Expect both teams to be well rested when the WNBA Finals tip off next Sunday after the Minnesota Lynx joined the Atlanta Dream in sweeping their conference semifinal series, closing things out on the road with a 72-65 victory over the Phoenix Mercury at the U.S. Airways Center on Sunday. The win propelled the Lynx into the WNBA championships for the third-straight season.
If anyone expected a repeat performance of the 85-62 drubbing the Lynx handed the Mercury Thursday night, then they haven’t been paying much attention to the pride with which these two franchises play the game. The Mercury made the most obvious adjustment – i.e., respecting Lynx floor general Lindsay Whalen as a scoring threat. Whalen scorched Phoenix for a game-high 20 points (tied with teammate Maya Moore) Thursday, with most of them coming in the first 20 minutes to give the Lynx an early lead the Mercury could never surmount. On Sunday, Phoenix put sophomore guard Breanna Gilbreath on Whalen, but if Gilbreath was one of the Mercury’s youngest players, that assignment was certainly no sign of disrespect. The young USC product is one of the best defenders on the Phoenix roster, and with Gilbreath mirroring her step-for-step, on Sunday, Whalen was held to just three points on the day.
The Mercury jumped out to a strong start, putting up six quick unanswered points, two of them on short jumpers by Brittney Griner, who seemed poised to make a statement in this game. However, the Lynx quickly countered, using their many scoring options, with Whalen feeding Janel McCarville and Seimone Augustus for a pair of jumpers that bookended a Moore three-pointer to put the Lynx on top, 7-6, at the 6:30 mark of the first.
From there, the two sides traded punches in short bursts, with the home team closing the first period with a two-point lead (21-19), and the visitors responding with a 9-0 run to take a 28-21 advantage less than three minutes into the second. Phoenix tied things up (29-29) on a pair of Diana Taurasi free throws with a little over four minutes to go in the half, but could never quite recapture the lead, as the Lynx carried a 38-35 edge into the break. (It might have been 40-35, had it not been for Gilbreath’s block of a would-be Whalen buzzer-beater.)
Phoenix again knotted the score, 41-all, two minutes into the third period, once again on a pair from the charity stripe, these two by DeWanna Bonner. Perhaps this is as good a time to say a word about foul calls and foul shots and how they did, and didn’t affect the game. From the get-go, the officials signaled their intention to call the game closely, in all likelihood, a response to some of the chippiness – highlighted by a Taurasi-Augustus shove, chest bump and kiss on the cheek that went viral on YouTube. The problem is, the refs seemed to be calling quite a bit of rather ticky-tack contact away from the action, while swallowing their whistles in response to considerable physicality close to the iron. Taurasi, in particular, flirted with a technical with her prolonged complaints about non-calls, and Phoenix partisans may, not without merit, argue that their superstar was robbed when, with the Mercury down five, and 26.9 seconds to play, she drove to the hoop, collided with not one but two Minnesota defenders, but couldn’t buy a whistle. With that much contact, it had to be either a charge or a blocking foul, and in light of all the off-the-ball whistles that had filled the arena all afternoon, the ensuing silence from the referees was deafening.
Whether a foul call at that juncture would have changed the outcome is doubtful, however. Taurasi, who was a perfect 7-7 at the foul line on the day, would likely have dropped in two more, but that would have still left the Mercury down by three, with under 30 seconds to go. As it turned out, the Mercury did not score the rest of the way.
Yes, the officiating was inconsistent, as it unfortunately so often is in the “W,” and that makes it difficult to adjust, but that’s a disadvantage that fell equally on both sides. By game’s end, the Mercury had been tagged with 21 personal fouls, to just 14 against the Lynx, but three of those 21 were charged against Alexis Hornbuckle in the game’s final minute in apparent attempts to stop the clock, so an effective 18-14 difference in foul calls does not shout out of favoritism toward either side.
However, if there’s one bright spot in store for Atlanta head coach Fred Williams as he reviews the tape of this game in preparation for the Finals it has to be the vulnerability Minnesota showed at the stripe. The Lynx, who shot a respectable 43.5 percent (27-62) from the field and a healthy 42.9 percent (3-7) from beyond the arc, made just a little more than half their free throws, netting 15 of their 27 (55.6 percent) attempts from the line, while the Mercury collectively were a near-perfect 13-15 (86.7 percent). Had Phoenix been able to get to the line just a bit more often, in a game that was within five in its final seconds, then indeed, free throws might have altered the outcome of this game.
As it was, however, the Lynx won this game in much the same way they have won each of their games in this year’s playoffs – and many of their games in the regular season as well: Their interior defense, which is very, very good, turned their opponents into jump shooters. And in the end, though three Mercury players – Taurasi (21 points), Candice Dupree (17) and Bonner (12) finished in double figures – Phoenix simply did not shoot the ball very well at all.
Key team stats:
Phoenix field-goal percentage: 36.8 percent (25-68)
Phoenix three-point field-goal percentage: 9.5 percent (No, that’s not a typo, they made just two of 21 from beyond the arc.)
Key individual stats:
Diana Taurasi field-goal percentage: 28.6 percent (6-21)
Diana Taurasi three-point field-goal percentage: 20 percent (2-10)
DeWanna Bonner field-goal percentage: 26.6 percent (4-15)
DeWanna Bonner three-point field-goal percentage: 0 percent (0-6)
Of the Mercury’s many offensive weapons, only one player – Candice Dupree – managed to shoot better than 50 percent from the field. And Dupree is the only member of the Mercury starting lineup who also managed to restrain herself from jacking up errant threes. (Griner clocked in at exactly 50 percent, but took only six shots all day, all of them from short to midrange.)
So how do you explain those numbers, for Taurasi, whose averaged 45.6 percent from the field this season and whose career three-point average (36.8 percent) is nearly twice what she shot in this game? Or for Bonner, who averaged 41 percent from the field and 32.5 percent from the arc this year?
After the game, Taurasi conceded that poor shooting and ineffective offensive execution cost her team the game. “I mean, you know, there’s probably a couple of things that we could have done better,” said Taurasi. “Probably, execute offensively – I think that hurt us the most. Especially in that third quarter where we were getting stops, but we couldn’t score -- we couldn’t get anything going really. So I think that really hurt us throughout the game.”
But when it came to explaining the why of that poor execution, Taurasi made it sound like just a bad day at the office. “I mean, they didn’t do anything different,” she stated. “A lot of times it comes down to making shots, making plays, and today as a group, we didn’t make enough of those plays to get quality shots. You know, and that hurt us.”
Mercury interim head coach Russ Pennell gave a bit more credit to the Minnesota defense, but even he made it sound a bit like his team full of All-Stars, loaded with veteran playoff experience, all simultaneously fell victim to an inexplicable brain fog:
“You know, I honestly didn’t think they took us out of tons of stuff. I think what we did, we settled for the easy things. And, again, maybe that’s their defense doing it, but, you know, we didn’t have any problem moving the ball. We didn’t have any problem getting it to our spots. We shot the ball incredibly poorly, but I think a lot of that was we took ill-advised shots. And then, when they helped, we just didn’t find the open player, and that was kind of the theme all night, was, ‘Make the extra pass.” I felt like we tried really, really hard; I just didn’t think that we played real smart all the time and certainly they had something to do with that.”
But the truth is that the Minnesota defense is much better than it has been given credit for, and that it features a kind of balance that is rare in this league. As previously mentioned, this year’s edition of the Lynx features a post defense that is among the best, if not the best, in the league. (We’ll know the answer to that one next week, when the Lynx go up against Erika de Souza, Aneika Henry and company.) The Lynx gave up a 32:20 deficit in points in the paint and a 43:35 edge in rebounding, but despite a distinct height disadvantage, the tandem of Janel McCarville and Rebekkah Brunson were still good enough to hold Griner to just six points in the game. And while Dupree finished with 17, a vast improvement over the four points she logged in Game One, the Lynx still limited the damage, keeping her from one of the 20-plus-point explosions she has fired off seven times this season.
But while many other teams have either a strong post defense or good guard play, the Lynx also have a squadron of speedy guards who make it their mission to ensure that there really are no “easy shots.” If pounding the ball into the key is the more difficult option, then the Lynx backcourt make sure that firing it up from mid- to long-range is, at the very least, uncomfortable –- uncomfortable enough to make sure you miss a lot more than you make.
That’s exactly what Seimone Augustus, the member of that Lynx backcourt trio who drew the principle defensive assignment on Taurasi did to put the league’s five-time leading scorer off her game.
“I know I had a tough task with guarding Diana Taurasi, and we kind of alternated defenders on her, just to give her a mix,'' said Augustus. "But the team bought into the defensive scheme that we wanted to try apply for this series and for this game. We created a lot of havoc on that end.''
On the offensive side of the ball, both these teams are experts at the effective use of ball screens. Whether it’s Taurasi and Griner setting cross screens to free up the open shot, or Taurasi picking off the defender to set Dupree loose to the hole, or McCarville opening the door for Moore or Augustus, any coach interested in teaching his or her charges how to set fast, hard and effective (and occasionally illegal – of which there were several, both called and uncalled) screens, and how to defend against them, should load up the tapes of this series in the team VCR.
But two of the big reasons why Minnesota is looking forward to its third straight WNBA Final, while the Mercury are packing for Europe and Asia, are the Lynx’ backcourt quickness that allows them to swiftly slide under the screen and get a hand in the face of the shooter, and well-coached, well-executed team play that gets a help defender to the right spot at the right time when her teammate does get screened out of the play.
And a third reason? The Mercury certainly had more length than the Lynx in this series, and you’d have to allow they had more depth, as Cheryl Reeve only reached seven deep into her rotation. (Phoenix used 10 players from its depth chart, but to little avail, gleaning just four points from the bench.) But the Lynx have what might be called breadth – five players, six if you count Monica Wright, who can be counted on to go off in any given game. So Lindsay Whalen, who went 10-for-15 for 20 points in Game One, has a bad shooting game, hitting just 1-of-12 for three points, in Game Two. No problem. Whalen will find other ways to hurt you: By the final buzzer on Sunday she had dealt out a game-high seven assists, with no turnovers, and grabbed four boards and a steal with only one personal foul. And several of those dishes were directed to Moore, who led all scorers with 27 points on an efficient 54.5 percent (12-22) from the field and 33.3 percent (2-6) from beyond the arc, or to Augustus, who finished with 22 points on an even more impressive 61.5 percent (8-13) from the field including a perfect one-of-one from three-point range. And if next game, the Dream find a way to put the brakes on Moore and Augustus, watch out for Brunson (who pulled down a game-high 14 rebounds Sunday), McCarville and Wright, each of whom has demonstrated the ability to take over the game at various points this season.
So the task ahead of the Atlanta Dream, as they prepare for their third WNBA Finals appearance in four years, is not to figure out how to “cut the head of the snake”; it’s to find a way to win at a game of “Whack-a-Mole,” stopping whoever is hot at the moment. The first two rounds of this years playoffs have proven that will be no easy task, but if they can do it, they’ll deserve the title of WNBA champions.