WNBA Today, 10/06/2011: The Fat Lady’s Warming Up

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. The only time the Lynx switch on screens is when the defender makes very little difference. For example, if Angel McCoughtry and Armintie Price (or Iziane Castro Marques, or often even Lindsey Harding) cross paths and it’s easier for the Lynx defenders to switch assignments, they’ll do it. But most screens, especially on-ball screens, are set by bigs on littles. The whole point is to create problems for the defense and force them into a decision about what to do. In those situations, Minnesota fight around, through, over, and very occasionally behind screens, and stick with their assignments.

Just to helpfully illustrate the issues with Atlanta’s defensive style, Augustus drilled a three over de Souza to take the Lynx to a 5-0 lead when the Dream switched on a screen and de Souza couldn’t close out quickly enough to remotely trouble the shot. On offense Atlanta were clearly trying to get de Souza involved, feeding her in the paint early on, but a forced jumper and a travel on a post move were all she could offer on their opening possessions. The opening stages in general felt far more like Minnesota’s kind of game than we’d seen in Game 1. They can win at any kind of basketball, but the frantic pace that Atlanta had created in the previous contest wasn’t being replicated. This was a more normal, standard kind of game. Plus we were already hearing an awful lot of whistles.

Inside of two minutes, Price had picked up two fouls on a charge and a loose ball fight for a rebound (both calls looked a little dubious). So Castro Marques might not have been happy about her demotion from the starting lineup, but she didn’t have to wait long to make an entrance. On the other side, right after hitting a three for her first points of the game – another opening created by Atlanta’s switching defense – Maya Moore picked up her second foul as well (in this case barely four minutes into the game). The officials were already playing far too big a part in the action.

Away from all the whistling, the main basketball storyline of the first half was already developing – it was the McCoughtry vs. Mone show (or Angel vs. Augustus if you prefer, I just like the alliteration). McCoughtry came out firing, whether it was Moore or Augustus trying to defend her, and she was raining jumpers in from outside. Meanwhile, with the officials in whistle-happy mode, whenever she drove it was more than likely she was heading to the free throw line. Augustus only had five points in the first quarter, but her fireworks would only really start to crackle in the second. That played its part in Atlanta holding a 28-22 advantage at the end of the first, as did some unnecessary turnovers from the Lynx making some sloppy passes late in the period. They were managing to keep most of their turnovers the dead ball variety, avoiding igniting the Atlanta running game, but against any good team it’s a bad idea to give up possessions so cheaply. On the bright side for the Lynx, Lyttle picked up her second foul with three minutes left in the opening quarter trying to cut off a Lindsay Whalen drive. So she added to the growing group of players sat on the bench. Countering that, Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve risked sending Moore back out with two fouls and it backfired. Barely 30 seconds after reentering the game, she came too close to Courtney Paris in an attempt to challenge a putback attempt, and picked up her third. So Moore sat back down, and wouldn’t see the floor again until the second half.

The refs were still calling everything in the second quarter, but the basketball started to get so pretty that you scarcely noticed. Augustus shook Price with a playground-style between-the-legs-then-back-between-the-legs double-crossover before hitting a floater off the glass, then went by her again on the next Lynx possession and finished at the rim while drawing Lyttle’s third foul as she came across to help. At the other end, Monica Wright was receiving most of the minutes made available by Moore’s foul trouble, and was giving Augustus some rest by trying to handle McCoughtry. It wasn’t working. Angel did finally miss a field goal attempt midway through the second quarter with a transition jumper that rimmed out, but that was her first miss all night and she already had 19 points. For the first half at least, this was verging on a Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins kind of playoff duel.

However, with Minnesota far less dominant on the boards than they had been in Game 1, and McCoughtry receiving a little more help from her teammates than Augustus was getting, Atlanta built a lead. Their ball movement was far better than it had been in Game 1, and while McCoughtry was doing the bulk of the scoring, her teammates were at least involved in most of the offensive possessions. In fact, after Price hit a short jumper in the lane, Alison Bales hit a three (there’s something bizarre about a 6’7” backup center being the best three-point shooter on the team), de Souza twisted around McWilliams-Franklin for a nice finish inside (if you ignored the travel as the refs did), and McCoughtry hit nothing but net with an eight-foot floater, the Dream lead hit double-digits at 52-42. It was interesting that Atlanta were managing to play a slower-paced game and still find a way to come out ahead, even if they’d needed a stellar first half from McCoughtry to get there. The scoring barrage of the opening 20 minutes was topped off when McWilliams-Franklin appeared to close out the half with a layup with only five seconds left on the clock, only for McCoughtry to take the ball the length of the floor and fire up an off-balance, leaning three-pointer as the buzzer sounded. She was surrounded by four Lynx players, but it made no difference whatsoever – more string music, and Atlanta led 58-50 heading to the break.

Between them, Augustus and McCoughtry were 16-19 for 43 points in that first half. It was ridiculous, glorious stuff. Even more notable for Atlanta, they’d given up only three offensive rebounds, were 16-10 ahead overall on the glass, and Rebekkah Brunson had just one board in the entire half. In obvious, visible impact, de Souza hadn’t exactly dominated (six points and four rebounds in 15 minutes of action largely agreed with that) – but the difference was there. The Lynx hadn’t had the same room inside, even with Lyttle in foul trouble, and they’d needed Augustus’s remarkably efficient 19 points (she was 8-10, McCoughtry 8-9) to keep them in the game. The one worrying aspect for the Dream was in the personal fouls column, where they were already ‘up’ 14-7. Moore might’ve spent most of the half on the bench, but it was Atlanta who were struggling more obviously as a team to deal with the heavy-handed officiating.

The third quarter wasn’t pretty. McCoughtry went cold and started to force a couple of shots rather than take what was available in rhythm. Then she remembered the officials were calling everything, and started racking up points at the foul line anyway. The officials were still far, far too prominent. Moore added her fourth foul barely four minutes into the period in the fight for a rebound after McWilliams-Franklin blew an easy layup. de Souza picked up her third and fourth fouls in quick succession trying to challenge McWilliams-Franklin efforts at the rim. Then with just over three minutes left in the third quarter, McCoughtry went diving out of bounds hunting a loose rebound, and Monica Wright inadvertently crashed into McWilliams-Franklin’s leg like an NFL lineman. It sent McWilliams-Franklin to the bench seconds later with what was diagnosed as a right knee sprain, and turned out to be the last we’d see of her on the floor all night. On the scoreboard, McCoughtry’s free throw shooting had kept Atlanta’s noses in front, although teammate Castro Marques wasn’t quite so successful in that area. Twice in the period she was fouled on three-point attempts, firstly by Brunson early in the period, secondly by Moore (for her fifth foul) in the final minute. She went 0-3 the first time, 1-3 the second, and an Amber Harris jumper narrowed Minnesota’s deficit to 74-69 heading to the fourth quarter.

Harris is someone who wouldn’t have been expecting to play much in this series, but she came up big for the Lynx in this game once McWilliams-Franklin went down. Reeve stated during the regular season that Harris and Jessica Adair play well together, even mentioning that their +/- as a pair on the court was pretty solid. They backed that up in the early stages of the fourth quarter, as Minnesota’s backup post duo played key roles in turning the game in the Lynx’s favour. Harris fought for an offensive board to keep a possession alive, allowing Whalen to draw McCoughtry’s fourth foul on a drive and tie the game at 74 with her free throws. Adair drew a foul on Bales on a turnaround, then tied it again at 76 with her own foul shots. Then after Adair closed out and blocked a Lyttle jumper, Harris ran down the resulting loose ball, and after Augustus drew multiple defenders and kicked to her at the three-point line, Harris knocked down the triple with confidence. Without their starting center for Game 1, Atlanta had been destroyed on the glass and bitched about how things would be different in the next game; without their own starting center late in Game 2, Minnesota’s backups stepped up and produced.

Atlanta still weren’t done. Harris is a talented kid, but she doesn’t have the smarts or defensive instincts of McWilliams-Franklin just yet. Lyttle bullied her in the paint for a layup, Harris took another jumper that didn’t drop, then McCoughtry converted a layup when the rotation help defense never arrived (Harris barely moved from a position where Brunson likely would’ve challenged the shot). Then even after Harris had been replaced by Brunson, McCoughtry drove and found Lyttle for a layup (Angel’s second assist of the entire series), plus the foul on Whalen trying to help. With just under five minutes to play, Atlanta had regained a four-point lead at 85-81 after Lyttle added the free throw.

Now by the fourth quarter, both teams should’ve realised that the officials were calling everything. Yes it’s excruciating to watch, and even more painful to play under, but part of basketball is adapting to how the refs are calling the game on any given night. It’s not something that should have negatively affected the Dream. All year, they’ve been one of the better teams in the league at drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line, even if they’re usually pretty terrible at converting the opportunities. If you head there often enough, it makes up for a lousy percentage. But in the fourth quarter of this game, every call seemed to go against them. However, it was hard to consider them that hard done by, considering the calls McCoughtry had been drawing all night, and they didn’t do themselves any favours. It’s another aspect that probably should’ve been mentioned more in previewing this series – Minnesota are the more composed, smarter basketball team. Every team is going to make some dumb plays – this certainly wasn’t the first game this year that Moore spent in desperate foul trouble, for example – but the Lynx know how to adapt, and they rarely let the officials take them out of the game. Atlanta were disgusted by the officiating in the fourth quarter of this game, and their play only seemed to deteriorate as they continued to whine about it.

Also, regardless of the whistles, the Lynx made the plays (and the right decisions) down the stretch. de Souza had already picked up her fifth foul earlier in the period and been sat down by coach Marynell Meadors, then when a horribly cheap call added Lyttle’s fifth shortly after she’d built the 85-81 lead Meadors took her out as well. With four minutes left in a game that could practically decide her team’s season, Meadors had Alison Bales and Courtney Paris paired in the post. Hindsight is 20-20, but that made no sense. Even with the way the officials were calling this game, you have to trust your key players that late in a vital game. With the Bales/Paris duo scrambling to recover, Moore hit an open jumper from 10 feet to tie the game, then a Dream possession went nowhere while Harding tried to run pick and rolls with both of them. Then Augustus hit yet another one of her little pullup baseline jumpers (Paris was a little slow to rotate and help, but Augustus hits that shot over anyone so it hardly mattered), and Minnesota were in front. After McCoughtry missed a pullup of her own, Brunson rose highest for the rebound and Paris fouled her on the way down. With barely three minutes remaining, that little stretch had given Minnesota all the momentum, and while the Atlanta starters were reintroduced by Meadors, Brunson gave the Lynx an 88-85 advantage at the line.

We were back to the starting fives now, bar Adair replacing the injured McWilliams-Franklin, and it was down to who made the plays, and who could play smart and avoid the officials’ wrath. Atlanta ran a weave out top that went nowhere because Whalen, Augustus and Moore communicated well and simply switched off their defensive responsibilities. Whalen drove at the other end, converted an outstanding leaning jumper from the left side, and drew a foul on Harding for the bump that had sent her off-balance. The resulting 91-85 lead was Minnesota’s biggest of the night.

From there it was a free throw parade, but with one end of the floor far more active than the other. McCoughtry got bailed out for the thousandth time to cut the gap to four, but an abominably cheap touch-foul call on Lyttle fouled her out seconds later and sent Augustus back to the line. It was an awful, pointless call, but it was just the kind of decision we’d been seeing all night. She has to be smart enough not to reach in and give the officials the opportunity to make calls like that when she’s been watching them blow up for the same things throughout the game. Minnesota were doing a solid job of defending while avoiding reaching in, even if the luck did all seem to be going their way. They knew just as well as anybody else that the Dream were waiting on McCoughtry to bail them out, so the defense was focussed on stopping her. She missed twice on efforts right near the rim, and Augustus headed back to the free throw line when a foul was called on what could easily have been a jump ball. After she converted the pair, Harding was denied on a drive into all kinds of defensive traffic, and when Augustus was fouled yet again the Lynx lead hit double digits at 97-87. With less than 90 seconds left, the game was done and dusted.

There was still time for a whole bunch of extra fouls, whistles and free throws, plus a Harding layup and Castro Marques three inside the final six seconds that will have upset a host of gamblers (the line was Lynx -6), leaving the final score at 101-95 Minnesota. It might not have been easy, and with 21 fouls called in the fourth quarter alone it might not have been pretty, but the Lynx are heading out to Atlanta with a commanding 2-0 advantage in the series.

You could understand why the Atlanta coaches, players and fans were so frustrated and upset after this game. They’d dealt with several of the key areas where they’d had to improve after Game 1. The rebounding battle finished 31-30 in their favour, with Brunson held to just five in 30 minutes; the points in the paint were almost even at 38-34 Minnesota; and they’d even managed to create an edge in fastbreak points at 14-2, even if the game hadn’t been played at a breakneck pace for most of the evening. They lost it at the foul line, and in not playing smart enough to avoid crucial fouls. The foul count finished 33-23 against Atlanta, and while they were 21-32 at the line, Minnesota were an extraordinary 38-46. Even as an impartial observer, it seemed like the Dream were hard done by on several calls, but over the course of the night there were plenty of cheap calls on Lynx players as well (Moore played under 16 minutes, and at least a couple of hers were soft). The coaches and the players have to be smart enough to avoid these calls whenever possible (and hopefully the league has to be smart enough not to bring back this officiating crew any time soon).

McCoughtry also didn’t get too much help. She finished 10-22 from the floor, which means she shot 2-13 in the second half thanks to greater defensive attention and simple law of averages. Still, 16-21 at the line kept her points flowing, and she totalled 38 points (breaking her own single-game Finals record). Lyttle looked more comfortable with de Souza back alongside her, shooting 6-11 for 13 points, but couldn’t stay on the floor; de Souza herself was 4-8 for eight points and ten rebounds in her return; Harding was 7-20 for 16 while playing all 40 minutes; and Castro Marques finished 5-10 for 14 points off the bench. It was good, but it wasn’t enough. Armintie Price has been a disappointment in this series. Her quickness hasn’t allowed her to be effective against the Lynx because they’re so fast at recovering and they don’t turn the ball over, so she’s currently 1-6 for five points in both games combined. Also, with Augustus in this kind of mood, her ability at the defensive end has been largely negated – it’s hard to imagine anyone stopping Augustus when she’s playing like this, and Price certainly hasn’t been able to. It won’t be a big surprise if she’s replaced by Castro Marques in the starting lineup for Game 3, simply to put an extra scoring threat on the floor.

It was an unusual way to see the Lynx win, but part of their skillset all year has been an ability to win all kinds of games. Atlanta were doing a good job for most of the night making life difficult for them, despite the switching defense that should’ve opened up opportunities for Minnesota inside and out. But Augustus’s outstanding offensive ability, and the intelligence and composure of the Lynx to stick with the gameplan and trust in their own abilities won out in the end (with a little help from the zebras). Augustus finished an outstanding 11-14 from the floor, 13-16 at the line, for 36 points. She also spent much of her nearly 38 minutes on the floor guarding McCoughtry, and looked exhausted at the end of the night, but she’ll undoubtedly be ready to go for Game 3. The starting posts Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin were just 5-17 from the floor combined, but Adair and Harris made up for it with their little stretch, shooting 4-6 as a pair. The team may have needed their offensive star to carry them for much of the evening, but they made crucial shots at the right time, and knocked down the majority of their ungodly amount of free throws. In the end it was just enough to grab that 2-0 edge.

Game 3 is an enticing prospect. A different officiating crew will hopefully open up the game a little, plus Atlanta are always likely to get slightly more favourable decisions on their own floor. But they’ll have to create more going to the basket, and have to play smarter basketball. McCoughtry took 12 of their 16 foul shots in Game 1, 21 of their 32 in Game 2 – other players have to step up and create contact. They’re not going to win games where they shoot fewer free throws than the Lynx. We also have the question of whether McWilliams-Franklin will be fit to play on Wednesday, although her history suggests that if she can walk she’ll be out there. We saw that Adair and Harris can step up, but everything will become more difficult for Minnesota if their veteran leader is missing. You also have to wonder if the Lynx will take better advantage of Atlanta’s switching defence in the upcoming game(s). After poor shooting games for their posts in the San Antonio series, they fixed it and dominated inside in Game 3 – if they do that again in Atlanta, this series might be over on Wednesday night.

 

In other news…

The All-WNBA teams were announced, with arguably the most controversial decision seeing Tina Charles hold off Sylvia Fowles for the First-Team spot at center. That could’ve been fixed if the NBA/WNBA would get with the times and vote for two interior players and three perimeter, which is far closer to how most teams are set up in the modern game – rather than two guards, two forwards and a center. Still, the voters didn’t do too bad a job given their constraints.

I also never mentioned here that Fowles was named the Defensive Player of the Year in an incredibly close decision over Tamika Catchings. It’s ironic that Catchings should finally lose the DPotY award in the year that she finally won the MVP, but with how Fowles played this season she’s a thoroughly deserving winner. The All-Defensive teams were also announced, and at least there weren’t any left-field picks among the choices this year. You can read my feelings about most of the candidates (and much more about WNBA defense) in the back-and-forth I had with Swish Appeal’s Nate Parham a couple of weeks ago here. Suffice it to say, I preferred the teams we came up with to the ones that the league’s head coaches chose. But then I would, wouldn’t I?

 

Remaining WNBA Finals Schedule (Lynx lead 2-0):

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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