In the first round of every set of playoffs, it’s the matchups between the top seeds and bottom seeds that are supposed to finish first. We spend all season working out which is the best team in their conference and which just about creeps in by barely escaping the lottery. So in some ways, Sunday’s WNBA games went just as they were supposed to. But they arrived at that destination in very different ways.
The opener in the East saw the top seed already in deep trouble. After a 24-10 regular season, all the factors that led Chicago fans to hope to avoid Indiana in the playoffs had come home to roost in the opening game. Experience, the ability to raise their game to a true playoff level, coaching, and execution had allowed the Indiana Fever to steal Game 1 on the road, and come home with the chance to clinch. The Sky had proven all season that they were capable of beating anyone, but it was going to take a significantly improved performance to keep their season alive.
The starting lineups were the same as Game 1, with the only added information since the opener being that Katie Douglas will apparently miss the entire postseason due to her back problem. So, just like last year, Indiana will have to make their postseason run with nine bodies (or fewer, if someone else gets hurt as well). In case you were wondering, no, they’re not allowed to re-sign Jessica Breland (or anyone else) now that Douglas has gone down. You’re stuck with the 11 players on your roster at the start of the playoffs for the entire postseason.
Disappointingly, the Sky didn’t look much different from Game 1 either. There was a frantic pace to the opening minutes, which was presumably at Chicago head coach Pokey Chatman’s request, but it led to mistakes, turnovers and blown layups more than anything good for the Sky. Defensively, they didn’t seem to have made many adjustments. Karima Christmas and Shavonte Zellous missed threes on Indiana’s opening possessions, which might’ve raised Chicago hopes that they’d have a chance simply due to the Fever’s shooting regressing to the mean. Then Tamika Catchings semi-penetrated, Epiphanny Prince was drawn in from the short corner, the kick went to Zellous, and she drilled the three from the corner. Exactly the same as Game 1, and we were right back there again.
The aggression from Chicago was good. Pushing the ball made sense, looking for quick offense before Indiana could set their defense. Courtney Vandersloot in particular was charging down the court, and carrying on right to the rim if the defense didn’t step up to stop her. But she missed most of the finishes, and the Sky failed to settle into the game with the action moving that quickly. Instead it opened up the game for Indiana, who happily grabbed steals and ran back the other way. The Fever also continued to do the things that had brought them success in Game 1, playing with heart and hustle, while role players stepped up to make shots. They also had Tamika Catchings, who didn’t shoot well in the opener, producing early on. She hit jumpers, or went by Swin Cash on isolation drives, and led Indiana into another early lead. They were up 22-14 at the end of the first quarter.
On the offensive end, Chicago continued to try to get the ball to Sylvia Fowles inside, but she was still being frustrated by Erlana Larkins, who continued the outstanding defensive job she’s done on Fowles in Game 1. Big Syl rarely managed to receive the ball in good position to score because of the fight Larkins was putting up for position inside, and the physical presence of Larkins also made it more difficult to finish whenever Fowles did touch the ball. Meanwhile, Elena Delle Donne was similarly ineffective from the perimeter, with Catchings forcing her into tough shots (and other defenders helping out when necessary – or taking over occasionally, just to give Delle Donne a different look).
And the Sky offense was so desperately limited. From Indiana, we saw ball movement and speed, looking to find holes wherever they were around the floor. From Chicago we saw lots of standing around, and a depressing amount of one-on-one basketball where they simply hoped Delle Donne, Prince or Fowles (if they could get it to her) could make something happen. They were playing against a Fever team whose offense looked ugly and slow for much of the season, but they’d stepped up to a new level for the playoffs and were giving Chicago a lesson in how you need to execute in the postseason. Indiana took over the game in the second quarter.
In fairness, the Sky weren’t helped by a third foul on Vandersloot barely two minutes into the second quarter. Her second foul had been a desperately harsh blocking call late in the opening period, and the third came when her feet inadvertently tangled with Larkins and tripped the Fever center up. That forced Allie Quigley into heavy minutes for Chicago, and she still isn’t a point guard. And with the way Prince has been playing, having the ball in her hands wasn’t particularly appealing for the Sky either.
But regardless of lineups and foul trouble, the Fever just looked so much more focussed and up for the fight. Their defense was active and stifling, while the Sky were being pierced both inside and out. Larkins translated her defensive energy onto the offensive end and started to slide in for interior finishes. Players like Erin Phillips and Jeanette Pohlen came off the bench to hit shots and make an impact. Everyone was ready to perform and execute. One sequence with barely a minute left in the first half summed up the chasm between the teams. Yet another static Sky possession led to a Delle Donne isolation on one side of the floor, and a tough jump shot over Catchings that barely caught the rim. Briann January pulled down the rebound, pushed quickly down the center of the floor, before kicking to a wide open Pohlen in the corner to drill another triple. Chicago’s answer was to walk the ball up, and for Prince to jack up a deep three after zero passes with 17 seconds still on the shot clock. That’s what we saw throughout the half – Indiana making quick, smart decisions, and hitting the good looks that resulted; Chicago running out of ideas and tossing up junk. The Fever led 47-27 at halftime.
The Sky began the second half a little better. They ran two plays that began with pick-and-rolls for Fowles, resulting in a deep seal and layup for Fowles on the first one, and a layup for Vandersloot on the second when the help defense was drawn out of position. It made you wonder, yet again, why Fowles hadn’t come out to set more picks during the series. Indiana switch a hell of a lot, which is how Delle Donne had found herself defended by January on occasion (and always destroyed her when that happened – another thing the Sky should’ve made more effort to consistently replicate). But they rarely switch when Fowles is involved, because they always want Larkins (or Catchings if absolutely necessary) to be defending her. So it opens up space, and forces the defense to bend out of its usual balance. Instead, Fowles spent the vast majority of the series fruitlessly battling Larkins for position in the paint, rather than working on the move. And when she did come out for the pick-and-roll, Chicago’s ball movement often wasn’t sharp enough to create the lanes to pass it in to her.
The brief burst of success for Chicago didn’t last very long, anyway – primarily because they couldn’t get any stops. Catchings was roasting Cash off the dribble whenever she wanted to, and playing a central role in Indiana’s transition offense as well. Also, after more Fowles free throws and another Fowles layup had been created off pick-and-rolls, Delle Donne made a silly mistake that allowed Indiana’s defense to close up tighter. With only four seconds left on the shot clock and the offense scrambling, January was about to toss up anything just to beat the buzzer. But she’d taken a step past a closing-out Delle Donne, and the Rookie of the Year reached out and grabbed her. It was a blindingly obvious, virtually intentional foul, and it was Delle Donne’s fourth. There haven’t been many occasions where she’s looked like an inexperienced kid this season, but that was one of the few. She’s been frustrated in this series by Indiana’s defense and her team’s inability to produce, and it showed in that play. She went to the bench.
Chatman left her star forward on the pine for far too long, but what was one more mistake in a series where she’d been so overwhelmingly outcoached by the Fever’s Lin Dunn? Saving a key player in foul trouble is understandable, but at some stage you have to acknowledge that there needs to be something left to salvage. Especially in a do-or-die game that’s about to end your season. Delle Donne left the game with her team trailing by 18, with 17 minutes left in regulation. She eventually returned in the waning seconds of the third quarter, after Indiana had retaken control of the game and led by 22. Barring an absolute miracle, the game – and the Sky’s season – was already over.
No miracle occurred. The fourth quarter was extended garbage time, with Catchings spending the entire time cheering along from the bench, and January ducking out early as well. Even then Chicago struggled to hit any shots, but like anyone watching they’d basically stopped paying attention by that point. Indiana coasted home for a 79-57 win, and await tonight’s winners from the Atlanta-Washington decider in the Eastern Conference Finals.
What a depressing way for Chicago’s first legitimately successful season to end. They were thoroughly, utterly outplayed in this series, and embarrassed by a team that lost their returning all-star just before the games began. Yes, playoff experience clearly had plenty to do with it. Virtually every player on the Fever roster came in knowing what playoff basketball is all about, because they went through the run last year (and several of them have years of experience beyond that). Outside of Swin Cash, this was new to nearly every Sky player. But it was still sad how little Chicago stepped up when they needed to. Or how little desperation they showed in an elimination game – when we’d seen Atlanta and LA keep their seasons alive in the same situation the night before, and were about to see Seattle put up a hell of a fight. Or even how little they changed between Games 1 and 2, after being shown what the playoffs were all about in the opener, and reminded about what Indiana could do to them. It doesn’t negate everything that’s gone before – Chicago still took a big step forwards this year, largely thanks to the addition of Delle Donne as another elite talent. They’ve tasted the playoffs now, and ought to keep coming back in future years with a core that’s still very young. But the way it ended leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
Of course, the performance of the Indiana Fever had plenty to do with Chicago’s swift and painful exit. Their intensity and effectiveness on the defensive end threw the Sky off-balance in both games and limited their stars – and we already knew that Chicago didn’t have much in reserve behind their top players. Larkins in particular was outstanding against Fowles, but Catchings and others did solid work on Delle Donne, and Prince never got going at all under the attentions of Christmas (although Prince has been missing plenty regardless of the defense for much of the season). But it was Indiana’s offense that provided the real surprise. The Fever have struggled to score on many occasions all year long, but they moved the ball well, played with confidence and verve, and took the game away from Chicago with consummate ease. Shooting the lights out in Game 1 didn’t hurt, either. The percentages weren’t quite as ridiculous in Game 2, but they made shots at the right times and pounded any hint of spirit out of the Sky. Plus Catchings stepped up to make key plays when they needed her to (and got plenty of rest to help save her body for the next round). As the #4 seed, they’ll be on the road for Games 1 and 3 (if necessary) again in the Eastern Finals, but after this demolition their confidence will be high. Another couple of performances like this, and a return trip to the WNBA Finals and the chance to defend their crown could easily be on the cards.
Turning to Tacoma…
The second game on Sunday was a more typical example of a top vs. bottom playoff clash. The Minnesota Lynx were the only team in the league that had held serve in their series opener, beating Seattle by double-digits for the fifth time this season. So they were favourites to finish off the Storm and give themselves a couple of extra days’ rest. Seattle didn’t even have the benefit of a true home-court advantage, having been shunted out of Key Arena due to a pre-booked private event. Apparently I really was the only one who believed the Storm would make the playoffs at the start of the season. So the game took place at the Tacoma Dome, in the general vicinity of Seattle but without all the comforts of home or the familiar environs. They did bring the court with them, though.
Once again, the starting fives were the same. Shekinna Stricklen started again, so apparently she wasn’t too injured to play, but she’d definitely seemed limited in Game 1 by the achilles that’s troubled her for much of the season. It was a boost for Seattle fans to see her hit an early three from the corner on a drive-and-kick by Tanisha Wright – because the lack of perimeter shooting has been a consistent problem for Seattle against the Lynx. The Storm aren’t the greatest shooting team in the world to begin with, but the two players they have who fire the most threes are Stricklen and Tina Thompson. Minnesota’s smarts show up in the way they cover Thompson. So many teams lose track of her, or forget exactly who she is and let her pop out for those deep threes that she loves. The Lynx are well-drilled, and consistently make sure that they’re right on top of her well beyond the arc. She rarely got any space in this series, even from her usual spot several feet outside the line. Usually it was Rebekkah Brunson following her out there, but the rest of the team was aware of where they had to be as well. With Stricklen barely involved due to health and her typical inconsistencies, Seattle’s outside shooting was severely limited.
However, the Storm kept themselves right in this game in the first half. The opening quarter was pretty even, with Seattle’s defense once again forcing the Lynx into several misses on jump shots, but the activity of Rebekkah Brunson and some production off turnovers keeping Minnesota’s noses in front. It was yet another passage of play where it felt like Seattle were doing a lot of things right. It was the fourth game in a row against the Lynx (including their final two regular season encounters) where the Storm had defended well enough on the perimeter to force a lot of misses – but not converted well enough on offense to really take advantage. There were too many giveaways, and too many missed layups under defensive pressure, so the Storm still trailed 20-16 despite a solid opening period.
The second quarter was incredibly scrappy. Turnovers and bricks abounded, and there was a grand total of four points scored in the first five minutes of the period. The Lynx went small for a long passage of play, with Moore at power forward, and this time it didn’t really work. The vast majority of their possessions became ‘one-and-done’, as they lost presence on the glass, and they never really managed to exploit the advantages that her speed and agility can create when she shifts inside. However, Minnesota did largely survive defensively, even though Moore was having to cover players like Thompson and Camille Little. It felt a little like Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve was experimenting for future games, still trying to teach and develop Moore as a potential small-ball 4. It could be important as an option against teams like Phoenix, LA or even the Eastern champ, so it made some sense – but they still had to finish off Seattle.
With Minnesota being forced into a lot of contested jumpers and a lot of misses, the Storm led for several minutes in the second quarter, before a couple of late buckets for Moore and Janel McCarville allowed the Lynx to tie it up at 28-28 at halftime. It felt a little more like a victory for defense than the brickapalooza from the Atlanta-Washington game the day before, but points had been equally thin on the ground.
The first half had been a taster, but the second half confirmed exactly what kind of game this was turning out to be – an absolute war. The officials had decided at some stage to let a lot of contact go under the rim, so drawing a call or converting a layup in the paint was hard work for both teams. The Storm were playing with fantastic heart and passion, clearly not wanting their season to end. They were led by Tanisha Wright on the perimeter, driving whenever she could and stepping into jump shots when she had to, and Tina Thompson inside. Of course, Thompson was battling to avoid the end of more than just her season. Having announced her retirement come the end of the Storm’s run, whenever Seattle were eliminated her career would come to an end. So she was giving as good as she got in the repeated battles with Brunson under the basket.
Wright was also giving everything she could on the defensive end, but unfortunately for her Maya Moore is often unstoppable regardless of defense. Moore opened the third with some tough jumpers, and she was often part of Minnesota’s occasional breakouts. There weren’t that many transition opportunities in this game, but it was such a low-scoring contest that the few the Lynx managed to create felt vital. Any cheap points in a game that was still only 42-39 after 30 minutes were huge, and as they show consistently, Minnesota are hard to deal with on the break.
But Seattle wouldn’t go away. Being within three points after three periods was a significant achievement considering their previous clashes with Minnesota this season – most of the previous games were done and dusted by that point. But the Lynx were holding them at bay. An outstanding twisting finish from Temeka Johnson had ended the third quarter on a high and left the crowd primed to explode, but Devereaux Peters extended a long arm to block a Thompson three to open the fourth, and Moore answered with a three of her own at the other end. With five minutes left the Storm were still down seven, after Seimone Augustus converted a fastbreak layup – it felt like the first real impact she’d made on the game in quite some time, but once again those few easy buckets were coming up big.
Still Seattle kept fighting. Little came up with a huge offensive rebound and putback deep in the paint, before Alysha Clark beat Moore to a rebound leading to a Wright layup – pulling the Storm within three with four minutes left. The defensive pressure from Seattle was outstanding in the closing stages as they worked to keep their season alive. Minnesota had huge problems just trying to run their offense and make simple passes to move the ball, because the Storm were on top of them and making basic ball movement incredibly difficult. It led to some stilted possessions for the Lynx, and some forced jump shots when they simply couldn’t create anything else. Of course, when you’ve got Augustus and Moore taking the shots, and Brunson on the offensive glass, that can still work out okay.
After Thompson cut the deficit to a point with a baseline jumper, Brunson managed to finish a play inside through enough contact to draw a foul on top. The free throw made it a four-point game again, only for a huge Noelle Quinn triple to cut it back to a point with two minutes remaining. It was punch and counter-punch with no one giving an inch.
With barely a minute to play, Thompson finally took advantage of Minnesota’s desperation to cover her deep threes, driving right past Brunson when she jumped out high to prevent the outside shot. The resulting left-handed finish at the rim gave Seattle their first lead of the second half, with just 1:20 to play. The teams exchanged turnovers on a Whalen offensive foul and a poor Storm possession that broke down and eventually ended in a shot clock violation. Then that one key issue that’s caused more problems for Seattle than any other against the Lynx all season raised its head again – raw, basic talent. Augustus took the ball from McCarville on the perimeter, crossed over on Clark, and rose up from the elbow to knock down a jumper and re-take the lead for Minnesota with just 25 seconds left. Clark did everything she could, and had a hand up in Augustus’s face, but sometimes the offensive player just wins.
Seattle didn’t call a timeout, which was a reasonable decision to prevent Minnesota setting their defense. Unfortunately for the Storm, Wright overthrew her pass to Thompson inside and the ball caromed off the backboard into Brunson’s hands. Seattle had to foul, and Brunson made both free throws with just 11.6s left on the clock. So the Storm had one last chance, trailing by three, to save the game. It looked like they tried to run a flare screen for Thompson, but couldn’t get her the ball when Brunson stuck to her. Quinn drove, and missed. Clark grabbed the offensive board, kicked it back a little high to Wright, and by the time she pulled the ball down and rotated it to Thompson, time had expired. The fairytale would’ve had Tina tying it at the buzzer, then maybe winning it in OT, but it wasn’t to be. Perhaps fortunately, her quick shot bounced off the rim anyway. It would’ve been even more disappointing if they’d had to wave off the shot while everyone wondered if it had counted. So Minnesota had held on, and advance to face Phoenix or LA after a 58-55 win. Seattle’s season is over, and sadly so is Thompson’s career.
The Lynx were really made to work for this one. They shot just 38% from the field, a staggeringly low number for a team that shot over 47% for the season. But they clawed their way over the line, led by Moore’s 7-12 for 22 points, 7 boards, 3 assists and 3 steals, and Brunson’s 6-11 for 15 points and 13 rebounds – plus, of course, Augustus’s clutch shot. They’ll be happy to finish the series off in two games, after being run so close by the Storm in last year’s first-round, when they came within a shot of elimination. Now they can sit back and watch the Sparks and Mercury beat each other up one more time, before playing host to Game 1 of the Western Finals. The route to the championship still goes through Minnesota, one way or another.
While it ultimately ended in defeat, Seattle – and Thompson – can go out with their heads held high. This was a gritty, battling, outstanding performance against a team that’s beaten the hell out of them repeatedly this season. The Storm raised their game even further in the fourth quarter when everything was on the line, and just couldn’t quite make the final plays to pull out a win. With Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson expected to return, along with most of this squad, they could be a real threat next year. But this was the farewell for a legend of the game, and she doesn’t seem like the type to have a change of heart and put us all through this again. The Lynx have so much respect for Thompson that they asked her to take a photo with them following the game, and of course Tina happily obliged. She’ll be missed, and it’s a passing of the torch moment for this league. The last of the originals has departed for the final time, but the fight for the 2013 title goes on.
Monday September 23rd (today):
Washington @ Atlanta, 8pm ET. I’m torn on both tonight’s games. I like both home teams to win, but both lines seem a little high. Dream -6.5 is the line for this one, after Atlanta’s defense shut Washington down in Game 2. This has been a painfully ugly series, and that’s too many points for me when both games so far have been so low-scoring. So I’ll take Washington to cover, but not necessarily win.
Phoenix @ Los Angeles, 10pm ET. Similarly, making LA favourites for this one makes all kinds of sense. They’re back at home, they stepped up in Game 2, and they should be better prepared now that they’ve had a scare. But Sparks -7.5 is again too many, especially when Diana Taurasi still hasn’t really hit that many shots but is always liable to heat up. Same pick – road team to cover, but not necessarily win.