By the numbers (over entire regular season):
Minnesota Lynx (26-8) vs Atlanta Dream (17-17)
Points scored per 100 possessions: 106.46 (1st in WNBA) – 95.19 (9th)
Points Conceded per 100 possessions: 94.55 (3rd) – 93.2 (1st)
Rebound percentage; .522 (2nd) – .503 (4th)
Season series between the teams: Tied 1-1
07/09 @Min, Lynx win 94-72 (no Augustus or Hayes, Lyttle’s last game this season)
08/20 @Atl, Dream win 88-75 (available players were as expected for this series)
Here we go again, everybody. The Minnesota Lynx are in the WNBA Finals for the third consecutive season, looking to regain the title that they lost a year ago. The Atlanta Dream are back in the championship series for the third time in four years. The franchises clashed in the 2011 Finals, with relatively similar rosters – and the Lynx won in a sweep. But that feels like a long time ago, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. The 2013 regular season, which saw the Dream finish .500 while the Lynx were their typical dominant selves, is largely irrelevant now. So a series from a couple of years ago definitely can’t be considered particularly important. Everyone starts the Finals 0-0, and the Dream’s confidence should be high after a sweep of Indiana to win the East, where they went some way towards reestablishing their identity. The track record of the Lynx makes them worthy favourites for this series, but they won’t have things all their own way.
Let’s start out on the perimeter, where you’ll arguably find the strength of both these teams. The Lynx have one of the strongest perimeter trios the women’s game has ever seen. Lindsay Whalen is a consummate point guard, the classic ‘coach on the floor’ who’ll run everything for head coach Cheryl Reeve and get the ball where it needs to go. But Whalen’s also more than capable of attacking the defense for her own points, as we saw in the recent Game 1 against Phoenix, where her scoring helped take the game over. The strength of Minnesota’s wings only makes things easier for Whalen, because typically opponents have to use their stronger perimeter defenders to contain Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore, leaving Whalen with whoever’s left. In this series, that’ll likely be Jasmine Thomas and some Alex Bentley. Both Thomas and Bentley have had their moments this season, playing their parts in Atlanta’s backcourt attack and occasionally getting hot, but they’ll need to at least compete with Whalen and try to stay in front of her as much as possible. Everyone gambles in Atlanta’s defense in search of steals, but they still need to hold their ground and prevent Whalen from getting into a flow that dominates the rhythm of the game.
Then there’s Moore and Augustus. After a couple of years settling into the league – where she was already impressive – Moore took another step this season and definitively moved past Augustus as the most valuable of the Lynx wings. She can do a little bit of everything, stuffing the stat-sheet in a way Augustus never really has, while continuing to be a remarkable scoring threat from all over the floor. She’ll rise up and shoot over the defense when you think she’s covered, and just score anyway, or create points by running the floor hard and working on the glass. Augustus is still just as dangerous as a scorer, will break out for points on the run just like Moore, or pull up for jumpers over anyone. She’s also developed a little more of an inside game this year, which we’ll undoubtedly see her break out at times in this series, especially if Atlanta try to guard her with a significantly smaller player. Armintie Herrington is a strong and long enough defender to trouble Augustus on post-ups or drives, but if they try to get away with Thomas, Bentley or even Tiffany Hayes for extended stretches, Augustus has more ways to attack them these days.
Then just when you think you can relax because one of the supremely talented Lynx starters is taking a rest, Monica Wright comes out to fill the spot. She didn’t have the best second-half to the season, but she can play any of the perimeter spots, attack in a variety of ways offensively, and typically takes over guarding the most dangerous opponent when she comes in. She’s the one Lynx bench player where it’s legitimately true that she could start for many other teams.
Herrington and Hayes are likely to be the primary defenders on Augustus and Moore, probably that way round. Moore will have something of a size and strength advantage over either, so we may also see her trying to attack inside rather than always settling for jump shots. There’ll be a constant balance necessary for Atlanta as well. They want and need to create turnovers in this series. Their offense is often generated in large part by their defensive pressure and ability to run back the other way. So they play, fast, aggressive defense, flying around the floor to cover passing lanes, disrupt the opposing offense, and hopefully create steals. But at the same time, they’ll be trying to keep the Lynx away from the rim. If you gamble constantly, sometimes the offense can get in behind you, and end up shooting layups rather than the contested jumpers you want them to take. It’s a balance Atlanta found effectively for stretches of their series against Indiana, playing a large role in getting them to the Finals. But Minnesota are a much stronger offensive team, who’ll hit more shots if you leave them open than the Fever were ever likely to.
Of course, it’s not all about how Atlanta are going to defend Minnesota. There’s another end of the floor, where Angel McCoughtry will be the central figure. This section of previews involving the Dream always features the same statement – Atlanta essentially can’t shoot. McCoughtry will fling a few shots up from outside – but those are the shots the defense wants her to take – and Hayes can’t be ignored from beyond the arc, but that’s pretty much it. If Atlanta spend this series taking long or mid-range jumpers, Minnesota will win. Probably in another sweep. But containing the Dream to those shots is easier said than done. As they showed against the Fever, they can create lanes off the dribble, and slice through defenses towards the basket. McCoughtry will be the leader, and is an expert at creating shots or contact for fouls, but Hayes, Herrington, Thomas and Bentley can attack as well.
Whether they go with a traditional lineup, with McCoughtry at small forward and two bigs, or the small lineup that they beat Indiana with where McCoughtry slides to the 4, much of Atlanta’s offense will come on knifing drives, and they’re hard to stop. But the Lynx are good at keeping teams away from the rim. They’ll try to collapse inside, clog up the lane, and force Atlanta to beat them from the perimeter – which the Dream are unlikely to pull off. It’s something Washington did fairly successfully in the first-round against the Dream. It brings us full circle, back to turnovers. If the Lynx take care of the ball, Atlanta will be forced into doing all this in the halfcourt, where Minnesota will back themselves to be able to close off the paint and limit the Dream. If Atlanta can force turnovers, ignite their running game and get into their flow, everything else will start to come more easily.
Now for the big girls. Well, big-ish. Minnesota get their work done in the paint without a great deal of true size. Janel McCarville is an undersized center who defends with her body and physicality, more than length and presence. Rebekkah Brunson plays bigger than she is due to her athleticism and mobility, which helps her as both a defender and rebounder. Offensively, both can hit a mid-range jump shot if you leave them alone (Brunson particularly likes the elbows), Brunson’s a demon on the glass, and McCarville’s distribution skills have been increasingly put to good use by the Lynx as the season has worn on. They also have Devereaux Peters off the bench if they need her, another mobile post who can spell either starter. Moore has also become increasingly comfortable at sliding down to power forward – something we might see a lot of in this series if the Lynx find it necessary to match up more directly with Atlanta’s small lineup.
Atlanta can go in different directions in the paint, but their key threat is Brazilian center Erika de Souza. She’s a big, physical presence who gives the Dream someone to toss the ball to in the low post as an alternative to constantly trying to find seams from the perimeter. McCarville will probably start on her, and will try to do similar things to what we saw from Erlana Larkins in the Eastern Finals, and even Kia Vaughn in the first round. You have to work hard against Erika before she receives the ball, keeping her as far away from the basket as possible before she gains possession. Then it’s a matter of staying tight to her, and forcing misses on the hooks and turnarounds that she puts up, trying to make the efforts as tough as possible and preventing layups. The job still isn’t done at that point, because Erika will try to use her size advantage to positive effect on the offensive glass. Boxing her out, along with athletes like Herrington, Hayes and McCoughtry, will be important for the Lynx in keeping Atlanta under control – but it’s something that Minnesota are typically very good at anyway.
Beyond Erika, how much we see of the other interior options for the Dream depends on how Fred Williams decides to play this series. Le’coe Willingham was back in uniform and apparently available for the Indiana games, but they stayed constantly small to remain aggressive and mobile. Aneika Henry is the other post who’ll see time, a longer option than Willingham who did well against Washington when she came in, providing another target inside. She’ll spell Erika when necessary, or can play alongside her in bigger lineups. But the ‘big or small’ discussion is one of the aspects we’ll be looking at in Part 2 of this preview, so let’s put that to the side for the moment.
However Williams sets up his team to start games in this series, we can probably assume that we’ll see plenty of McCoughtry as the nominal power forward. It’s then that they’ll have to work hard to contain Brunson and co on the glass. Atlanta are a solid rebounding team, even when they go small, because Erika swallows up boards and everyone else works hard chasing everything down. But Minnesota are even better, led by Brunson. The Lynx are too good to be allowed a heavy dose of second chances, and Atlanta also need defensive rebounds because they can lead to fastbreaks without even needing to create turnovers. It’ll need to be a team effort from the Dream to break even in the rebounding battle, or at least come close to it. I said in the previous round that the Mercury would need to out-work the Lynx to have a chance – Phoenix didn’t, and they got swept. It’s a similar story here. Minnesota are so good that the Dream have to consistently match or exceed their effort level. It’s something Atlanta have done in the past – they’ve got a much better track record of it than the Mercury, for example – so we know it’s possible. It just won’t be remotely easy.
Now that we’ve looked at how the personnel on either side stacks up, check out the forthcoming Part 2 for a closer look at the themes and battles which will decide this series. And my prediction, for what that’s worth.