WNBA 2012 Playoff Previews – Eastern Conference Finals: Connecticut Sun vs. Indiana Fever

Connecticut Sun (#1 seed, 25-9) vs. Indiana Fever (#2 seed, 22-12)

 

Regular season series: Sun won 3-1

06/08 @Ind: Sun 89-81

06/19 @Conn: Sun 88-85

06/21 @Ind: Fever 95-61

09/19 @Conn: Sun 73-67

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While Atlanta always threatened a late run, these teams have been the top two in the Eastern Conference all season long. So it’s only fitting that they should be fighting it out for a place in the WNBA Finals. As with the West, the two contenders had contrasting paths through the first round. Connecticut finished off New York in two straight games and were done by Saturday night. Indiana dropped the opening game at home, shook up their starting lineup, and fought their way back to win a deciding game on Tuesday night. Now they travel to Connecticut for Game 1 of this series, where the Sun have been lying back and waiting for their opponents to show up all week.

Despite Connecticut finishing higher in the standings, most of the statistical categories gave Indiana the edge over the course of the regular season. Not by much, but the Fever were ahead in both offensive and defensive efficiency, among others, across the year. But these aren’t going to be quite the same teams that we saw in the regular season. Connecticut spent the second half of the year muddling through with fill-in options in the post alongside Tina Charles, while she also battled injuries. Now regular starter Asjha Jones is back from her achilles problem, and looked impressive in the series against the Liberty. Charles still has those injuries, and she’s had a few shaky rebounding games which the pain has likely contributed to, but most of the time she’s her typical MVP-level self both in the paint and with her mid-range jumper. Dealing with those two is going to be the highest priority for Indiana.

However, the Fever aren’t the same either. Indiana head coach Lin Dunn will likely start out the series with the lineup which served her so well against Atlanta, which isn’t quite the same as the group she relied on through the regular season. Erin Phillips came in at shooting guard for Shavonte Zellous, which added a little extra ballhandling to the mix (plus Phillips used to play for the Sun and took a while extricating herself from the franchise, so she might be particularly energised for this opponent). But the key change came at center, where Erlana Larkins replaced Tammy Sutton-Brown. That move gave Indiana energy and activity in the paint, along with a natural rebounder who makes up for her lack of height with effort and positioning. If Larkins plays the same heavy minutes again in this series, Connecticut will undoubtedly try to attack her and utilise their size advantage in the paint. But Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle had several inches on her as well, and couldn’t accomplish anything much once the Fever started using Larkins heavily inside. This could be where the series turns – Indiana need Larkins’s activity and rebounding on the floor, but if Connecticut can exploit her it could force Dunn to go bigger. Sutton-Brown or even Jessica Davenport may have to take up minutes at center to offer true size. Continue reading

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WNBA 2012 Playoff Previews – Western Conference Finals: Minnesota Lynx vs. Los Angeles Sparks

Minnesota Lynx (#1 seed, 27-7) vs. Los Angeles Sparks (#2 seed, 24-10)

 

Regular season series: Tied 2-2

05/24 @Min: Lynx 92-84

07/05 @L.A.: Sparks 96-90

09/04 @Min: Lynx 88-77

09/20 @L.A.: Sparks 92-76

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It seems like we’ve been heading for this clash in the 2012 Western Conference Finals for a while. From the start of the season, Los Angeles looked reenergised by a healthy Candace Parker, their new rookie stud, and a new head coach. Minnesota looked just as good as last year, when they swept their way to a WNBA championship. When San Antonio fell off a little after the Olympic break this matchup became even more likely, but their paths through the first-round differed significantly. While some lapses in concentration meant they had to fight it out in the closing minutes of each game, the Sparks finished off the Silver Stars 2-0 and were finished by Saturday afternoon. The Lynx, on the other hand, had a battle royale with Seattle and needed a last-second Storm miss on Tuesday night to secure their spot in this series. Minnesota were the favourites heading into the playoffs, and they still are in the eyes of the bookmakers. But a little extra doubt has been cast on proceedings since the crunch games began.

However, this will be a very different task from the first-round for both teams. Minnesota faced a Storm squad built on its defense, which kept them out of the paint and broke their rhythm offensively. While first-year Sparks head coach Carol Ross arrived from Atlanta with a reputation for defense, this LA team doesn’t have the defensive solidity of the Storm. They’ve often struggled to rotate and recover to fill gaps created by pick-and-rolls or basic off-ball movement. The problem for the Lynx is that those aspects of their offense seemed to disappear against Seattle. They were endlessly settling for perimeter jumpers, rather than trying to penetrate the defense. Sometimes that works out fine, because players like Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore are some of the best shooters in the game, but even for them a 15-foot jumper is a lower percentage shot than a layup. Minnesota need to appreciate quickly that they’re facing a less competent, less cohesive defense, and get back to picking it apart with their usual smooth passing and off-ball movement. They need quicker, easier offense than we saw throughout the Storm series.

LA were dealing with San Antonio’s quick, small perimeter guards and limited inside presence in the first round. Now they’re up against a team that plays far more solid interior defense, and has a hell of a lot more size and physicality to throw at them on the perimeter. The LA backcourt of Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard was facing diminutive players like Danielle Robinson, Becky Hammon and Jia Perkins, and Toliver/Beard shot 32-54 (59%) combined across the series. Now they’ll be trying to score over or around Lindsay Whalen, Augustus and Moore, which should make things rather more difficult. While the Lynx switch freely on the perimeter, we’ll have to wait and see how they target and attack LA on the defensive end. Augustus was tasked with tailing Sue Bird in the first round, and may well get first crack at slowing down Toliver in this series. Her size and length could trouble the Sparks gunner, and unlike San Antonio it doesn’t create an awkward mismatch elsewhere on the floor. Whalen can handle Beard if she has to. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 10/03/2012: Crucial deciders produce heartbreak and elation in equal measure

It’d be nice if the WNBA’s playoff series could be longer, purely because this is where the basketball becomes truly exciting. But the one benefit of playing best-of-three is the increased likelihood of games like the encounters we saw last night. Deciding games for all the marbles, where everything’s on the line, and it’s win or go home. These are the truly gripping contests, the games that leave the lasting memories after the season is long gone. This is where the spotlight truly shines brightest, and it’s time to step up.

The evening began back in Indiana, after two road wins had forced a Game 3 between the Fever and Dream. Atlanta had failed to close out the series in their own building, but they had the confidence of knowing that they’d won here only four days earlier, and pulled off a string of playoff upsets over the last couple of years. Indiana were still buzzing from the victory they managed to keep the series alive on Sunday.

The starting lineups were as for Game 2, which meant the Fever were sticking with Erin Phillips in the backcourt and Erlana Larkins at center. Hardly a surprise, considering how effective the lineup changes had been in Game 2. It continued straight through into the early sequences of Game 3. Atlanta were primarily throwing up jumpers, the sort of shots that Indiana would be happy to let them take all night long. Meanwhile Indiana were slicing into the defense via drives or solid ball movement, and creating far higher percentage shots. This was how the Fever came out on top in Game 2, and it led to a quick 9-2 lead.

After the improved rebounding from Indiana and superb performance of point guard Briann January in Game 2, Atlanta head coach Fred Williams had a couple of twists to his defense for Game 3. He switched his posts defensively, letting Erika de Souza take Tamika Catchings in the early minutes while Sancho Lyttle was on Erlana Larkins. It put a big, bulky defender on Catchings, who hadn’t been shooting well for much of the series (meaning the Dream weren’t too worried about her simply firing over de Souza before she could get out to challenge). It also, theoretically, should’ve allowed Lyttle to freelance a little more and disrupt all over the floor, because Larkins poses less of a direct offensive threat than Catchings. There was also a change on the perimeter, where Armintie Price slid over to guard January and hopefully slow her down, moving Lindsey Harding on to Phillips and Angel McCoughtry over to guard Katie Douglas. Price is a longer defender than Harding, so had more chance to make life difficult for January, plus it should’ve helped save Harding’s energy to contribute more offensively. They were reasonable moves.

The problem was that, despite her high reputation as a defender, McCoughtry couldn’t restrict Douglas the same way Price had in the first two games. Douglas shot 5-18 combined in the previous two games, and only played 18 minutes in Game 2 because other options were more effective for Indiana. Game 3 saw her get off to a much better start, with a couple of threes and some points in transition in the first quarter. This wasn’t going to be another invisible performance from Catchings’s usual key sidekick. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 10/01/2012: A night of drama forces deciding games

I have a long-standing theory that the NFL has become the most popular American sport because every game means more. People in the modern world, where there are so many other options begging for our attention, don’t want to waste their time with 82-game or 162-game regular seasons, where each individual contest is almost meaningless. Even with just 34, the WNBA became a bit of a slog this year, because most of the important matters were decided long before the end. But Sunday offered up two examples of why we all watch these wonderful sports. This is what we wait for through all those dreary games. Crucial contests where everything’s on the line, and no one’s ever going to quit.

We opened up in Atlanta, where Indiana had made their lives very difficult. After dropping Game 1 at home, the Fever needed to steal back Game 2 on the road just to keep their season alive. Indiana head coach Lin Dunn made a brave move, because the easy option for any head coach in the playoffs is just to keep riding what worked in the regular season. Instead, she shook up her starting lineup, going with the group that had almost pulled off a remarkable comeback in Game 1. Erin Phillips came in for Shavonte Zellous in the backcourt, and Erlana Larkins replaced Tammy Sutton-Brown at center. It made them smaller, but quicker and more aggressive. It also put a natural rebounder in the paint to join Tamika Catchings in the fight on the glass. After losing the rebounding battle 40-29 in Game 1, that was obviously a concern. Larkins is undersized for a post, but she makes up for it with pure hustle and boundless energy. Atlanta, of course, had the same starting five as in Game 1. Why change a successful formula?

From the very early moments, Indiana had more energy and drive to their play than in Game 1. They were pushing the ball down court with speed, driving into the paint and forcing the action far more. Catchings, inevitably, was the initial spark, but the speedy backcourt of Phillips and January was right there with her. Dunn still took two timeouts inside the first six minutes of the game, concerned about her team’s rebounding, and Atlanta were hanging right with Indiana on the scoreboard, but this was how the Fever had needed to start the game. The Dream were hitting jumpers to keep even, but that wasn’t likely to last.

The game remained surprisingly close in the second quarter – surprising because it felt like the Fever were in charge. They were penetrating and creating contact, forcing their way to the free-throw line. They had January curling around ball-screens and knocking down jumpers or slicing to the basket. They had both Sutton-Brown and Zellous providing nice energy off the bench, rather than pouting about being relegated from the starting lineup. In fact, the only things that weren’t working out were their stars and typical scoring leaders. Neither Catchings nor Katie Douglas could get a shot to drop, and by halftime they were a combined 2-14 for 8 points. Douglas hit the opening basket of the game on a Catchings kick-out; Catchings hit the final shot of the half with a pull-up three over Sancho Lyttle. That was all they had. Good thing their teammates were 14-16 for 39 at the half. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 09/30/2012: Sweeping into the Conference Finals

After holding serve in the opening games, two higher seeds had the chance to close out last night and maximise their rest before the Conference Finals. But with the 1-1-1 format the WNBA now uses, both would be trying to finish things on the road. The lower seeds were just trying to keep their seasons alive.

The action started in San Antonio, although thanks to a Red Hot Chilli Peppers concert at the AT&T Center, the Silver Stars and Sparks were playing next door at the Freeman Coliseum. Game 1 was tight and could’ve gone either way in the final minutes, so San Antonio would’ve been confident that they could extend the series against a team they beat three times in the regular season.

Both teams stuck with the same starting lineups, although Becky Hammon began the game defending DeLisha Milton-Jones rather than Alana Beard. Despite Milton-Jones having an even bigger size advantage, that had proven a much safer matchup for San Antonio in Game 1. It worked out fine, and Milton-Jones had a fairly quiet afternoon.

However, San Antonio still struggled to stop Los Angeles from scoring throughout the first half. LA were pushing the ball down the floor, looking for quick offense, and Candace Parker wasted no time in attacking Jayne Appel in the low post. They kept driving right around the edges of the San Antonio defense, and the help wasn’t there quickly enough to cut anything off. LA were already up 17-8 midway through the opening quarter, when Silver Stars coach Dan Hughes made his standard move to bring Danielle Adams and Jia Perkins off the bench.

While Adams and Perkins offered extra offensive options for San Antonio, they didn’t make much difference to the direction of the game. LA were still knocking down shots with ease, and finding too much space against the Silver Stars defense. San Antonio tried switching to zone, but LA were playing smartly enough to find the holes, or they had Kristi Toliver to just shoot over it. They even played heavy minutes with bench players Jenna O’Hea, Jantel Lavender and Marissa Coleman on the floor, and two regular starters were enough to help carry that group along. Continue reading