WNBA Today, 10/03/2011: Flying start for Finals, but Lynx prove too much for Dream in Game 1

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. The Lynx were also affected when barely three minutes into the game McWilliams-Franklin came out and headed back to the locker room. Later reports told us that she had an ‘intestinal issue’ and had been vomiting. She came back out, and returned to the game for the second quarter, but you don’t want to have to replace your starting center and veteran leader that early in the biggest game of the year.

It was exciting stuff, even if it wasn’t exactly textbook basketball. Castro Marques was charging from one end to the other and throwing up shots at every possible opportunity (which is essentially every time you touch the ball when you’re Izi). McCoughtry nailed a jumper over Brunson, illustrating one of the problems with trying to defend her with a power forward, before Brunson stuffed her on a drive – illustrating one of the benefits. Minnesota had a gorgeous fastbreak with Candice Wiggins feeding Brunson, who fed Lindsay Whalen for the layup. Then with three minutes still to play in the opening period, Brunson picked up her second foul of the game on an incredibly cheap over-the-back call on an inbounds pass. With McWilliams-Franklin suffering, the last thing the Lynx could afford was Brunson in foul trouble as well. The quarter closed with two extremely long two-point buckets from Harding and Alison Bales – apparently they don’t teach you to step back an inch to get behind the three-point line at Duke – giving Atlanta an 18-14 lead heading to the second. The game was being played at Atlanta’s pace, but Minnesota were weathering the storm without too much trouble, even with Seimone Augustus and Moore yet to find their range from outside. There was no need for the Lynx to worry yet.

They probably started to get a little worried in the second quarter. Harding already had seven points on three jumpers from the first, and kept her hot shooting streak going. It looked like she’d come out with the intention of making the most of her quickness advantage over Whalen, and when Whalen kept sitting off her and going under screens to compensate for that edge, Harding was taking the shots on offer. And everything was dropping. When she took her total to 12 with yet more jumpers and Atlanta’s lead stretched to 25-16, Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve was forced into a timeout to calm things down. They still couldn’t score after the timeout, but McCoughtry picked up her second foul on a Brunson putback attempt. Just like against Indiana, Dream coach Marynell Meadors pulled her from the game to try to avoid foul trouble for her star – and fortunately this time, McCoughtry went and sat down without complaint.

The Dream lead reached as high as 12, but it never seemed too scary for Minnesota. Their shots simply weren’t dropping yet, and there was no way that Harding was going to stay this hot all night. Plus Castro Marques still couldn’t stop shooting, and there weren’t all that many falling through. Augustus broke her personal drought with two pretty jumpers, the second from beyond the arc, and the Lynx had quickly cut the gap to five points. By halftime, they’d cut Atlanta’s lead to 39-36, and even managed to draw McCoughtry’s third foul on a cheap call during the fight for a loose ball. Augustus was starting to look her typical smooth-as-silk self by the end of the half, and the final basket was a perfectly run pick and roll that ended with a wide open Jessica Adair layup from an Augustus feed. Despite being down three points, I’d still have been reasonably content if I were Minnesota. They’d played through Atlanta’s chaotic defense, seen Harding shoot a preposterous 7-10 for 16 points, given up only four free throws in the entire half, and they’d had more joy on the fastbreak than their run-and-gun opponents. Plus McCoughtry was only 2-5 for six points at the break, already had three fouls, and Meadors had already been forced into switching back to playing two true post players in Lyttle and Bales at certain stages. The Lynx were behind by three points, but they were starting to win the chess match.

Despite McWilliams-Franklin playing the entire second quarter and looking reasonably strong, Adair opened the second half instead of her due to the health issues. Regardless of the switch, the second half opened much like the first – with Brunson making more of the mismatch at power forward than McCoughtry could. Angel forced a jumper over Brunson that wasn’t close, before Brunson posted her up and hit a turnaround off the glass, then drilled a wide open jumper from the foul line on the next Lynx possession. That three-point lead hadn’t lasted very long. Unfortunately for Minnesota, McCoughtry wasn’t going to quit there. She drove and drew a whistle on Adair coming over to help, somehow managing to convert the basket as well while she fell to the ground. Moore managed to eclipse it as an individual play with an extraordinary baseline drive where she floated Dr. J-like under the basket to convert with a reverse layup from the opposite side, but McCoughtry was off and running. Castro Marques had hogged all the shots in the first half – now it was Angel’s turn to take over. She was feeling it from outside, and guarding a smaller, quicker player Brunson had no answer. Three straight outside jumpers rained in from McCoughtry, and Reeve called a timeout to yell at her defense.

McCoughtry finally started to cool down when Minnesota switched up their defense. There was no compromise on the man-to-man, but they finally took the approach Indiana tried in their series with the Dream – defend Armintie Price with a big. Price essentially can’t shoot, so the big just sags way off her inside to guard against her speed and driving ability. With McWilliams-Franklin using that technique on Price, Brunson could switch onto Lyttle, and Augustus could take a turn on McCoughtry. She missed twice in a row and in the space of barely a minute a 49-42 Atlanta lead became a 51-49 Minnesota advantage. They were also doing a good job of turning the Dream’s own techniques against them – when Atlanta shots missed, if the opportunity to push was there they broke back in the opposite direction. Atlanta may have more pure speed, but the vision, selflessness and skill of the Lynx was noticeably superior in the open court.

Even with a more natural defensive matchup in front of her, McCoughtry wasn’t done. A three right over Augustus, then a jumper in the lane on a broken play took her total for the night to 21. However, the remainder of the third set the stage for what was to come in the fourth quarter. There was a stark difference between the offensive possessions for the two teams. With the Lynx hitting more shots and asserting their dominance on the glass even more than they had in the first half, the running opportunities had disappeared for the Dream. That left them trying to score in the half court, and they had very little to offer. The occasional high pick, clear-outs for Harding or McCoughtry, and that was about it. Still, it was enough for a 62-62 tie at the end of the third, and McCoughtry had scored a ridiculous 19 points on 7-11 shooting in the third quarter alone. If she could keep that up, Atlanta had a chance to stay in any game.

The fourth quarter didn’t start well for the Dream. With both McCoughtry and Lyttle resting on the bench, Meadors introduced backup post Sandora Irvin for the first time all night. She was using Alison Bales at the same time, so it was a dual-post setup, and it didn’t work at all. Whalen kept attacking the slow posts off McWilliams-Franklin screens, and she’d converted two driving layups and an additional free throw before McCoughtry and Lyttle were thrown back in less than two minutes into the period. But Atlanta had lost all their momentum and rhythm. The half court sets, if you could even call them sets, weren’t going anywhere against Minnesota’s practiced and methodical defense; playing Lyttle and Bales together moved McCoughtry to small forward, where Minnesota could defend her straight up with Moore; and Brunson and Augustus were both flying offensively. All those switches and smaller defenders had allowed Brunson to dominate the glass – although she often does that regardless of the opposition – and her offensive confidence had grown along with that dominance. Meanwhile, Augustus was just back to being her usual pure-shooting self. Price was using her quick feet to stay right in front of her, but when you can step-back and rise up like that and shoot it at a remarkably high percentage, there’s not much the defender can do. Jumpers from Augustus and Brunson, then breakaway layups from Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin added to Whalen’s personal run, and Minnesota had a 75-62 lead with under six minutes left in the game. Atlanta still hadn’t scored in the fourth quarter.

The Dream tried what they could for the rest of the game. Lyttle came out and they went small again, this time with Courtney Paris as the sole big (another player appearing for the first time all night in the fourth quarter). But with Brunson rolling, Augustus hitting, and Minnesota just looking far more confident and effective in the half court, the comeback never looked remotely likely. Plus the Lynx had found that the McWilliams-Franklin-on-Price/Augustus-on-McCoughtry setup worked pretty well as long as McCoughtry wasn’t center-of-the-Sun hot. While Atlanta’s efforts to create chaos with their defense had worked early on, Minnesota’s practiced and direct man-to-man had proven more effective in the long run, and they coasted home to a Game 1 victory 88-74. Cue the Sugar Hill Gang and the dancing.

Any of you that happen to follow me on Twitter will know my immediate reaction to this game – it made me feel like my Minnesota-in-five prediction may have been overly generous to Atlanta. Erika de Souza may be on her way back for Game 2 – and after this performance she’ll probably start – but she’s not going to be enough to fix all the problems highlighted in this encounter. She’ll help with the rebounding, where Atlanta were unsurprisingly thrashed 40-28, and she’ll help them match up defensively without having to scramble and switch all the damn time. But she’s not going to suddenly provide the Dream with a more nuanced half court game. She’s not going to prevent Minnesota breaking out with more guile and speed than Atlanta off turnovers and long rebounds, despite that supposedly being the Dream’s bread-and-butter. Plus, while she should help plug up the paint in the half court, she’s not going to cut off too many of Minnesota’s points in the paint when they’re scoring so many of them at speed before she’d even be halfway back down the court.

It was a bizarre game of two halves for Atlanta offensively. The first half was Harding looking remarkably effective and Castro Marques shooting everything she touched. The second half was all Angel. In fact, McCoughtry was 8-15 for 27 points in the second half; every other Dream player combined was 3-20 for eight. That’s horrible, and shows just how little ball movement and creation there was in the second 20 minutes. McCoughtry finished the game 10-20 for 33 points, Harding had 20 on 9-19, but that was about it. Lyttle was 0-5 and largely invisible, but it didn’t really seem like her fault. It would’ve been nice to see her put up more of a fight on the glass, but when you’re the only post player on the floor you’re so desperate to fly around helping out defensively that it’s hard to crash the glass. Also, the lack of ball movement and thought in the offensive possessions meant that the team never seemed to have any interest in getting her the ball in position to score. Price was similarly ineffective, finishing 0-5 for three points. She tried to attack once she appreciated that she was the one with the mismatch against McWilliams-Franklin, but it never worked well. She’s a speedy, rhythm player, and with other wings dominating the offense all night she never found any kind of offensive momentum. With McCoughtry the only player driving remotely effectively, the Dream also failed to capitalise on their usual edge in creating foul shots. McCoughtry was 11-12 at the line, but Price’s 3-4 were the only other Atlanta free throws all night. At 16-18, Minnesota actually outshot and outscored them at the line. The Dream are unlikely to win any games in this series where they shoot fewer free throws than the Lynx.

While they won’t be counting any chickens just yet, Minnesota will be delighted with how this one played out. McWilliams-Franklin playing through illness; Moore and Augustus cold early; hot streaks for Harding and McCoughtry; kinks in the defensive matchups that they had to fix on the fly – and they won their first ever WNBA Finals game by 14 points regardless. Brunson was the star, finishing 10-15 from the floor for 26 points and 11 rebounds. A little like McCoughtry, when her jumper’s falling, she immediately becomes a far more effective offensive player. All the layups she made on open cuts and running the floor to finish breaks gave her the confidence to take the jumpers, and they were dropping in all night. Augustus eventually joined in, shooting 9-20 for 22 points and seven assists, and Whalen got her own back on Harding as the game progressed. Harding may have attacked early and often, but Whalen closed the game 7-15 for 15 points and six assists. That’s good enough when your teammates are scoring so well around you, and Harding won’t often shoot from outside like she did in the first half of this game.

McWilliams-Franklin eventually played over 30 minutes despite her illness, producing eight points and ten rebounds, and played her part in the collective defensive effort that has been the key grounding behind the Lynx all year. They held the Dream to 37% from the floor, and when it came to the crunch they were more composed and simply looked far more organised at both ends of the floor. de Souza’s return will help Atlanta in Game 2, but they’ve got some work to do regardless of the return of the big Brazilian. They may enjoy playing up-tempo, but they have to show more control and more thought behind their offense, because you can’t expect to beat this Lynx team solely behind fastbreaks and McCoughtry’s shooting. Game 1 showed it’s unlikely to ever be enough.


Late addendum: de Souza’s not back in the US yet. Apparently there may have been some flight difficulties in Colombia, so she is yet to arrive in Minnesota. Good thing Game 2 isn’t until Wednesday. The Dream will be desperate to add her services as soon as possible, even if she’s fighting off jet lag during Game 2.


In other news…

Erika de Souza and her Brazil teammates completed their task in Colombia on Saturday, emphatically defeating Argentina 74-33 in the final of the FIBA Americas tournament. That sends Brazil to London for the Olympic Games next year, while Argentina are joined by third-placed Canada and fourth-placed Cuba in the additional qualifier.

The equivalent FIBA Africa Championship also concluded this weekend, and after dispatching hosts Mali in the semi-finals, Angola took care of Senegal 62-54 in the final. So Angola will be heading to London, while Senegal are joined by Mali in the additional qualifier, after they beat Nigeria in the third-place playoff.

That means we now know all the direct qualifiers for London 2012, and all the teams that will be battling it out in the additional qualifier for the final five spots. Great Britain, the USA, Russia, China, Australia, Brazil and Angola are in. Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Turkey, Argentina, Canada, Cuba, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Senegal and Mali will all be fighting for the remaining spots, in a tournament expected to take place in either Turkey or the Czech Republic next year.

Remaining WNBA Finals Schedule (Lynx lead 1-0):

Wed Oct. 5th: Atlanta @ Minnesota, 8pm ET, live on ESPN2

Fri Oct 7th: Minnesota @ Atlanta, 8pm ET, live on ESPN2

Sun Oct. 9th: Minnesota @ Atlanta, 4pm ET, live on ESPN2 (if necessary)

Wed Oct. 12th: Atlanta @ Minnesota, 8pm ET, live on ESPN2 (if necessary)


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