As the playoff picture rounds into form, we’re all going to have a few games stuck in our minds that defined the race for double- and single-byes. It felt like we got at least three of those games last week. Taking a break from the team-by-team format, here’s a look back at the two that weren’t all-out turnover fests.
Washington at Minnesota
Clear the way
I’d argue that the greatest thing about this Washington team lies in their ability to become more exciting the simpler they become.
Up by four with a minute to play without your starting point guard? Elena Delle Donne is just going to bring the ball up. What are you going to do about that?
The Lynx bring a second defender up to get the ball out of her hands. But because she’s in the middle of the floor, she can easily see it coming and get rid of it quickly to let the ball find the open player.
Or earlier in the game, she brought it down the right side and ran a pick and pop with Aerial Powers. Insert any other Mystics player in Powers’ place—it’s going to create a good look.
Teams don’t get a lot of reps guarding inverse pick and rolls, and switching a smaller player onto Delle Donne with a live dribble is death.
Beyond the post-up
Switching against Washington also encourages them to crash the offensive glass, putting a strain on the defense even when they don’t attack that size advantage with a post-up.
A deflection by Napheesa Collier may derail this kind of possession against most teams. The timing of Meesseman’s cut makes it tougher for Fowles to get Danielle Robinson out of that mismatch with Delle Donne, and Meesseman is enough of a threat to at least make Fowles think twice again once stationed in that corner.
In the Cloud
Highlighting individual defense is never easy. Here’s a fun example from the second quarter. To the naked eye, Natasha Cloud did at least four really important things as Minnesota cycled through its options on this trip.
She’s in position on the left wing to blow up any handoff for Odyssey Sims then hangs around in the lane to discourage an entry inside to a cutting Collier. Cloud then darts back out to Sims to prevent a clean catch-and-shoot look and moves her feet to stay in front as the lefty attacks with her strong hand.
L.A. at Dallas
The rough start to the fourth
The Sparks took an eight-point lead into the fourth. An 11-2 run got Dallas back into the game. Glory Johnson set it off with a 3-pointer—her fifth of the game. That surpassed her previous career-high set earlier this season with four made triples on July 12 against the Storm.
The Wings had just eight players available and ended up relying on some three-big combinations down the stretch, which also led to some interesting developments on the other end.
Size against size
L.A. turned to a bigger lineup of their own for part of the fourth. The Sparks didn’t have much luck attacking it, especially when they played right into Dallas’ hands poking at a more switch-friendly matchup.
Maria Vadeeva’s strengths really complement L.A.’s stars on the offensive end, but what happens when they run into a bigger 5?
Bigger lineups also force them into more uncomfortable cross-matches and rotations that they haven’t had much time to practice.
On the bright side, Riquna Williams, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Sydney Wiese have all played well this season. They can be successful with more traditional lineups. Toggling back and forth between the options, though, might not be as much of an either-or proposition some may have anticipated.
Answering the run
After the Wings took a one-point lead, the Sparks went scoreless on five of their next six possessions. That chunk of time included missed triples by Vadeeva and Nneka Ogwumike. (Ogwumike missed another jumper moments later after taking a step inside the arc.)
The ability of those two players to space the floor opens doors. Those moments are sure to repeat themselves—on the road in the fourth quarter of a close game—in the playoffs. Will they be able to cash those in?
Let’s see it in the playoffs
Ruffin-Pratt is having a career-year from beyond the arc. That’s great. The ball is still going to find her as opponents load up toward their stars.
The open triples, regardless of the outcome, are easy to point at. There’s plenty of stuff she can do to be a scoring threat for L.A. in the playoffs. Last week’s Dallas game provided four perfect ‘eye of the beholder’ examples.
TRP has made a point to exert her size advantage on smaller guards. One early sequence ended with a driving layup. She got right to the rim earlier in the quarter with a nice spin against Arike Ogunbowale but didn’t finish.
They zipped her to the top of the key late in the third to attack that same matchup again, and TRP buried a turnaround jumper.
Then trailing by one near the middle of the fourth, she drove hard to her right past Ogunbowale. The rushed scoop layup attempt was blocked with 15 on the shot clock as Chelsea Gray and Candace Parker watched from beyond the 3-point line.
A carbon copy of TRP without the same handle would really become a cause for concern. Maybe we will get to the playoffs and the 3-ball just won’t go in the basket or some indecision will creep in. Those plays feel like coin flips right now.
Every team will be entering the playoffs looking to answer the same question: How can we squeeze as much as possible out of our stars by surrounding them with potent scoring options?
All season long, Washington has looked like the team closest to finding a playoff-ready answer. We haven’t had much time to see some of the other contenders—L.A. and Phoenix, in particular—at full strength. Even though it’s a far cry from what we got last season, that dynamic is going to make this stretch run fun in its own way. Buckle up.
Fish gets tossed
I like that Derek Fisher picked a spot to get himself tossed after Johnson got away with one on Ogwumike late in the game. Yanking on limbs is dangerous and reckless. He may have just been completely beside himself after the officials didn’t call anything at all, as the event in question occurred outside their blind spots under each rim.
Gray didn’t have it in crunch time in this one, turning it over three times in a 60-second span when the Sparks had chances to make it a one-possession game.
Harrison switched onto Gray and deflected a pass intended for Ogwumike, then Gray turned it over two possessions later trying to cross up Johnson. Another All-Star had some turnover troubles down the stretch, making for quite a pick ‘em.
Who had it worse?
Seattle’s collapse in Connecticut was absolutely brutal. The nature of some of the giveaways, including the failures to inbound the ball, was straight out of a video game—almost like somebody playing as the Sun against the computer fell behind, turned the difficulty down and kept switching sides to turn it over on purpose.
Thomas simply tried harder. Howard went through the motions down one with a chance to win it.
Even without Jordin Canada, there’s no denying that was their game to lose. They did. And losing one game you aren’t supposed to can be the difference between hosting and traveling for round one or even making a late surge for a bye.
Also: Miss me?
The third-year forward has been at the core of some fun combinations that give the Dream more flexibility to switch certain actions. And falling somewhere between ‘something’ and ‘nothing’, she’s shooting 21-of-52 from deep after only attempting nine in her first two seasons.
The Aces shipped Coffey out this past offseason in the three-way deal that allowed them to land Sugar Rodgers. Rodgers’ shooting was a more pressing need, but the deal won’t look good in hindsight if Coffey becomes a mid-30s 3-point shooter and the Aces struggle to find enough vets in free agency for the bench.
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