2012 WNBA Finals Mega-Preview: Lynx vs. Fever, Part 2 – The Post

Interestingly enough, we’ve arrived at a Finals without a major low post scoring threat for either team. Minnesota have Rebekkah Brunson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who can both finish inside or knock down shots from mid-range, but aren’t exactly players you toss the ball to down low and watch go to work. Indiana have Tamika Catchings, who’s still more of a perimeter player offensively, and now Erlana Larkins likely to start at center. Larkins only became a starter in Game 2 of the Atlanta series, with Fever head coach Lin Dunn searching for someone who could give her team energy inside and rebounding effort. Larkins does exactly that, despite being undersized, and her efforts against the bigger names of Atlanta and Connecticut have played a big role in taking Indiana this far. The Fever started to use her as an offensive option a little more down low in the Connecticut series, making Tina Charles work at both ends of the floor, but Larkins still isn’t high on their list of offensive options. These posts are out there for a lot more than their interior scoring.

Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin are the base of the Minnesota defense. They’re the interior core that makes it hard for the opposition to score against the Lynx inside, both mobile and smart enough to be in the right places against their assigned matchups and to help against penetration. McWilliams-Franklin is the wily veteran who does nothing faster than it needs to be done. You notice her most when she’s off the floor, and gaps that weren’t there before seem to appear far more readily in the Lynx defense. Brunson is the athlete, a voracious rebounder who rises up for boards or chases down balls that seemed like a lost cause. She can also get out in transition alongside the guards, and has a mid-range jumper that she regularly knocks down. Augustus and Moore draw so much attention that it’s often Brunson left in space, and she’s more than willing to make teams pay. Continue reading

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2012 WNBA Finals Mega-Preview: Lynx vs. Fever, Part 1 – The Perimeter

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. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 10/12/2012: Red hot Fever eclipse Sun to reach WNBA Finals

After a crazy finish on Monday forced a deciding game, last night saw the Indiana Fever and Connecticut Sun meet in a winner-takes-all decider for the Eastern Conference title. The victors would be heading straight to Minnesota for Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday night; the losers would be packing their bags and scattering around the globe for their offseason gigs. All that work over the hard slog of the regular season, and this 40 minutes would decide who got to play for the ring, and whose season was over.

The starting lineups were the same once again, and the most obvious thing to take from the opening exchanges was that the officials were going with a distinctly laissez-faire approach – they were going to “let ’em play”, especially in the paint. While there were some brief positive signs for Connecticut – Tina Charles was beating Erlana Larkins to rebounds, Asjha Jones had a pretty spin move around Tamika Catchings to open the scoring – it was Indiana who found their rhythm quicker. They knocked down a series of jump shots, with Catchings, Katie Douglas and Erin Phillips all accurate from the perimeter early, forcing Sun head coach Mike Thibault into a quick timeout with his team trailing 9-2.

Moments later came something no one wants to see, especially in the playoffs. Douglas drove into the lane, contriving a way to create a left-handed shot from the right side of the floor, as is often her style. The finish rimmed out, but far more important was Douglas’s landing. She came down on Tan White’s foot, and Douglas’s left foot twisted nastily. The idiotic rule that doesn’t allow the referees to stop the game meant Catchings hit a three before Phillips intentionally fouled to stop the game – all while Douglas was flat out on the court in agony. After a long pause while the trainers looked at Douglas and teammates surrounded her in support, she was helped from the floor while putting virtually no weight on her injured foot at all. That was the last we’d see of her for the rest of the night, bar the footage of her being stretchered into an ambulance so she could be taken to a local hospital for x-rays.

So the Fever were up 12-4 and had come out shooting well from outside, but they’d lost one of their key players barely five minutes into the game. They also had point guard Briann January looking uncertain and committing unusually weak turnovers. And Tina Charles looking good on the glass for the Sun. But amazingly, the Fever were still on top. They were still the ones knocking down every outside shot imaginable, with Shavonte Zellous coming in and smoothly filling Douglas’s shoes. Connecticut couldn’t hit from the perimeter, and were even struggling on basic finishes inside or putback attempts from offensive rebounds. They were lucky to be as close as 18-10 at the end of the first quarter. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 10/09/2012: Wild finish forces decider for Eastern crown

After Minnesota assured their spot in the WNBA Finals by completing a sweep over LA on Sunday, the Connecticut Sun had the chance to follow suit last night. But it was never going to be easy against an Indiana Fever team that clawed back from 1-0 down in the previous round and is led by the WNBA’s ultimate competitor, Tamika Catchings. If the Sun wanted the extra time off before the Finals begin on Sunday, they were going to have to hold off a Fever team fighting for its life in front of their own raucous fans. It turned out to be a hell of a battle.

There were no immediate, dramatic changes from the head coaches, as both Connecticut’s Mike Thibault and Indiana’s Lin Dunn stuck with the same starting lineups. The early minutes went Connecticut’s way, as the Sun broke out to a 13-2 lead. They’d opened the scoring with Tina Charles throwing up a three-pointer to beat the shot clock that dropped in, and kept the momentum going by knocking down jumpers and completing three-point plays at the rim. There was a quick pace to the game and the Fever were creating some opportunities in the paint, but failing to convert under pressure. It wasn’t a promising start for the team whose season was on the line.

However, as the first quarter progressed, Indiana settled down and started to ease their way back into the game. Big center Jessica Davenport saw her first minutes since the opening first-round game against Atlanta, coming in as the first post off the bench instead of Tammy Sutton-Brown, and provided a different look. She offers a big target for the offense to work around, and a soft touch when her shot’s falling. Then Tamika Catchings started drilling jumpers, with one from mid-range and a pair of threes to follow. Considering the number of poor shooting games Catchings has had in the playoffs – admittedly while driving the team in every other area – it was a significant positive for the Fever to see her start hitting early. Katie Douglas was looking sharp as well, and closed out the first quarter with a finish through traffic at the rim. Kara Lawson was already looking scarily hot from the perimeter for Connecticut but Indiana were right back in it after 10 minutes, trailing just 24-20. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 10/08/2012: Parker explosion not quite enough as Lynx advance again

After enduring a comprehensive defeat in a Game 1 that many felt they had a chance to steal, the Los Angeles Sparks were left in a ‘win or go home’ situation for the rest of the series. But that was also the one key advantage they had for Game 2 on Sunday afternoon – this time they were at home. Not just in the city of Los Angeles, but unlike the first round actually at Staples Center where they belong, where the Sparks were 16-1 over the course of the regular season. It was time to step up, or their season was over.

The signs from Game 1 hadn’t been good for LA. Minnesota picked their defense apart, unsettled the Sparks constantly with their defensive pressure, and responded impressively when LA briefly threatened a comeback. If LA produced the same kind of performance, the venue wasn’t going to make much difference.

Unsurprisingly, at this late stage in the year, there were no changes to the starting lineups. Minnesota have been riding the same group successfully for two years, and LA has a very limited bench, so personnel changes were never likely. However, there were some noticeable alterations from LA once the game began. Alana Beard was taking on more of the point guard duties, taking Kristi Toliver away from the ball where she’d struggled painfully in Game 1. Defensively, the Sparks started out with a combo-defense that looked a lot like a ‘triangle and 2’, where the bigs are in a zone down low and the guards play man-to-man on the perimeter. A reasonable idea in principle, except that it left Toliver trying to guard Seimone Augustus – and that never seemed likely to end well for LA.

The Lynx were the team on top in the opening period, playing with more speed and confidence to their offense and slicing through whichever defense LA threw at them. They were finishing well on the break, Lindsay Whalen was getting to the rim, and Rebekkah Brunson was already all over the glass. They were also the only team drawing whistles and heading to the free throw line – which unfortunately left you with the feeling that the officials would notice the discrepancy and end up ‘evening the score’ later in the game. Referees really shouldn’t do that, but it happens far too often to be a coincidence.

While there were some other, smaller contributors, LA began the game offensively as they’d continue most of the night – with Candace Parker carrying them on her broad shoulders. She had some outstanding finishes around the rim in the opening period, helping keep LA within 25-17 at the end of the first quarter. Her steady scoring rolled straight on into the second period, and it became even easier when the referees began evening up the foul count. Minnesota couldn’t buy a call in the second quarter, LA started getting all the touch fouls, and two quick whistles against Brunson sent her to the bench. That opened up extra room for Parker, who was already scoring the vast majority of her points on moves deep in the paint. The Sparks went on a run in the closing minutes before halftime, Parker leading the way with her obvious desire to keep the Sparks’ season alive, energising the crowd in the process. A final fastbreak bucket for Parker closed the half by dragging LA within a point, down just 40-39 at the break. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 10/06/2012: Sun cool off Fever to strike first in Eastern Finals

While the first round of the 2012 WNBA playoffs in the Eastern and Western Conferences mirrored each other in many ways – one team came through with ease, the other had a hell of a fight – there was one key difference. Los Angeles may have made it through to opening round comfortably, but they then had to go on the road to open the Conference Finals. Connecticut had a similarly straightforward first round, but they got to open the Eastern Finals on their own floor. While that gave them an extra comfort level that the Sparks didn’t have, it also made the game even more crucial. Dropping the first game at home would’ve dug a big hole that would”ve been tough to climb out of.

The Indiana Fever were their opposition, a team happy to still be alive after salvaging their first-round matchup against Atlanta. Indiana opened Game 1 against Connecticut with the same lineup that turned the Dream series, with Erin Phillips and Erlana Larkins starting the game. The Sun were also unchanged, featuring the same starting five that they used whenever possible in the regular season.

The opening quarter went well for Indiana, although in very different ways from how they battled past Atlanta. While they were keeping the pace high and pushing the ball down the floor as they had against the Dream, the first period saw a return to the perimeter attack that the Fever relied upon for much of the regular season. Either on penetration and kicks, or on simple ball rotation and passing, Indiana were finding wide open shots around the outside and knocking them down. While you’d typically prefer more of your shots to come from nearer the rim, Lin Dunn’s team weren’t going to turn down the kind of open looks that Connecticut’s defense was giving up, and Indiana were capitalising.

At the other end, Connecticut were firing up a lot of shots from similar range, but without the space Indiana were finding. For the Sun it was more a matter of settling for outside shots and being kept out of the paint by the Fever, rather than taking jumpers because they were open. Tina Charles and Asjha Jones were being double-teamed if they attempted to post up on the low block, and were beginning to simply stop bothering to venture down there. Indiana were already 4-10 from three-point range after 10 minutes of play, and led 22-14.

The Fever double-teams on the low block have been a feature of their defense all season, so Connecticut should’ve been ready for them. Rather than coming from the high defender on the same side of the floor as the ball, the extra defender comes from the baseline. The initial defender overplays the high side, knowing where her help is coming from, and then the attacking player tries to turn into the space on the baseline – only to run into the second defender. It’s especially effective because the player it leaves open is on the opposite side of the floor, in the deep corner, who is hard to rotate the ball to before the defense can recover and jump back out. In the opening stages of this game Connecticut rarely managed to find anyone open or create anything useful against the pressure of those double-teams. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 10/05/2012: Lynx tear Sparks to shreds to open Western Finals

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.

Continue reading