WNBA Today, 08/05/2011: Lynx leave it late, stretch streak to eight

So after yesterday afternoon’s excruciating display of offensive ineptitude by Chicago and New York (discussed here), the top teams in the WNBA’s Western Conference had last night all to themselves. San Antonio had lost their previous two games, dropping dangerously close to Seattle and Phoenix in the standings. In fact, a loss in this game would create a three-way tie for 2nd/3rd/4th in the West. One of those Silver Stars losses was at home to Minnesota last Sunday, although it took a Lindsay Whalen jumper with 1.5 seconds to play to snatch a one-point win out of the fire. The Lynx had won seven in a row heading into the re-match last night, six of them over Western Conference rivals and the seventh over East-leading Indiana. Already three games clear at the top of the standings, another win over San Antonio would create a four-game gap over everybody and leave Minnesota the hot favourites for home-court advantage in the playoffs. Even with 15 games to go.

The lineups were the same as last week – same starting fives, and Danielle Adams and Monica Wright missing due to injury and family matters respectively. Now both these teams are very sound defensively, but this was a Western Conference matchup. Remember the West? That’s the side that’s supposed to be full of running and scoring, while the East has all the physical battles in the paint. Surely we were going to be served up more offense than New York and Chicago had offered in their struggle earlier in the day? Well, no. Defense ruled the first half. The positive aspect was that at least it felt like defense was the primary reason for the lack of scoring. The earlier game was a miserable offensive exhibition; here the defenses seemed a more active component in all the misses. Although the Lynx certainly missed their fair share of point-blank layups in the first quarter.

San Antonio head coach Dan Hughes is clearly desperate to help Sophia Young break out of the offensive malaise that she’s been suffering through lately. The opening San Antonio possessions featured the Silver Stars very clearly trying to find Young down on the block, so she could get involved early on the offensive end. It actually worked pretty well, even against Minnesota’s strong interior defense, but it was never something that they could simply keep going to every time down the floor. The Lynx are too stong down low and too good at sending help, plus the Silver Stars like to move. Still, it was nice to see some early offensive production from Sophia.

The Lynx couldn’t get anything working. They were turning the ball over in the face of the pressure defense from San Antonio, and when they did manage to penetrate – which was rare – they were missing at the rim anyway. Barely four minutes into the game, coach Cheryl Reeve already felt the need to pull Candice Wiggins and Charde Houston off her bench to try to produce some offense. By the end of the first quarter, Minnesota were still behind 15-10.

Wiggins has become a bit of a sparkplug off the bench for Minnesota lately, coming into games and firing away from beyond the arc. She hit her second three of the game, and Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Alexis Hornbuckle added layups early in the second quarter to give the Lynx a 17-15 lead and force a Dan Hughes timeout. It seemed like Minnesota might’ve finally found themselves a little offense. That’s what you call a false dawn – they were done for the half. With 7:31 left on the second-quarter clock when Hughes called that timeout, San Antonio shut the Lynx out until halftime. And you really do have to credit the Silver Stars. They mixed up their defenses, both in terms of personnel and structure, and the Lynx were left resorting to pressured outside jump shots almost exclusively for their offense. Typically you’d expect them to hit a few of those, with scorers like Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore on the floor, but nothing was dropping for Minnesota. The only thing keeping them in the game was the fact that their own defense was giving San Antonio all kinds of trouble as well. The Silver Stars at least managed to find the occasional point or two, which left us with a halftime scoreline of 23-17. Yes, even less than the 49 points that New York and Chicago managed in the first half of the early game.

Minnesota shot nineteen percent from the floor in that first half, and Wiggins’s two threes made her their only player with more than one basket. They were also just 1-2 as a team at the free throw line, which shows how infrequently they’d managed to penetrate the San Antonio defense. As the second-half got underway, it was immediately clear that Reeve had sent them out with instructions to rectify that. Lindsay Whalen drove directly to the basket on the opening possessions, not necessarily caring whether she could find the hoop but determined to draw contact and force her way to the line. Three Whalen free throws, an Augustus driving layup and two more from the line by Taj McWilliams-Franklin, and we had a one-point game. Doesn’t take much to make a comeback when the game is so ridiculously low-scoring.

The third quarter was more what we’d expected from these two teams – strong, solid defense, but enough offensive talent that the points could flow anyway. San Antonio responded to the comeback with Becky Hammon leading the way, but then Wiggins arrived on the scene again. She plays heavy minutes against San Antonio as much for her defense on Hammon as anything else, but Wiggins rained in two more high-arcing threes in the middle of the third-quarter that tied the ballgame at 36. After a naturally quiet first half, now the crowd were involved and she was the catalyst.

The final seconds of the quarter gave the Lynx a boost heading into the last ten minutes. Tied at 40, Young tried to attack Rebekkah Brunson off the dribble with seconds left, but with help from McWilliams-Franklin, Brunson managed to halt her progress. Young kicked it to Jayne Appel, who turned the ball over trying to make an entry pass through a lane that was never there. Minnesota had five seconds to make something happen, and Whalen went the length of the court before missing a layup, but Brunson was on hand for the rebound. Appel fouled her trying to prevent the putback. Brunson made the first but missed the second, only for Appel to be called for another foul while fighting McWilliams-Franklin for that rebound. Taj knocked down the pair with 0.7s on the clock to give the Lynx an unexpected three-point lead heading to the fourth. Not a pretty sequence for Appel, whereas for the Lynx that made 10 points on free throws in the third quarter. Hell of a change from the first half.

The final period was the battle we’d expected these teams to provide. Wiggins and Augustus created a Minnesota lead; Young and Jia Perkins shot San Antonio right back into it. In fact, Perkins was the primary source of offense for the Silver Stars in the fourth. After scoring nothing in the first 30 minutes, Jia found her stroke in the fourth and her team just kept feeding her. After Perkins’s fourth bucket, an Augustus jumper and a typical Hammon driving layup, McWilliams-Franklin got herself fouled in the paint. Her free throws gave the Lynx a 58-57 lead with 1:23 to play.

Then things got messy. San Antonio ended up with a Ruth Riley shot from the elbow on their next possession, a shot she can hit but not exactly their favoured option in crunch time. She barely drew iron, and another Wiggins attempt from long range that would’ve taken the roof off the building rimmed out at the other end. Candice forced that one a little. That left San Antonio with the ball, and around 46 seconds on the clock. Brunson did a heck of a job closing off the lane to Young, who simply couldn’t fight Brunson off well enough to allow the pass. The ball was swung to Riley out top to create a different angle for the entry to Young, but McWilliams-Franklin got her hands on the pass and batted it up in the air. Perkins grabbed it, realised the shot clock was running down, and hoisted a three from at least 25-feet. With how she’d been shooting, it almost felt like it would drop, but she actually had time to get closer. There were still two seconds on the shot clock as the ball sailed past the rim and out of bounds. Minnesota ball, still up by a point, 23.9 seconds left to play.

San Antonio obviously had to foul. They hacked McWilliams-Franklin instantly, a career 74% shooter from the line, 82% this season, and 8-8 to that point in this game. My dad was a mathematician, who knew all about percentages, sample-size and what numbers like that meant. But he was also a sportsfan, and he would’ve looked at stats like that and said one thing – she’s due to miss. For once, dear old dad would’ve been right on the money – Taj missed both. The Lynx got lucky when the second miss bounced straight to Augustus, forcing San Antonio to foul again. Seimone drained both free throws for a three-point Lynx lead.

But the basketball gods giveth, and the basketball gods taketh away. San Antonio ran the high Young/Hammon pick-and-roll you’d expect, before Becky skipped the ball all the way across to an open Perkins on the weak side. It was either a nice play drawn up by Hughes to capitalise on all the collapsing help defense Minnesota use, or a nice piece of vision by Hammon. One way or another, it was nice. Perkins set herself to attempt the tying three as Augustus flew back out to challenge. But Perkins saw her coming, ball-faked instead of shooting, and let Augustus hit her while she flung the ball towards the rim. Foul, three shots at the line to tie, and not one of them even rattled. Apparently, ice water runs through Jia Perkins’s veins.

Minnesota were out of timeouts, so they had 11.6 seconds left to inbound and create something. Whalen went the length of the court, probed, backed out, and then drove the baseline. Exactly who she meant to kick the ball to after San Antonio cut her off is debatable. The ball went right through Brunson’s hands in the paint. But eventually it reached McWilliams-Franklin barely a step inside the three-point line out top. Remember what I said about the basketball gods bringing everything back around? After those two late free throw misses, Taj knocked down this shot without a moment’s hesitation, and the Lynx had broken San Antonio hearts for the second time in a week. This time there were just 1.3 seconds left on the clock when it dropped in.

The Silver Stars had a timeout remaining to advance the ball, and inbounded to Perkins just beyond the three-point line. Maybe it would’ve been justice for San Antonio to steal a one-point win on the Lynx floor after what Whalen pulled off last week, but those gods aren’t always fair. Maya Moore played solid defense to make the shot very tough – while clearly avoiding the foul – and Perkins missed. Ballgame Lynx, 62-60.

Even with a 40-point half involved this time, these Lynx-Silver Stars matchups are fun. Two completely committed defensive teams with the offensive talent to challenge each other. What more can you ask than that? With Danielle Adams out, San Antonio’s firepower has taken a hit, and they’ve become even more defense-oriented. Hammon, Young and Perkins are their three remaining primary offensive weapons, and they had 15, 18 and 11 points respectively in this one. They just didn’t receive quite enough help. Still, it has to be pleasing for Hughes to see Young finish with 18 and 13 rebounds against one of the best frontcourts in the league. Maybe she’s back. San Antonio are in a dogfight now for playoff position with Phoenix and Seattle, along with the theoretical possibility that LA could make a push when Candace Parker returns (don’t hold your breath). Even without Adams, this is still a very talented team. There’s no shame in last-second one-point losses to this year’s Minnesota Lynx.

If you happen to read the musings of Henry Abbott on ESPN.com, you’ll probably have read his pieces about the best statistical crunch time teams in the NBA. Apparently, over the last few years, the best team in basketball in late-game situations are the New Orleans Hornets. Not LA, who can throw the ball to Kobe, or Dallas with Nowitzki, or Oklahoma with Durant, or any other team with one guy who’ll invariably create his own shot and hoist it in the final seconds. But the Hornets with Chris Paul at the point, and whoever happens to be open taking the shot. In similar style, the last week has looked bright for the Minnesota Lynx. Last second winning shots from Lindsay Whalen and Taj McWilliams-Franklin may not be the expected sources when Augustus and Moore are on the squad, but you take them where you can find them. Minnesota started off the season as a horrendous fourth quarter team, but as the year’s gone on they’ve learned how to win. Even when their offense doesn’t click all night, their defense is good enough to keep them hanging around, and then they can find ways to win games. It sounds a lot like the formula used by the 2010 Seattle Storm. And we all know how their season finished.


In other news…

If anyone missed it, I examined yesterday’s Phoenix-New York trade of Kara Braxton and Sidney Spencer in a WNBAlien Grading the Trade special. That’s why you haven’t seen much discussion of it in the standard WNBA Today updates.


Today’s Games:

Indiana @ Tulsa, 8pm ET

Connecticut @ Seattle, 10pm ET


Tomorrow’s Games:

New York @ Washington, 7pm ET

Tulsa @ San Antonio, 8pm ET


One comment on “WNBA Today, 08/05/2011: Lynx leave it late, stretch streak to eight

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