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. If they can force Atlanta to beat them from outside, the Lynx should win fairly easily. While neither is a dominant offensive player, both can chip in with their fair share of points. In fact, it was when the Lynx started to put them in motion and use them rolling towards the basket that they took over the San Antonio series and then rolled through Phoenix in the Western playoffs. If Atlanta try to stick with their small lineup – and I expect them to at least try it in Game 1 when de Souza won’t be an option – McCoughtry’s going to have to try to guard one of these two. Taj likes her mid-range jumpers, but she’s smart enough to take McCoughtry into the paint and punish her on the low block. Brunson, on the other hand, will likely dominate the offensive glass if they try to put McCoughtry on her. Either way, Minnesota need to capitalise if the opportunity is there.
Lyttle’s been a little different this year. She used to be pretty similar to Brunson, a pogo-stick jumper who leapt over everyone to dominate on the glass and got most of her points at the rim on layups and putbacks. After suffering a variety of injuries this year, she’s become more of a mid-range shooter, even stepping all the way out towards the three-point line at times. She can still finish inside, we just don’t seem to see quite so much of it these days. Defensively, she’s an absolute pest. She led the WNBA in steals this year, with those long arms reaching in and constantly poking balls away. In the Indiana series, where the responsibility of being the only true interior defender on the floor was placed squarely on her shoulders, she was a nightmare. Still willing to put her body on the line, she fights hard for position, and then those go-go-gadget arms snake around from behind the offensive player and intercept entry passes. Given how Atlanta thrive on turnovers, her ability to create them is a huge bonus for the Dream. de Souza is a big load in the paint, and if the small lineup doesn’t work in Game 1, she may find herself right back in the starting lineup. She’s strong and solid, and she was a central part of shutting down Tina Charles in the Connecticut series that the Dream swept to open the playoffs. Between the pure size and bulk of de Souza and Bales, and the length and quickness of Lyttle, it’s hard to score inside against Atlanta.
All four of the true starting post players on these teams occasionally settle for jumpers from mid-range and deeper a little too easily, and none of them are that accurate from out there.
On squads with such electric – and shot-happy – perimeter players, they also sometimes end up a little forgotten by their own teams. Minnesota especially will try to get their post players involved in the game early on, but sometimes the gunners take over the offense.
Health could be a factor, as well. Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin have been surprisingly hardy this season, but Brunson has a history of injuries that curtail her effectiveness while her low-post partner often seems to pick up one kind of knock or another. Lyttle has had various issues this year with her legs and her back, while de Souza sprained an ankle late in the year and will be dealing with all the energy-sapping effects from playing six games in a week for Brazil and flying back from Colombia. If the series goes five games, it could be a matter of who survives the war of attrition.
It’s actually very close, if we were looking at a pair vs. pair matchup. Brunson and Lyttle almost cancel each other out with their overlapping skills (although Lyttle is slightly longer and quicker, while Brunson is the superior rebounder). McWilliams-Franklin’s smarts, skills and experience will help her even out the playing field with de Souza’s extra size and weight. But the edge has to go to the Lynx, because they’ll actually play two true bigs for the vast majority of the series. They have the option to go small with Maya Moore as the pseudo-power forward to match up directly with Atlanta’s altered starting lineup, but Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve has very rarely utilised that alternative this season. They’ve played barely 20 minutes all year with Moore at the 4, and most of that was against Chicago and Cathrine Kraayeveld (who’s no threat at all in the paint). So unless the Dream’s small lineup is absolutely tearing them to bits, don’t expect Reeve to cave and follow suit – it’ll be Jessica Adair on the floor when the starters need a rest, not Moore sliding over.
I expect the outcome of Game 1 to dictate how much of the Dream’s small lineup we see for the rest of the series. If they’re at least close without de Souza, we’ll probably see them try to survive defensively and use their quickness to take advantage on offense. Don’t forget that if McCoughtry’s trying to defend one of the post players, one of them has to deal with her at the other end. If the four-perimeter player setup doesn’t work, expect Bales to see plenty of time in Game 1, and de Souza to immediately be pressed back into heavy service from Game 2 onwards. Unlike Tangela Smith and Tammy Sutton-Brown, Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin may well be too good to get away with McCoughtry at the 4.
Brunson/McWilliams-Franklin 9, Lyttle/de Souza/McCoughtry/Bales 8: Edge Minnesota, but Atlanta can even it up – if they so choose – after Game 1.