Game 1 of the WNBA Finals was frankly a little embarrassing for the Atlanta Dream. They came into Minnesota on a high after a strong performance in the Eastern Finals, and were essentially blown off the floor by the home town Lynx. So Game 2 needed to be about responding and improving. They couldn’t afford to shoot 2-36 from outside the paint again, but they also needed to find ways to simply shoot fewer shots from outside. They had to craft better avenues to the rim, and create easier looks. And they had to do a better job defensively so that they could roll that momentum into their offense. All the Lynx needed to do was be ready for the potential response from Atlanta – more of the same from Minnesota would do perfectly nicely.
The Dream made one conspicuous move before Game 2 even tipped off. Aneika Henry started the game in place of Tiffany Hayes, replacing a guard with a post. Hayes had a nasty fall in Game 1, resulting in some lower back pain, but was ready to play off the bench. It was an attempt by Fred Williams to shake things up, try to capitalise on their size inside, and go with the option that worked the best in Game 1. Not that anything worked particularly well in Game 1, but Henry was one of the few bright spots. Minnesota had their regular starting five in place as usual, and made the defensive adjustments you’d expect. Seimone Augustus started on Angel McCoughtry instead of Rebekkah Brunson, who moved onto Henry. Janel McCarville stayed with Erika de Souza. Of course, with two true posts on the floor for the Dream, McCoughtry had to guard one of Minnesota’s star wings rather than hide on McCarville. She started on Augustus.
Atlanta looked better in the opening minutes than they had in the previous game. There was a clear intent to drive and attack at every opportunity – sometimes even when there wasn’t really much of an opportunity. McCoughtry and Armintie Herrington both went barreling into the paint on early possessions, and even Erika took a step or two outside, then attacked off the dribble when she glimpsed a gap, rather than settling for a short jumper. However, they were still running into a lot of traffic, and because the Lynx knew that Atlanta wanted to drive at all costs – and that the Dream were unlikely to punish them by hitting shots from outside – multiple defenders were waiting in the lane to block the route to the basket. The mentality was good from Atlanta, but the success was limited.
And they still couldn’t get any stops. The same things continued to work offensively for Minnesota – solid screens, effective and purposeful movement off the ball, unselfish passing, and making shots. Once again, the game was frantic early on – just the style Atlanta like to play – but once again it was Minnesota pulling away on the scoreboard. As the first quarter wore on, we even saw the Dream make a few perimeter shots – Hayes drilled a three with virtually her first touch after coming off the bench, while Alex Bentley and Jasmine Thomas both made jumpers from the top of the key. But those were just occasional breaks in the overall Lynx dominance.
Minnesota were bringing it from all angles. Several players made jumpers, led by Augustus, but they were also getting out in transition whenever they could. Brunson was using her athleticism to attack, McCarville was showing a willingness to be part of the offense, and Lindsay Whalen was clearly determined to be more of a factor than in Game 1. In fact, the additional scary element for the Dream was that Minnesota were in total control despite Maya Moore providing very little for the Lynx offense. But she was virtually the only one.
Meanwhile, it was already looking like another ugly night for McCoughtry. Her first foul came after barely three minutes, trying to slide in front of Moore on a transition drive. Then she was stopped on a drive of her own by a combination of Augustus staying in front of her and Devereaux Peters coming across to help, before picking up a second foul when flailing her arm backwards to hold off Peters while chasing the loose ball. It was a slightly harsh call – the sort of movement officials often ignore – but it left Atlanta’s star on two fouls after less than five minutes of play. And it’s not like she was hitting shots anyway. Williams left her in the game, only for her to drive again on the next Dream possession and be emphatically rejected by Moore flying across from the weak side. Then he sat her for the rest of the first quarter. She came back in to start the second, instantly jacked a horrendous three that careened off the glass without troubling the iron, and eventually finished the first half 1-7 from the field. It’s been a frustrating couple of games for Angel. Minnesota have multiple defenders to throw at her – Augustus, Moore, Brunson and Monica Wright all guarded her in this game – and can send plenty of help whenever necessary. The lanes to the hoop aren’t there, she hasn’t drawn the calls she’s wanted, and she isn’t a good enough shooter to beat the defense from outside (not that it stops her from trying). Obviously, with their star ineffective, Atlanta’s chances of success decrease dramatically.
The Lynx led 27-16 at the end of the first quarter, and continued to control much of the second. They gave up significantly more turnovers than they’d have liked in the first half – something Atlanta always wanted to force them into – by the majority were dead ball turnovers. When the ball goes out of bounds, the Lynx can get back and set up their defense and avoid igniting Atlanta’s transition game, so they’re not as costly. Lost possessions are never good, but when you’re shooting as efficiently as the Lynx were, they’re acceptable. Minnesota’s transition defense was also very impressive when it needed to be. On consecutive possessions in the second quarter, Dream guards took off at a run and attacked the basket quickly. Both times, defenders were there to harass the attempted layup, force misses, and then the only players in the picture to grab the rebound were in Lynx uniforms. The Minnesota players know what’s important in this series, and they’re working hard to make sure they do what’s necessary to come out on top.
The Dream did have a couple of positive moments in the second quarter. Whalen threw a terrible cross-court pass that was begging to be picked off, and McCoughtry obliged and took off upcourt. Wright was back and in front of her, while Moore ran back and grabbed McCoughtry from behind to stop the quick scoring chance. The officials called it a clear path foul (a thoroughly dubious decision, but we all know by now that the clear path rule is a shambolic mess that needs fixing), and the play eventually resulted in five points – McCoughtry made the free throws, and Henry flipped in a nice hook shot while being fouled on the following possession, then completed the three-point play. That pulled Atlanta within eight.
But the Lynx simply answered yet again. Whalen was still attacking the basket, and Augustus was curling off screens for good looks on jumpers or floaters in the lane. Plus their defense was essentially still working. Minnesota definitely got the benefit of a couple of calls in the first half, but much of that was because they were doing their work with their bodies and feet. You see this with basketball officials all over the world (it’s even more evident in Europe than the US) – you can get away with contact if you arrive in time (or at least close to ‘in time’) and use your body to trouble the offensive player. It won’t always be called offensive or defensive, usually just incidental contact unless there’s an outright collision. That’s what we were seeing most of the time from Minnesota. In contrast, Atlanta were doing too much defending with their hands and arms. They were swarming better as a team, trying their hardest to trouble Minnesota’s scorers, but it often led to reach-ins and contact on the arms of shooters. That’ll draw calls, anywhere you play the game. So after shooting just six free throws in the whole of Game 1, Minnesota had 16 attempts at the line to Atlanta’s 9 in the first half. They ended the opening 20 minutes with a lovely feed from Whalen to McCarville, who flipped in the finish at the rim. Minnesota were up 51-36 an in total control once again.
For all the whining about calls, from players and fans alike, shooting 35% to Minnesota’s 63% in the first half doomed Atlanta. Despite the early energy, and the bigger lineups (they used two posts throughout the first half), it was a repeat of Game 1. The Dream were also getting destroyed on the glass – despite the extra big – with Brunson matching their nine boards in the first half on her own. The Lynx had 23 as a team. Foul trouble for Erika and McCoughtry had made life more difficult for Atlanta, but was far from the determining factor. They were getting outplayed again.
The third quarter was pretty familiar too. As with Game 1, Minnesota started settling for more jumpers than they’d taken in the first half, missing more shots, and Atlanta occasionally looked like they might have a run in them. But the consistency was never there. The gap came down to ten midway through the third quarter when a couple of Atlanta’s drives succeeded, then Minnesota tightened up their defense and McCoughtry tossed up a couple of bricks, and the lead reestablished itself. The comeback never really looked likely.
Again, early in the fourth, the Dream hinted at something. They went small for several periods in the second half, and at times it gave them a little extra speed and fluency. Interior finishes for Erika and McCoughtry pulled them within 12 with seven minutes remaining. Then Cheryl Reeve put her starting unit back on the floor again, and within moments the game was finished as a contest. There’d been a few Lynx possessions where they’d become static and the shot clock had dwindled, but Augustus broke them out of it with a hard cut to finish off a Brunson feed, and then a three-point play on a transition drive. Every time the Lynx needed to make a play in this game, someone stepped up. There was never any kind of sustained surge for Atlanta. It eventually became a 13-1 run for Minnesota in the fourth quarter, as they dominated the Dream’s smaller lineup again. Atlanta were back to tossing up jumpers with little chance of finding the net, and after another couple of bricks McCoughtry finally fouled herself out of the game with four minutes left on an overly-aggressive attempt to rip a rebound away from Whalen. We still had time for a little showtime basketball from McCarville, who threw a pretty behind-the-back bounce pass to Moore for a short jumper off the glass, but the game was long over. The Lynx ultimately won 88-63, moving just one win away from their second title in three years.
This was another dominant performance from Minnesota. Reeve won’t have enjoyed the 20 turnovers, but that’s just about the only negative from their perspective. All five starters finished in double digits, with Augustus leading the way shooting 9-12 for 20. Moore didn’t shoot that well – or that often – but got out on the break and drew fouls, and they didn’t need her to carry the offense when the team was working so well as a unit. The team defense continues to clog the lane, cut off drives, and make it very difficult for Atlanta to create clean looks at the basket – unless they want to fire from 18 feet or deeper, which isn’t likely to result in made baskets. Minnesota have been a better team at home all year, and it’ll be a slightly different proposition without their vociferous fans behind them, but there’s no reason why they can’t take this level of performance on the road. They’ll be favourites to close out the series on Thursday night at the Gwinnett Center.
Atlanta are going to have to come up with something to dramatically change the course of this series – but it’s hard to imagine what that could be. Big or small, they’ve had occasional sequences with a little success at quieting Minnesota’s offense, but it’s rarely lasted for long. The Lynx ultimately shot 57% from the field in this game (to Atlanta’s 36%), which makes it virtually impossible for the Dream to compete. McCoughtry’s now 11-42 in this series, and continues to toss up far too many shots from outside that are essentially beyond her range – but when you can’t make it to the rim and you’re supposed to be your team’s superstar, that’s what you end up resorting to. A fluke game where she gets hot, or one of the Hayes/Thomas/Bentley trio randomly lights up, might steal them a game. But even that’s unlikely, because the Lynx are good enough to tilt their defense where necessary and cool off a scorer like that. Being mic-ed up during a game, or interviewed between quarters, rarely reflects well on Fred Williams – but both are presenting pretty accurate pictures at this stage. It always seems like he’s run out of ideas, and that’s also what it looks like out on the floor.
The same changes that could’ve been made after Game 1 – more passing rather than constant drives, more attempts to play through the post – are still a possibility, and we didn’t see much of either in Game 2. Both would be nice to at least try. But it starts with the defense. They tried to challenge shooters better and more aggressively in Game 2, but it mostly led to a lot of fouls. Maybe they’ll have a better time of it with the officials away from the Target Center, and maybe the Lynx will simply miss more shots in an unfamiliar arena, but there’s a lot of hope involved rather than any expectation. At this point, it’ll be something of a surprise if the Dream finally break their 0-8 run in Finals games – and it’ll be a significant shock if there’s another WNBA game in Minnesota before next season.
Oh, and just as an addendum, McCoughtry wasn’t doing anyone any favours with her whining in the press conference after the game about fouls and physicality. Maybe a couple more calls went Minnesota’s way than Atlanta’s, but not to an egregious extent – and when you lose by 25, the officials certainly didn’t decide the result. Through two games, the Dream have been comprehensively outplayed by Minnesota – McCoughtry needs to focus on the basketball rather than the whistles.
Remaining WNBA Finals Schedule (Lynx lead best-of-five 2-0)
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)