WNBA Today, 09/26/2011: Small ball comes up big for Dream; Lynx class shines through

After Indiana and Minnesota both held on to home court advantage in Game 1 of their respective series, it was up to Atlanta and Phoenix to win Game 2 back on their own courts and force a decider. The former had to overcome the loss of a key player, the latter had to bounce back from being destroyed in the opening contest, so there was an extra element to both of Sunday afternoon’s games. Just in case they needed more than the fact that they were playing to keep their seasons alive.

Atlanta were back home for Game 2, but they’d lost their starting center. As expected, Erika de Souza had disappeared off to Colombia for the FIBA Americas tournament to help Brazil try to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games. We could argue for hours over the choice to play for country over club but regardless of the various opinions on the subject, the Dream were left without a big piece of their frontcourt. Indiana had needed an outstanding (and unlikely) shooting performance from Tangela Smith to take Game 1, but with their opponents shorn of someone who played 37 minutes in that game, they had to think they were in with a chance of the sweep.

Dream coach Marynell Meadors decided to shake things up a little with de Souza out of the picture. Instead of the straight-up switch which would’ve involved Alison Bales sliding into the starting five, she opened the game with Erika’s fellow Brazilian Iziane Castro Marques on the floor. Izi had chosen to stay in Atlanta rather than fly out to play for Brazil, partly because her contract is running out and she’s worried about earning a new one, if you believe her comments in the press. More likely, she just preferred to stay with the Dream, expects Brazil to survive without her, and also expects to be in the Olympic team next year anyway. Castro Marques has always had something of a sense of entitlement when it comes to the Brazilian National Team. For Atlanta, it meant Angel McCoughtry sliding over to a theoretical power forward spot, with Sancho Lyttle the only true big on the floor. It’s a similar tactic to the one used by Meadors to make it through the opening two rounds of the playoffs last year, and inevitably makes them even faster than they already were. It’s also a tactic they can get away with against Indiana, because McCoughtry vs. Tangela Smith at the 4 is a mismatch in Atlanta’s favour, not Indiana’s.

The Fever opened the game defending the Dream pretty much straight up – Katie Douglas on Armintie Price at the 2, Tamika Catchings on Castro Marques at the 3, and Smith on McCoughtry at the 4. It didn’t last long. The Fever’s problem with this lineup is that Smith can’t take advantage of her edge in size over McCoughtry. Smith doesn’t really have a post game. But on offense, McCoughtry is far too quick for her. It also helped Atlanta that Castro Marques came out looking like she was determined to make up for the absence of the other Brazilian on the squad. Izi’s had an awful season, after a breakout year in 2010. She’s always been streaky, but there were lots of good streaks last year. This season, reportedly troubled by an achilles injury through much of the year, she’s basically stunk. The team got far better when Meadors finally replaced her with Price in the starting lineup. But when Izi gets hot, she’s scary. Plus this game started out as a high-paced, high-scoring, run-and-gun point-fest. Just Izi’s kind of game.

Indiana were running through whatever they could think of to slow McCoughtry down. Smith was replaced barely three minutes into the game by center Jessica Davenport, which slid Tammy Sutton-Brown over to the 4 against McCoughtry. Yeah, that wasn’t going to work either. A jumper in transition and a soft finish to a drive took McCoughtry to seven points in the first five minutes of the game. This already looked far more like the regular season Angel McCoughtry, not the version that had struggled through three previous playoff games. Smith came right back out to replace Sutton-Brown, and took another shot at defending Angel.

The amazing thing was that Indiana were sticking around in the first quarter. The frenetic speed of the game and the endless scoring suited Atlanta, but the Fever were knocking down a lot of shots themselves, and for the most part keeping up. But there were too many turnovers, igniting the Dream running game just like they did in the opening quarter of Game 1, and Indiana were losing a ridiculous number of offensive boards. Having surprisingly won the rebounding battle in Game 1 even when de Souza played nearly the whole game, Indiana were giving up offensive boards to the likes of McCoughtry and Price in this one, allowing the Dream extra opportunities to score. A Katie Douglas three narrowed the score to 24-23 with a couple of minutes left in the first quarter, but by the end of the period it was 34-25 Atlanta. McCoughtry already had 13, Castro Marques nine, the Fever already had seven turnovers, and Smith had picked up her second and third fouls in quick succession trying to contain McCoughtry.

Everything was twisted around to start the second quarter, as Indiana coach Lin Dunn finally pushed Catchings to power forward and put her own small lineup out there – only for Meadors to send out Lyttle and Bales together while McCoughtry rested on the bench. The game in general hit a slight lull early in the period with various reserves on the floor, until we finally saw versions of both small lineups up against each other with six minutes left until halftime. McCoughtry immediately crossed over Catchings, and hit a pretty midrange jumper for an eight-point Dream lead. Lyttle had picked up her third foul early in the period in an innocuous fight for a rebound, which had left Atlanta relying on Bales as their sole big even with McCoughtry at the 4. Indiana were trying to take advantage of her, but Bales was showing hard on all ball screens, and her pure size was making it hard for Indiana to pass out of the traps or go around her on penetration. Then McCoughtry nailed another couple of shots from outside, including a three, both while Catchings was matched up with her. While you obviously want to contest as much as possible, the book on McCoughtry says that you want her to shoot. Her percentages from out there aren’t good, and it’s the drives and the potential free throw attempts that scare you. When she’s hitting from outside, she becomes practically unguardable. However, late in the second quarter, with first Shavonte Zellous and then Catchings trying to stop her, it was Sutton-Brown’s help defense that twice denied McCoughtry at the rim. With Douglas drilling her fourth triple in four attempts in the waning seconds of the half, Indiana were still right in the contest. They were playing in an Atlanta-style basketball game, but at the break they were only 55-51 behind.

The problem is – and I went on and on about this in the series preview and the report on Game 1 – Atlanta love to run. They’re comfortable in games with lots of turnovers, lots of breakdowns, and as many opportunities to charge out for fastbreaks as can possibly be created. Indiana kind of enjoy it, but they’re nowhere near as good at it. Playing in a game like this was always likely to come back to bite them in the second half unless they could slow it down, and with Castro Marques flying around like this was 2010, that wasn’t looking likely.

McCoughtry was already 8-16 for 20 points at halftime, and Indiana switched Katie Douglas onto her to start the second half. Unfortunately for Indiana, this was more than a one-woman show – Castro Marques had discovered one of her hot streaks and refused to cool off. She had an outstanding third period, hitting her trademark running jumpers which would look like ridiculous prayers from anyone else, but are just Izi being Izi when it’s her. Meanwhile, Indiana’s offense had gone cold.

Catchings had only taken two shots in the entire first half while Douglas carried the load with some help from the likes of Sutton-Brown and Davenport, and tried to get herself going in the third. But it didn’t work. Catchings was crashing the glass, helping the Fever make up for the ridiculous number of offensive rebounds they’d given up in the first half, but none of her shots were dropping. 0-7 in the period while Castro-Marques went 6-8 for 13 points, it felt like her Fever were just barely clinging on in range. Driving layups from Zellous and Douglas narrowed the gap to 73-65 to close the third period, although it could’ve been even better when McCoughtry jacked a three without running down the clock for the final shot. Zellous had nine seconds left to go the length of the court and take a pullup jumper from 12 feet, but it rolled off, and Davenport missed the putback as well.

Dunn tried everything she had left to push her team back into the game early in the fourth quarter. Jeanette Pohlen got some minutes, while Douglas moved to the point guard spot (not just the de facto point guard that she often plays alongside Erin Phillips or Shannon Bobbitt). Even Shyra Ely was given an opportunity to play, but with Castro Marques still in attack mode and all the momentum running with the high-octane Dream, the Fever just couldn’t slow them down.

Then disaster struck. It was already 83-69 with barely five minutes remaining in a game that looked practically over, when Bales hit a prayer of a shot that just beat the shot clock for a 16-point lead. Defending her on the play, Catchings somehow hurt her right foot, and even after many, many replays, it’s hard to tell exactly how. There was no obvious twist, and early thoughts that it might’ve been a recurrence of the achilles injury that cost her nearly a year back in 2007 were eventually dispelled. But she went down in agony, tried to get up, and immediately went right back to the floor. Knowing full well that when Catchings stays down it’s something serious, all her teammates congregated around her out on the floor, and two of them had to carry her back to the locker room. It was a horrible sight, and obviously makes this year’s MVP a major doubt for Game 3. At time of writing, the Fever are still supposedly waiting on her and the possibility that she might make it, but it certainly looked unlikely when she was being carried off the floor with a towel over her head.

The rest of the game was even more of a procession than it would’ve been anyway with a 16-point gap and five minutes remaining. The stuffing had been knocked out of the Fever after watching their leader and the heart of their team leave the floor in so much pain. Atlanta ran out 94-77 winners, and will now surely fancy their chances of stealing Game 3 back in Indiana.

The game will probably be remembered for Catchings’s injury, but long before that Atlanta had put in a hell of a performance. Castro Marques finished 13-22 from the floor for 30 points, a career playoff high and her best performance of the season by so far it’s untrue. McCoughtry had easily her best game of this year’s playoffs, shooting 11-23 for 26 points. She was nowhere near as effective in the second half, but the rhythm of the game had already been set. She got off to such a fast start, and Indiana spent so much time and attention working out how to cover her, that other parts of their game fell apart. Each of the other Dream starters ended the game with 10 points, as balance once again helped Atlanta over the line, even in a game where two wings exploded offensively and one starter was on a different continent. The question for Atlanta is whether they can replicate this. Those outside jumpers haven’t been falling for McCoughtry lately, and she still only shot six free throws in this game. If the shots from outside start bouncing out again, and Castro Marques goes back to her regular season form, does this team simply revert back to what we saw in Game 1?

It was too much like the regular season games against Atlanta for the Fever. They allowed the game to become far too quick and out of control, and one way or another they were always likely to lose a game played like that. Castro Marques having easily her best game of the year was an unlikely element, but the Dream probably would’ve found a way to win this game regardless. It’s going to be very hard to bounce back for Game 3, assuming Catchings is out (or even significantly underpowered if she somehow pulls a Willis Reed and limps out to play). Even before the injury, she didn’t have a good game at all in Game 2, finishing 2-10 for eight points and nine rebounds (zero points in the 15 minutes of the second half she was around for). But her energy, drive and desire are a huge part of the Fever’s make-up. It was part of what dragged them through a deciding game in the previous round. She would also be the central element to Dunn going small to match up with Atlanta’s new starting five, sliding over to power forward. Without her, they’re practically forced to stick with Smith, Sutton-Brown and Davenport as a three-woman post rotation, unless they get an unlikely performance out of Ely or go ultra-small with Phillips, Zellous, Pohlen and Douglas all out there together. Douglas had another good game in Game 2 (8-15 for 25 points), and the Sutton-Brown/Davenport combo in the middle utilised the extra space to both score in double-digits, but it’d be a long shot. They’ll need another freak game from one of the supporting players to pull it off. But then, after Smith in Game 1, and Castro Marques in Game 2, it’s 1-1 in the freak stakes. Who knows what Tuesday night may bring.

—–

So with the Eastern Conference confirmed as heading for a Game 3, Minnesota had a chance to give themselves an extra couple of days off if they could complete the sweep over Phoenix in their second game last night. Game 1 turned into a massacre, as the Lynx illustrated that finishing eight games ahead of the Mercury in the regular season had been no fluke. However, back home at the US Airways Center, you had to expect a better performance from Phoenix. They’d shown in the previous round that they were capable of coming back from losing the opening game to win a series, so all they had to do was repeat the trick. Only this time against a healthy Lynx squad, not a Seattle Storm team held together with pins and tape.

The starting fives were still the same, but it was immediately a very different kind of game from the previous encounter. Firstly, Phoenix were defending screens completely differently. After the excruciating passivity of switching everything had opened Game 1 and handed the initiative to Minnesota, Phoenix were trapping high and fighting on everything, taking the game to the Lynx instead of letting everything come at them. It gave them a different feel from the opening tip, and played a part in the game running at a far quicker pace than Game 1. This was the kind of basketball the Mercury needed to play if they were going to have any chance whatsoever of beating the Lynx – end-to-end stuff, breaking off every steal, every long rebound, and even every made basket if the opening happened to be available. They were finally playing Mercury basketball.

Phoenix injected speed into the game, they got Candice Dupree involved early (unlike her anonymous Game 1), they were even crashing the boards – but they weren’t pulling away. In fact, they weren’t even in front. You see, Minnesota are one of the few teams who can run with the Mercury, and don’t even necessarily have to slow them down to counter their attack. They weathered the early storm from Phoenix – the biggest Mercury lead in the opening quarter was only 8-4 – and with balanced offense from every part of their starting lineup and every area on the floor, they eased into the lead. A gorgeous Lindsay Whalen to Maya Moore to Rebekkah Brunson fastbreak after Dupree had badly missed a turnaround jumper completed the turnaround and took Minnesota into a 17-12 lead, forcing Mercury coach Corey Gaines into a timeout.

While the Mercury as a team had opened strongly, star guard Diana Taurasi had been invisible and badly missed two threes to close the first quarter, leaving the score 24-20 Minnesota at the end of the period. Taurasi was 0-4 for zero points in the opening 10 minutes, and had conspicuous zeroes in every other statistical category as well. That wasn’t going to cut it if Phoenix wanted to force a decider, and inevitably she nailed a three on the Mercury’s opening possession of the second quarter. Diana doesn’t tend to stay down for long. A couple of sloppy possessions followed for Minnesota, and when the officials randomly started to call all kinds of ticky-tack fouls, Brunson picked up her second and third in quick succession. With seven minutes still remaining until the break, Minnesota’s best rebounder took a seat until halftime. Dupree immediately grabbed an offensive board and converted the putback, just to illustrate how useful her absence could be, but even before Brunson sat down the Mercury were doing far better on the glass. It was a reflection of how much more energy they were playing with and how much more active they were – so much of rebounding is about ‘want to’, and the Merc looked like they’d finally realised that they wanted their season to continue.

With Taurasi in attack mode, driving rather than settling for threes, the Mercury continued to score – but the Lynx were sticking right with them. Taj McWilliams-Franklin was making mincemeat of Dupree and DeWanna Bonner inside, and Jessica Adair was doing an excellent job as Brunson’s replacement. Then when Taurasi stretched the Phoenix lead to 45-39 with under a minute to play in the half, it was Whalen’s turn to answer. A tough fadeaway jumper while drifting out of bounds was followed by a spin into the lane for a jumper from the free throw line that dropped at the buzzer. The Mercury had showed up to play, made it their kind of game and given the Lynx their best shot – but led only 45-43 at halftime.

That was the problem for Phoenix. It felt like they were playing some of their best basketball, producing good stuff against an excellent defensive team, even winning the rebounding battle (just barely, 21-20 at the break) – and Minnesota still wouldn’t go away. They were having to play this well to keep a point or two in front, but it’s very, very difficult to play that well for 40 minutes. Usually you’ll drop off for at least a brief patch somewhere along the line, and the fear was that it would arrive at some stage of the second half and the Lynx would pounce.

The third quarter opened much like the first half, with Phoenix scoring well but unable to stop Minnesota’s varied attack at the other end. When Taurasi went to the bench for a rest with 3:33 left in the period, and a 60-59 Mercury lead, the next passage of play didn’t go well for Phoenix. Their offense lost direction without Taurasi on the floor, and Minnesota ran off a quick 7-0 push. Part of it was a Brunson offensive rebound, which reflected how the game seemed to be turning. In the first half, Phoenix had kept several possessions alive with offensive boards – now Minnesota were back to imposing themselves on the glass. Taurasi quickly came back into the game, and answered a Moore three with a spinning drive into the lane for a three-point play to close the quarter that cut the Lynx lead to 70-65. The Mercury were still in the game, but earlier it had been them holding on to a narrow lead – now they were chasing the game.

A Taurasi jumper opened the fourth quarter and cut the gap to three, but they were Phoenix’s last points for the next three minutes of action. It was like they were coming back down to Earth after the excellent play that had kept their noses in front early on, and the Lynx were ready to capitalise. A Taurasi turnover when she tried to make an impossible pass became a Moore three at the other end, when Maya drove away from a low-post double-team and found herself wide open outside when the defense was too slow to rotate. Then Adair cut through the paint and found herself wide open for a layup, Taurasi only arriving just in time to foul her as she converted the basket. That gave Minnesota their first double-digit lead of the game at 77-67 with under seven minutes remaining, and it was looking ominous for the Mercury. This was the Lynx they hadn’t been able to deal with in Game 1.

With 5:22 remaining Gaines finally went big, when Temeka Johnson was replaced by Taurasi at the point guard spot. It was frankly about time he tried it. Seimone Augustus responded by crossing Taurasi over and making her look silly for a jumper, then collecting the loose ball after Taurasi dribbled it off her own foot and converting a little hook shot in the lane. That stretched the Minnesota lead to 13, and even though a pair of Bonner free throws and a Penny Taylor three cut it swiftly back to eight, Gaines junked the big lineup after a timeout with four minutes left. He tried a different wrinkle, throwing out the Mercury’s Rover zone instead, but the Lynx quickly went inside to McWilliams-Franklin, who kicked it to a wide open Moore in the corner, who drilled the three while Taylor fouled her trying to close out on the shot. That just about summed up the series. Minnesota were quicker, smarter, one step ahead at almost every stage in the coaching match-up, and they knocked down their shots. It’s hard to beat that combination.

Moore added the free throw for an 89-77 advantage, and that was pretty much all she wrote. A Whalen three with 35 seconds left took the Lynx over the century mark, just to make the scoreline look even prettier, and Minnesota were heading to the first WNBA Finals in their history with a well-deserved 103-86 win.

At least Phoenix showed up for Game 2 and gave it all they had. It was a far better performance, with a hell of a lot more fight and desire than they produced in Game 1. They played their brand of basketball, but in the end they just weren’t a good enough team to deal with Minnesota at both ends of the floor. Taurasi finished 8-18 for 22 points, while Bonner was 7-16 for 22 and Dupree 8-12 for 18. Both Bonner and Dupree did what they could offensively, but the smarts and skills of McWilliams-Franklin made them look weak and slow at times on the defensive end. It’s not a pairing made to stop anyone in the post if they’ve got a big with skills in the paint. Penny Taylor, for so much of the season the co-leader of this team alongside Taurasi, had an awful series. She was just so quiet that you barely realised she was on the floor, despite playing around 30 minutes in both games. She shot 3-9 – exactly the same as in Game 1 – for just eight points, and didn’t shoot a single free throw in the entire series. Maybe Moore’s defense is just that good (it’s really not, yet), or maybe Taylor’s still not healthy after the back problems that kept her out of several late regular season games, but they needed more from her in this series and they didn’t get it. Taurasi, Taylor and supporting players would’ve at least given them a chance; Taurasi and pieces ended exactly how you’d expect – swept.

Having learnt the lessons from the scare San Antonio gave them in the first round, this was the dominant Minnesota Lynx we’d seen throughout the regular season. Augustus and Moore a constant threat from outside, McWilliams-Franklin and Brunson going to work down low, Whalen leading the charge and shooting remarkably well out top, plus Wiggins and Adair ready to contribute from the bench. They’ve simply been a better team than Phoenix all season, and they came out and proved it. They didn’t need to switch up their defensive approach, or throw in any quirks or changes to their standard sets – they just needed to execute. Moore (7-10 for 21) and McWilliams-Franklin (8-14 for 21) led the scoring, but Whalen (8-15 for 18), Augustus (6-16 for 16), Brunson (5-8 for 12) and Adair (4-5 for 10) were right there behind them. They play strong defense as a team, and they hurt you from every angle at the other end. It was far too much for the Mercury, whatever pace the game was played at, and now Minnesota can sit back and watch the Dream and Fever scrap it out for the right to face them in the WNBA Finals. The Lynx are going to head in as favourites either way.


In other news…

They’ve tweaked the Finals schedule slightly from what it was expected to be, with Game 1 now tipping off at 8.30pm ET on Sunday October 2nd on ESPN (not ESPN2, for once). Full schedule here.

As mentioned earlier, the Fever are still saying they need to be “prepared for the fact that [Catchings] may or may not play”. But it may well all be a smokescreen to make the Dream waste time preparing for both possibilities.

 

Today’s Games:

None

 

Tomorrow’s Games:

Atlanta @ Indiana, Game 3 (tied 1-1), 8pm ET, live on ESPN2

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One comment on “WNBA Today, 09/26/2011: Small ball comes up big for Dream; Lynx class shines through

  1. […] offers up his recaps of the games: Small ball comes up big for Dream; Lynx class shines through The game will probably be remembered for Catchings’s injury, but long before that Atlanta had put […]

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