Game 1 of the WNBA Finals was frankly a little embarrassing for the Atlanta Dream. They came into Minnesota on a high after a strong performance in the Eastern Finals, and were essentially blown off the floor by the home town Lynx. So Game 2 needed to be about responding and improving. They couldn’t afford to shoot 2-36 from outside the paint again, but they also needed to find ways to simply shoot fewer shots from outside. They had to craft better avenues to the rim, and create easier looks. And they had to do a better job defensively so that they could roll that momentum into their offense. All the Lynx needed to do was be ready for the potential response from Atlanta – more of the same from Minnesota would do perfectly nicely.
The Dream made one conspicuous move before Game 2 even tipped off. Aneika Henry started the game in place of Tiffany Hayes, replacing a guard with a post. Hayes had a nasty fall in Game 1, resulting in some lower back pain, but was ready to play off the bench. It was an attempt by Fred Williams to shake things up, try to capitalise on their size inside, and go with the option that worked the best in Game 1. Not that anything worked particularly well in Game 1, but Henry was one of the few bright spots. Minnesota had their regular starting five in place as usual, and made the defensive adjustments you’d expect. Seimone Augustus started on Angel McCoughtry instead of Rebekkah Brunson, who moved onto Henry. Janel McCarville stayed with Erika de Souza. Of course, with two true posts on the floor for the Dream, McCoughtry had to guard one of Minnesota’s star wings rather than hide on McCarville. She started on Augustus.
Atlanta looked better in the opening minutes than they had in the previous game. There was a clear intent to drive and attack at every opportunity – sometimes even when there wasn’t really much of an opportunity. McCoughtry and Armintie Herrington both went barreling into the paint on early possessions, and even Erika took a step or two outside, then attacked off the dribble when she glimpsed a gap, rather than settling for a short jumper. However, they were still running into a lot of traffic, and because the Lynx knew that Atlanta wanted to drive at all costs – and that the Dream were unlikely to punish them by hitting shots from outside – multiple defenders were waiting in the lane to block the route to the basket. The mentality was good from Atlanta, but the success was limited.
And they still couldn’t get any stops. The same things continued to work offensively for Minnesota – solid screens, effective and purposeful movement off the ball, unselfish passing, and making shots. Once again, the game was frantic early on – just the style Atlanta like to play – but once again it was Minnesota pulling away on the scoreboard. As the first quarter wore on, we even saw the Dream make a few perimeter shots – Hayes drilled a three with virtually her first touch after coming off the bench, while Alex Bentley and Jasmine Thomas both made jumpers from the top of the key. But those were just occasional breaks in the overall Lynx dominance.
After what seemed like in interminable wait, last night the 2013 WNBA Finals finally got underway. After building the fanbase over three years of success, the Minnesota faithful was out in force to support their Lynx. They dropped the Finals opener at home last year, which ultimately played a key part in Indiana’s 3-1 upset victory in the series. So the Lynx were hoping for a much better start this time around, to set the groundwork for regaining the championship trophy. The Atlanta Dream were in town hoping to spoil the party – or at the very least do better than the sweeps they’ve suffered in their two previous visits to the Finals.
The first questions were answered by the opening lineups. Minnesota center Janel McCarville had reportedly been suffering from some back pain since Friday’s practice, but she was in the starting lineup as usual along with the regular Lynx group. Atlanta had decided to stick with the small lineup that had served them so well against Indiana in the Eastern Finals, with Angel McCoughtry as a pseudo-power forward alongside Jasmine Thomas, Tiffany Hayes and Armintie Herrington on the perimeter. The opening possessions quickly illustrated that Fred Williams had decided to go with the unusual defensive assignment I mentioned in my preview, with McCoughtry guarding McCarville while Erika de Souza took Rebekkah Brunson. Herrington started on Seimone Augustus, with Hayes on Maya Moore, but Atlanta had a general willingness to switch on the perimeter whenever necessary. As anticipated, Minnesota were happy to match up with Atlanta’s small lineup without changing anything about themselves – Brunson started on McCoughtry, McCarville took Erika, and they got down to work.
It was a pretty frantic opening period, with both teams feeding from the crowd’s energy and the action flowing from end to end. McCarville posted up on McCoughtry once, and managed to force the ball home, but the Lynx weren’t going to take themselves out of their offense in an effort to attack that potential mismatch. They were moving well off the ball, Moore was hitting jumpers, and Augustus was successful with a couple of those dive-in plays from the corner, both times finishing off nice feeds from McCarville. Their offense was rolling nicely.
But the Dream had a little early success too, doing some of the things we knew they’d need to do in this series. Herrington crashed for an offensive rebound, stealing the ball right from Brunson’s hands and dropping in a putback. Erika got a couple of touches in the low post, and found a way to finish over or around McCarville. McCoughtry opened her account with a ridiculous leaning jumper that she jacked far too early in the offense, but it somehow went in. The problem was that they weren’t having much success stopping the Lynx and when they finally did create a turnover, McCoughtry blew a wide open layup. The high pace suited the Dream, but the transition chances still weren’t really there. Minnesota were doing a solid job of taking care of the ball while running their offense, preventing those break opportunities for Atlanta.
Before the 2012 WNBA Finals began, the Minnesota Lynx were the overwhelming favourites. They had the track record of winning last year, they’d had a smoother journey through the Conference Finals, they were healthier, and on paper most observers agreed that they had more talent. If you could find anyone predicting that the Indiana Fever would win the series, chances are they had some connection to the Fever organisation or one of the players. You could get 4-1 at various bookmakers for Indiana to win the Finals before the games began. But the Fever took Game 1 on the road, and responded to a Game 2 loss by blowing the Lynx out when the series returned to Indiana for Game 3. That left them just one win away from the holy grail of a WNBA championship, with the opportunity to close it out in front of their own fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. And if they needed any further motivation, they were still the underdogs with the bookies to win Game 4.
After missing the first three games of the Finals, wing Katie Douglas was back in uniform for Game 4 after at least somewhat recovering from her ankle injury. She was by no means 100% healthy, and she was probably there largely for the boost that seeing her dressed might give her teammates, but she was theoretically available. Jeanette Pohlen was obviously still out after her ACL tear. The starting lineups were the same as the previous three games – Indiana’s Lin Dunn riding her successful crew; Minnesota’s Cheryl Reeve still waiting for her key pieces to reach their usual heights.
The first couple of minutes of the game seemed like a decent start for Minnesota. Seimone Augustus missed a pair of runners in the lane, but the Lynx grabbed offensive boards on both. In fact they had three offensive rebounds in the opening minute of the game, and their opening three baskets all came right at the rim as Lindsay Whalen penetrated and Taj McWilliams-Franklin found a little room to finish inside. Then Indiana point guard Briann January picked up her second foul of the game after less than 4 minutes of play, sending the player who’d shackled Augustus in Game 3 back to the bench. All positive signs for the Lynx.
But as the first quarter wore on, much of the action was distinctly reminiscent of the previous Fever victories. They were the team injecting pace into the action, pushing the ball at every opportunity for easy chances to score. Minnesota’s transition defense was pathetic, with Shavonte Zellous and Erin Phillips simply beating them down the floor and going right to the rim. Twice, Augustus essentially watched while Fever players went right by her for layups. It was understandable that Augustus wanted to avoid early foul trouble, but that doesn’t mean that you completely fail to contest against players who are about to score, especially when you’re yet to pick up a single foul. Even in halfcourt sets, Indiana were the team driving to the rim and drawing contact, while Minnesota largely settled for jump shots. With the Fever defense as active as ever, and Augustus ice cold – both before and after January left the floor – Indiana led 25-18 at the end of the first period. Continue reading
There were plenty of positives for the Indiana Fever heading into last night’s vital Game 3 in the best-of-five WNBA Finals. They’d managed to split the opening two games in Minnesota, stealing home-court advantage from a Lynx team that had finished 16-1 at home in the regular season. They were back on their own floor, in front of a raucous, sold-out Bankers Life Fieldhouse crowd (legitimately sold-out too, not ‘sold out all the sections made available’). They’d even finalised a sponsorship agreement with Finish Line earlier in the day which stabilised the franchise’s future. But they were facing one or two problems as well. Katie Douglas’s ankle still hadn’t recovered, and now Jeanette Pohlen was out as well due to a left knee injury, leaving the Fever desperately thin on the perimeter. The Lynx had fought their way back into the series in Game 2, dominating the rebounding battle, and if that happened again Indiana were in trouble. It certainly didn’t look like it was going to be an easy task for the Fever to regain control of this series by taking Game 3.
With Douglas still in street clothes, Shavonte Zellous once again filled her spot in the lineup. Neither team made any changes to their starting personnel, but it was quickly apparent that Indiana had made one clear change to their approach. Point guard Briann January was now the primary defender on Seimone Augustus, a challenge that had largely fallen to Erin Phillips in the previous two games. Phillips swapped over to take Lindsay Whalen. Both Phillips and January are undersized to handle scorers like Augustus or Maya Moore, but they’re both physical and quick defenders. January has that extra little bit of speed, so maybe Indiana felt she could give Augustus problems simply by chasing and constantly harassing her. Or maybe it was just to offer up one extra element that Minnesota might not have been expecting to face.
After the physicality of Game 2 and the now-notorious jacket-tossing sequence from Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve, many had been expecting the officials to call Game 3 tightly in the opening stages to get a grip on the contest. It didn’t really happen, partly because of the style of the game. It was a pretty open, free-wheeling first quarter, and there weren’t a lot of calls that needed to be made.
Indiana weren’t getting many shots to fall in the early stages, but they were still on top. January was doing an impressive job on Augustus (with help from her teammates whenever necessary) and the Indiana defense in general was making life incredibly difficult for Minnesota. Indiana were so quick and active that they were making it hard for the Lynx to even set up their sets or make simple passes, leading to stilted, unfocused offense from Minnesota. The Fever were also forcing Lynx turnovers, which enabled Indiana to attack with pace at the other end of the floor. The likes of January, Phillips and Tamika Catchings all had opportunities to drive for early offense, or they’d move the ball well and find open chances around the perimeter. If they’d shot better in the first quarter, they’d have been even more comfortable. Continue reading
After Indiana stole Game 1 of the WNBA Finals in Minnesota on Sunday, the Lynx had their backs against the wall last night. You can afford to drop one game at home, but if they went down 2-0 before heading back to Indiana for the next two games (if two were even necessary), Minnesota would’ve become huge outsiders to repeat as champions. They needed this one, but it was going to take a better performance than they produced three nights earlier to pull it off. The Fever would’ve settled for a split of the opening two games if you’d offered it to them before the series began, but once you take the first you get greedy. They’d beaten Minnesota on their own floor once already; why not twice?
There was still no sign of Indiana wing Katie Douglas for Game 2, still back in Indiana rehabbing her ankle and hoping to recover in time to play some part in the series (although reports from her European team suggest that might be unlikely even if the Finals go all five games). So the starting lineups were the same again, with Shavonte Zellous filling in for Douglas.
The opening minutes weren’t much better for Minnesota than Game 1. They gave up cheap turnovers on sloppy passes; Erin Phillips and Briann January were knocking down jumpers for the Fever; and Seimone Augustus was struggling to find her range. To top things off, point guard Lindsay Whalen picked up two fouls within seconds of each other trying to chase after January, so less than 4 minutes into the game Minnesota’s floor leader had to head back to the bench. It was only 11-9 Indiana at the first timeout, but it was hardly the barnstorming opening Minnesota would’ve been hoping for.
On the bright side for Minnesota, there had been a couple of early scores where they finally exploited the overplaying Indiana defense. The Fever are undersized and scramble around the floor to help each other where necessary defensively. That often means that an extra defender is shading over to the strong side (the side where the ball is) so that she can arrive and help as quickly as possible. The best way to beat that is to move the ball sharply from one side to the other, or make the extra pass when the help defender commits to coming across and leaves space behind her. Minnesota didn’t do that enough in Game 1, and they still weren’t in Game 2, but there were one or two plays where they found the open player to score from the weak side of the floor. It showed an awareness of the opportunities, even if they weren’t managing to attack them consistently. Continue reading
The culmination of the 2012 season finally arrived last night, with the opening game of the WNBA Finals. We had the heavy favourite, in the shape of the reigning champion Minnesota Lynx, favoured by just about everybody to take home a second consecutive title. Then there was the plucky underdog, the Indiana Fever, already dealing with a key injury and led by a superstar who’s still searching for her first ring. These teams played a pair of regular season games with a playoff intensity just last month, so we had every right to expect something even better now that it was the real thing. We weren’t disappointed.
Indiana wing Katie Douglas, their second-leading scorer and a primary ballhandler, wasn’t even in Minnesota for the game. She was still back home, trying to rehab the nastily sprained ankle she suffered in the deciding game of the Eastern Conference Finals. Shavonte Zellous, a regular starter for the Fever for most of the season, slid back into the starting lineup to fill the gap. Everything else was as expected for the opening tip-off – Minnesota’s standard five that they’ve been riding for two years, Indiana with Tamika Catchings and Erlana Larkins paired in the post, and a sellout crowd going nuts in the Target Center.
From the start it was the intense, quick-tempo game we’d expected. The slight surprise was just how effective Indiana were from the very beginning. As would be the case for much of the night, Indiana’s offensive execution was beating the Minnesota defense. High screens for pick-and-rolls found open scorers to finish inside, or players like Briann January and Erin Phillips were finding lanes into the paint. This was not how Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve would’ve expected her team to come out defensively.
Not that the Lynx were being blown off the floor. They had their own offensive successes, with Rebekkah Brunson particularly prominent in the opening stages. She knocked down a jumper, finished multiple times inside, and crashed the offensive glass for extra opportunities. In fact, both teams were all over the offensive boards early on, with Larkins doing her best Brunson impression for Indiana. Continue reading
In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m 6-0 predicting the series winners in the playoffs so far. Largely speaking, that’s come simply from taking the clear favourite – the team most people would’ve backed. The two instances where that may not have been the case were both with Indiana. Many felt they’d fall to Atlanta in the first round considering the Dream’s playoff success in the last couple of years, and with home-court advantage Connecticut were certainly considered favourites in the Eastern Finals. But for whatever reason, my gut had faith in the Fever, and they came through. So if anyone’s going to take Indiana in the Finals, it would have to be me, right?
From the opening weeks of the season, I’ve spent much of the year admitting I was wrong about the Fever in the preseason. I still thought they’d be good, but I hated the idea of moving Catchings to power forward. Now, I feel like it’s everyone else who’s underestimating Indiana. There seems to be a general view that they’re the lambs to Minnesota’s slaughter, a team that made the Finals thanks to Atlanta’s dysfunction and a freak shooting performance against Connecticut. The injury to Katie Douglas has just cemented opinion that the Lynx are nailed on to repeat. But that’s not giving Indiana enough credit. Continue reading