Minnesota Lynx (25-9, #2 seed) vs San Antonio Stars (16-18, #3 seed)
Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 104.17, 2nd in WNBA
Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 98.68, 6th in WNBA
Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 100.72, 4th in WNBA
Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 102.77, 11th in WNBA
Season series: Lynx won 4-1
5/30 @Min: Lynx won 88-72
6/1 @SA: Lynx won 87-79
7/3 @Min: Lynx won 91-84
7/25 @Min: Lynx won 88-78
8/15 @SA: Stars won 92-76
Virtually every measurable metric and stat says that Minnesota should win this series, and it shouldn’t even be all that close. Even ignoring their overall success over the last few years, including two championships, the Lynx had won their last eight games against San Antonio before losing a game that was meaningless to Minnesota in the final days of the regular season. Their offense tends to pick San Antonio apart – not that it’s been particularly hard for any opponent to find gaps in the Stars’ defense this season – and while San Antonio can out-shoot some teams, Minnesota will put their jumpshooters up against anyone’s. So to see the Stars winning this series, you either have to search hard for reasons, or really believe that cracks were showing in the Lynx during their late-season games.
By now, everyone knows what Minnesota can do offensively. Between the all-court scoring of Maya Moore, the jump shooting of Moore and Seimone Augustus, the driving and finishing of Lindsay Whalen, and the willingness and ability of their posts to knock down mid-range jumpers, this team is hard to stop. They also love to get out on the break, and with Rebekkah Brunson back their rebounding has improved, which leads to more outlets and more running. San Antonio have rebounded much better this year, after many awful seasons on the glass, but the Lynx will test them in that area. We’ll also see plenty of the dive-in-from-the-corner post-ups that Minnesota like to run for their wings, because with a starting perimeter of Danielle Robinson, Becky Hammon and Kayla McBride, San Antonio are dangerously undersized against Moore and Augustus. Hammon will cover Whalen to try to stay away from those plays, and both Robinson and McBride are stronger than you think, but the Lynx are likely to find some success through those avenues.
The only real questions around the Lynx this season have been defensively, where they haven’t been as cohesive or effective as in previous years. The injuries early in the year obviously played a part in that, and they’ve improved since everyone has returned, but there are still holes. We’ve seen more players driving right down the gut of their defense for layups or to draw fouls, and their issue from the past of giving up a host of three-pointers has been a problem at times as well. That’s the one conspicuous place where San Antonio have the potential to give them trouble in this series. The Stars cut and move and shift the ball nicely offensively, and Minnesota’s defense is set up to shade help inside and protect the rim. San Antonio will try to tempt them into those moves, then kick the ball out to their bevy of shooters, and hopefully light the Lynx up from outside. Cheryl Reeve may need her perimeter defenders to stay closer to home than they tend to in Minnesota’s base defense.
Because the Stars have players who can score. Robinson is lightning quick – too quick for Whalen, which will require help behind her or minutes for Monica Wright and Tan White to guard her instead; Hammon, McBride, Jia Perkins and Danielle Adams are all happy to fire away from outside given an inch of space; and they have enough scoring threats scattered around the floor that they can be tough to cover when they’re in rhythm and flowing. They’re a small, quick team, with Jayne Appel more a facilitator and passer at center than any kind of interior threat. If they score points in the paint it’s on occasional post moves by Adams, and drives or slashing cuts by their perimeter players. They’ll make Minnesota work on the defensive end.
But it’s San Antonio’s own defense that has been flawed all season. They’re small on the perimeter, flawed on the interior, and despite having Dan Hughes as their head coach they’ve simply given up points too easily this year. They have willing defenders, but their rotations are often a step slow and there’ll be layups on offer for Minnesota if they run pretty basic pick-and-roll plays and off-ball screens. The problem for San Antonio is that they might be able to shoot the lights out, but it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to outshoot Moore and Augustus twice in three games – and even if they do, the Lynx are likely to create more alternative ways to score than the Stars will manage.
Important Notes, and Aspects to Watch
Health. Robinson stayed home for San Antonio’s last game of the regular season to rest an ankle, which was probably just a precaution, but is worth watching because she’s become so important to San Antonio and speed is so vital to her game. Augustus has missed several late-season games due to left knee problems. She’s looked fine when playing, but is obviously a central cog in Minnesota’s machine and needs to stay healthy through this playoff run. Brunson also hasn’t seemed entirely 100% since returning from her knee injury, and Minnesota will be hoping she has another gear to move into for the postseason.
Bench. San Antonio had the highest bench scoring in the league this year, largely thanks to Perkins and whichever of Adams and Sophia Young-Malcolm started the game on the sidelines, plus occasional production from Shenise Johnson. Rotations inevitably shrink in the postseason, but expect Hughes to be more confident and consistent in using his reserves to inject energy and scoring into his team. Reeve has more players this season that she’s shown a little confidence in, especially if Damiris Dantas returns from whatever personal reasons sent her back to Brazil for the final week of the regular season. But she tends to rely heavily on her core, which means six or seven players, maybe eight at a stretch.
Screens. Every now and then, just spend a possession watching Jayne Appel, or Janel McCarville, or one of the other posts involved in this series. You’re going to see some mean screens, and their ability to pop their teammates open rather than just let defensive players skim past them will be vital. Of course, there’ll be the usual thin line between a very good screen and an illegal one, which hopefully the officials will be vaguely consistent in calling through the series.
Minnesota haven’t been quite the same dominating force this year that we’ve seen in previous seasons. But a lot of that was due to injuries to players who’ve now returned, and much of it was also simply due to the comparison with Phoenix, another super-team who’ve emerged to challenge them. Maya Moore’s game has gone from strength to strength, Whalen’s still the same bulldozer she’s always been when necessary, and Augustus shot just as well from the field as last year even if her knee was hurting. It’s not hard to imagine that Minnesota could break down enough defensively, and San Antonio could shoot well enough, to snatch a game from the Lynx. But it’ll be a significant shock if they find a way to win two-out-of-three.
2-0 Lynx. San Antonio can be a fun team to watch, and they’ll likely make Minnesota’s defense look shaky at times. But the Lynx are still too good.