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.