Minnesota Lynx (#1 seed, 27-7) vs. Los Angeles Sparks (#2 seed, 24-10)
Regular season series: Tied 2-2
05/24 @Min: Lynx 92-84
07/05 @L.A.: Sparks 96-90
09/04 @Min: Lynx 88-77
09/20 @L.A.: Sparks 92-76
It seems like we’ve been heading for this clash in the 2012 Western Conference Finals for a while. From the start of the season, Los Angeles looked reenergised by a healthy Candace Parker, their new rookie stud, and a new head coach. Minnesota looked just as good as last year, when they swept their way to a WNBA championship. When San Antonio fell off a little after the Olympic break this matchup became even more likely, but their paths through the first-round differed significantly. While some lapses in concentration meant they had to fight it out in the closing minutes of each game, the Sparks finished off the Silver Stars 2-0 and were finished by Saturday afternoon. The Lynx, on the other hand, had a battle royale with Seattle and needed a last-second Storm miss on Tuesday night to secure their spot in this series. Minnesota were the favourites heading into the playoffs, and they still are in the eyes of the bookmakers. But a little extra doubt has been cast on proceedings since the crunch games began.
However, this will be a very different task from the first-round for both teams. Minnesota faced a Storm squad built on its defense, which kept them out of the paint and broke their rhythm offensively. While first-year Sparks head coach Carol Ross arrived from Atlanta with a reputation for defense, this LA team doesn’t have the defensive solidity of the Storm. They’ve often struggled to rotate and recover to fill gaps created by pick-and-rolls or basic off-ball movement. The problem for the Lynx is that those aspects of their offense seemed to disappear against Seattle. They were endlessly settling for perimeter jumpers, rather than trying to penetrate the defense. Sometimes that works out fine, because players like Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore are some of the best shooters in the game, but even for them a 15-foot jumper is a lower percentage shot than a layup. Minnesota need to appreciate quickly that they’re facing a less competent, less cohesive defense, and get back to picking it apart with their usual smooth passing and off-ball movement. They need quicker, easier offense than we saw throughout the Storm series.
LA were dealing with San Antonio’s quick, small perimeter guards and limited inside presence in the first round. Now they’re up against a team that plays far more solid interior defense, and has a hell of a lot more size and physicality to throw at them on the perimeter. The LA backcourt of Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard was facing diminutive players like Danielle Robinson, Becky Hammon and Jia Perkins, and Toliver/Beard shot 32-54 (59%) combined across the series. Now they’ll be trying to score over or around Lindsay Whalen, Augustus and Moore, which should make things rather more difficult. While the Lynx switch freely on the perimeter, we’ll have to wait and see how they target and attack LA on the defensive end. Augustus was tasked with tailing Sue Bird in the first round, and may well get first crack at slowing down Toliver in this series. Her size and length could trouble the Sparks gunner, and unlike San Antonio it doesn’t create an awkward mismatch elsewhere on the floor. Whalen can handle Beard if she has to.
Down in the paint is where things get interesting for LA. Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike are an athletic, mobile pairing in the post that opposition squads have had trouble dealing with all year – when they both perform as they can on the same night. Most teams don’t have one player who can track Parker out to the perimeter and handle her inside, plus another who can deal with Ogwumike’s quickness and relentless rebounding. Minnesota will start with Rebekkah Brunson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin, as always, and the rebounding war will be fearsome, especially between rival pogo-sticks Ogwumike and Brunson. McWilliams-Franklin knows all the tricks, and her smarts have led to Minnesota’s defense often looking far weaker whenever she’s off the floor, but the pure athleticism of LA’s frontcourt may give her problems. That could lead to extra minutes for rookie Devereaux Peters, who’s got rather more fire left in her young legs, but that tends to lead to a significant drop-off in positional team-defense for Minnesota. Based on how Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve approached the Seattle series, we’ll probably see plenty of Maya Moore dropping down to power forward, which could be a good fit against LA (in fact, if you check my review of the first Sparks-Lynx game this season back in May, you’ll notice I mentioned the idea back then). If it ends up being one of the traditional posts handling Parker with Moore at power forward, she’ll need to put up a strong fight against Ogwumike on the glass.
There’s virtually certain to be a much quicker pace to this matchup than the Lynx-Storm series that concluded last night. Both LA and Minnesota like to run when they can, and easy transition points off turnovers or rebounds could be key. That’s where defense becomes central – firstly basic transition defense, which is centrally down to effort and working hard to make sure you’re back in position as quickly as possible. Then there’s the factor of pressuring the ballhandlers and creating turnovers, which can lead to those easy points. Beard has returned to her high-pressure, aggressive defensive ways. But with the threats of Augustus and Moore on the wings, LA probably won’t be able to use her on Whalen very often. It’ll have to be Toliver on Whalen, because the Sparks won’t want Kristi defending any of the other perimeter starters. That takes some of the pressure off Whalen, who suffered a left wrist injury in Game 3 against Seattle on Tuesday night and could well be playing largely one-handed. Minnesota need to pressure the ball on the perimeter, because that’s what tends to unsettle Toliver. They’ll probably trap her at times, forcing the ball out of her hands and trying to frustrate her into mistakes. While the Toliver/Beard backcourt has developed into an impressive unit this season, neither is a pure point guard and they can be prone to mistakes and turnovers. The Lynx are smart and quick enough to rotate back into position out of traps and double-teams, so taking a few risks to pressure LA is a worthwhile gamble.
Other important elements to this series:
a) Fitness/energy. As already mentioned, Whalen’s wrist has to be a concern for the Lynx. She’s the metronome that sets their pace, and runs everything from the point. Candice Wiggins typically spells her, but is no kind of substitute as a legitimate point guard. Whalen will undoubtedly play, but it’s a matter of how much her effectiveness might drop off if she can only really use one hand. On top of that, the long, hard series against Seattle, ending less than 48 hours before Game 1 against LA, could have an effect on the Lynx. While the two-day gaps between the games in this series will help, fatigue could make Minnesota more vulnerable to dropping Game 1 at home – which obviously would give the Sparks the chance to close the series out back on their own floor in Game 2.
b) Bench. Actually, this might prove to be a complete non-factor, because neither coach seems to have much faith in her backups. Ross will use Jenna O’Hea, Jantel Lavender and Marissa Coleman a little, but rely heavily on her starters. Lavender can offer some bulk inside if Parker or Ogwumike are in foul trouble or need a rest, O’Hea can be a smart and useful complementary player, but that’s about it beyond their starting five. Minnesota will look to Wiggins and Monica Wright to offer some quickness, energy and scoring from the bench, but neither did much against the Storm. In the post, Reeve has Peters, Amber Harris and Jessica Adair, but practically quit on all three in the Seattle series. Peters at least will probably get an occasional chance against LA, but Reeve increasingly seems to be shortening her rotation. The reserves will only be an important element if someone steps up and makes an impact.
c) Mentality and composure. LA could’ve closed out San Antonio much more comfortably if they hadn’t been unsettled by a quirky lineup change, a few turnovers and some threes dropping in. While basketball is a game of runs, the Sparks have been particularly vulnerable to streaks of poor play where they fall asleep and give up long runs to the opposition. At the same time, Minnesota have just spent three games making Seattle look even better than they are by failing to play with their usual style. Keeping your head in the game for a full 40 minutes becomes even more crucial in the playoffs, where every error is highlighted. Minnesota are typically the more level-headed, composed team of this pair, and the squad has been through it all before after last year, so they may have an edge in this category. Any mental lapses from the Sparks need to be kept to an absolute minimum.
Summary and Prediction
This series has become much more of a toss-up in my eyes. Earlier in the year, despite the athleticism and threat of LA’s frontcourt, I’d have taken Minnesota’s smarts and significantly better team defense to comfortably outwit Los Angeles. But something’s been lacking about the Lynx in recent weeks, even before they barely scraped past Seattle. They don’t seem quite as smooth as in the past, or as penetrative. LA, on the other hand, will by sky high with confidence after dispatching San Antonio, and will have already forgotten the sequences where they gave up strings of three-pointers or let opposing players waltz through their defense. The two most likely results seem to be 2-0 LA, stealing Game 1 on the road against a battered and tired Lynx squad, then finishing it off at home; or 2-1 Minnesota, with a tight series being closed out by the Lynx on their own floor. With the gaping holes that LA have often left in their defense this season (many of which were still there against San Antonio), I just can’t bring myself to take the Sparks in a sweep. So…
2-1 Minnesota, but it’s not going to be remotely easy.