You often hear athletes saying that it’s a whole new season heading into the playoffs. Or that everyone starts over at 0-0. While true, there’s still the basic problem that the best predictor of the future is often the past. Sometimes you don’t have to look very far to find a reason to say “we really should’ve seen this coming”.
The Atlanta Dream went into Indiana last night for Game 1 of their playoff series with history on their side. The Fever had the better regular season in 2012, but Atlanta have reached the WNBA Finals in both the last two years from low seeds and without home-court advantage. They’d shown the ability to step up when the games really matter, including when they beat Indiana in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals.
On the bright side for Indiana, their starting backcourt of Briann January and Shavonte Zellous were both passed fit to play, after missing the final games of the season due to concussion symptoms. They took their places in the regular Fever starting lineup, while Atlanta also had their standard group. This is the playoffs – any minor injuries players are carrying are pushed to the wayside due to the importance of the games.
It was all Atlanta for the vast majority of the first half. Indiana had too many unnecessary turnovers, either with dumb passes in transition or entry passes that Sancho Lyttle quickly stepped in front of to poke away. The Fever needed to be more aware of Lyttle, who’s been pulling that move for years. You can’t make the same passes when she’s the defender involved that you might force against other players. She already had 4 steals after barely 11 minutes of play.
While the turnovers would typically ignite Atlanta’s running game and take over the contest via fastbreaks, the Dream weren’t just dominating in transition. They were the more effective team in half court sets during the first half, repeatedly finding Erika de Souza under the hoop in the early minutes, and then finishing plays more consistently as the game progressed. Point guard Lindsey Harding was aggressive offensively and hitting her shots, Angel McCoughtry joined in after taking a little while to heat up, and Atlanta were in control.
As is often the case, action at one end of the floor was leading to the results at the other. Atlanta’s defense was stifling, making it hard for Indiana to convert inside but still managing to close out impressively on perimeter shooters. That’s been Indiana’s life-blood this year, with ball rotation or kick-outs leading to wide open threes, which they shoot at a high percentage. But the perimeter shots weren’t open, so they didn’t even put many in the air. It left Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas trying to create from the perimeter, but not having much success. And with Atlanta thoroughly dominant on the glass, every Indiana miss led to a quick Atlanta attack. For a few minutes early in the game, the Fever had just as many transition opportunities as the Dream, and made the most of them, but Indiana’s chances dried up because Atlanta kept finishing or grabbing offensive boards. The Dream’s lead was 25-15 at the end of the first quarter, and the gap grew as high as 14 in the second period.
Indiana tried some 2-3 zone in the second quarter, but Atlanta sliced through it nearly as easily as they had the man-to-man. Finally in the closing minutes of the half, the Fever made a couple of plays to keep things interesting. Douglas grabbed an offensive board off a missed free throw, stepped back and hit Indiana’s first three-pointer of the game. Then January broke down the defense and found Catchings under the hoop for a layup. But unfortunately for Indiana, there was still time for one last important piece of action. McCoughtry was caught in a defensive trap between Douglas and January, and started swinging her elbows to create separation. She eventually caught January hard in the ribs, and the Fever guard went down in a lot of pain (there was no call, by the way). Indiana would’ve been happy to only trail 41-32 at halftime after being dominated for much of the opening 20 minutes, but rather less thrilled to see their point guard struggling to hobble back to the locker room.
Jeanette Pohlen started the second half for January, who was still with the doctors, and Indiana immediately went back to their zone defense. Presumably, the hope was to force Atlanta into beating them from outside, but the Dream continued to move the ball, find the gaps within and behind the zone, and kept adding buckets. Indiana tried going big with Jessica Davenport at center, Erlana Larkins at power forward and Catchings at small forward, but the zone remained pretty ineffective.
Pohlen was pretty awful as well, unable to keep up with the quickness of Atlanta or create anything offensively. Her game has regressed since Fever coach Lin Dunn barely played her for a month after the Olympics, and she didn’t look ready to play such heavy minutes as a primary ballhandler. Plus, with Atlanta still leaving little room for the Fever to take threes, Pohlen’s main skill was irrelevant. Nearly 8 minutes into the third quarter, with her team trailing 57-44, Dunn finally went to Erin Phillips instead as the replacement lead guard. It really shouldn’t have taken so long.
Atlanta had built so much rhythm and confidence that even their jump shots – the exact efforts that Indiana wanted to force them into taking – were regularly falling in. With 7 minutes left in the game, Atlanta led 67-51 and looked like they’d coast home for a remarkably easy road win. But Indiana weren’t going out like that. Catchings came back in after a brief rest on the bench, and January was back on the floor despite that earlier elbow. They went back to their zone, with Erlana Larkins in the middle of it at center, Catchings and Douglas on either wing, and January and Phillips providing the pressure up top. Finally, it started to have the desired effect. Atlanta started giving up turnovers, or running down the shot clock and finishing with bricks from outside when they ran out of time. January had a nice drive-and-dish to Larkins for a layup, before breaking out in transition for a layup of her own. The Fever had life.
It kept rolling. Phillips had a layup in transition after a phenomenal Larkins block of a McCoughtry three-point try. Then Phillips hit from beyond the arc, January nailed a pullup, and Douglas got to the line for a pair. Atlanta had completely forgotten how they’d pierced the zone earlier on, and Indiana were energised and making a much better effort to close the gaps. The Dream had more turnovers, and a pair of ugly three-point misses from Sancho Lyttle (Indiana will let her have that shot all day long). Amazingly, with 96 seconds left in the game, a 13-0 run had Indiana within three points.
Appropriately enough, the dagger shot came from Harding. She’d been outstanding in the first half, and finally broke a near-6 minute Atlanta scoring drought with a huge three over the despairing arm of Douglas. Indiana had finally made it a one-possession game, only for that shot to immediately force the gap back out to 6. When January penetrated on the following possession and kicked out a pass, only to find Atlanta’s Armintie Price, it was just about over. Atlanta held on through the final minute for a 75-66 win that steals home-court advantage away from the Fever. The Dream can close the series out back home on Sunday afternoon.
Bar that late stretch where it nearly got away from them, Atlanta played a heck of a game. They didn’t need McCoughtry to take over, because they were moving the ball well into the gaps of Indiana’s defense, playing typically tough and aggressive defense themselves, and dominating the glass. Harding played the entire 40 minutes, and finished the game 8-14 for 23 points, 4 rebounds and 7 assists. It was exactly the performance they needed from their point guard, who’s stepped up her game in the second half of the season and took it up another notch in Game 1. McCoughtry was 8-18 for 16 points, de Souza faded after her opening burst, and Lyttle still took too many jump shots, but their speed and defensive pressure got the job done. They’ll now spend the brief gap before Game 2 preparing for that 2-3 Fever zone again, because if they tackle it as they did in the fourth quarter, Indiana could easily slide back into the series.
While much of it came down to how well Atlanta played, Indiana will be desperately disappointed to have given up the home-court advantage they worked all year for in the space of 40 minutes. Dunn kept mentioning words like energy, desire and effort as reasons her team was getting beaten, but it was also just about making plays against the pressure of Atlanta’s defense. Catchings was frustrated by Lyttle all day, one of the few power forwards with the footspeed to step out and guard her all over the floor. Douglas struggled to find her shot, couldn’t draw many fouls when she tried to drive, and that left Indiana searching for offense. Catchings and Douglas finished a combined 6-23 for 23 points, and the Fever won’t win many games with those numbers. The stars need to step up. But the team showed they can do it in the fourth quarter. Better activity and aggression defensively, more speed on offense, and a higher work rate on the glass to negate Atlanta’s size advantage – immediately Indiana were on top. They’ve still got a chance in this series, but they’ve made it very hard for themselves. Still, don’t expect them to disappear quietly in Sunday’s Game 2.
The final teams to begin their playoff runs were the reigning champs of Minnesota, and their predecessors from Seattle. They might have one title apiece from the last two years, but the Lynx came into this series as heavy favourites to knock off the Storm. Seattle have started looking old over the last couple of years, and the variety of injuries key players have been fighting through over the final weeks of the season didn’t help their chances. Minnesota have had occasional sloppy sequences, but overall they’ve been just as dominant in the 2012 regular season as they were in 2011. Seattle were always going to have their work cut out for them.
Both teams had 11 players in uniform, although backup Storm guard Svetlana Abrosimova never made it off the bench, so was likely still recovering from her sprained wrist. Backup Lynx post Amber Harris was available for the first time in weeks after suffering from mono. Seattle also had key players fighting through injuries to play, with Lauren Jackson having had a painkilling injection to help a hamstring problem, and Sue Bird still suffering with her hip. Facing the Lynx was already going to be hard enough without extra issues complicating the task.
Seattle did a solid job in the first half turning this into their kind of game. They were never going to win a high-paced shootout with Minnesota, but their defensive effort and rotation kept the Lynx in check in the halfcourt. They turned it into a scrappy, physical, stop-start game, which gave them a chance to compete. In fact, they created more transition opportunities and points than the Lynx in the first half, with rookie wing Shekinna Stricklen in particular looking to get out when she could.
However, Minnesota were still the team in front throughout the opening 20 minutes. They made life difficult for Seattle right from the point of attack by assigning Seimone Augustus to guard Sue Bird, using her length and size to make it hard for Bird to find teammates or run the offense effectively. Bar a couple of finishes from Jackson inside and a couple of threes from Bird, Seattle had very little offense early in the game.
The coaching matchup between Minnesota’s Cheryl Reeve and Seattle’s Brian Agler, which always had the potential to be interesting in this series, had its first significant twist in the second quarter. Agler went to Jackson and Ann Wauters together in the post, giving him lots of height and length inside. Instead of meeting size with size, Reeve quit entirely on her traditional post backups (something which lasted for the rest of the night). Instead, whenever Rebekkah Brunson or Taj McWilliams-Franklin went to the bench, Maya Moore slid over to power forward. It didn’t work particularly well in the first half. It allowed Seattle to show some life on the boards, and Moore wasn’t making them pay with her extra mobility at the other end. Fortunately for the Lynx, Augustus and McWilliams-Franklin made a couple of plays offensively, and Seattle’s offense was still largely stilted. They finally got the ball down low to Jackson where she could attack Moore for the final basket of the first half, pulling Seattle within 33-27 at the break.
Minnesota seemed to be taking over in the third quarter. Bird had some uncharacteristic turnovers under Lynx pressure, and seemed to be troubled by that hip injury. Camille Little and Jackson were seeing very little of the ball. Meanwhile Minnesota were a little more aggressive in getting to the rim, led by Lindsay Whalen and Augustus, and the lead reached 17 with under 3 minutes left in the third quarter. It would’ve been easy for Seattle to slip away and try to regroup for Game 2 back home.
But that’s not how the Storm roll. There’s a lot of pride in this team, and still a fair bit of talent, too. Agler discovered a lineup late in the third that offered extra energy and some vital outside shooting. They were also finally playing how he wanted them to, moving the ball inside to then create open chances outside. Katie Smith and Tina Thompson started raining in threes from deep, Wauters was working hard and making little plays at both ends, and Stricklen added quickness on the perimeter. The gap was back to single-digits before the end of the third period.
It was a pretty similar story in the fourth quarter. Seattle’s typical starters opened the period on the floor, and some tough defense from the Lynx led to breakouts and easy scores. Minnesota were quickly back up by 13. It was 69-59 with under 5 minutes remaining in the game when Stricklen, Thompson and Wauters came back in, and moments later Smith replaced Bird after the All-Star point guard had airballed a pullup 15-footer. Once again, the reserves gave Seattle some extra drive, and with Augustus missing a series of floaters and jumpers they had time for one last push. Wauters finished a couple of plays inside, generated by Tanisha Wright drives, before Stricklen added a layup. Only a Maya Moore jumper had broken the Storm run, as the Lynx benefitted from someone other than Augustus finally taking a shot. But Seattle were back within 6 – and Bird and Jackson had been on the bench throughout the late surge. With 90 seconds left, Jackson returned, although Bird stayed on the pine.
Augustus finally hit a shot, only for Stricklen to answer with an offensive rebound and a driving finish, then sneak in from behind to steal the ball from Whalen. With under a minute to play, Seattle had a chance for a huge momentum swing, and Jackson popped open at the top of the arc with the help of a nice down-screen from Wright. But Jackson’s three rimmed out. The rebound ended in a tie-up between Whalen and Wauters, which resulted in Seattle possession when Whalen blatantly jumped across early and shoved Wauters on the jump ball (called a jump ball violation rather than a foul, fortunately for Minnesota). But again, when Seattle found Jackson in the low post, she couldn’t convert on a tough turnaround jumper over a double team. She probably should’ve kicked it back out, but with barely 30 seconds left in a 6-point game, you can’t blame a star for taking that shot.
That was essentially all she wrote. Seattle needed one of those big shots in the final minute to drop in and they might’ve made the Lynx nervous. As it was, Minnesota held on for a 78-70 victory and a 1-0 lead to take to Seattle on Sunday.
The Storm made a heck of a fight out of this, despite struggling most of the night offensively. Jackson was the only player scoring in the first half, then the triples from Smith and Thompson plus hustle drives from Stricklen were virtually all they had in the second. They also shot 13-23 at the foul line, which is an ugly line in the box score. But their defense did the job. They can take pride in how much of a battle they made it, and confidence from knowing that players like Little, Bird and Wright can perform a lot better. With a home crowd behind them on Sunday, they still have a shot to extend this series.
Conversely, outside of coming away with the win, Reeve probably won’t be particularly happy with her team’s performance. Their defense was solid as well, forcing Seattle into their low percentage, but you expect that. What you don’t really expect is the fairly ponderous offense, the poor shooting down the stretch, and being beaten 17-8 by the slowdown Storm in fastbreak points. Over the course of the night, Whalen (6-13 for 20 points, 6 assists), Augustus (7-15 for 19 points, 6 boards) and Moore (6-11 for 16 points, 7 boards, 5 assists) made enough plays to pull them through. But it was a struggle. It was also strange to see Reeve give up so early on Devereaux Peters (or Amber Harris, or Jessica Adair) as a true backup post, and go small with Moore. It’ll be interesting to see if she does that again in Game 2, because most of her key players got very little rest with the short rotation, and it’s not like the small lineup tore Seattle apart. On the bright side, Minnesota didn’t look great in their opening game of the playoffs last year, and finished with a championship. At the same time, after a mediocre Game 1 win last year, they blew Game 2 on the road. So we’ll see.
Failed to mention in previous articles, but alongside the other stars who signed contract extensions late in the regular season, Sophia Young also added more years to her deal with San Antonio. Good news for the player and the franchise, who’ve always been a nice fit.
Saturday September 29th (today):
Los Angeles @ San Antonio, Game 2 (LA leads 1-0), 3pm ET
Connecticut @ New York, Game 2 (Conn leads 1-0), 7pm ET
Sunday September 30th (tomorrow):
Indiana @ Atlanta, Game 2 (Atl leads 1-0), 4pm ET
Minnesota @ Seattle, (Minn leads 1-0), 9pm ET