The WNBA’s Western Conference Finals began last night, in the same arena where barely 45 hours earlier Minnesota had required a Lauren Jackson miss at the buzzer to keep their season alive. With several extra days of rest, you might’ve though that the Los Angeles Sparks would come in and take advantage of a Lynx squad that had needed to fight tooth and nail merely to make it this far. You’d have been wrong.
The starting lineups for both teams were as expected. Lindsay Whalen’s left wrist injury, which forced her to play most of Game 3 against Seattle with one hand, was wrapped securely with a splint and she was ready to play. It had been diagnosed as a bone bruise, but nothing short of amputation would’ve kept her off the floor for a game this important.
Just to mess with LA, the Lynx came out in a zone defense for the first possession of the game. I believe that’s the first time they’ve done that all season, although we’d have to ask Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve to be sure. Candace Parker hit a desperation shot as the shot clock was expiring, but it set the tone for how disruptive Minnesota’s defense could be to the Sparks.
It was a high-paced, end-to-end game in the first quarter, nothing remotely like the games against Seattle that the Lynx had just finished with. Minnesota had more flow, with Seimone Augustus shaking Alana Beard for a bucket at the rim before Whalen illustrated just how healthy she was feeling. Whalen went right into Kristi Toliver for a score at the rim, knocked down a jumper when Toliver flopped in an effort to draw a foul, then drove the baseline against lackadaisical LA defense and finished with the reverse. Apparently, she was getting a little tired of all the questions about her wrist before tip-off. This was the best possible way to answer them.
However, the Sparks were enjoying the speed of the game as well. They had a couple of baskets in transition by simply outrunning the defense, and a couple more by passing out of Lynx double-teams and finding the open man. The Lynx had, as expected, started with Augustus on Toliver, but Parker, Beard and Nneka Ogwumike were the primary offensive weapons in the early going, without needing anything from Kristi. Taj McWilliams-Franklin was already struggling a little to deal with Parker, who was happy to fire away from outside if McWilliams-Franklin sat back to protect the paint.
Reeve was already showing more signs of flexibility within her lineups in the first quarter. Devereaux Peters replaced McWilliams-Franklin at the first timeout, but when Peters picked up two quick fouls Amber Harris got a chance to step up. She’d barely played against Seattle, after a bout of mono in the closing weeks of the regular season, but Reeve was giving her young posts a chance. It was nice to see after it had begun to feel like she’d quit on them in the Storm series.
Minnesota received the boost they were looking for from their bench, as a 15-10 Sparks lead became a 16-15 Minnesota advantage by the end of the first quarter, but it was the Lynx defense that was starting to have a significant effect. They were trapping on ball-screens, with Toliver their primary target. At the end of the first quarter and on into the second, it was clearly unsettling Toliver and leading to a host of turnovers and broken plays for LA. There are obvious ways to beat a defense that traps aggressively like that. The first option is simply to pass out quickly, and rotate the ball to whoever’s open. Obviously, if two players are on top of the initial ballhandler, somebody’s open elsewhere on the floor. Alternatively, you set screens off the ball to break players open, never bringing screens to the ball because all that does is present opportunities for the defense to trap. Once or twice, LA managed to rotate out of the traps and find the open man. Most of the time, it seemed to lead to mistimed passes and the ball flying out of bounds. It wasn’t just Toliver – other players were making similar errors – but the tactic also forced the ball out of Toliver’s hands, negating her scoring power. LA’s offense began to grind to a halt.
At the other end of the floor, Minnesota were revelling in the greater freedom afforded them by LA’s defense compared to the Seattle series. They were getting out in transition for easy points off LA’s turnovers or misses from the perimeter. They were taking advantage of mismatches created by LA’s switching defense. They were generally cutting through LA’s defense and creating the easy scoring chances inside and out that constantly evaded them against the Storm. This was more like the Minnesota Lynx we remember – the team that’s dominated over the last two years.
Minnesota started to break the game open as the second quarter progressed. When LA managed to avoid turning the ball over, they were ending up with forced jump shots that weren’t dropping. There was no fluidity to their offense at all. Minnesota were moving the ball well and exploiting the holes in LA’s defense, which often doesn’t recover well enough to fill gaps after they’re created by screens or movement. The one weapon that hadn’t been firing to that point, Maya Moore, drilled a three midway through the second quarter on a ridiculous over-the-head blind pass from McWilliams-Franklin. It was Moore’s first basket of the night, gave the Lynx a 34-20 lead, and was reflective of the confidence Minnesota were playing with. You should be seeing it on highlight reels for the rest of the playoffs (at least).
With Harris, Monica Wright and Candice Wiggins joining in the scoring, and Minnesota dominating the glass as well, the Lynx lead topped out at 20 points as we approached halftime. Fatigue hadn’t been any kind of factor. Parker had five quick points on a three and a breakout which drew a late timeout from Reeve, but there was still time for one more LA miscue, and one more Lynx showpiece play. Wiggins missed a three, but DeLisha Milton-Jones threw a wild outlet pass that sailed out of bounds. It was just another example of how off-balance LA had been throughout the first half. Wiggins missed again from long distance, but there was just time for Whalen to slide in and push the offensive rebound straight back up and in. 48-31 at halftime, and Minnesota were thoroughly in charge.
Remember the 4 points in the paint Minnesota scored in the first half of Game 3 against Seattle? Well they had 28 in the first half of this game. Between the bench production, Augustus and Whalen finding their scoring touch, and Rebekkah Brunson crashing the glass and finishing at the rim, it was all Minnesota. The second half began the same way, with more LA errors. Moore was becoming a little frustrated at her lack of offensive production, but unlike Toliver it didn’t take her head out of the game. And when Milton-Jones went flying to the ground after a tussle with Moore but no call came, Maya calmly stepped behind the three-point line, took the pass, and hit a wide open three. Then followed it up with an Allen Iverson-esque crossover that left Beard in her dust before knocking down another jumper on the next Lynx possession. Wait long enough – and it’s usually not very long – and offense will come for players like Moore.
With LA head coach Carol Ross searching for anything that might work, Toliver was benched after barely three minutes of the third quarter, and stayed there for a long while. Meanwhile, players we’d barely expected to see in this series like Nicky Anosike and April Sykes got a chance to dig the Sparks out of a hole that had grown as big as 24 points.
The Lynx lead did start to dwindle a little in the rest of the third quarter, as their bench-heavy lineups failed to work quite so smoothly in the second half. Led by Parker, with some assistance from Beard and LA’s own reserves, LA at least created a few points. Parker was trying to take over, and having some success, dragging LA within 66-53 at the end of the third quarter.
But the lead was too big, and the Lynx had built far too much rhythm and confidence to let LA truly back into it. Toliver returned with under 8 minutes left in the game, after spending her time on the bench shaking her head and smirking resignedly whenever the cameras cut to her. Between Parker and Toliver, the Sparks drew a lot of calls in the fourth quarter and spent plenty of time at the free throw line, but the lead never dropped below 10. Just when it looked like Minnesota’s flow might’ve been disrupted enough for a legitimate comeback and their misses were building some speed back into LA’s offense, Augustus went to the rim for a layup and Moore nailed another three. The Lynx shared the wealth as the period wore on – Wright hit a three; Whalen had a pretty reverse finish on a Brunson feed; Brunson had an outstanding tip-in of a Whalen miss – but it was Moore in particular who’d found her offense. After a quiet game offensively, and a poor string of fourth-quarters against Seattle, she was 5-5 for 12 points in the final period of this one to help Minnesota coast home for a 94-77 victory. Toliver picked up her very first assist of the night on a Marissa Coleman three with 6 seconds left.
This was an embarrassment for Los Angeles. Despite all that extra time to rest and prepare, it didn’t take long for the Lynx to pressure them into falling apart. They’ve seen plenty of traps before. In fact, the likelihood that the Lynx would trap Toliver was in the WNBAlien preview of the series. But Minnesota’s aggressive defense threw them off from the early stages and they never fully recovered. Parker finished the game 9-15 for 25 points and 11 rebounds, and carried the offense for much of the game. She does have to take some of the blame for Moore’s late offensive explosion, however, as it was often Parker standing there watching Moore knock down jumpshots in the final period. The Sparks finished the game with only 14 turnovers, which illustrates how they stopped throwing the ball away out of the traps, but their offense still struggled even once they managed to keep hold of the ball. It picked up in the stretch from the late-third quarter into the early-fourth because they actually got some stops at the other end. While keeping their composure – Toliver in particular – will be important in recovering in the rest of this series, playing some decent defense is just as vital. The Lynx picked them apart to get to the rim, and were left far too open for shots on the perimeter. If LA defend like that again this series will be over on Sunday afternoon.
For Minnesota it was a glorious return to form. While it led to many people suggesting Seattle’s performances had been underrated – and maybe that’s true – the Lynx were back to their free-flowing best. They’d been so slow and stilted against the Storm, but they played this game looking relaxed and with more freedom than they have in weeks. Moore ultimately led the scoring thanks to her strong fourth quarter, while Augustus, Brunson and Whalen were all in double-digits as well. Wiggins couldn’t find her shot, but Wright and Harris offered up bench production that has been missing for a while. Defensively, the Lynx were aggressive in their traps and double-teams, encouraged by the early success and the offensive opportunities they created. They’ll throw the same stuff at Toliver, Beard and co. on Sunday, and it’s up to LA to handle the pressure. If they can’t, the Lynx will have a nice little rest before gearing up for the Finals.
There was an ‘ESPNW Summit’ earlier this week, which included a segment on the WNBA featuring WNBA President Laurel Richie and the NBA’s Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver among the panel (Silver’s potentially the man who’ll take over from David Stern as NBA Commissioner in the next few years). It wasn’t particularly gripping stuff, but it discussed various aspects of the League’s revenue streams, marketing concepts and broadcasting issues. There’s a full archive of the video available here.
Friday October 5th (today):
Indiana @ Connecticut, Game 1, 8pm ET