Breaking down Lynx-Sparks, Battle of the Unbeatens


Apparently we here at WNBAlien have a new tradition. Whenever two WNBA teams are a combined 23-0 to start the season before finally facing each other, then play out a barnburner that almost goes to overtime on one of the most extraordinary near-miss plays you’ll ever see, in the middle of the day when many working fans couldn’t even watch – we break the damn thing down, old-school recap style. Except these days with the benefit of video, so that I don’t have to describe every important play in excruciating detail. Let’s get to it.

This was the very first possession of the game:

It immediately highlighted that this is a Los Angeles team (and head coach, in Brian Agler) who’ve faced the Lynx many, many times before. The first option is a high-low from Candace Parker to Nneka Ogwumike, but Kristi Toliver’s back screen doesn’t really work, so Alana Beard curls around into dribble-penetration. And that’s where the experience counts. Over the years, this is the way teams have had some success against Minnesota’s stout defense. The Lynx are so determined to protect the paint and the rim that they sag inside, which can leave shooters open on the perimeter if you find them quickly enough. Beard kicks to Toliver, who drills the three before Lindsay Whalen can recover (with a little help from Ogwumike blocking Whalen off). It’s a pretty play, that LA didn’t re-use enough over the rest of the game.

This is the first of a whole host of examples I could’ve picked of something that plagued LA throughout the game:

Lynx offensive rebounds. Lots and lots of Lynx offensive rebounds. LA have been so good in so many areas to start this season that it’s gone quietly unnoticed that they’ve been terrible on the glass. As in the clip above, they usually have people around the rim, and occasionally they at least look like they’re trying to box out, but they very rarely find a body to box out. Rebekkah Brunson, Sylvia Fowles and Natasha Howard repeatedly slipped around or past the LA posts for rebounds in this game, creating second-chances to score. LA like to leak out for transition chances, but their players were typically somewhere near the rim in this game, they just kept getting beaten to the ball.

But here’s something that’s definitely been going right for LA since the season began:

That’s Alana Beard playing on-ball defense. I wondered on Twitter before the game began where they’d use Beard, because obviously Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore are dangerous scoring threats so shutting them down would be a useful target for Beard as well. But it wasn’t a surprise to see her tasked with annoying Whalen all night. And it worked. Her pestering of Whalen slowed down the Minnesota offense, and led to several direct steals. Beard also made multiple impressive plays as a help defender. Hopefully the end-of-season voters are paying attention, because she’s been outstanding defensively so far this year. Defensive Player of the Year candidates aren’t just the big players in the middle.

This is only here because it’s amusing:

I’m pretty sure Moore puts that ball through Toliver’s legs on the break (although it’s hard to tell for sure on the video). Growing up playing soccer, we call that a nutmeg. A friend of mine used to claim it only truly counted if you shouted “Megs!” while doing it, just to add that extra layer of embarrassment for your opponent. I somehow doubt Maya did that, but I’d love it if she had.

Here we have an illustration that despite their advances on the defensive end this season, LA still have a little way to go:

It’s the ‘help-the-helper’ level of the defense that I often go on about that’s the issue. When Jantel Lavender helps corral Whalen in the corner, Parker slides across to cover Janel McCarville, who’s Whalen’s release valve option. But that leaves Fowles wide open, and no one rotates behind Parker to cover her, leaving Fowles to cut to the hoop for a layup (with her left hand! You don’t see too many of those from Big Syl). Arguably, Parker shouldn’t commit so hard to McCarville. You’d much rather give up the 18ft jumper to McCarville than the layup to Fowles. But once Parker goes, her teammates have to react behind her. LA don’t have quite the on-a-string level of defensive chemistry that the Lynx usually have at the other end.

This is just a still to show how far Agler was reaching into his options already in the first quarter:


That’s Lavender, Parker and Ann Wauters you can see on the court together, a super-big lineup that we basically haven’t seen all season. Even the Parker/Ogwumike/Lavender lineup has been rare.

The Sparks mostly got back into the game through defensive energy, transition and free throws (plus Moore’s foul trouble slowing the Lynx offense down), but I’m going to throw this in because the play design is so nice:

It’s incredibly simple, but effective. It’s a modified ‘elevator doors’ set for Essence Carson to come through and receive the ball up top, then find Ogwumike at the right elbow. But because there’s no wing player in the corner on Ogwumike’s side, there’s no help defender on that side of the floor. So if she can find an inch of space past her own defender – as she does – there’s inevitable clear daylight to the hoop. She blows the layup, but the work to get there was still nice.

Now for two first half plays that people weren’t too happy about. Firstly, Moore’s third foul:

That’s a foul. Sorry, people who want the refs to help keep the stars in the game. She’s there in time, but her heels are on the no-charge circle, so it’s a block.

Not long later, LA lost a star of their own:

That one’s hard to tell, and there was never a good replay, but the ref’s pretty close and has a great angle. It’s really not smart of Nneka to get that tight, because while Fowles is a good finisher around the basket, a turnaround jumper towards her weak hand is already a tough shot. Stand up and make her hit the shot.

This is just here because it’s pathetic and deserves to be pointed out:

What is Parker doing, exactly? She backs under the rim and watches Augustus miss. Then makes a token effort to challenge the second try. I sometimes feel a little guilty about how much I criticise Candace Parker. She’s an exceptionally gifted player who does a lot of great things. But the stuff she screws up are often just so aggravating.

Meanwhile at the other end, Brunson does stuff like this:

She tracks Toliver off the initial screen, while always staying in contact with Parker and knowing where she is. Then she battles Parker for position and eventually forces the turnover. Brunson’s getting a little older now, and doesn’t have quite the pure and ridiculous athleticism of her younger days, but she’s one of the most underappreciated players in the league, especially as a defender.

Talking of defense, Beard again:

The commentators gave Carson the credit, but it’s Beard who got her hand in and forced that steal, leading to the break and LA’s lead at halftime.

On into the third quarter, and the most important play is forced by Beard’s defense yet again:

She sees Moore coming, knows she can take a chance off Whalen because she’s not really a three-point threat, and gets there in time to draw the charge – and Moore’s fourth foul. There’s more than one way to remove key threats from the game.

Oh, sorry Candace, here I go again. The final moments of the third quarter were ugly for Parker:

She dances around with the ball in front of Howard – who had a heck of a game for the Lynx off the bench – goes nowhere, and eventually throws a pass that would’ve resulted in a shot-clock violation anyway – if it hadn’t gone straight to the Lynx. Then Parker stunts towards Renee Montgomery, leaving Howard wide open behind her for the layup. Then Parker throws the inbounds pass away to give the Lynx one last shot before the buzzer. Her brain just seems to go walkabout at times.

After missing long stretches due to the foul trouble, Moore missed much of the fourth quarter after picking up some kind of left thigh injury. It looked like it happened on this break:

Seemed innocuous, and didn’t sound too serious after the game, but she sat out the final seven minutes.

This is the Lynx playing what I think was their only possession of zone defense in the entire game:

It didn’t go well. Parker makes a smart cut into the hole that’s typically available between the two layers of a 2-3 zone, draws defenders, and Toliver has the room to hit another three when the ball is kicked to her. There’s a reason that the zone is usually a brief gimmick for the Lynx.

This was less smart from Parker:

When you’re quadruple-teamed, there’s a pretty good chance that some of your teammates are staggeringly open. Might be an idea to give one of them the ball.

Yet another huge triple from Toliver gave LA the lead with barely two minutes remaining:

Montgomery gambled for the steal and really shouldn’t have. Yes, you look like the hero if you tip the ball away and it turns into a layup the other way, but Toliver’s just too dangerous. If Montgomery’s guarding Carson or Beard, the gamble makes sense. Then your teammates are playing 4-on-5 defense briefly while you recover, but there isn’t much immediate threat. The Lynx were basically conceding jumpers to those other wings all day (and they hit several, to be fair). But you give Toliver that space and she can make you pay. Whalen knows that, which is why she desperately tried to challenge, even though she’d left Beard in acres of space near the sideline.

After the teams exchanged several misses, Minnesota eventually drew level on these plays, and I’m going to pick on Parker again:

In the first one, Fowles basically wanders down the lane untouched, right between Parker and Beard, and grabs yet another offensive board before Beard fouls her. In the second, Fowles gets the ball down low, with good position on Ogwumike. Parker has the right idea initially, thinking about double-teaming, but then backs away and ends up in no-man’s land. Maybe she’s executing the scheme, leaving Nneka to handle Fowles on her own. But Fowles is such a terrible passer, it’s usually a good idea to bring help and scare her on those plays if you can. It often results in a turnover. Plus Parker doesn’t even actually find Brunson to cover her either. Tied game, 28 seconds left.

The set LA ran out of their timeout was oddly muddled:

They were understandably running down the clock, and it looked like Toliver was meant to come and get the ball, but Montgomery had to do very little to stay with her. There’s no solid screen, or second effort to get open. It all seemed to start moving a little too late, or Beard gave up on it a little too quickly.

Whereas the play that followed from Minnesota worked like a dream:

But they did get a little help. According to post-game interviews, the play was designed for Montgomery, but her teammates don’t really get her open. Whalen gets a solid screen from McCarville to give her space to drive, but after the initial screen when Montgomery came up the floor, Fowles seems to give up on setting another one to break her open for the three. Fortunately for Minnesota, Carson is daydreaming and leaves Montgomery free to drift into the corner, set herself and drill the three.

Cheryl Reeve made an interesting call at the point, which is always a matter for debate whenever this situation arises. Ahead by three with under three seconds left, the Lynx intentionally fouled to prevent LA even having a chance to shoot from beyond the arc and tie the game. That left Parker at the line. Typically you’d try to make the first free throw, then miss the second and try to tip it in to tie the game. But she missed the first one. Which led to this:

That was incredible. It was far and away the closest I’ve ever seen an intentional miss come to actually working and saving the game when down by three. And it was legal too. Rather than arcing the ball high to miss on purpose, then chasing after it – which is illegal, if you cross the line before the ball hits iron – Parker fired the ball directly at the rim. It worked perfectly, as did the second stage of grabbing the rebound and instantly kicking it to Toliver on the perimeter. She was open because Augustus lost track of her in very similar fashion to Carson’s screw-up at the other end, but Augustus got away with it. Toliver’s toe was on the line, so the bucket wouldn’t have been enough anyway, and after review it was also wiped out for being just after the buzzer. So a fantastic effort, but all for nought.

It was a heck of a game, between the two teams that right now are far and away the class of the WNBA. And happily for us, we get to see them face each other again on Friday night. I don’t expect to see too many adjustments, after a game that could’ve easily gone either way. Neither team played as well as they could, especially offensively, and they’d expect to get more from the likes of Ogwumike, Parker and Moore on most nights. Agler will be demanding a better rebounding effort from his squad, while Reeve will be looking for better shooting from hers – therefore not requiring quite so many second chances.

As a neutral, another game with this level of intensity and excitement would be greatly appreciated.


2 comments on “Breaking down Lynx-Sparks, Battle of the Unbeatens

  1. Kevin Cannon says:

    Question on the Montgomery three: did it look to you like Parker gave up on that one as well? I thought that she could have tried to rush Renee since her momentum was in that direction, but instead she pulls up at the edge of the paint and placidly watches the shot go in and then calls the time out.

    • Nah, I don’t see a lot wrong with what Parker does there. As soon as she sees Whalen start to pass she eases up and turns to set up for the possible rebound. It would’ve been nice if she could’ve done more to cut Whalen off or slow her down, but Montgomery being wide open is all on Carson.

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