Heading into last night’s Game 3, the Atlanta Dream didn’t just have the weight of being down 2-0 on their shoulders. After suffering sweeps at the hands of Seattle and Minnesota in 2011 and 2012, the franchise was 0-8 in Finals games. Plus they hadn’t just lost the two games back in Minnesota – they’d been stuffed by 25 in each of them. They were fighting against history, against embarrassment, and against the all-conquering Minnesota Lynx team that was looking to complete an undefeated postseason with their third consecutive series sweep. It was a daunting task, and with Philips Arena hosting Disney on Ice, they didn’t even have their regular home venue to boost their chances.
At times in the first two games, it looked like Dream head coach Fred Williams had run out of ideas on how to challenge the Lynx. But he decided to try his third different starting lineup in three games, with Le’coe Willingham coming back in at power forward ahead of Aneika Henry (or Tiffany Hayes, if they’d wanted to go small again). It was a thoroughly random roll of the dice, seeing as Willingham isn’t really the kind of player who can turn a series, but you couldn’t blame him for trying something different. It didn’t work out too well in the opening moments, though. Janel McCarville – nominally being guarded by Willingham – decided to be particularly aggressive offensively, and drilled a series of jumpers. Willingham wasn’t doing anything particularly badly – helping away from McCarville is something you’re basically supposed to do against Minnesota – but the Lynx center fired away and refused to miss. It was clear around midseason this year that the Lynx coaching staff had asked McCarville to be more of a threat offensively, so that teams couldn’t cheat off her quite so egregiously, and she started taking some of those wide open jumpers teams offered her. Now she was stepping up in Game 3 of the Finals. This Lynx team really can hurt you from all angles.
It looked like we might be in for another blowout in the opening minutes. The McCarville barrage was backed up by a couple of buckets for Maya Moore, while Angel McCoughtry was out of control at the other end. She started with a hideous jacked three with 16 on the shot clock barely hit the rim, before an airball on a 1-on-3 baseline move and a couple of desperately soft turnovers when she drove into heavy traffic. There’s a thin line between ‘carrying your team’ and ‘trying to do too much’. Often, frankly, the difference is whether the bad shots you take go in or not. But Angel was dominating the ball, and it wasn’t working at all. Williams took a timeout after barely five minutes of play, with his team already trailing 13-3.
McCoughtry was summarily benched, in the hope that she’d calm down, or relax, or just get out of her own team’s way. And it worked. The Dream started running their offense through Erika de Souza in the low post, something that we should’ve seen more of in this entire series (although the Lynx admittedly make it very difficult with their heavy strong-side help). With McCarville resting on the bench, it was Rebekkah Brunson trying to guard her, and for a few minutes Erika was dominant. She was finishing inside, or hitting little turnarounds, or unbalancing the Lynx defense so much with her threat to score that gaps opened up for players like Armintie Herrington on cuts and offensive boards. Erika can also be an emotional leader for this team, and once she was involved in the offense she started jumping around, waving her arms and encouraging the crowd at Atlanta’s temporary home in the Gwinnett Center. The Dream had some life after all.
Atlanta’s defense was looking more effective as well. They were extending their pressure well beyond the three-point line, making it as difficult as possible for Minnesota to initiate their offense and make usually straightforward passes. It’s a high-risk strategy, of course, because you open yourself up to the offense getting behind you or going past you, but it was unsettling the Lynx a little. Minnesota’s defense looked rattled, briefly, by how effective Erika was, and the offense was a little stilted against the Dream pressure. But this was still the Minnesota Lynx. They still didn’t give up many turnovers, they continued to hit shots, and when Dream guard Alex Bentley drilled a three with just seconds left in the first quarter, Lindsay Whalen pushed hard and goaded Bentley into stupidly fouling her on a deep heave at the buzzer. The three foul shots left the Lynx up 25-17, despite the apparent success that Erika and Atlanta’s defense had achieved in the previous five minutes.
McCoughtry was still on the bench to open the second period, but not for long. Once she came back in she was better than she had been to open the game, willing to be a part of the team effort rather than trying to take over. She made passes, she attacked the glass, and she played her part in the defensive effort that was still producing a little success for the Dream. They weren’t forcing many of the turnovers that they’d have liked to use to generate offense, but everything was awkward for Minnesota. They weren’t allowed to have the same fluidity that we’d seen in the first two games – instead they were forced to make tough shots, or find ways to manufacture points on drives and by drawing contact. The first half was proving far more of a contest than it had in either game at the Target Center.
When McCoughtry eventually made her first shot of the night, it was part of the other element that gave the Dream more of a chance in Game 3 – actually hitting some perimeter shots. She nailed a catch-and-shoot three, joining in the efforts that Bentley and Tiffany Hayes had already knocked down from outside. For all the effort, and energy, and basic feel that the Dream were more competitive, a lot of the tighter balance on the scoreboard came down to making shots. McCoughtry’s three tied the game for the first time since 0-0, and at the end of the half Bentley made up for her error at the end of the first quarter by rejecting an Erika screen on that three-guard weave they’ve been running constantly throughout the playoffs, throwing off Monica Wright and going by her for a layup with a foul on top. It was nice to see someone finally do something different on that weave play, rather than just try to use the screen and watch the defender go under it and stay in defensive position. The bonus free throw allowed Atlanta to go to the locker room trailing just 40-37. That might not sound like a particularly positive outcome, but it’s a hell of a lot closer than they’d been at halftime in Games 1 and 2.
The opening to the second half was similar to the first – some slightly stagnant Lynx offense still managing to carve out points one way or another, but Atlanta’s defense putting up a fight. After Lindsay Whalen had taken on the mantle of driving the offense in the second quarter, it was Brunson early in the third providing a punch for the Lynx. But it was McCarville who lit the game up once again. She poked the ball away from Erika at the top of the arc for a steal, broke upcourt with the ball, and dropped a bounce pass between her legs for Brunson to finish. It was the kind of pass you tend to see in All-Star games rather than Game 3 of the Finals, but that’s the kind of vision and flair that McCarville can bring to the game. After a decent start to the second half for Atlanta, the Lynx took all the momentum back with that one play, and Williams took a timeout just to calm everything down.
Minnesota still dominated most of the rest of the third quarter. McCarville was also doing a solid defensive job on Erika, making entry passes difficult by using her body and reaching around to challenge the passing lanes. Then the Dream started letting the whistles – or lack thereof – get to them again. Sometimes it’s a side-effect of losing, but constantly whining or getting upset about calls also takes you out of the game and makes losing more likely. Erika picked up her fourth foul midway through the third on a charge (bit of a flop by Moore, but she’ll happily accept the fine if the league review it later on). Minutes later, McCoughtry was called for another walk when she tried to force another jumper, and was benched again. She appeared to be in tears on the bench, or at least very upset. She was still having very little joy against Minnesota’s defense, and the Lynx led by as many as 16 in the third quarter.
However, the Dream still had Hayes and Bentley making plays and hitting shots, so they hung around rather than drifting backwards as they had in the previous games. 16 would’ve quickly become 20 or 25 with the way they played in Games 1 and 2, but Hayes drilled a couple of threes and drove for a three-point play the old-fashioned way, and Bentley added a drive of her own (off a broken version of that damn weave yet again). They finished the third quarter down 66-56, closer than they’d been at that stage in any Finals game this year.
McCoughtry was still on the bench to start the fourth quarter, but just like in the second, Williams couldn’t resist bringing her back for long. The Dream had flowed better without her on the floor for much of the night, with Hayes and Bentley actually managing to convert plays on offense unlike McCoughtry, but their star was never going to be left on the sidelines down the stretch. The Dream pulled within seven on yet another Hayes three when the defense sagged inside and left her alone, but then disaster struck. She ran into a solid Brunson screen, took a painful hit to her left thigh (on top of the back problem from Game 1 that was reportedly still troubling her), and had to receive treatment. On the same play, Erika picked up her fifth foul trying to challenge a Moore jumper. The combination of Hayes having to go out for a couple of minutes, McCoughtry taking some more bad shots, and some lovely execution from the Lynx finished off by Seimone Augustus jumpers, took the steam out of the push Atlanta were trying to make. Then Monica Wright converted a couple of drives, just to highlight once again the variety of weapons available to the Lynx. Atlanta were still shooting much better than in the previous games – Bentley and McCoughtry both hit threes down the stretch, Erika and Herrington finished inside – but the Lynx always had an answer. Atlanta had been significantly better in Game 3 than in the first two games, but still weren’t good enough. There was a baffling lack of fouls to extend the game in the final moments from the Dream, but maybe Williams and his team had simply had enough. Cheryl Reeve had the opportunity to clear her bench for the final few seconds, as the celebrations began following an 86-79 victory and another WNBA championship for the Minnesota Lynx.
Atlanta gave it everything they had, and came up with a much improved performance back in Georgia, but in the end they couldn’t handle the Lynx. Hayes (5-11 for 20 points, 4 boards, 3 assists) and Bentley (7-14 for 18 points, 6 assists, 3 steals) were the stars in Game 3, and their combined 7-11 from beyond the arc showed how much difference an effective perimeter attack could make. But even with better defensive team energy and some improved shooting, it wasn’t enough. McCoughtry finished 5-14 for 13 points, 3 assists and 6 turnovers, and a noticeable +/- rating of -17 in her 28 minutes on the floor. She shot 31% in the playoffs, including 29% in the Finals, and given that it’s remarkable that they came as far as they did. It’s not all on McCoughtry – the lack of consistent alternative threats (exacerbated by the absence of Sancho Lyttle due to her broken foot) allowed defenses to key on her and Erika – but she didn’t step up this year like she has in previous playoff runs. It must be painful to have made the Finals three times in the last four years and have failed to win a single game, but each time they’ve been beaten by a significantly more complete team. The Dream will go on, try yet again to fill their holes and find some perimeter shooting, and will continue to be a threat in the East. There are plenty of teams who’d love to be a perennial contender with multiple trips to the Finals, but that’s unlikely to be of much consolation to Atlanta right now.
The Minnesota Lynx are a truly exceptional team, and they’ve proven it once again. Moore won the Finals MVP award because of her stats – she averaged 20 points, 6 boards and 2 assists per game in the Finals – but this was very much a team effort (on Twitter, several people seemed to like my suggestion that Lindsmonaya McBrunight should’ve received the award). They play a collective, team defense that sets the tone for their cohesive performances. They’re extremely unselfish on offense, but all willing to take the right shot when it presents itself. And they’re obviously enormously talented. Whalen runs the team but knows when they need her to attack and produce more herself. Augustus is a wonderful pure scorer, who hasn’t balked in the slightest at going from the unquestioned star to part of a group, somewhat overshadowed by Moore as the developing superstar and Whalen/McCarville as the local heroines. Brunson’s a workhorse inside and on the glass, who’s developed her mid-range game significantly, and will happily take 15 shots or two depending on what presents itself. McCarville showed what she brings in this game in particular, stepping up offensively early on, producing her showtime moments, and quieting Erika in the post when necessary. Monica Wright was also effective off the bench, and Devereaux Peters provided some solid interior backup as well. They’re also fantastically organised and unified by Reeve and her staff. Some have been bored by this year’s postseason, especially the Finals, but that’s not Minnesota’s fault. When you’re this good, someone needs to raise their game to challenge you, and the Lynx proved to be far too good for anyone they faced. They’re worthy champions, and after three years of excellence, there’s no reason that they can’t be back for another run next season.
Obviously, that’s it for the games this season. But that’s not quite it for WNBAlien just yet. As has been promised throughout the playoffs, there’ll be an awards article sometime in the next week, so check back for that. There’s also the small matter of the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement having expired, so I may well write something summarising that situation as well. But for game coverage that’s your lot. Hope you enjoyed it (if you’re still reading this and you didn’t, you’re a strange kind of masochist), and hope you’ll be back for another ride next year.