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:

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The W Dozen: WNBA’s Super Tuesday, Spacey D, Crazy Stats, and more

 

1. Super Tuesday (part 1)

It’s a big day for the WNBA on Tuesday. June 21st is the anniversary of the inaugural game back in 1997, so the League has chosen it as the appropriate date to announce their ‘Top 20@20’ on ESPN – the WNBA’s 20 greatest players over its first 20 years. They did the same thing after both 10 and 15 years, so it was an expected element of the 20th season celebrations. However, only revealing that they had selected a Top 20 five days before the announcement date was a frankly ridiculous move by the WNBA, and yet another shortsighted and poorly thought-out misstep.

This group of stars and legends, who’ve made the league what it’s been for 20 years and provided a large part of the entertainment that the WNBA is celebrating, should’ve been a centerpiece of the 20th season festivities. It was made slightly more complicated by the lack of an All-Star Game this year – the natural stage for the announcement – but it still shouldn’t have been screwed up this badly. Why aren’t you giving all the fans and analysts weeks (or months) to debate the various members of the group? These arguments could’ve gone on at length among fans of the league, and features on the candidates could’ve filled various websites. Instead, everyone’s rushing to state their picks just in time to barely beat the announcement. It’s silly, and so easily avoidable.

On that note, I’ll try to get a piece on my own personal selection up on Monday, before the announcement. The league’s official release with the 60 nominations is here. Beyond that, if you want more information on how the league arrived at the 60 candidates, and on the information provided to the media who voted, Mel Greenberg helpfully provided that here. These things are always fun to argue about. I just wish we’d been given a little longer to do it.


2. Super Tuesday (part 2)

2016-06-10_SparksLogo2016-06-05_LynxLogo

The other reason Tuesday is big for the WNBA is that the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx will finally be facing off, and if the Lynx can beat Seattle on Sunday night they’ll both be undefeated. Currently sitting at 11-0, both have surpassed the old record for a perfect streak to start the WNBA season, set by Minnesota in 2012. It’s unfortunate that the clash takes place at 3.30pm ET (12.30pm local to the game in LA), so a lot of fans won’t be able to watch it live, but they didn’t know how big the game would be when they set the schedule.

Obviously, both teams have been playing great basketball. Brian Agler has the Sparks playing as a unit, and has found a rotation that works – with actual wings playing on the wing, rather than shifting square-ish pegs into round-ish holes. Between the all-court game of Candace Parker, the shooting of Kristi Toliver, and Nneka Ogwumike playing out of her mind – plus the best team defense they’ve pieced together in years –  the Sparks are looking like we always knew they could if they were healthy and their talent managed to gel. Meanwhile, Minnesota are doing what we’ve seen them do before so many times. Continuity helps a lot in this league, especially early in the season, and when you’re damn good as well that tops things off. Like LA, the Lynx are healthy, and taking care of business at both ends of the floor. Sylvia Fowles is more integrated into the team this season, and they even look a little deeper than in previous years with several backups Cheryl Reeve actually seems to trust (rather than the maybe two of many previous seasons).

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The W Dozen: Lauding Loyd, Lynx, Triple-Stack and more

 

First up, I already wrote at length this week about the surprise starts for the Atlanta Dream and Phoenix Mercury HERE. So if you haven’t read that yet, please take a look. Now, on to the 12 items that have caught my eye, drawn my attention or rattled my brain in the WNBA this week.


1. If you haven’t seen this yet, then you damn well ought to

This one’s nice:

But this one’s just special


Enjoy the next decade, Storm fans.


2. Y’know what? That’s not enough on Loyd

Breanna Stewart’s the big story around Seattle this season, and that’s understandable. After four national championships at UConn, making the Olympic team, being the #1 pick, and just how damn good she is, there should be plenty of talk surrounding her. But don’t lose sight of how much Loyd has improved in just her second WNBA season, and the kind of performances she’s putting in alongside Stewie.

You could already see the improvements coming last season, where Loyd grew as the year went along and started to become more comfortable. But beyond that, her offseason under a heavy spotlight at Galatasaray has done her the world of good. She’s playing with much greater confidence, there are finishes at the rim sliding in that weren’t always there last year, and oh my – the jump shot. It’s so pretty now. That was the primary thing holding her back last season, when absolutely no one was scared of her jumper, so they all sat way off her and just let her shoot. Now it looks great, and opponents are going to have to respect that jumper (although at time of writing her three-point percentage has dropped to 29%, I’d expect that to rise).

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Minnesota Lynx

 

PG: Lindsay Whalen/Renee Montgomery

SG: Seimone Augustus/Jia Perkins

SF: Maya Moore/Keisha Hampton

PF: Rebekkah Brunson/Natasha Howard/Bashaara Graves

C: Sylvia Fowles/Janel McCarville

Another team kind enough to cut their roster down to size nice and early. They have absolutely no chance to carry more than 11 players. This is a throughly veteran – and therefore thoroughly expensive – roster.


Significant additions
: Perkins was brought in from San Antonio to help deepen the guard group, while Janel McCarville returns in the post. They’ll be hoping that Howard or Graves can provide minutes inside as well.

Significant losses: Anna Cruz might be seen at some point this season, but not until after the Olympics; Devereaux Peters was signed-and-traded to Indiana in the deal that brought Howard back; and they moved on from both Tricia Liston and Asjha Jones, neither of whom will be particularly missed.


Overview

The champs are back again, trying to do one of the few things this group is yet to achieve – repeating as champions. The roster reflects that they feel their time to win is right now (understandably, considering their aging core and all the winning they’ve done in recent years). The roster is even older than last year, with veteran backups behind the veteran starters. One of these days, this team will get too old (or at some point, presumably, they’ll start retiring). But with Maya Moore still in her absolute prime and leading the way, there’s little reason to believe that the decline will start this year.

In fact, there’s every reason to think that the Lynx could be a little better overall than they were last season. Sylvia Fowles is there from the start this time, so should be more integrated into the offense and more comfortable with the system. Cheryl Reeve always managed to build impressive defenses without a dominant presence in the middle, so with Fowles to work with they should be even better on that end. Lindsay Whalen played through injuries for most of last season, and while she might be a little into the downslope of her career arc, an offseason to recover should mean she’s more effective this season. Seimone Augustus was banged up last year too, but that does seem to be true pretty frequently. She’s still an exceptional player, but expecting her to be in one piece all year is probably optimistic.

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2015 WNBA Season Previews: Minnesota Lynx

 

PG: Lindsay Whalen/(Anna Cruz)/Jennifer O’Neill

SG: Seimone Augustus/Monica Wright

SF: Maya Moore/Tricia Liston

PF: Rebekkah Brunson/Devereaux Peters/Reshanda Gray

C: Asjha Jones/Damiris Dantas

 

Significant additions: Hopefully Jones and Cruz, maybe eventually Gray.

Significant losses: Janel McCarville, Tan White.

 

—–

 

Until late in the offseason, Minnesota were quietly going about their business, becoming most people’s favourites for the 2015 championship by virtue of not losing any key pieces, unlike their usual rivals. Then they joined in with some of the league-wide melodrama. Janel McCarville informed them that she wouldn’t be playing in 2015, which left a hole in the post that was swiftly papered over with the acquisition of Asjha Jones from Connecticut (although exactly how much they’ll get from Jones remains to be seen). Meanwhile the Sylvia Fowles mess in Chicago tangentially touched on the Lynx when it emerged that Minnesota was her preferred destination, which could’ve led to a shake-up on the roster. But no Fowles trade materialised, so the core of this team remains the same, and as threatening as ever. They have a few things to work out down low, but with a perimeter like theirs they’ll still win plenty of games while figuring out the answers.

 

While some are starting to whisper about the age of the Lynx core, there’s no reason to expect their performance to fall off a cliff any time soon. And with 2014 MVP Maya Moore in her prime – or arguably still improving – the vets have a pretty useful youngster to help carry them along. The shooting and all-around scoring ability of Moore and Seimone Augustus, combined with the drive and leadership of Lindsay Whalen at the point, continues to be the heart of this Lynx team. They could never quite seem to get fully healthy last year, which eventually cost them against a squad as strong as Phoenix, but if they’re in one piece come playoff time they’ll score on anyone. Cheryl Reeve does a nice job organising her team and placing them in a position to succeed, but she’d be the first to admit that a lot of it comes down to pure talent. The Whalen/Augustus/Moore group is likely the best perimeter trio the WNBA has ever seen.

 

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The Daily W, 09/03/2014: Taurasi and Mercury offense prove too much for Lynx, as Phoenix head to WNBA Finals

 

Minnesota Lynx 78 @ Phoenix Mercury 96

 

Lineups: As expected, once again.

 

Story of the Game: Minnesota got off to a much better start offensively in this game than they had in the previous two – but unfortunately for them Phoenix were scoring even more effectively. Sandy Brondello had clearly drummed into her team the need to attack the paint, either by feeding Brittney Griner inside or driving off the bounce. For the entire first half, Griner scored efficiently when they fed her inside, but she was almost more important as a decoy. She’d come out high to set screens, Minnesota’s perimeter defenders would shift themselves dramatically to try to prevent the ballhandler using the pick, and then the Mercury player would happily reject the screen and drive into the space to the rim instead. Just the threat of Griner rolling to the basket was bending the defense to such an extent that Phoenix were lighting up the scoreboard, almost entirely on layups.

 

Diana Taurasi in particular – after I had the temerity to point out how poorly she’d shot in her last four games against the Lynx – was still looking for her own offense, but taking much better shots. They weren’t quick-fire jumpers, but rather aggressive drives right to the basket, often after screening, rescreening, and maybe even rescreening again from her posts. Between her, Griner, a better attack mentality from DeWanna Bonner, and chip-in contribution from Candice Dupree and Penny Taylor, this was the best we’d seen Phoenix’s offense running for a while, and Minnesota couldn’t slow them down or keep them from getting to the basket.

 

But the Lynx stayed in it thanks to better offensive production than we’d seen from them for most of the series. Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore all hit their fair share of shots in the first half, as much of the Lynx offense continued to come on jumpers, but the motion and movement was noticeably better. Phoenix seemed to have loosened up their scheme a little, and were slightly more willing to switch defensive assignments than they’d been in Games 1 and 2, but much of that was forced by the pick-and-rolls and off-ball movement of the Lynx. Rebekkah Brunson’s mid-range jumper was cold, which hurt because it allowed Griner to sag off her and help more elsewhere, but Minnesota’s perimeter trio wasn’t allowing Phoenix’s offensive success to blow them off the court.

 

In fact, Minnesota never trailed by more than nine points under Phoenix’s opening barrage, and when Griner rested to start the second period they actually took advantage – something they hadn’t done enough in this series. They attacked the rim a little more, created some transition chances when Phoenix’s offense stuttered slightly, and got some production from Monica Wright off their bench – after she’d been virtually anonymous in the previous games.

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The Daily W, 09/01/2014: Star trio hit the shots for Lynx to force Game 3 against Mercury

 

Phoenix Mercury 77 @ Minnesota Lynx 82

 

Lineups: Nothing changed. Neither of these teams was going to mess with something as basic as their starting lineup after the success they’ve had with their established groups. Phoenix did change their defensive matchups at halftime in Game 1, with Candice Dupree taking Janel McCarville and Brittney Griner switching to Rebekkah Brunson. They went with that from the start in Game 2, although essentially Griner’s guarded whichever opposing post hangs closer to the rim all season long.

 

Story of the Game: With their home crowd primed to explode and loving that Diana Taurasi was called for a push-off on the opening possession, Minnesota nonetheless got off to another awful start. They had no offensive rhythm, the ball was static once again, and they settled for – and missed – a lot of jump shots. They also saw Janel McCarville pick up two fouls in under three minutes, then Devereaux Peters sub in for her and do the same in less than two minutes of action. So not only were they falling behind, but two of their primary post defenders were already in foul trouble – and they hadn’t even picked the fouls up while defending Griner. The calls hadn’t gone Minnesota’s way, but it was still a horrible start and much of it self-inflicted.

 

The Lynx had at least managed to disrupt Phoenix’s flow a little with their defense. They’d extended out higher on the perimeter, making it harder for Phoenix to initiate their offense and get the ball moving. They were also mixing up the matchups, with Maya Moore often on Penny Taylor while Seimone Augustus (or Monica Wright, after an early sub) took DeWanna Bonner. The more straightforward matchup, which they stuck with for most of Game 1, was to have Moore guard Bonner. As Bonner was always guarding Moore, it made things easier to stay the same at the other end. But the Lynx cross-matched more in Game 2, and considering both Bonner and Taylor were much quieter than in Game 1, it ultimately had to be considered a success.

 

But in the opening period the Mercury were still racking up enough points to move into a double-digit lead. With a Lindsay Whalen driving layup the only Lynx success in their first 12 shots, the Mercury could hardly avoid it.

 

Minnesota finally started to pick things up in the second quarter. A few jumpers fell in for Whalen, Moore and Augustus early in the period to kick-start the offense, and there was a little more penetration and ball movement to create the space for those shots. McCarville’s minutes were once again limited by foul trouble, although the return of Damiris Dantas from overseas had at least given the Lynx another post that Cheryl Reeve was willing to use. The game got increasingly chippy in the second period as well, with Taurasi called for a technical after bitching a little too long and hard about the lack of a call on one of her missed shots, then Reeve adding her own tech after an argument with official Amy Bonner about staying in the coaching box. According to ESPN reports from the sideline, it was Taurasi who suggested to Bonner that she should keep an eye on Reeve’s movements, just to add an extra level to it all.

 

Phoenix responded to the Minnesota push late in the first half, with Taurasi nailing a pair of threes when left in too much space, and Dupree continuing to finish with her typical smoothness both at the rim and from mid-range. The Lynx forcing a few turnovers and hitting some jumpers in the second period was a good sign for the second half, but they still trailed by eight at the interval.

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