Last night saw just one WNBA matchup on the schedule, and once again the Minnesota Lynx took to the floor just an hour before an NBA Finals game tipped off. Unlike last week, this one was still a contest at halftime and forced fans to make a choice – or continually flip backwards and forth from one to the other. Archived video can also be your friend.
For once there were no real injury details to delve into before the tip – Becky Hammon and Sophia Young are still missing for San Antonio, but at this point that’s old news. The starting fives were as expected.
The opening possession of the game had an amusing quirk, as Minnesota dropped into a zone defense for no particular reason. It wasn’t something we saw again for the rest of the night. Dan Hughes and Cheryl Reeve know each other so well (Reeve was a Hughes assistant back in his Cleveland Rockers days) that it almost felt like Cheryl was just throwing it in for comedy effect. The very first move in the chess match between the coaches was openly declaring “yeah, I know, we’re probably not going to surprise each other without being completely ridiculous”.
San Antonio continued their pattern from this season of using Jia Perkins on the opposing point guard defensively, sliding Danielle Robinson over to take the shooting guard. In Minnesota’s case, that immediately creates what looks like a physical mismatch. Seimone Augustus is significantly bigger both in terms of height and sheer bulk, but Robinson has become adept at using her speed and agility to stay with bigger players and make life very difficult for them. That’s presumably why Hughes continues to use her on wing players, when the more natural physical matchups would leave her on point guards.
Neither team led by more than four points in the first half of this game, as it developed into a tight battle that no one could quite take control of. The offense that Minnesota typically produce through the perimeter scoring of Augustus and Maya Moore was being kept in check by the Silver Stars. The Lynx ran those same pin-down screens on either side that destroyed Phoenix last week, but San Antonio’s defense is so much better and more active than the Mercury that the sets were completely ineffective. The Silver Stars knew what the Lynx were trying to do, and their defenders are much quicker at fighting through or around screens, so invariably the passing lanes were never even there to feed Augustus and Moore the ball. Plus the chemistry and help requirements are ingrained within the San Antonio defense to such an extent that if someone does get caught on a screen, other players recognise when they have to react and switch or rotate to help out. Hughes really is doing a heck of a job with this team. The only set that worked for Minnesota’s usual high-scorers in the first half was when Moore jumped out beyond the three-point line through a squeeze screen – where two teammates work like closing elevator doors, allowing Moore to sneak through before shutting in the face of her defender. They ran it twice in succession, and Moore hit threes both times, turning the second instance into a rare four-point play when she was fouled.
But those successful moments of offense were few and far between for Minnesota in the first half. They had no transition game at all, because San Antonio were taking care of the ball, and at least putting up a fight on the glass. Rebekkah Brunson looked keen to take shots after her mid-range jumper was falling nicely on Saturday in Washington, but they weren’t going in last night. Fortunately, the Lynx still have the best healthy point guard in the game, and Lindsay Whalen knows when her team needs her to become a scorer. She was aggressive in looking for her own shot and trying to get to the rim – that was virtually inevitable, considering she couldn’t even attempt some of her usual passes – and that helped Minnesota keep the scoreboard ticking over at least a little.
At the other end of the floor, San Antonio did a nice job of moving without the ball and making extra passes to slice to the rim for good looks. They had an unusual advantage in points in the paint at halftime (14-8), which you rarely see from a San Antonio team with little low-post threat. No one on the roster had more than 6 points at the break, but they’d found contributions from eight different players to achieve their 36-35 advantage. Even backup guard Davellyn Whyte, who most expected to be cut in training camp after being taken with the 16th overall pick in this year’s draft, looks useful. She’s quick, she’s adapting quickly to the requirements of pro-level defense, and she’s knocking down threes. You can’t ask for much more from a rookie backup who probably wasn’t expected to play outside of garbage time until Hammon broke her finger.
There was a little excitement late in the first half, when Danielle Adams shouldered her way through Amber Harris in the paint and drew a foul. With Adams creating all the contact and adding in a little push-off on top, it looked like an offensive foul to me. Reeve agreed, and looked like she was contemplating a jacket-toss like the one from the WNBA Finals last year. Eventually she restrained herself to just a technical foul, keeping the jacket in place.
Minnesota opened the second half creating a little offense from their defense. Finally, they were forcing a couple of turnovers, which led to more speed in their offense, and some easier looks in transition. They’re such an attractive offensive team in full flow, it gets overlooked how strong the Lynx have been defensively in the last couple of years. As with any team, their scoring can really be aided by cheap points generated from steals. After none in the first half, the Lynx were finally getting somewhere in the second.
But San Antonio weren’t going away. One sequence with 4:30 left in the third quarter deserves particular recognition. A Silver Stars possession was going nowhere when Shenise Johnson tried to hit a fall away over Brunson – only for the Lynx forward to show off her athleticism by blocking it almost before the shot left Johnson’s hand. That left just three seconds on the shot clock for the Silver Stars. Danielle Adams threw a perfect alley-oop inbounds pass to Robinson – 5’6” at most, regardless of official listings – who leapt for the mid-air tap-in finish over Monica Wright. A truly beautiful play.
The vital sequence of this game came from midway through the third quarter to the middle of the fourth, and it reflected well on Reeve as well as her players. She’d admitted to “doing a terrible job coaching” on Saturday against Washington, and a significant part of that was quitting on her bench. She resorted to essentially a six-player rotation against the Mystics, giving up on young backups like Amber Harris and Devereaux Peters rather than giving them a chance to bounce back from early mistakes. This time, despite less than perfect moments in the first half, Harris and Peters both saw minutes along with Wright in the second. Reeve was allowing them to play through their errors and make up for them, rather than sit on the bench watching the game go by. Neither Harris nor Peters made a big impact on the boxscore, but they were part of the defensive effort that helped construct a 26-11 Lynx run. Wright was big with her speed and defensive activity creating opportunities to push, Whalen was still attacking, Augustus had found a little success either in transition or in using her size to get at Robinson down low, and San Antonio couldn’t hold on any more. When Reeve finally made a sub that rested one of those three bench players, the Lynx were up 72-56; it was 46-45 when Wright and Harris came off the pine.
The Silver Stars kept fighting. There was a poor sequence for Minnesota where Johnson had a jumper, a three-point play and a wide open layup in quick succession, leading to a necessary timeout from an irate Reeve. But when Johnson drained a triple with barely three minutes remaining to cut the lead to seven points, Moore answered immediately with a bomb of her own. Even on a bad night – for them – Moore and Augustus came up with enough plays to make a significant impact and help their team to victory. The Lynx held on to win 87-72, a scoreline which doesn’t reflect how tightly contested most of the game was and how hard Minnesota had to fight for the victory.
We’ve seen several games over recent years between these two teams that looked like this. San Antonio really make Minnesota work for everything, even if they don’t have the same pure talent that the Lynx possess (especially true without Hammon and Young). But most of the time, Minnesota find a way to come out on top. Augustus and Moore eventually combined for 37 points on 11-21 shooting, which is pretty impressive production for a night when both struggled to find room against tough defenders. Moore found some space against occasional small breakdowns in San Antonio’s defense, allowing her to hit some key threes. Augustus ultimately created some offense by posting up Robinson or driving right at her from the perimeter – rather than constantly coming off screens. It’s hard to control those two for 40 minutes.
The combo of Whalen and Wright was where the key additional offense came from. Whalen kept pushing all night, recognising that her team needed her to produce in more than just the assists column in this particular game (she finished 8-15 for 23 points). Wright was dynamic and effective off the bench, not for the first time this season. She’s been thrust into a slightly different role this year by the departure of Candice Wiggins, which makes Wright a primary ballhandler more often. Unlike Wiggins, Wright is managing to take on that responsibility while continuing to get out on the break and get to the rim. It gives the Lynx a more versatile threat with that first guard off the bench, and putting the ball in her hands more often certainly isn’t a bad thing. She’s an early contender for Sixth Woman of the Year.
Ultimately, San Antonio just couldn’t contain the Lynx for the entire game. It’s a hard thing to do, especially in Minnesota’s Target Center. Shenise Johnson continues to produce (she might be holding off Wright for that Sixth Woman award at this point), but they didn’t get quite enough offense from elsewhere. Jia Perkins has always been streaky, and with the absence of Hammon there’s more required of Perkins from night to night. When you’re a primary scoring weapon in the starting lineup, it’s a much bigger deal when you don’t produce than when you’re a bench option. Danielle Robinson, for all the plaudits I’ve sent her way this year, is also struggling a little with her shot. Last year her mid-range jumper was vastly improved, and led to an exceptional 54% from the field. Without Hammon, a lot of Robinson’s shots are coming off the dribble rather than being simple catch-and-shoot opportunities where she takes the feed from Becky and can fire away. It’s a much more difficult shot off the dribble, so she’s hitting a lot fewer of them. Both Whalen and Wright repeatedly went under screens against her, openly offering the 15-foot jumper, and she couldn’t punish them. Ideally combined with becoming an occasional three-point threat, that’s the next step for Robinson’s offensive game. If she can consistently knock down the pullup jumper, she goes from frightening to petrifying.
If you hadn’t already heard, the Russians changed their minds. Apparently they decided Epiphanny Prince is healthy enough for EuroBasket Women after all, and their coach even said she was expected to be in France for their opening game on Saturday against Spain. Maybe they only expect her ankle to recover in time for the later stages of the tournament, or maybe it really was a very minor sprain – either way, she’s been named in their final squad of 12. The Chicago Sky can only hope that she stays on the sidelines until she’s legitimately healthy to play.
Wednesday June 12th (tonight):
Connecticut @ Indiana, 8pm ET (live on ESPN2). Both these teams have been struggling through a painful litany of injuries, leading to a “we have no clue” betting line of Indiana -4. There’ll probably be last-minute fluctuations once the gamblers know whether Kara Lawson and/or Katie Douglas will be taking part. I’ll take the Fever – both teams are banged up, but Connecticut had a gaping hole at power forward even before all the injuries.