The two first-round sweeps couldn’t have been more different.
Minnesota had to battle Seattle for 80 hard-fought minutes; all Indiana had to do was apply some playoff pressure and watch Chicago collapse.
Minnesota completed its sweep before a small crowd in a strange arena, as the Storm had to move the game to Tacoma because Key Arena was rented out; Indiana thumped the Sky in front of a raucous home crowd excited about defending a WNBA title.
Minnesota did the expected, as first seeds are supposed to be superior; Indiana was 16-18 on the season and battled injuries up to and including these two games, but still dominated.
But that’s over now, and both winners get a couple days to rest (though the coaches will be doing some serious scouting). The two-game sweep is in the rearview mirror, and all that matters is what’s next.
The same can’t be said of the two losers, though at least Seattle can head into the offseason with the knowledge that the Storm never gave up, and were in the series until the final horn. Chicago? Well, it couldn’t be more different.
Minnesota 58, Seattle 55
You knew it was going to be like this.
You knew the Seattle Storm would turn up the physicality meter to 11, and just pound on the skilled, athletic, heavily favored Minnesota Lynx.
And pound they did. And pound. And pound. And pound.
Not that the Lynx were shrinking violets. Like the elite team they are, they’ll play any way you want. Want to run and gun? Let’s go. Want to set it up? Sure. Want to beat on each other until you know the bruises will turn green and yellow in a couple days? Any time.
In the end, Minnesota survived the very epitome of the grind-it-out game, getting a jumper from Seimone Augustus with 24 seconds left to take back the lead the Lynx had had the entire second half, adding two free throws from Rebekkah Brunson, who did everything but avoid turnovers (seven on the afternoon), and then clamping down defensively on the last possession.
Ugly? No question. Augustus was four for 15 before she backed down Alysha Clark to nail the jumper from the elbow to vie Minnesota the lead for good – but you know, a lot of the story of Seattle’s season is told merely by the fact that Clark, who battled for years to just to make a WNBA roster, was on the floor with the season on the line. (Clark had nine rebounds in 19 minutes, so it’s not like she didn’t contribute, but still …)
In the end, though, it’s impossible to replace, or even come close to replacing, Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, and especially when facing the deepest, most skilled team in the league in the Lynx.
You have to give credit, though, to the Storm for battling, and clawing (literally in more than a few cases), and grinding and grinding and grinding. And you have to give credit to Tina Thompson, who ended her brilliant career with a gutsy, physical, go-down-fighting effort that included nine rebounds and 13 points.
Young gun Maya Moore, who could replicate Tina’s career if she stays healthy, led all scorers with 22, had seven rebounds and added seven steals, and she and her stable of elite teammates eventually prevailed.
But they knew, and we knew, it wouldn’t be easy – and it wasn’t.
Indiana 79, Chicago 57
There are those who believe that playoff experience makes a difference – and I really didn’t agree.
And as proof, the Sky’s player with the most playoff experience, Swin Cash, promptly played 27:29 without making a field goal, getting only three rebounds and managing one assist (to two turnovers).
But the counterargument was stronger, as Cash actually played better than her less playoff-hardened Chicago teammates, and lacking any other explanation, it sure seems like the playoff experience deficit was the killer in the Indiana domination of the series.
And let’s not forget Lin Dunn, who’s been around the block more than a couple times, and who simply schooled playoff rookie coach Pokey Chatman in back-to-back games. While Indiana operated at high efficiency throughout, the Sky just weren’t ready. They couldn’t shoot (which Chatman has little control over), they didn’t screen out, they didn’t play with energy and they allowed a less-talented team to completely control them for 80 minutes.
And speaking of not forgetting, Chicago was 24-10 on the season, and Indiana was 16-18 – and the Fever chose to let their primary post backup, Jessica Breland, go so they could reactivate wing Katie Douglas, and then Douglas promptly reinjured her back and didn’t play. So Indiana came into this series as a less-than-full-strength 16-18 team.
In game two, Chicago actually led 6-3, but after a 17-4 Fever run, it was 20-10, and the Sky were never again in the game. The final margin was a little misleading, as Chicago offered up basically no resistance to a smaller, older, injury-ravaged team that most expected, myself included, to go quietly off to Europe to collect some bigger paychecks.
But I was wrong, as the Fever gave the Sky a lesson in basketball, a lesson in playoff basketball, a lesson in intensity, a lesson in preparation, a lesson in coaching, and a lesson in life. That last one is the most important, because it applies long after the last shot is taken: Talent by itself is not enough – and in this case, not nearly enough.