After what seemed like in interminable wait, last night the 2013 WNBA Finals finally got underway. After building the fanbase over three years of success, the Minnesota faithful was out in force to support their Lynx. They dropped the Finals opener at home last year, which ultimately played a key part in Indiana’s 3-1 upset victory in the series. So the Lynx were hoping for a much better start this time around, to set the groundwork for regaining the championship trophy. The Atlanta Dream were in town hoping to spoil the party – or at the very least do better than the sweeps they’ve suffered in their two previous visits to the Finals.
The first questions were answered by the opening lineups. Minnesota center Janel McCarville had reportedly been suffering from some back pain since Friday’s practice, but she was in the starting lineup as usual along with the regular Lynx group. Atlanta had decided to stick with the small lineup that had served them so well against Indiana in the Eastern Finals, with Angel McCoughtry as a pseudo-power forward alongside Jasmine Thomas, Tiffany Hayes and Armintie Herrington on the perimeter. The opening possessions quickly illustrated that Fred Williams had decided to go with the unusual defensive assignment I mentioned in my preview, with McCoughtry guarding McCarville while Erika de Souza took Rebekkah Brunson. Herrington started on Seimone Augustus, with Hayes on Maya Moore, but Atlanta had a general willingness to switch on the perimeter whenever necessary. As anticipated, Minnesota were happy to match up with Atlanta’s small lineup without changing anything about themselves – Brunson started on McCoughtry, McCarville took Erika, and they got down to work.
It was a pretty frantic opening period, with both teams feeding from the crowd’s energy and the action flowing from end to end. McCarville posted up on McCoughtry once, and managed to force the ball home, but the Lynx weren’t going to take themselves out of their offense in an effort to attack that potential mismatch. They were moving well off the ball, Moore was hitting jumpers, and Augustus was successful with a couple of those dive-in plays from the corner, both times finishing off nice feeds from McCarville. Their offense was rolling nicely.
But the Dream had a little early success too, doing some of the things we knew they’d need to do in this series. Herrington crashed for an offensive rebound, stealing the ball right from Brunson’s hands and dropping in a putback. Erika got a couple of touches in the low post, and found a way to finish over or around McCarville. McCoughtry opened her account with a ridiculous leaning jumper that she jacked far too early in the offense, but it somehow went in. The problem was that they weren’t having much success stopping the Lynx and when they finally did create a turnover, McCoughtry blew a wide open layup. The high pace suited the Dream, but the transition chances still weren’t really there. Minnesota were doing a solid job of taking care of the ball while running their offense, preventing those break opportunities for Atlanta.
As the first quarter wore on, Minnesota gradually took charge. McCoughtry was trying to do a little too much, finding herself in traffic without any good options. As a team, even in that opening period, Atlanta were already taking too many shots that were exactly the efforts Minnesota wanted them to take. Any kind of jump shot, preferably (from a Lynx perspective) contested, or forced efforts on drives where the defender stayed right in front of the offensive player. The open lanes to the basket that Atlanta had consistently found in the Indiana series weren’t available against the Lynx, so scoring was much more difficult. Minnesota also had Monica Wright come into the game and make an immediate impact – hitting jumpers right along with Moore and Augustus, driving when she could, running the floor on the break, and adding to the defensive effort. The first quarter also ended well for the Lynx when McCoughtry picked up a cheap second foul with a reach-in on McCarville (way out on the perimeter where there was no threat), and Moore drilled a three. The Lynx were only up 24-16 heading to the second, but the basic element that they had players who could hit shots from outside – and Atlanta didn’t – was already pretty glaring.
In the previous two rounds of the playoffs, Dream head coach Fred Williams had a basic plan and essentially stuck with it. He played two bigs for almost the entirety of the opening round against Washington, even when Le’coe Willingham’s knee injury forced him to switch to Aneika Henry at power forward (which turned out to be a positive swap anyway). Then he went small for the whole of the series against Indiana, and that worked even better. It took barely five minutes for him to start switching between the alternatives in this game. Henry came in alongside Erika at the first timeout, giving them greater length inside and switching up their look. Being versatile is good, but it was an immediate concession that they didn’t have one answer for the Lynx. They were going to have to figure things out on the fly.
With McCoughtry in a little foul trouble and starting the second period on the bench, Atlanta started trying to run their offense through the low post a little more. Erika gave them a target down low, and Henry offered greater presence on the offensive boards to keep possessions alive. In fact, a series of offensive rebounds that finished in a Henry putback allowed the Dream to pull within six points midway through the period. But then Minnesota took over. A 15-0 surge featured production from a variety of players, with Wright, Whalen, Augustus, Moore and Brunson all contributing. They were attacking consistently, but playing with their typical unselfishness, always happy to make the extra pass for a better look for a teammate. This was the pace and precision that had always been a scary prospect for Atlanta coming into this series. When Minnesota play to this kind of level, it’s virtually impossible for anyone else to live with them, regardless of the opposition’s performance.
While Atlanta always want to force turnovers and run, the only team creating anything in transition was Minnesota. The Dream did a decent enough job in transition defense when they had to, but it was all part of the overall dominance for the Lynx. They were the ones gaining from the pace of the game. Things got even worse for Atlanta when Hayes tripped over Wright’s foot while trying to track a Lynx fastbreak, and went crashing into the photographers on the baseline. She somehow injured her lower back, and barely played for the rest of the night.
Among other things, Atlanta were running the weave at the top of the arc that had been so successful against Indiana. On a basic level, the Lynx were guarding it the same way the Fever had, passing off each player as they crossed, switching assignments, and tracking the ball across the floor. But it wasn’t creating the same driving lanes that the play had resulted in against Indiana. The Lynx players were happily anticipating the free-throw line screens, sliding under them, and staying right in front of drivers. If anyone happened to slide into a little space, the help was right there behind them. This was the defense everyone always says they want to play against Atlanta, put nicely into practice. Close off the lane, pressurise drives if one of the Dream perimeter players manages to make it that far, and watch Atlanta miss from outside. Simple, effective, and Minnesota led 44-25 at halftime. The Dream shot 29% from the field in the first half, to Minnesota’s 54%.
Atlanta started the second half ‘big’, with Henry filling the spot opened up by Hayes’s back problem. It didn’t make a great deal of difference. One of the many impressive aspects of this Lynx squad is their ability to play all kinds of different styles of basketball. They like to run and attack when it’s on offer, but they’ll happily go to war in a slow-down battle if that’s necessary. They can also match you big or small, and one of their advantages against McCoughtry is that Brunson, Augustus, Moore and Wright are all comfortable enough trying to guard her, so they can shift, and switch, and pick up in transition without constantly having to readjust. It’s hard for Atlanta to find an edge against Minnesota.
Once or twice in the third quarter, it looked like a comeback was a possibility. The Lynx were taking a lot of jump shots, and only managed to make two in the opening five minutes of the second half. Atlanta managed to bull their way to the hoop a couple of times, draw a foul or two, and generally make life a little more difficult for Minnesota. But the Lynx had answers. Their defense was still winning the majority of the time, and the lead never dropped below 14. Moore scored three straight Lynx buckets on a putback, a long jumper, and a transition layup where she ran the floor hard and was right there to take a flip pass from Wright and finish. That put Minnesota back in control, and then they killed the game off with a charge to finish the third quarter. McCarville nailed a three from the corner; Augustus hit a jumper when McCoughtry was left behind on yet another screen; Wright had a three-point play on a strong drive; McCoughtry took two more of those shots the Lynx want her to take – a three and an off-balance fling in the lane; and Augustus drilled a three in far too much space to close out the period. Atlanta had given it everything they had, and done some things significantly better in the third quarter – but they closed the period trailing by 25, six points more than their deficit at halftime.
The fourth quarter was essentially all garbage time. It took nearly five minutes for the coaches to concede that, but everyone knew it. The battle had already been fought and won, and the remainder was just formalities and curtain calls. Minnesota coasted home for an 84-59 win, and a 1-0 lead in the series. Atlanta couldn’t hit anything from outside in the fourth quarter either, even once both team’s reserves were on the floor.
This was basically the perfect start to the Finals for Minnesota. Cheryl Reeve couldn’t have dreamt it much better. Moore and Augustus were their typical selves offensively, firing in shots from all angles to lead the offense (19-31 combined for 42 points as a pair). Wright was just as good as the third-banana (9-14 for 20 points, 5 boards, 3 assists, 3 steals), having her best game for months. No one else needed to do much scoring, but they chipped in here and there. Defensively, everything went almost exactly to plan – they collapsed inside, largely prevented penetration without fouling, and kept the Dream in check. It’s one thing to know on an intellectual level that Atlanta can’t shoot – it’s another to put that into practice as a defense out on the floor, and force them into taking shots that probably won’t go in. We just watched Indiana make a complete mess of it in the last round. Minnesota executed the gameplan, and it resulted in a very comfortable win.
Atlanta shot atrociously, but that can’t be a surprise to anyone. They finished at 31% from the field, but amazingly they also finished ahead in points in the paint – 44-42. The problem was that they shot 2-36 outside the lane. If you watched the game, you can probably remember the two makes – there was McCoughtry’s awkward leaner barely two minutes into the game (over two defenders with 15 seconds left on the shot clock); and a turnaround fadeaway from Erika early in the second quarter. That was it. They were 0-15 from three-point range, and 2-16 on twos outside the paint. The real issue is that the number of attempts from those zones is far too high. They can’t take that many shots from areas where Minnesota wants them to shoot, because the numbers don’t lie. The Dream can’t even dream of winning a jump-shooting competition against the Lynx. It just won’t happen. They need to penetrate and re-penetrate if necessary, drive-and-kick-and-drive rather than drive-and-kick-and-shoot. They need to let the ball do some of the work at times, passing to shift the defense rather than running those endless handoffs or just driving right into the teeth of a collapsing defense. They can’t just show up and expect things to go differently while they’re trying the same things.
All of that said, some of the improvements are pretty basic. The defense needs to be more active, switching, rotating and swarming more like they did in their wins against Washington and Indiana – rather than getting picked off by screens and just watching Augustus, Moore and Wright hit shots. Because that’s how the shooting percentage can improve quickly – with high-percentage transition chances created by solid defense. When you don’t get any stops or steals, everything at the other end is against a set defense and becomes far more difficult. So better defense will significantly help their offense. Erika and Aneika Henry were both reasonably effective when they touched the ball inside, but had to earn most of their chances on their own. They finished a combined 11-18 for 24 points and 21 boards, including 9 offensive rebounds. So their interior size had some success. Maybe there are alternatives to constantly looking for drives from the perimeter, and running headlong into traffic. Or McCoughtry going one-on-one and jacking up bad shots with defenders on top of her (resulting in a 6-24 shooting performance). It’s essentially a case of the Dream just needing to do almost everything better. Thinking, working, executing – everything. The Lynx outperformed them in virtually every area; now Atlanta need to step up and respond.
Remaining WNBA Finals Schedule (Lynx lead best-of-five 1-0)
Tuesday October 8th
Atlanta @ Minnesota, 8pm ET
Thursday October 10th
Minnesota @ Atlanta, 8.30pm ET (at the Gwinnett Center)
Sunday October 13th
Minnesota @ Atlanta, 8pm ET (if necessary, at the Gwinnett Center)
Wednesday October 16th
Atlanta @ Minnesota, 8pm ET (if necessary)