By the numbers (over entire regular season):
Minnesota (26-8) vs Seattle (17-17)
Points scored per 100 possessions: 106.46 (1st in WNBA (by a mile)) – 95.71 (7th)
Points conceded per 100 possessions: 94.55 (3rd) – 98.73 (9th)
Rebound percentage: .522 (2nd) – .489 (9th)
Season series between the teams: Minnesota won 4-0
08/04 @Min, Lynx won 90-72
08/31 @Min, Lynx won 97-74
09/07 @Sea, Lynx won 75-60
09/10 @Sea, Lynx won 73-60
As we’ve heard virtually every commentator and analyst across the league proclaim in the second half of the season, “no one expected Seattle to be in this position”. Of course that’s not entirely true – in one of my rare moments of insight, I had the Storm making the playoffs in my preseason predictions, and in fact even had them facing Minnesota in the first-round. That prediction was based on the simple knowledge that over the years, whichever key players happened to be missing on a given night, Brian Agler’s Storm teams found a way to win basketball games. The team defense is there, the collective effort and organisation is there, and they don’t give up. So if anyone is going to give Seattle a chance in this series, it’s going to be me, right?
The problem is, it’s incredibly hard to come up with defensible arguments that give the Storm a prayer in this series. Minnesota have been a dominant team yet again this year, led by the wing scoring from Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore, along with the leadership and attacking of Lindsay Whalen at the point. Then there’s still the athleticism and rebounding of Rebekkah Brunson and the smarts and passing of Janel McCarville inside, and one of the most aggressive and effective team defenses in the game – plus the additional chemistry of their core (besides McCarville) having now been together for several years. It’s a Lynx team that loves to play up-tempo and run by you in transition, but can also execute in the halfcourt and create good looks at the basket. They’re a nightmare to handle.
A nightmare that has left Seattle waking up screaming this season. Minnesota beat them four times by double-digits, and the margins of 15 and 13 points in the final two meetings didn’t fully reflect how dominant the Lynx were. In those two, the Storm actually did a solid job of staying tight to Minnesota’s shooters, challenging perimeter shots and forcing the Lynx to miss. It’s the kind of defense they’ll need to even be within sight of Minnesota in this series. But the Lynx won those games handily anyway, because Seattle couldn’t score. The Storm have really struggled to create any decent looks against the Lynx, finding it difficult to get into any rhythm offensively due to the way Minnesota challenge passing lanes and make it difficult to move the ball without turning it over. The Storm either end up stagnant, failing to shift the ball around the floor as much as they should, which results in forced jump shots under pressure from defenders. Or they start trying to force the ball into ever-decreasing gaps in their efforts to create better shots, which leads to turnovers (and potential breakouts for the Lynx in the opposite direction). It’s a rock and a hard place for the Storm, and against Minnesota this season they’ve gotten crushed either way.
While the Lynx tend to depend on their triple-threat perimeter of Whalen/Augustus/Moore to lead their offense, and take what they can get from Brunson, McCarville and Monica Wright off the bench, it’s been a collective effort for Seattle all year. They’re at their best when everyone is contributing, from Temeka Johnson at point guard to Tina Thompson and Camille Little in the paint. They’re going to need that team production in this series, but they’ll also need individuals to step up. It’s the last hurrah for Thompson before heading into retirement, but she has to be an offensive force in this series. Both she and Little have had some desperately quiet games against the Lynx this year, partly because the Storm have found it so hard to get them the ball. But there has to be some interior production from Seattle. If they’re left purely depending on perimeter scoring, they’re in trouble.
Then there are the remaining options I haven’t mentioned. Tanisha Wright needs to dictate from the perimeter, and she needs to attack the basket. She’ll have a job on her hands chasing Augustus around on defense, but she’s also a key cog in Seattle’s offense. Some of their rare moments of success against Minnesota this year have come when she’s managed to penetrate and make something happen, and that needs to happen a lot for the Storm in this series. Then there’s Shekinna Stricklen, the second-year small forward who’s had an up-and-down season for Seattle. They need her to step up defensively on Maya Moore, which is no small task, and show up offensively as well. She’s been unreliable this year, as prone to games where you barely notice she was on the floor as to actually making an impact on the scoreboard. Which leads us to…
Key to Watch: Seattle hitting shots
It’s likely a pipe-dream that the Storm will find much fresh success against Minnesota’s defense in this series. Unless Agler was keeping something significant under wraps in the regular season encounters – which seems unlikely – it’s going to be just as hard for Seattle to create holes or score in the paint as it was all year. So they’re going to have to get hot from outside. That likely means Thompson and Stricklen, with the other options around them occasionally chipping in. Thompson’s been the only one producing from out there with any consistency this season, while everyone else has been streaky at best. They’ll probably get a decent look or two, because if Minnesota concede anything defensively it’s the three-point shot – due to their determination to defend penetration. Entering a jump-shooting contest with the Lynx isn’t a competition you want to join unless you’re forced to, but the Storm may have little option – and they’ll need to win it.
Watching the Lynx against the league this year, you’d probably make them favourites against any first-round opponent. Watching them against the Storm in particular, you can’t help but see Minnesota as overwhelmingly likely to progress. Seattle won’t even have the backing of their vociferous Key Arena faithful behind them, as a private event has forced them to shift Game 2 to the Tacoma Dome (to the significant disappointment and anger of many fans). As I’ve repeated many times, the Storm have a tendency to find a way to win games when everyone is writing them off. And they came within one shot of dumping the Lynx out in the first-round last year. But it’s going to take something very unlikely to bring about an upset in this series in 2013.
2-0 Minnesota. I’ve been taking the Lynx to cover huge lines against the Storm all season, waiting for Seattle to prove they could compete with Minnesota. I’ve been winning with those picks. The Storm are still yet to suggest they’re up to the task.