After a nailbiter and a blowout opened up the 2011 WNBA playoffs on Thursday, the remaining first round series got underway on Friday night. With the 1-1-1 format that the league switched to last year still in play, defending your home court in the opening game has become vitally important for the higher seed. Lose on your own floor in Game 1, and your opponent has the chance to close out on home territory in Game 2. Indiana and Seattle both pulled off home victories to open their series – could Connecticut and Minnesota do the same?
Heading into their games against Atlanta, the main storylines seemed obvious. Connecticut had to find a way to stop Angel McCoughtry, while the Dream had to stop Tina Charles. If that somehow played out to a tie, then the relative performances of the supporting casts would come into play – but if either managed to take over, their teammates might not matter too much.
Both teams had their expected starting fives on the floor to start the game, a far cry from last year when Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors made heavy changes from her regular lineup for the opening playoff game. After relying heavily on her starting five during a successful second half of the season, there was no way that she would make similar changes this year.
The first half was dominated by the defenses. The pace was high as expected, with Atlanta constantly looking to speed up the game and Connecticut usually willing to run with them, but neither team could put together any consistent offense. The positive news for Connecticut was that Charles drew a foul on McCoughtry on a post move in the early stages. Having only gone to the free throw line 10 times in total across four games with Atlanta this season, Charles needed to fight in the paint and draw whistles to maximise her impact on this game. Midway through the first quarter she was back at the line again after Erika de Souza fouled her on a putback attempt. The bad news for the Sun was that the four points she scored on those foul shots were her only points of the first quarter. Meanwhile, McCoughtry was ineffective in the early going, taking too many jump shots from outside – where her percentage is quietly woeful – and struggling to generate any points in the face of Kalana Greene’s defense. When McCoughtry eventually did get off the mark, it was late in the first quarter on an offensive rebound and putback in transition. Neither team led by more than three points in the opening period, an Allison Hightower three allowing Connecticut to close it out with a 20-18 lead.
Nothing much changed in the second quarter, as defenses remained on top. McCoughtry was being kept in check by Greene, who was actually scoring more points at the other end than Angel was creating herself. Charles started to take too many jump shots – as she tends to do when the post defense frustrates her – and with Asjha Jones bricking countless jumpers as well, the only Connecticut offense was coming from the guards. The Sun did have one obvious advantage – they can shoot threes, and Atlanta can’t. Late in the first half, a Kara Lawson triple – Connecticut’s fifth in six tries, from five different players – was central to a brief Sun run, which gave them the biggest lead of the game at 39-31. Charles actually making one of those long jumpers helped too. Unfortunately for the Sun, when Charles actually did drop down into the paint for a change, she missed two straight layups and allowed Atlanta to close the gap. Sancho Lyttle had been keeping pace with Jones, brick for brick from the perimeter, but she made a couple in the final minutes of the half and closed the gap to 41-39 at the break. After a physical 20 minutes of basketball where neither team had managed to find much offensive flow – or get their superstar in a groove – it seemed right that there was only two points between them.
McCoughtry was 1-7 for just four points in the first half, but emerged from the locker room in obvious attack mode. She had five points in the first minute on a putback of her own missed fastbreak layup, and a three-point play after she was fouled on a post move. She looked mad at her own first half performance and determined not to repeat it. However, that shooting ability from outside that the Sun guards possess allowed them to build a 52-46 advantage early in the third quarter. Then, after all her good work on McCoughtry, Greene made a couple of poor plays that helped the Dream back into the game. An ugly jumper hit the side of the backboard and ignited the Atlanta running game for a McCoughtry layup, before a lazy pass across the front of the defense gave up a streaking layup for Lindsey Harding. Greene followed that with two more misses from outside, but at least those were reasonable attempts. Connecticut coach Mike Thibault decided at that point that either Greene needed a rest or her positives were no longer worth her negatives, and replaced her with Hightower. It worked out fine, because McCoughtry had just as little success against Hightower as she’d had against Greene – and Hightower even chipped in a few points when a frustrated McCoughtry couldn’t be bothered to work back on defense. The score remained tight until the final minute of the third quarter, as Charles, Lyttle and McCoughtry continued to jack up jump shots from 15 feet and beyond, with only very occasional success. That final minute of the period saw a series of Atlanta turnovers and Renee Montgomery drives at the other end, both likely the result of Harding taking a rare minute of rest on the bench. Montgomery free throws that resulted from those drives gave the Sun a 66-61 lead heading to the fourth.
The second of those drives to end the third quarter by Montgomery had been very McCoughtry-esque, throwing herself into traffic and buying a call from the officials. Appropriately enough, the call was on McCoughtry, her third foul of the night. To open the fourth quarter, Jessica Moore drew a somewhat dubious charging foul on a McCoughtry drive, then seconds later Hightower drove past McCoughtry and Angel hacked her on her way up for the layup (nothing dubious about that one, although obviously McCoughtry disagreed). With over nine minutes remaining, and her team about to go 68-63 behind when Hightower made the free throws, McCoughtry had her fifth foul and headed to the bench. It was down to her teammates to pull the game out.
Immediately, McCoughtry’s replacement had an impact, as Iziane Castro Marques rained in the Dream’s first made three-pointer of the night. With Charles still being held completely in check by de Souza and Lyttle, emerging only to hoist yet more long-range jump shots that rarely looked like going in, Atlanta made a run without needing their usual talisman. Harding and Armintie Price were driving to the rim with abandon and drawing the whistles that McCoughtry typically earns, Castro Marques knocked down another triple, and suddenly Atlanta had a four-point lead. The Sun found a response in the form of Jones. Finally deciding to earn her points in the paint, Jones had three buckets in quick succession, al in the lane. She was all that was keeping the Sun in touch, as the Dream were finding themselves more effective without McCoughtry on the floor.
After Jones made a jumper – see, develop some rhythm with the finishes inside, the outside shots get easier – Connecticut were back within 81-80 with under three minutes to play. After Harding missed a jumper and de Souza threw the ball away after grabbing the offensive board, the Sun had a chance to take the lead. As Tan White tried to enter the ball to Charles in the post, Lyttle fought her way around from behind Charles and poked the ball away, igniting a break for Castro Marques that led to a Harding layup. Injuries have left Lyttle as a slightly less athletic and physical post defender this season, but she led the league in steals thanks to plays like that. It was a huge momentum swing with under two minutes to play.
After Jones bricked another jumper, Lyttle drove for once and earned a trip to the line. Her free throws pushed the lead to 85-80, before she gambled a little too much in search off another steal and allowed Jones in for a layup. Good defense from Montgomery forced Harding into a missed jump shot, and Connecticut had the ball back, down three with 36 seconds to play. Kara Lawson tried to tie the game with a triple that bounced off, but Charles did well to hunt down the offensive board. She fed White, who found Jones under the hoop all alone – only to watch in horror along with the rest of the Mohegan Sun Arena as she blew the wide open layup. With the shot clock turned off, Atlanta were now forced to foul.
The good thing for Connecticut was that Lindsey Harding was available as an option to hack. As has been mentioned in this space before, Harding has a track record of missing clutch free throws, and she hit only one-of-two with 20 seconds left. Lawson drove, drew a whistle, and hit both foul shots to pull the Sun within two – before they hacked Harding again. To her credit, Harding stepped up and knocked both down this time, pushing the lead back to four points with 12 seconds left. When Montgomery missed a wild three-point effort on the following play, the game was up. McCoughtry – who’d finally reentered the game with under 20 seconds left – added a free throw to leave the final score at 89-84 Atlanta. So much for home court advantage being such a huge edge for the Sun.
It was by no means a pretty game, and their star didn’t have the best of nights, but just like last year the Dream opened the playoffs with a win on the road. McCoughtry played under 24 minutes, shot 5-17 for 16 points, 10 rebounds and six turnovers, and basically didn’t deal very well with the smothering defense from Greene and friends. But as they’ve been illustrating whenever they get the chance, Atlanta’s starting lineup has plenty of talent in it besides Angel. Harding led the scoring with 21 points on 6-14 from the floor, while Price was 5-9 for 14 alongside her in the backcourt. Lyttle was far too jumper-happy, but still had 13 points and 11 rebounds, while de Souza finished with 16 and nine. Between them, they also did the key job at the other end of the floor in frustrating Charles and forcing her further and further away from the rim. The team rebounding from the Dream allowed them to win the battle on the glass 47-29, and they had 14 offensive boards to keep possessions alive. It was a scrappy contest, but played with playoff intensity and Atlanta showed the will and determination to fight it out for the win. Now they have the chance to close the series out on their own floor back in Georgia on Sunday afternoon.
You fight all season for a high seed and home court advantage, go 15-2 at home in the regular season, and it all comes crumbling down in one game. As Connecticut must’ve feared going in – considering the regular season encounters – Charles had trouble producing against the frontcourt of Lyttle and de Souza. She seemed to lose the will to battle it out in the paint when a couple of calls didn’t go her way early on, and after that she disappeared for long stretches. She finished 4-16 for 12 points, and those four free throws she shot in the first quarter were her only trips to the line all night. Too. Many. Jumpshots. Jones was just as bad for much of the game, but made up for it in the fourth when she carried the Sun offense and gave them a chance to sneak away with the win. 8-20 for 16 points tied her with Montgomery as the Sun’s leading scorer on the night, but it wasn’t quite enough. The thing is, it wasn’t a terrible performance from the Sun. They knocked down their shots from outside for most of the game – 8-14 from three-point range as a team – and made 21 trips to the line (significantly less than Atlanta’s 33 visits, but at least they were in the vicinity). They shut down McCoughtry to the extent that she spent the entire fourth quarter on the bench because the Dream started to play better in her absence. They just need more from Tina. First five possessions on Sunday, I’d tell her to post up and force feed her over and over again. Make her go to work down there and even if the play doesn’t work out, make her remember that as her first option all night. They’re not winning this series – or even stealing Game 2 in Atlanta to avoid the sweep – with Charles hoisting from 15 feet and beyond all night long.
The late game on Friday saw the first playoff game in Minnesota for just about as long as anyone can remember. It’s been so long since this franchise made the postseason, team officials probably had to cancel regularly scheduled vacations to stick around. But the Lynx dominated this year, guaranteeing home court advantage throughout the playoffs with several games to spare. The usual questions about a team that has never played in a game this important as a group before have been raised, but most of the players on this squad have playoff experience of one kind or another. There was no reason to expect them to be fazed by the extra pressure. Unlike the Lynx, San Antonio clawed their way into the playoffs in the final days of the season. Wins in their last three games held off LA for the final spot, and helped them recover from losing seven of their previous nine. But they still finished a long way behind Minnesota this year, lost the season series to them 4-0, and when the worst rebounding team in the league takes on the best it rarely ends well. Still, they play the games on the floor, not on paper.
Both teams opened the game with their expected stating fives, which meant San Antonio’s diminutive wing pairing of Becky Hammon and Jia Perkins were up against Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore. Silver Stars head coach Dan Hughes made things interesting with his defensive matchups to start the game. He had speedy rookie point guard Danielle Robinson chasing Augustus around, Perkins battling Lindsay Whalen, and Becky Hammon on Maya Moore. With all due respect to the Rookie of the Year, it was a condemnation of Moore’s game. The main occasion I can remember the Silver Stars doing something similar this season was against Chicago, where they hid Hammon on Cathrine Kraayeveld because they knew Kraayeveld had no offensive game besides firing threes. Officially, Moore has six inches and 39 pounds on Hammon – in reality it might be more. But Moore has practically no post game, and rarely drives in half court sets, so the Silver Stars felt comfortable with Hammon on her anyway. It worked nicely, and Hughes had won the opening exchanges of the chess match.
Fortunately for Minnesota, their defense was doing a solid job on the Silver Stars as well. As a result, their offensive futility didn’t lead to too big a deficit, and a seven-point gap at 16-9 late in the first quarter was as bad as it got. Most of the opening quarter was a jump shooting contest – the one way San Antonio had a chance to win this game – but at least Candice Wiggins finished the quarter with a drive for a layup, cutting the score to 16-11 at the end of the period.
Defense continued to dominate in the second quarter, but Augustus eventually tied the game at 19 after a very slow comeback. The bucket drew vociferous cheers from the crowd, before a Hammon three instantly shut them back up again. Augustus responded with another jumper, only for Hammon to nail another triple on the very next trip, when rookie big Amber Harris failed to provide any help as Hammon went round a screen. Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve instantly called a timeout to pull Harris out of the game and probably remind her how to play defense in the huddle.
Besides their defense, the other aspect of the game that San Antonio were remarkably successful at in the first half was rebounding. Rebekkah Brunson was cleaning up the defensive glass for Minnesota, but when she pulled down an offensive board with under four minutes left in the half, it was the first Lynx offensive rebound of the night. The Silver Stars might not have been crashing the glass to claim their own misses, but they’d been clearing up after all the Lynx misfires. It was an impressive sight, considering the typical gap in rebounding level between these two teams. By halftime, the game was still desperately tight, with defense ruling the roost at both ends of the floor. San Antonio held a narrow 35-32 edge at the break, were a creditable 18-19 on the glass, and had to be very happy with the kind of game they’d pulled the Lynx into. Their defense had discombobulated Minnesota, who were shooting just 33% from the field. San Antonio were 7-15 from three-point range, numbers that they’d be lucky to replicate in the second half, but if they continued to force the Lynx into a jump shooting battle, they had a chance to pull off a huge upset.
Barely two minutes into the second half – which San Antonio had opened with the same lineup and same defense they started the game with – Reeve responded to Moore’s ineffectiveness by pulling her for Monica Wright. Unlike Moore, you don’t have to invite Wright to drive more than once, so she added a little directness and aggression to the Minnesota attack. Talking of aggression, Augustus showed some passion and emotion midway through the third quarter, blocking a Hammon driving layup from behind before releasing a roar. The crowd joined in, and only got louder when Augustus nailed a jumper at the other end to give the Lynx a 43-41 lead. Hughes had to call a timeout just to calm everybody down. But while Augustus was joined by Whalen and Wright in providing some offense for Minnesota in the rest of the period, Danielle Adams came off the Siler Stars bench to provide a much-needed offensive boost for San Antonio as well. Always keen to shoot from outside, Adams was also showing a willingness to drop down into the trenches and fight for post position, layups and putbacks. Only a late Augustus runner in the lane gave Minnesota a 53-51 edge heading to the fourth quarter.
Moore returned to start the fourth, and maybe someone had given her a talking to while she was riding the pine. She had two buckets early in the period, both in the paint over defenders, doing exactly what she should’ve been doing all night. Her physical gifts are far too great for her to spend her life firing perimeter jump shots, so it was good to finally see her on the block. Moore’s points and a fadeaway jumper from Whalen gave Minnesota their biggest lead of the night at 60-55, and it felt like the Lynx might finally be taking control of the game.
But San Antonio just wouldn’t go away. Yet another Adams layup on the high-low feed that had worked most of the night – switching pick-and-rolls to leave her defended by Whalen made things tougher – cut the gap to 60-57 with five minutes left before a Reeve timeout. Hughes had another defensive wrinkle in his locker out of that break in the action, as San Antonio dropped into their 2-3 zone for the first time all evening. Several empty possessions followed for the Lynx as they struggled to work out what to do against the new look. After Reeve finally pulled Harris and Jessica Adair from the game and sent her starting posts back out with 3:30 remaining, Rebekkah Brunson broke the drought with a baseline jumper – only for a tough finish for a three-point play by Adams at the other end to tie the game at 62.
It was a nervy last couple of minutes. After Minnesota were lucky to retain possession following a couple of misses, Augustus hit a midrange jumper to put the Lynx back in front. She then made another play, stealing the ball from Sophia Young after Young briefly lost control of her dribble. Hammon grabbed Augustus on the break, and avoided a clear path foul call by inches. Then it was Hammon’s turn, when Augustus missed a jumper and Perkins found her on the break, drilling a three in transition to give San Antonio their first lead since the third quarter. 65-64 Silver Stars, barely a minute left to play, and now it was Augustus’s chance to respond. Her first WNBA playoff game ever in six seasons in Minnesota, and she was not in the mood to let this one slip away. She came around a screen, crossed over Danielle Robinson again and hit a fadeaway 10-footer from the baseline for the lead. Timeout, Hughes.
Now most coaches will tell you that all they want in these situations is a good shot, and that’s what San Antonio got out of that timeout. Hammon penetrated, and found Danielle Robinson wide open on the baseline for a 15-foot jump shot. The problem is, Robinson had been wide open for that shot several times throughout the course of the game, and had missed it repeatedly. She was 3-12 on the night, at that point. She missed it again, and Augustus, inevitably, was there to grab the rebound with 36 seconds on the clock and Minnesota still clinging to a one-point lead.
This time Augustus couldn’t play the heroine, running the clock down before missing a jumper from just below the baseline. The rebound broke to Robinson, who streaked down the court but still had Augustus between her and the basket. She went left, and tried to finish at the rim, but the effort rolled off. Yet there was still late drama to come.
Now forced to foul, San Antonio grabbed Taj McWilliams-Franklin on the rebound of Robinson’s miss, then Moore after the ball was inbounded (they’d had a foul to give). All those big games for UConn and Team USA, you’d think Moore would be used to crunch time pressure, but her first foul shot was ugly and way short, the second ugly and way long. Fortunately for her, Brunson snuck in and hauled down the offensive board, forcing San Antonio to foul her as well. Then, amazingly enough, Brunson proceeded to brick both of her shots as well, and this time Young ran down the rebound. Still only behind by a point, San Antonio called timeout with seven seconds remaining.
After the kind of game it had been, maybe it was only right that the Lynx killed the game with a defensive play, rather than points of their own. Robinson’s attempted inbounds pass was tipped by Whalen, and Moore pounced on the ball after it flicked up into the air. She came away with it down court, and the game was over. For the third time this season, Minnesota had clung on to a win over the Silver Stars in the final seconds by the skin of their teeth, holding on to win this one 66-65. Welcome back to playoff basketball, Lynx fans. Hope not too many of you suffered heart attacks during the reintroduction.
While Minnesota deserved everything they got, you had to feel desperately sorry for San Antonio after a very impressive performance. Reeve worked for Hughes back in their Cleveland Rocker days, but Hughes proved that the teacher can still pull out a few new tricks to confuse the pupil in this one. The mixed up defensive matchups to start the game threw the Lynx off, and although Augustus eventually made the most of being faced with the smaller Robinson the Silver Stars did a solid defensive job all night. The only problem was that they couldn’t make enough shots themselves. Adams was 7-12 for 16 points, but with Hammon 4-13 for 16, Perkins 4-12 for 10 and Robinson 3-14 for 6 they left too many points out on the floor. Only losing the rebounding battle 38-33 was well within the range of what they needed, and holding the Lynx below 40% from the field showed what their defense can do, but the scoring wasn’t quite there. They gave this year’s best regular season team – by a mile – a heck of a fright though. They’ll have home court for Game 2, but you wonder if all the tricks are now out of the bag and Minnesota will be better prepared. It’ll be an achievement if the Silver Stars force this series to a deciding game, considering the basic talent gap between the teams in key areas.
Ran that one close, didn’t you Minnesota? In a lot of ways, this was what we expected from the Lynx. Whalen was physical and direct, shooting 7-14 for 20 points and five assists; Augustus took the most shots and led them down the stretch with 19 points on 8-18 from the floor; and Brunson dominated the glass, pulling down 14 rebounds. But that was about it, and it was only enough for 66 points. Minimal post scoring, little from Moore or the bench, and few opportunities to get out and run. Good thing this was the second-best defensive team in the WNBA this year, as well as the number two offensive team. Moore finished 4-12 for 10 points, and has to take this game as a learning experience. There’s no way in hell that Hammon should be able to guard her for long stretches. Get down on the block and tear her to bits, rook. There are leprechauns who can post up Becky Hammon. With the talent on this squad and the way they’ve performed this year, they could easily close it out on Sunday in Texas. But if San Antonio produce another spirited performance like this, there’s every chance that Hammon or Perkins could shoot significantly better as well. In that case, the Lynx better step up and attack the San Antonio defense with a little more guile, and a little more intent on the low-block. Firing away from outside might be the favoured form of attack for Augustus and Moore, but it’s also the only kind of contest San Antonio can hope to win against this team. Us neutrals might like to see a deciding game, but finishing off a pesky opponent as quickly as possible would be a distinctly smart idea.
In other news…
After the deluge of ‘other news’ yesterday, there’s practically none today. They obviously used up all the awards announcements on Friday.
Today’s Games (already completed):
Indiana @ New York, Game 2 (Indiana led 1-0), 4pm ET
Seattle @ Phoenix, Game 2 (Seattle led 1-0), 10pm ET
Connecticut @ Atlanta, Game 2 (Atlanta lead 1-0), 3pm ET
Minnesota @ San Antonio, Game 2, (Minnesota lead 1-0), 5pm ET