Each basketball game is different.
Sure there are the same number of players, the court's the same size, the nets the same height. Everyone uses the same ball, the same rulebook –- but nonetheless every game charts its own path, is illuminated by different perspectives, reveals itself in disparate ways.
Game One of the WNBA Finals was defined by subplots, intricacies, subtle shifts in strategy, some dictated by injury, some by calculation –- and Indiana pulled out a surprising road win.
Game Two, on the other hand, needs no complex explanation, no elaborate algorithm, to determine why Minnesota restored order to the WNBA universe with a decisive 83-71 win. This time, it was simple: The Fever just ran out of gas.
It became readily apparent late in the third quarter, but at least to the observant, the signs were there even earlier. Indiana's Erlana Larkins, who had run circles around Minnesota's soon-to-be-42 Taj McWilliams-Franklin in Game One, was all but invisible in Game Two (three points, five rebounds, four steals, one block), as two Lynx defenders bracketed her, boxing her out of nearly every play. Though Minnesota led by no more than three at any point in the opening half, with Indiana going up by double digits early in the second quarter, taking a 23-11 leading with nine minutes to go in the opening half, and still leading by two, 33-31, heading into the break, the halftime stats favored Minnesota.
The biggest red flag that this was not to be a reprise of the Game One Fever victory: At the half, Minnesota already led 17-12 on the glass, with an eight-to-two advantage on the offensive boards that had translated, by this point, to an eight-to-three edge in second-chance points. Minnesota was also shooting better from the field (42.4 percent to the Fever's 38.7 percent first-half field-goal shooting) and was moving the ball more efficiently, with eight assists on 14 makes, as compared to Indiana's four assists on 12 first-half field goals. Indeed, by halftime, the one thing that was keeping the Fever on top was foul-shooting, where the Fever had garnered five points in six trips to the line as comparied to the Lynx' one-for-four first-half shooting at the charity stripe.
Even though, as we noted previously, the injury to Katie Douglas may not have hurt the Fever as much against the Lynx as it might have done against some other teams, it still changed everything for the Fever. Now Erin Phillips and Shavonte Zellous had to absorb most of those minutes, and role players like Jeanette Pohlen found their part had expanded from a few lines to an entire scene.
It’s not that highly trained athletes like Phillips and Zellous can't play 30 minutes a game physically –- it’s that they’re not used to playing 30 minutes, and they’re not used to concentrating and focusing for that length of time in high-pressure situations.
Moreover, in this game, Minnesota quite consciously exploited that area of vulnerability by subjecting January, in particular, to pressure on virtually every trip up the floor. Both Minnesota Coach Cheryl Reeve and the Lynx "Mama Taj" McWilliams-Franklin gave Monica Wright much of the credit for coming in off the bench and shifting the momentum of the game by executing that strategy.
"I think Monica Wright came in and changed the whole dynamic of the game with her pressure defense, getting out on it; hounding Briann January," said McWilliams-Franklin. "In Game One, Erin Phillips and Briann hounded our players. In Game Two, Monica Wright [and] Candice Wiggins just got up and got in it. She got steals. She was active. Even in fouls, she was active. She was on the ball. You know how tiring that is for someone who has to play -- Briann January has to play 39 minutes and 39 seconds -- how tiring [it is] having someone always on you?
"So for us, that was the turning point. I think she came in, got some steals, made some things happen for our players, and it kind of relaxed the players a lot. Easy baskets. Much more fun than trying to bring it up against a set defense."
And remember what I said about every game being different? Though the rulebook might have been the same as in Game One, the bodies flying in Game Two would beg to differ –- and that too hurt Indiana. When players are extended into more minutes, pushed into expanded roles, expected to perform at a higher level, it doesn’t help that effort when they’re bouncing off the floor every third trip down the court, and that "incidental contact" has suddenly acquired a new definition.
So yes, Seimone Augustus went nuts in the third quarter, and finished with 27 points. And McWilliams-Franklin played much better than she had in Game One, especially when it came to keeping Larkins off the boards. And Lindsay Whalen (14 points) and Maya Moore (23) did what they do, but what it made easier for them to find their comfort zone was Indiana’s fatigue.
Oddly, though, in keeping with the theme of every game being different, the fatigue did not sabotage the Fever’s shooting percentage –- instead, it showed in sloppy turnovers, and most deadly, an inability to keep Minnesota off the boards. The Lynx' 32-20 advantage on the boards, including a 17-2 edge in offensive rebounds, by game's end is pretty much the only stat that needs to be looked at -- well, the 22 Fever turnovers were critical too -- in figuring out why a team that shot 48.1 percent from the field, 42.1 percent from three-point distance and 81.3 percent from the free-throw line lost so decisively.
Neither did it help, when the Fever needed everyone to step up to compensate for Douglas' absence, that the entire Indiana bench played just 12 minutes, producing just three points (from a Pohlen long ball) and one rebound.
Oh, did I mention that Pohlen, who needed to do more than she had in the regular season, went down early in the second quarter after just 1:55 on the floor with what looks like a serious knee injury?
The Fever's Jeanette Pohlen struggles to sit up, clutching her left knee, as teammates and team trainer Todd Champlin come to her aid. Pohlen was sidelined for the remainder of the game. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)
Indiana Coach Lin Dunn was disconsolate over what appears to be the loss of a second player, perhaps for the duration of the Finals:
"Well, I've been coaching for 42 years now and that's probably the most physical game I've ever been a part of," said Dunn. "It was just a war out there, bodies flying every[where], and unfortunately it seems like we've lost another player to an injury and we'll just have to adapt to that.
"I did not think we responded to how physical they were playing. It was just bodies flying, hitting, chucking, slamming, shoving, and we didn't respond to that, and it that's the way the game is going to ber played, we have to match that," Dunn continued.
"But we battled, we battled, we battled. I thought we wore down physically, because we didn't have near as many bodies as they had. But we'll regroup and get back home, and we'll adapt to -- I don't know what to call it; I'm not going to call it basketball. Maybe it's basket-football or something. But it was pretty rough out there, and we are going to have to adapt to that."
Asked about Pohlen's condition, Dunn replied, "Not good. So when a game is that physical and it's allowed to play that way, it's inevitable somebody is going to get hurt. Karima Christmas is going to have to play and hopefully Katie Douglas will be back. We don't know. But we are obviously short some guards now, and we'll just have to figure out something to do."
Then Dunn quipped, in her deep Tennessee accent, "Maybe Tammy Sutton-Brown [the Fever's aging center] can play the wing. I'm not sure. We'll see."
To some extent, Dunn's comments contain a bit of hyperbole. There's no question it was a very physical ball game. There's also little doubt that for the most part, the refs were letting them play, with just 15 personals called against the Fever and 19 against the Lynx despite an awful lot of contact. And then there were the technicals -- one on Lindsay Whalen and one on each head coach. So it's fair to say that neither coach was happy with the way the game was called -- or not called -- and although, as we noted in our Finals Preview, a closely called game would favor the Fever while a more loosely officiated contest would benefit the Lynx, it was Minnesota's Cheryl Reeve who gave the crowds the most bang for the buck when it comes to entertainment value as she stormed the sidelines, ripping off her jacket, swinging it wildly, and shaking her fist as though she were ready to do battle until finally restrained by her assistant and Mama Taj.
But this is playoffs basketball. Physicality and aggressiveness is to be expected in the Finals, and this was by no means the most physical playoff game in recent memory. And while no one likes to see a player injured, Pohlen did not go down on anything that appeared to be a particularly physical play, her knee simply buckling under her without any excessive contact.
It wasn't just the Fever who found the game to be physical; the Lynx felt the same way. But physicality is what they expected in a playoffs game. As Maya Moore put it:
"We definitely expected to be physical. It's the Finals. All we can do is to continue to attack and try to draw fouls. We need to play through it and just play together, not let it frustrate us or knock us off our stride. We just need to continue to push through like we did tonight."
Rebekkah Brunson echoed the sentiment:
"We knew that this series was going to be physical. It is not just going to be the next game; it's going to be every game. Every game is going to be a fight like that and we're all mentally prepared to play that way. I don't think that anything is going to get easier for us, especially if we go there [to Indianapolis], it might even get a little more physical. We're just prepared to counter everything they do."
Game Two of the 2012 WNBA Finals was physical, but that ran both ways: For example, Minnesota's Seimone Augustus, who repeatedly drove the lane finishing through contact, earned just one trip to the foul line. (Photo by Lee MIchaelson)
Taj McWilliams-Franklin may not have been around the game quite as long as Lin Dunn, but she has definitely seen plenty of playoffs basketball over her 13 years in the pros. Slowly climbing to the dais for the postgame press conference, she mumbled, "I'm old," when Augustus tried to hurry her. But McWilliams-Franklin still relishes the physicality of the game:
"I get beat up all the time," she said, smiling. "First game, now, Seattle, L.A. It's a habit. I'm a center. I'm used to it.
"It's a tough sport," she added. "I think, by far, ... the WNBA is a tougher league than any other league besides the National Hockey League. It's like wrestling. I love WWE, and all of the skills I know from it come in handy," she said, laughing.
Later, she added more seriously:
"I'm a physical player. I'm not the tallest, but I am stronger than most players on the court at any given time. So I don't mind. You want to beat me up, I'm going to beat you back. It's going to hurt, though, more for you than me. We can tango. We can dance, baby. It's going to be painful. Have Seimone get open -- I set great screens."
And therein may lie the difference. At least this time out, the Lynx were prepared for the intense physicality of the game, and were ready to counter whatever the Fever threw at them. The deeply fatigued Fever -- with the exception perhaps of Tamika Catchings, who undaunted by anything the Lynx threw at her, soldiered on to a 27-point finish (tying the Lynx' Seimone Augustus for the game high), to go with eight rebounds, two assists and two steals (but an uncharacteristic seven turnovers) -- didn't seem to be as much prepared to counter Minnesota's aggression as to be waiting for the refs to help them out. That rescue never came.
Moreover, while responses to officiating depend quite a bit on whose ox is being gored, most fans and pundits would, at least in the abstract, prefer to see the games decided by the players rather than by the referees.
|Both coaches, as well as the Lynx' Lindsay Whalen, were called for technical fouls in the course of Game Two. In a display repeated on the TV highlight reels all night long! coach Cheryl Reeve tore off her jacket, and threw it aside. After the game Reeve said: "Clearly I wasn't happy in that moment. I'm not happy about how the game was officiated. But that's all I'm going to say about it." (Photo by Lee MIchaelson)|
Thus, though Reeve, choosing her words carefully in order to avoid being further fined, conceded she was "not happy about how the game was officiated" (and also that she needed a drink after the game), Reeve also maintained that this was the kind of game playoffs basketball should be all about, a view she apparently shared with her assistant coach Jim Peterson, who spent eight years playing in the NBA.
"'It's exciting,' is what he said," reported Reeve, referring to Peterson. "This is really, really exciting. We love going to our phones and checking our texts and listening to all of the things that were said about this game.
"This is what the WNBA Finals should be about. I think if we can clean some things up all around, both teams, officiating, everything, you're going to get an even better series. These are two teams that, No. 1, have a lot of respect for each other, and No. 2, that are laying it all out there on the line. ... So it was hard. It was really, really hard. But you feel so accomplished at the end of the day obviously when you win the game."
Yes, the Indiana starters were tired, and sadly, they won’t have much time to recuperate –- Game Three is Friday, in Indianapolis, with Thursday a travel day as the series changes venues. Though it would be nice to dream that Douglas will return at 100 percent, or that Pohlen’s knee injury was just a bruise, the most likely scenario is that neither plays Friday.
Come on down, Karima Christmas. Shake off the rust, Tammy Sutton-Brown. Deliver more than a rebound, a block and a turnover in eight minutes, Jessica Davenport.
Or better yet, sleep well, Tamika Catchings. Put your feet up, Erin Phillips. Soak in the hot tub, Briann January. Ice those knees, Shavonte Zellous. Eat really healthy, Erlana Larkins.
Those five, fresh, can give Minnesota a serious challenge. Those five, fatigued, just won’t be able to keep up.
- Augustus, Lynx even series with Game 2 victory
- Lin Dunn leverages the matchups into Indiana win over Lynx in WNBA Finals opener
- Catchings, Fever hold off Lynx to take opener in best-of-five 2012 WNBA Finals
- The Lynx have to be favored to make it two WNBA titles in a row -- but Indiana has championship fever
- Minnesota battles Indiana for WNBA Championship
- The Fever just too hot for the Sun: Indiana dominates Game 3