After last year’s sweep at the hands of Seattle, and the opening two games of this year’s Finals, the Atlanta Dream went into last night’s game with an unfortunate 0-5 record in the WNBA’s showpiece finale. While it was an achievement to emerge from the Eastern Conference twice in a row, it was starting to become a little embarrassing. Making it to the Big Dance and repeatedly coming up short almost leaves a worse taste in the mouth at the end of the season than being dumped out at an earlier stage. So Atlanta had every reason to raise their game and try to fight their way back into this series. For pride, if nothing else. Plus, if Minnesota could defend their home court in the opening two games, why shouldn’t the Dream defend theirs in the following two, and force a decider?
The starting fives were the same as in Game 2. As expected, Taj McWilliams-Franklin’s leg would have to have fallen off to keep her out of a Finals game, so the right knee sprain that forced her out of the final quarter two days earlier couldn’t stop her. Armintie Price retained her place at shooting guard for Atlanta, despite the disappointing games she’d had in the series so far, and the presence of Iziane Castro Marques loitering with intent on the bench.
The opening minutes looked good for Atlanta. They were evidently trying to feed Erika de Souza in the paint early on, and combined with a couple of breakouts for Angel McCoughtry that pushed them to a quick 8-2 lead. The most obvious difference from the opening tip-off in this game was the Dream defense on Seimone Augustus. For the first time in the series, McCoughtry was the primary defender on her instead of Price or one of the other wings. Along with that, instead of the weak switching they’d been doing on ball-screens throughout the series, whenever Augustus came off a screen they were trapping her hard with both the defenders involved, hoping to create turnovers or at least force the ball out of Augustus’s hands. If Atlanta were going down, they were at least determined that it wasn’t going to happen exactly the same way as we’d already seen in the previous games.
Not that this game was ever going to resemble Game 2. The lack of whistles was a blessed relief after the endless stoppages on Wednesday night, and the officials were clearly taking a more laissez-faire approach. If you wanted to shoot free throws in this game, you were going to have to do rather more to earn them. Even without foul trouble, Maya Moore found herself quickly benched after a couple of loose early plays, as Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve went to Candice Wiggins instead. For the first time in the series, Wiggins produced when called upon, nailing a couple of threes in the first quarter to validate her presence on the floor.
Helping Atlanta out in the first quarter was a significant improvement on the glass. de Souza had four offensive boards in the opening ten minutes alone, creating repeated putback attempts and drawing a couple of the rare fouls that were called. McCoughtry was pulling so many defenders across to protect against her drives and shot attempts that the glass was being left open on the weak side and de Souza was left with too much room to manoeuvre. Atlanta held a 20-17 lead after the opening quarter as a result.
Moore was back in at the start of the second, and quickly created a very rare six-point play. She was fouled on a three when de Souza closed out too hard, the shot fell, and when she missed the free throw but was lucky enough to see it bounce right back to her, she kicked it to Wiggins for her third trey of the night. It wasn’t particularly pivotal, but it seemed worth mentioning purely for the novelty value. How often do you see that?
Minnesota were really far too sloppy in the second quarter, and were probably lucky to keep the game as close as they did. Bizarrely for these teams, it was the Lynx who benefitted on the few occasions that the game sped up and flowed from end to end. When they could break, the likes of Moore, Augustus and Lindsay Whalen could move the ball and finish, but they were coughing up too many turnovers when forced to run a more traditional offense. Atlanta were as reliant on McCoughtry as ever, and Lindsey Harding had utterly disappeared, but they were working their way to the basket better than the Lynx and doing a slightly better job of keeping control of the ball. In truth, both teams looked like the single-day gap between games 1 and 2, which included travel from Minnesota down to Georgia, hadn’t allowed them to fully recover all their energy. Atlanta finished a scrappy first half up 37-33.
The Lynx players clearly received something of a tongue-lashing during the halftime break. They emerged for the second half with far more energy, there was more aggression and direction on offense, and the weak-side help was arriving far quicker whenever Atlanta tried to feed de Souza in the post. Erika had only shot 3-10 in the first half, but with nine rebounds she was being allowed to cause far too many problems for the Lynx. Minnesota’s ball movement was also significantly better than it had been in most of the first half, and within three minutes they were ahead 41-39 and Dream coach Marynell Meadors was calling a timeout to wake up her team.
Atlanta emerged from that timeout with better ball movement themselves, but it lasted for a grand total of one possession. After that there were too many drives from McCoughtry into masses of traffic that simply led to turnovers and Minnesota breaks, and too many jumpshots from every Dream player on the remaining possessions. Once again, part of the problem was acknowledging what the officials were calling on this particular night. McCoughtry was upset at the calls she wasn’t getting on her drives, but that was how they’d been calling the game since the opening tip. She wasn’t going to get the calls she’d received in Game 2, so both McCoughtry and the Dream as a whole needed to adapt. Both she and Castro Marques missed wide open threes from the exact same spot on the wing midway through the third quarter as well – the Atlanta Dream that couldn’t shoot from outside all season were returning at the most inopportune time. Fortunately for them, the Minnesota offense wasn’t exactly running like a well-oiled machine, even if the Lynx had stepped it up a notch from the first half. A baseline drive from Rebekkah Brunson took her past Alison Bales like she wasn’t there for a layup to end the period, but it only gave the Lynx a 52-45 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
It seemed like an awfully big seven-point lead, though. Atlanta had lost their momentum and their heads seemed to be dropping, with a feeling of “here we go again” appearing to permeate the team. After sitting for the final four minutes of the third quarter, McCoughtry was also still on the bench to start the fourth, depriving the Dream of their main source of drive and energy. Still, when she returned with just under seven minutes to play, Atlanta were just five points behind at 54-49. Harding made her first basket of the night seconds later, at least reminding us that she was still on the court. After taking 39 shots and scoring 36 points in the opening two games of this series, it was remarkable how little impact Harding had on Game 3. That was only her fourth attempt of the entire evening. Not a good night for Lindsey to choose to have one of her ‘fade into the background’ games.
Strangely, while the Minnesota lead was around five or six points for most of the fourth quarter, and never higher than eight, it felt very comfortable for the Lynx. When a pair of Jessica Adair free throws gave them a 59-51 advantage with just over five minutes to play, it almost seemed over. Finally, with 4:26 remaining, Meadors tried something different to shake her team out of its stupor and attempt to keep their season alive. Just like they’ve done before to reinvigorate their team, they went small. Minnesota’s extra energy and effort on the glass had evened out that fight in the second half anyway, and Sancho Lyttle hadn’t done nearly enough to attack McWilliams-Franklin all night. Taj had played as hard as she could but clearly wasn’t 100% on that sprained knee, yet Lyttle persisted in firing away from the perimeter rather than using her significant edge in quickness and athleticism to take advantage. She went to the bench, leaving de Souza as the only Dream post player on the floor, with Harding, Price, Castro Marques and McCoughtry all lined up around the outside.
It was by no means immediately effective, but at least it showed a willingness to try something different. Even with Lyttle typically being one of their premier defenders, the extra perimeter player made Atlanta quicker, and made the pressure they could apply via traps and on-ball pressure more effective. They created a couple of turnovers, and a McCoughtry jumper that rattled out and then back in again cut the gap back to five, before a possession that seemed like the final dagger. Atlanta played strong, effective defense, forced the Lynx to scramble and almost run out of time on the shot clock, only to see Moore fire an off-balance push for three to beat the buzzer that somehow went in. 64-56 with two minutes left, that felt like the killer blow.
To Atlanta’s credit, there was still more to come. Their full court pressure was causing issues for Minnesota, along with the nerves that come with approaching the first championship in your franchise’s history. Even when the Dream forced up shots that didn’t drop, and with only one post player on the floor, the rebounds were also falling their way again. Foul shots from Harding and McCoughtry pulled them within four, before the Lynx coughed up yet another turnover under pressure. Harding missed a short jumper, but de Souza grabbed the board, kicked it out, and when the ball was rotated to a wide open Castro Marques in the corner, she sank her first three of the night. Out of nowhere, it was a one-point game with 1:17 remaining and Atlanta had given themselves a chance to keep their season alive.
Reeve called a timeout to settle her team down, and remind them that they know how to break a full court press. Maybe Atlanta should’ve pulled out of it coming out of that timeout, but given how effective it had been in the preceding minutes, you couldn’t blame them for sticking with it. Brunson broke the press by taking the ball upcourt herself, and the Lynx found McWilliams-Franklin all alone under the basket. Harding was quick enough to foul her and make her earn the points at the charity stripe, but she hit both to take the lead back to three. McCoughtry followed by forcing up a jumper that wasn’t close, before Whalen did an excellent job of fighting in front for the rebound and drawing the loose ball foul. You can’t succumb to full court pressure and turn the ball over if you put the effort in to crash the glass and draw a foul before the defense can even set up.
After Whalen went 1-of-2 at the line for a 67-63 lead with 51 seconds left, Atlanta called timeout. What happened out of that timeout just about summed things up. McCoughtry never even touched the ball, Castro Marques taking a pass from Harding on the wing and driving into traffic before throwing up a prayer in the lane that never had a chance. It’s hard to believe that Minnesota would’ve produced such a poor attempt in the same situation, and it’s mental errors like that which have cost the Dream in this series. Composure and basketball smarts have been very clearly weighted in Minnesota’s favour throughout the Finals, and it’s been crucial. Atlanta compounded the poor offensive possession by taking far too long to foul, allowing the clock to run down to 35 seconds remaining before hacking anybody.
There was still plenty of time for the Dream to foul intentionally and extend the game, and twice McCoughtry went to the rim for quick layups, but Minnesota refused to miss enough free throws to give them a chance. Castro Marques missed at the rim with 18 seconds left, and McCoughtry missed as well with 8 seconds on the clock, leaving the ball in Augustus’s hands as the buzzer sounded on a richly deserved 73-67 victory and a WNBA Championship for Minnesota. For the second year in a row, the Dream fans only got to witness one WNBA Finals game in their own arena, and ended it with a trophy ceremony for the opposition.
Game 3 turned out to be yet another illustration that this Minnesota Lynx team can win any kind of basketball game you happen to drag them into. Both teams looked a little tired, McWilliams-Franklin played 33 minutes on one-and-a-half legs, and McCoughtry finished 9-25 for 22 points. Forcing Minnesota into 20 turnovers on the night should’ve given the Dream a chance to win, but in the end they didn’t have the weapons, and McCoughtry didn’t get enough help. Her repeated insistence on trying to take over on her own doesn’t always help, but the rest of the team went 18-53 as a group, and that wasn’t going to cut it. Harding’s 1-5 for four points was frankly pathetic, and somewhat shocking after her willingness to attack Whalen in the opening two games; de Souza did her job on the glass but she and Lyttle were a combined 7-23 from the floor, which was nowhere near good enough even against Minnesota’s strong interior defense; Price had probably her best game of the series, but when that’s 3-7 for six points, it says more about her prior performances than this one; and Castro Marques was 4-12 for nine points, on one of those nights where her streakiness never really came back around in Atlanta’s favour. They tried everything they could to beat this Lynx team, and came up short in various different types of game.
Ultimately, the Dream didn’t have the cohesion or the temperament to hold up against a squad as good as Minnesota’s, similar to how they could never quite close out against Seattle last year. One or two players who can consistently shoot from outside would be nice too (how many years is it now that we’ve all been saying that this team can’t shoot? Might it be a reasonable idea to try to fix that?). This is still a very strong outfit, and in some ways they’ve simply been unlucky to run into two outstanding teams in consecutive years (the 2010 Storm and 2011 Lynx are literally two of the best teams this league has ever seen). But they’ve got issues, they’re not hard to see, and they’ve done little to fix them. It’ll be interesting to see if Atlanta come back with essentially the same group next year expecting things to change on their own, or if they try to shake things up to get over the hump.
Regardless of the Dream’s problems, all the plaudits have to go to Minnesota, who’ve had a quite remarkable year. Finally putting all the pieces together, getting that touch of luck from the basketball gods to stay largely healthy throughout the season, they assembled a team that are thoroughly deserving of a WNBA Championship. Seimone Augustus was the blindingly obvious choice as Finals MVP, producing 16 points on 7-12 shooting in this game to take her Finals averages to nearly 25 points at nearly 59% from the floor. In her clash with McCoughtry, the most obvious difference was her willingness as a passer to create for others when that was what the defense was giving her. She had 14 assists in this series to McCoughtry’s three. While the Lynx offense is set up differently and she probably has more weapons surrounding her, there’s far more of a feeling that Augustus is scoring her points within the rhythm of the Lynx offense, not as an “okay, we’ll just watch our star work this time down” kind of player. She was emotional at the end of the game and through the trophy ceremonies, and she has every right to be. She played for this franchise through all the lean years, and after the horrendous injury problems she had in the last couple of years it was questionable whether she’d ever return to her former glory. Now here she is with a Championship ring on the way and a Finals MVP trophy on the mantle. There isn’t a player who deserves it more.
Game 3 was another instance of the Lynx showing that if one player doesn’t hurt you, someone else will. Augustus may have been the mainstay throughout the series, but this time round it was Moore (6-9 for 15 points), Brunson (6-12 for 13) and Wiggins (3-6 for 10) who stepped up in support offensively. They turned the ball over too easily and too cheaply, and took a while to wake up on the glass, but in the end they were too strong and too smart defensively for the Dream to handle. And although it was boosted by the intentional fouls at the end, once again they shot more free throws than Atlanta (16-24 to the Dream’s 11-16). I kept saying Atlanta wouldn’t win games in this series if they were behind in the free throw count – they ended up behind three times, and lost 3-0.
When it comes down to it, after a hard-fought season, the best team won. It’s really as simple as that. The similarities between last year’s Storm and this year’s Lynx only continue to grow with a 3-0 sweep of Atlanta in the Finals, but the difference is that this Minnesota squad is significantly younger than that Seattle team. McWilliams-Franklin might take her ring and walk off into the sunset, but besides that most of this squad should be back next year to try to repeat. The only important piece besides Taj who’s any kind of free agent is Candice Wiggins, and she’s restricted. The Lynx have the cap room to pay McWilliams-Franklin and Wiggins, assuming they both want to stay, so health permitting we could easily be right back here next season. But for now, it’s time to celebrate this year’s champs, the mightily impressive Minnesota Lynx.
In other news…
Don’t go anywhere. You might think this would signal the end of WNBAlien for the time-being, but we still have season assessments for all 12 franchises to come in the next couple of weeks, including looks at what might be facing all those teams in 2012. We’ll also be keeping up with all the free agency movement and any other WNBA activity during the offseason. So sign up for email notifications via the subscription option to the right, or follow me on Twitter, or just keep checking back at regular intervals for all the news and coverage that’s worth writing about. It won’t be daily during the offseason – even I’d be struggling for topics pretty quickly – but the articles will arrive whenever there’s something to discuss.
The celebrations will continue for Minnesotans into next week, with a parade along Nicollet Mall scheduled to begin at 11.30am Tuesday, followed by a rally at the Target Center. The players and coaches will be honored at the Vikings game tomorrow as well.
Aw, some time in May 2012, probably. See ya next year, WNBA.