The culmination of the 2012 season finally arrived last night, with the opening game of the WNBA Finals. We had the heavy favourite, in the shape of the reigning champion Minnesota Lynx, favoured by just about everybody to take home a second consecutive title. Then there was the plucky underdog, the Indiana Fever, already dealing with a key injury and led by a superstar who’s still searching for her first ring. These teams played a pair of regular season games with a playoff intensity just last month, so we had every right to expect something even better now that it was the real thing. We weren’t disappointed.
Indiana wing Katie Douglas, their second-leading scorer and a primary ballhandler, wasn’t even in Minnesota for the game. She was still back home, trying to rehab the nastily sprained ankle she suffered in the deciding game of the Eastern Conference Finals. Shavonte Zellous, a regular starter for the Fever for most of the season, slid back into the starting lineup to fill the gap. Everything else was as expected for the opening tip-off – Minnesota’s standard five that they’ve been riding for two years, Indiana with Tamika Catchings and Erlana Larkins paired in the post, and a sellout crowd going nuts in the Target Center.
From the start it was the intense, quick-tempo game we’d expected. The slight surprise was just how effective Indiana were from the very beginning. As would be the case for much of the night, Indiana’s offensive execution was beating the Minnesota defense. High screens for pick-and-rolls found open scorers to finish inside, or players like Briann January and Erin Phillips were finding lanes into the paint. This was not how Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve would’ve expected her team to come out defensively.
Not that the Lynx were being blown off the floor. They had their own offensive successes, with Rebekkah Brunson particularly prominent in the opening stages. She knocked down a jumper, finished multiple times inside, and crashed the offensive glass for extra opportunities. In fact, both teams were all over the offensive boards early on, with Larkins doing her best Brunson impression for Indiana.While Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore both showed off their ability to hit perimeter jump shots in the first quarter, they were matched by the accuracy of Catchings, January and Zellous. Catchings had her jumper flowing nicely early on, which is always a good sign for Indiana. When the Lynx started to cough up turnovers late in the first quarter under the Indiana defensive pressure, the Fever pulled out to a 25-20 lead to close the first period. This was not the script that the Target Center crowd had expected to follow.
It’s not like the Fever had opened the game doing anything unusual. These were sets and plays that Minnesota have seen plenty of times before, and would’ve seen on tape from the Fever in preparing for the series. But Indiana were showing far greater ability to exploit the holes in the Lynx defense than the Los Angeles Sparks had in the previous round. Minnesota weren’t quite trapping like they had on ball-screens in the LA series, but they were still showing hard against the ballhandler with the second defender. That then requires rotation and help behind the two initial defenders to cover the player that’s been left in space. But the Fever were either finding that player directly or rotating the ball back to the top of the arc, then making the extra pass to the open player to score. It’s like a pick-and-roll, only with an extra teammate involved in the middle – who adds an extra threat because that player can shoot it as well. They picked apart Minnesota’s defense relatively easily, repeatedly forcing Taj McWilliams-Franklin to try to move quickly enough to handle their passing and movement. Combined with their defensive intensity, it left Indiana on top.
At the defensive end, the effect of sliding Larkins into the starting group was again apparent. While undersized, it makes Indiana incredibly flexible. Both Catchings and Larkins are capable of switching onto the Minnesota perimeter players – Augustus, Moore, Lindsay Whalen – and playing solid defense without being beaten. It gives the Fever time to slide and help where they have to, and reset matchups that need to be switched. For all their defensive success over the last couple of years, Minnesota didn’t look as comfortable or as organised – whether in their regular man-to-man or the 2-3 zone they tried after barely 5 minutes of action.
Also not helping matters for the Lynx, Moore picked up her second foul on another unnecessary perimeter reach-in late in the first quarter – although she stayed in the game for most of the second quarter anyway. When Indiana’s lead hit 10 points early in the second period, Minnesota responded with a 6-0 run and we were back in a tight contest again. For all Larkins’s efforts on the offensive glass, Indiana were having huge problems taking care of their own defensive rebounds, allowing Minnesota to keep far too many possessions alive. The rotation and help within Indiana’s defense was making the Lynx miss, but leaving Fever players out of position to rebound.
The Minnesota crowd was growing a little restless as we headed towards halftime, unhappy about a lack of calls and likely frustrated by their own team’s performance. Augustus joined in late in the half, picking up a technical foul for complaining after teammate Monica Wright had been called for a foul while being flattened by a Catchings screen. Still, it worked out okay for the Lynx, as a couple of trips to the free throw line – the second on an incredibly dumb late foul by Zellous on Augustus – allowed Minnesota to pull within 43-30 at halftime.
The worrying stat for Indiana at the break was their 17-8 overall deficit in rebounding. There’d been 13 offensive boards already between the teams, leading to a 13-7 Lynx advantage in second-chance points. The greater effectiveness of Indiana’s defense in forcing turnovers had kept them in control.
The third quarter was interesting because of the way the momentum swung in Minnesota’s favour, but didn’t keep flowing. It was just the stage in the game where you’d expect the Lynx to assert themselves and take control, and for several minutes it felt like that was happening. Augustus was glorious, bringing back memories of her outstanding performances in last year’s Finals, knocking down a series of shots. Moore, now on three fouls after another dumb one in transition before halftime, added a three and an athletic tip-in. Indiana’s offense had lost its rhythm, with possessions repeatedly running down the shot clock as they looked short of ideas. The Fever went nearly four minutes without scoring, and Minnesota had turned a halftime deficit into a 54-50 advantage midway through the third quarter.
Against a weaker team, the Lynx would’ve kept pulling away, as their defense stepped up and kept Indiana under control. But the Fever eased out of their offensive slump, and began executing again. Larkins was still right there keeping possessions alive on the offensive glass, January was using her quickness to get to the rim, and the Fever refused to go away. They were down only 58-56 at the end of the third.
After playing the entire opening 30 minutes of the game, Catchings finally got a rest to open the fourth quarter. Her shooting had fallen off in the third, so maybe she needed the break. Jessica Davenport came in to play alongside Larkins, and the Fever remained effective even without their superstar. In fact, while Catchings rested Phillips turned a steal into a layup the other way, then more Larkins hustle presented Davenport with a layup (plus the foul for an extra point at the line), and Phillips knocked down a tough jumper. When Catchings came back after sitting for less than three minutes of game time, her teammates had turned a 2-point deficit into a 2-point advantage.
From there, the disintegration of the Minnesota Lynx continued to roll. They couldn’t buy a bucket, as jumpers refused to fall from outside and Indiana’s pressure and defensive ability in the paint prevented the Lynx from converting inside. Augustus was strangely anonymous in the fourth quarter after her strong third, while Moore just couldn’t get anything to fall. With Moore at power forward for much of the fourth quarter – why Reeve chose to do that after staying away from that option throughout the second and third periods, you’d have to ask her – Indiana finally found some success on the defensive glass. Obviously all the misses from Minnesota gave them added opportunities, but Indiana had 10 defensive boards in the fourth quarter alone – they’d managed 8 in the preceding 30 minutes.
At the other end of the floor, Indiana’s execution once again came to the fore. This wasn’t Kristi Toliver or even Alana Beard that Minnesota were dealing with. January, Phillips, Catchings and even Jeanette Pohlen were moving the ball away from Minnesota’s pressure, and finding the open player. That was most noticeable when it resulted in layups – Larkins was the most common beneficiary – but they’d also found open shooters on the perimeter over the course of the night. They’d knocked down some tough shots at times, but the ball movement had also resulted in good shots for players with room to breathe. Yet another Larkins layup gave Indiana a 72-62 lead with barely 3 minutes remaining – Minnesota had missed 9 consecutive shots.
The Lynx missed their next three as well, before a deep leaning three from Moore with 80 seconds left on the clock finally broke their streak of 12 misses. That cut the gap to 5 at 72-67 and gave the Lynx some hope, but it wasn’t to be. Catchings forced her way to the free throw line for a pair before Moore bobbled the ball out of bounds for yet another turnover. Even with a ridiculous offensive foul call on January (bought by a Whalen flop), and Zellous swallowing a Moore pump fake and landing on her with 32 seconds left, the Lynx were still down 76-70 after Moore made all three free throws. Fouling to extend the game in that situation seemed like it would’ve made sense, but Minnesota allowed Indiana to run down the clock and fire up a three from the corner. Zellous missed, but with under 10 seconds remaining Minnesota were done for anyway. They had time to miss another pair of shots from outside, but the upset was in the books. Indiana had come away with a 76-70 shock to steal home court advantage and a 1-0 lead in the series.
Perhaps the strangest thing about this game was that there wasn’t anything strange about how Indiana achieved it. The Fever ran what we knew they’d run, with the players we knew they’d use, and simply managed to execute better at both ends of the floor over the course of the night. Minnesota gave up 12 offensive rebounds, which they won’t be happy about, but had a 38-30 advantage on the glass overall (and it was 29-18 before Moore-at-the-4 dominated the fourth quarter Lynx lineups). Minnesota’s offense didn’t have much pep all night, apart from the early run by Brunson and the shooting of Augustus (8-15 for 23 points), who barely seemed to touch the ball in the fourth quarter. Indiana are shorter at virtually every position on the floor but Minnesota rarely post up, so all that really means is that it should be easier for the Lynx to shoot over them. You can contest and hassle shooters without necessarily being tall enough to block their shots, and Indiana’s constant defensive activity worked nicely. Moore took a lot of threes (4-14 overall for 14 points, including 3-10 from beyond the arc), with her early foul trouble perhaps curtailing her aggression somewhat.
Offensively, Minnesota probably won’t change much for Game 2 – it’s simply a matter of moving the ball better without turning it over (17 turnovers gave away far too many possessions), and hitting some shots. But the pressure from Indiana isn’t going to get any easier. At the other end, the Lynx can’t leave so many gaps in the heart of their defense. Showing so hard on ball screens isn’t as worthwhile against Indiana as it was against LA, with players like January and Phillips handling the ball who can shoot but aren’t likely to pull up and kill you. They’re too good at moving the ball and finding the right teammate to finish the play, so the risk inherent in perimeter double-teams is greater than the potential reward. Expect the interior to be rather more clogged for Game 2, and if the Lynx give up anything like 38 points in the paint again Reeve might just explode.
Indiana will rightfully be absolutely delighted with their performance. While both teams piled up offensive rebounds, Indiana played with greater hustle and ferocity over the course of the game. That approach was led yet again by Larkins, who finished 8-12 for 16 points and 15 rebounds (7 offensive). She didn’t take a shot from outside 2 feet all night long, but she was always there to fight for a second-chance or on the spot to finish plays at the rim. Catchings ultimately shot 6-20 for 20 points, which seems like an ugly line, but the 6 boards, 4 blocks (including 2 big ones on Moore under the rim in the fourth quarter) and 3 steals illustrates her value elsewhere. The greater mobility and fluidity of the Indiana defense allowed them to hassle to Lynx more than they were troubled at the other end, with Phillips, January, Zellous and Pohlen all doing solid work on the perimeter. The starters all played heavy minutes, but with the next game not until Wednesday, there’s plenty of time to rest.
While Douglas was supposedly a possibility to return for Game 2, this win makes it even more likely that they’ll tell her to stay home and try to get ready for when the series returns to Indiana. The Fever will come out with the same intensity on Wednesday night and the same attack mentality, hoping to do exactly the same thing again. It’s up to the Lynx to produce a better performance if they want to reestablish themselves in this series. After Game 1, the favourites aren’t quite so favoured any more.
Remaining WNBA Finals Schedule (Indiana leads best-of-five 1-0)
Wednesday October 17th:
Indiana @ Minnesota, Game 2, 8pm ET
Friday October 19th:
Minnesota @ Indiana, Game 3, 8pm ET
Sunday October 21st:
Minnesota @ Indiana, Game 4 (if necessary), 8pm ET
Wednesday October 24th:
Indiana @ Minnesota, Game 5 (if necessary), 8pm ET