WNBA Today, 09/18/2012: Lynx fight past Fever again

When you cover the entire WNBA, you come to treasure Mondays, in a way. For whatever reason, the League typically goes dark on the first day of the working week, and it almost feels like an extension of the weekend. It’s an extra day of rest for us poor writers. There’s only been one other Monday game throughout the 2012 WNBA regular season. You probably don’t remember it – the Los Angeles Sparks blew out the Washington Mystics back in June. This time, giving up my Monday night was much more palatable.

For the second time in four days, the Indiana Fever faced the Minnesota Lynx, this time back in Minneapolis. While the Fever still held slim hopes of catching Connecticut for the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference, the main interest in this game was simply based around seeing two of the best teams in the league face off. There was also the added spice that each team would respond to what worked and what didn’t in Friday’s 66-64 Lynx win, and the possibility that these teams could meet again in a month for the WNBA title. This was never going to be your typical end-of-season walkthrough kind of game.

Minnesota were boosted by the return of Seimone Augustus from her sprained foot, and she immediately went back into the starting lineup in place of Monica Wright. However, they were without backup post Amber Harris due to illness. The Fever had their usual starting group again.

From the opening tip, this was an intensely physical game, and the officials let a lot of contact go. There were players complaining on both sides in the early minutes about not getting calls on drives. That’s hardly unusual in any professional basketball league, but it did seem rather haphazard all night long as to whether you’d draw a whistle in the paint. And as ever, it felt like someone would get mauled on one play without a call, and then the whistle would blow for the tiniest touch on the next. With the playoffs coming, these officials are going to be under even closer scrutiny, and we can only hope that we’re talking about them as little as possible throughout the postseason.

Tamika Catchings took center stage early on, hitting two threes inside the first couple of minutes, leading to Rebekkah Brunson being benched for Devereaux Peters. Brunson’s been exceptional for Minnesota this season, especially since the Olympic break, but she’s struggled in these two games against Indiana. Typically, you’d expect her to have some difficulty defending Catchings, but be able to compensate by dominating the glass. In practice, that hasn’t happened, and Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve increasingly went with Peters instead over the two games. Hopefully that’s just a matchup issue for Brunson, and she’ll bounce back against other opponents. Minnesota need her at her high-flying best for the postseason.

Indiana were the better team for most of the first half. In the opening quarter it was Indiana’s activity defensively that was causing problems, making life very difficult for the Lynx. The Fever are quick, annoying and physical defensively, constantly disrupting the opposing team’s rhythm. Erlana Larkins came in at center for Tammy Sutton-Brown and performed her standard job of flying around and making things happen defensively or on the glass. She’s been an excellent addition for Indiana this season, transforming her conditioning and game from the player she was a few years ago in New York. When she and Catchings combine in the post they’re a two-woman wrecking crew inside, despite being shorter than practically any other frontcourt.

In the second quarter, the Fever went to their alternative option inside, with Jessica Davenport taking over instead. She’s a big body and is much slower than Larkins, but she’s got a soft touch and when her offensive game is working she offers Indiana something no one else on their roster can provide. It gives them a very different look offensively when they can drop the ball down to her in the low post and let her go to work, as opposed to running high screens or expecting Catchings or Katie Douglas to create something. The only problem is the inconsistency of not knowing which options will have any success on any given night. This was the first time in weeks that Davenport had shown up and produced. Minnesota tried to counter with Jessica Adair, who’s barely played lately with Peters and Harris swallowing all the backup post minutes. It didn’t work for the Lynx, and Davenport scored 9 points in her first 4 minutes of action on a series of short jumpers and interior finishes. The Fever led by as many as 14 midway through the second quarter.

Minnesota’s offense had been struggling to find any consistency, especially with Augustus’s shot looking distinctly rusty in her first appearance for 10 days. They’d let the lack of success effect their execution as well, with two quickly-fired threes from Augustus and Maya Moore clanking off the rim without a Lynx player anywhere near the basket to rebound. The second led to a Catchings layup after driving straight through the heart of the Lynx defense untouched. Minnesota finally woke up in the last three minutes of the half. Augustus went to the rim in transition and got her first basket of the night. Peters got fouled after grabbing an offensive board, and hit both foul shots.

Then Indiana had a particularly unfortunate finish to the first half. Shavonte Zellous was caught by a loose Moore elbow in the fight for a rebound, went down and stayed down near the rim, forcing Indiana to foul so they could get her some treatment (an intensely dumb rule which has needed fixing for years – just let the officials stop the game if someone is obviously hurt). After Moore hit both the free throws that resulted from that foul, Catchings attacked a little too quickly on the play that should’ve ended the half, Minnesota broke to the other end, and Moore was fouled again. This time it was with 0.1s left on the clock, and Catchings was incredulous at the whistle, drawing a technical foul on top. Moore hit all three shots at the line, narrowing the scoreline to 43-40 at halftime. Indiana had dominated for 17 of the 20 minutes, and only led the game by 3 points.

Zellous was done for the night, being tested for concussion symptoms, with Erin Phillips replacing her in the lineup to start the second half. It turned out to be a wild third quarter. After some early transition speed found Sutton-Brown for points, the Fever started raining in three-pointers. Katie Douglas and Briann January were the main contributors, hitting 5 triples between them in the space of less than 4 minutes. This has become a staple of Indiana’s game – they drive and kick to open shooters, or they simply rotate the ball smoothly around the perimeter and find the right player to fire away. They’re shooting 41% from behind the arc, and threatening the WNBA record for made three-pointers per game. It’s become a very dangerous weapon, and allowed them to stretch out a 62-52 lead midway through the third quarter.

However, Minnesota are right there with the Fever in leading the league in three-point percentage, and one of the key components of that attack is Maya Moore. Her outside shooting kept the Lynx in the game in the third quarter, as she went 5-5 from three-point range in the period to respond to the Fever’s combined 6-8. It was a three-point barrage at both ends, but Moore quickly helped wipe away the Fever lead, and the game was tied at 65 heading to the final period.

Before we talk about the actual action over the last 10 minutes, let’s talk about the lineups. Reeve had gone small when the Lynx trailed by 10 in the third quarter, with Peters at center and Moore at power forward. They stayed at those spots throughout the fourth. It’s hard to know if Reeve would’ve had the guts to stick with this system in a game that actually had a real bearing on the Lynx season, but it was good to see them performing well without Brunson or Taj McWilliams-Franklin. It’s a scary and athletic Plan B to have in reserve. Indiana’s Lin Dunn yet again pulled out my most hated Fever lineup to start the fourth – the one that features Catchings and Douglas on the bench together watching the action. In fairness, both had been on the floor throughout Minnesota’s third quarter comeback, so trying something different at least had a reasoning behind it. But they were both quickly back in the game when a Candice Wiggins three gave the Lynx a 5-point advantage. Unless someone’s winning by at least 20, I hope we never see Indiana without either Catchings or Douglas on the floor in the postseason.

While it was still a hard fought game to the bitter end – and physical enough that it might’ve been nice to see the officials get a stronger grip on the contest earlier in the night – the finish wasn’t to be as tight as Friday night. With a raucous home crowd behind them and a couple of calls going their way, the Lynx simply made more plays in the fourth quarter. Wiggins took over as the three-point marksman from Moore, making a couple of big shots. Lindsay Whalen once again stepped up when necessary, making both a couple of nice passes for teammates and finishing at the rim herself. And as a team they continued to attack the glass. All of that combined was enough.

Indiana got caught either settling for jumpers, or being unable to finish when they did venture inside on drives. They also lost another player to injury when Briann January was clattered twice in barely a minute, first by Moore in transition, then by Peters with a flailing arm on the ensuing inbounds play. She left the game and didn’t return, just like Zellous. A seriously physical game.

So Minnesota held on for an 86-79 win, completing back-to-back victories over the Fever. These games would’ve been just the kind of preparation Reeve was looking for before the postseason. No quarter was asked and none given, but twice her team came out on top. Moore was the top scorer again for the Lynx, finishing 9-16 for 29 points, 7 boards, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. She’s taken an extra step forward since the Olympics, raising her game in the absence of Augustus and simply becoming a more well-rounded player. It’s not all threes and transition buckets any more. The Fever were switching constantly, creating mismatches, and when she found herself with a smaller defender on her, Moore was going down low and calling for the ball. She’d never have done that last season – or she’d have tried it once, screwed it up, and quit. Her ability to slide to the 4 – and Reeve’s increasing willingness to utilise that option – is coming in handy as well, and alongside her Peters played over 29 minutes. The rookie ended the game 3-5 for 10 points, 7 boards (5 offensive) and a couple of assists, for another impressive outing. She also had 5 turnovers, and she’s still making a few of those rookie errors, but she’s another weapon that’s resurfaced for the Lynx in time for the playoffs.

Indiana’s main concerns from this game will be over the health of Zellous and January, rather than about the loss. Hopefully both just had their bells rung a little and can bounce back. The rebounding battle that you would always expect to be a concern for the Fever against a team like the Lynx was more of an issue this time round. Indiana grabbed an impressive 12 offensive rebounds, with their hustle and continuous effort translating to the glass, but lost 37-25 overall on the glass. Before they have to worry about Minnesota or whoever else might come out of the West, the Fever are going to have to handle Atlanta and probably Connecticut in the East. Neither of those teams has been as strong on the boards as Minnesota this year, but both have a lot more interior size than the Fever. They’ll need to keep their energy and activity levels as high as this to compete inside, and allow their shooting to win games. Despite two losses to Minnesota, these contests have been encouraging for Indiana’s chances of doing just that.

Oh, and once you track a long way down the list of tie-breakers, this result clinched the Eastern Conference top spot for Connecticut. Indiana could still catch them to tie on basic record, but would lose the tie-break. So it’s officially Indiana-Atlanta in the first round, and Connecticut vs. New York or Chicago. But then in reality, we’d known that for a while.

 

Notes

The Minnesota Lynx finally got their visit to the White House today, earned through their 2011 Championship, and were honoured by Barack Obama. Unfortunately, it’s ended up causing a little controversy, with Charde Houston tweeting that the organisation never bothered to inform her of the trip (she was with the Lynx throughout 2011, before leaving for Phoenix in the offseason). While the Mercury’s game in LA tonight likely would’ve kept both Houston and Alexis Hornbuckle from being in D.C., it would’ve been nice if the Lynx had invited them to attend.

 

Upcoming Games

Tuesday September 18th (today):

New York @ San Antonio, 8pm ET

Chicago @ Seattle, 10pm ET

Phoenix @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET

—–

Wednesday September 19th (tomorrow):

Indiana @ Connecticut, 7pm ET

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