Atlanta, Minnesota hold serve in WNBA conference final openers

September 27, 2013 - 11:31am
The Minnesota Lynx made short work of the Phoenix Mercury behind 20 points from Lindsay Whalen, while the Atlanta Dream came out on top of their slugfest with the Indiana Fever Thursday in the opening games of the WNBA Conference Finals. (File photo by Lee Michaelson)

The Minnesota Lynx made short work of the Phoenix Mercury behind 20 points from Lindsay Whalen, while the Atlanta Dream came out on top of their slugfest with the Indiana Fever Thursday in the opening games of the WNBA Conference Finals. (File photo by Lee Michaelson)

After a first round full of first-game on-the-road upsets, form held in the WNBA Eastern and Western Conference Finals Thursday –- sort of.

The results came out as expected (that is, if you expect the home team to win), though the Atlanta-Indiana game was off script for much of the night. Still, some semblance of order was restored, along with a certain sense of inevitability about the Minnesota Lynx and the 2013 championship. They’ve looked very focused so far, and have played very well at home –- and, of course, have the home-court advantage the rest of the way.

Then again, the Lynx were supposed to dominate last year, and lost to Indiana, though it’s not to get the feeling that if the Fever make it to the Finals again this year, Minnesota is going to be in high gear from the opening tip. They certainly were in high gear late in the first half Thursday, and as a result could easily sweep Phoenix on Sunday.

Atlanta? Well, that second win is unlikely to come easily, if at all.

Atlanta 84, Indiana 79

Thursday was the old Roman holiday of Saturnalia, where everything was reversed. The expected order was turned topsy-turvy for one day … and that’s what happened in game one of this series.

First, these two teams, both known for their defense, combined to score 163 points. Granted, this wasn’t that much of a surprise since the previous matchups this year had been high-scoring as well, but this is supposed to be the playoffs, and defense is supposed to rule.

Instead, both teams shot better than 50 percent from the field, and the 11 lead changes and 15 ties reflected how easy it seemed for each team to change the scoreboard.

Next, coming into the series, everyone focused on Indiana’s lack of size, and how Erika de Souza and friends would pound the boards for Atlanta. So naturally the Fever’s biggest statistical advantage was on the boards (a 38-29 edge with 10 offensive rebounds).

Then again, Indiana’s backcourt was supposed to give the Fever an edge, but the visitors turned the ball over 17 times (to just 18 assists) compared to a 20:12 ratio for Atlanta.

And in the end, it was the Dream backcourt pairing of Tiffany Hayes and Armintie Herrington who made the difference. That pair went 14 for 23 from the field, had 10 rebounds, eight assists and five steals –- and turned the ball over only once.

The inability of the Fever defense to control Hayes and Herrington was enough to tip the scales in a back-and-forth game that very easily could have gone the other way. Angel McCoughtry, though having an ordinary game by her standards, converted an old-fashioned three-point play down the stretch and despite a dumb/ticky-tack foul call on Hayes late, the Dream held on to take game one.

One might want to credit the home-court advantage, but another near-invisible Atlanta crowd really didn’t give the Dream much of a boost. The story will be different in Indiana in game two. Expect an energized crowd on a Sunday afternoon, and expect another close game –- though expecting Indiana to dominate the boards, the Dream to handle better and the teams to shoot 50 percent might be expecting too much.

Minnesota 85, Phoenix 62

So after all that talk about the Mercury’s improved defense, Lindsay Whalen pick-and-rolled Phoenix to death in the first half as Minnesota coasted to an easy win.

Whalen, perhaps inspired to show MVP voters that maybe she should have gotten a little more love (especially compared to Diana Taurasi), immediately noticed that the Mercury were going to let her try to score on the pick-and-roll and then punished them for that mistake in judgment. (That might be a reflection of new coach Russ Pennell’s unfamiliarity with the league. Whalen generally is more a distributor than a scorer, but veteran coaches know that she must be taken seriously as a point-producer. If she is, she generally settles for giving the ball up, but if she’s not taken seriously as a point-producer – well, she can go 10 for 15 and score 20 points.)

With Phoenix unable to figure out what to do when someone screened for Whalen, the Lynx decided the game in the last couple minutes of the first quarter and the rest of the first half, building a big lead that the last 16 minutes did not affect.

It didn't hurt that while the Lynx were shooting the lights out -- Minnesota shot 53.1 percent from the floor, and after Whalen got things rolling, the rest of the Minnesota lineup got into the act, with Maya Moore matching Whalen's 20 points and Seimone Augustus and Monica Wright tacking on 18 and 11, respectively -- the Lynx' defense, which has been pretty darned good all season, held Phoenix to a mere 34.3 percent (24-70) from the field and an abysmal 11.1percent (2-18) from beyond the arc. Mercury three-point threats Taurasi and DeWanna Bonner hoisted six long-balls apiece, and netted one between them. True, the Lynx weren't all that much better in the three-point department, knocking down two of their 11 attempts from beyond the arc  (18.2 percent), but then again, why bother when you're having a field day with the dribble-drive?

Of course, the Mercury were just coming off a highly emotional first-round win over L.A., a series victory that really made their season complete. If Phoenix loses to Minnesota, it’s still been a good year – and the Mercury played as if a) they were physically and emotionally drained, and b) they’ve finished their task for 2013.

On the other hand, the Lynx are still smarting from the Indiana upset in last year’s WNBA Finals, and are in a serious take-care-of-business mode. They have no interest in anything but winning four more games and taking back the title they felt they should have last year if only they had been more focused.

In other words, things may not get much better for the Mercury Sunday –- especially if they can’t figure out what to do with the pick-and-roll.