I have a long-standing theory that the NFL has become the most popular American sport because every game means more. People in the modern world, where there are so many other options begging for our attention, don’t want to waste their time with 82-game or 162-game regular seasons, where each individual contest is almost meaningless. Even with just 34, the WNBA became a bit of a slog this year, because most of the important matters were decided long before the end. But Sunday offered up two examples of why we all watch these wonderful sports. This is what we wait for through all those dreary games. Crucial contests where everything’s on the line, and no one’s ever going to quit.
We opened up in Atlanta, where Indiana had made their lives very difficult. After dropping Game 1 at home, the Fever needed to steal back Game 2 on the road just to keep their season alive. Indiana head coach Lin Dunn made a brave move, because the easy option for any head coach in the playoffs is just to keep riding what worked in the regular season. Instead, she shook up her starting lineup, going with the group that had almost pulled off a remarkable comeback in Game 1. Erin Phillips came in for Shavonte Zellous in the backcourt, and Erlana Larkins replaced Tammy Sutton-Brown at center. It made them smaller, but quicker and more aggressive. It also put a natural rebounder in the paint to join Tamika Catchings in the fight on the glass. After losing the rebounding battle 40-29 in Game 1, that was obviously a concern. Larkins is undersized for a post, but she makes up for it with pure hustle and boundless energy. Atlanta, of course, had the same starting five as in Game 1. Why change a successful formula?
From the very early moments, Indiana had more energy and drive to their play than in Game 1. They were pushing the ball down court with speed, driving into the paint and forcing the action far more. Catchings, inevitably, was the initial spark, but the speedy backcourt of Phillips and January was right there with her. Dunn still took two timeouts inside the first six minutes of the game, concerned about her team’s rebounding, and Atlanta were hanging right with Indiana on the scoreboard, but this was how the Fever had needed to start the game. The Dream were hitting jumpers to keep even, but that wasn’t likely to last.
The game remained surprisingly close in the second quarter – surprising because it felt like the Fever were in charge. They were penetrating and creating contact, forcing their way to the free-throw line. They had January curling around ball-screens and knocking down jumpers or slicing to the basket. They had both Sutton-Brown and Zellous providing nice energy off the bench, rather than pouting about being relegated from the starting lineup. In fact, the only things that weren’t working out were their stars and typical scoring leaders. Neither Catchings nor Katie Douglas could get a shot to drop, and by halftime they were a combined 2-14 for 8 points. Douglas hit the opening basket of the game on a Catchings kick-out; Catchings hit the final shot of the half with a pull-up three over Sancho Lyttle. That was all they had. Good thing their teammates were 14-16 for 39 at the half.
Atlanta weren’t playing badly, they just hadn’t been able to impose themselves on the game in the same way they had two nights earlier. Lindsey Harding’s shots weren’t falling as easily under pressure from January, and Erika de Souza hadn’t seen much of the ball in the paint. Indiana’s defense was quick and active, making it hard to penetrate, and the Dream are never at their best if they’re forced to shoot from outside. Still, they trailed only 47-45 at halftime, assisted by Indiana’s poor 11-20 at the free-throw line.
The third quarter was the key passage of the game. All the driving both teams had been doing – or trying to do – in the first half had led to a lot of whistles. That left both teams with some foul trouble, and Lyttle and Douglas were both quickly back on the bench after picking up their fourth fouls. Considering how Douglas had been playing offensively, that was no great loss for Indiana on this particular night. Replacing Lyttle with Cathrine Kraayeveld was a rather greater problem for Atlanta. They miss Lyttle’s length and defensive activity when she’s not on the floor. Although, it wasn’t Catchings – the player Lyttle’s been harassing throughout this series – who keyed Indiana’s push. Instead, it was all the complementary players. January was outstanding, taking over the game like Harding had two days earlier. The Fever were using simple handoffs from the bigs to the guards at the elbow where the post who hands the ball off immediately becomes a screen. Then January (or Phillips, or sometimes even Catchings) can take the ball and use the space created to shoot a jumper or drive to the rim. Indiana were continuing to shoot an exceptional percentage, because every effort was either dropping in or drawing contact for a foul. Plus the gang rebounding, led by Larkins, was producing the desired effect on the glass.
At the other end, Atlanta were still taking too many jump shots, and giving up far too many turnovers. Harding was trying to make things happen as she had in Game 1, but when those shots don’t drop you start to look greedy and you get criticised for not moving the ball, rather than praised for carrying the offense. With all the baskets and free throws Indiana were creating, Atlanta couldn’t find any offensive rhythm, and fell behind by as many as 16 points. Harding finished a pretty spin move in the lane, then snared a steal and a transition basket to give the Dream something to build on late in the third quarter and wake up the crowd. Only Larkins grabbed another offensive board and was fouled for yet more free throws before the buzzer, quieting everybody again. Indiana led 78-65 heading to the fourth.
At that point, Catchings and Douglas had still only made two shots from the floor all day. They were 2-17, while their teammates were 24-32. It’s not the way anyone would’ve envisioned Indiana pulling off this win, but it was working. Still, there were a host of tweets, message board posts and comments from people who expected Atlanta to come back and finish the Fever off. A lot of people weren’t convinced it could last.
That comeback looked on in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. Angel McCoughtry took over briefly with a three and a foul line visit, then another Douglas turnover presented Atlanta with a fastbreak bucket, and a baseline jumper from Lyttle cut the gap to 82-75 with 7 minutes left in the game.
Just before that, Dunn had made another gutsy move, benching Douglas for Phillips. It was the last we saw of Douglas all night, as Dunn rode the hot hands. But it wasn’t a remotely hot hand that killed off the comeback and secured Indiana’s victory. Instead, it was their leader and driving force, who’d barely made a shot all night. Right after Lyttle hit that jumper, she left Catchings in acres of space by drifting behind a pair of screens, and Catchings nailed a three like she’d been hitting them all night. Moments later, after another Atlanta turnover, Catchings drilled another triple right over Lyttle’s outstretched arm (again Lyttle hadn’t managed to work around a screen in time). The Fever lead never dropped below 13 again, as Catchings and co. simply refused to let it. Atlanta were still trying to produce too much of their offense from the perimeter, while Catchings drove to the rim for layups or free throws. The final few minutes were a mere formality as Indiana came away with a 103-88 win – the first time all season that an opponent has put up triple-digits against Atlanta.
Indiana essentially fixed all the departments that went wrong in Game 1, and that enabled the Game 2 victory. They took up the challenge on the glass, coming away with a 36-32 edge overall and a 13-13 tie in offensive boards. They had a huge 42-24 advantage in points in the paint, created by running the floor hard in transition or simply by coming off screens and going strong to the basket. The same attacking approach got them 41 free throws, and if they hadn’t shot so poorly at the line (they only hit 28) it might’ve been over earlier. They also stepped up the energy and effort on the defensive end, making it harder for Atlanta to penetrate. If the Dream beat you with perimeter jump shots, you pretty much have to hold up your hands and say well done. But it probably won’t happen very often.
Indiana shot exceptionally well in this game, which would be the one worry in terms of replicating it back home in Game 3. January was 10-17 for 24 points (plus 7 assists, 3 boards and 3 steals), while Larkins, Phillips, Sutton-Brown and Zellous were a combined 17-24 for 51 points. That’s unreal. But at the same time, Catchings (eventually 6-17 for 25 points after a stellar fourth quarter) and Douglas (1-6 for just 3 points) should be better, even with Lyttle and Armintie Price harassing them. Dunn will essentially be looking for more of the same from her troops.
Atlanta simply have to figure out way to take higher-percentage shots. It might’ve worked for much of Game 1, but they’re not a jump shooting team, and they need to get back to moving the ball and cutting into the spaces to get to the rim. We saw less of the Fever’s zone defense in Game 2, because the man-to-man worked well for most of the night, with plenty of help sliding over whenever necessary to cut off penetration. It also seems distinctly likely that Angel McCoughtry will take more than 12 shots (her total in this game) in the deciding contest.
One last note for Game 3 on Tuesday night: the tone set by the officials will be vital. There were a lot of whistles blown in this game, with 50 personal fouls resulting in a total of 69 free throw attempts. Indiana reduced their rotation to seven players to get this win, and Atlanta are about 6-players deep. Foul trouble hurts. That’s part of why driving and creating contact is so important, and why moving your feet defensively to block off that penetration before it happens is so vital as well. You can’t let the other team draw fouls. Floor percentage, rebounding and everything else is important – but expect the team that shoots the most free throws to win Game 3.
Well how could the WNBA follow that? With something even better. The West’s #1 seeds, the Minnesota Lynx, had struggled past Seattle in Game 1 but made hard work of it. With Game 2 taking place in the noisy confines of Key Arena, it was never likely to be easy to finish this series off. The Storm weren’t healthy, with Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson still noticeably fighting through injuries, but this is the playoffs. You suck it up and give it everything you’ve got, however much that might be.
The opening quarter was a rowdy affair, with the home crowd increasingly upset by calls that were going against their team. Several of the Storm players weren’t too happy either, and it felt like the crowd’s unhappiness was seeping through to their team. Minnesota, of course, were more than happy to capitalise, and scored the final 12 points of the first quarter to take a 27-18 lead. A promising start for Seattle, where they’d pushed the ball offensively and looked like they had far more flow than in Game 1, had already fallen by the wayside.
Jackson was struggling, and seemed to be rushing her shots. Every time she received the ball in position to score, it was like she couldn’t get the ball out of her hands quickly enough. As you’d expect, none of the shots were going in. Fortunately for the Storm, their defense was having it’s typically strong effect. Minnesota lost their rhythm, with Tanisha Wright in particular showing extreme hustle and desire for the Storm in making plays to keep the Lynx out. Bird hit a couple of shots, Wright made plays at either end of the floor, and the Storm were quickly back in it (along with their crowd). The Lynx led only 37-36 at halftime.
Once again, Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve was sliding Maya Moore over to power forward rather than using her traditional backup posts, although Devereaux Peters did see some time in the first half. It worked briefly, with the pairing of Moore and Peters making Camille Little and Lauren Jackson look slow, but it certainly didn’t help on the glass. Seattle – the second-worst rebounding team in the WNBA in 2012 – were up 19-13 on the boards at halftime against the 2nd-best rebounding team in the league.
The second-half did not start well for Seattle, and you began to wonder if this was where Minnesota took charge and pulled away. Camille Little picked up her fourth foul and went to the bench. Jackson missed more shots, picked up a technical for bitching about not getting a foul call, then was benched by Brian Agler barely two minutes into the period. The Lynx, meanwhile, picked up their transition game off Seattle misses and turnovers, and had Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore heating up from outside. When those two start to make their shots games can run away in a hurry, and Minnesota were back up by double-digits with a couple of minutes left in the third quarter.
However, Jackson had returned not long after being benched – presumably Brian Agler just wanted her to cool off – and she finally scored her first points of the night to immediately cut that 10-point Lynx lead back to single-digits. It was her old friend Bird who broke her open with a low screen, leaving LJ to take an entry pass and complete the open finish. That keyed a late run which featured energy and hustle from Seattle’s rookie wing Shekinna Stricklen and another bucket from Jackson, this time on an 18-foot jumper. Maybe she’d finally found her range.
The fourth quarter was a war. This has been a tough, physical series, as you’d expect, but with the Seattle crowd going nuts and trying to help their team prolong their season it was getting especially intense. These teams seem remarkably similar at times, playing the same style of man-to-man, switching-then-recovering defense that’s hard to break down when everyone’s playing full-out. There were a lot of missed shots in the fourth quarter, as tired players settled for what was there rather than working the ball around or breaking down their defender for easier shots. Seattle took their first lead since the opening period on a Camille Little drive with barely three minutes left, slicing through the lane from the top of the key. Once again, Moore was seeing a lot of minutes at power forward, leaving bigger gaps in the middle of Minnesota’s defense than you’d normally find.
Brunson was huge in the closing minutes, crashing the boards with wild abandon. It was her that tied the game on a putback after a Moore miss with 90 seconds left, and Brunson again that tracked down another Moore miss and dropped in the finish with Jackson and Bird still on the floor scrambling for the ball. With 34 seconds left, Seattle were back down by 2.
Solid defense from Minnesota forced Seattle into running the shot clock down, and Jackson tried to drive on Brunson when nothing else was available. LJ couldn’t finish under pressure, or draw the whistle, and now the Storm had to start fouling. They were lucky when Augustus missed a free throw for a dead ball foul, but then Lindsay Whalen calmly sank both shots after the ball was finally inbounded. With 17 seconds left, the Storm then executed the play Agler drew up perfectly, but Bird had to take a step inside to find space for the jumper she hit – making it a two rather than the intended three. With 12 seconds remaining and a 69-67 lead, Reeve took the final timeout that anyone had left to use in regulation.
Here’s where ESPN’s broadcasts really come into their own. We heard what Agler drew up in the huddle, and then we saw what happened on the floor – and when they say “just like they drew it up”, this is what they’re talking about. Seattle fouled McWilliams-Franklin, and got a break when she went 1-of-2 at the line to keep it a one-possession game. Stricklen got the board, and gave it up to Wright, just as Agler had instructed. She came down and ran a dribble-handoff to Bird coming up from the corner, as instructed. And as the defense followed Bird curling around the top of the arc, Jackson popped out behind her, wide open for three. Moore had been ballwatching, and drifted far too deep, leaving her Jackson far too much room. Jackson may have been 3-14 to that point, but Agler had no hesitation in making her part of the play, and she didn’t hesitate to take the shot. It ripped the twine without even troubling the iron. With 1.1 seconds left and no timeouts, a stunned Lynx team didn’t even get a shot off before the buzzer sounded, sending us to overtime.
Of course, one option for Minnesota during that final sequence is that they could’ve fouled. Especially considering that they had a foul to give, so it wouldn’t even have resulted in free throws. Then they could’ve fouled again, if they so chose, to prevent the three. Also, with no timeouts remaining, Agler wouldn’t have had the opportunity to draw up anything else, so the players would’ve had to come up with something themselves. But for whatever reason, Minnesota allowed the sequence to play out in front of them.
Apparently McWilliams-Franklin had picked up a tailbone injury while being fouled in the final seconds of regulation, so Monica Wright started overtime in her place. It meant going back to Moore at power forward, but it also provided Minnesota with a different defender to put on Bird. Now Wright could chase her around, rather than having to deplete Augustus’s energy reserves even further by leaving her on Seattle’s point guard.
The extra five minutes were desperately scrappy as everyone tried to find the energy to keep playing. An outstanding Jackson block of a driving Whalen was the first highlight, before Brunson picked up a series of offensive rebounds that showed she still had something in the tank. Everyone was taking jump shots, and everyone was missing. It was yet another offensive board from Brunson that saw Jackson forced into hacking her to prevent an easy putback with only 40 seconds left. That was Jackson’s sixth foul, sending her to the bench, and Brunson went 1-of-2 to push Minnesota 75-72 ahead.
Agler drew up another play in another timeout, but strong Minnesota defense – in a zone for one of the rare occasions all night – had the set virtually nullified. Then the ball went to Tanisha Wright on the wing, and her ball fake to the corner saw Moore leave her completely alone. Moore never should’ve left, especially as Camille Little was the player in the corner, and Wright calmly knocked down the three to tie the game. For a 19% three-point shooter on the season, who had turned down a wide open triple earlier in the game that illustrated her lack of confidence out there, it was a hell of a shot. Even if Moore had left her in acres of space to take it.
Minnesota had 23.9 seconds left to win the game and avoid another overtime. They ran an isolation for Augustus, which generally seems like a pretty good idea. She went left, away from the double-team Seattle tried to bring with Bird, and pulled up for an 18-foot jumper. It fell way short, and Minnesota were lucky to retain possession when it was tipped out of bounds with 1.4 seconds left. They ran exactly the play that anyone who’s watched them in the last couple of years knew was coming: Moore tried to lob it to Brunson in the paint for a midair finish. Seattle had Ann Wauters challenging the inbounds-pass, with Tina Thompson taking Brunson, and when Moore slightly overthrew the pass it had no chance. On to double-overtime.
Amazingly enough, OT2 wasn’t even close. Well, eventually it wasn’t. It opened with Wright penetrating and finding Thompson in the corner, who knocked down the three (from far closer than she normally takes them). Finally tiring of all the missed jumpers, Whalen drove into the lane and pulled off a miraculous finish over Thompson to narrow the score. Then the remaining Storm legend stepped up. Jackson was out of the game, but Bird was still around and fighting (albeit she looked absolutely exhausted whenever she sat down during timeouts). She drilled a huge three off quick Storm ball movement, for a 4-point lead. After Minnesota had pulled it back to two with a Brunson jumper, it was Tanisha Wright who drove into the heart of the defense again, and found Little for an easy finish. Both Augustus and Moore missed threes that could’ve made things interesting (Moore’s miss was more of an attempt to draw a whistle, which the refs didn’t buy), before Bird nailed another huge three to ice it for Seattle. That was the ballgame, and the Storm fans could go home happy. They’d pulled off an 86-79 win in another Instant Classic of a game. Now both these squads have to pull themselves together in time for a Game 3 on Tuesday night.
It was one of those games that was more about fight, desire, and clawing your way to the win however you possibly could – rather than pretty basketball. Tanisha Wright had an outstanding game for Seattle, one of the best she’s produced all season, and finished 5-8 for 18 points, 7 assists, and countless hustle plays. Bird was right there with her, shooting 8-15 for 22 points while adding 7 assists and 4 steals. She played 43 minutes despite the hip injury, and probably would’ve played 50 if Agler had asked her to. Even Jackson, who was off all night, mitigated her 4-17 shooting with 14 rebounds. The defense was key, forcing Minnesota into a broken, disjointed version of their typically smooth game for most of the night. That’s what they have to do again if they can somehow find the energy to try to complete the shock result in Minnesota for Game 3.
There were key defensive breakdowns from Minnesota at vital times, but the main problems for them in this series have been on offense. They’re either being forced into taking a lot of jumpers, or they’re settling for an awful lot of them, depending on your perspective. Moore (5-17 for 12 points) and Augustus (6-16 for 20) simply didn’t shoot particularly well, and Whalen (2-15 for 10) couldn’t get anything to drop either – although at least more of her tries were at the rim. Reeve will surely spend the time before Game 3 telling her team to move the ball, move without the ball, and find the gaps in this defense. You’d expect Moore and Augustus to shoot better in Game 3, but you don’t want to have to rely on it. If they play like this again, and their star shooters have another off night, we could end up with the biggest WNBA upset in recent memory.
While the results above have stopped the games from being officially announced, the Western Conference Finals will begin on Thursday October 4th in either Los Angeles or Minnesota, with the Eastern Conference Finals opening on Friday October 5th in Connecticut. Both the Sparks and the Sun must be delighted to see their upcoming opponents forced into going the distance.
Tuesday October 2nd (tomorrow):
Atlanta @ Indiana, Game 3 (series tied at 1-1), 7pm ET
Seattle @ Minnesota, Game 3 (series tied at 1-1), 9pm ET