All the other elements that add up to make this an intriguing Finals series:
Statistically, Indiana were still a pretty pedestrian team this season. Not quite on the level of Seattle or Washington, but getting there. However, they don’t feel like the plodding Fever team of old any more. Moving Catchings to power forward has made them more dynamic at both ends of the floor, adding an extra shooter who can handle the ball to their offense. Their defense is so active that it feels like they’re forcing the pace of the game even when they don’t have the ball, and it’ll be crucial for them to create some easy points off turnovers in this series.
But Minnesota typically play at a faster pace, leaking out for transition chances and taking shots earlier in halfcourt sets. While Indiana were comfortable running with Atlanta and Connecticut in previous rounds, if games in the Finals turn into end-to-end shootouts it’ll likely favour the Lynx. Minnesota’s real problems in the postseason came against Seattle, when the Storm forced them into low-scoring, halfcourt games without much penetration. Indiana have been one of the better teams this year at preventing fastbreak points from being scored against them – only narrowly behind Seattle in that category, in fact – while Minnesota led the league in fastbreak scoring. Indiana need to take care of the ball and work back hard in transition when necessary, both of which they’ve been solid at all year long.
As the above paragraphs suggested, this is all part of the same issue. Avoid giving the ball away, you keep the opposition’s transition chances to a minimum. That forces them into halfcourt sets, where it’s always more difficult to score, however talented you may be. Both these teams have done well in terms of avoiding turnovers over the course of the season, although Minnesota have had outings where they’ve been painfully sloppy with the ball.
In fact, it’s one area where the Fever may have an edge over the Lynx. Minnesota play strong defense in terms of keeping the opposition scoring down, but they don’t force a huge number of turnovers or create that many points directly from their defense. Indiana, on the other hand, have players like Catchings, Douglas and even January who ballhawk and try to create steals, forcing opportunities to break out the other way. Given how hard it’s likely to be for Indiana to score in the halfcourt against the Lynx – unless they happen to hit a ridiculous hot streak from outside as they did to close out the Sun – cheap points off turnovers would be huge for the Fever.
Over the last two years, Minnesota have shown an ability to play pretty much whatever style is necessary. When Atlanta wanted to force them into a running game in the Finals last season, the Lynx showed that they could run right back and keep on winning. In a physical, slow-down game against Seattle in this year’s first round, the Lynx eventually fought past a very stubborn opponent, even though they could never find a way to open up the game. But it’s the flexibility of lineups and defenses that’s going to be interesting in this series.
Tamika Catchings may ultimately be the player that Maya Moore’s game resembles the most as she matures as a pro, although with a more offensive slant to her skills. Catchings made the move to power forward virtually full-time this season, and Moore’s ability to slide the same way has been increasingly utilised by Cheryl Reeve as the season’s gone on. The question is whether Moore can handle defending Catchings in those lineups, because that’s what she’ll have to do if the Lynx go small. The Fever could also go big with Catchings moving in the opposite direction if they wanted to, but after a successful season with her rarely playing the 3, expect that to be a last resort.
Defensively, both these teams favour man-to-man but have zones in their locker. Indiana switch more freely in their man-to-man, something which their smaller lineup has made easier (and Larkins replacing Sutton-Brown has made it even more comfortable). Minnesota switch small-to-small and big-to-big but try to avoid allowing mismatches when they can off screens. They’ll also dig down or help fairly traditionally, while Indiana have made baseline double-teams a recognisable feature of their defense. We won’t see it as frequently in this series, because Minnesota don’t run many standard post-ups, but the extra defender comes from the weak side along the baseline with the initial defender forcing the ball towards the help. It’s consistently worked because it’s hard to counter when the open player is in the far corner, even when you pass the ball as well as Minnesota.
The Lynx have a 2-3 zone (they extend it at the top so sometimes it looks like a 1-1-3) and have worked on their half-court press and sideline traps. Indiana move the ball well enough that they’d typically shift the ball out of trouble and exploit the gaps, so don’t expect to see the pressure too often, but Reeve will try to keep Indiana on their toes. The Fever have a 2-3/3-2 combo zone that switches between the two depending on how far it needs to rotate. They rarely used it against Connecticut because their swarming man-to-man was effective, but it’ll probably come out of the box against Minnesota. The danger with a zone is always that a smart passing team like Minnesota will find the seams, or their scorers will shoot right over it. That’s why we’ll likely only see it for a few possessions at a time, just to try to keep the Lynx off balance.
Lin Dunn and Cheryl Reeve will have their teams well prepared for this matchup. They know what they’re doing, and they’ve been successful in this league for a while now (a long while in Dunn’s case). Both have their foibles. Reeve sometimes seems to rely a little too heavily on her starters – but when your starting five is that talented, it’s understandable. Dunn makes the occasional strange lineup choice, including throwing out the no-Catchings, no-Douglas lineups which should never see the light of day (when they’re both healthy).
While Reeve’s typical move in the course of a series is to believe her team is better and will win out if they just keep playing – proven true so far – neither is afraid to make changes if they have to. Dunn made the bold move of promoting Erlana Larkins and Erin Phillips from her bench after losing Game 1 against Atlanta, and it proved very successful. Just when everyone though Reeve had completely quit on her bench posts, Amber Harris was a key part of the domination against LA in the first game of the Western Finals.
In a best-of-five, there will be moves that have to be made to respond to things that aren’t working, both during games and between them. Dunn is probably the more willing to take a risk, and she may have to in order to compete in this series.
These squads faced each other twice in the space of four days, barely a month ago. Minnesota won both games, but they were tight, physical encounters. In fact, the second game involved the hard hits that led to the concussion symptoms that had people worried about whether Briann January and Shavonte Zellous would even be ready to perform in the playoffs.
Minnesota won the rebounding battle both times, particularly dominating in the second game, where Indiana fired up a huge number of threes. But it’s hard to take too much from those games, except for remembering the intensity both teams brought that already made it feel like the playoffs. Augustus missed the first game with an injury and was still working her way back in the second; Indiana suffered their injuries in the course of the second game; and both teams were messing with their rotations as the playoffs approached. All we really know from those games is that watching these teams go at it when everything really is on the line should be a lot of fun.
We covered most of this in the section on ‘The Post’, but it deserves reiterating as a final note. Indiana have not been good on the glass this season, and their swarming, rotating defense sometimes makes things worse by swinging players out of rebounding position as they try to cover. Minnesota, led by Rebekkah Brunson, have been very good overall on the boards, and exceptional on the offensive end. This is where the switch to Larkins has to make the difference for Indiana. Since she came into the starting lineup, the Fever narrowly beat Atlanta on the glass in Game 2, before destroying them in Game 3. Then, up against MVP center Tina Charles and Olympian Asjha Jones, Larkins helped Indiana fight to essentially a tie on the boards over the three-game Eastern Finals. The Fever can’t give up repeated second-chances to the Lynx, because Minnesota are just too good. The Lynx have just got too many weapons who’ll make Indiana pay.
A tie is fine for the Fever on the boards – they’ll take that, happily. The problems arise if they get dominated inside, if Larkins and Catchings are worn out or forced out of position too frequently by Minnesota’s ball movement. Indiana need to keep it tight on the glass to give themselves a fighting chance.