WNBA Today, 10/22/2012: Catchings and Fever complete richly deserved Finals victory

Before the 2012 WNBA Finals began, the Minnesota Lynx were the overwhelming favourites. They had the track record of winning last year, they’d had a smoother journey through the Conference Finals, they were healthier, and on paper most observers agreed that they had more talent. If you could find anyone predicting that the Indiana Fever would win the series, chances are they had some connection to the Fever organisation or one of the players. You could get 4-1 at various bookmakers for Indiana to win the Finals before the games began. But the Fever took Game 1 on the road, and responded to a Game 2 loss by blowing the Lynx out when the series returned to Indiana for Game 3. That left them just one win away from the holy grail of a WNBA championship, with the opportunity to close it out in front of their own fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. And if they needed any further motivation, they were still the underdogs with the bookies to win Game 4.

After missing the first three games of the Finals, wing Katie Douglas was back in uniform for Game 4 after at least somewhat recovering from her ankle injury. She was by no means 100% healthy, and she was probably there largely for the boost that seeing her dressed might give her teammates, but she was theoretically available. Jeanette Pohlen was obviously still out after her ACL tear. The starting lineups were the same as the previous three games – Indiana’s Lin Dunn riding her successful crew; Minnesota’s Cheryl Reeve still waiting for her key pieces to reach their usual heights.

The first couple of minutes of the game seemed like a decent start for Minnesota. Seimone Augustus missed a pair of runners in the lane, but the Lynx grabbed offensive boards on both. In fact they had three offensive rebounds in the opening minute of the game, and their opening three baskets all came right at the rim as Lindsay Whalen penetrated and Taj McWilliams-Franklin found a little room to finish inside. Then Indiana point guard Briann January picked up her second foul of the game after less than 4 minutes of play, sending the player who’d shackled Augustus in Game 3 back to the bench. All positive signs for the Lynx.

But as the first quarter wore on, much of the action was distinctly reminiscent of the previous Fever victories. They were the team injecting pace into the action, pushing the ball at every opportunity for easy chances to score. Minnesota’s transition defense was pathetic, with Shavonte Zellous and Erin Phillips simply beating them down the floor and going right to the rim. Twice, Augustus essentially watched while Fever players went right by her for layups. It was understandable that Augustus wanted to avoid early foul trouble, but that doesn’t mean that you completely fail to contest against players who are about to score, especially when you’re yet to pick up a single foul. Even in halfcourt sets, Indiana were the team driving to the rim and drawing contact, while Minnesota largely settled for jump shots. With the Fever defense as active as ever, and Augustus ice cold – both before and after January left the floor – Indiana led 25-18 at the end of the first period. Continue reading

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WNBA Today, 10/20/2012: Fever destroy Lynx to reach the edge of glory

There were plenty of positives for the Indiana Fever heading into last night’s vital Game 3 in the best-of-five WNBA Finals. They’d managed to split the opening two games in Minnesota, stealing home-court advantage from a Lynx team that had finished 16-1 at home in the regular season. They were back on their own floor, in front of a raucous, sold-out Bankers Life Fieldhouse crowd (legitimately sold-out too, not ‘sold out all the sections made available’). They’d even finalised a sponsorship agreement with Finish Line earlier in the day which stabilised the franchise’s future. But they were facing one or two problems as well. Katie Douglas’s ankle still hadn’t recovered, and now Jeanette Pohlen was out as well due to a left knee injury, leaving the Fever desperately thin on the perimeter. The Lynx had fought their way back into the series in Game 2, dominating the rebounding battle, and if that happened again Indiana were in trouble. It certainly didn’t look like it was going to be an easy task for the Fever to regain control of this series by taking Game 3.

With Douglas still in street clothes, Shavonte Zellous once again filled her spot in the lineup. Neither team made any changes to their starting personnel, but it was quickly apparent that Indiana had made one clear change to their approach. Point guard Briann January was now the primary defender on Seimone Augustus, a challenge that had largely fallen to Erin Phillips in the previous two games. Phillips swapped over to take Lindsay Whalen. Both Phillips and January are undersized to handle scorers like Augustus or Maya Moore, but they’re both physical and quick defenders. January has that extra little bit of speed, so maybe Indiana felt she could give Augustus problems simply by chasing and constantly harassing her. Or maybe it was just to offer up one extra element that Minnesota might not have been expecting to face.

After the physicality of Game 2 and the now-notorious jacket-tossing sequence from Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve, many had been expecting the officials to call Game 3 tightly in the opening stages to get a grip on the contest. It didn’t really happen, partly because of the style of the game. It was a pretty open, free-wheeling first quarter, and there weren’t a lot of calls that needed to be made.

Indiana weren’t getting many shots to fall in the early stages, but they were still on top. January was doing an impressive job on Augustus (with help from her teammates whenever necessary) and the Indiana defense in general was making life incredibly difficult for Minnesota. Indiana were so quick and active that they were making it hard for the Lynx to even set up their sets or make simple passes, leading to stilted, unfocused offense from Minnesota. The Fever were also forcing Lynx turnovers, which enabled Indiana to attack with pace at the other end of the floor. The likes of January, Phillips and Tamika Catchings all had opportunities to drive for early offense, or they’d move the ball well and find open chances around the perimeter. If they’d shot better in the first quarter, they’d have been even more comfortable. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 10/18/2012: Rebounding and jacket-tossing help fire Lynx to tie up Finals

After Indiana stole Game 1 of the WNBA Finals in Minnesota on Sunday, the Lynx had their backs against the wall last night. You can afford to drop one game at home, but if they went down 2-0 before heading back to Indiana for the next two games (if two were even necessary), Minnesota would’ve become huge outsiders to repeat as champions. They needed this one, but it was going to take a better performance than they produced three nights earlier to pull it off. The Fever would’ve settled for a split of the opening two games if you’d offered it to them before the series began, but once you take the first you get greedy. They’d beaten Minnesota on their own floor once already; why not twice?

There was still no sign of Indiana wing Katie Douglas for Game 2, still back in Indiana rehabbing her ankle and hoping to recover in time to play some part in the series (although reports from her European team suggest that might be unlikely even if the Finals go all five games). So the starting lineups were the same again, with Shavonte Zellous filling in for Douglas.

The opening minutes weren’t much better for Minnesota than Game 1. They gave up cheap turnovers on sloppy passes; Erin Phillips and Briann January were knocking down jumpers for the Fever; and Seimone Augustus was struggling to find her range. To top things off, point guard Lindsay Whalen picked up two fouls within seconds of each other trying to chase after January, so less than 4 minutes into the game Minnesota’s floor leader had to head back to the bench. It was only 11-9 Indiana at the first timeout, but it was hardly the barnstorming opening Minnesota would’ve been hoping for.

On the bright side for Minnesota, there had been a couple of early scores where they finally exploited the overplaying Indiana defense. The Fever are undersized and scramble around the floor to help each other where necessary defensively. That often means that an extra defender is shading over to the strong side (the side where the ball is) so that she can arrive and help as quickly as possible. The best way to beat that is to move the ball sharply from one side to the other, or make the extra pass when the help defender commits to coming across and leaves space behind her. Minnesota didn’t do that enough in Game 1, and they still weren’t in Game 2, but there were one or two plays where they found the open player to score from the weak side of the floor. It showed an awareness of the opportunities, even if they weren’t managing to attack them consistently. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 10/15/2012: Upset Fever win in Minnesota opens Finals with a bang

The culmination of the 2012 season finally arrived last night, with the opening game of the WNBA Finals. We had the heavy favourite, in the shape of the reigning champion Minnesota Lynx, favoured by just about everybody to take home a second consecutive title. Then there was the plucky underdog, the Indiana Fever, already dealing with a key injury and led by a superstar who’s still searching for her first ring. These teams played a pair of regular season games with a playoff intensity just last month, so we had every right to expect something even better now that it was the real thing. We weren’t disappointed.

Indiana wing Katie Douglas, their second-leading scorer and a primary ballhandler, wasn’t even in Minnesota for the game. She was still back home, trying to rehab the nastily sprained ankle she suffered in the deciding game of the Eastern Conference Finals. Shavonte Zellous, a regular starter for the Fever for most of the season, slid back into the starting lineup to fill the gap. Everything else was as expected for the opening tip-off – Minnesota’s standard five that they’ve been riding for two years, Indiana with Tamika Catchings and Erlana Larkins paired in the post, and a sellout crowd going nuts in the Target Center.

From the start it was the intense, quick-tempo game we’d expected. The slight surprise was just how effective Indiana were from the very beginning. As would be the case for much of the night, Indiana’s offensive execution was beating the Minnesota defense. High screens for pick-and-rolls found open scorers to finish inside, or players like Briann January and Erin Phillips were finding lanes into the paint. This was not how Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve would’ve expected her team to come out defensively.

Not that the Lynx were being blown off the floor. They had their own offensive successes, with Rebekkah Brunson particularly prominent in the opening stages. She knocked down a jumper, finished multiple times inside, and crashed the offensive glass for extra opportunities. In fact, both teams were all over the offensive boards early on, with Larkins doing her best Brunson impression for Indiana. Continue reading

2012 WNBA Finals Mega-Preview: Lynx vs. Fever, Part 5 – Summary and Prediction

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m 6-0 predicting the series winners in the playoffs so far. Largely speaking, that’s come simply from taking the clear favourite – the team most people would’ve backed. The two instances where that may not have been the case were both with Indiana. Many felt they’d fall to Atlanta in the first round considering the Dream’s playoff success in the last couple of years, and with home-court advantage Connecticut were certainly considered favourites in the Eastern Finals. But for whatever reason, my gut had faith in the Fever, and they came through. So if anyone’s going to take Indiana in the Finals, it would have to be me, right?

From the opening weeks of the season, I’ve spent much of the year admitting I was wrong about the Fever in the preseason. I still thought they’d be good, but I hated the idea of moving Catchings to power forward. Now, I feel like it’s everyone else who’s underestimating Indiana. There seems to be a general view that they’re the lambs to Minnesota’s slaughter, a team that made the Finals thanks to Atlanta’s dysfunction and a freak shooting performance against Connecticut. The injury to Katie Douglas has just cemented opinion that the Lynx are nailed on to repeat. But that’s not giving Indiana enough credit. Continue reading

2012 WNBA Finals Mega-Preview: Lynx vs. Fever, Part 4 – The Extras

All the other elements that add up to make this an intriguing Finals series:

 

Pace

Statistically, Indiana were still a pretty pedestrian team this season. Not quite on the level of Seattle or Washington, but getting there. However, they don’t feel like the plodding Fever team of old any more. Moving Catchings to power forward has made them more dynamic at both ends of the floor, adding an extra shooter who can handle the ball to their offense. Their defense is so active that it feels like they’re forcing the pace of the game even when they don’t have the ball, and it’ll be crucial for them to create some easy points off turnovers in this series.

But Minnesota typically play at a faster pace, leaking out for transition chances and taking shots earlier in halfcourt sets. While Indiana were comfortable running with Atlanta and Connecticut in previous rounds, if games in the Finals turn into end-to-end shootouts it’ll likely favour the Lynx. Minnesota’s real problems in the postseason came against Seattle, when the Storm forced them into low-scoring, halfcourt games without much penetration. Indiana have been one of the better teams this year at preventing fastbreak points from being scored against them – only narrowly behind Seattle in that category, in fact – while Minnesota led the league in fastbreak scoring. Indiana need to take care of the ball and work back hard in transition when necessary, both of which they’ve been solid at all year long.

 

Turnovers

As the above paragraphs suggested, this is all part of the same issue. Avoid giving the ball away, you keep the opposition’s transition chances to a minimum. That forces them into halfcourt sets, where it’s always more difficult to score, however talented you may be. Both these teams have done well in terms of avoiding turnovers over the course of the season, although Minnesota have had outings where they’ve been painfully sloppy with the ball. Continue reading

2012 WNBA Finals Mega-Preview: Lynx vs. Fever, Part 3 – The Benches

As with the Conference Finals, it’s hard to know quite what we’re going to get from the reserves on either of these teams. Firstly with Indiana, we don’t know exactly who they’ll have coming off their bench. If Douglas is out, either Shavonte Zellous or Jeanette Pohlen will likely slide into the starting lineup, and try to fill the hole. Either way, the depth of their bench would naturally be shortened. For the Lynx, the questions come from not knowing who might show up ready to produce, or who Cheryl Reeve will trust to play.

The Fever were one of the deeper teams in the WNBA in the regular season, especially early in the year. It seemed like Lin Dunn had a variety of options, each a little different, and could roll with whichever ones worked on any given night. That’s changed a little as the season’s gone on, and especially into the playoffs. Dunn’s shortened her rotation significantly, and sliding Erlana Larkins into the starting lineup has removed her energy and hustle as an extra boost from the sidelines. In the post Dunn now has Jessica Davenport, Tammy Sutton-Brown and Sasha Goodlett, but has typically only been using one of them in recent games. First it was Sutton-Brown, but it’ll likely be Davenport to begin with in the Finals after she showed a little form in the last couple of games against Connecticut. She’s a poor rebounder for someone her size, and her lack of mobility changes how Indiana play defense, but she can sometimes produce a run of positive offensive plays that give the Fever an added dimension. Sutton-Brown’s the veteran, the regular starter until Larkins took her place, and she’d be coming in as a calming influence or to provide some defense. We probably won’t see her on the floor unless Davenport’s a bust. We probably won’t see Goodlett unless someone’s winning by 20 in the fourth quarter. Continue reading