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. It was a weird season, featuring eight good defenses tightly packed together, and four terrible ones lagging miles behind (take a bow, Washington, Phoenix, LA and Tulsa). Also, the Dream have taken it up a notch in the postseason. They learned what it took to win in the playoffs last year, and they’ve carried that into this season’s crucial encounters. They’re quick and active on the perimeter, big and physical on the inside, and use their defense to ignite their offense whenever they can latch on to any loose balls. Watch out for the long arms of Sancho Lyttle in particular, and whether Lindsey Harding’s quickness can cause problems for Lindsay Whalen at the point.
Minnesota have simply been one of the best defensive teams in the league all year long. Unsurprisingly, after graduating from assistant roles alongside the likes of Dan Hughes and Bill Laimbeer, Cheryl Reeve places a lot of her focus on defense. With a team that stayed healthy all season, and the addition of Taj McWilliams-Franklin, she got her squad to buy in to her philosophy and system this year and it paid off. Their size and length on the perimeter makes it difficult to work into the paint, especially with McWilliams-Franklin and Brunson sliding over to help from behind. And that’s key to the Lynx defense – help. There’s a team ethic behind everyone’s play, and they clearly believe the age-old coaching mantra that if the other team scores, everyone loses – not just that player’s defender. They just work hard.
In terms of style, the defenses are reasonably similar. Neither uses much zone, although both have thrown it in to mix things up on occasion. If we see the expected small Dream lineup against the bigger Lynx group, either side may use some 2-3 zone to minimise the impact of the mismatches. But expect largely man-to-man with lots of help coming when necessary. Atlanta gamble more than the Lynx, because their offense is so dependent on creating turnovers and being able to run. That may come back to bite them at times in this series, because Minnesota have better shooters and move the ball better than teams like Indiana. Plus San Antonio reminded the Lynx what happens when they become static and immobile in the opening round of the playoffs – and they remembered what to do about it.
Minnesota 9/10, Atlanta 8.5/10: Edge Minnesota, only because they’ve been a little more consistent defensively over the course of the season. Atlanta have kicked it up and may well be at least even by now.
Ah, the age-old issue of pulling the ball down off the glass. Atlanta are very good on the boards. A .513 rebounding percentage over the regular season put them third in the league, and that went to .516 in the playoffs despite playing two of their five games without their starting center. But the 2011 Minnesota Lynx have been one of the best rebounding teams in the WNBA’s history. Third all-time in rebounding margin, second all-time in overall rebounding percentage, first in defensive rebounding percentage since the league began. Those numbers have actually gone up in the playoffs, but when you play three times against San Antonio and twice against Phoenix your rebounding numbers ought to improve. Led by Rebekkah Brunson but with the entire team from point guard to center working hard on the glass, Minnesota’s .547 rebounding percentage was miles clear of everyone else this year. That limits second-chance opportunities, and because they’re so good on the offensive glass it’ll restrict the amount of running chances that Atlanta have in this series.
Also bear in mind that Atlanta put their numbers together while playing two true post players for most of the season, and that won’t alway be the case in this series. They did a remarkable job of competing on the boards against Indiana even when they went small, but the Fever are a poor rebounding team. This will be a very different challenge, and expect them to be well beaten on the glass if they try to go small against Minnesota.
Minnesota 10/10, Atlanta 8/10: Edge Minnesota, and it might not be close. This could really hurt the Dream, and it could be the primary factor in forcing them out of the small lineup once de Souza returns to offer a legitimate alternative.
Well we can’t skip over this, considering it’s been thrown at Minnesota throughout their remarkable season, right? As a group, it’s true, this Lynx team has never been this far before. Never come remotely close, in fact, considering the franchise hadn’t even made the playoffs since 2004. The Dream, on the other hand, reached this stage just last year and ran Seattle a hell of a lot closer than the 3-0 sweep suggests (losing all three games by a combined eight points).
However, the Lynx are hardly novices. McWilliams-Franklin has more experience than she knows what to do with at this point, while Brunson and Whalen have both been in the WNBA Finals before as well. Augustus has been to an Olympics and won a gold medal, while Moore seemed to work through the bulk of her nerves in the San Antonio series. The bench is full of kids but most of them aren’t going to play anyway – the experience factor is essentially a misnomer.
Minnesota 8/10, Atlanta 8/10: It’s a wash, even if the Dream’s collective experience is more recent.
Home Court Advantage
Obviously, Minnesota have the edge here, seeing as they’ll be hosting Games 1 and 2, and the potential Game 5 if necessary. But there’s a little more to it. Minnesota is a city searching for a winner, and the Lynx have brought some excitement and success to the area when their other professional franchises aren’t exactly flourishing. A decrepit Donovan McNabb is about to lead out the 0-3 Vikings, while the Twins just finished a season with the worst record in the American League. Expect the Target Center to be packed for Game 1, likely pretty similar for Game 2, and absolutely rocking if they end up back there for a decider.
Atlanta don’t tend to have the most raucous crowds in the league, but what they have done is prove that they can win on the road in the playoffs. They did it in both the opening rounds last year, then they won Game 1 in Connecticut (who had a 15-2 regular season home record) and the deciding Game 3 in Indiana this year. This is a team that isn’t afraid to step into someone else’s house and perform – they almost thrive on the extra pressure and antipathy.
Minnesota 9/10, Atlanta 8.5/10: Edge Minnesota, because they’ll be hosting three of the five games and their fans are desperate. But Atlanta negate almost all of it with their ability to produce in any arena.
Just one more part, I promise.