The Daily W, 08/10/2014

 

Minnesota Lynx 80 @ Phoenix Mercury 82

 

Lineups: For the first time in their four meetings this season, the two best teams in the WNBA had their entire rotations fit and ready to play. There were no surprises in the starting lineups.

 

Story of the Game: The Lynx, led by Maya Moore, lit Phoenix up in the opening quarter. Apart from a couple of breakaways that Moore created with a block and a steal it was all on jump shots, but that didn’t seem to matter – everything was dropping. Moore was electric, hitting from everywhere, including a couple of threes. One of them was on the same sideline play – where she inbounds the ball, gets it back immediately and fires – that resulted in two vital buckets in the fourth quarter of the previous Lynx-Mercury game. Phoenix might want to actually prepare for that next time these teams meet. And while Moore was the leader, everyone else was making shots for Minnesota as well, including Janel McCarville nailing a three when the defense left her alone, and Monica Wright adding a pair of jumpers after coming off the bench.

It was all Phoenix could do to cling on, and they just about managed it. They went inside to Brittney Griner a few times, and while she came up with a couple of buckets McCarville was also doing a good job of pushing Griner off the block before the ball could arrive. When Griner did get open, it was usually thanks to a physical screen from Diana Taurasi, who was clearly up for this game from the very beginning. She whined about how physical the previous meeting with Minnesota was – despite never shying away from creating contact herself – and it was clear that she was determined to get the first hit in this time around. She was also much more aggressive in looking for her own shot than we’ve seen in most of Phoenix’s games this season, where she’s often been as much of a creator as a scorer. It was the same in the last game against the Lynx – for such a big game, she wants the scoring responsibility in her hands.

The Mercury were only down by eight after that explosive opening period for Minnesota, which felt like a victory for Phoenix. Then in the second quarter, they came right back into the game. The Lynx inevitably cooled off, and their efforts to get the ball inside and create some paint points resulted in more turnovers than baskets. Phoenix were the team getting into the lane, and they were still clearly the aggressors in the contest, making things happen. DeWanna Bonner was looking to attack and score, Penny Taylor was driving into the defense, and a spinning Taurasi baseline jumper for the final points of the first half gave Phoenix their first lead of the night. The fact that it came after an uncalled (yet blatant) push-off to shed the defense of Lindsay Whalen just helped sum up the first half.

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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, 08/05/2014

 

New York Liberty 83 @ Atlanta Dream 76

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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Connecticut Sun 69 @ Los Angeles Sparks 70

 

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

 

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

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

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The Daily W, 08/03/2014

 

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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The Daily W, 08/02/2014

 

Connecticut Sun 89 @ San Antonio Stars 79

 

Lineups: The starters were as in recent games for both teams. Connecticut had Danielle McCray available for the first time since mid-June after recovering from her broken thumb. Her return had required the Sun to release Briana Gilbreath-Butler, who’d been used sparingly anyway by Anne Donovan during her brief stint in Connecticut. In the order of meaningful player swaps throughout basketball history, McCray for Gilbreath-Butler is not high on the list.

 

Story of the Game: Unfortunately, due to the vagaries of the WNBA’s LiveAccess service, I didn’t get to see much of the first meaningful stretch of this game. The video stopped at 5:41 in the first quarter with the score tied at 6-6, and returned early in the second period with Connecticut ahead 22-12 (and they haven’t fixed anything with the archived video). I can point out that San Antonio’s weak interior defense had already given up three easy layups before the feed died, but that the play-by-play tells us that much of Connecticut’s lead was built by hitting perimeter shots. The Sun haven’t done much of that recently, so it’s a little less embarrassing that the Stars would let them fire from there than give up the open lanes to the hoop.

San Antonio can be a pretty frustrating team. When they’re on-song, moving the ball around and hitting shots, they can be lovely to watch. But when they’re bad they’re terrible. They go cold from the perimeter, the ball stops moving, the shot clock dwindles, and they generally grind to a halt. Defensively they’ve been pretty poor all season, with the combination of a lack of size and some sloppy rotations leaving them weak inside and shaky on the glass. In this game, things only got worse in the second quarter, with Renee Montgomery scoring inside and out for the Sun while they gathered offensive boards and Chiney Ogwumike slashed to the rim with ease. It was especially disappointing how simple pick-and-rolls up top left Ogwumike a wide open lane to roll in for straightforward layups. San Antonio’s only remotely consistent offense came from Kayla McBride, and they were lucky to be down by just 13 at halftime.

The Stars still couldn’t slow down Ogwumike or Kelsey Bone in the third quarter, and the lead hit 20 at one stage. Dan Hughes screamed his way into a technical, and got desperate enough to try recent teenage signing Astou Ndour in the third period. She’s been shooting almost every time she touches the ball in her brief appearances, and that was no different in this game, but you can see the athleticism and potential. The constant firing is probably partly a product of wanting to make an impression, and partly because she doesn’t know the schemes yet so just lets fly.

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The Daily W, 08/01/2014

 

Phoenix Mercury 67 @ Minnesota Lynx 75

 

Lineups: While both teams had their first-choice starters in place for this much-anticipated clash, it turned out that not everyone was available. Erin Phillips was missing for the Mercury due to a sprained left ankle, one of very few games that a rotation player has missed for Phoenix this year due to injury.

 

Story of the Game: As it turned out, the top two offenses in the WNBA didn’t produce anything remotely resembling a shootout. In fact, we saw a whole stream of misses from every conceivable angle over the course of the game. Lots of missed jumpers, many missed layups, pretty poor three-point shooting, and even mediocre production from the free-throw line. The game everyone had been anticipating for quite a while turned out to be a physical battle featuring more bricks and bruises than smooth offensive execution.

Which isn’t to say that it was a bad game. The Mercury opened up trying to go inside to Brittney Griner repeatedly, and had some success early on. Minnesota were firing a lot of jumpers, and not hitting many. Phoenix’s perimeter defense has gotten better since they’ve realised that Griner’s protecting behind them and they can adjust accordingly. It allows them to go over every screen and try to stay on the hip of the shooter, because they’re not nearly as afraid of that opponent turning the corner and driving for a layup. That leads to more closely contested jumpers, and more misses – even when Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus are the ones taking the shots.

The Lynx started building a lead late in the first quarter thanks to an old Mercury trick – force steals or grab long rebounds, and run. Phoenix don’t score quite as many transition points as they used to, and Minnesota might be the better fastbreak team of the two at this point. They pushed, got some layups while Phoenix were stalling at the other end, and led by 11 at the end of the first period. Tan White hitting a couple of threes helped as well.

But Phoenix wiped out most of the gap in the second quarter. They weren’t running their offense with their usual fluency, the ball sticking in the face of physical and smart Lynx defense. But Phoenix earned a few free throws by driving into contact, Griner, Candice Dupree and Penny Taylor hit a couple of shots apiece, and back they came. The Mercury also went to their 2-3 zone, and while Minnesota created some good looks against it, they didn’t knock many down. Phoenix were within three at the interval.

The scrappy, bitty game continued in the third, with neither offense showing much fluidity. Diana Taurasi was getting frustrated by the physical attention of Minnesota’s defenders, and missing more shots than anyone else in her attempts to respond. Sometimes, pissing her off works out well for a defense. But Minnesota’s offense was struggling as well, so they couldn’t pull away. The Lynx were achieving one of the key priorities of head coach Cheryl Reeve – take care of the ball to prevent Phoenix getting into an offensive flow off turnovers or mistakes – but they weren’t hitting shots. It was a struggle to score points for both teams almost all night long.

But finally, in the fourth quarter, some daylight. It became the ‘Maya and Mone Show’ for Minnesota, as their star wings suddenly found some rhythm and started knocking down shots. Moore hit a pair of threes, both on sideline plays where she inbounded the ball and got it straight back for clean looks. They snuck in for the occasional layup, but essentially two of the best jumpshooters in the women’s game finally started hitting jump shots, and that turned the contest. They were 8-13 combined in the fourth quarter, for 22 points, and with the vociferous home crowd behind them they took control of the game.

The Mercury hung around, with a Taurasi jumper and then a pair of Griner free throws (on a desperately soft call) bringing them within four points in the final minutes. But both times the Lynx answered with jumpers to hold them at bay. When Taurasi missed a three on the Mercury’s next possession with under a minute to play, their win streak was over at 16.

 

Key Players: On a night where they shot a combined 15-42 from the field, it was still Moore and Augustus who eventually played the central roles in finishing the game off for Minnesota. But it was the team defense that did the job for most of the night while they struggled to hit shots. The Lynx dealt better with the level of contact that the officials allowed throughout the game, and it was Phoenix who lost their composure a little in the second half. This game doesn’t win the Lynx anything in terms of the overall season, but it keeps them alive for the top seed in the West, and it’s a nice little reminder to the Mercury that the road to a WNBA championship in 2014 is still likely to go through Minnesota.

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