The Daily W, 08/24/2014: Fever and Lynx pushed hard, but complete sweeps to advance

 

Indiana Fever 81 @ Washington Mystics 76 (OT)

 

Lineups: No changes from Game 1, where Indiana just barely scraped out a win at home. Sydney Carter was out for the Fever, so Layshia Clarendon became the backup point guard for those rare minutes when Lin Dunn risked resting Briann January.

 

Story of the Game: It was Indiana who made the slightly better start, but in a scrappy early period that didn’t mean much. As in the first game, Tamika Catchings couldn’t hit a jump shot for love nor money, but she seemed to come to a quicker realisation that she needed to drive instead, and produced some points through that approach. Washington were clearly trying to guide her towards the middle of the court, where plenty of Mystics could clog the lane and help Emma Meesseman deal with her.

 

Washington lost Tierra Ruffin-Pratt early in the second quarter, when her arm got caught up with Shavonte Zellous while fighting for a rebound and she walked off holding her wrist (although it was later reported as a shoulder injury). But it was the remainder of Washington’s bench players that finally dragged them into the contest. Stefanie Dolson hit a couple of mid-range jumpers, and generally made a more visible impact on the action than starting center Kia Vaughn had done at any stage in the series. Kara Lawson came in and hit shots, replacing the ineffective and very quiet Bria Hartley. And then Tianna Hawkins joined in, working hard and sneaking into space for hustle points. It was classic Mystics under Thibault – try enough of your options, and a few of them will hopefully step up and demand you pay attention.

 

However, Washington were still turning the ball over too much, and the defensive attentions of Briann January and hedging help off ball-screens had kept Ivory Latta quiet. So despite shooting 30% from the field, Indiana led by three at halftime. Washington had occasionally gone to a bit of an unusual twist to their defense, which we saw even more of in the second half. It looked a lot like a 2-3 zone – which is unusual from Mike Thibault to begin with – but was fluid enough that sometimes it just became a switch-heavy man-to-man. At times, Indiana’s ball movement beat it and created wide open looks, but in general the Mystics did a decent job of limiting Indiana’s offense. It made it a little easier for Washington to slide inside and cut off the driving lanes for players like Catchings.

 

In some ways, the second half followed the pattern of the first, especially for the Mystics. Another poor start, then Lawson and Dolson filtered in, followed a little later by Hawkins, and they picked things up. Indiana weren’t trapping as ferociously as they were in the closing stages of Game 1, when the tactic was central to disrupting Latta and winning the game. When they tried it on the final possession of the third quarter in this one she managed to dribble away from it and reverse the ball to Kalana Greene – who drilled a three for possibly her only useful moment of the entire 2014 season.

 

A desperately tight contest stayed tight throughout the fourth quarter. With Lawson, Dolson and Hawkins his most effective players, Thibault left them in the game, and went big with under seven minutes left in regulation when he brought Meesseman back in. Hawkins was a little more comfortable trying to stay in front of Catchings, and with players like Marissa Coleman and Karima Christmas at small forward for Indiana, the Mystics weren’t too scared about Meesseman sliding over to defend them. In fact on several possessions it worked out well for Washington, with their increased size leading to extra offensive rebounds, and a run of second-chance points. Consecutive Hawkins layups gave them a five-point lead with under four minutes to play.

 

The final minutes of regulation were a run of mistakes, breakdowns, generous calls and free throws, with a few big shots mixed in. January hit a three over Latta to start the excitement, before Latta and Catchings exchanged layups against transition defense that should’ve done better in both cases. Meesseman missed a jumper after Latta again escaped from a trap, another offensive rebound kept the possession alive, and a Latta drive drew a foul on Zellous. Her free throws gave Washington a two-point lead with 21 seconds left. Hawkins ran over a January backscreen on the possession that followed, the call went against Hawkins, and January tied it up again. Washington’s play to end regulation was thoroughly unimaginative. Latta basically ran an isolation against January from the middle of the floor, with a faked screen from Dolson the only distraction at any point. January had basically shut down Latta all afternoon, and this was no different. Latta couldn’t create any useful separation, her step-back jumper was an airball, and we went to overtime.

 

Thibault had every intention of staying big in OT, only for Hawkins to foul out on the opening possession when she bought a Catchings pump-fake. Greene replaced her, which showed just how far Monique Currie had fallen into Thibault’s doghouse. The only productive option Washington had in the extra period was Lawson, who hit a pullup three in semi-transition, and drilled another one moments later when she popped out off a flare-screen. She gave the Mystics a chance, but Indiana had more options, and they had Tamika Catchings. After failing to hit a shot from outside the paint in the entire series up to that point, Catchings dropped in a tough leaner early in OT, and immediately answered Lawson’s second triple with one of her own. Erlana Larkins, who’d barely contributed offensively in the series herself, finished a lovely pick-and-roll feed from January on the next possession, and Indiana were in control.

 

Awful drives from Greene and Latta hadn’t come close to scoring for Washington, but they got an extra chance when a Larkins pass went out of bounds after a miscommunication with Catchings. Down three with 30 seconds left, Washington first had to burn an extra timeout when they couldn’t get the ball in. Then they found Lawson for a decent look beyond the arc, but she only hit air, and that was just about it. Catchings hit free throws to ice it, and Indiana advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.

 

Key Players: Despite not being able to hit a jump shot for the opening 80 minutes of this 85-minute series, Catchings was still the key piece for Indiana. She finished this game 8-16 for 26 points, 11 boards and 4 assists, and was smarter about attacking off the dribble whenever she could in Game 2. None of her teammates were particularly productive offensively, but they scraped together just enough offense to get over the line. January – and the team-defense help – did an effective job of taking Latta out of the game after she’d carried Washington’s scoring in Game 1. In many ways it was a classic Fever performance. The defense, energy, rebounding and work rate got most of the job done, and they found ways to get the points they needed. Their experience and composure in crunch time situations also proved to be vitally important.

 

Washington came up just short in the ways that we always knew they might. Lawson, Hawkins and Dolson gave them some valuable minutes off the bench, but they never had enough reliable scoring options to turn to when they needed them. Defensively they did a pretty solid job against Indiana in both games, and both Meesseman and Hawkins were decent in individual matchups against Catchings. But they still look like a collection of very well put-together pieces, without the superstar(s) they really need to build around and lead them in a postseason run. Those types of teams tend to make the playoffs, but don’t often go far when they get there. It’s another year where that proved to be true for the Mystics.

 

Notes of Interest: Indiana go on to face either Chicago or Atlanta, and as the #2 seeds would have home-court advantage over the Sky but not over the Dream. In terms of making it through to the WNBA Finals, their record against Chicago has been very good, so that might be their first choice. But a matchup with Atlanta would give them a chance for revenge for last season’s defeat in the Eastern Finals. Either way, with a veteran squad they’re undoubtedly glad of the extra rest gained by sweeping the Mystics in two games.

 

—–

 

Minnesota Lynx 94 @ San Antonio Stars 89

 

Lineups: Same starters as in Game 1. So Dan Hughes resisted the temptation to bench Jayne Appel after his smaller frontcourt of Danielle Adams and Sophia Young-Malcolm led the San Antonio comeback in Game 1. Damiris Dantas still hasn’t returned from her personal reasons in Brazil, so Cheryl Reeve used the same eight-player rotation we saw in the previous game.

 

Story of the Game: As Reeve openly admitted in her ESPN interview between the first two periods, her team didn’t show up for the opening quarter. Credit San Antonio for exploding out of the blocks, with Becky Hammon attacking offensively and looking determined to prevent this from being her final game as a player. Danielle Adams was hot as well, and Danielle Robinson’s speed was breaking down the Lynx and leaving them in disarray. Offensively, the ball didn’t move for the Lynx in the opening stages, so no one got any decent looks, and all the energy was coming from the Stars. They were the team pressing the action, attacking in transition when they could, and generally bullying the Lynx for the entire first quarter. They led by as many as 18 points against the defending champs.

 

One thing San Antonio did effectively in those dominant early minutes was sag away from the Minnesota players that they weren’t scared of beating them from outside. That meant Hammon was marauding around off the ball, giving Lindsay Whalen plenty of space because the Stars weren’t too worried about her jumper. Appel, similarly, was dropping off Janel McCarville whenever necessary. But in the second quarter, all that room for Whalen started to be put to use. She was mostly using it as a run up to build speed and momentum on her way to the basket, which led to layups and free throws when San Antonio players could only stop her with hacking. She also ignited the transition game that always creates positive offense for Minnesota, and it didn’t take them long to make it a game again in the second quarter. Energy and shooting from Jia Perkins off the bench and a couple of quick-fire threes from Kayla McBride kept San Antonio in front, but only just. The Lynx did a much better job of tracking the Stars defensively in the second period, forcing tougher shots and breakdowns, and Minnesota were back within four points by halftime.

 

The game became messy and disjointed for much of the third quarter, as the teams wrestled for control. Minnesota took their first lead of the night when Maya Moore popped out behind a flare screen and drilled a three – for her first basket of the game, amazingly enough – early in the period. But again the ball stopped moving for the Lynx, and it was San Antonio who went up by six when Perkins drilled a three with four minutes left in the quarter. Minnesota responded, going to their small lineup with Moore at power forward – made even more viable by foul trouble for Appel – which at least made them quicker and put more shooting threats around the floor. Seimone Augustus tried to take over for a stretch, and while the attempts to post-up on Robinson generally didn’t work, when Augustus stepped out and attacked off the bounce she was much more successful. A 12-0 run resulted, and Minnesota had their first meaningful lead of the night.

 

The Lynx went incredibly simple offensively in the fourth quarter, with most of their offensive sets involving spreading the floor as wide as possible and maybe setting a single pick for the ballhandler in the middle. It worked to a tee. Appel fouled out early in the period, which probably didn’t help San Antonio’s interior help defense, but it’s not like they’d been able to stop Minnesota even with her on the floor. Between Perkins, Adams and McBride, the Stars continued to score reasonably effectively in the fourth quarter – they actually scored well throughout this series, which will concern Reeve going forwards – but they could no longer get any stops. Whether it was Whalen, Augustus or occasionally Moore, the Lynx repeatedly drove right to the rim and converted, or made the extra pass to the open player when help came over and got layups that way instead. It was very simple, but very, very effective.

 

Eight times San Antonio scored baskets to cut briefly into Minnesota’s lead in the fourth quarter, only for the Lynx to score immediately at the other end to stretch it back out. Eventually, a heavily offense-oriented series ended with a typical barrage of points, but the Lynx had just too much.

 

Key Players: Whalen was the primary star for Minnesota, with her barreling drives to the basket and ability to convert through traffic and contact dragging her team through when they needed it. She finished at 11-17 for 31 points, but even that undersells the impact she had. The Lynx were sleepy and drifting until she set off the alarm clock in the second quarter, and then she continued to produce for the rest of the night. Augustus somehow produced a ‘quiet’ 10-14 shooting night – almost exclusively on finishes right around the rim, rather than jumpers – for 21 points to help out. For once Moore didn’t need to carry the scoring load, with McBride and plenty of help doing a useful defensive job on her, but she contributed in other ways with her defensive energy, rebounding and passing. She still scored 16 points and was only two boards away from a triple-double.

 

In the end, San Antonio were done in by the flaw which was their main problem all season – defense. They couldn’t keep Minnesota out of the paint once the Lynx woke up, which gave Whalen and Augustus too many high-percentage chances to score. Offensively, McBride, Adams and Perkins led the way, with Hammon popping up occasionally but fading after a nice start. Danielle Robinson was the one Star who probably underperformed in this series, with Minnesota’s defense most worried about containing her. They’re a fun team to watch, and a good team with several young players who can still improve, they’re just not quite on the same level as the Minnesotas and Phoenixes of the world.

 

Just as they’d ended Tina Thompson’s playing career in the playoffs last season, the Lynx ended Hammon’s with this result. As with last year, they took a team photo with the departing legend to commemorate the occasion, and showed the respect you’d expect from a collection of players who recognise what she’s contributed to the game and the league. Hammon said a tearful goodbye in her post-game interview, and her unique game will be missed. But as a trailblazer moving into the NBA’s coaching ranks, there could be another important basketball career still to come for her.

 

Notes of Interest: The offensive efficiency numbers for the teams in this series in the two games: 110.5, 117.3, 119.0 and 114.1. The highest average by any team over the regular season was 106.2, and the highest single-game mark from any other team in the playoffs so far was 103.9. Like I said – a really offensive-minded series. The inability to stop a team like San Antonio will worry Reeve with the prospect of Phoenix to come in the next round – assuming Los Angeles don’t pull off a big shock.

 

—–

 

Today’s Games

 

Atlanta @ Chicago, 7pm ET, Sky lead best-of-three 1-0

Phoenix @ Los Angeles, 9pm ET, Mercury lead best-of-three 1-0

 

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