Lineups: The starting lineups were as expected for both teams. Fortunately for Washington, Kara Lawson had recovered enough from her ankle sprain to be the first (essentially only) guard off the bench for the Mystics. In fact, the only slight rotation surprise all night was that Indiana went to Sydney Carter ahead of Layshia Clarendon as their backup point guard behind Briann January.
Story of the Game: The opening encounter of the 2014 playoffs turned out to be the bruising, intense clash that we’d expect from two closely matched Eastern Conference teams. Indiana got off to a hot start yet again, something we’ve seen from them a lot recently, with everyone apart from Tamika Catchings hitting shots and piling up points. January and Marissa Coleman hit from outside, Erlana Larkins and Shavonte Zellous converted inside, and Washington were just trying to hang on in the early moments.
But while we’ve seen the Fever blow all kinds of leads this season, they didn’t even manage to hold on to this one until halftime. Late in the first quarter Lawson came off the bench to add some energy for the Mystics and helped them find a couple of buckets in transition. Then Emma Meesseman drove right past Catchings for a layup, before drilling a jumper over Catchings on Washington’s very next possession. That gave the Mystics something to build on, and when Indiana’s offense fell apart with their backups on the floor in the second quarter, the game swung around. Ivory Latta was the central figure for Washington, occasionally firing a little too quickly even for her own good, but drilling a series of threes that took her team into the lead. With Catchings still ice-cold, and her fellow starters unable to pick things up again when they came back in after brief rests, the Mystics led by six at halftime. Indiana scored a miserable eight points in the second quarter.
Once again Indiana were the team with better energy out of the locker room, but Washington responded and maintained a small lead throughout the third quarter. Catchings was continuing to produce the outstanding hustle and energetic rebounding that we’d seen in the first half – and throughout her career – but couldn’t hit a jump shot to save her life. When she attacked off the dribble she was slightly more productive, but those efforts were few and far between. As a team, Indiana were getting crowded out whenever they managed to get the ball inside. Most of the time they’d either blow the layup under pressure, or turn the ball over in traffic. But Washington also couldn’t produce the offense to take the game away from them.
With everything on the line, the game finally came to life in the fourth quarter. After a quiet third, Latta started stepping back up to lead Washington’s offense. But Indiana finally became the aggressors. They benefitted from almost every call in the fourth, with luck and the referees’ whistles definitely on their side, but they were the ones driving the action and forcing the officials to make calls. After barely hitting anything all night, Catchings subbed back in with seven minutes remaining, and immediately scored consecutive baskets by driving on Meesseman, rather than settling for trying to shoot over her. It was about damn time.
Latta gave Washington their final lead of the night with a step-back three with four minutes left, before a 10-0 run put Indiana in control. It was a sequence where Indiana’s experience in these situations and years of playoff basketball came to the fore. Their defense was more active and energetic, leaving Washington’s offense going nowhere and turning the ball over. After keeping her team in the game for much of the night, Latta was unfortunately at fault for several of her team’s breakdowns in the closing minutes. She was left behind on a screen (and got no help from Kia Vaughn), which allowed January to finish a layup at the rim; she was caught in a Fever trap and turned the ball over trying to pass out of it, leading to a breakaway layup for Indiana; she ran the wrong play out of a Washington timeout, judging by Mike Thibault’s screaming from the sidelines; then she got trapped in a double-team again, burned a timeout, and picked up a technical foul for pushing January away from her after being caught in the face by the Fever guard (which went uncalled). At the end of all that, Indiana were up by nine and appeared to have the game won.
They almost managed to blow it. Washington kept fighting, fouling, and taking the layups that Indiana were essentially conceding. Then with 18 seconds left, Karima Christmas missed a pair of free throws, Monique Currie cut in for another layup, and January gave up an awful turnover. Latta drilled yet another three from the corner in the resulting scramble, and suddenly Washington were back within two points with five seconds left. But that just left time for one more call to go Indiana’s way. January hit her first free throw, but missed the second, only for Currie to be called for a foul on Catchings in the battle for the rebound. It was a desperately generous call, and stole Washington’s final chance to tie the game. Catchings made two at the line, and that was it.
Key Players: Eventually, Catchings produced, finishing with 22 points, 10 boards and seven steals. But she was 2-12 through three quarters, and while her energy had been important Meesseman had scored on her a lot more than Catchings had punished Meesseman. From Indiana’s perspective, hopefully the fourth quarter reminded their leader how they need her to play throughout, rather than waiting for crunch time. She’s always been a streaky jumpshooter, and if they’re not falling she needs to attack Meesseman off the dribble. It was a gutsy win for Indiana rather than a pretty one, and outside of the first quarter the likes of January, Coleman and Zellous didn’t hit many shots either. Without the home crowd and friendly whistles behind them, a similar performance might not be enough in Game 2.
That said, Washington didn’t offer a lot to scare them. Latta’s shooting was the Mystics’ main offensive threat all night, but when Indiana started trapping the ball out of her hands in the closing stages Washington were unsettled easily and turned the ball over cheaply. Meesseman quietly had a useful night against Catchings, but faded in the fourth quarter and didn’t look entirely prepared for the intensity of crunch time playoff basketball. Washington are likely going to need someone else – Hartley, Lawson, Vaughn, Currie, take your pick – to stand up and be counted offensively in Game 2 to extend this series.
Notes of Interest: Carter landed on Meesseman’s foot in the third quarter and turned her ankle, so Clarendon may become the backup point guard whether Lin Dunn likes it or not for upcoming games.
Lineups: The starters were as expected, with Danielle Adams retained her starting spot at power forward ahead of Sophia Young-Malcolm for the Stars. Minnesota’s bench was still one short, with Damiris Dantas not having returned from her personal reasons back in Brazil. So Devereaux Peters became essentially their only backup post, with Maya Moore sliding over to power forward as the other alternative when Janel McCarville or Rebekkah Brunson rested.
Story of the Game: Minnesota pulled into an early lead, although in the opening moments Kayla McBride’s jumpshooting was matching that of Moore at the other end. Once the Lynx managed to get out in transition a little and attack San Antonio at pace, they took control. The highlight was a ridiculous play late in the first where Lindsay Whalen threw an underarm feed to a streaking Moore for an alley-oop finish at the rim.
San Antonio came back into the game in the second quarter in a way that we’ve seen against Minnesota several times this year. They tend to lose their initial rhythm when their reserves start to mix into the lineup, the offense falters, and everything slows down offensively. San Antonio had also gone to their ‘wheel’ zone far earlier in this game than we typically see, first trying it midway through the opening quarter. It unsettled the Lynx a little, and even when they cut through it or created open shots in the gaps in the middle of it, Minnesota were missing.
But the Lynx responded, and stretched their lead out again before halftime. They won the battle on the glass convincingly in the first half, creating too many second chances for San Antonio to handle, and their increased speed and energy pushed the lead back to double-digits at halftime.
While the gap stretched to 15 at one stage, San Antonio managed to hang around in the third quarter. Consecutive defensive breakdowns by the Lynx led to wide open layups for Young-Malcolm and drew a Cheryl Reeve timeout. Her team responded, with Moore’s defensive work rate and willingness to feed her teammates for buckets playing key roles. When she drilled a three and Whalen went end-to-end for a layup early in the fourth quarter the gap grew back to 15, and it looked like Minnesota might close out a relatively comfortable Game 1 win.
But it wasn’t to be. Dan Hughes screamed at his team in a timeout, demanding a “championship effort to go get balls”, went slightly smaller with Young-Malcolm and Adams in the post while the ineffective Appel was benched, and his team exploded. They ran off an 18-2 streak over the next five minutes, playing with energy and effort that we hadn’t seen for most of the night. Young-Malcolm looked more like the player of old than we’d seen all season, grabbing rebounds and loose balls and finishing inside. Becky Hammon was a key component as well, snaking through the defense for three layups in the push, including the three-point play with four minutes left that gave San Antonio their first lead since the opening seconds of the game.
All through that run, Minnesota had looked ponderous against San Antonio’s zone, shifting the ball around in front and around it rather than attacking or getting behind it. A backdoor cut from Moore finally broke the sequence, and immediately took the lead back for the Lynx.
From there we had a hell of a finish on our hands, with the teams going bucket for bucket. No one could get a stop any more. After struggling to hit for most of the night, Seimone Augustus was huge in the final minutes, knocking down three mid-range jumpshots that answered San Antonio buckets from Adams, Young-Malcolm and McBride. But back came San Antonio again, with Hammon drilling a step-back three to cut the deficit to two points with 25 seconds remaining. The Stars had to foul, and Whalen hit a pair at the line to extend the gap back to four, before strong, smart perimeter defense from the Lynx forced San Antonio to run far too much time off the clock on the possession that followed. Hammon eventually penetrated and came up with a trademark spinning finish, but by then there were only 1.9 seconds remaining. San Antonio fouled again, Moore made a pair of free throws, and that was the ballgame. By the skin of their teeth, Minnesota had clung on.
Key Players: Moore was outstanding for the Lynx, with her defensive effort and rebounding energy just as important as the 26 points, 6 boards, 7 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks. She’s still not entirely comfortable when Reeve slides her to the 4 – those two Young-Malcolm layups came in part because Minnesota’s interior help defense suffers when Moore’s playing power forward – but she was her typical outstanding self for most of the night. In fact, offensively, Minnesota were generally very successful. During the course of the game, it felt like they were struggling at times against San Antonio’s zone, but Minnesota’s transition game compensated and they scored extremely efficiently over the course of the night. It was defensively where Reeve will be a little concerned, with San Antonio shooting 52% from the field and picking up an unlikely 44 points in the paint. For a team without a real low-post threat, and scoring only eight fastbreak points, that’s ridiculous. Expect Minnesota to devote an even more concerted effort towards protecting the paint in Game 2, collapsing inside at every opportunity. They did a solid job of running San Antonio off the three-point line in this game, but it came at a cost.
While it might be considered some kind of moral victory by some viewers, San Antonio will be disappointed not to have stolen a win in this game. Between McBride, Hammon, Young-Malcolm and Adams they produced plenty of offense, and that stretch in the fourth quarter showed what they can do when they’re focussed and aggressive. It’ll be interesting to see if they go small more often in Game 2, or if Hughes might even consider benching Appel from the start to open with Adams and Young-Malcolm in the post. Minnesota will be better prepared to attack their zone, which could be a problem, but San Antonio are also likely to get better looks from the perimeter if Minnesota overcompensate to cover the paint. It could be another fun encounter, in potentially Becky Hammon’s last game as a player. If she plays like she did in this one, it’ll be a hell of a way to go out.
As you’ve probably heard already, Maya Moore was named the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player for 2014 (with Diana Taurasi second, Angel McCoughtry third, Candace Parker fourth and Britney Griner fifth). Other awards are starting to trickle out as well, with reasonable picks for the All-Defense teams and Phoenix taking the Defensive Player of the Year and Coach of the Year awards. Hopefully I’ll get my awards column out sometime soon, although I haven’t had too many arguments with the official choices so far.
Chicago @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET, Game 1
Los Angeles @ Phoenix, 10pm ET, Game 1