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WNBA Weekly Rundown: New York Liberty Take Charge in Eastern Conference

This is the first edition of the WNBA Weekly Rundown, which will recap the biggest stories and performances of the week. 

The New York Liberty put some distance between themselves and the rest of the Eastern Conference with a second straight convincing win over the Chicago Sky. Unlike last Friday’s match in Chicago, the Liberty made sure to put this one away early, extending their early lead to 17 points after three quarters. Rookie Kiah Stokes recorded her second double-double of the season with 13 points and 11 rebounds, while Epiphanny Prince burned her former team again with 22 points and three steals. Chicago, playing without an injured Elena Delle Donne (ankle), was able to convert on only two of its eight three-point attempts, while the Liberty shot 6-11 from distance.

Perhaps no part of the Liberty’s turnaround this season has been better reflected than in their play against the Sky. In the previous two seasons, Laimbeer’s squad was unable to beat Chicago in nine tries. This year, though, they’re 3-0 against the Sky, beating them by an average of 14.3 points while also soundly outrebounding Chicago in each contest. The Sky will get an opportunity to avoid a season sweep on Sept. 3, when they travel to New York for the final time during the regular season.

Storm Sweep Sparks

Meanwhile, out West, there was another team reversing its fortunes against a longtime rival. The Seattle Storm, who’d struggled mightily against the Los Angeles Sparks in 2014, completed an improbable season sweep of LA on Tuesday, beating the Sparks 85-77 at Staples Center. Seattle’s hot shooting (nearly 51 percent as a team) was enough to overcome a near triple-double from Candace Parker (12 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists), as the Storm had four players who finished with 15 points or more.

What makes this significant is that at 6-19, the Storm still own the worst record in the WNBA, yet have gone 4-0 this season against a team they don’t usually match up very well against. The Sparks have arguably been hit the hardest of any WNBA team by player absences, however, and this was no more apparent than in their regular-season series against the Storm. The Sparks were missing a ton of All-Star talent in Nneka Ogwumike, Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard for two of those four games, while Parker played in only one them. All you really have to do is compare the first and final box scores of the games between the Storm and Sparks, and you’ll have a good idea of why LA has been somewhat of a disappointment this year.

Still, 4-0 is 4-0, and it’s a great sign for the young Storm, who appear to be ahead of schedule against a team who they’ll continue to see plenty of. While there are no individual lines in those box scores that jump out at you, the victories themselves are marks of a team that doesn’t need one particular player to carry the load, and their repeated success against a Sparks team that has a huge size advantage over them in the post suggests that head coach Jenny Boucek had her team well-prepared for this matchup. Perhaps serving as an assistant coach under Brian Agler while he was with Seattle gave Boucek a little extra intel? Assuming the season ends with the standings as they currently are, we’ll have to wait until next season for more of this storied rivalry, when the Sparks will hope to field a full roster from Day 1.

Lynx Perfect on the Week

Now, under the category of “not surprising in the least,” the WNBA’s premier team went 3-0, reeling off consecutive victories against Los Angeles, San Antonio and Atlanta. The Minnesota Lynx, after losing two games in a row for the first time all season, were out to prove that they’re still they best in the business, and right now it’s hard to argue with them. Sylvia Fowles has been on board for a few weeks now and is playing well for her new team (chipping in 14 points per game on nearly 60 percent shooting), and with her anchoring their interior defense, the Lynx are a completely different animal.

Granted, it wasn’t all easy for Minnesota. In what may have been the most entertaining game of the week, the Atlanta Dream gave them all they could handle. Only an otherworldly performance by Maya Moore (36 points) in her duel with Angel McCoughtry (32 points) kept the Lynx from being upset. A thrilling victory, but not one head coach Cheryl Reeve was likely satisfied with.

As the week draws to a close, though, this is a team no one wants to face, especially with perimeter scoring ace Seimone Augustus returning from arthroscopic knee surgery. Augustus didn’t shoot the ball particularly well in her first game back (3-13, 0-4 from range), but she has plenty of time before the playoffs to get back into the swing of things, and this gives the Lynx a much-needed boost for their guard depth. Reeve can now return to using Anna Cruz off the bench while shuffling the rest of her second unit back to their natural positions. Best of all, Augustus should still be fresh by the time the playoffs roll around, and that’s not something too many foes will be looking forward to.

Rookie Report

No. 3 overall pick Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had by far the best week of her young career, scoring in double figures in consecutive games against Los Angeles (15 points) and Phoenix (14 points). The sharpshooter from UConn hit six field goals in both games along with a pair of three-pointers, while showing versatility off the dribble and in the post.

Liberty point guard Brittany Boyd had a breakout game on Saturday, scoring 22 points against the Tulsa Shock, 13 of which came in the fourth quarter. Not only did Boyd hit several shots from long distance (an inconsistent jumper was one of the knocks on her game coming out of college), but she showed no fear in crunch time, rewarding head coach Bill Laimbeer’s confidence in his rookie with unbridled aggression and a fire that nearly brought the Liberty all the way back from a 19-point deficit.

Other Notes

Shock forward Plenette Pierson went down with what appeared to be a knee injury in the third quarter of Saturday’s game against New York. Pierson had to be helped off the court and didn’t return to the game, though she saw through her team’s victory from the bench with a hefty bag of ice on her knee. The Shock have yet to address Pierson’s status.

Indiana rookie forward Natalie Achonwa continues to be absent from the team, participating in the FIBA Americas Champsionship for the Canadian National Team. The WNBA’s Rookie of the Month for June is expected back soon, however, as the championship game is Sunday night. After its conclusion, Achonwa will be free to return to the Indiana Fever.

On Friday, the Connecticut Sun honored one of the WNBA’s all-time greats, retiring Katie Douglas’s No. 23. Douglas played 14 seasons in the WNBA (six of them in Connecticut), and the versatile guard/forward finished her career ninth in league history in points scored (5,560) and fifth in three-pointers made (726).

Top Performers

Sunday

Elena Delle Donne: 33 points (11-18 FG, 5-9 3P), 8 rebounds vs. Phoenix Mercury

Brittney Griner: 21 points (9-14 FG), 14 rebounds, 5 blocks vs. Chicago Sky

Riquna Williams: 35 points (8-18 FG, 6-12 3P, 13-15 FT) vs. Atlanta Dream

Angel McCoughtry: 23 points (8-11 FG), 9 rebounds, 4 assists vs. Tulsa Shock

Tuesday

Maya Moore: 32 points (11-23 FG, 10-10 FT), 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals vs. San Antonio Stars

Jantel Lavender: 22 points (9-12 FG), 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks vs. Seattle Storm

Wednesday

Alex Bentley: 25 points (8-19 FG, 3-5 3P, 6-6 FT) vs. Tulsa Shock

Friday

Tina Charles: 31 points (14-21 FG), 8 rebounds vs. Connecticut Sun

Epiphanny Prince: 23 points (9-17 FG), 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 6 steals vs. Connecticut Sun

Maya Moore: 36 points (10-19 FG, 5-10 3P, 11-13 FT), 4 rebounds, 5 assists vs. Atlanta Dream

Sylvia Fowles: 19 points (8-10 FG), 8 rebounds, 5 blocks vs. Atlanta Dream

Angel McCoughtry: 32 points (10-24 FG, 9-10 FT), 6 steals vs. Minnesota Lynx

Shoni Schimmel: 18 points (7-19 FG), 6 rebounds, 8 assists vs. Minnesota Lynx

Jessica Breland: 15 points (6-11 FG), 11 rebounds (4 OREB), 3 blocks vs. Seattle Storm

Courtney Vandersloot: 21 points (7-14 FG), 8 assists vs. Seattle Storm

Saturday

Odyssey Sims: 27 points (5-10 FG, 15-16 FT), 7 assists vs. New York Liberty

Brittany Boyd: 22 points (6-11 FG, 8-10 FT), 3 rebounds, 3 assists vs. Tulsa Shock

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