Minnesota Lynx (#1 seed, 27-7) vs. Seattle Storm (#4 seed, 16-18)
Regular season series: Minnesota won 3-1
05/27 @Min: Lynx 84-71
06/06 @Min: Lynx 79-55
06/17 @Sea: Storm 65-62
08/21 @Sea: Lynx 86-73
It’s been a long season for Storm fans. From very early on, thanks to the state Phoenix and Tulsa were in, a playoff spot was virtually guaranteed. But they’ve still suffered through a lot of messy basketball, multiple injuries (several of which are still lingering) and a lot of losses. In many ways, the Lynx have been even better than in their dominating 2011 Championship season. Their scoring average is up, with a higher team shooting percentage, while their opponents’ scoring has dropped several points. Maya Moore has developed into a more well-rounded player, while the other youngsters on the roster also have more experience under their belts. They’ve had one or two awkward periods this season, and yet still only lost 7 games all year. As with the Connecticut-New York series, examining this matchup from all angles ends up being an exercise in searching for ways to find hope for Seattle.
On the positive side for the Storm, their whole roster is at least healthy enough to play now. Sue Bird has been fighting through a hip issue, Lauren Jackson had a hamstring problem, Tanisha Wright’s knee has limited her, and most recently Svetlana Abrosimova sprained her wrist (she’s the only one that might still miss out in this series, although she’s expected to play). Having the band back together at least gives Seattle a puncher’s chance against Minnesota. Bird and Jackson have been a dangerous tandem for over a decade now, and they can still cause plenty of problems. Bird runs the show, and has a penchant for knocking down big shots when she has to. Jackson still has an offensive arsenal inside and out that can dominate. But they’ve had so little time to gain any rhythm and rebuild the chemistry since Jackson returned to the team after the Olympics. They’re deeper than they used to be, but the starters aren’t quite as effective any more, especially when injuries are still limiting what they can do.
Minnesota’s starting five has been consistently the best group in the WNBA over the last two years. Lindsay Whalen rivals Bird as the best point guard in the league, moving the ball where head coach Cheryl Reeve wants it and – like Bird – stepping up in crucial situations when she has to. Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore are the star attractions on either wing. Augustus is a pure scorer, who continues to be remarkably efficient on the offensive end, and has stepped up her defense in recent years. Moore has improved in her second season as a pro, and she was already an important part of the team as a rookie. She does a little of everything, running the floor to finish in transition, knocking down shots from outside, and crashing the glass impressively for someone who’s usually on the perimeter. We’ve also seen the option of using Moore at power forward more this season, as Reeve grew more comfortable with it. Against Seattle we probably won’t see it utilised too much, but it could be a useful tool against Los Angeles or San Antonio in the second round.
Seattle are going to have trouble handling Minnesota on the perimeter. Tanisha Wright hasn’t been quite the lockdown defender of old this season (partly due to the injuries), and Katie Smith’s not what she was defensively either (Father Time can’t be held off indefinitely). With Abrosimova and rookie Shekinna Stricklen the only other options to defend Moore and Augustus (and Monica Wright off the bench), it’s going to be tough for the Storm to keep them in check. It’ll require a team effort with the posts hedging aggressively off screens or switching and sticking with the Lynx wings to keep them in check. There has to be a balance between clogging the lane to prevent penetration, and challenging shooters to make perimeter shots difficult. Seattle have done a solid job of that this year, but this is the toughest team in the WNBA to limit on the wings.
Because of that issue on the perimeter, Seattle have to compensate in the paint. They’ve had far too many games this year where they’ve repeatedly settled for perimeter jump shots, and apart from the odd game where they’ve gotten hot, that’s suicide. Especially against a team like the Lynx, who’ll happily join in on a shooting contest, and win it. Jackson needs to spend time inside rather than constantly firing threes, Camille Little needs to see lots of the ball down low, and Tina Thompson and Ann Wauters will have to step up off the bench. Minnesota’s interior defense is typically strong, led by Rebekkah Brunson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin, but Brunson has struggled in a couple of games late in the season, and the post defense tends to drop off when Devereaux Peters, Amber Harris or Jessica Adair come in to spell the starters. The Storm are actually last in the WNBA in 2012 in points in the paint – but then they spent most of it playing without Jackson. Their offense has to work inside-out for Seattle to have a prayer in this series.
Key area to watch: Turnovers. Oh my, the turnovers. Seattle have once again had several horrendous games where they’ve coughed up the ball constantly, often with completely unforced, cheap giveaways. Minnesota have actually had a few games like that as well, with their unselfishness occasionally going to extremes and the extra pass flying out of bounds rather than leading to an easier shot. But these were also two of the least successful teams in forcing turnovers this season. So if one team starts piling them up, it’s probably a sign that their offense is getting desperate and making poor passes into traffic or simply missing teammates.
Summary and Prediction
It’s hard to see how Seattle win this series. Despite all their injuries, they’ve still played solid defense this season, and I expect that to continue against the Lynx. But Minnesota have been nearly as good defensively, and their offensive arsenal simply leaves them more likely to make shots and finish plays. We’re also looking at the 2nd-best rebounding team in the league (Minnesota) and the 2nd-worst (Seattle). So the Lynx are likely to dominate the glass and create extra opportunities, unless there really is something wrong with Brunson (and even then, Peters had a strong finish to the year as an understudy). Key Arena is one of the most enthusiastic and noisy home arenas in the league, which could help Seattle sneak Game 2 back at home. Minnesota have also had some mental lapses during the season, when they’ve stopped penetrating with drives or passing and become a purely perimeter-shooting team. So the Lynx might drop a game. But it’s awfully hard to see them losing two.
Minnesota 2-0, but barely winning Game 2 at the Key.