There were five WNBA games played last night (all of them overlapping – thanks for making my job as difficult as possible, WNBA). All of them had at least some relevance to playoff positioning or qualification, but ultimately one stood head and shoulders above the others in terms of pure entertainment value. So it gets its own column (the other four games will be covered in another piece later tonight).
In a lot of ways, Atlanta’s visit to Minnesota was one of the least meaningful games played last night. The Lynx had opened up a four-game lead at the top of the West, and it’s going to take something unlikely to shift Atlanta out of third in the East before the playoffs. But neither team was going to treat this game lightly.
Minnesota have been rolling since the Olympics, winning all seven games before this encounter (9 in a row including games prior to the break). However, their bench has been in something of a slump, and this was one of only two home games left for the Lynx in the regular season. This was no time to relax. The Dream are still in recovery mode after the departure of head coach and general manager Marynell Meadors, and the return of Angel McCoughtry from suspension. Recent wins over Connecticut and Indiana have shown signs of piecing things back together, but they need to keep that push going heading into the postseason. There’s also the basic fact that the Lynx swept them in the WNBA Finals last year, beat them again a couple of weeks ago, and could well be awaiting Atlanta if they find a way to the Finals again next month. The Dream were tired of losing to this team.
The starting fives were as anticipated, which meant McCoughtry coming off the bench again (based on how she’s played so far, that doesn’t seem to be bothering her. Yet). The opening minutes were ugly, with neither team making anything, but when the points did start to flow, it was only at one end of the floor. It was all Atlanta. The Dream weren’t just on top; they were dominating on Minnesota’s own floor.
The Lynx got drawn into playing Atlanta’s own game a little too easily. The Dream like to play high paced basketball, flowing quickly from one end to the other. Minnesota enjoy playing that way as well, and showed they could beat Atlanta in that kind of game last year, but it was playing into Atlanta’s hands. Possession flowed into possession, Atlanta kept flying own the floor, attacking the rim without having to think about what they were doing, and constantly finishing at the rim. In fact it was remarkable how fluently they finished. Between McCoughtry, Lindsey Harding and Tiffany Hayes, every layup attempt seemed to be dropping in. That doesn’t often happen in this league, but they were making practically all of them. Even when they missed, offensive rebounds and second-chance points were adding up for the Dream as well.
Minnesota were simply having a nightmare. They couldn’t find any rhythm early on, then started settling for jumpers too easily (which largely missed), and even when they drove it was the mirror to Atlanta’s experience – every attempted finish bounced out. Credit the Dream’s defense for making everything difficult for Minnesota, with their length and activity contesting every effort, but the Lynx simply couldn’t get anything going. It helped Atlanta’s offense as well, because the constant stream of Lynx misses led to opportunities for the Dream to push the ball back the other way, against a defense that hadn’t had time to set up. Minnesota are a typically strong defensive team in transition, but there’s only so much you can take. Atlanta led 25-11 by the end of the first quarter, pushed their lead as high as 25 late in the second, and ultimately went in at halftime up 52-31.
The scariest element for the Lynx wasn’t just that Atlanta had piled up so many points and such a big lead. It was that Atlanta already had 42 points in the paint. That’s insane in 20 minutes of WNBA basketball. And it’s not like the Dream had a dominant post player putting up those points – Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle combined for 6 points in the first half, and Aneika Henry had 6 off the bench. That was it from the bigs. Virtually all those points in the paint were on drives and breakouts, and Minnesota hadn’t been able to come up with an answer.
But you’ve probably realised by now that this game wouldn’t be getting its own column if it ended in a 30-point blowout. Minnesota came out for the second half with a point to prove, even if the gap was going to be too big to cross. They needed to show that the first half wasn’t the real Minnesota Lynx. And they started the process quickly.
For her, Rebekkah Brunson had been quiet in the first half. She was a demon on the glass in the third quarter, flying around the court after every rebound and loose ball. Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus were being more aggressive and finally hitting a couple of shots, but everything that Minnesota missed seemed to be followed by Brunson rising out of the crowd and plucking it out of the air anyway. The gap was down to 13 before McCoughtry was back in the game 4 minutes into the third quarter, and a baseline drive from Moore for a layup cut it to 11 moments later. Minnesota’s ball movement and ability to convert was finally starting to win out over Atlanta’s defense.
McCoughtry gave Atlanta more to answer with at the offensive end, kick-starting an offense which had disappeared in the face of Minnesota’s onslaught. But the Lynx kept coming. It was becoming a very physical contest, with the officials struggling to control the game and decide what to call, but in those situations the team with momentum tends to get the benefit of the doubt. That was clearly the Lynx. Yet another driving layup from Moore, plus the free throw when McCoughtry fouled her on the finish, cut the gap to 6. Harding responded at the other end before the third quarter buzzer, but at 64-56 we had a game on our hands heading into the fourth.
The fourth quarter was a little different. Some early offensive fouls on Candice Wiggins and Monica Wright, plus a tough make from McCoughtry, cut into Minnesota’s momentum slightly to open the period. But their defense was still largely doing the job. Without the chances to run off Lynx misses or turnovers, Atlanta were trapped in the halfcourt and not finding the lanes to drive through that had opened up in the first half. And while the defense kept the Dream out, the offense had time to get Minnesota back in the game.
Plus what would a Dream game be without a little McCoughtry drama? Angel picked up her fourth foul on a Whalen drive (could’ve been called a clean block) and her fifth moments later in a scramble where she reached into a bundle of arms and came away with the ball (also could’ve been let go). She added a technical foul for her demonstrative disgust at the latter call. With 6:35 left in regulation and the Lynx still charging, McCoughtry was one hack away from fouling out. Then Augustus hit the technical free throw, Moore nailed a mid-range pullup, Lyttle got rejected by a combination of Moore and Taj McWilliams-Franklin at the other end, and Augustus drilled a three in transition. The crowd went nuts, Atlanta coach Fred Williams had to call timeout to stem the tide, and we had a one-point game at 68-67.
The rest of the fourth was a heck of a ride (you really should just watch this game on archive if you didn’t catch it last night. Then come back and finish reading, obviously). For all their pressure and second-half dominance, the Lynx could never quite get in front. A Moore breakaway stalled when Harding worked back and snatched the ball from her, before finishing at the other end. A Moore three tied the game for the first time since 0-0, only for McCoughtry to snare an offensive rebound, then be fouled on her attempted follow jumper, and Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve to pick up a tech on top for whining about the call (which looked entirely accurate).
Atlanta’s lead went back out to five, only for a Moore jumper and huge three from Candice Wiggins – who was only in the game because there hadn’t been a stoppage to allow Augustus to return – to tie it back up. With two minutes left in a tied game, Wiggins stayed in following a timeout, and would be in for the rest of the game. The broadcasters reported that it was due to a twisted ankle for Augustus, but she’d been at the scorer’s table ready to check back in. Maybe she felt a twinge, and even in a game like this decided to take no chances.
An Atlanta possession with a whole stream of offensive boards finally ended with a McCoughtry putback. Moore answered inside, with McCoughtry desperately lucky not to pick up her sixth foul while trying to defend her. Atlanta ran one of their favourite plays – a double-screen by Lyttle and de Souza, which led to Lyttle feeding de Souza for an open layup when the Minnesota defense couldn’t rotate to cover it quickly enough. Then out of a timeout, Moore made the extra pass when Atlanta desperately jumped out on her to cover the jumper, leading to a McWilliams-Franklin layup inside. Tied game, yet again, with 30 seconds left.
Atlanta ran another play we’ve seen before out of their timeout, with Lyttle swinging open on the back side to receive an alley-oop feed over the top. She caught it, and was sliding in for the layup, only for the ageless McWilliams-Franklin to fly over and block the attempt. Lyttle lost it out of bounds while trying to save the ball, and Minnesota had one last chance to win it in regulation. They missed Augustus. While Whalen dribbled out top, Moore dropped down to set a screen for Wiggins, who seemed to be expected to set a second screen for Moore. It all took too long, Moore got caught in traffic, and the ball eventually went to Wiggins. She was open, and had time to take the shot, but hesitated and tried to make an extra pass in to Brunson. Time expired, and we were headed to overtime.
Whalen’s jumper to open OT was the first Lynx lead since 1-0. But Atlanta still weren’t in any kind of mood to quit and go home. Everyone was tiring, and there were more possessions where the Lynx unintentionally ran down the shot clock and settled for threes, or the Dream missed layups. Up by a point with 35 seconds left, Whalen ran the clock down, drove and lost the ball in traffic. Harding took the outlet, went the length of the court, and rammed her layup attempt into the underside of the backboard under pressure from Whalen (even the Lynx announcers were a little incredulous that the officials swallowed their whistles on that one). Atlanta had to foul, Whalen went 1-of-2 at the line, leading to an Atlanta timeout with 3.2 seconds left in OT, down by two.
And here’s where you need your superstar. Just knowing how long 3.2 seconds really is, and what you can do within that time, is a skill in itself. Getting the job done on top of that is even more special. McCoughtry received the inbounds pass high beyond the three-point line, ghosted past Wiggins and Moore (who were desperate not to foul), and finished over McWilliams-Franklin as the buzzer sounded. On to overtime number two.
Once again, it was Minnesota that made the stronger start in the extra period. Whalen finished a tough driving layup with a reverse, before Moore added yet another pullup jumper from mid-range. McCoughtry answered with a three. Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin made outside jumpers, sandwiching a pair of de Souza free throws (after she was fouled following a nice entry pass from McCoughtry). Then impressive ball rotation from the Dream found an open Harding, who nailed a big three to tie the game yet again with a minute left in OT2. Only for McWilliams-Franklin – again – to knock down a jumper from 18 feet. It’s really nice for Minnesota to have bigs who can make that shot, even under serious pressure.
It was Taj who stepped up yet again on the next play. McCoughtry drove, and McWilliams-Franklin came over and didn’t just block it – she used two hands and literally plucked the ball away from McCoughtry in midair. With 20 seconds left and down by two, Atlanta would’ve had to foul, but pressure on an inbounds pass led to a tied ball between Whalen and Hayes. Hayes won the resulting jump ball, and Atlanta had one last chance.
The ball went to McCoughtry at the top of the arc. Lyttle came over to set a screen, then slipped it to head to the hoop, and McCoughtry made the pass trying to find her. Lyttle ran right into McWilliams-Franklin who was in position waiting for her to arrive, the ball broke loose, and Wiggins corralled it. When she made both free throws for a four-point lead with only three seconds left, that was finally the ball game. Minnesota had somehow come away with a 97-93 win in probably the game of the season.
The second half performance and the double-overtime win will allow Minnesota to forget the horrendous first half. They came out with such fire and desire after the break, and with the Target Center crowd roaring them on it was a fabulous comeback. They finished with 6 players in double-digits, led by Moore’s 7-13 for 23 points, 12 boards, 4 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. Brunson was unreal on the glass, ending the game with 18 rebounds, 10 of them offensive. The only minor blemish which has to be mentioned, is that Cheryl Reeve seems to be losing any small amount of faith she ever had in her backup post players. Jessica Adair didn’t play at all; Devereaux Peters played less than 5 minutes; Amber Harris played less than 4; and none of them played in the second half or either overtime. On the rare occasions that Brunson or McWilliams-Franklin got a rest, Moore slid over to play de facto power forward. It’s going to be a hard stretch through the end of the season and the likely deep playoff run if Reeve quits on all the backups. And what the hell happens if either of the starting posts gets hurt?
This one will leave a nasty taste in the mouth for Atlanta, especially considering their history with this opponent. They’ll also feel they were on the wrong end of much of the officiating (Minnesota did shoot 18 more free throws). But for much of the game it was an excellent performance against the best team in the league. They took them apart in the first half, and held strong in the face of the charging comeback in the fourth quarter. McCoughtry was outstanding yet again, finishing 12-21 for 30 points. Harding was the main support, with 23. Sancho Lyttle was an incredibly ugly 2-15, with the vast majority of her shots coming from around the perimeter. Once again, one of Fred Williams’s biggest challenges in taking over this team is to get Sancho back in the paint. But with games like this as the appetizer, it might be nice to see how he’d fix that issue in a reprise of the 2011 Finals. With both teams playing like this, it’s certainly a possibility.