After last year’s sweep at the hands of Seattle, and the opening two games of this year’s Finals, the Atlanta Dream went into last night’s game with an unfortunate 0-5 record in the WNBA’s showpiece finale. While it was an achievement to emerge from the Eastern Conference twice in a row, it was starting to become a little embarrassing. Making it to the Big Dance and repeatedly coming up short almost leaves a worse taste in the mouth at the end of the season than being dumped out at an earlier stage. So Atlanta had every reason to raise their game and try to fight their way back into this series. For pride, if nothing else. Plus, if Minnesota could defend their home court in the opening two games, why shouldn’t the Dream defend theirs in the following two, and force a decider?
The starting fives were the same as in Game 2. As expected, Taj McWilliams-Franklin’s leg would have to have fallen off to keep her out of a Finals game, so the right knee sprain that forced her out of the final quarter two days earlier couldn’t stop her. Armintie Price retained her place at shooting guard for Atlanta, despite the disappointing games she’d had in the series so far, and the presence of Iziane Castro Marques loitering with intent on the bench.
The opening minutes looked good for Atlanta. They were evidently trying to feed Erika de Souza in the paint early on, and combined with a couple of breakouts for Angel McCoughtry that pushed them to a quick 8-2 lead. The most obvious difference from the opening tip-off in this game was the Dream defense on Seimone Augustus. For the first time in the series, McCoughtry was the primary defender on her instead of Price or one of the other wings. Along with that, instead of the weak switching they’d been doing on ball-screens throughout the series, whenever Augustus came off a screen they were trapping her hard with both the defenders involved, hoping to create turnovers or at least force the ball out of Augustus’s hands. If Atlanta were going down, they were at least determined that it wasn’t going to happen exactly the same way as we’d already seen in the previous games.
Not that this game was ever going to resemble Game 2. The lack of whistles was a blessed relief after the endless stoppages on Wednesday night, and the officials were clearly taking a more laissez-faire approach. If you wanted to shoot free throws in this game, you were going to have to do rather more to earn them. Continue reading
So last night brought us Game 2 of the WNBA Finals, and even this early the series was already on a knife edge. It’s not unprecedented, but very few teams in any sport make a comeback from 2-0 down in a best-of-five series. While it would simply mean that Minnesota had defended their home court in the opening two games, another win would send them off to Atlanta in an immensely strong position. After being swept in the Finals by Seattle last year, the last thing the Dream wanted to do was head home down 2-0 for the second year in a row, but after collapsing in the fourth quarter of Game 1 they had a lot of areas to improve in if they were going to tie the series up.
The hope for Atlanta was that one obvious improvement could have a big impact. Erika de Souza was back from the FIBA Americas tournament in Colombia, despite some travel difficulties that had postponed her arrival to a day or two later than anticipated. After being beaten up on the glass in Game 1 and struggling at times with the awkward matchups created by playing their small lineup against Minnesota’s bigs, the return of their burly center presented an obvious solution to some of those issues. She went straight back into Atlanta’s starting lineup in place of Iziane Castro Marques, reestablishing the group that had led the Dream’s strong second half of the season. Minnesota, of course, continued with the same starters that have led the way for them all year long.
The interesting aspect of the opening minutes of the game was how little Atlanta had changed, despite the return of their more traditional lineup. Defensively, Sancho Lyttle was on Taj McWilliams-Franklin with de Souza on Rebekkah Brunson to start the game (a slightly surprising way round, but workable). However, the Dream were still switching on screens, leaving little guards on post players while the posts tried to cover the perimeter players. So even though they now had two true post players on the floor to match up more naturally against Minnesota, Atlanta were still allowing all kinds of awkward mismatches to be created. You could see the obvious difference when the ball moved to the other end. Continue reading
Last night, the WNBA Finals got underway, and they did it in style. If you haven’t caught the game yet, stop reading this and go spend a couple of very enjoyable hours catching up – it was a heck of a contest. If you’ve seen it already, stick around for the next couple of thousand words while I pat myself on the back for everything I got right in the Mega-Preview (and skim swiftly over the occasional item where I might’ve been slightly off).
The teams came out as expected: Minnesota with their standard starting five, Atlanta with the small lineup that won them the Eastern Finals over Indiana. That left both teams dealing with the obvious mismatch created by the Lynx having two true post players on the floor in Rebekkah Brunson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin, while the Dream had four perimeter players out there. At the start of defensive possessions to begin the game, Angel McCoughtry was nominally on McWilliams-Franklin, with Sancho Lyttle taking Brunson. But the Dream were essentially playing a scramble defense and trying to create as much chaos as possible. They were switching at practically every opportunity, which sometimes left them with ugly mismatches like point guard Lindsey Harding trying to hold off McWilliams-Franklin in the post. However, the speed and activity of all their defenders was compensating and allowing them to survive.
Minnesota’s defense was rather different. They don’t like to switch except when absolutely necessary, so they came out playing straight-up man-to-man, with Brunson doing her best to handle McCoughtry, McWilliams-Franklin taking Lyttle, and Maya Moore taking on Iziane Castro Marques. The problem was that after Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin took advantage of Atlanta’s switching to open an early 6-3 lead, the Dream turned the game into a track meet. And when the ball’s flying from one end to the other, matchups don’t matter all that much – no one even has time to search for their man before the ball’s heading towards the hoop. Continue reading
If you happen to be crazy enough to add up all the ratings I’ve given both teams in every area presented, Minnesota comes out ahead 87.5 to 83 (out of a possible 100). In fact, the Lynx only lost out in one of the ten categories. So I should be taking Minnesota to win with ease, right? Well it’s not quite that simple.
Both last year and in the last month, Atlanta have shown an impressive ability to step up their game when they’ve had to. They know how to fight, they know how to win, and they know how compete against the best opposition around. If McCoughtry can show up as the leader and scorer that she was for the second half of the regular season – not the ineffective ghost that she opened the playoffs as – she’ll be tough for Minnesota to handle. She’ll also lead the way in one area I didn’t examine separately that Atlanta are likely to dominate – free throw creation. The Dream could well win at least one game in this series purely through a free throw discrepancy that could creep up towards 20. Plus with Minnesota’s reliance on their starting unit, any foul trouble Atlanta can force them into will damage their rhythm and cohesion at both ends of the floor.
However, I can’t help coming back to one noticeable aspect of this year’s Minnesota Lynx that jumps out of multiple advanced statistical categories: they’re this year’s 2010 Seattle Storm. Continue reading
Considering I gave Minnesota an edge in the post because they’re likely to play with two true bigs for the vast majority of the series, Atlanta has to get credit for the opposite mismatch. But it’s not just that. The Dream are quicker at nearly every spot on the floor. Minnesota are athletic and mobile, and they play smart – which compensates somewhat for a lack of quickness in any sport – but the Dream are just faster. Players like Harding, Price and Castro Marques will try to use their speed to attack the Lynx in this series, and at times it’s going to work.
However, Minnesota just came off a series against Phoenix, the other WNBA team that does nothing but run, and they took them apart. The Lynx also finished the regular season right among the league leaders in categories like fastbreak points and points off turnovers. In other words, they can run too. Also, unlike Atlanta, Minnesota finished top in the defensive versions of those statistics, i.e. they held their opponents to the fewest points off turnovers, and the fewest fastbreak points in the WNBA. So they’re exceptionally good at working back in transition, and in preventing the opposition from creating the opportunities to run in the first place. Pace decided the Eastern Conference Finals – Indiana couldn’t keep up with the Dream once they turned the series into a track meet – but that’s not going to happen here. Atlanta will be most comfortable if the pace is high, but Minnesota can run right with them. Just not quite as fast.
Atlanta 10/10, Minnesota 9/10: Edge Atlanta, because they’d win in a footrace. But don’t expect it to translate on the floor as well as it would against any other opponent.
Both these teams are very good defensively. In terms of points per possession, Minnesota finished second in the WNBA this year and Atlanta eighth, but that’s misleading. Continue reading
Eagle-eyed readers will notice that I’ve already looked at six players from Atlanta and only five from Minnesota, so the Dream already have an edge in this area. From Game 2 onwards, either Castro Marques or de Souza will bolster Atlanta’s reserve corps, depending on which lineup Marynell Meadors decides to go with. Although if Izi goes back to playing the way she has off the bench for most of the season, she won’t be adding much.
In terms of pure talent, Minnesota would appear to have more in reserve, but they haven’t exactly been proving it for most of the season. Alexis Hornbuckle, Charde Houston and this year’s 4th overall pick in the draft Amber Harris will probably see very little time in this series. Monica Wright may receive some opportunities to impress, especially if Cheryl Reeve tries to counter Atlanta’s small lineup, but she’s struggled to produce in limited chances this season. The bulk of the backup minutes are likely to go to Candice Wiggins and Jessica Adair. Continue reading
It might seem a little strange to consider the current Rookie of the Year, Minnesota’s second-leading scorer this season and one of the most well-known female basketball players in the USA a ‘wild card’ heading into this series. But it seems fair to me. Maya Moore admitted to some nerves in their opening playoff series against San Antonio, and when the Silver Stars had the temerity to defend her with players far smaller than her like Becky Hammon and Tully Bevilaqua she struggled to take advantage of the mismatch. She was also the primary defender being lit up when Jia Perkins caught fire and led San Antonio to a Game 2 win. But Moore improved as that series went on, then had fun firing away against Phoenix in the Western Conference Finals. Plus Penny Taylor didn’t have an awful series by accident, and it was Moore defending her for most of the two games.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Moore this year. She’s had her quiet games, occasionally been benched for rookie mistakes or found herself in foul trouble, but in general it’s been an impressive start for her as a pro. Her shooting ability balances out Augustus on the opposite wing, preventing defenses from keying too much on either option, and despite having to adapt to the pro game she’s also been a part of the vastly improved Minnesota defense. However, this series will be a serious test for her. Continue reading
Here’s where this series gets really interesting. Despite the strength of their bench, Minnesota have relied heavily on their starting five all season long. That group contains two true post players in rebounding demon Rebekkah Brunson and everyone’s favourite WNBA septuagenarian, Taj McWilliams-Franklin (she’s actually only 40, but the ‘Taj is old’ jokes never get old). In the second half of the season, Atlanta had a very similar reliance on their starting five, including the quickness and length of Sancho Lyttle at power forward and size and strength of Erika de Souza at center. But when de Souza left to play for Brazil in the FIBA Americas tournament after Game 1 of the Eastern Finals, the Dream went small. Lyttle was generally the only post on the floor, occasionally spelled by backup Alison Bales, and wing Iziane Castro Marques had two outstanding games as de Souza’s replacement in the starting lineup. The speed of the small lineup and Castro Marques’s shooting is essentially what carried the Dream into these Finals. de Souza is expected back in time for Game 2, but it’s going to be very interesting to see how Atlanta approach their lineups and matchups throughout this series. Is their four-perimeter player group too quick for Minnesota to handle? Or will Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin dominate that small lineup in the paint to such an extent that the Dream will be forced back to a more traditional five?
Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin have been an outstanding pair in the post for the Lynx this season, and while the first option offensively are the perimeter players, they’ve been the grounding for Minnesota’s excellent defense. Brunson is the athlete, going after every rebound with gusto and often leaping over the crowd to claim a board in traffic. McWilliams-Franklin is more brains than brawn, always knowing where she needs to be and capable of using every trick in the book to help her team. Between them they’ve been key to closing down the paint for opposition players all season, and considering how much the Dream love to drive, that’s going to be key to this series. Continue reading
As with the point guards, the leading scorers for this year’s WNBA Finalists are both very effective, but in very different ways. After all her injury troubles, Seimone Augustus has been back to something very close to her best this season for Minnesota. She may not be quite as quick as she once was, but her game was never based around being the fastest player on the floor. It’s all about that pretty jump shot, and her ability to rise up and hit it at a moment’s notice from anywhere on the floor. For someone who takes the vast majority of her shots from mid-range or deeper, shooting over 50% from the floor this season is a remarkable achievement. She was also over 40% from three-point range, a number that McCoughtry probably doesn’t even reach in her dreams. Much of Minnesota’s offense revolves around running Augustus off baseline cuts and multiple screens to create shooting opportunities for her, and with accuracy like that you can see why. She’s simply one of the greatest shooters the women’s game has ever seen. Her defense has also improved markedly this year, and sliding over from small forward to mainly being a shooting guard hasn’t caused her any problems. Rather than struggling with smaller, quicker defensive assignments, Augustus has learned how to use her size and length to trouble opposing scorers. She’ll need those attributes in this series, against the speed and quickness of the various Atlanta wings. She could be on any of Price, Castro Marques, McCoughtry and Miller at various different stages, and they all present different problems.
Angel McCoughtry isn’t a shooter. Whatever her fans may tell you, she was 101-326 from outside five feet this season (31%). For comparison, Augustus was 176-383 from the same range (46%). But what McCoughtry can do is drive, and drive, and drive again. More often than not, she’ll either finish at the rim, draw a foul, or both. She shot 71 more free throws than anyone else in the WNBA this season, over 120 more than anyone not named Taurasi or Fowles (and she played markedly fewer minutes than either of those two). She slides into the lane and bullies her way to the rim, creating contact just as all the best penetrators do, and forcing the officials to make decisions. Continue reading
This year’s WNBA Finals feature two of the best – but two rather different – starting point guards. Minnesota’s Lindsay Whalen had the superior regular season. Unusually for a point, she’s strong and physical rather than small and quick. She uses her body and her strength to hold players off when she penetrates, and to finish plays at the basket even through contact. As with all the best point guards, she’s also a game manager, finding the right player at the right time in half court sets. Typically for Minnesota that means feeding Augustus or Moore on the wing for shots in rhythm, but she also knows when her team needs to be focussing on forcing the ball inside or when they need her to create something herself. Along with Augustus and Moore she’s also been part of an exciting three-pronged fastbreak attack this season, all three capable of leading or finishing the break. She led the league in assists this year, but also put up far and away the best shooting numbers of her career (over 50% from the floor, and over 40% from three-point range, the first time she’s managed either of those feats). She’s Cheryl Reeve’s brain on the floor and she’s had an exceptional season.
Atlanta acquired Lindsey Harding in the offseason in the hope that she’d be the final piece to their championship puzzle. Her two years in Washington had established her at the head of the new group of younger point guards coming through (the post-Bird/Whalen/Penicheiro class), and Dream coach Marynell Meadors was delighted to add her as an upgrade on distributor Shalee Lehning. It took Harding a while to settle in, but what she offers that Lehning didn’t is an offensive threat. When McCoughtry isn’t out there – or even when she is – Harding can create her own shot off the dribble or get to the basket. Although most often you’ll see her spin back to her left and take a mid-range jump shot. Continue reading