WNBA Today, 10/03/2012: Crucial deciders produce heartbreak and elation in equal measure

It’d be nice if the WNBA’s playoff series could be longer, purely because this is where the basketball becomes truly exciting. But the one benefit of playing best-of-three is the increased likelihood of games like the encounters we saw last night. Deciding games for all the marbles, where everything’s on the line, and it’s win or go home. These are the truly gripping contests, the games that leave the lasting memories after the season is long gone. This is where the spotlight truly shines brightest, and it’s time to step up.

The evening began back in Indiana, after two road wins had forced a Game 3 between the Fever and Dream. Atlanta had failed to close out the series in their own building, but they had the confidence of knowing that they’d won here only four days earlier, and pulled off a string of playoff upsets over the last couple of years. Indiana were still buzzing from the victory they managed to keep the series alive on Sunday.

The starting lineups were as for Game 2, which meant the Fever were sticking with Erin Phillips in the backcourt and Erlana Larkins at center. Hardly a surprise, considering how effective the lineup changes had been in Game 2. It continued straight through into the early sequences of Game 3. Atlanta were primarily throwing up jumpers, the sort of shots that Indiana would be happy to let them take all night long. Meanwhile Indiana were slicing into the defense via drives or solid ball movement, and creating far higher percentage shots. This was how the Fever came out on top in Game 2, and it led to a quick 9-2 lead.

After the improved rebounding from Indiana and superb performance of point guard Briann January in Game 2, Atlanta head coach Fred Williams had a couple of twists to his defense for Game 3. He switched his posts defensively, letting Erika de Souza take Tamika Catchings in the early minutes while Sancho Lyttle was on Erlana Larkins. It put a big, bulky defender on Catchings, who hadn’t been shooting well for much of the series (meaning the Dream weren’t too worried about her simply firing over de Souza before she could get out to challenge). It also, theoretically, should’ve allowed Lyttle to freelance a little more and disrupt all over the floor, because Larkins poses less of a direct offensive threat than Catchings. There was also a change on the perimeter, where Armintie Price slid over to guard January and hopefully slow her down, moving Lindsey Harding on to Phillips and Angel McCoughtry over to guard Katie Douglas. Price is a longer defender than Harding, so had more chance to make life difficult for January, plus it should’ve helped save Harding’s energy to contribute more offensively. They were reasonable moves.

The problem was that, despite her high reputation as a defender, McCoughtry couldn’t restrict Douglas the same way Price had in the first two games. Douglas shot 5-18 combined in the previous two games, and only played 18 minutes in Game 2 because other options were more effective for Indiana. Game 3 saw her get off to a much better start, with a couple of threes and some points in transition in the first quarter. This wasn’t going to be another invisible performance from Catchings’s usual key sidekick.

Indiana had much greater speed to their offense in the opening period, creating the transition baskets that are more often associated with the Dream. The Fever’s only problem was the start of a trend that would go on for much of the night. They were penetrating, but not managing to create the same level of body contact that they’d forced in Game 2. Instead, Atlanta were reaching in and stripping the ball at an alarming rate while Fever players tried to make it through traffic. The officials were letting that kind of contact go, even if the defender caught some arm along with the ball, which led to several turnovers. Still, Indiana were up 25-17 at the end of the first quarter.

The same kind of turnovers cost Indiana possessions in the second quarter, while Atlanta received a quick boost from Tiffany Hayes off their bench. Atlanta have lost some of their punch from the reserves since McCoughtry replaced Hayes in the lineup, but she came in and reminded the Dream how direct they needed to be to compete in this game. She looked for quick offense, drove directly to the rim, and created points. Even with Douglas hitting her jumpshots and Larkins going to work yet again on the boards, Atlanta crept back into the game.

The closing minutes of the first half continued to go Atlanta’s way. January picked up a silly, unnecessary foul trying to slow down Harding, when she had plenty of help behind her. That was January’s third foul, sent her to the bench for the rest of the half, and Indiana had four turnovers in the next two minutes of basketball without her. Then McCoughtry hit a three for Atlanta’s first lead of the game, and after Catchings answered with a drive for her first bucket of the night, McCoughtry closed the half with a ridiculously deep triple that swished through just before the buzzer. That shut the home crowd up, and sent the teams in tied 39-39 at halftime. Indiana had played the opening 20 minutes almost exactly how they would’ve wanted to – Douglas had found her shot, they were ahead on the glass, Larkins already had a double-double, and they were the ones driving the pace of the game. But due to some sloppiness (12 turnovers already) and Atlanta’s fight, the Fever weren’t even in front.

The only other flaw for Indiana in the first half had been Catchings, who had 5 turnovers (mostly thanks to those strips while driving the lane) and only one basket. That started to change early in the third quarter, when she led the Fever to an 11-3 run to open the second half. Catchings had 7 of those 11 herself, on a driving layup, a three caused by the defense being so worried about January that they left Catchings alone, and then an open jumper when McCoughtry was dumb enough to leave her with the ball and drift away. The problem was that just before that jumper, McCoughtry had accidentally caught Catchings in the face with a swipe of her hand. It led to a nasty cut on Catchings’s chin, and she had to come out of the game while the trainers tried to stop the bleeding.

Catchings was out for 90 seconds, during which time Indiana ran two horrible possessions which ended with desperation heaves to beat the shot clock. It didn’t get a lot better when she came back, as Indiana’s momentum had been broken. But the Fever were still on top. Their defense was keeping Atlanta away from the rim, McCoughtry was barely a factor, and Erlana Larkins continued to dominate the glass over the much taller Lyttle and de Souza. Turnovers and misses from Indiana allowed Atlanta to still be within 54-51 at the end of the third quarter.

The cut was still causing problems for Catchings. She went out again late in the third quarter, and yet again early in the fourth, because the bleeding simply wouldn’t stop (any sign of blood takes you off the court by rule these days). But whether she was in or not, Indiana were the more confident and competent team in the fourth quarter. The opened it running proper sets, which found Larkins at the rim for a layup, opened up room for January to score past Ketia Swanier (it was a bizarre time give Swanier her first minutes of the night in place of Harding), and then broke Douglas free for a wide open three behind a screen. Atlanta seemed to be repeatedly running a weave at the top of the arc, which typically resulted in jumpers rather than any penetration into the defense.

Harding briefly managed to bring back memories of Game 1 with a couple of makes, and Price had a bucket in quick transition which reminded everyone of how Atlanta typically like to play, which dragged the Dream within 6 points with 6 minutes left in regulation. Then Catchings came back, with the blood from her face finally staunched, and we received conspicuous evidence of Angel McCoughtry’s frustration at the way the game was progressing. Indiana coughed up yet another turnover when McCoughtry slid round from behind Larkins to intercept a loose, looping pass. In an effort to steal the ball back, while making absolutely sure that McCoughtry couldn’t get out on the break for an easy bucket, January slid in and cut McCoughtry’s legs out from under her. It was definitely a foul, and a pretty hard foul, but not truly dirty. January was trying to make a play on the ball. However, McCoughtry was pissed, and stupidly slapped the ball out of January’s hands after she’d picked herself up off the ground. That was an obvious technical foul on McCoughtry, and a nice free point for the Fever.

While it’s doubtful that the momentary lapse had much of an impact on the result, Atlanta didn’t score another point after that technical foul until the game was well and truly over. Williams took McCoughtry out to calm down, but an Indiana timeout a minute later gave her the chance to come straight back in. Whether she was on the floor or off, it made no difference. Atlanta couldn’t put any decent offense together, and couldn’t ignite any kind of comeback. They missed a series of jumpers, while Indiana continued to dominate the glass and finish their possessions in the paint. The Fever eased away in the final five minutes, leading by as many as 16 points, and finished with a well deserved 75-64 win.

Atlanta could never quite get into their flow, even while they were keeping the game close for the first 30 minutes. They scored 19 points off 22 Indiana turnovers, but getting destroyed in the rebounding battle prevented them from ever sustaining a run of transition scores. They only shot 5 free throws all night, which illustrates how rarely they managed to penetrate the defense, whether Indiana were in their man-to-man or the 2-3/3-2 zone that the Fever have developed over the second half of the season. McCoughtry finished 7-21 for 16 points (and not a single free throw). There may have been a few occasions where she didn’t get the benefit of a referee’s whistle, but there were also several occasions where she settled for jump shots or couldn’t get by the defense. Shavonte Zellous did an excellent job on her in the fourth quarter when you’d expect McCoughtry to try to take over. Harding was 8-20 for 17 points and Armintie Price missed an inordinate number of finishes right at the rim, but the game was lost inside. Erika de Souza drifted out of the game apart from one stretch in the second quarter, and Sancho Lyttle continues to take far too many jump shots away from the basket. Atlanta’s sets didn’t look inside enough, but those two also simply got outworked, outfought and outhustled in Games 2 and 3, and that turned the series.

On the other side of that fight was Erlana Larkins, who’s had an extraordinary progression this season. She began as a long-shot to make the roster, then spent the first half of the year as Catchings’s backup playing 8 or 10 minutes a night. She increasingly earned more and more time on the floor after the Olympic break, with her hustle and rebounding energising the Fever, and her promotion into the starting lineup for Game 2 proved key to this series. She had 16 points and 7 boards in Game 2, before playing nearly 38 minutes in this game while producing 8-13 shooting for 16 points and 20 boards (9 offensive). She’s barely any taller than Catchings, but she goes after everything, and has that rebounding gene that you just can’t teach. She was central to Indiana’s ridiculous 46-25 advantage on the glass in this game, against a team that consistently rebounded better than them all season long. The Fever also got solid scoring nights from Catchings (5-12 for 16 points, 11 boards, 3 steals, 4 blocks), Douglas (9-19 for 24 points) and January (6-11 for 16 points, 5 assists) to help carry the load. January’s superb play ever since returning from the McCoughtry elbow to her stomach in Game 1 has been vital as well. Now it’s on to face Connecticut, in a meeting of the two teams that topped the Eastern Conference all season long. If the Fever team that showed up for Games 2 and 3 can return for the series against the Sun, the WNBA Finals are a definite possibility.

—–

While the Indiana and Atlanta always seemed closely matched enough to produce a series that would go all the way, Minnesota and Seattle were a different matter. The Lynx were the overwhelming favourites heading into the first-round, after following their 2011 championship with another dominant regular season. The Storm had struggled through 2012, facing absences and injuries that constantly prevented them from finding any flow. But then in the playoffs, Seattle had proven a very hard nut for Minnesota to crack. Their defense had shackled the Lynx and led to tight games where Minnesota rarely managed to produce their typical slick basketball. An epic double-overtime Storm win in Game 2 had forced the decider, and Minnesota’s confidence can’t have been as high as it was coming into the series. If they even had the energy left to be confident, after the 50-minute marathon barely 48 hours earlier.

The starting lineups were the same as in the previous games. If anyone had thought the bang Taj McWilliams-Franklin took to her tailbone late in Game 2 was going to keep her out of this one, they were nuts. There were no obvious twists to the systems from either side – Seimone Augustus was still the primary defender on Sue Bird, with Lindsay Whalen on Tanisha Wright and Maya Moore on Katie Smith (although the Lynx are never afraid to switch). This was two teams backing themselves and going right back to war, one more time.

The first few minutes were all Seattle, as they found their rhythm far faster than the Lynx. Minnesota looked painfully similar to much of Game 2 – lots of jump shots, lots of bricks. Then it all spun around, as Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, and especially Maya Moore started to knock down those shots. That was always been the scary possibility for Seattle throughout this series. They’d played impressive defense and forced Minnesota into taking a lot of shots from outside, but the Lynx have some exceptional scorers on their team. If Augustus and Moore in particular could get hot and stay hot through the game, Seattle’s chances would go through the floor.

Also, Seattle’s offense immediately stalled when Minnesota started to convert their opportunities. Without Lynx misses to offer rebounds, outlet passes and speed to the Storm offense, Seattle’s scoring chances disappeared. The Lynx led 22-14 by the end of the first quarter.

However, it wasn’t all good news for Minnesota. Point guard Lindsay Whalen had taken a heavy fall midway through the period, and injured her left wrist. She tried to come back into the game later in the first quarter, but quickly subbed out and was taken into the bowels of the Target Center for x-rays. That left the Lynx with Candice Wiggins as their point guard, and even deep backup Erin Thorn received some minutes in the second quarter to fill the gap. The last thing a team that had struggled for offensive rhythm throughout this series needed was to lose the player who normally sets their pace.

Moore had scored 10 points in the opening quarter on four jumpers. She was resting on the bench for the first 4 minutes of the second quarter, and by the time she came back, the game was virtually tied. Minnesota hadn’t scored a single point in her absence. Seattle weren’t exactly lighting it up, and Lauren Jackson continued to struggle desperately offensively, but Camille Little was compensating. Seattle’s ball movement and Little’s slithering cuts off pick-and-rolls or slip screens were creating far more interior offense for Seattle than Minnesota had at the other end. Then to top it off, Little took back the lead for the Storm with a three. An underappreciated player, Little’s been one of the few constants for the Storm this season with her slick skills in the paint and strong defense. She was stepping up again, just when they needed her.

Minnesota’s fluid offense hadn’t been in evidence much through this series, and it was happening yet again. Seattle’s defense is good, but it’s not good enough to cause this level of deterioration on its own. The Lynx were still in that same funk, and having trouble dragging themselves out. Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve was once again showing no faith in her backup posts, leaving Moore to slide to power forward whenever McWilliams-Franklin or Brunson went to the bench. And bizarrely, it was with Moore at the 4 that they started looking inside to post up. It worked once or twice, maybe because it surprised Seattle more than anything, but Moore posting up on Little or even Augustus dropping down and looking for the ball in the low post seemed strange choices to finally attack the paint.

Whalen came back with around 4 minutes left in the first half, but with her left hand heavily strapped and clearly still causing her grief, she was playing practically one-handed. It was Tanisha Wright who dominated the final few possessions, bullying her way to the rim for a layup and then drilling a three at the buzzer to answer the triple Moore had just knocked down (Maya decided to sit off and let her have the shot after being beaten for the previous layup). Wright’s shot quieted the crowd, and took Seattle in at the interval down just 36-35.

Most of the team stats were incredibly close at halftime (same floor percentage, tied in rebounds, just 4 turnovers each) – except for one. Seattle were up 18-4 in points in the paint. This from the team that finished dead last in the WNBA in points in the paint this season, against a Lynx squad that were third. The other end of that stat is that in the regular season Seattle were far and away the best team at preventing points being scored against them in the paint. That was translating into this series, and Minnesota almost seemed to have stopped trying. 4 points in the paint in 20 minutes from a team with the offensive talent of the Lynx was ridiculous.

Reeve and Minnesota seemed to agree, because they’d doubled that 4 inside the opening 68 seconds of the second half. A pretty Augustus floater and a post-up for Brunson finally showed a little more intent to attack the rim. Jackson was struggling so badly for Seattle that she was benched after barely three minutes of the third quarter for Ann Wauters. The third quarter was where we started to see some real physical and mental fatigue from the long, brutal game a couple of nights earlier, with Devereaux Peters seeing some minutes for a labouring McWilliams-Franklin. But Jackson had been missing easy finishes inside since the tip-off.

On top of the increased interior attack, Minnesota also benefitted from Augustus knocking down some of her typically smooth jumpers in the third quarter, but Seattle still wouldn’t go away. ESPN’s footage of a mid-third quarter timeout huddle showed an unusual discussion from Storm coach Brian Agler. He wasn’t drawing up plays or handing out defensive instructions – he was simply demanding heart and effort. He got what he wanted, and once again his team nailed the final shot of the period – this time a Katie Smith jumper – to quiet the crowd at the buzzer. Seattle trailed just 56-52 at the end of the third, and they were still very much in the contest.

Seattle opened the fourth quarter scoring from outside, as first Smith hit a three, then Jackson finally sank her first bucket of the night with her own triple, tying the game at 60-60. Minnesota were being carried by Rebekkah Brunson. She’d started taking and knocking down the elbow jumper that she’s so fond of, and whenever another Lynx player missed she seemed to be directly underneath the carom and snatching it out of the air for the putback.

The whole game – hell, the whole series – had been a hard-fought, physical battle, but with everything on the line it ratcheted up another notch in the fourth. Agler needed a timeout with 6 minutes left – only seconds before a TV timeout would’ve offered a break anyway – because his players were gassed. Sue Bird and Jackson sat briefly, but were right back into the fray. With under 4 minutes left, more solid Storm ball movement found Bird for a big three that would’ve tied the game yet again, only for the shot to hit the back iron. Minnesota went directly down the floor and Whalen – still essentially playing with one hand – knocked down a baseline jumper for a 5-point Lynx lead. It seemed like a huge swing at the time.

Then out of a timeout the inbounds went directly to Bird, who this time made no mistake from long distance, and everything was right back in the balance. For a couple of moments, appropriately enough, it was punch and counter-punch. Whalen made a nice save while falling out of bounds, finding Augustus for a nice drive and finish. Then Smith hit a tough fallaway jumper, bringing back memories of her younger days as a star for the Lynx. Then McWilliams-Franklin made it look shockingly easy to score around Jackson in the post. With 90 seconds left in regulation, Minnesota were clinging to a 73-69 advantage.

Tiredness showed at both ends on the next couple of possessions, although players on both sides would say the referees had just as much impact. Neither Bird nor Tina Thompson drew the calls they wanted on efforts at the rim, then Bird barely touched the iron with an effort from outside. The Lynx possession that followed, after a timeout, went nowhere fast and ended in a missed Whalen three.

But there was no way this series was just going to peter out and drift to a conclusion. Not with Sue Bird around. She popped out from behind a Little screen, and drilled yet another three to add to the long litany of huge shots she’s made in her career. Augustus couldn’t get there in time to offer real pressure, but she’d probably have needed to tackle Bird to make her miss. With 35 seconds left, Seattle had the gap down to a single point.

After another timeout, Minnesota ran a play we’ve seen many times before. Augustus and Moore cross on low cuts under the basket, Moore curls out, then Augustus spins back and curls into the same corner behind Moore. But Seattle had undoubtedly seen it before as well. They trapped Augustus in the corner, then rotated and recovered to the other Lynx players when the ball was kicked back around. Eventually, Whalen forced up an effort that bounced away, and Jackson came down with the rebound. There were just over 10 seconds left in the game when Jackson caught that board, but Seattle drifted down court looking like they’d barely noticed how little time they had. Agler eventually called timeout with 3.3 seconds left, just as Bird gave up the ball to Wright in some space but only just across halfcourt.

It’s always a judgement call in those situations. Attacking immediately, against a defense that hasn’t had time to set up, is always one option. Taking a timeout the instant you grab the rebound is the other standard alternative, because it allows you to advance the ball and leaves as much time as possible to create a shot. Seattle ended up with the unfortunate middle-ground where you waste most of your time and then take the timeout anyway, but they didn’t exactly look poised to create a good shot for the win. Taking the timeout, even as late as Agler did, still made sense. God knows, if he hadn’t called it, and time had run out or Seattle had thrown up some junk at the buzzer, he’d have been criticised mercilessly for not using it.

So Seattle had 3.3 seconds to decide the game. Agler trusted Lauren Jackson, just as he had in the previous game when she was 3-14 before hitting the game-tying three-pointer at the regulation buzzer. Jackson was 1-6 in this game, and the play he drew up used Wright as the screener so Jackson could receive the inbounds pass on the low block. That worked as planned, and under pressure from Brunson Jackson immediately turned to the baseline side and put up a short jumper. Agonisingly, it bounced off the iron and away. If she’d waited a split-second longer, Bird had broken open along the baseline, and was right there for Jackson to drop the ball off to for an open jumper. There was time, just about, and given how the game had gone Seattle would surely rather have seen Bird take the crucial shot. It was a heartbreaker for the Storm, losing by a single point, while the Lynx and their home fans breathed a gigantic sigh of relief.

Seattle can take huge credit for how they performed in this series. They’ve had a disjointed season and are still fighting through a host of injuries, but they ran the reigning champs (and this year’s favourites) as close as humanly possible. Little was great in Game 3 (7-10 for 17 points, although some of her fatigue may have contributed to Brunson’s outstanding fourth quarter), while Bird, Wright and Smith all made big shots. They played smothering defense for three full games, and could so easily have pulled off an enormous upset. Maybe in future this will just be remembered as yet another first-round exit for an injury-weakened Seattle team, but right now we all know that we watched an outstanding series played by a team that gave absolutely everything it had. Even in defeat there can be a great deal of pride.

Minnesota escaped by the absolute skin of their teeth. While there was more penetration in the second half (that paltry 4 points in the paint was up to 26 by the end of the game), much of it came down to Moore and Augustus shooting better over the course of the night. Moore was 6-14 for 20 points, while Augustus finished 8-15 for 21. They also received that key burst from Brunson, who closed the game 8-12 for 16 points and 9 boards, but was 5-5 for 10 points and 4 rebounds in the fourth quarter alone. Without her they’d be going home, rather than celebrating a 73-72 victory. Now attention turns to the Los Angeles Sparks, who’ve been sitting around relaxing since finishing off San Antonio on Saturday. The Western Conference Finals start on Thursday night, so there’s not much time for Minnesota to gather themselves and find some energy – or for Whalen to rest her wrist. It’s a different kind of opponent, one that doesn’t play anything like the level of defense seen from Seattle but has far more threatening athletes to deal with. Minnesota will need better performances than they produced against the Storm if they want to continue to advance.

 

Notes

Full previews of the Conference Finals matchups will start here tomorrow, obviously before the games begin tomorrow night.

 

Conference Finals Schedule

Thursday October 4th:

Los Angeles @ Minnesota, Game 1, 8pm ET

—–

Friday October 5th:

Indiana @ Connecticut, Game 1, 8pm ET

—–

Sunday October 7th:

Minnesota @ Los Angeles, Game 2, 3.30pm ET

—–

Monday October 8th:

Connecticut @ Indiana, Game 2, 8pm ET

—–

Wednesday October 10th:

Los Angeles @ Minnesota, Game 3 (if necessary), 8pm ET

—–

Thursday October 11th:

Indiana @ Connecticut, Game 3 (if necessary), 8.30pm ET

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