The Daily W, 07/26/2014

 

Tulsa Shock 77 @ Washington Mystics 82

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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Chicago Sky 79 @ Atlanta Dream 75

 

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

 

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

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The Daily W, 23/07/2014

 

Atlanta Dream 108 @ Minnesota Lynx 112 (2OT)

 

Lineups: Atlanta started the post-All-Star part of their schedule with the same starting five that helped them to easily the best record in the East so far this season. They had a difference on the sidelines, where Karleen Thompson was in charge for the first time during Michael Cooper’s absence for treatment for tongue cancer. Minnesota welcomed back power forward Rebekkah Brunson for the first time this year after recovering from offseason knee surgery. She went straight into the starting lineup in place of Damiris Dantas. Seimone Augustus was still out with left knee bursitis, but may well return for Friday’s game against San Antonio.

 

Story of the Game: The rematch of last year’s WNBA Finals produced a barn-burner to get the season’s ‘second half’ underway (unfortunately while a far less entertaining game was playing out on ESPN2 at the same time). Brunson’s impact was immediately obvious for the Lynx, with their rebounding improving just by virtue of having her on the floor. From the opening moments she was grabbing balls off the glass with authority, fitting in like she’d never been gone.

But the star was Maya Moore, a trend that would persist for much of the night. The Lynx ran pin-down screens, and staggered screens, and back-screens, and generally just set picks all over the floor all night long, for Moore to curl up and around and fire up her ridiculously smooth jumper and hit repeatedly. This wasn’t a night where we saw much of her on drives, or attempted post-ups. It was old-school Lynx, with perimeter shots from one of the best shooters the women’s game has ever seen their first option.

But in another element that we’d see recur throughout the game, Atlanta always found ways to respond. They were hyper-aggressive in attacking with pace in transition, picking up far more points just moments after Minnesota baskets than Cheryl Reeve could’ve possibly been happy with. Angel McCoughtry was attacking off the dribble and firing away at every chance she got, while Shoni Schimmel gave the Dream a three-point threat and was happy to rain them down after her success at the All-Star Game over the weekend. Minnesota were collapsing their defense inside at every opportunity, looking to protect the rim, preventing layups and offensive rebounds as their first priority on defense. But Sancho Lyttle was doing some Brunson-y things for the Dream, with some second-chance points and mid-range jumpers, and Atlanta were still within four at halftime. Moore already had 23.

The Lynx appeared to take over the game late in the third quarter, inevitably with Moore leading the way again. Lindsay Whalen was an excellent sidekick, and happy to keep feeding the ball Maya’s way when not driving for her own occasional scores, but it was another run of jumpers from Moore that gave Minnesota a nine-point lead at the end of the third. When McCoughtry picked up her fifth foul in the opening moments of the fourth on a Moore cut, and the Lynx extended their lead to 14 in the minutes that followed, Minnesota seemed relatively comfortable.

Only for the Dream to come again. Lyttle was huge for Atlanta down the stretch, in a role that made it surprising she hadn’t been more successful earlier in the game. Minnesota’s concentration on collapsing inside had nullified center Erika de Souza all night, but Lyttle loves to pop into that mid-range zone 15-18 feet from the basket, which is often left open when everyone revolves around and sags into the paint. So Lyttle hit a bunch of jumpers from that area, Minnesota missed a few shots while McCoughtry chased Moore and Atlanta finally forced someone else to try to beat them, and the lead quickly dwindled. The Dream tied it with a Tiffany Hayes free throw with under two minutes to play, and should’ve taken the lead – but Hayes and Lyttle missed three straight efforts at the line.

Janel McCarville gave the Lynx the lead again briefly on a nice bank shot, before Hayes charged to the other end and contrived a finish in traffic to tie it again. After McCoughtry and Monica Wright exchanged misses, the Lynx had 27 seconds to win it. The ball inevitably went to Moore, but Atlanta knew just as well as everyone else in the building that the Lynx wanted her taking the shot. She tried to dribble through a triple-team, lost the ball, and Schimmel took off upcourt the other way. She put up a little hook that was just off, de Souza couldn’t finish the putback, and the buzzer sent us to overtime.

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The Daily W, 07/18/2014

 

San Antonio Stars 90 @ Tulsa Shock 95

 

Lineups: As expected for both teams. Jia Perkins, Riquna Williams and Tiffany Jackson-Jones may all make appearances soon after the All-Star break, but exactly when is still up in the air.

 

Story of the Game: There was a lot of comically awful defense played in this game. Both teams did a dismal job of protecting the paint and preventing easy opportunities for their opponents. Tulsa started off with a run of layups for Courtney Paris inside, and then Danielle Robinson had trouble containing Skylar Diggins off the dribble – and got no help from any rotating teammates behind her. Meanwhile, Tulsa have been terrible at protecting the rim all season, and this game was no different, with various Stars scorers taking turns at slicing in for layups. Although funnily enough it was a string of threes for San Antonio from Danielle Adams, Kayla McBride and Shenise Johnson that allowed them to take a seven-point lead at halftime. Sometimes when you’re getting ripped apart inside, everyone overcompensates towards the middle and you start leaving shooters wide open.

But while San Antonio’s defense wasn’t great in the first half, it was absolutely disastrous in the second, with a miserable third quarter performance handing all the initiative to Tulsa. The Shock had the sense to attack the basket, resulting in either layups or free throws (or both), and San Antonio capitulated. No one on the perimeter could stay in front of their man, no one inside could rotate to help, and their transition defense was awful as well. And as often happens, when you start to fall apart at one end of the floor it transmits into your play at the other. San Antonio started settling for nothing but jumpers, missing most of them, and the offense ground to a halt. They lost the third quarter 25-8 and the game seemed to be slipping away.

While their scoring picked up, the Stars couldn’t get the stops to build a comeback in the third quarter, so eventually we saw a tactic that would’ve been seen in more Shock games this year if they’d had more leads – Hack-a-Paris. Dan Hughes called for his team to intentionally foul Courtney Paris, who’s shooting under 50% from the foul line this season, in a last-ditch effort to get back in the game in the final three minutes. While she went 3-of-6 on the intentionally gifted free throws – which is just about acceptable in those situations – San Antonio suddenly started nailing threes at the other end and clawed back within two points in the closing minutes. Tulsa actually produced a couple of good possessions of perimeter defense late in the game – running San Antonio off the three-point line by switching smoothly – and then a couple of misses from Adams and McBride finally ended any chances of San Antonio pulling off the comeback.

 

Key Players: The regular four scorers of Diggins, Sims, Paris and Johnson were Tulsa’s leaders yet again, and the Shock did an impressive job of exploiting San Antonio’s defense in the second half to take over the game. Even when one team is playing atrocious defense, the other side have to be playing well enough to take advantage. Tulsa also shot a ridiculous 32-39 from the foul line, illustrating how consistently they got inside and attacked the defense.

San Antonio actually shot an even higher percentage from the field than Tulsa, and went 11-21 from three-point range, but the porous defense killed them off. Usually Hughes has his teams well-drilled and organised to prevent such consistent breakdowns, but they’ve been a pretty poor defensive team for much of the season. This was the nadir.

 

Notes of Interest: For the third time this season, WNBA officials screwed up an ‘away from the play’ call in the final minute of a game. In that situation, if a defensive foul is committed away from the ball, it’s supposed to result in one free throw for the offensive team (taken by anyone on the floor) and they retain possession. Instead, yet again, the referees considered it a standard foul and sent Jen Lacy to the free throw line for two shots when she was fouled miles away from the ball with 33 seconds to play. It’s a pretty simple rule – and it’s in the rule book specifically to prevent things like ‘Hack-a-Paris’ extending into the closing moments of a game. You’d think they’d have been ready for it after the exact same mistake was made twice earlier this season when Brittney Griner was fouled late in Mercury games. Apparently not.

 

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Chicago Sky 64 @ Indiana Fever 82

 

Lineups: Same again for Chicago, with the same problematic injury list. Indiana had point guard Briann January back from her knee problem after missing just one game, and she slid straight back into the starting lineup ahead of Layshia Clarendon.

 

Story of the Game: The first quarter stayed close, with the more fluid and attractive offense coming from Indiana, but Sylvia Fowles bullying her way to points inside and Allie Quigley hitting from outside to keep Chicago even. Rookie Fever forward Natasha Howard had a nice run of points while Tamika Catchings was resting, but Howard’s defense doesn’t seem to be getting any better, and she had no hope at all against Fowles and Jessica Breland in the paint.

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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, 07/13/2014

 

Atlanta Dream 93 @ Indiana Fever 74

 

Lineups: Considering they’ve been comfortably the best team in the Eastern Conference so far this season, Michael Cooper has decided it wouldn’t be wise to change his starting lineup after all, so Jasmine Thomas continues at point guard in the same group we’ve seen for most of the year. Off the bench, they had DeLisha Milton-Jones available for the first time after trading Swin Cash for her a few days ago. When healthy, Indiana seem relatively certain about four of their starters, but continue to play around at the small forward spot. This time it was Karima Christmas’s turn to be demoted, with Marissa Coleman coming back into the starting lineup. The Fever also had a little extra depth on their bench, with Lynetta Kizer back from the family funeral that caused her to miss one game.

 

Story of the Game: For the opening ten minutes or so, this was a very even, back-and-forth contest. The speed and energy of Indiana’s defense created offense in the opposite direction, as did the Fever’s ability to draw fouls and generate free throws with their driving attack – something they’d been good at this year even before Tamika Catchings returned. We also saw two examples of inside-out ball movement, started by Catchings, creating the catch-and-shoot three-pointers that Coleman should’ve been living off all season. But Atlanta were just as effective going the other way, running in transition at every opportunity, and dominating the offensive glass to create multiple second-chance opportunities. Often the activity and energy of players like Catchings and Erlana Larkins keeps Indiana even on the glass, but the length and athleticism of Atlanta can give them serious problems in that area. Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza are just so big compared to the Fever frontcourt.

It all started to go wrong for Indiana when they had to go beyond the top-six in their rotation (Christmas being relatively interchangeable with Coleman). Their offense lost all its movement and mobility without Briann January, Shavonte Zellous or Catchings on the floor, which also led directly into breakdowns at the other end, with the Dream feeding off Indiana’s misses and turnovers to generate offense for themselves. With unlikely players hitting from outside as well – Jasmine Thomas had barely made a shot for a month, and Celine Dumerc’s jump shot hadn’t made it through customs until last night – Atlanta utterly dominated the second quarter. Lin Dunn threw her starters back out once it quickly became apparent how badly the Fever reserves were being outplayed, but by then Atlanta’s momentum was away and rolling. A 20-1 run to open the second period created a 17-point Dream lead, and they’d pushed the gap to 21 by halftime.

Indiana put up a fight in the second half, but it was never quite enough. Again, they started well with their favoured group on the floor, but couldn’t quite manage to keep it going. They even showed some 3-2 zone to shake things up, something you rarely see from the Fever. To some extent it worked and they even managed to rebound better out of it than they had been from their man-to-man – something you rarely see from anyone.

But with the speed and driving tenacity of Tiffany Hayes continuing to be effective for Atlanta, plus de Souza’s size inside and more threes than the Dream ever expect to hit, Atlanta always had an answer. The gap never dropped below 10, and things got worse for Indiana when January limped out of the game with right knee pain after a collision late in the third quarter that was hard to pick out on video. She never returned, which also didn’t help the comeback effort.

 

Key Players: For once, Angel McCoughtry played a lot of minutes but was largely unproductive – and the Dream played some great stuff anyway. Hayes led the scoring with her kamikaze drives a constant source of danger (to both the scoreboard and her own limbs) with the offensive rebounding a familiar source of scoring for Atlanta as well – and the perimeter shooting an unfamiliar one. They shot 10-18 from beyond the arc, on shots that Indiana would likely have wanted them to take in the gameplan before tip-off. But Thomas, Dumerc, Hayes and Shoni Schimmel all shot well from outside, and presented yet another threat for a team that becomes virtually unguardable if they can shoot well from outside on top of everything else.

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The Daily W, 07/11/2014

 

Connecticut Sun 68 @ Indiana Fever 72

 

Lineups: Connecticut continued with what’s become they’re regular starting five (which features two rookies, two second-year players, and Katie Douglas trying to help the kids hold it all together). Indiana made their first switch since Tamika Catchings’s return, swapping Karima Christmas in for Marissa Coleman at small forward. Coleman made two poor errors in crunch time of their last game, nearly costing them the win against Tulsa, which may have been part of the motivation behind that change. The Fever’s bench was also a little shorter than usual, with Lynetta Kizer attending a family funeral and therefore unavailable.

 

Story of the Game: This was an odd game for the first three quarters. The strangeness came from the way that Indiana were largely creating better shots than Connecticut. They were finding their way into the opposing defense more consistently, and putting up their shots from significantly closer to the rim – but they couldn’t finish. They missed a ridiculous number of layups, shooting a hideous 5-17 around the rim in the first half, so creating straightforward chances proved largely pointless.

Meanwhile, much of Connecticut’s offense came on jump shots. In fairness, they moved the ball well enough to create some decent looks, but essentially they were shooting better from 15-20 feet than Indiana were shooting from 1-3. It wasn’t particularly pretty, but it gave the Sun a nine-point lead at halftime, and after leading by as many as 14 they were still up by eight at the end of the third.

But it never felt like Indiana were out of it. All they needed to do was start converting some of their chances, and the comeback was right there waiting for them. Connecticut’s offense hadn’t been good enough to truly punish them for all the misses and put the game away. Finally, in the fourth quarter, the Fever clicked into gear. It started, funnily enough, with some outside shots. Rather than continuing to miss inside under the challenges of the Sun defenders – and credit Connecticut for managing to put pressure on for most of the game without being called for fouls – Indiana kicked the ball out and hit a couple of threes. But then it was back to getting inside, and either finishing better or grabbing offensive rebounds and completing the play at the second time of asking.

The presence of Catchings was inevitably an important element in the fourth quarter charge. She’d played her part in all the missing earlier on, but she was up top with the ball in her hands for much of the fourth quarter, leading the way. The off-kilter horns set that Indiana run, where Catchings handles the ball and the nominal point guard is in the ‘post’ spot at one of the horns, is a little confusing for opposing defenses. They’re not used to defending a set like that, and switching or rotating schemes are mixed up by having the offensive players the wrong way round. Indiana used a lot of it in the fourth quarter, and Catchings went different directions on different possessions to confuse the Sun even more and produce layups.

Connecticut actually had their best offensive stretch of the game in the fourth quarter, with Douglas hitting from outside and Renee Montgomery going right by the defense for layups. But several turnovers helped Indiana’s push, with a Larkins steal on an entry pass and a Catchings poke-away in transition particularly vital. The Fever gave up a couple of late buckets to make them nervous again, but Larkins hit a pair at the line to ice the game and send all the camp day kids home happy.

 

Key Players: Catchings was the key piece once again for the Fever, finishing 8-15 for 21 points and seven boards. She’s mostly creating for herself at this point – the chemistry isn’t quite there with this set of teammates yet – but having her back is obviously crucially important for Indiana. She gives them a whole new look offensively, as well as her typical energy and aggression on the defensive end. Larkins and Briann January helped out with the scoring, while Coleman hit a couple of shots off the bench and Layshia Clarendon had her second straight productive game. Her shot’s still inconsistent, her defense isn’t great, and she’s still not really a point guard (which matters less with Catchings around to do some of the ballhandling), but on some nights Clarendon’s speedy offense clicks and she’s useful.

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The Daily W, 07/09/2014

 

Connecticut Sun 71 @ Atlanta Dream 83

 

Lineups: No changes to the starters for either team from recent games. Connecticut had Briana Gilbreath-Butler available for the first time after signing her to a seven-day contract, made possible by the exception granted when Allison Hightower had arthroscopic surgery to clean out her knee. That’s expected to keep Hightower out for two-to-three weeks.

 

Story of the Game: The game was played at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavillion, due to a Microsoft convention forcing the Dream out of Philips Arena for much of July. The venue didn’t make much difference to the predictable direction of the game. As mentioned in yesterday’s preview, the contest was always likely to come down to which team could keep the other out of the paint, and Atlanta were significantly stronger in that area. Much of the first quarter went jumper-for-jumper, but the Dream started to pull ahead when they started finding a little pace in transition, and attacking the rim. Connecticut were still stuck firing away from outside.

The eight-point Atlanta lead at halftime was almost a positive for Connecticut – it felt like they’d been dominated to a significantly greater extent than that gap suggested. Atlanta’s ball movement and penetration, plus the vision and passing of players like Celine Dumerc and Shoni Schimmel, was creating good looks inside and piling up points in the paint for Atlanta. Connecticut were committing sloppy turnovers, failing to convert anything amongst Atlanta’s long arms on the rare occasions they did get inside, and staying remotely close only through hitting a few threes.

After a nasty landing late in the first half, Angel McCoughtry had gone off with a bruised elbow, but started the second half and immediately knocked down a jumper just to prove she was fine (an ‘elbow’ jumper, for those who enjoy irony). In the following minutes she added a transition layup, an offensive rebound into a putback, and a couple of nice passes for teammates to finish. At times, Atlanta are a prettier team to watch when Angel’s on the sidelines, because there’s a little more fluidity and teamwork to their play. But they’re almost always a more effective team when she’s on the floor, especially when she plays her part in the overall scheme rather than trying too hard to take over on her own.

Offensively, Connecticut were a little better in the second half. Alex Bentley hit a few shots, Chiney Ogwumike gave Atlanta more of a fight on the glass, and occasionally they even managed to finish in the paint. But they never could keep the Dream away from the rim, and Atlanta’s dominance became increasingly evident on the scoreboard. They coasted through the entire fourth quarter with a comfortable lead.

 

Key Players: McCoughtry helped kill the game in the fourth quarter, but overall it was a nice team effort from Atlanta. Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza did the work they needed inside, McCoughtry and Tiffany Hayes penetrated consistently from the wings, and the team finished with 24 assists on 33 buckets. Michael Cooper would probably like to see them get their turnovers more under control – they had 20 in this game, and continue to ‘lead’ the league in giveaways – but this was an illustration of the current state of the Eastern Conference. In theory this was the top two teams facing each other; in practice the top team is running well ahead of the remaining five.

For Connecticut, the backcourt of Douglas and Bentley hit some shots, and Ogwumike worked her butt off to give them something in the second half, but that was all the Sun had. They couldn’t slow Atlanta down, couldn’t keep them out of the paint, and the markedly more cohesive team ran away with the win.

 

Notes of Interest: Swin Cash gave Atlanta some solid minutes as the backup power forward in the first half, one of the few times that’s happened this season. Having someone else who can play a post spot that Cooper can rely on could be very important later in the season, especially if they pick up any injuries. It’s no coincidence that the teams atop the two conferences in the WNBA right now have been two of the healthier squads so far this season.

 

—–

 

Indiana Fever 78 @ Tulsa Shock 76

 

Lineups: Both teams started the same fives as in their previous games, which for Indiana meant the second appearance of Tamika Catchings for the season. The Fever are still figuring out their rotations with her back in the mix, but trying to fit your leader and superstar back into your team is a nice problem to have.

 

Story of the Game: As with the game above, the course of this game for most of the night was defined by one team repeatedly breaking down the opposing defense and getting into the paint, while the other was largely kept away from the rim. It was Indiana who consistently found their way into the soft center of Tulsa’s defense, and converted high-percentage looks to gain the advantage. They were looking for Shavonte Zellous inside, often on those dive plays from the corner I’ve talked about before, utilising her height advantage over Skylar Diggins or Odyssey Sims. The other primary weapon for Indiana in the first half was Catchings, already back in her familiar role playing pseudo-point guard at the top of the arc. Tulsa couldn’t stop her from driving into the paint, or occasionally dropping down to post up smaller defenders if Tulsa’s defense got switched up and she was faced with a guard. She also gives Indiana another passer and creator in transition, another area where they hurt Tulsa for much of the game.

Tulsa were hanging around in contention by hitting some of those shots they tossed up from outside, and putting in their usual work on the offensive glass. With Glory Johnson and Courtney Paris, the Shock don’t need much help on the boards, but Indiana’s defensive scheme opened up some extra space for them at times. The Fever were dropping double-teams down on Paris whenever she touched the ball inside, then trying to rotate and recover around the rest of the floor if the ball moved back out. They’re good at it – their switching and rotating is, for example, far smoother than the theoretically-similar-in-principle schemes that LA use – but all the movement often shifts players out of rebounding position. So second-chance points allowed Tulsa to stay within seven at halftime.

Indiana appeared to have taken complete control in the third quarter. Tulsa had some early success using slip-screens and pick-and-rolls to get the ball inside to their posts, but that soon dried up as the Fever started an endless procession to the free throw line. They hit a couple of jump shots, opened up by the amount of help Tulsa was now sending to try to close off the paint, but most of Indiana’s points came at the line when they drove into contact and drew whistles. They were 13-15 at the free throw line in the third quarter alone, and their lead ballooned as high as 15.

But given the way these teams have played this season – Indiana have blown a lot of leads, Tulsa tend to fight their way into close games – we shouldn’t have been surprised when the score tightened up again in the fourth quarter. Indiana stopped converting on their drives, or getting the calls from the officials, and the Shock crept back. It started with a pair of Jordan Hooper threes, and continued largely at the foul line. Maybe the referees had seen how imbalanced the foul count was in the third quarter and were evening it up a little, but there were also some dumb reaches from the Fever in the closing stages, and a couple of even dumber technicals from Zellous and Briann January. The game was tied up for the first time since the second quarter when Erlana Larkins overcommitted on a hedge on the perimeter, Diggins went by her, and fed Paris for a layup with 17 seconds left in the game.

But maybe the return of Catchings really is going to help the Fever avoid some of these late game collapses. They put the ball in her hands up top, running their unusual off-balance horns set. Typically your two posts are at the elbows, but because Catchings – the nominal power forward – is handling the ball they use January as a de facto ‘post’. Catchings entered the ball to Larkins, then made to use January as a screener in the opposite direction – a very standard move from that set. But Catchings quickly reversed course, hopped inside Johnson down the lane instead of curling towards the wing, took the feed from Larkins and finished the layup. It was either a lovely play-design, or a very smart off-the-cuff cut from Catchings. Either way, it gave Indiana the lead with under six seconds left.

As usual, Tulsa gave Diggins the ball up top on their final possession, and she penetrated. But Catchings slid across to help and cut her off, Larkins slid across behind her to cover Johnson when Diggins dumped the ball off, and Johnson could only fling up a tough hook that never came close. Another play that Indiana might well not have made if Catchings wasn’t back in the mix.

 

Key Players: It might have been her second game since returning, but this was Catchings’s real comeback show. She finished 8-14 for 23 points, 11 boards, four assists and two blocks. She got some help from Zellous in the scoring column, and a little bonus production from Layshia Clarendon off the bench. Plus Larkins put in her usual work in the paint on the defensive end, while released from having to be as much of a scoring threat as they’ve needed from her for most of the season. But it was Catch’s show, and she made the plays at the end to make sure it wasn’t in vain.

Credit Tulsa for somehow finding a way to be in the game at the end, despite being outplayed for most of the night. Diggins was the primary scorer, as usual, but they struggled to break down Indiana’s defense and find space inside, which made scoring difficult. At least they did a better job of sagging inside and leaving most of the open looks for Indiana late in the game out on the perimeter, which the Fever helpfully missed. Even if they’re pretty open, giving up good looks around the arc is better than conceding layups and free throws. Hooper had a nice game again with her three-point shooting a significant threat. She’s looking like a bit of a steal as a second-round pick.

 

Notes of Interest: Remember when we thought Tulsa might’ve fixed their problems in close games? Recent results – losing five of their last six by three, three, six, two and two points respectively – would suggest that they might’ve just fluked a couple of wins. They still can’t close games out, and their interior defense is still decidedly suspect. Same old problems.

 

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Los Angeles Sparks 72 @ Minnesota Lynx 83

 

Lineups: Seimone Augustus was still out for the Lynx due to left knee bursitis, so Monica Wright continued to fill in. Los Angeles stuck with Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard as their backcourt, leaving Armintie Herrington and Lindsey Harding to come off the bench. They also had Candice Wiggins available for the first time since their opening game of the season, returning from her own knee surgery.

 

Story of the Game: LA took too many shots that Minnesota would want them to take in the first quarter – jumpers from outside by anyone other than Toliver – but between hitting some of them and an endless supply of offensive rebounds, LA stuck with the Lynx. The Sparks even led for a while in the opening period. But the Lynx offense was too much for LA to cope with once Minnesota got rolling in the second quarter, and it became something of a layup line for the Lynx. Their unselfishness and movement off the ball was finding space amongst LA’s defense and piling up points. Tricia Liston had her best half in a Lynx jersey off the bench, making plays with passes, cuts and screens as well as hitting her typical threes. Janel McCarville and Lindsay Whalen linked up – in both directions – for several nice plays. And there was always Maya Moore as an outlet option to convert at the rim and provide points. Her jump shot was off for most of the night, but when she got to the basket she was as reliable as ever. Minnesota used her size to attack LA inside whenever one of their smaller defenders was on her, rather than someone like Candace Parker.

But between Jantel Lavender hitting her mid-range jumper, the offensive rebounds, and Parker hitting several threes, the Sparks were only down by six at halftime. And then a very shaky third quarter for Minnesota handed the initiative to LA. The Sparks came out in a zone defense to start the second half, which didn’t actually work at all and was forced back into a man-to-man after a few possessions where the Lynx got wide open looks. But it at least accomplished the intended effect of throwing Minnesota off their rhythm a little. They lost their momentum, LA started picking up points through Nneka Ogwumike running the floor hard and some of the transition game that the Lynx had kept in check for most of the night, and the Sparks moved into the lead. LA produced much better ball pressure in that third quarter, which made it much harder for Minnesota to initiate their offense. LA weren’t exactly dominating when they had the ball, but when you hold your opponent to eight points in a quarter, good things will happen.

But it didn’t take long for Minnesota to reassert themselves in the fourth quarter. Cheryl Reeve woke her team up, demanded better effort on the glass, and pulled her offense even further away from the basket – which opened up space behind to get to the rim. The Lynx always run a lot of their offense through their bigs in the high post. McCarville is most well-known for her passing, but the others often do similar jobs. They came higher and higher in the fourth quarter, while the perimeter players slashed past and around them, taking passes from the bigs and slicing to the rim for great chances to score. LA, whose help defense isn’t great at the best of times, didn’t know how to cope. They couldn’t clog the paint because they were chasing the ball and the opposing players out beyond the three-point line. So they just kept leaving huge spaces for the Lynx to exploit behind their defense.

Meanwhile at the other end, LA were tossing up a lot of jumpers and no longer hitting any of them. Play long enough against the Sparks, and that’ll usually happen eventually. Minnesota are well-drilled to know who the primary threats are, so Parker and Toliver were under pressure most of the night, and Parker didn’t touch the ball anywhere near enough in the fourth quarter. A 16-3 Lynx run covered most of the fourth, and the Sparks faded away with more of a whimper than a fight.

 

Key Players: Moore was Minnesota’s leading scorer, although she needed 23 shots to pick up her 30 points. Until a couple of important shots late in the game, she didn’t hit much from outside and sometimes seemed to be forcing the ball up in search of her jump shot. But with Whalen, McCarville, Wright and others helping out, the Lynx scored 52 points in the paint and had 27 assists on 33 baskets. Apart from the third quarter where they lost their way, it was a consummate team performance that took apart one of their regular rivals.

Outside of the 20 offensive rebounds leading to 21 second-chance points, LA didn’t have much of a night. Parker’s scoring was propped up by the three triples she managed to hit in the first half, but otherwise she was ineffective whether at small or power forward. But even in a game where they shot only 34% from the field, it’s the defense that continues to let them down. The Lynx broke them down all too frequently, and looked far better prepared for what they knew was coming from the Sparks than LA did to stop them. In the end, with Minnesota working hard enough to keep LA out of transition, the Sparks couldn’t create enough points to keep up with all the holes in their own defense.

 

Notes of Interest: Minnesota’s single possession of zone defense to start games (or halves, or occasionally out of timeouts) is backfiring a little this season. Much as its pointlessness entertains me, they’ve given up some wide open looks with that zone this year (Parker drilled a three to open this game, and LA got easy chances on the couple of other possessions where the Lynx tried the zone). Reeve may want to junk the idea entirely.

Reeve did provide some extra entertainment of her own between the third and fourth quarters, with a Popovichian interview with Rebecca Lobo where Reeve walked away before the second question could even be asked. She was that disgusted with how her team had been rebounding. On maybe her neck was tired from craning it to look Rebecca in the eye.

 

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League News

 

The All-Star starters were announced during ESPN2’s double-header last night, with few surprises but one or two ridiculous choices. Shoni Schimmel and Cappie Pondexter are the guards in the East, with Elena Delle Donne, Angel McCoughtry and Tamika Catchings in the frontcourt. Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins are the West guards, with Maya Moore, Candace Parker and Brittney Griner filling out their frontcourt spots. Schimmel’s obviously a bit of a reach in terms of deserving her place, and makes it largely because she’s such a fan favourite rather than because her play has been worthy of inclusion – although the East guards don’t offer a lot of obvious selections. Catchings being voted in is a little comical, considering she hadn’t played a single game until Saturday. But the fans got who they wanted, and now the coaches get to pick the reserves. My article covering who I feel should make the teams will be coming up later this week.

 

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Today’s Games

 

Washington @ Chicago, 12.30pm ET

Seattle @ Phoenix, 3.30pm ET

New York @ San Antonio, 8pm ET

 

The Daily W, 07/06/2014

 

San Antonio Stars 71 @ Indiana Fever 70

 

Lineups: San Antonio were as expected, with Danielle Adams continuing to start ahead of Sophia Young-Malcolm at power forward, but the big news was among Indiana’s starters. Tamika Catchings made her first appearance of the season after recovering from her back problem, and went immediately into the starting lineup in place of Natasha Howard.

 

Story of the Game: Indiana were in charge in the first quarter, energised by the return of their leader and star. Catchings looked strong and mobile, making plays with her defense and her ability to attack the paint and draw help defenders on offense. Rather than forcing her to cover Danielle Adams and deal with her occasional physical post-up moves, Indiana smartly put Catchings on Jayne Appel, which allowed her to roam more defensively and make plays without taking a pounding inside. Her jump shot looked flat and rusty, and the Fever kept a tight rein on her minutes during the game, but otherwise Catchings seemed in pretty good shape.

All afternoon, Indiana went after Becky Hammon with whoever she was trying to guard. Danielle Robinson can cope with slightly bigger opponents, but the Stars still have a very small starting perimeter and try to hide Hammon as much as possible on defense. The Fever used players like Shavonte Zellous and Marissa Coleman to post-up Hammon or go by her, and eventually forced San Antonio into their zone defense just so that they could keep Hammon on the floor. The second quarter was earlier than Dan Hughes usually resorts to his zone, but it turned out to be a productive switch for the Stars. Indiana moved the ball well to shift the zone around, and clearly knew what they were supposed to do against it, but still had far more problems creating good looks than they’d had against the man-to-man. With Indiana’s bench players failing to produce as they had in recent games, San Antonio came into the game in the second quarter, started hitting some shots, and eventually took a narrow lead into halftime.

While neither team was particularly effective offensively in the second half, it was Indiana who eventually managed to inch out a lead. They rarely converted anything when they broke down the zone and got to the rim, but decent three-point shooting from Karima Christmas, Shavonte Zellous and Briann January helped them pull in front. They’ll get better, cleaner looks out there now, purely because of the attention that Catchings draws from opposing defenses. With just over five minutes left in the game, Indiana led by 13 points and seemed to be in control – while Hughes was going nuts on the sideline and drawing a technical for his screaming.

But then Hughes finally found a lineup that worked – bigger on the perimeter, with Robinson, Kayla McBride and Shenise Johnson; slightly more mobile inside, with Young-Malcolm and Adams playing together – and Indiana’s problems closing out games resurfaced. The Fever lost any offensive rhythm, and committed several turnovers, while San Antonio ran off those giveaways and used Adams as a focus inside and out when they were running halfcourt sets. 14 straight points, capped by two free throws by Robinson after a desperately soft foul call, gave San Antonio a one-point lead with 22 seconds left in the game.

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The Daily W, 07/04/2014

 

Tulsa Shock 96 @ Connecticut Sun 83

 

Lineups: No changes for either side, despite both having lost their last three games.

 

Story of the Game: Connecticut had one good quarter in this game – the second – and otherwise got outplayed for most of the night. They started atrociously, with a series of bricks and turnovers featuring consecutive travelling violations by Kelsey Bone, while layups and free throws helped Tulsa to the first 12 points of the game. Odyssey Sims got off to a hot start in what turned out to be her best game so far as a pro, hitting from the perimeter but also doing a lot of work at the rim. She’s had some of the same problems as a rookie that teammate Skylar Diggins had in her first year – the ability to get past people and into the heart of a defense but then missing a lot of shots among the trees once she gets inside. In this game she was finishing almost everything, including several floaters from a few feet beyond the rim, completing the play without having to directly challenge the opposing posts.

But the Sun finally woke up in time to even the game up in the second period, with Alyssa Thomas’s size from the wing and Renee Montgomery’s quickness off the bench helping drag them back into the game. Bone was also managing to finish plays inside rather than taking four steps before putting the ball on the floor, and Tulsa’s poor interior defense helped as well.

But that second quarter proved to be a brief respite. With Sims leading the way and Diggins joining in, plus the tandem of Glory Johnson and Courtney Paris dominating Connecticut on the offensive glass, Tulsa were in complete control for virtually all of the second half. The Sun briefly threatened a comeback when Katie Douglas got hot from outside early in the fourth quarter, but Jordan Hooper answered with threes of her own and the Shock were quickly back on track. Tulsa’s defense wasn’t that great for much of the night, but with the way their offense was ripping the Sun apart, it made little difference.

 

Key Players: Sims finished the night 11-17 for 30 points, and it was nice to see her as the primary weapon for once. That was the idea when they drafted her – that between her and Diggins in the backcourt, opponents would have trouble guarding both and at least one could explode in any given game. But it’s been Diggins doing most of the work on the offensive end, and drawing all the plaudits. This time it was Sims’s night.

Douglas and Thomas were easily the most effective offensive players for Connecticut, with Thomas quietly becoming more effective as the season progresses. Her jump shot’s still very much a work in progress, but her size, strength and athleticism from the small forward spot makes her dangerous even with limited shooting range. Connecticut’s main problem in this game was their complete inability to slow the Shock down. Also, why Anne Donovan took so long to give Montgomery a chance to help in the second half was mystifying. She woke the team up in the second quarter but didn’t get much of a chance to help in the second half.

 

Notes of Interest: For the second time this season, Kelsey Griffin lost a shoe during play, and carried on playing with just one. And again, the opposing team recognised it and attacked her. But unlike the block she pulled off against Penny Taylor earlier in the year, Glory Johnson managed to draw a foul while driving at her. She should probably tie her shoes a little tighter.

Thomas lost something during play as well, but dealt with it rather better. The face mask she was wearing to protect her recently injured nose was flapping behind her head while she completed a transition layup early in the second half, then she kicked it to the sidelines before grabbing a steal and leading the break for another layup for her team. All the sequence really needed was some dramatic music as she revealed herself to be someone else under the mask.

 

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San Antonio Stars 84 @ Minnesota Lynx 91

 

Lineups: Minnesota were without Seimone Augustus for the second straight game due to left knee bursitis, so Monica Wright started for them again. Danielle Adams continues to start ahead of Sophia Young-Malcolm for San Antonio at power forward, while Jia Perkins is still out due to her hamstring injury.

 

Story of the Game: Minnesota hit several threes early on, including three from Wright, which covered up the fact that there wasn’t a lot of flow to their offense. By contrast, San Antonio – a team that often lives and dies by the outside jumper – didn’t take many threes in the first half, but inched their way ahead on layups and mid-range jump shots. The Lynx defense still isn’t where Cheryl Reeve would like it to be on the interior rotations, although they did do a decent job of extending to San Antonio’s shooters in this game, making those outside shots more difficult.

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The Daily W, 07/02/2014

 

San Antonio Stars 74 @ Connecticut Sun 71

 

Lineups: Same again for both teams, with Danielle Adams and Alyssa Thomas continuing to retain their spots ahead of former starters Sophia Young-Malcolm and Allison Hightower. Thomas was in a face-mask after breaking her nose in practice the day before.

 

Story of the Game: An utterly forgettable first half saw Connecticut lead for most of the 20 minutes, but not by much. The advantage they had was that a significant portion of their points were coming at the rim, by running out in transition or working on the offensive glass. San Antonio were relying more on jumpers, which typically produce a lower rate of success even with the shooters on the Stars roster.

The third quarter was thoroughly dominated by San Antonio. When they’re in full flow they’re a lovely team to watch on offense. Endlessly unselfish, always willing to give up a good shot for a great one, they took apart a Connecticut team that looked like they’d taken a nap at halftime and not woken up in time for the restart. Becky Hammon, Danielle Robinson and Kayla McBride were the key players doing the scoring, moving the ball beautifully and exploiting Connecticut’s overplaying defenders by getting in behind them. With everyone on the floor a threat to score, bar Jayne Appel, San Antonio have the luxury of not having to run plays for anyone in particular. They can put all the pieces in motion, watch the defense bend or break, and then take whatever gap opens up. Connecticut both left shooters open and gave up lanes to the basket in the third quarter, and San Antonio moved ahead by double-digits.

But it wasn’t quite over. Katie Douglas played the central role in dragging Connecticut back into the game, attacking the basket on drives rather than settling for jumpers. San Antonio had become a little too one-on-one offensively, losing the team flow from earlier, and a Kelsey Bone layup eventually tied the game with under three minutes to play.

Then it was San Antonio’s turn to bounce back. They scored the next seven points of the game, on a rare Appel post move, a McBride three off a nice staggered-screen play drawn up by Dan Hughes in a timeout, and then free throws once Connecticut started fouling to extend the game. At the other end, San Antonio’s 3-2 zone had the desired effect of slowing the Sun down, forcing a 24-second violation. Then Bone barreled over Young-Malcolm on a post move for another turnover, and the Stars were back in charge. Between Hammon, Robinson and McBride they were 8-8 at the foul line in the closing moments, helping San Antonio hold on despite some late threes from the Sun.

 

Key Players: The perimeter trio of Hammon, Robinson and McBride did most of the work for the Stars, especially in their push in the third quarter. That’s two wins out of two for San Antonio since losing Jia Perkins to her hamstring injury, both featuring strong performances from the remaining perimeter players. It’s a small sample-size to this point, but they’ve stepped up when they needed to without the usual burst of scoring from Perkins off the bench.

Douglas and Bone were the main weapons for Connecticut, although Bone would’ve been more efficient if not for several missed layups. It was a disappointingly quiet night for Chiney Ogwumike, and she’s had a couple of those lately. It’s always hard for rookies to keep playing to their absolute potential throughout their first professional seasons. They’re not used to playing this often, or against this level of competition night-in and night-out.

 

Notes of Interest: Bone was drawing a double-team from the Stars in the low post, which was interesting. There aren’t too many players around the league who gain that kind of respect, but clearly Bone’s offensive game is starting to earn it for her. The defensive end is still where she needs to put in the most work.

 

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Tulsa Shock 74 @ New York Liberty 90

 

Lineups: As expected for both teams. Riquna Williams didn’t even travel with the Shock due to her knee problem. Anna Cruz was playing with strapping on her left hand after dislocating a finger during New York’s previous game.

 

Story of the Game: The opening stages were a joy to behold for Bill Laimbeer and Liberty fans – this was the Tina Charles that they’d been waiting for all season. Charles was in the low post, demanding the ball, and then making aggressive moves towards the basket rather than drifting away from it. That led to baskets, fouls, free throws, and general positive outcomes for New York. Tulsa made things a little easier by trying to single-cover her most of the time, but the effort and method of attack was all Charles.

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