In some ways, the prospects for our Eastern and Western Conference Finals in the WNBA this season suggested they would go to type. In the East, we had two teams known for their ability to pressurise and force turnovers. One was the best defense in the league this season, the other has been known as a shut-down defensive squad for years. A classic Eastern defensive battle was on the cards. In the West, we had the team with far and away the best offense in the WNBA this season, against a team known as all-offense, all-the-time for over six years (albeit with some recent hints of defensive interest). So a run-and-gun Western shootout, right? As it turned out, we got the contrast – just not in quite the way that history might’ve suggested.
The evening began in Atlanta, with the Indiana Fever starting another series on the road. That’s what happens when you slide into the playoffs with a sub-.500 record after a constant struggle throughout the regular season. But the Dream had survived problems of their own, collapsing from a 10-1 start to the season and then having to come from 1-0 down in the first-round of the playoffs to fight past Washington. Whoever ultimately makes it out of the East is going to have worked through some significant difficulties to get there.
Dream head coach Fred Williams made a surprisingly active and ballsy move to open the series. After junking his small lineup entirely against the Mystics in the first-round, and making it through that series in part because of his team’s size and offensive rebounding, he immediately went small against Indiana. Both Le’coe Willingham (who started the Washington series at power forward, then missed Games 2 and 3 due to a knee problem) and Aneika Henry (who replaced Willingham) were in uniform and available, but both began the series on the bench. Instead, Angel McCoughtry slid over to the theoretical power forward position, while Armintie Herrington regained her starting spot alongside Tiffany Hayes and Jasmine Thomas on the perimeter. Essentially, it puts four perimeter players on the court with center Erika de Souza. It’s a lineup they used effectively as a change-up during the regular season, especially after Sancho Lyttle got hurt and made their ‘natural’ lineups less effective. We were always likely to see it in this series because Indiana are so small these days with Tamika Catchings at power forward. But it’s the first time Williams has ever used it to start a game. In some ways, it’s the exact opposite of how the Washington series began, where Mike Thibault and the Mystics dictated the action throughout Game 1 and Williams never seemed to have an answer. For once, he had the guts to throw the first punch.
All of that said, the game didn’t begin particularly well for Atlanta. They looked confused on which way they were going on the opening tip, handing Catchings an uncontested layup to start the game. Then Hayes jacked an ugly three on Atlanta’s first possession, and Catchings continued to light them up for the next few minutes of the game. The plan appeared to be to guard her with Hayes – McCoughtry was hiding on Karima Christmas, as expected – and Catchings apparently wasn’t impressed by this idea. She hit jumpers, or attacked Hayes off the dribble and finished inside. It didn’t look like Hayes could handle her. When the game restarted after the first timeout five minutes into the opening quarter, Herrington had switched over onto Catchings, and Plan A appeared to have been thrown out the window.
However, it was all going pretty smoothly for the Dream on the offensive end. In fact, the first half was kind of mind-boggling considering these two teams are supposed to be strong and effective on the defensive end. Over and over again, Atlanta were slicing through Indiana’s defense and making it all the way to the rim. We’d seen Washington do such a good job of keeping the Dream out of the paint, consistently forcing them into missed jump shots, and here was the Indiana defense repeatedly breaking down and being beaten off the dribble. It made the game more appealing to the casual fan because the points were piling up, but it was shocking to see. Indiana stayed in the game because the Dream couldn’t stop them either. They were driving by defenders into the paint, or finding Erlana Larkins inside, or moving the ball reasonably well and hitting shots. No one was pulling away because no one was getting any stops.
The second quarter was more of the same, although with a few fresh highlights of its own. Indiana tried some 2-3 zone to see if they could cut off penetration better with that, and were equally poor. Angel McCoughtry said “Can I get involved now, please?” to her head coach (according to courtside reporter LaChina Robinson), despite the fact that her team was leading at the time. Most of Atlanta’s success had come while largely ignoring McCoughtry, and she doesn’t like to be ignored. Players like Hayes and Herrington were the ones sliding through Indiana’s defense more often than Angel, who obviously wanted to see more of the ball. Atlanta continued to roll, with relatively limited involvement required from McCoughtry.
By halftime, both teams were still shooting well over 50% from the field, and Atlanta led 42-40 – but this wasn’t a typical Dream-style game. Usually, when they’re successful, it’s because they’ve forced a lot of turnovers and managed to push off them in transition. Indiana did turn the ball over too much in the first half, but they really didn’t lead into many immediate breaks. The transition game was relatively limited, and in fact Atlanta led just 1-0 in fastbreak points at halftime. The breakdowns were coming in the halfcourt, with Indiana defenders getting too tight to Atlanta wings and allowing them to get past and into the paint. Larkins had done a solid enough job on Erika in the post to keep her relatively quiet, and Christmas had been okay against McCoughtry, but as a team the speed and attacking of Atlanta off screens and off the dribble was cutting Indiana to bits. They were still in the game because their own offense was doing similar things to the Dream defense, finding gaps in the middle and getting right to the rim. It was, bizarrely, an offensive showcase.
Atlanta had religiously stayed small ever since the tip-off. The only minutes Henry saw were when Erika needed a rest at center, and Willingham stayed on the bench throughout. Even when McCoughtry subbed out, Atlanta stayed with four perimeter players and no one who even faintly resembled a power forward (Hayes and Herrington were splitting the defensive time on Catchings). Inevitably, that opens up the game. The Dream have less presence in the paint, there’s more space for both teams to drive through in the lane, and the game speeds up because there’s less interest in feeding the post. But there’s no way it should’ve made this much difference. Offense was just winning. Both teams got on a roll, and continued to pick each other apart for most of the evening. Cutting off penetration and forcing outside shots seemed impossible for everyone for the majority of the game.
However, Indiana drew a couple more calls in the third quarter, Atlanta missed a few shots and lost their composure a little, and a 7-0 run completed by an Erin Phillips triple gave the Fever a 56-53 lead with three minutes left in the third. Indiana had gone to a particularly small perimeter, with Phillips, Briann January and Layshia Clarendon all on the floor together, but January did a nice job fronting and fighting with McCoughtry in the low post and preventing Atlanta from getting her the ball. Then the worm turned. Atlanta ended the third quarter with a key 9-0 response. It began with a three from Hayes – the one shooter that Indiana has to stay tight to outside, which they forgot too often in this game – and a couple of missed layups from Larkins. Then McCoughtry got a rare layup in transition off an Erika rebound, before three consecutive Fever turnovers. Over-dribbling from Indiana and Atlanta aggression in the passing lanes finally had an effect for consecutive possessions, while Hayes had another ridiculous finish in the lane and Alex Bentley hit a jumper. While there’d been lots of offense, no one had led by more than four up to that point – suddenly Atlanta had strung nine points together and led by six.
After that, Indiana always seemed to be playing catch-up in the fourth quarter. The gap was never huge, but they could never quite bridge it – although they came damn close. The biggest danger to Atlanta in the fourth quarter was Angel McCoughtry, because if she started dominating the ball and firing up jumpers – and she tossed up three bricks in less than three minutes after subbing back in – she could’ve allowed the Fever the steal back the lead. As it turned out, the closest they got was within one, on a driving layup from Christmas with under five minutes to play. But again Atlanta answered, and again it was Hayes, with a three-point play on a drive through Phillips. Indiana really did a pathetic job all night of cutting off those drives early enough to cause the driving player enough problems on her way to the hoop.
The Fever were still right there in the closing stages. Shavonte Zellous made most of her positive contributions in the fourth quarter, and hit a big three from the corner with 90 seconds to play to cut Indiana’s deficit in half. But it was sandwiched by yet more driving finishes from Atlanta, first by Hayes and then by McCoughtry. Indiana’s defense still couldn’t hold up well enough to give them a chance. Atlanta (and the officials) really did try to give them every opportunity. The Fever were lucky to be granted a timeout instead of another turnover just as the ball hit McCoughtry’s hands. Then a Catchings heave for three barely beat the shot clock, somehow went in, and McCoughtry fouled her in the process. Catchings missed the free throw, but an offensive board for Larkins kept the possession alive. Another messy Indiana possession followed – there were too many of those in the fourth quarter, as Atlanta’s pressure finally started to upset Indiana’s rhythm a little – and Zellous ended up forcing a three from the corner that wasn’t close. It bounced away, Atlanta finally snared a rebound, and the Fever had to start fouling.
Even then, there was one last chance. With 16 seconds left, McCoughtry went 1-of-2 at the line before Hayes was called for a cheap dead ball foul before the Fever could inbound the ball. Catchings made the resulting free throw, bringing Indiana within three again. It’s hard to see what the Fever tried to run from there. It looked like a staggered screen for Jeanette Pohlen, who’d just been inserted into the game for the first time all night. But Atlanta had gone super-small – wing Courtney Clements came in for Erika – to allow them to switch everything, and blew up the play with ease. January tried to drive for two instead, missed, and that was basically the game. McCoughtry made a pair of free throws to round off the scoring, and Atlanta had won Game 1, 84-79.
This wasn’t how the game was supposed to go. Williams threw a bit of a curveball with his small-ball approach for all 40 minutes, but Indiana would’ve been prepared to play against that lineup (even if they weren’t expecting it for the entire game). Both teams scored ridiculously efficiently over the course of the game, and ultimately Atlanta’s insane offensive success won out over Indiana’s merely remarkable level. The final score being 84-79 masks the offense-heavy action because the number of possessions was relatively low, but both defenses were essentially torn apart. Atlanta, obviously, will be the far happier team because they eventually pulled out the win. It’s no coincidence that they shot 53% from the field when Angel McCoughtry only got 14 shots in the air (after averaging over 20 attempts per game against Washington). It diversified the offense, and allowed them to attack in other places, with Hayes (8-14 for 23 points, 3 boards, 3 assists) and Herrington (6-9 for 16 points, 7 boards, 5 assists and 4 steals) the major weapons. Eventually, Angel got her touches, but they didn’t have endless possessions ending in forced McCoughtry jumpers. Instead, they had drivers – including McCoughtry herself – slicing Indiana’s defense to ribbons. Their defense also started to have more success in the second half, and they’ll be hoping to carry that through to Game 2. Offensively, they’ll just be hoping for more of the same.
It’s up to Indiana to change things. Offensively, they’d happily settle for a repeat. They got inside, drew enough fouls, hit some perimeter shots, and won the battle on the glass. It’s the defense that was a mess. Their lack of interior presence is always an issue, even more so this season now that Larkins is the full-time center rather than options like Tammy Sutton-Brown and Jessica Davenport. They don’t have a rim protector, and Larkins is doing her job by sticking to Erika, keeping her quiet and going after rebounds. But that means it’s a team effort to prevent penetration and stay in front of drivers. Outside of Hayes – who can be scattershot, but hit three big triples in this game and clearly needs to be covered – Atlanta basically can’t shoot. The Fever know this. Washington just gave them a nice little lesson in how you can defend the Dream by staying in front of them, clogging the paint, and watching them miss a stream of jump shots – just in case Indiana needed a reminder. Yes, taking a step back can be dangerous, because it gives drivers a running start, but it also gives you a crucial extra second to react as a defender. Game 2 (and 3, Indiana hope) are unlikely to be the same kind of offensive exhibition, but the Fever have to make that happen. They’ve helped build up Atlanta’s confidence – now they have to defend much, much better, and knock the Dream back down.
Mauling in Minnesota
So after all that offense, we went over to the teams with a more consistent history of scoring points. The Minnesota Lynx had the best offense in the WNBA this season, by some distance. But much of the talk heading into the Western Conference Finals was about how improved Phoenix have been on the defensive end since Russ Pennell took over, and how they might be able to put up a fight on that end now. Of course, the Lynx still had the mental edge of having beaten the Mercury in their last 12 encounters, even if Pennell wasn’t involved in any of them. Minnesota were also well aware that while the talk may have surrounded Phoenix’s improvements, they’ve just been consistently good for three years. Sometimes the ‘new’ draws a lot of attention without acknowledgement that there’s something still hanging around that’s been better all along.
The Lynx and Mercury were kind enough to miss a bunch of shots and play some scrappy basketball while most people were still watching the conclusion of the Dream-Fever game. There were a couple of buckets for Diana Taurasi, and some positive attacking from Brittney Griner inside, but we didn’t miss much. Then the Lynx started to take over, led by point guard Lindsay Whalen. The Phoenix defenders – Taurasi initially, before DeWanna Bonner and then Jasmine James took over – were going under high screens against her. Whalen saw that, and either used the room to gather momentum for barreling drives to the hoop, or to pull up and drill mid-range jumpers in acres of space. It was a classic case of the point guard taking what the defense was giving her. Whalen wants to run her team’s offense and get everyone involved, but if the defense is going to give her that much space, she’ll punish them. Minnesota led 24-16 at the end of the first quarter.
Pennell would surely admit that he made an error at the start of the second period. Phoenix opened with a lineup of James, Bonner, Briana Gilbreath, Lynetta Kizer and Krystal Thomas. So no Taurasi, no Griner, and no Candice Dupree. And no offense. Already heating up from the opening quarter, it took 90 seconds for Minnesota to run off a 6-0 push and force Pennell into a timeout to fix his lineup. From there, the remainder of the second quarter only went from bad to worse for Phoenix.
Many of the worst potential issues for Phoenix were being played out. The Mercury might be improved, but the Lynx have been consistently better in so many areas and that was showing up in possession after possession. Dupree was giving the Mercury virtually nothing, unable to find any room under the attentions of Rebekkah Brunson and plenty of help whenever it was necessary – because the Lynx are smart, and know Dupree is a threat that needs to be contained. Minnesota were also strong on the glass, restricting most Mercury opportunities to one-and-done. Griner wasn’t finishing anything inside when she managed to touch the ball, and both Taurasi and Bonner were chucking up perimeter shots and hitting nothing. The team defense from the Lynx was shutting Phoenix down. On the offensive end, Minnesota only really had three weapons, but that was more than enough. Whalen was joined by Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus, knocking down jumpers and finishing in transition. The Lynx were in complete control, and Phoenix had no answers. Minnesota rounded off the half by hunting down a loose ball – they were winning the effort battle as well, something that can’t happen if Phoenix want to have a prayer in this series – and Moore drilled a deep three right over the outstretched arm of Griner. It gave the Lynx a 45-22 lead at halftime and the game was virtually over.
There really wasn’t much worth talking about in the second half. The Lynx were playing on auto-pilot and still dominating, like a cat batting a mouse around the floor. The cat’s already won, but it’s fun to keep playing with the defenseless little creature. Minnesota’s chemistry at both ends of the floor can be really pretty to watch, moving to help where they need to on defense and happily making the extra pass on offense. There was never even the tiniest hint of a comeback.
Pennell sent all his starters back in to open the fourth quarter, hoping they could work on things for Game 2. It went okay briefly, with Griner finding a little room in the defense, but then Minnesota started to pick them apart again. The Lynx had left most of their starters in as well, and all they did was continue to assert their dominance. That passage of play did provide a moment that you’ve undoubtedly seen by now, where Taurasi and Augustus got into a minor shoving match that involved more jawing than anything else – before Taurasi gave Augustus a friendly kiss on the cheek as the referee was coming to separate them. It was a moment of levity that gave broadcasters and writers something to talk about from the second half, which was nice, because the basketball was finished. Cheryl Reeve briefly answered Pennell’s attempts to try things for later in the series by testing options herself – trying out Moore at power forward to see if she could guard Dupree if the Lynx ever want to go small – but it didn’t last long. Both teams cleared their benches, and the reserves played out the remainder of a game that finished 85-62. Minnesota had led by as many as 31 before everyone quit.
This was an absolute demolition. The Lynx might not have seen Pennell’s version of the Mercury before, but they know this team and its personnel pretty well. Dupree was completely shut down, Taurasi never really got going, Bonner settled for her usual barrage of perimeter shots (and hit virtually none) and that was it. They were blown out of the gym. The defensive improvements scarcely mattered – not that they were particularly effective on that end either – because the Lynx defense was aggressive and effective, leaving Phoenix floundering. Maybe in front of their home faithful they can provide more resistance, and at least Taurasi might hit more shots to help them out, but there weren’t many signs of hope. They have to find more creative ways of finding space for Dupree, because without her offense they’re completely screwed. The simple pick-and-rolls and sweeping drives aren’t as effective against Brunson and a well-drilled team defense as they were against LA in the last round. And without finding better ways to break down the Lynx defense, venue isn’t going to make much difference, and this series will be over on Sunday.
The three-headed monster on Minnesota’s perimeter provided the bulk of their offense. Whalen, Augustus and Moore were a combined 25-42 for 58 points, and the Mercury couldn’t handle them. They hit jumpers when they were on offer, got out in transition when they could, and generally ripped Phoenix to bits in the same ways they always have. Brunson and McCarville only took five shots between them, because there was no need for them to worry about more than moving the ball, playing their roles, and working on defense. As ever, the Lynx were happy to attack via whatever avenue was working. They won’t necessarily shoot as well in Game 2 – Moore and Augustus seem to particularly enjoy the rims at the Target Center, so there’s one difference the arena might make – which could at least give Phoenix a chance. But complacency might be the only real threat to the Lynx. They won this game with such ridiculous ease – another performance like this one and they’ll be on their way to a third straight trip to the WNBA Finals.
The league announced the All-WNBA teams before the conference finals, with the main bones of contention being the way they shoe-horned an extra forward into the Second Team (they shouldn’t require the voters to stick to positions if they’re going to fudge them on the results), and the presence of Tina Charles. Again, more debate will come when my awards column eventually arrives.
Sunday September 29th
Atlanta @ Indiana, 3pm ET. Atlanta lead best-of-three 1-0
Minnesota @ Phoenix, 5pm ET. Minnesota lead best-of-three 1-0