Where better to start our multi-part preview of the 2012 WNBA Finals clash between the Minnesota Lynx and Indiana Fever than with the most apparent mismatch? The Lynx start three Olympians on their perimeter – two wings who finished in the top-five in MVP voting this season, and either the best or second-best point guard in the world, depending on who you ask. Indiana have a point guard who struggled through much of the Eastern Conference Finals, a recently promoted Aussie combo-guard who didn’t even make her country’s Olympic team (ludicrous as that was), and a serious injury doubt over their best perimeter scorer. On paper, this is where Indiana lose this series.
Much of what Minnesota do revolves around their outstanding trio of perimeter starters. Lindsay Whalen runs the team with a steady hand, willing to quietly facilitate while the talent around her piles up points, but always capable of using her strength and physicality to bully her way to the rim. Even her shooting from outside has become a lot more accurate in recent years as she’s become more choosy about which shots to take. Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore are the top scorers and leading lights for the Lynx. Both can shoot with outstanding accuracy from outside, both can finish or pass on the break, and both scare the bejesus out of opposition teams when they show signs of getting hot.
Moore has the slightly more rounded package in that she’ll typically grab more rebounds and is more likely to pick up assists, but Augustus is a slightly more natural scorer and has developed into a solid perimeter defender, which makes her valuable at both ends of the floor. The Lynx will switch when necessary defensively, but it’s Augustus who’ll start on whichever perimeter player the Lynx are most worried about. Against Seattle it was Sue Bird, against LA it was Kristi Toliver – with Indiana, she might take Katie Douglas (if Douglas plays), but Brian January is also a possibility. Augustus is quick enough to stay in front of January but Augustus’s size and length could cut out passing lanes and make it more difficult for January to drive into the paint.The first concern for Indiana is basic health. Douglas turned her ankle badly in the opening minutes of their Game 3 win over Connecticut on Thursday night, and had to be taken by ambulance for x-rays at a local hospital. The only information to emerge so far is that she’s ‘day-to-day’ with a sprained ankle, which tells us nothing. It looked bad on Thursday night, but we’ve seen players suffer injuries like that before and bounce back. Sometimes it’s the shock and potential loss that causes much of the player’s distress, rather than the pain of the injury itself. So we’ll see.
Whether Douglas plays or not, the Fever perimeter is significantly less star-studded than Minnesota’s – assuming you don’t count the extra element I’ll get to in a moment. Briann January has had a solid season in her first year back after a serious knee injury, although she was quiet for all but about 5 minutes of the Connecticut series. She is, however, the first part of Indiana’s one clear advantage around the outside – speed. She’s significantly quicker than Whalen, and while Augustus and Moore can both move, she’s faster than either of them as well. It’s a similar story with Erin Phillips (who’ll presumably start alongside January) and Shavonte Zellous (who might well replace Douglas, if necessary). They’re not as big as the Lynx perimeter players, but they’ll use their quickness to try to find the gaps through the defense and leak out for as many transition points as they can. January in particular used handoffs from the elbow and high screens to slice into the paint repeatedly against Atlanta, before Connecticut’s defense largely cut that out of her game in the Eastern Finals. Minnesota’s defense is typically set up to protect the paint and force teams out towards the three-point arc, but if they overplay too much in that direction, they risk the Fever lighting it up from outside – exactly the kind of game that Indiana pulled off to reach these Finals.
If Douglas plays – either right from Game 1, or joining the fray at a later stage – she gives Indiana a consistent veteran scoring threat that the others can’t offer. Whether it’s Zellous or Jeanette Pohlen that replaces her, neither has Douglas’s knack for hitting big shots and carrying the offense for significant stretches. Without her, the Fever found a way to keep rolling in one game against Connecticut, but it’ll be an entirely different matter trying to win a best-of-five against Minnesota. The Fever put the ball in Douglas’s hands and ask her to make something happen almost as often as they ask the same thing of Tamika Catchings, and Douglas will be sorely missed if the ankle rules her out of the Finals.
The extra aspect to Indiana’s ‘perimeter’ attack is created by Catchings herself. She may start as the power forward these days, but she and Douglas still do a significant proportion of the ballhandling and creating from outside. As Catchings has said herself, the move to the 4 seemed like a dubious idea to begin with, but ultimately it has given her some extra room to manoeuvre on the outside. Rebekkah Brunson will have to follow her out to guard her, because while Catchings’s shot has eluded her for much of the playoffs, you still have to respect it. Then Catchings can either shoot or drive, creating for herself or her teammates. We’ll inevitably see Minnesota try going small during this series, with Moore sliding down to power forward and trying to guard Catchings. If Moore can do that successfully, it would give Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve different options to handle and attack the Fever, which would be a nice addition to her armoury.
I don’t expect the perimeter battle to be quite as one-sided as it may look on paper. The Fever are significantly smaller, especially if Douglas is out, but they showed against the Sun that their pressure and help defense can compensate for their shortcomings. Augustus and Moore will score, sometimes by simply shooting over defenders, but they do that against everybody. Indiana will chase after them, make them work hard for the opportunities, and challenge their shots as tightly as possible. In transition both teams are a threat, and the opportunities will depend on the effectiveness of the defense at either end. If Augustus or Moore try to drop down and post up in halfcourt sets, Indiana’s standard baseline double-teams will arrive quickly to help. Then it’s a case of whether Minnesota can move the ball back out and beat the defensive recovery – and Indiana have shown themselves to be excellent at rotating around to cover the gaps.
At the other end, Indiana could use a return of the Briann January from the Atlanta series, especially if Douglas is missing. They need the creation off the dribble that January can bring, and the defensive breakdowns that can be created when she beats her man and draws extra defenders. Otherwise it’ll be down to Catchings and – hopefully – Douglas to find holes in the typically solid Minnesota defense. They’ll find some gaps occasionally, and Indiana have shown they can knock down outside shots all year, but it may not be enough to balance out the firepower of Whalen, Augustus and Moore.