Now for the topics, trends, decisions and debates that are likely to decide the WNBA Finals, or are at least worth paying attention to as the series goes along. Many of them were touched upon in Part 1, where we took a closer look at the personnel involved, but now we’ll get more in depth. Then, just for fun, I’ll offer up a prediction. Although with the way it’s been going for me with picks this year in the postseason, you might want to go the other way.
Big or small?
Dream head coach Fred Williams made a move for the Eastern Finals that surprised me with its sheer boldness and willingness to be proactive. He often seems to spend games watching them drift by, including in the first-round where his most meaningful move was forced upon him by Le’coe Willingham’s injury. But he opened the series against Indiana with his small lineup, essentially featuring four perimeter players – Angel McCoughtry is generally considered the power forward because she’s the tallest of the four, but they’re basically all guards and wings. It proved to be an astute move, as their offense sliced through the Fever at will, and consistently looked far more effective than at any stage in the previous series against Washington. Now he has to decide what to do against the Lynx, because Minnesota are not the Indiana Fever. They don’t have a virtual perimeter player at power forward – they have Rebekkah Brunson, who might not be a traditional post-up threat, but she’s big enough and nasty enough to take advantage of a smaller player in the paint and on the glass.
So does Williams concede that his small lineup can’t defend the Lynx well enough, and go back to a more traditional lineup, with either Willingham or Aneika Henry at power forward? Probably not. Maybe, at times, we’ll see two Dream bigs together in this series. He threw that option away entirely against the Fever, but if Brunson starts dominating the glass, or Williams just wants to shake the Lynx up a little, it might be a more useful option against Minnesota. But we saw in the regular season game between these teams on August 20th that the Dream’s small lineup can both survive defensively, and succeed offensively against the Lynx. Atlanta will want to keep their pace high, and maintain the attacking mentality from the Indiana series, so I’d expect McCoughtry either to start at power forward, or slide there pretty early on.
Then it becomes a case of what either team does to handle the matchups. Minnesota can make everything nice and simple by going small themselves, shifting Maya Moore to power forward in a similar move to Atlanta with McCoughtry. Then the defensive assignments are simple. But Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve won’t allow Williams to dictate the action like that. Instead we’ll see Brunson defending McCoughtry – Brunson did an effective job in that role in the regular season game I mentioned – while forcing Atlanta to handle the opposing mismatches on the other end. Either McCoughtry has to defend Brunson, which is plausible for a while but probably not something you want to see for an entire series, or Williams has to get creative.
In the Fever series, either Tiffany Hayes or Armintie Herrington guarded Tamika Catchings, allowing McCoughtry to slide onto lesser threat Karima Christmas. The equivalent shift isn’t quite so straightforward this time, because the prospect of Hayes or Herrington trying to box out Brunson is a little scary. One option will be the reverse shift, with McCoughtry sliding over to take Janel McCarville, while Erika de Souza moves over to Brunson. It’s plausible because McCarville isn’t really a threat to post up, and she doesn’t even particularly like taking the mid-range jump shot that she’s fired up more frequently in the second half of the year. It’ll look a little weird, with McCoughtry guarding a center, but it might well be Atlanta’s most effective way to handle going small on the defensive end. Offensively, it makes them quicker and more aggressive, gives them an extra ballhandler and slasher, and pulls Brunson out of ideal rebounding position if she’s chasing McCoughtry around. The positives probably outweigh the negatives for Atlanta, which is why we’ll see them try it until the Lynx force them into something else. It’s up to Minnesota to counter, or defend it well enough to force a different approach.
The Lynx don’t giveth, but the Dream must taketh away
Both these teams love to run. Three teams were well ahead of the pack in fastbreak points this season – the Los Angeles Sparks, and our two finalists. The same squads were also the top-three in points off turnovers. The Lynx can be a glorious sight in transition, moving quickly down the floor with any of their perimeter players running the break and any of the others filling the lanes as finishers. But they don’t need transition points to succeed. They enjoy playing at pace, and they’ll take any cheap points that are on offer, but they’ll fight it out in a halfcourt game if that’s what you want to drag them into.
Atlanta are different. They thrive off playing attacking defense, charging around the floor and gambling in passing lanes, forcing turnovers at every possible opportunity. Lazy opposition passes around the top of the arc are just opportunities to poke the ball away and run in the opposite direction, as far as Atlanta are concerned. It’s where they generate a key part of their offense, and even if they don’t finish plays with steals, they’ll hope to upset the rhythm of the opposing offense by preventing the passes Minnesota want to make.
But this is where a strength hits a strength, which is part of what makes this such an intriguing sub-plot for the series. Atlanta love to create turnovers; Minnesota are outstanding at taking care of the basketball. Led by Lindsay Whalen at the point, but with everyone else playing their part, the Lynx typically make smart decisions and don’t turn the ball over. If they can maintain that throughout this series, it’ll significantly restrict Atlanta. The Dream showed against Indiana in the last round that they can still get to the rim in the halfcourt, but Minnesota are likely to do a significantly better job shutting off the paint than we saw from the Fever. So Atlanta will need their transition game. It’s about mentality, as well as the cheap points the Dream can score if they get out on the break. When they grab a couple of steals, and turn them into layups, they build vital momentum and it feeds into their play on other possessions. Then they can stay aggressive and continue to attack.
For Minnesota, they have to play with their usual precision and creativity offensively, but without taking too many risks. Even if it means turning down a pass or two that they might try against another team, staying safe against Atlanta is usually the right policy. Maybe it means once or twice they’ll end up with a contested jumper where they might’ve found a layup – it’s still better than feeding the Dream exactly what they need to start rolling.
The depth of a half-empty paddling pool
It had to be mentioned for the sake of completeness, but depth isn’t likely to be a big issue in this series – because neither team really has any. Minnesota go seven deep, with Monica Wright and Devereaux Peters coming off the bench (and very occasionally rookie point guard Lindsey Moore might see a couple of minutes). If they go small for extended periods, even Peters might not see that much time. Wright could be important, because she’ll come in as a defender on players like Tiffany Hayes who can get hot and make a quick impact. Fortunately for the Lynx, they’re generally pretty good at staying out of foul trouble, so depth hasn’t been a big concern in many games. If Atlanta do manage to drive into traffic and draw some early calls, it could be important – it just isn’t that likely to happen.
The make-up of Atlanta’s bench obviously depends somewhat on which starting group Williams decides to go with. But with Sancho Lyttle presumably still injured, and Ruth Riley and Courtney Clements very much in the ‘Use Only in Case of Extreme Emergency’ category, they’re not deep either. Aneika Henry is a decent backup post, Alex Bentley can play her part in the perimeter attack, and Willingham (assuming they start small) is an option if they want to change the style. Hayes used to be the bench energy, but she’s started every playoff game so far.
These teams are further evidence that you don’t need much depth to challenge for a WNBA championship, which has already been made clear by other recent contenders. Of course, health could still be a significant element, partly because of that lack of depth. Atlanta have made it all the way here despite missing Lyttle for most of the season; Minnesota have been remarkably healthy for the bulk of the last three years. An injury to a McCoughtry or a Moore, an Erika or a Whalen, and the balance of the series changes dramatically. But that’s always the case in this league. It’s unavoidable.
Mind over matter
It feels like the mental edge in this series ought to be with Minnesota. They’ve always been a confident, composed team, they play with speed but under control, and they’ve got plenty of experience from their visits to the Finals the last two years. Even the area where Atlanta might’ve had an advantage – their desperation to finally win a title and reach the mountain-top – is matched because the Lynx lost at this stage last year. Now Minnesota want their crown back, rather than just trying to defend it.
Atlanta have always seemed like a more volatile squad. McCoughtry has calmed down a little, and clearly become less selfish on the court with her improved passing this year, but she’s still prone to occasional pouting – and teams tend to take on the personality of their stars. Erika can be an emotional leader, boosting the crowd and encouraging them to increase the noise level. But they tend to roll with the momentum of the game, so it can be hard to change the flow. The Lynx are more even keel, while the Dream fly from one extreme to the other.
Taking home-court advantage to an extra level
Thanks to Disney on Ice, Atlanta’s Philips Arena isn’t available for Games 3 and 4, so the action will shift to the Gwinnett Center. So not only will the Lynx be at home for Games 1, 2 and the potential Game 5, with their vociferous home fans behind them – the Dream won’t even be on their real home court back in Atlanta. The Lynx have been outstanding on their own floor this year, finishing the regular season 15-2 at home, with Augustus and Moore in particular lighting it up on their home rims. Atlanta were 13-4 at home, 4-13 on the road, which gives an obvious indication as to how important venue has been to them this year.
The crowds we’ve seen both during the playoffs and in the regular season also favour the Lynx, because theirs actually tend to show up. Even for vital playoff games, Philips Arena had an awful lot of empty seats as the background for the action. Who knows how many will turn up now that a different venue will be hosting the games. Hopefully enough to at least provide some atmosphere, and not to look too embarrassing on ESPN2.
Will the real Angel McCoughtry please stand up
Last but very much not least, which Angel are we going to see in this series? The Lynx will do everything they can to frustrate her, force her to work on the defensive end, and settle for jump shots on offense. McCoughtry will need to play with her head, just as much as her undoubted physical skills. She’s spent the season showing off an increased ability to spot open teammates and feed them when they’ve got a better look than she does. Her assist numbers have gone up significantly, while her turnovers have stayed essentially at the same high figure as last season. But she’s still prone to games – or at least passages within games – where she’s incredibly frustrating to watch.
She’ll take too many attempts that she must know on some level are bad shots. She’s not a good perimeter shooter (even worse this year than in previous seasons) but she’s still willing the fire away from outside at times. Occasionally she’ll get hot, or lucky, but the Lynx will happily take their chances with her jacking up efforts from 18 feet or further. The Dream need her to lead them, but they need her to do it the right way. Attacking the rim, drawing contact, and taking open shots from within her range if they’re available once she’s found some rhythm. Otherwise she can end up hurting her own team more than she helps.
Minnesota have a variety of stars, and other people can step up if Moore or Augustus shoot badly, or Brunson’s kept quiet. Atlanta are always better when they move the ball and have some balance in the box score, but McCoughtry’s their one true star. If they’re going to win this series, the Dream need her to find the right balance between being a team player, and leading the way.
People only tend to remember ‘sweep’ from those 2011 Finals, forgetting that all three games were closely contested most of the way, and Atlanta led at halftime in all of them. The Dream also beat Minnesota in the one game this season where the teams faced each other with the same rosters they’re likely to have in the Finals. Atlanta won that game by doing exactly what we’ve talked about them needing to do in this series – forcing turnovers (the Lynx gave up 19, leading to 25 Dream points), attacking the rim (Atlanta scored 44 points in the paint) and drawing fouls (the Dream were 24-27 at the free throw line). They managed to take the Lynx out of their rhythm, and controlled the tempo of the game, winning even though McCoughtry shot poorly. It’s another sign that the Dream have a chance in this series, even if they’re considered underdogs by virtually anyone you ask (including the bookmakers).
But it’s difficult to see the Dream overcoming everything necessary to beat the Lynx three times. The home-court advantage, exacerbated by the unavailability of Philips Arena. The ability of the Lynx to counter Atlanta’s small lineup either with their regular starters, or a perfectly workable small lineup of their own. The advantage in experience, smarts and strength that Whalen has over anyone Atlanta can throw at her at the point. The way Minnesota’s defense is just as capable of throwing off the Dream as Atlanta’s is of pulling the same trick. And finally, the fact that the Lynx can shoot from the perimeter if the defense seals off the paint, whereas it’s something of a shock whenever Atlanta hit a shot from beyond 10 feet. So…
Minnesota 3-1. I can see the Dream finally winning a Finals game after going 0-6 in their previous visits, but it’s hard to envision them managing more than that. Actually pulling off the upset and taking home the trophy definitely seems like a long-shot. But then, everyone was saying the same thing at this stage last year, only for the Lynx to be left empty-handed. Nothing’s impossible.