So with the preliminaries of the first round out of the way, we’re down to our last four teams for the 2011 WNBA playoffs. Both Conference Finals series got underway last night, with everyone looking to get off to a good start. As with the previous round, the 1-1-1 format for the best-of-three series put the immediate pressure squarely on the teams with home court advantage – drop the opening game on your own floor, and the lower seed would have the chance to close things out on Sunday afternoon.
There’d already been celebrations over in the East, where Indiana‘s Tamika Catchings was named the league’s Most Valuable Player for 2011 earlier in the day. While it was a richly deserved award for a player who could easily have won it in previous years but never had, the announcement came with its own set of distractions just when she needed to concentrate. I’m sure Catchings was delighted to finally win an MVP trophy, but the WNBA Championship ring that has always eluded her is undoubtedly higher up her list of priorities. She’d probably have prefered to have spent the day preparing herself for Game 1, not smiling happily for the cameras and participating in press conferences. That being said, Atlanta had their own pressures. With Erika de Souza wanted by Brazil for the FIBA Americas tournament that starts on Saturday, Game 1 was expected to be the only game in the series where the Dream had their full squad intact. If they couldn’t steal the opening contest on the road, they’d have to win the last two without their starting center. So the opening game was crucial for both teams.
The starting fives were as expected, the same units these teams have been opening games with for months now, but the defensive matchups were interesting. As mentioned in the WNBAlien series preview, Atlanta were once again trying to hide Angel McCoughtry on Tangela Smith, keeping her away from Catchings and hopefully out of foul trouble. At the other end, the initial assignments were Erin Phillips taking fellow point guard Lindsey Harding, Katie Douglas chasing McCoughtry around, and Catchings on Armintie Price – but those three were very fluid. Douglas and Catchings especially were generally taking whichever Dream wing happened to be closest to them on any possession, and if they crossed paths and it was easier to switch than fight across, they simply swapped over.
It was a tight first quarter, and in fact a pretty closely fought first half. The pace of the game, mentioned as a vital element of the series in the preview, was largely in Indiana’s favour. There wasn’t too much charging from end-to-end, and most possessions were being developed in the half court. But, Indiana were giving up far too many turnovers early in the game. Atlanta love to overplay defensively and poke their hands into passing lanes, and it was taking the Fever a while to adapt to that kind of defense. Phillips had three giveaways of her own in the opening stages, and the post players Tammy Sutton-Brown and Tangela Smith were giving the ball up when they simply failed to catch entry passes. Every Indiana turnover was an instant opportunity for Atlanta to break, with Armintie Price releasing up the floor as soon as she saw the barest hint of a change of possession. By the end of the first quarter, Indiana had run the better half court offense, but they were behind 24-21 thanks to seven turnovers and an 8-0 Dream advantage in fast break points.
Catchings also picked up her second foul of the game with over three minutes remaining in that first period, sending her to the bench, although that worked out fine for the Fever when her replacement Shavonte Zellous gave them an offensive kick. The second quarter twisted back in Indiana’s favour because they started taking better care of the ball, and the Dream were far too willing to be drawn into a shooting contest. If this series is decided from the perimeter, there’s only going to be one winner. Smith, Zellous and Douglas all hit threes early in the second quarter as Indiana pushed their noses in front, while Iziane Castro Marques was the only Atlanta player with any success from outside (and her connections have been rare this year). When Catchings came back into the game and found her own outside shot misfiring, she had the sense to deposit herself on the low block and draw free throws instead – Atlanta weren’t showing the same smarts. A pair of Catchings foul shots gave Indiana a 36-31 lead midway through the second quarter.
The Dream did rather better for the rest of the period due largely to de Souza and Price. Erika was outmuscling Sutton-Brown in the post, scoring points on putbacks and keeping possessions alive with offensive rebounds. Price was just too quick for the Fever defense, who were playing far too tight on her. After dealing with the likes of Cappie Pondexter, Essence Carson and Nicole Powell for the last three games, it was taking usually excellent defenders like Douglas time to adapt to the different skillset of Price. She doesn’t want to shoot, she just wants to fly past you. So if you come up and guard her tight, that only invites her to use her lightning-quick acceleration and go straight past you to the hoop. By halftime, Indiana’s lead was down to 42-40.
Noticeably absent from almost that entire recap of the first half, McCoughtry was 1-6 for just four points in under 12 minutes of action. Considering Indiana’s ‘big-two’ of Catchings and Douglas were a combined 2-11 for only nine points themselves, it hadn’t been that crucial, but it continued her poor scoring form from the previous series. If Atlanta want to succeed in the postseason, at some point McCoughtry was going to have to break out of this slump. She came out looking to score in the second half, losing Douglas in traffic for a layup, then hitting a jumper while leaning in to try to draw a foul as well. Then Catchings ended her drought, scoring her first field goal of the game on a drive past McCoughtry that also knifed between de Souza and Sancho Lyttle.
However, the majority of the third quarter was a scrappy affair, filled with breakdowns and missed shots. In fact, it felt a lot like the two games that Atlanta had managed to pull out against Connecticut in the previous round, so the signs weren’t looking too bad for them. Except that McCoughtry had picked up her third foul with a loose arm that sent Catchings to the deck, and her fourth with a block while trying to take a charge on a Catchings drive – both in quick succession inside the opening three minutes of the second half. She’d spent the rest of the third quarter on the bench, leaving her teammates to fight to a 57-57 tie heading to the fourth.
With Catchings and Douglas both having mediocre offensive nights, the Fever were fortunate that some of their supporting players decided to show up for this game. Zellous off the bench continued to add her driving and aggressive mentality to the mix, while Tangela Smith was firing away from outside and hitting more than she missed. Early in the game it was McCoughtry leaving her far too open, attracted to the ball when she should’ve stayed home with Smith on the perimeter. Later it was the post players, used to their assignments to close down the paint, and unable to rotate out quickly enough to close down the space and challenge Smith’s shots. It was almost like she was playing the Tina Charles role from the previous series – except Smith wants to be out there, and you need to worry about her beyond the three-point line. Already with 15 points (3-5 from beyond the arc), Smith continued to punish the Dream in the fourth quarter. She hit another three to take the Fever lead to 63-59, and yet another to stretch it to 68-62 with five minutes to play – at some stage, Atlanta were probably going to have to pay some attention to her out there.
After bizarrely using Coco Miller for the first time all night with eight minutes left in the game – she immediately had her shot blocked, fouled Zellous on her way to the hoop on the resulting break, then missed another jumper – Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors had sent McCoughtry back into the game with just under seven minutes left. She quickly picked up her fifth foul after being stopped on a drive by Catchings, and then inadvertently hitting the newly-crowned MVP in the face as the ball was stripped away. McCoughtry immediately went back to the bench, replaced by Price, who herself had only just returned from the locker room after having her back checked out.
Despite her lack of offense, Catchings was finding a way to impact the game. She was leading her team on the glass, making up for the gap in size and rebounding prowess between the two teams’ post players. She was constantly around the ball defensively, fighting for everything and throwing herself after every loose ball as always. With barely four minutes remaining and the crowd energised by all of Smith’s triples, she clawed down yet another rebound and was pulled to the floor by Castro Marques in a challenge that looked worse than it was, but did see an arm around Catchings’s neck. It led to a flagrant 1 call against Castro Marques, and an extra little bit of spice in the air. This is playoff basketball, after all.
An Indiana possession that seemed to last forever, kept alive by an offensive rebound and an Atlanta foul, finally ended with yet another Smith bucket with three minutes remaining. Her step-through move and desperate effort from just beyond the free throw line banked in off the glass. It was just her night, and with that score taking them 72-64 in front, it was starting to feel like Indiana’s as well. When Catchings drove and was stripped by de Souza, only to recover and steal the ball right back from McCoughtry, she drove and hit a ridiculous over-the-head driving layup off the glass. It definitely seemed like the basketball gods were looking fondly on the Fever on this particular evening.
Zellous was stripped by Harding when she tried to elevate for a jumper with barely a minute remaining, leading to a Price layup the other way which cut the score to 74-69, but the play that followed immediately swung momentum back to Indiana. Their offense went nowhere for most of the 24 seconds, but ended up in Catchings’s hands. She rose up for a jumper, and in challenging the shot McCoughtry picked up her sixth foul. There were only 43 seconds left, but it summed up her night, and she vociferously told the refs exactly how she felt as she left the game. From there it was a procession of free throws and the Dream were never truly back in range, Indiana closing out Game 1 with an 82-74 victory.
Tangela Smith’s had a pretty poor debut season in Indiana, but if they had to pay her a max salary for this one game, the Fever will probably take it. Under the pressure of Atlanta’s defense, Douglas couldn’t get going all night and Catchings’s only offensive success came at the free throw line, leaving Smith’s perimeter shooting to lead the way. She finished 9-15 from the floor, including 5-7 from behind the arc, for 25 points. Even the nine rebounds she came up with were unusually high for her, compared to what she’s been producing all year. As a team, the Fever managed to stay aggressive for most of the game without playing too fast, which can be a difficult balance to find. Especially against a team that desperately wants to raise the pace of the game. That aggression created 27 shots at the free throw line, and Indiana’s 23-27 at the stripe emphatically beat Atlanta’s 9-17. So much of the Dream’s game is about driving and creating layups and free throw opportunities, but the Fever did a nice job of turning the tables. With Catchings leading the way on 13 rebounds, they also won the battle on the glass 41-38, which was decidedly unexpected. Atlanta have been a far better rebounding squad than Indiana this season, but the Fever showed the energy and desire to go after everything on the glass and bridge that gap.
Atlanta ran into a team that was more prepared to battle for everything than Connecticut had been in the first round, and had a big who could make the outside shots that bounced away in that series. The same performance might have beaten the Sun again, but it wasn’t enough against Catchings and co. McCoughtry played less than 18 minutes thanks to all the foul trouble, scoring just 11 points, and maybe we’ll just see her on Catchings from the start in Game 2. Might as well use her defensively if she’s going to pick up fouls anyway – especially when Smith finding her rhythm early on was partially McCoughtry’s fault.
Harding led the Atlanta scoring with 17 points on 7-17 from the floor, but it would’ve been nice to see her more aggressive early on in the game. Shannon Bobbitt played heavy minutes when Fever coach Lin Dunn grew tired of Phillips’s turnovers, but Harding didn’t really attack the undersized Bobbitt as much as she could have. After eight points in the opening quarter, Price only had five in the rest of the game, as Indiana stopped turning the ball over quite so much and remembered how to defend her more effectively. The Fever should be better at stopping her in Game 2 now they’ve been reminded of her style. As for Erika de Souza, she played 37 minutes, shot 4-9 for eight points and threw in 13 rebounds. She’s probably on a plane bound for South America as I’m writing this, while her teammates head back to Atlanta for Game 2. Alison Bales played less than 11 minutes in Game 1, but did okay in the time she saw. Bales better be ready for Game 2, because that 11 is likely going up towards 30, and along with Sancho Lyttle she’ll need to close out better on Smith while keeping the paint shut down. Otherwise, Atlanta’s season could be over by Sunday afternoon.
Next up, the Phoenix Mercury, coming off their brutal series with Seattle, headed out to Minnesota to take on the Lynx. All the signs from the regular season told us that Minnesota were the better team, but after their struggles against San Antonio in the previous round some were wondering if their inexperience as a group might give Phoenix the chance to pull another upset. The Mercury had certainly shown heart in fighting past the Storm, but those opponents were beaten up and worn down. The Lynx might be new to this, but they’re just as hungry as anyone else, and that 27-7 regular season record didn’t happen by accident. And they’re healthy. The Mercury had a heck of a task on their hands just to compete.
The Lynx opened with their standard five, as ever, while once again Phoenix kept DeWanna Bonner in the starting lineup ahead of Nakia Sanford. The opening stages of the game were all Minnesota. Eschewing the ‘Rover’ zone that had taken them to the Game 3 win over Seattle, Mercury head coach Corey Gaines sent his team out playing a ‘switch-everything’ man-to-man defense to start the game. Regular readers will recall exactly how much I loved that kind of defense when LA started playing it late in the regular season. It was just as effective here. Maya Moore was knocking down outside jumpers over whichever player ended up defending her – often Temeka Johnson, after unnecessary switches. Seimone Augustus was joining in. Gaines picked up a technical foul for something he said as well, and the Lynx led 15-3 after four minutes of action. There were no breakout opportunities for Phoenix because they couldn’t get any stops, or grab any rebounds, and the ball movement and shot selection from Minnesota was far superior. The Mercury were getting blown off the court.
After Diana Taurasi went to the bench with three minutes left in the opening period and her team down 23-10, the Mercury offense somehow managed to deteriorate even further. They looked unsure about where to go next to find points, except when they just flung up a brick before even running anything remotely resembling an offense. Penny Taylor was quiet, Candice Dupree next-to-nonexistent, and the Lynx continued to dominate. Moore even threw in a drive to the basket for a three-point play, the Lynx were just that confident by the end of the first quarter, and they closed the opening period up 28-11. After ten minutes, it looked like the Mercury might’ve finished themselves off getting past Seattle in the previous round.
Changing up the defense, adding some pressure and throwing in some of the Rover, the Mercury at least got themselves back involved during the second quarter. Marie Ferdinand-Harris – like Indiana’s Smith, a highly-paid addition who hasn’t had a great season in her first year with a new team – gave Phoenix a significant boost off the bench. She added defensive energy and a willingness to fire that the Mercury needed, and a lead that was as high as 19 points early in the period was pulled back to 41-34 on a Ferdinand-Harris three with a couple of minutes to go until halftime. Minnesota stabilised behind Augustus jump shots, before an outstanding play sent them into the locker room on a high. Rebekkah Brunson tipped a Temeka Johnson entry pass on what should’ve been the final possession of the half, and Monica Wright collected the ball out of the air. Her outlet pass was a little too long for Lindsay Whalen, who was chasing it down under pressure from Johnson. Whalen just managed to reach it with one hand, tipped it back to the trailing Brunson while falling out of bounds, and Brunson completed the layup just before the buzzer. It was only two points, but it gave Minnesota a much-deserved double-digit lead at 47-36, and the home crowd a lift after the Mercury had started to make it a game again.
Considering they’d been comprehensively outplayed for all but a four-minute stretch of that first half, Phoenix could consider themselves reasonably fortunate to only be down 11 at the break. A five-point personal run from Taurasi to open the second half on a three from the corner and a breaking layup almost immediately cut the gap to six. Moore got beaten on a backdoor cut by Taylor, then turned the ball over after leaving her feet on a baseline drive and passing the ball to no one – leading Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve to pull her for Candice Wiggins less than two minutes into the third quarter. After such an outstanding start to the game, things had turned a little sour for the Rookie of the Year.
However, even with these occasional Mercury bursts, the Lynx kept responding and holding them off. When they could stop turning the ball over, their defense was just far more consistent at preventing the Mercury from establishing any decent offense. It was Augustus who led the way in the third quarter, along with a series of hustle plays from the evergreen Taj McWilliams-Franklin. She might be Mama Taj, but she’s still battling for everything, and she responded to not getting calls she felt she deserved by fighting even harder on following possessions. Between her and Brunson, the Lynx were winning the interior battle by a huge margin. Augustus’s pretty jumper and Wiggins’s bombing from outside reestablished the big Lynx lead, and Minnesota were up 74-55 by the end of the third quarter. Minnesota’s defense had completely shut down the Mercury once the Lynx stopped giving the ball up and allowing breakout chances, while their offense continued to pick Phoenix apart. It didn’t matter which defensive system or lineup Gaines threw out any more – Minnesota were in far too much rhythm to care.
The fourth quarter was essentially a whole heap of garbage time. Moore opened the period with a strip of Bonner and immediate layup for her first points since the first quarter – which the crowd rather enjoyed – and the gap was never below 20 the rest of the way. Ultimately, it was the ass-kicking that looked imminent in the opening minutes of the game, and Minnesota ran out eminently comfortable winners, 95-67.
Depth, defense, and basic reserves of talent all showed themselves to be significantly in Minnesota’s favour through the course of this game. Augustus was the stand-out performer, shooting 8-14 for 21 points and seven assists, but Moore was also 5-11 for 15, Wiggins 5-8 for 14, McWilliams-Franklin 4-8 for 14, and Brunson 6-10 for 13 (plus 13 rebounds). They beat the Mercury every which way, from pretty much every angle you care to mention. They played far better defense, holding Phoenix to 36% from the floor. They shot far better from outside, 6-14 from beyond the arc to the Mercury’s 4-20. They annihilated them on the glass, 42-26. In fact, if it hadn’t been for a couple of brief periods of carelessness with the ball, it might’ve been over as a contest even sooner. They remembered how to move the ball more effectively in Game 3 against San Antonio, and against a far weaker defensive team in Phoenix, their confidence and offensive fluidity only improved in this game. But as ever with this year’s Lynx, they built from their defense. They’re big, active and strong at the defensive end, and they work hard for each other. They’re just far more invested in stopping the other team than the Mercury ever look like being. Another performance like that, and any travelling fans will be pulling out the brooms in Phoenix on Sunday.
The positive viewpoint for Phoenix is that they’ve been here before. They got essentially outplayed by Seattle in Game 1 of the last series as well – although not quite this comprehensively – and came back to win in three. The problem is, this isn’t the Storm, who’ve been fighting offensive problems and health issues all season. This is a hungry team that’s melded youth and experience into a thoroughly dangerous whole, and they’re hungry to finally bring some postseason success to Minnesota. Taurasi led the Mercury scoring with 22 points on 7-15 from the floor, but for her it was a surprisingly quiet outing and she received very little help. Taylor (3-9 for six points) drifted off into the background, while Dupree (1-6 for two points and only two rebounds) was completely dominated by Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin and faded out of the game entirely. She has a tendency to do that when things don’t go her way early, and it happened again here. They need the aggressive Dupree from the last two Seattle games to have a prayer in this series. They just got their butts kicked, and they know it. It’s not impossible that they could turn it around – the loss only counts for one ‘L’ however many points you lose by – but the performance will have to be vastly different. It might behoove Gaines to switch up his approach a little as well. After the big lineup with Taurasi and Taylor in the backcourt won Game 3 against the Storm, he barely used it at all against the Lynx. While the defenses he flipped between were all about as ineffective as each other. He has until Sunday to come up with something that will at least give his team a chance to take this series back to Minnesota for a deciding game.
In other news…
As mentioned earlier, Tamika Catchings was named the WNBA’s 2011 Most Valuable Player yesterday, receiving 21 first-place votes from a possible 4o. Tina Charles came second, and surprisingly Chicago’s Sylvia Fowles finished third, despite featuring for a poor team that finished five games outside the playoffs. If we’re honest, it’s a bit of a Lifetime Achievement award for Catchings. She’s repeatedly been the bridesmaid in this race, never the bride, so with no clear winner this year the sentimental sportswriters and broadcasters leaned in her favour. I had 10 players on my ‘short’ list who one could’ve made a coherent argument for as MVP, so I certainly have no problem with Catch finally receiving the award. She had yet another very good year, even if it wasn’t her best. Although I’m sure she’s far more interested in finally winning a championship ring than she was in receiving this award for the first time.
Next Games – Sunday September 25th:
Indiana @ Atlanta, Game 2 (Fever lead 1-0), 3pm ET, live on ESPN2
Minnesota @ Phoenix, Game 2 (Lynx lead 1-0) 5pm ET, live on ESPN2