WNBA Today, 09/30/2013: Dream and Lynx complete sweeps to set up 2011 Finals rematch

 

Unlike the first-round, where we had three upsets out of four opening games to start the 2013 WNBA playoffs, both higher seeds held serve to begin the conference finals. So Sunday afternoon saw the lower seeds trying to keep their seasons alive back on their home floors. While there had been differing levels of defeat in their respective Game 1s, both Indiana and Phoenix had obvious things they had to fix if they wanted to avoid packing their bags and waving goodbye to their title chances.

 

As usual, we opened in the East, where the issue for the Fever was pretty obvious. Atlanta were ridiculously efficient offensively in Game 1 of the series, repeatedly slicing through Indiana’s defense after breaking defenders down off the dribble. Turnovers were a problem for the Fever as well, but they didn’t ignite that many Atlanta fastbreaks – it was largely a basic case of failing to contain penetration in the halfcourt, and everything spiralling from there. Indiana’s offense had been good enough if their defense had been anywhere near its typical level.

 

Game 2 began in a very similar vein. Indiana’s offense was productive enough, with Tamika Catchings hitting a couple of shots, and the team getting inside and drawing some fouls. The whistles even seemed to be going their way. but Atlanta were still piercing their defense with far too much ease. All afternoon we saw the Dream run a simple weave action out on the perimeter, which virtually all defenses – including Indiana’s – cover by simply switching assignments. You almost become the top half of a 3-2 zone and just cover the space, watching the handoffs happen in front of you. But then the Dream would toss in a screen at one of the elbows, and suddenly there was enough space to drive a bus down one side of the lane. Atlanta were again doing a good job of spacing the floor, but not in the typical way teams ‘space’. You normally do that with shooters, who can take a kick-out pass and knock down a shot if the defense drops away from them. The Dream’s small lineup – they’d obviously stuck with the four-perimeter-player format that worked so well in Game 1 – just spread out and created as much room as possible for each other to drive. Indiana were still sticking too close to them, failing to clog the lane, and allowing Atlanta to beat them off the dribble.

 

However, the Dream were missing a little more when they made it to the rim. Indiana were doing a slightly better job of at least challenging the finishes inside, putting the Dream drivers under pressure, and forcing misses. Atlanta had grown in confidence, and were attacking with speed in transition, but the misses allowed Indiana to keep pace and the score was tied at 19-19 at the end of the first quarter.

 

After quickly growing frustrated early in Game 1 due to her lack of touches, Angel McCoughtry refused to be kept out of Game 2 early on. She made sure she got on the ball, and she was looking to attack and score. It worked a couple of times, and she even drilled a quick-hit three (an awful shot until the millisecond it actually went in). There was no way she was going to allow herself to be sidelined this time around. Indiana did manage to draw a second foul on Dream center Erika de Souza midway through the opening period – although Erika did most of the work for them with a silly reach-around foul – which took her out of the game. Although with the Dream’s attack based around their perimeter game and Erlana Larkins continuing to limit Erika inside, the downgrade to Aneika Henry at center wasn’t that big of an issue.

 

Finally, in the second quarter, the defensive battle that had seemed likely between these teams started to show itself. The game went scrappy, as turnovers and misses abounded, whether on jumpers or layups. Indiana had a barren run that Atlanta utterly failed to take advantage of early in the period, and despite some weak transition defense from the Fever at times, they managed to hold a small lead for much of the period. Atlanta went through a passage where even though the defense appeared to be conceding the same shots as usual, their halfcourt possessions were finishing with midrange jumpers instead of layups, and they weren’t hitting. Indiana should have led going into the halftime break. They were up by three when yet another offensive rebound – we’d seen plenty over the course of the half, at both ends of the floor – kept a Fever possession alive. It should’ve been the final possession of the half. But Briann January tried to force the ball inside to Catchings far too early, with a pass through traffic, and Armintie Herrington did her typical sterling defensive job by sneaking around and poking the ball away for a steal. Catchings picked up a technical foul for bitching about what she felt should’ve been a foul, and then that weave and a slashing cut from Herrington resulted in a three-point play. The Fever should’ve been up by three, plus whatever they could add on the final shot; instead they trailed 34-33 at the break, and went in on a significant down-note.

 

Meanwhile, Atlanta had received some significantly positive news even before that sequence. Erika turned an ankle while landing on Larkins’s foot midway through the second quarter, and hopped off the floor and then back to the locker room. But they examined her, re-taped the ankle, and she was ready to play again. Larkins picked up her third foul of the game seconds after Erika got hurt, so she hadn’t even been in the game to take advantage of Erika’s absence. Both of them started the second half.

 

Foul trouble continued to be an issue for Indiana in the second half, as we’d always known it could be. When Katie Douglas’s aborted return forced them to release Jessica Breland, the Fever post rotation became painfully thin. Against a team playing small all series it shouldn’t have been a big deal, but it limited Indiana’s options to help cover the interior against Atlanta. Barely three minutes into the third quarter, both Larkins and Karima Christmas were on four fouls (an idiotic reach-in drew Christmas’s third, and left her vulnerable to the weak charging call that added her fourth. Larkins’s fourth was on an illegal screen which was pretty dubious as well – the calls weren’t going Indiana’s way any more). When you’re basically playing two post players – Catchings and Larkins – with a wing – Christmas – sliding over when either needs rest, that was a problem. At least one of Christmas/Larkins just had to stay out there and play more carefully.

 

However, it was the disintegration of Indiana’s offense that caused them more problems than anything else in the third quarter, and allowed McCoughtry and the Dream to build a lead. The Fever had done an effective job in the first 60 minutes of this series of getting into Atlanta’s defense, or hitting the shots they created outside. But just as they’d eventually done late in Game 1, Atlanta’s activity and rotation on defense was starting to give Indiana real problems. The Fever weren’t creating good looks, they were no longer finding ways into the heart of the defense, and Atlanta were jumping back out on shooters well enough to force misses. It’s something the Dream did better than the Fever for much of this series, although it sometimes took a while to pay dividends on the scoreboard. They managed to collapse inside, and jump back out to contest shots. In the last round, with Chicago, we saw a team collapse but fail to get back out. With Indiana in this series, we saw a team that often didn’t collapse enough to prevent penetration in the first place. The Dream were showing the effort and athleticism to find a viable middle ground.

 

Meanwhile, it was Atlanta’s transition game that created the bulk of their points. Off Indiana’s many misses, and fairly regular turnovers, they were pushing back and charging right to the rim. Offensive rebounds, and the resulting second-chance looks when the defense is scrambling, had a similar effect. Atlanta’s lead hit double-digits late in the third quarter – a period where the Fever only scored nine points.

 

From there, Indiana were constantly playing catch-up, and could never quite make a real run before some kind of miscue stopped them in their tracks. They were within six late in the third before an atrocious attempted bounce-pass from Layshia Clarendon in transition handed a four-point swing to Atlanta. Catchings made a couple of plays to pull them within four early in the fourth quarter, before Erika beat Larkins for another offensive board and Larkins picked up her fifth foul on the putback attempt. Catchings hit a deep bomb with five minutes left to cut the gap to eight, before McCoughtry answered with a rare nailed jumper from deep. It became increasingly apparent that the comeback just wasn’t going to happen. The Fever started trying to shoot their way back into it, but went 1-8 from three-point range in the fourth, which killed any chance they might’ve had. Atlanta held on for a 67-53 win, to seal their spot in the WNBA Finals.

 

From an overall perspective on their season, Indiana can probably be reasonably happy. Despite all their injury issues – and there were plenty, from the preseason to the very last game – they battled their way into the playoffs, beat the top seed, and made it back to the Eastern Finals (and the #5 pick they’ll get for being the playoff team with the worst regular season record will be useful, too). Catchings did what she could all year long to carry them, Shavonte Zellous was a worthy winner of the Most Improved Player award (although disappointingly quiet against the Dream) and players like Christmas stepped up to help out. It was a difficult year after the excitement of finally winning a title last season, but they kept fighting. Still, they’ll be disappointed at the way they lost this series. Defense has been their hallmark for years, and Atlanta broke them down too easily, initially on halfcourt drives and then in transition. It’s not the way the Fever would’ve wanted to go out. But they’ll be back again next year, likely with a similar core, and hope that better health and that draft pick – their highest since 2005 – can result in improvements.

 

For Atlanta it’s onwards and upwards. After a difficult series against Washington, they produced a reminder of what their offense is capable of against Indiana. When they play with pace and get into the heart of a defense, they can minimise the impact of not being able to shoot. McCoughtry took on a much bigger role in Game 2, finishing 10-21 for 27 points and helping to carry them in the second half when the likes of Tiffany Hayes, Alex Bentley and Jasmine Thomas weren’t converting. Defensively, they eventually got a grip on the Fever, and forced Indiana into shooting 28% in Game 2. Even Fred Williams comes out of this series with credit, after his pro-active move to go small right from the start paid off dramatically. They’ll go into the championship series with their confidence high, with memories from this series much fresher than those from the two sweeps they’ve suffered in previous visits to the WNBA Finals. No one cares any more that they went 7-16 after their fast start to the regular season – not when they’re three wins away from a title.

 

Phoenix Fightback?

 

Unlike Indiana, who were at least competitive in their Game 1, Phoenix got destroyed in the opener of the Western Finals. Russ Pennell’s first clash with the Minnesota Lynx resulted in a 23-point loss that wasn’t even that close. So the Mercury had plenty of work to do to turn things around. After being dominated at both ends of the floor, the first task was to simply avoid being embarrassed again – then they could worry about actually winning the game and trying to tie up the series.

 

It was apparent very quickly that several things were different for Game 2. There was clearly a greater sense of urgency from the Mercury, that they never managed to even hint at in Game 1. We saw the same effect in the first-round, where teams who were playing to stay alive found new reserves of energy with their backs against the wall. In terms of matchups, Phoenix started with Briana Gilbreath on Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen, where Diana Taurasi had begun Game 1. It forced Taurasi to cover Seimone Augustus instead – obviously a huge threat herself – but it took Taurasi away from the point of attack. Whalen’s burst of first-half scoring was key in taking control of the previous game, so the Mercury were assigning a longer, tougher defender to limit her and hopefully unsettle Minnesota’s offense. We also, unfortunately, heard far too much from the officials in the early stages. There were a ridiculous number of off-the-ball fouls called as they tried to take control of the action. It took too long for the players to adapt to how the game was being called, but it would’ve been nice if Kurt Walker, Michael Price and Denise Brooks hadn’t been such a central part of the action in the first place.

 

Amongst the foul calls – two of which went against Maya Moore, which led to some early time on the sidelines for her – it felt like Phoenix controlled much of the first quarter. They looked for Brittney Griner inside early, without a great deal of success, but Taurasi hit a couple of shots, Candice Dupree slid into some space for a couple of finishes, and even DeWanna Bonner remembered once or twice that she’s allowed to attack inside rather than just fire away from outside. The whole team was more active defensively. But they couldn’t create any separation on the scoreboard. Moore and Augustus hit a few jumpers, the Lynx learned that they needed to drive into contact for calls, and Minnesota trailed just 21-19 at the end of the first.

 

Having weathered the early storm, it was Minnesota who started to take over in the second quarter. Their defense stepped up – there was some great weak-side help against the pick-and-roll, the kind of help Phoenix never saw in their first-round series against the Los Angeles Sparks – and the Lynx injected some pace going back the other way. They weren’t piercing Phoenix’s defense as easily as they had in Game 1, and Gilbreath was doing a solid job on Whalen, but Moore and Augustus hit enough shots to take Minnesota up by as many as nine. Taurasi made some nice plays early in the game, and continued to run the offense adeptly, but she wasn’t hitting shots. It’s a problem that they’d survived so far in the playoffs, but with Bonner just as cold and Dupree back under the thumb of Rebekkah Brunson, the Mercury were having trouble creating points. It took a late 6-0 burst, with Whalen continuing to be stuffed on drives – and not getting the calls she might have expected – to pull the Mercury within 38-35 at halftime.

 

Although a strong start to the second half allowed Phoenix to tie the game up at 41-41, Minnesota’s defense and Phoenix’s inability to hit shots again played the primary roles in the third quarter. The Mercury were settling for contested jumpers because it was all they could create, and failing to hit (or to make the extra pass that might’ve eventually resulted in a better look). They shot a painful 0-9 from three-point range in the third period. Some of them were decent looks, including three attempts for Taurasi, but none of them were dropping. As usual, it was a bad idea to get into a jump-shooting contest with Minnesota. Taurasi’s struggles to get around screens gave Augustus room to hit jumpers, and Moore joined in. The Lynx were back up by eight heading into the fourth.

 

Pennell got so desperate for offense in the third quarter – and for someone who hopefully wouldn’t just toss up ridiculously deep threes that never go in, which Bonner had reverted to – that he put Charde Houston in the game. Yes, when you’re looking for better shot selection by inserting Charde Houston, you may well be in trouble. Some of the difference between the teams in this series came down to talent, but a lot of it was smarts. The Lynx are incredibly unselfish, but they also consistently make the right choice far more often than most of their opponents. It showed up again in the second half of this game.

 

The fourth quarter was Maya Moore time. She was simply out-shooting her predecessor as the superstar at UConn. Many of Moore’s jumpers were pretty well contested by Phoenix but she was hitting them anyway, and when the defense got too tight to her she was perfectly willing to drive and finish instead. Oddly, with six minutes left in the game and a nine-point lead, Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve went small. That shifted Moore to power forward, and we immediately heard from Dupree for what felt like the first time in the entire second half when she hit an elbow jumper. Moore continued to be effective offensively, but besides being desperate to keep Whalen, Augustus, Moore and Monica Wright all on the floor (Augustus and Moore to score, Whalen to run the show, Wright to guard Taurasi), the small lineup didn’t make much sense. They’d been rolling along with two true bigs.

 

The Mercury had one last push in them. Wright’s presence on the floor did nothing to stop Taurasi, who finally made a couple of shots to lead the comeback effort. The Lynx were up by 13 with three minutes left and seemingly on cruise control when Taurasi fought off Wright for a finish inside, drilled a three when Wright was caught on a (pretty illegal) Dupree screen, then hit a pullup jumper from the elbow in Wright’s face. Suddenly, the Mercury were within six with 83 seconds remaining. Reeve called timeout, and put Janel McCarville back in for Wright to return to the regular Lynx starting unit. Phoenix got another stop when Moore couldn’t convert for once under heavy pressure, and then drew even closer when Taurasi turned a Bonner brick into an offensive board and an outstanding feed to Dupree for a layup. The Mercury were within four.

 

But even with the Lynx missing free throws, that was as close as Phoenix would get. Alexis Hornbuckle committed a dumb foul by reaching in on Whalen from behind when the Mercury had time to play defense. Taurasi couldn’t get the bucket or the call on a drive, and then they had to start fouling on purpose. Then, trailing by six with 24 seconds remaining, the Mercury ended up with Hornbuckle having to go one-on-one out of a timeout when everything else broke down. That just about summed up the series. Minnesota’s defense took Phoenix out of what they wanted to do, and the Mercury ended up with bad shots that didn’t go down. Without Penny Taylor and with limited alternative options, Phoenix didn’t have enough, and the Lynx completed a 72-65 win that took them back to the WNBA Finals for the third straight year.

 

The Mercury obviously still have a hell of a lot of talent. They had their difficulties this season, but the switch to Pennell gave them a boost (and showed that they can play something approaching competent defense), and the upset over LA in the first-round added a positive cherry on top. Expectations were so high at the start of the year that anything short of a championship feels like something of a disappointment, but they have pretty clear ways to improve. Griner needs to get stronger to take full advantage of her size and skills, plus simple reps at the pro level should help her get smarter on defense. Bonner can clearly play much smarter herself, because we’ve seen her be a far more effective player in the past. Taurasi needs help in the backcourt. Another ballhandler would be nice, allowing her to play off the ball more, or at least someone who can be relied upon to run the offense and give her a break. There’s also a painful lack of gunners on this roster, especially considering you want to spread the floor around Taurasi and Griner. They need some people who can shoot, unless cloning develops dramatically and Taurasi can be in two (or ideally three or four) places at once. After two years of barely playing, anything they get from Taylor at this point has to be considered a bonus, rather than something they can go into the season expecting. Whether Pennell comes back or not – he’s probably done enough to earn the permanent gig – there’s plenty of talent here to work with. But they need to fill in around the edges to compete with teams like the Lynx.

 

It’s déjà vu all over again for Minnesota. The combination of chemistry, organisation, hard work and raw talent has once again taken them to the Finals, for a re-match against the franchise they swept in 2011. After being so effective offensively in Game 1, Whalen hit one shot all day in Game 2, so they relied on Augustus, Moore and their defense instead. As usual, they got the job done in whatever way the game forced them to do it. Augustus and Moore shot a combined 20-35 for 49 points, and limiting them will be a key task for Atlanta heading into the Finals. It won’t be easy, and if the defense overcompensates on them, the likes of Whalen and Brunson will step forward instead. Minnesota will go into the best-of-five series as favourites, but with memories of being heavily favoured last year as well, until Indiana turned the tables. They’re looking to reclaim the crown that they couldn’t hold onto a year ago.

 

 

Notes

The in-depth WNBAlien Finals preview will go up sometime in the next few days, so check back for that before the series begins on Sunday.

 

The absence of Erika de Souza from Brazil’s squad at the FIBA Americas tournament didn’t stop Brazil from qualifying for next year’s World Championships, although they made a meal of it. They were upset by Cuba in the semi-finals, then had to hold off Puerto Rico in the third-place playoff to take the final qualification spot available from the tournament. Cuba beat Canada in the final to win the title, with both nations obviously joining Brazil at the Worlds.

 

By the time you read this, the WNBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement will have expired. Back when it was signed, the League and the Players’ Association didn’t expect the season to extend into October, so the expiry date was set at September 30th 2013. So technically, they’ll be playing the WNBA Finals without a deal in place. It’s not expected to cause any issues – things should play out as if the agreement expired a few weeks later – but it’s a pretty silly error. When (hopefully not ‘if’) a new CBA is agreed, the expiry date will probably be set much further forward. There’s no reason it couldn’t have been the end of December, never mind October.

 

 

WNBA Finals Schedule

 

Sunday October 6th

Atlanta @ Minnesota, 8.30pm ET

 

Tuesday October 8th

Atlanta @ Minnesota, 8pm ET

 

Thursday October 10th

Minnesota @ Atlanta, 8.30pm ET (at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth, due to Disney on Ice occupying Philips Arena)

 

Sunday October 13th

Minnesota @ Atlanta, 8pm ET (if necessary, also at the Gwinnett Center)

 

Wednesday October 16th

Atlanta @ Minnesota, 8pm ET (if necessary)

 

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