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. She’s also grown into the running style that Atlanta love to play, and her head’s up immediately looking for McCoughtry, Price or Castro Marques charging down the floor in search of breakout opportunities. With the strength of Minnesota’s halfcourt defense, any cheap points the Dream can generate on the break are going to be priceless in this series. Harding isn’t quite the distributor or creator in the halfcourt that Whalen is – when Harding penetrates, it’s usually to create a shot for herself, not a teammate – but she gives the Dream an extra weapon that last year’s team didn’t possess.
Whalen’s a little slow, and Atlanta – Harding especially – will try to exploit that when she’s on defense. She’s shown this season that she knows how to defend in a team framework, and like Sue Bird she works around her limitations, but they’re still there.
Harding has an occasional tendency to fade out of games, which for someone who’ll be playing 35+ minutes per game in this series and who is supposed to lead the offense isn’t a good thing. Sometimes it feels like she’s saving herself for the closing stages of games, but if the Dream are too far behind by that stage it rather defeats the point. She also has an oft-mentioned propensity for missing crucial free throws late in games. As a team, Atlanta are a poor free throw shooting group and Harding’s their second-best option after McCoughtry, so she’ll always be on the floor – just remember that she may not be the safest choice to ice a game.
Over the course of 2011, Whalen’s been the better player. She knows what her team needs from her in every game and almost always delivers, whereas it always seems more luck of the draw whether Harding is effective on any given night. But Harding’s quicker, and her pesky defense will make things difficult for Whalen throughout the Finals. As Indiana illustrated for us in the Eastern Finals – turn the ball over too much against Atlanta and you’re writing your own death warrant. Whalen needs to be in complete control of Minnesota’s offense to ensure that the turnovers are kept to an absolute minimum. Giveaways are the easiest way to ignite Atlanta’s running game, and if the Dream can’t run, Minnesota become heavy favourites to take the title. Having led the WNBA in assist/turnover ratio among point guards, and been at the helm of the team that gave up the second-fewest turnovers in the league this year, Whalen knows exactly what she needs to do. It’s just not going to be easy.
Whalen 9/10, Harding 8/10: Edge to Minnesota, but not by that much.