2015 WNBA Season Previews: Tulsa Shock

 

PG: Odyssey Sims/Brianna Kiesel

SG: Skylar Diggins/Riquna Williams

SF: Karima Christmas/Jordan Hooper

PF: Plenette Pierson/Tiffany Jackson-Jones/Vicki Baugh

C: Courtney Paris/Amanda Zahui B./Theresa Plaisance

 

Significant additions: Zahui B., Christmas, Pierson.

Significant losses: Glory Johnson, Roneeka Hodges, Jennifer Lacy

 

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At one stage, this looked like a thoroughly positive offseason for the Tulsa Shock. They added two veteran campaigners who both know how to win and how to play hard-nosed defense in Karima Christmas and Plenette Pierson. They lucked into a much better player with the #2 draft pick than they expected, when both Jewell Loyd and Amanda Zahui B. unexpectedly declared. They had Skylar Diggins and Odyssey Sims returning as the most exciting young backcourt in the league, after a season spent working out how they fit together. Then they suddenly found themselves embroiled in yet another mess with one of their young post players. After all the time and energy they’ve wasted chasing after Elizabeth Cambage, this time it was Glory Johnson causing all the drama. First it was the arrest after her fight with then-fiancée Brittney Griner, which led to a seven-game suspension from the league. Then she couldn’t be bothered to show up for training camp on time (or even to call the team to let them know she’d be late). Over a week into camp she deigned to drive to Tulsa from halfway across the country – only to reveal that she’s pregnant the day before the regular season begins. A player who’d been a pleasant surprise for the Shock since they selected her 4th overall in 2012 now won’t play for them this season (maybe ever again), and it leaves a hole in a frontcourt that already had some issues. That wasn’t what they needed on the eve of a season where they’re hoping to finally make the leap into being a truly competitive team.

 

First the good news, which starts with the backcourt that has the potential to scare the hell out of opponents for years and years to come. Diggins improved dramatically in her second WNBA season, learning how to finish at the basket under pressure and playing a generally far more composed game. She could still improve significantly from outside, but the fact that there’s still so much room for growth only makes her scarier. Sims increasingly took over initiating the offense as last season progressed, taking some of the load off Diggins’s back, and she can be just as electric as a scorer. Very few teams have enough backcourt defenders to handle the pair of them. With Riquna Williams hopefully healthier this year to be the bench sparkplug behind them, and Jordan Hooper and Christmas both happy to fire away from outside when defenses forget about them, there’s plenty of scoring to come from Tulsa’s perimeter this year.

 

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The Daily W, 08/17/2014

 

New York Liberty 73 @ Washington Mystics 61

 

Lineups: After going smaller to try to combat Tamika Catchings in their previous game, New York switched back to a more regular lineup for this one, with Avery Warley-Talbert coming back in to start in the post. Swin Cash continued at small forward, with Alex Montgomery dropping to the bench. Washington, who needed a win to give themselves a chance at the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, started their usual five. Kara Lawson was still out due to her ankle issue.

 

Story of the Game: In many ways, this was a pretty depressing contest for fans of both teams. Mystics supporters saw their team produce a desperately flat performance, fall behind by double-digits in the second quarter, and then let the game drift away. Liberty fans saw their bench actually step up and produce, and their team win a game without Tina Charles or Cappie Pondexter needing to carry them. Which considering how poorly they’ve played for most of the season, can only have been frustrating to witness.

Plenette Pierson did a lot of good work for the Liberty, especially in the first half, and Washington couldn’t contain her, especially on the pick-and-roll. New York made some nice pocket passes to create points for her on the way to the hoop, but Washington’s defense was unusually slow in rotating and contesting to prevent the easy looks. With the Liberty also shooting well from the perimeter, they ran away with the game. They also had an extraordinary zero turnovers in the first half, which probably said even more about the lack of defensive energy from the Mystics than it did about New York’s own play.

Washington tried to shoot their way back into the game in the second half, and Mike Thibault tried some gimmicky lineups to shake things up, but they never came particularly close. If they play like this in the postseason, it’ll be a short-lived trip to the playoffs.

 

Key Players: Pierson finished with 20 on 7-8 shooting, with Swin Cash the only other Liberty player in double-figures. They went deep into their bench, shared out all the minutes, and Washington still never came close. Unfortunately for New York, their playoff hopes had been extinguished the day before, and this performance with the pressure off meant nothing.

Washington were really poor. After finally clinching their postseason berth in Connecticut the day before, maybe they relaxed too much when only seeding was on the line and weren’t mentally ready to play. But this is also the kind of game they’re vulnerable to without any real stars to just toss the ball to when they need a bucket. They’re a collective group that needs to become more than the sum of its parts, and when they all lack energy like this the results can be pretty awful.

 

Notes of Interest: This result meant the winner of the Chicago-Indiana game below would be confirmed as the #2 seed. Whether Washington were the #3 or #4 would then depend on Sunday’s game for the loser between the Sky and Fever.

 

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Chicago Sky 67 @ Indiana Fever 71

 

Lineups: Both teams started as they had in recent games, with Elena Delle Donne continuing to come off the bench for Chicago. Layshia Clarendon was still out for Indiana, making Sydney Carter the backup point guard instead. The Sky had a point guard returning, with Courtney Vandersloot in uniform and taking part for the first time in over seven weeks after her knee injury. That was a welcome boost for the Sky heading into the playoffs.

 

Story of the Game: Indiana started the game just as they had in recent big wins over New York – lots of energy, running the floor hard for transition points, and with Tamika Catchings hitting every shot she threw up. Briann January, Shavonte Zellous and Marissa Coleman joined in, Natasha Howard was a solid replacement when Catchings went to rest on the bench, and the Fever were utterly dominant in the opening stages. They ran away to a 16-point lead at the end of the opening quarter.

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The Daily W, 08/16/2014

 

Washington Mystics 71 @ Connecticut Sun 67

 

Lineups: As detailed in yesterday’s previews, for a variety of reasons the Sun were better off losing this game, so it was no surprise that Katie Douglas was in street clothes for tip-off. She had missed the end of their last game after walking off holding her back, so maybe she would’ve been out anyway, but there was certainly no incentive to rush her back. Danielle McCray started in her place, with long-term absentee Allison Hightower the only other player missing. So to Connecticut’s credit, it’s not like they went into full-on tanking mode. Washington had Kia Vaughn back from her one-game suspension for elbowing Chiney Ogwumike the last time these teams met, and she took her starting spot back from Stefanie Dolson. Kara Lawson’s ankle continues to keep her off the floor.

 

Story of the Game: The first half was utterly forgettable. Washington led for most of it thanks to some nice post moves from Emma Meesseman, some shooting from Bria Hartley and Ivory Latta, and overall dominance on the glass. Connecticut hung around, and a couple of late driving buckets for McCray and Alex Bentley allowed them to pull within four at halftime.

The Sun emerged with much better energy in the third quarter and made the game a more interesting battle. They were finally putting up a fight on the glass, came up with some transition points, and the mediocre play Washington had been producing all evening was no longer enough to keep them in front.

All of which combined to give us a tight finish. Meesseman made some strong plays down the stretch, showing off her silky passing skills and attacking Ogwumike to draw fouls and free throws. In fact, Washington did most of their work at the foul line in the closing stages. While Renee Montgomery was jacking and missing threes, Meesseman and then Monique Currie were picking up points at the line. Although on the one late possession where Montgomery gave the ball up, Bentley drilled a three from the corner to keep things interesting. But the late-game plays that Anne Donovan drew up out of timeouts were a disaster (or worked perfectly, if you believe she had the benefits of losing in the back of her mind). A staggered screen for Bentley didn’t break her open at all, and the play didn’t appear to have a second option, so ended in a Montgomery turnover. Then the next time down, Montgomery drove the baseline and kicked to Alyssa Thomas in the corner, who slid her foot backwards before making a move and went out of bounds as a result. Not that you ever want Thomas taking an important shot from the corner anyway, unless you’re the opposition. That ended the game as a contest, and Washington had confirmed their playoff spot.

 

Key Players: Meesseman inside, and the backcourt of Hartley and Latta outside, were the only players who consistently made shots for Washington. Currie did a decent job of attacking late in the game and knocking down important free throws. It was a big win for the Mystics to cement their spot in the postseason, but it wasn’t exactly a confidence-builder for the playoffs. They looked thoroughly ordinary all night, and they’ll likely need to play significantly better to actually win any games in the postseason. Tayler Hill and Kalana Greene continue to offer very little, so they’ll be desperately hoping Lawson’s ankle heals quickly. Otherwise Latta and Hartley are going to verge on 40 minutes a night.

Considering they had essentially nothing to play for and were missing their veteran presence on the perimeter, it was a relatively creditable performance from Connecticut. Bentley made some shots, Kelsey Bone finished some plays inside once she woke up in the second half, and Alyssa Thomas was reasonably effective. But this is still a team that looks like it needs to reload – and maybe rethink a little – to make the next step.

 

Notes of Interest: For the third time this season in the WNBA, a team was eliminated from playoff contention by the result of a game they weren’t even playing in. This scoreline meant New York will miss the postseason for the second straight year since Bill Laimbeer took over, and due to the Tina Charles trade they don’t even have the consolation of a lottery pick in the draft. Connecticut receive that, which was part of why losing this game worked out well for them.

 

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Tulsa Shock 76 @ Atlanta Dream 92

 

Lineups: Regular group for Tulsa, while Atlanta started the same big lineup they’d used in the last couple of games with Angel McCoughtry out due to tendonitis in her feet. She was in uniform and played in this game, but came off the bench.

 

Story of the Game: Odyssey Sims made enough shots to keep Tulsa in the game in the first quarter, but there were already signs of the run that was on the way in the second. Atlanta were starting to dominate the glass, and playing with good pace and desire considering how little the game actually meant to them in the standings. Then in the second period the Dream blew it open. That was when we saw something that actually resembled the old Atlanta Dream – running the floor hard, attacking in transition, and rolling over an opponent once they gathered momentum. Erika de Souza picked up points by finding deep position in the paint and taking strong passes from Shoni Schimmel and Jasmine Thomas to finish. Then McCoughtry, Schimmel and their teammates just started charging up and down the court and running right by the Shock. Tulsa had no answer, their offense couldn’t penetrate and fell apart, and Atlanta roared into a 22-point halftime lead.

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The Daily W, 08/12/2014

 

Indiana Fever 90 @ New York Liberty 76

 

Lineups: Same groups we’ve come to expect from these teams.

 

Story of the Game: In the first of three games between these teams in the final eight days of the regular season, it was Indiana who imposed themselves on the game from the start. Tamika Catchings looked more like her old self than we’ve seen in most of their games since the All-Star break, drilling open jumpers when Avery Warley-Talbert gave her too much room and generally attacking much more effectively on offense. The Fever as a team did a nice job of moving the ball and knocking down shots in the first half, sliding into a comfortable lead.

New York’s shooting percentage was high when you checked the box score (and would remain so through the entire game), but it wasn’t nearly enough to stay competitive in this game. Erlana Larkins was doing an impressive job on Tina Charles defensively, forcing misses and then increasingly distant jump shots. Larkins was producing more points with her own post efforts against Charles than the Liberty center was scoring herself. Indiana’s fluid defense, willing to switch and rotate whenever necessary, forced turnovers from the Liberty and helped the Fever lead continue to grow. They were up by as many as 23 in the second quarter, 19 at halftime.

The closest New York came in the second half was nine points with five minutes left in the game, and Catchings immediately answered that threat with a three. Indiana lost a little bit of their pace and rhythm in the second half, but contributions from the likes of Maggie Lucas and Sydney Carter off the bench helped out Catchings and Larkins and kept them in front. New York shot even better in the second half, and still never really came close.

 

Key Players: Catchings has the line that jumps out at you from the box score, finishing 11-19 for 29 points. Warley-Talbert, Charles, Plenette Pierson and Swin Cash all took their turns trying to cool her off, but none of them had much success. This is the Catchings Indiana need if they’re going to make the postseason and then try to make a run. But Larkins was equally important, essentially outplaying Charles in their duel in the paint. She was active and strong, and always looking for the ball inside on offense so that Charles could never rest. Between Lucas, Carter, Natasha Howard and Karima Christmas, it was also one of the solid days for Indiana’s bench.

It’s not often that you’ll shoot 55% from the field and get blown out, but that’s what happened to New York in this one. It was an unfortunate waste of an offensive performance for them, because they produced those numbers even with Charles being kept quiet for much of the game. Instead, Cappie Pondexter led the way, and the supporting players hit their shots – it was just never enough to get them back in the contest. Some of it was just a freak shooting night for the Fever, but the Liberty will have to do a better defensive job in their remaining games against Indiana (and avoid costly turnovers), or they’ll be watching the playoffs from home.

 

Notes of Interest: For now, Indiana are half-a-game up on New York in the standings, and also have a 2-0 advantage in the season series between the teams. The Eastern Conference is too much of a mess to start digging into the scenarios, but suffice it to say that this was a big win for Indiana.

 

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Washington Mystics 81 @ Connecticut Sun 89 (2OT)

 

Lineups: Connecticut had Chiney Ogwumike back in their lineup after missing two games due to an abscessed tooth. Allison Hightower is still missing due to the knee surgery from well over a month ago that was only supposed to keep her out for a couple of weeks. Washington went with their regular starting five.

 

Story of the Game: There was very little worth reporting from the first half. Ogwumike looked a little rusty early but she was hardly the only Sun player making mistakes. Meanwhile Washington were blowing easy chances, and Kia Vaughn was busy illustrating how much of a fluke her offensive explosion in their previous game had been. Emma Meesseman had a couple of decent finishes inside, and Kara Lawson hit a pair of late pullup threes to help the Mystics take a narrow lead at halftime.

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The Daily W, 08/09/2014

 

First the catchup game from Thursday night, then all the action from Friday follows below it.

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Phoenix Mercury 78 @ San Antonio Stars 73 (OT)

 

Lineups: Danielle Adams moved into the starting lineup for San Antonio over Sophia Young-Malcolm again, in another spin of the revolving door Dan Hughes has created at power forward this season. No changes for Phoenix.

 

Story of the Game: Phoenix started stronger and built a lead largely thanks to San Antonio’s inability to contain Brittney Griner in the paint. An aggressive, driving DeWanna Bonner also helped Phoenix out, and her improvement over the course of the season has helped solidify the Mercury starting lineup across the board. But while Phoenix are deeper than they used to be, there’s still often a noticeable drop-off when their reserves start coming into games. Late in the first quarter and early in the second, opponents often come back at the Mercury after their strong start. With Danielle Robinson attacking the rim, Kayla McBride and Shameka Christon hitting a couple of threes, and Candice Dupree missing a shocking number of shots she’d normally make, the Stars were back in this game by halftime after trailing by double-digits early on.

San Antonio made a big push late in the third quarter, keyed by the energy of Young-Malcolm and the shooting of Jia Perkins – two players giving the Stars a boost from the bench that Phoenix’s reserves couldn’t match. San Antonio’s lead stretched as high as six points in the fourth quarter, but the Mercury answered behind Dupree and Penny Taylor. Griner had faded out of the game with the Stars sending double-teams at her from a variety of angles, and Diana Taurasi was having one of her quietest performances of the year, but Phoenix are so talented that they still had other options to pick up the slack. Dupree’s mid-range jumper was falling again, while Taylor continues to be the only one of Phoenix’s perimeter players with the post game to exploit the size advantage she usually has over her defender.

The Mercury were up three with 14 seconds left in regulation. Adams forced up an effort from deep under heavy pressure when she could’ve reversed the ball to an open Becky Hammon, and missed badly, but McBride won the fight for the rebound. She kicked the ball back to Perkins, who drilled the three to tie the game against a scrambling defense. Phoenix had 1.7 seconds to win it before overtime, and ran essentially the same play that beat Los Angeles in their playoff series last year, but this time Griner missed the short turnaround on the inbounds play.

Both sides missed a lot of shots in overtime, with Griner sitting out much of it after picking up her fifth foul. Perkins again hit a jumper to tie the scores with a minute remaining, before a lovely Mercury possession took back the lead. They went inside to Griner, the double-team started to come, she moved the ball back out, they swung it around to Dupree in the corner, who had an open lane to drive for a layup. Pretty, unselfish basketball, and exactly how you’re supposed to score when teams send extra defenders to cover your dangerous post threat. Becky Hammon tried to force a pass on the ensuing San Antonio possession, Taylor picked it off, and Taurasi scored her only basket of the night on the fastbreak that followed. That just about iced the game, although Phoenix still got the benefit of a generous call in the final seconds that helped finish San Antonio for good.

 

Key Players: It was Taylor and Dupree who did most of the offensive work for Phoenix in the second half, after Griner and Bonner were the central figures in the first. The hedging defense from San Antonio on ball screens helped turn Taurasi into a passer rather than a scorer, but she was still desperately quiet by her standards. Maybe she was saving herself for the big game against Minnesota tonight, or maybe the effort to keep her emotions in check and avoid her seventh technical of the season subdued her a little. Regardless, the Mercury had enough elsewhere to pull off the win.

Perkins was the highlight for San Antonio, in a disappointing loss. They’ve lost so many games lately that it’s becoming worrying, but at least this one was tight against the team with the best record in the league. Robinson was good when she could attack the basket, but Taurasi went further and further under every screen as the game wore on, giving Robinson the mid-range jumper while protecting against the drive. Robinson wasn’t hitting that 15-footer, so her offense stalled.

 

Notes of Interest: Griner’s five blocks in this game took her past Margo Dydek’s single-season WNBA record of 114. Dydek set that mark when the WNBA only played a 30-game schedule, so it was nice that Griner passed her in just 29, avoiding any debate about ‘asterisks’ or dual records. To beat the per game average Dydek had that year, Griner would need to hit 130 by the end of the regular season.

 

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Washington Mystics 74 @ Indiana Fever 61

 

Lineups: As expected for both teams.

 

Story of the Game: There wasn’t much between the teams for most of the first half. Washington looked the more fluent side, with their confidence high after destroying New York on Tuesday night, but it took a while for that to translate into real production on the scoreboard. Indiana’s offense was struggling all over the floor. Erlana Larkins was finding good position deep in the paint, but couldn’t finish when the ball was entered to her. Tamika Catchings did very little to attack her matchup with Emma Meesseman, who Catchings should’ve been able to go by off the dribble. Lynetta Kizer hit a couple of shots off the bench for the Fever, but points were generally hard to come by. Eventually Washington took advantage, with Ivory Latta keying a run late in the first half. She started hitting from outside, then attacking the rim, and Bria Hartley joined in. The Mystics were up by eight at halftime as a result.

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The Daily W, 08/07/2014

 

New York Liberty 46 @ Washington Mystics 79

 

Lineups: Both teams opened with their usual starters, and both actually had 12 players fit and ready to play. That’s been incredibly rare this season.

 

Story of the Game: After some decent performances of late, and a few victories, New York came into this game with some optimism. A win would’ve seen them leapfrog Washington in the Eastern Conference standings, and potentially finish the night as high as second in the East. It didn’t take long for those hopes to be emphatically dashed.

As usual, the Liberty tried to run through Tina Charles inside, but Washington were smart and effective in defending her. Rather than send double-teams at her constantly, opening up spaces elsewhere on the floor, they sagged inside and always had extra players waiting in the paint if she attacked initial defenders like Kia Vaughn and Stefanie Dolson. So she had a little success, but nowhere near the dominance we’ve seen in some other recent Liberty games. Meanwhile, whenever the ball rotated away from Charles or someone else in a Liberty jersey tried to get something done, everything was going wrong. No one could hit a shot, then turnovers started to pile up, and the game slipped further and further away from New York as the first half progressed.

It was actually Washington who were the far more effective and efficient offensive team, primarily running through their own posts. The tandem of Vaughn and Emma Meesseman worked nicely early on, with Vaughn hitting her mid-range shot and Meesseman showing off some nifty passing. Then Dolson and Tianna Hawkins replaced them and kept the momentum going. After some recent positive contributions from their reserves, New York got absolutely nothing from their bench in this one, and were lucky to trail by just 15 at halftime. It could easily have been worse.

Then in the third quarter it did get worse, with whatever Bill Laimbeer said at halftime failing to inspire his troops into any increase in energy, effort or performance. The turnovers continued for the Liberty, everyone was hitting shots for Washington – led by Ivory Latta, who’s played much better since being handed a then-undeserved All-Star spot – and the gap hit 29. The fourth quarter was merely extended garbage time, and offered the opportunity for Tayler Hill to make her season debut for the Mystics. She gave birth barely six weeks earlier, so it’s an impressively quick return, although she’s unlikely to play in any meaningful moments until next season.

 

Key Players: Washington had nice balance across most of their roster, with the bigs doing a lot of the early work but the guards making sure they kept rolling later on. It was a team performance, and the team utterly dominated. On the other side, it’s impossible to pick anyone out for New York because the entire group was so poor. In a stretch run of vital games in their effort to make the playoffs, it was a shockingly half-hearted and aimless performance from the Liberty.

 

Notes of Interest: New York shot 29% from the field and trailed by as many as 35. It was really bad.

 

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Minnesota Lynx 66 @ Indiana Fever 64

 

Lineups: It was the regular group for the Lynx, with 12th woman Nadirah McKenith left behind in Minnesota again. After shaking up their starting lineup to deal with Phoenix’s size in their previous game, Indiana switched back to their standard five for this one. Krystal Thomas went from a starter to being glued to the end of the bench once again.

 

Story of the Game: The opening stages belonged to Indiana. They did a nice job of attacking the Minnesota defense, penetrating into the lane and only taking outside shots if they’d collapsed the defense beforehand and rotated the ball back out. Their strong, physical defense limited Minnesota as well, preventing the Lynx from getting inside. With their jumpers not falling either, Minnesota trailed by as many as 15 early in the second quarter.

But inevitably, the Lynx started to ease their way back into the game. Some transition buckets and quick offense helped them get going, Indiana cooled off a little, and scoreline started to creep closer. Maya Moore didn’t hit her first shot until midway through the second period, but she started to attack more off the dribble in response to her jump shot being a little off. Combined with some production from Tan White against her old team, the Lynx were right back in the game by halftime.

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The Daily W, 08/03/2014

 

Minnesota Lynx 84 @ Tulsa Shock 75

 

Lineups: Nothing new for either team, with the regular starters in place as normal. Backup point guard Nadirah McKenith, who hasn’t played much since joining the Lynx in midseason, wasn’t with the team. Exactly why was unknown.

 

Story of the Game: The Lynx started better and led by nine in the early stages behind the scoring of Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus (that’s going to become a theme over the course of this recap). They worked the lanes and cut through the defense for layups at times – and inevitably tried to run some of their dive plays to post up the smaller Tulsa perimeter players – but mostly it came down to the ridiculous shooting ability of the All-World Minnesota wings.

Tulsa tried to go through the low-post early on, which got them nowhere, and Skylar Diggins was just at the start of a tough night where she’d struggle to score. But the Shock came back into the game in the second quarter when Minnesota cooled off and started handing over some cheap turnovers, enabling Tulsa to get into transition and Odyssey Sims to start rolling. She had some difficulties adapting to the pro game earlier in the season, and due to that her shooting averages for the season still aren’t great, but she’s been steadily improving. Rather than missing finishes under pressure at the rim, we’re seeing more and more of her little floater when she gets into the lane, which is remarkably consistent and accurate for a difficult shot. As a team, the Shock became the aggressors in the second quarter, driving to the rim and earning trips to the free throw line. With Glory Johnson attacking from the high post area to add balance with Sims, Tulsa were only down by a point at halftime.

In the second half the lights came on and we got the kind of showcase you might’ve expected from two of the top-three offenses in the league. The ‘Maya and Mone Show’ was in full effect for the Lynx, with Moore in particular an unstoppable force for much of the half. She’s athletic and mobile and an excellent finisher at the basket, but the classic image of Moore that sticks in your head is her curling up to take a pass and then rising like a salmon into her effortless shooting motion to knock down an unguardable jump shot. That happened a lot in the second half of this game.

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