#1 Minnesota Lynx (27-7) vs. #4 San Antonio Silver Stars (18-16)
Regular season series: Minnesota 4-0
@ S.A. 07/31: Lynx 70-69
@ Min. 08/04: Lynx 62-60
@ Min 08/26: Lynx 85-75
@ S.A. 08/28: Lynx 72-61
So after all that work to make it into the postseason, San Antonio have earned the dubious pleasure of facing the 2011 Minnesota Lynx. The positive angle is that the Silver Stars won five of their last six games of the regular season. The problem is that they won’t be seeing Washington, Tulsa or LA in the playoffs. They’ll be travelling north to face a Lynx team that has finally pieced all their talent together and stayed healthy, losing only seven games all season en route to wrapping up the best record in the WNBA with weeks to spare. It’s a formidable prospect, and at first glance the signs don’t looks good for San Antonio.
Remember how good the all-conquering Seattle Storm team were last year? The group that swept every round in the playoffs? This Lynx team finished just one game worse than the 2010 Storm, and has put up some remarkably similar numbers. The Storm had the second-best offense in the league last year (behind Phoenix, inevitably) at 105.46 points per 100 possessions. The Lynx had the second best offense in the league this year (Phoenix, again), at 105.48 points per 100 possessions. On defense, the Storm were second in the WNBA last season (behind Indiana), holding teams to 95.44 points per 100 possessions. This year, the Lynx were second (behind Seattle), holding opponents to 95.24. That’s almost creepily close to one of the most dominant teams that this league had ever seen.
I’ve been going on about the two most obvious areas for San Antonio to worry about in this series all year long – rebounding and interior scoring. For all the talents of Sophia Young, size of Ruth Riley, improvement of Jayne Appel and impact of Danielle Adams, San Antonio are an awful rebounding team. Not just poor, or even bad, but absolutely terrible. It’s partly head coach Dan Hughes’s system, which has always made rebounding more difficult because of the amount of help defense involved, but mostly they’re just dreadful at it. They have been for years. Not helping is the fact that Minnesota led the league this year in rebounding percentage (.547 to San Antonio’s league-worst .464). Rebekkah Brunson finished her games against the Silver Stars with 13, 13, 8 and 14 boards this season, and you can expect her to dominate the glass throughout this series with help from Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Jessica Adair. It’s going to create extra opportunities for the Lynx on the offensive boards, and leave the vast majority of Silver Star possessions as one-and-done whenever they miss. Of course, this has been the case all year, and San Antonio still won 18 games, so they frequently worked their way around the issue. None of those 18 were against Minnesota, though.
Those of you who’ve read my coverage all season will have seen repeated mentions of the interior scoring issue. San Antonio don’t have any. Sophia Young is an excellent basketball player, but she’s undersized for a power forward, and she doesn’t like to post up much. Ruth Riley is only an occasional offensive threat, and even when she is it’s usually from 18-feet and out. That leaves the rookie Adams off the bench as practically the only Silver Star who’ll occasionally fight it out in the trenches and provide some offense down low – and even she would rather be jacking up threes. Led by Becky Hammon and Jia Perkins on the wing, this is a jump shooting team who only occasionally drive, and even when they do it’s typically to create more jump shots on kick-outs. It’s awfully hard to win basketball games playing like that, because jump shots are inherently tougher to make than layups from point-blank range.
The scary thing about this Minnesota team is that they can hurt you from so many angles. They play great defense, but typically so do San Antonio, so that should balance out. Offensively, the Lynx come at you from everywhere. Lindsay Whalen is at the controls, looking to feed all the weapons around her but also perfectly willing to drive and use her solid frame to create points for herself. She’s also been shooting extremely efficiently from outside this year, well beyond her typical career numbers. Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore are constantly active on the wings, looking for open shooting opportunities. Moore has been frustrating at times this year with her willingness to settle for too many jumpers, but Augustus has gone inside more than I expected coming into the year. She still prefers to fire from the perimeter, and she creates far less contact (and consequently shoots far fewer free throws) than she used to, but most of the old Mone has been back this year. Like Whalen, she shot over 50% from the floor and over 40% from three-point range, which are petrifying numbers for an opposing defense. Also, while San Antonio are pretty good about getting back in transition, expect to see the three Lynx perimeter starters out on the break whenever possible. They love to run, and any of the three can lead the break or finish at the rim. It’s fun to watch.
On the inside, Minnesota don’t have a traditional back-to-the-basket scorer, but they find a way to get their points. Brunson is a rebounding demon who’ll terrorise San Antonio on the glass and pick up points on breakdowns and putbacks, while McWilliams-Franklin has been the perfect veteran voice on this squad all year. She takes a few too many perimeter jumpers for my liking at times, but her ability to knock them down on occasion will help stretch out the San Antonio defense. The Brunson/McWilliams-Franklin pairing have excelled in head coach Cheryl Reeve’s defensive system this year, making it extremely difficult for opponents to penetrate into the paint or find any room down low. If San Antonio are going to win any games in this series, it’ll likely be because they get smoking hot from outside – the opportunities just won’t be there on the interior.
Depth is an interesting question with these teams. Early in the season, San Antonio had far and away the best bench in the WNBA. But as the year has gone on, speedy rookie point guard Danielle Robinson and gunning wing Jia Perkins have been moved into the starting lineup to provide extra firepower from the opening tip. That’s weakened the bench, as the veterans who dropped back down – Tully Bevilaqua and Scholanda Robinson – are rarely going to provide much more than a steady hand after entering the game. It leaves Adams, the big-bodied rookie scorer who surprised everyone by emerging as a Rookie of the Year candidate after being drafted 20th overall (the RotY debate ended when she got hurt), as really the only offensive threat still coming off the San Antonio bench. For Minnesota, everyone wondered how Reeve would deal with all the talent on her roster coming into the year. As it turned out, the starting five carried them for much of the season. However, as the year wore on, the likes of Candice Wiggins, Monica Wright and Jessica Adair increasingly provided solid backup for the starters. Expect Reeve to rely heavily on her main five, but the backup is there if necessary. We may see a little more of Wiggins in this series than in an average game, because Reeve likes her as an option to defend Hammon.
So if I’m a San Antonio fan, where is my hope coming from heading into this series? Well, that 4-0 season series record is a little misleading, for one. The first two games were both won on Lynx shots in the waning seconds, creating one-point and two-point wins respectively. Both of those contests even came during the difficult streak of games when Adams was out with a mid-foot sprain. Then you have the way Hammon ended the season, lighting up LA for 37 points and Washington for 11 assists, looking more like the old Becky than the one who seemed troubled by her shoulder injury earlier in the season. If they can extend their defense out to make shots tough for Augustus and Moore – something they did a good job of in those first two encounters with the Lynx, but struggled with in the latter games – they might be able to rattle Minnesota. The first option for the Lynx is their wings, and sometimes they get trapped in firing away through those two a little too much. Work hard in transition to shut down the running game; close out hard on every shooter; hope the Lynx forget about the need to score inside; and hope Hammon/Perkins/Adams get hot from outside. It’s not impossible, even if it doesn’t sound exactly probable.
Matchup to Watch: Seimone Augustus vs. Becky Hammon
In the two games between these teams in late-August, Hammon was a remarkable 1-20 combined from the field, for just nine points. Troubled by the length and size of Augustus, the quickness of Wiggins whenever Seimone was resting, and with every other Lynx coming to help when necessary, Hammon was shut down as an offensive threat. Without her firing on all cylinders, the Silver Stars have little chance of pulling off the upset in this series
At the other end, both Hammon and Jia Perkins have an obvious issue: size. Augustus and Moore are both significantly bigger than the likely wing starters for San Antonio, and while the Silver Star guards will work as hard as they can to compensate, sometimes the Lynx are just going to go over them. Both Whalen and Brunson have a physical advantage at the 1 and 4 spots as well in terms of strength and size (although Whalen is vastly slower than Danielle Robinson at the point).
Much as I hate to follow the crowd, it’s desperately hard to see San Antonio having much success in this series. Those first two games against the Lynx may have been close, but the two later in the season were ultimately pretty comfortable Minnesota wins where they were thoroughly dominant in the paint. I started the season talking about the lack of rebounding and paint scoring in my season preview for the Silver Stars, and much as I’ve enjoyed watching them significantly exceed my expectations I expect the same deficiencies to bite them in this series. Minnesota’s inexperience as a group in the playoffs should be mitigated by the overall experience and know-how of McWilliams-Franklin, Whalen and others so the ‘never having been there before’ factor should be a minor issue. San Antonio might, might steal a win with the enthusiasm of the AT&T Center behind them in Game 2, but even that would surprise me. There’s every chance that any Minnesota fans who make the long trip down to Texas for that second game might be pulling out their brooms by the end.
Minnesota sweep, 2-0.