t lose sight of how much Loyd has improved in just her second WNBA season, and the kind of performances she’s putting in alongside Stewie.

You could already see the improvements coming last season, where Loyd grew as the year went along and started to become more comfortable. But beyond that, her offseason under a heavy spotlight at Galatasaray has done her the world of good. She’s playing with much greater confidence, there are finishes at the rim sliding in that weren’t always there last year, and oh my – the jump shot. It’s so pretty now. That was the primary thing holding her back last season, when absolutely no one was scared of her jumper, so they all sat way off her and just let her shoot. Now it looks great, and opponents are going to have to respect that jumper (although at time of writing her three-point percentage has dropped to 29%, I’d expect that to rise).

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WNBA Early-Season Surprises: Dreaming big in Atlanta, Phoenix failing to rise

 

Early season hot streaks can be a bit of a masquerade in the WNBA. Training camp is so short, often with players arriving late due to overseas commitments, so the squads that are ready for the first couple of weeks may not actually be the best teams. Connecticut got everyone excited by opening last season 7-1, then went 8-18 the rest of the way when they fell back to Earth. But at the same time, it’s a short season in the WNBA. This isn’t the 82- or 162-game slog of other US sports leagues. The Sun ultimately didn’t make the postseason last year, but they would have tied for the 8th spot under the new playoff system. A hot start can take you a long way towards the playoffs, even if a collapse follows. So it’s worth paying attention to the surprises of the young 2016 WNBA season.

Let’s start with the most obvious pleasant surprise. After an ugly 2015 and most prognosticators dumping them in the lottery before this season began, the Atlanta Dream have opened the year 5-1 and resembling their old selves. I mentioned that this was a possibility in my season preview, even if it didn’t seem likely. Three key pieces of their successful teams were still in town in Angel McCoughtry, Tiffany Hayes and Sancho Lyttle. They had a new center in Elizabeth Williams who in an ideal world would replace what Erika de Souza used to give them. And while no one was quite sure what they’d get from the point guard spot, they’ve survived before without much more than replacement-level talent in that spot. So far, it’s working like a dream (sorry).

The new acquisitions have fitted in well, exceeding the expectations of virtually everybody. Layshia Clarendon was a late addition from Indiana for minimal cost, and has slid into the starting point guard spot, so far looking a more impressive player than she ever did for the Fever. She always seemed like something of a square peg being asked to fit a round hole in Indiana, who always wanted her to become a point guard despite her scorer’s instincts. And even now in Atlanta she’s not really playing as a true point. But she looks freed up to play her more natural game, driving and scoring whenever the opportunity presents itself. Between her, Hayes and McCoughtry they don’t have anyone who particularly likes to pass on the perimeter, but they’re all creative enough to get the job done. And they can all initiate the offense or bring the ball up the floor when they need to. Clarendon’s backup, Carla Cortijo, is more of a true point guard, looking to probe the defense or create for others to a greater extent, and between them they’ve solidified the spot for Atlanta. I’m not as convinced by Clarendon’s defense as Dream head coach Michael Cooper keeps claiming to be, but she’s solid enough after three years learning at the feet of Tamika Catchings, Lin Dunn and Stephanie White.

In the middle, Elizabeth Williams looks like a very nice fit at the heart of Atlanta’s defense. She had a quiet, relatively anonymous rookie year in Connecticut, seeing limited playing time behind Kelsey Bone’s breakout season. Giving up the 4th overall pick for her seemed expensive when Atlanta made the move, considering most front offices tend to prefer the unknown of college kids over players they’ve already seen look fairly unimpressive in the pros. But combined with Lyttle and McCoughtry in the frontcourt, Williams makes the Dream annoyingly long and athletic. And she can do things like this:

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Phoenix Mercury

 

PG: Diana Taurasi/Nirra Fields

SG: DeWanna Bonner/Courtney Williams/Noelle Quinn

SF: Penny Taylor/Sonja Petrovic/Alex Harden

PF: Candice Dupree/Mistie Bass

C: Brittney Griner/Isabelle Harrison

Trading away Monique Currie virtually finished the job for them, creating the cap space to keep 12 players while simultaneously making the final cuts fairly easy.


Significant additions
: Taurasi, obviously, is the big story after taking a year off from the WNBA. But Taylor’s back as well and has always been a huge part of any Mercury successes in the past decade. Harrison and Petrovic deepen the options in the frontcourt, while rookie guard Williams could be a nice injection of energy on the perimeter.

Significant losses: Not a huge amount. The Currie trade was a surprise, and they might miss her a little if injuries strike. Marta Xargay is still in Spain, and won’t be seen until after the Olympics, if at all. Leilani Mitchell is gone, but given Taurasi’s return to run the team, that’s not a big deal.


Overview

Optimism is high in Phoenix, now that all the key pieces are back from the 2014 team that went 29-5 and only lost one playoff game in their march to a title. Diana Taurasi turns 34 next month, but she’s looked just as good as ever while playing overseas, and with Griner, Taylor, Bonner and Dupree alongside her this team should be scary once again. They were pretty damn good last year when Taurasi and Taylor didn’t bother to show up.

As with the Lynx vets, people have started to wonder how many years we have left with stars like Taurasi and Taylor. But for now we can just enjoy it while it lasts, and the Mercury fans certainly will. Taurasi is a gifted creator with the ball in her hands on top of her natural scoring ability, and this time around they’re not even pretending to put a point guard alongside her to run the offense. She’s be running the team, with Bonner and Taylor helping out and young guards like Williams and Fields as options off the bench. It should be the usual superior level of entertainment.

And while Taurasi leads the offense, the dominance of Griner in the paint provides the single-greatest impact of any player in the game on the defensive end. She had her personal issues last year, and didn’t take quite the step forward in Taurasi’s absence that some people were hoping for, but she’s still an absolute force. She’s also been playing with Taurasi overseas in Russia, so their connection should be even smoother. She has a nice touch on the offensive end when her team uses her, and few teams have anyone who can contend with her one-on-one. Candice Dupree’s mid-range game and smooth finishing are a nice complement offensively, and Bonner’s individual defense on whoever the primary perimeter threat is has improved exponentially. Unlike their championship teams under Paul Westhead and Corey Gaines, this squad can do serious damage at both ends of the floor.

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2015 WNBA Season Previews: Phoenix Mercury

 

PG: Leilani Mitchell/Tiffany Bias

SG: Monique Currie/Noelle Quinn/Tess Madgen/(Marta Xargay)

SF: DeWanna Bonner/Shameka Christon/Alex Harden

PF: Candice Dupree/Mistie Bass

C: Brittney Griner/Cayla Francis

 

Significant additions: Mitchell, Currie, Quinn and Christon if you want to be generous over ‘significant’. Maybe Xargay once she arrives.

Significant losses: Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor, Erin Phillips, Griner for seven games, and the Shay Murphy/Anete Jekabsone-Zogota/Ewelina Kobryn group from the end of the bench are all gone too.

 

—–

 

Most teams, when they win a championship, try to bring back as much of that team as possible for another run the next year. Unfortunately for Phoenix, Diana Taurasi announcing that she was skipping the 2015 WNBA season in order to make significantly more money overseas put a big dent in that idea. Penny Taylor has also played a key role in every Mercury championship team, and will also be missing this season. So this squad was already going to look very different in 2015. Then came the arrests for Brittney Griner and her wife Glory Johnson, which led to a seven-game league suspension that she is presumably going to serve to start the season (although the possibility of an appeal still seems to be floating around). It’s not been the offseason the Mercury would’ve wanted after all their success in 2014, but there’s still enough pieces in Phoenix for them to be a dangerous team – just not as dangerous as last year.

 

At the center, quite literally, of their chances in 2015, is Griner. While Taurasi made their offense tick last season and they’ll miss the playmaking and shooting of both her and Taylor, the major improvement that Phoenix made in their championship year was on the defensive end. They went from a team that had been a defensive disaster for years under Corey Gaines to the best defense in the league under Sandy Brondello, with Griner’s size and threat in the middle the key element. While they’ll lose some of the chemistry that’s always important to building a team defense with Taurasi and Taylor out, neither of those two are exactly known for their defensive skills, so player-for-player there shouldn’t be much drop-off. They added veterans like Monique Currie, Noelle Quinn and even Shameka Christon in the offseason, all perimeter players will some size and length who can switch constantly just like they did for much of last season. While Griner is suspended they could look pretty awful, but once she’s back there’s every reason to believe that they can be one of the best defensive teams in the league once again.

 

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The Daily W, 09/14/2014: Even without Griner, Mercury sweep Sky away to take WNBA title

 

Phoenix Mercury 87 @ Chicago Sky 82

 

Lineups: The big news before tip-off was that Brittney Griner was out after an outpatient procedure on her right eye the day before. Missing the game was a precautionary measure advised by her doctors, and she would’ve likely been available for future games in the series. If Phoenix hadn’t been up 2-0 and utterly dominant so far in the series, they might’ve pushed the medical staff a little harder to clear her. Ewelina Kobryn came into the starting lineup to fill her spot, as the slightly bigger and more physical option ahead of Mistie Bass. Importantly, Kobryn is also a better defender than Bass, although obviously either was going to be a significant drop-off from Griner.

 

Story of the Game: In the previous two games, the teams had been closely matched during the minutes that Griner spent on the bench. So it was no surprise that we ended up with a tight contest while she watched from the sidelines. As you’d expect, the Sky looked to feed Sylvia Fowles in the paint early on. Kobryn did a decent job battling with her and playing the Griner-role guarding the pass on the pick-and-roll, but the basic gaps in size and athleticism between her and Griner made the passes and finishes easier for Chicago. That said, Fowles still missed some straightforward layups around the rim, and Kobryn was getting most of the points back at the other end with finishes over and around Fowles. Unfortunately for Phoenix, Kobryn picked up a cheap early foul, and then a desperately soft call added her second. She was back on the bench after barely five minutes of play.

 

The problem for Chicago was that while the absence of Griner had opened up some room for their offense, they still couldn’t stop the Mercury. A couple of early fouls for Tamera Young didn’t help, sending one of the Sky’s key defenders back to the bench, and Phoenix continued to score just as smoothly and easily as they had in the previous games. Kobryn and Bass had too much room to finish inside as Fowles continued to show hard on high screens without decent rotation help behind her. Diana Taurasi continued to shoot and score over Courtney Vandersloot whenever she felt like it. And as they’d done throughout the series, Phoenix attacked Elena Delle Donne with whoever she happened to be guarding. Delle Donne looked relatively mobile and healthy in this game on offense, joining Fowles as Chicago’s primary threats in the early stages. But her defense isn’t great to begin with, and with her back problems limiting her physically the Mercury have been exploiting her since Game 1. She started the game on DeWanna Bonner, slid over to Candice Dupree when Young sat down, and both scored with relative ease. The Sky were right in the contest, but they were doing no better defensively than in previous games.

 

Behind jump shots from Delle Donne and Allie Quigley, Chicago actually led midway through the second quarter, a rare occurrence in this series. But Phoenix responded through Candice Dupree, who carried most of their offense in the second period. Her regular display of smooth finishes inside and mid-range jump shots that dropped like layups kept the points rolling for Phoenix (and considering Young only had two fouls and had done a solid job defending Dupree whenever given the chance in this series, you’d have to ask Pokey Chatman to find out why Young never came back in during the second quarter to try to cool Dupree off). Fowles and Kobryn both came back in to resume their battle in the paint (and Kobryn picked up another foul when Fowles backed her under the rim), while Taurasi got a little too aggressive with her jumper and started forcing – and missing – a few. She scored consistently and often easily when defended by Vandersloot in this series, but when Chicago slid someone else over to cover her – even similarly small or weak defenders like Quigley or Epiphanny Prince – she wasn’t quite as successful. The Sky were only down by two at the break, which was a lot better than where they’d been at halftime in the previous games.

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The Daily W, 09/11/2014: Mercury on the brink of a title thanks to another dominant win over Sky

 

Chicago Sky 68 @ Phoenix Mercury 97

 

Lineups: The same fives that opened Game 1 came out for Game 2, so Elena Delle Donne was ready to play despite the problems with her back.

 

Story of the Game: There was an immediately obvious switch for the Sky from Game 1, with Tamera Young sliding over to guard Candice Dupree while Delle Donne tried to hide on DeWanna Bonner. It wasn’t the move to having Young guard Diana Taurasi that I’d been hoping for, but it at least made use of Young being on the floor. Of course, the hope for Chicago would’ve been that it put less stress on Delle Donne (and that she wouldn’t give up so many points defensively, after Dupree lit up the Sky in Game 1).

 

The energy and attack mentality of the Sky was a little better in the early stages than we’d seen for much of Game 1, but we also saw Sylvia Fowles blow yet more finishes around the rim under pressure from Brittney Griner, while Griner converted over or around Fowles at the other end. That was the same as 48 hours earlier. Then Fowles inadvertently took Griner out of the game for several minutes after catching her in the face with a swipe of her arm while fighting for a rebound. Griner was left lying on the court for several seconds while play continued, and went to the sidelines for treatment on a scratch near her right eye. Ewelina Kobryn was the choice to fill in, rather than Mistie Bass, due to her greater size and bulk to match up with Fowles.

 

Whether Griner was in the game or not, Chicago still weren’t particularly effective in running anything offensively, but they did have Delle Donne looking relatively mobile and hitting a couple of shots. Phoenix largely scored with the same regularity that they had in Game 1, with Bonner more aggressive in an effort to exploit Delle Donne’s defense. The Mercury were hurt by foul trouble for Taurasi, after she’d taken one intentionally to stop the game for Griner’s injury, then was called for a push-off after barely five minutes of action. But Chicago still weren’t exactly effective in slowing them down. By the end of the first quarter Phoenix were up by seven, and both Fowles and Griner had joined Taurasi on two fouls apiece (Fowles picking up both of hers while defending Kobryn, Griner adding her second on an illegal screen – so all pretty dumb).

 

The early stages of the second quarter were Chicago’s most positive minutes of the series. Griner started it on the bench, and the Sky finally found some success with their pick-and-roll game, working it mostly with Markeisha Gatling and Epiphanny Prince. Without Griner’s movement and long arms there to block the way, either the dump-off pass to Gatling was available, or Prince pulled up and hit shots in space. Even once Griner came back in, the Sky had finally discovered some offensive rhythm, and Prince was joined by Delle Donne and Allie Quigley in hitting some shots from the perimeter. This was the other element the Sky had missed in Game 1 – basic shot-making. Some of them were tough, some were contested, but they dropped and we had a tight contest on our hands.

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