After a couple of upsets shifted the balance of the WNBA playoffs on opening night, the second evening began with the series that always looked most likely to provide a lower seed surprise. The reigning champion Indiana Fever had struggled through the regular season and finished with a 16-18 record, but they were 3-1 against Chicago, and have repeatedly beaten the Sky over the years. When several players were given the night off for Indiana’s final regular season game, it became pretty clear that the Fever were happy to face Chicago in the first-round. The Sky may have been the best team in the East this season, but the Fever weren’t the least bit afraid to take them on.
However, the task appeared to become more difficult for Indiana before tip-off, when Katie Douglas was ruled out due to more back pain. The Fever had ended up losing out on two counts – Douglas’s return forced them to release backup post Jessica Breland, and now they didn’t have Douglas either. On the bright side, after a season of filling-in and stepping up quite nicely, Karima Christmas was well-prepared to slide back into the starting role that Douglas would’ve taken. Chicago had their regular group to start the game.
The first punch in the coaching battle was thrown by Indiana’s Lin Dunn, with a shift in the defensive matchups. The Fever switch enough that the initial assignments don’t always matter that much, but they had Tamika Catchings on Elena Delle Donne, Christmas on Epiphanny Prince, and Shavonte Zellous on Swin Cash to open the game. Christmas had done most of the work on Delle Donne in the regular season clashes between these teams, with Catchings on Cash and Zellous on Prince, in more ‘natural’ matchups along positional lines. They were obviously happy to take the minimal risk that Cash would use her size and strength to take advantage of being guarded by a perimeter player (and they were proven right). Maybe the changes came from preparing for the series with Douglas in mind as a starter rather than Christmas, but it’s equally possible that Dunn just wanted that extra little edge that nudging your opponent off-balance can provide.
The Sky tried to go inside to Sylvia Fowles, early and often. But Erlana Larkins was doing her typical impressive job of using her body to put Fowles under pressure, making it hard for Fowles to get deep position in the paint and equally tough to finish whenever she did receive the ball. It was very hard work for Big Syl inside early on. Fortunately for Chicago, Delle Donne drew some fouls to head to the free throw line, and exploited Indiana’s switching a couple of times for three-point plays over Briann January on the low block. Chicago’s offense was surviving okay.
It was on the defensive end where the Sky ran into big problems. I’ve talked about this before – several times – in regards to Indiana-Chicago matchups. The Fever penetrate a little, without even needing to really beat their man off the dribble; the Sky defender in the short corner is drawn in to offer help against the penetration, whether it’s actually needed or not; and then the kick-out pass can go to the shooter on the wing or in the corner for a clean look at a three. The defender who’s hedged inside rarely has time to recover. We saw a whole series of corner threes from the Fever in the first quarter alone, most of them off plays just like that (although once they got into rhythm they were knocking down other kinds of looks as well). Christmas had a pair of triples before Zellous joined in, and then January, Erin Phillips and even Layshia Clarendon joined the party in the second quarter.
This was not good defense from Chicago, and it was pretty appalling preparation as well. It’s not like it’s something new that Indiana broke out for the playoffs. Pokey Chatman has seen the Fever do the exact same things to her team four times this season already, and yet those wing defenders still weren’t staying home. The Sky have been a solid, successful defensive team all season, and cutting off penetration is always a major part of that. But they’ve got the presence of Fowles, the height and length of Delle Donne, and the physicality and smarts of Cash to deal with drives. They don’t need that much help. It was unforgivable that the perimeter defenders for Chicago hadn’t had it repeatedly drilled into them for days to stay home on those wing shooters. Good defense against one team is not always good defense against another – you have to pay attention to how they want to hurt you. That said, Indiana shot 6-9 from three-point range in the first half. They were stepping up to make shots that they hadn’t hit at anywhere close to that rate in the regular season.
The Fever just rolled in the first half. Chicago’s defense may have been poor, but Indiana stepped up and made shots, and once their confidence grew they just kept moving the ball and taking their opportunities. January managed to finish inside, Christmas slashed in for drives – important because she was making Delle Donne work defensively and running her into screens – and Catchings didn’t even have to play in the second quarter. Her teammates were playing so well without her, Dunn let her rest, and the Fever lead kept extending. They were up 50-37 at halftime. They only broke 70 in 18 games in the entire regular season, and they had fifty at the break.
The pattern changed a little in the second half, but the course of the game remained the same. Indiana couldn’t stay quite that hot offensively, but they avoided falling into any of the droughts that have affected them during the regular season. The threes were still dropping from outside, and Chicago’s defense was still breaking down far too easily. Even Fowles, handed the WNBA’s Defensive Player of the Year Award before the game, saw players go by her for layups. it didn’t seem like the Sky were particularly nervous or jittery in their first ever playoff game – it was simply one of their worst defensive performances of the entire season.
And their offense dropped off in the second half as well. They once again came out of the locker room looking to force feed Fowles, and while she drew a few fouls, she still didn’t manage to convert many of her opportunities against Larkins (and occasionally Catchings) in the paint. Delle Donne drifted out of the game in the second half – especially the third quarter – and rarely even seemed to touch the ball. The focus on Fowles was understandable, but when the ball didn’t get in to her the Sky were playing a lot of one-on-one offense, and Indiana’s individual defense was too good for that. Epiphanny Prince had 14 points in the second half, but it was a thoroughly empty, aimless 14 featuring a lot of forced shots and 30% success from the field.
You kept waiting for some kind of Sky run, especially considering the number of games we’ve seen them steal with strong finishes over the course of the season. But it never came. They couldn’t string together enough stops or enough buckets to make it happen. With five minutes left in the game and a 14-point lead, Dunn even had the cojones to take Larkins out for a brief rest and put Jasmine Hassell in the game at center, guarding Fowles. Larkins was off the floor for 90 seconds, and the only touch of the ball Fowles received during that time on offense was out at the three-point line. It summed up Chicago’s futility on the night, as did the series of offensive boards that kept alive a Fever possession while Larkins – far and away their best offensive rebounder – was sat on the bench. The Sky were getting outworked, outshot, outfought and outplayed. Oh, and outcoached. The Fever lead was never lower than 12 points in the second half, and they eased home for an 85-72 win.
From a Fever perspective, it was an outstanding performance. Larkins kept Fowles quiet, both on the scoreboard and on the glass; Delle Donne drifted out of the game; Prince continued missing at the same rate that she has for much of the season; and no one else remotely stepped up. Some of that was Chicago’s own fault, but Indiana’s defense had a good enough evening to get the job done. The extraordinary and unusual aspect to their night was on the offensive end – and that’s where there might be a few lingering fears about whether they can repeat the performance. They shot 10-16 from three-point range, and while Chicago’s perimeter players gave them too much room, there are plenty of days when they wouldn’t shoot that well in an empty gym – never mind in the heat of a playoff game. The perimeter trio of January, Zellous and Christmas finished a combined 20-34 (including 8-9 from beyond the arc) for 52 points, which was simply outstanding. In fairness, we’ve seen this before, when the pressure of playoff basketball drew improved production from various Fever players in their run to the championship last year. So it’s not a complete fluke. It’s just a question of whether they can continue to play with such confidence if the early shots don’t drop, and Chicago show up with better focus on defense. If they can, this series is theirs for the taking.
This wasn’t even close to how Chicago wanted to make their postseason debut. The offense, especially in the second half, wasn’t great. But in all honesty, it wasn’t a lot different from their offensive production for much of the season. Reliance on their stars, occasional stagnancy, but generally finding a way to piece together enough points. The 72 they scored would’ve won them plenty of games this season (especially considering Indiana’s slow pace typically drags scorelines lower than average). But this was a very good defensive team all year, and Indiana – a team whose offense barely reached the heights of mediocre in most games – torched them. Chatman didn’t have her team well-prepared, unless they completely ignored her pre-game instructions, and Indiana took advantage of the holes and made shots. Amazingly, Indiana also dominated the glass, finishing 32-21 on the boards (.568 to .431 for those who prefer rebounding percentage). Led by Fowles, Chicago have been the best rebounding team in the WNBA all season, especially on the offensive end – where Fowles often creates points for herself on putbacks. Larkins, Catchings and Christmas controlled the glass, with Fowles getting very little help from her teammates. That’s an area where Delle Donne and Cash will have to improve in Game 2, and the entire team will have to be better on defense if they want to keep this series alive. It’s possible, even against this team that seems to have their number. It’s unlikely that Indiana will shoot that well again, especially if the Sky do a better job of staying home on perimeter shooters. But Chicago need to play much better on Sunday if they want to force a decider back home on Tuesday night.
Moving to Minnesota…
While last night’s opening game may have been the most obvious choice for a first-round upset, the late game was the closest thing we had to a banker. Minnesota had already beaten Seattle by double-digits four times this season, rarely looking troubled in any of those games, and the Lynx came into this one as 15-point favourites with the bookies. Both sides were fully healthy – bar Sue Bird, of course, who’ll make her comeback sometime during the WNBA offseason in Russia – and sent out their regular starting lineups. If Storm head coach Brian Agler had any tricks up his sleeve, this was the time to whip them out.
One immediate shift we did see from Agler at the very start was using Tanisha Wright to defend Maya Moore, rather than her more regular role on Seimone Augustus. Considering Moore shot 1-9 in the first half, Wright obviously had some success. She kept Moore out of the lane, and there was enough of a contest on all her jump shots to force her into more misses than usual. The player voted to the WNBA’s All-Defensive First Team in recent days was managing to limit the player who’d been narrowly beaten into second place in the overall MVP voting.
In fact, as a whole Seattle had a pretty good first half. They hit enough shots from outside to keep the scoreboard ticking over, they got at least a little interior offense from Camille Little and Tina Thompson, and both Wright and Temeka Johnson managed to produce on drives. They even received an injection of scoring from bench forward Alysha Clark, who hit a three on a kick-out from Wright, drove by Moore for a layup, then left Moore on the floor as she completed a post move. The Storm had a few ugly possessions where the shot clock ran down (or even ran out), and their usual share of turnovers, but 52% shooting and right in the action was as good as they could’ve hoped for in the first half.
But Minnesota were still in front for the vast majority of the opening 20 minutes. Lindsay Whalen was going by Temeka Johnson just as often as the reverse happened at the other end. Seimone Augustus took advantage of her matchup with either Shekinna Stricklen or Noelle Quinn to produce finishes at the rim (Tanisha Wright can only guard one player at a time, unfortunately for Seattle). They got out in transition a couple of times and scored with ease as usual on the break. And they were thoroughly dominant on the offensive glass. Led by Rebekkah Brunson doing her typical pogo-stick impression, the Lynx earned several second-chance attempts, and Brunson ended up with several layups. Without playing anywhere near their best, and with their MVP candidate missing shots, Minnesota led 40-36 at halftime regardless.
Looking forward, there were some positive elements to the first half for the Lynx. They went to their small lineup with Maya Moore at power forward and she survived without any major problems despite having to defend Little in the low post. It opened up space on the offensive end for Minnesota, with Seattle having to twist their defensive assignments to handle the unusual lineup, and Little being dragged out of her usual defensive help position when she had to guard a perimeter player. Rookie point guard Lindsey Moore also seems to be gaining Cheryl Reeve’s trust, which could be useful going forward. Just a week or two ago it looked like the Lynx would be using a seven-player rotation in the playoffs, only going deeper if absolutely forced into it. Now at least they have eight bodies she’s willing to send into the action outside of garbage time.
There was never one particular, sustained run from Minnesota in the third quarter, but the game began to drift away from the Storm over the course of the period. It opened with two fastbreak layups for the Lynx, one each for Maya Moore and Augustus, which immediately drew an Agler timeout. It closed with a pair of threes, the first from a wide open Monica Wright when Seattle failed to switch crisply and she was left alone, then from Maya Moore despite tight pressure from Thompson. In between, the Lynx took control behind Augustus and Moore, and more effective defense. It felt like Minnesota were more willing to switch in the second half, deciding to accept the occasional mismatch if it meant they could stay closer to ballhandlers on screens and keep a body between the screen-setter and the basket. It worked, and the Storm didn’t get the same kind of looks that they’d managed to create in the first half. With Moore getting to the basket better offensively thanks to break opportunities and cuts off back-screens that even Tanisha Wright couldn’t handle, Minnesota led by 14 at the end of the third.
When the opening minutes of the fourth featured Maya hitting a ridiculous fallaway jumper that she only threw up because the shot clock was about to expire, and Augustus drilling a three with a defender practically standing on her toes, the game was up. The only intrigue remaining was whether Minnesota would cover the spread, and annoyingly for me – having taken Seattle +15 – the Lynx coasted home to win 80-64.
Ultimately, this wasn’t much different from the other times Seattle have run into the Minnesota juggernaut this season. The Lynx just have too much talent, and they’re too good in too many areas for the Storm to keep pace. Eventually, over 40 minutes, Minnesota’s edge tells somewhere on the floor (often in several different places all at the same time). Seattle couldn’t keep up their scoring pace from the first half, couldn’t hit shots at anywhere near the same rate, and couldn’t keep Maya Moore as quiet. After five heavy defeats to Minnesota, it’s going to be something of a surprise if the Lynx are back for another home game before opening the Western Conference Finals against LA or Phoenix. On the bright side for Seattle, they haven’t been able to handle the Lynx at home, or on the road – so maybe they’ll do better at a third venue (that’s a joke, Storm fans. I know you’d love to have Game 2 at the Key). The Tacoma Dome will be new to both teams, but unfortunately for Seattle, the players will still all be the same.
It was a solid, professional performance from the Lynx. Augustus, Moore and Brunson ended up as the primary scorers, but everyone did their job, they pulled away early enough to save themselves from any nerves down the stretch, and avoided the upsets suffered by every other higher seed in their opening game. This is why you play so hard in the regular season – to earn home-court advantage, and start the postseason against a weaker team that you’re confident of taking care of. Securing the #1 seed didn’t work out so well for Chicago, but it led to a pretty comfortable night for Minnesota.
Saturday September 21st (today):
Atlanta @ Washington, 7pm ET. Mystics -2.5 is the line, so Vegas are basically throwing their hands up and saying ‘we have no clue’. The Dream were so lifeless in Game 1, that I find myself leaning towards Washington. Atlanta can only win this game if they bring much better energy at both ends of the floor, speed up the game, and attack the Mystics. Or if they have one of those freak games where they happen to hit outside shots. I don’t want to bet on either at this point, so I’ll take the Mystics. One other note: Atlanta are 4-13 on the road this season, and three of those wins were during their 10-1 streak to start the season. Their only road victory since June 23rd was in New York after Cappie Pondexter picked up that heel problem. That doesn’t inspire confidence that the Dream can extend this series.
Los Angeles @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. Interestingly, there’s been some heavy action on this game already. The line started at Phoenix -1.5 with most bookmakers, but is now at Phoenix +1 in most places – so lots of money has come in backing LA. It’s a reasonable position, considering Carol Ross has had a couple of days to plug the holes in her defense, and come up with better offensive options than a procession of perimeter bricks. But I’m taking the Mercury. I love deciding games, so I’ll happily be wrong, but Phoenix won Game 1 despite occasional defensive issues of their own, Griner in lots of foul trouble, and Taurasi shooting a mediocre 8-21 from the field. They’ve were far from perfect as well. It should be interesting to see how things play out.
Sunday September 22nd (tomorrow):
Chicago @ Indiana, 3pm ET
Minnesota @ Seattle, 5pm ET