Minnesota Lynx headed to the playoffs: what's working, what's not

Contributor
August 21, 2014 - 12:28am
Rebekkah Brunson came back from injury and made an immediate impact for the Lynx. Photo by Abe Booker/Stratman Photograpy.

Rebekkah Brunson came back from injury and made an immediate impact for the Lynx. Photo by Abe Booker/Stratman Photograpy.

Lindsay Whalen averaged 14.1 points, 5.6 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game this season. Photo by Abe Booker/Stratman Photography.

Lindsay Whalen averaged 14.1 points, 5.6 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game this season. Photo by Abe Booker/Stratman Photography.

Seimone Augustus has missed several games this season with knee bursitis, but will be ready for the playoffs. Photo by Abe Booker/Stratman Photography.

Seimone Augustus has missed several games this season with knee bursitis, but will be ready for the playoffs. Photo by Abe Booker/Stratman Photography.

The Minnesota Lynx ended their 2014 campaign with a 25-9 record, becoming the first WNBA team to post 25 wins or better for four consecutive years. Reaching that threshold this year was a remarkable achievement, with Minnesota enduring several injuries that could have compromised their overall chemistry.

"For us to do it this season, with the amount of adversity that we've faced, I told them I'm very impressed and blessed to share it with them," said Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve.

However, Minnesota's consistency has been undermined by the Phoenix Mercury, who established themselves early as the favorite to win the WNBA Finals with a 29-5 record. Although the playoff narrative has suggested a collision course between the two teams in the Western Conference Finals, a first-round upset is not an unreasonable prediction. The routine blowouts of a year ago were virtually non-existent this year, but Minnesota sputtered at the end of this regular season. Their dropping three straight games before closing out the year with a win, lead to considerable skepticism from local media about their chances to defend their Championship title.

For those reasons, the Lynx will find some relief in the proverbial reset button that the playoffs provide. Their bouts of shakiness do not obscure the talent they possess, and their offense is prolific enough to cover most of their mistakes. Minnesota will face the San Antonio Stars in the Western Conference Semifinals - a team they dominated in the regular season, winning four of five meetings. A third title in four years would likely give the Lynx dynasty status, but the journey to get there will be harder than last year.

"It's been a different path. We're definitely battle-tested, more so than last year, which gives us confidence going into any situation," All-Star forward Maya Moore said.

WHAT'S WORKING

Moore had a phenomenal 2014 season, and will likely earn MVP honors for her performance. The four-year veteran won her first league scoring title this season with 23.9 points per game, becoming the second player in WNBA history to score 800 or more points in a season (Diana Taurasi was the first). Moore began the year by scoring 30 points or more in four consecutive games, setting a league record, and reached that threshold 12 times during the season, breaking Taurasi's record of 10 set in 2008. Moore was the only player in the WNBA to reach double-digits in points for every game in 2014.

In addition to her scoring, Moore posted career highs in rebounds (8.1 per game), assists (3.4 per game), steals (1.9 per game) and double-doubles (10). She was also the league's most efficient player, posting a player efficiency rating of 29.4. Perhaps the best all-around player in the league, Moore is highly adept at attacking the rim on offense, either beating the opposition in the paint or at the free throw line. On defense, Moore led the Lynx in deflections with roughly five per game, a trait that sets up her signature steals.

Moore's gaudy numbers helped navigate an injury-ravaged Lynx team at the start of the season, and her leadership was steadfast when the squad returned to full strength. Moore is very cognizant of who she is facing and where scoring opportunities are on the floor, and she can react quickly enough to neutralize the schemes formulated by her challengers. If the Lynx win another playoff crown, Moore will likely have much influence in that process. In the regular season, Moore's plus/minus rating was 23.9, a career high that led the entire WNBA.

Lindsay Whalen remains the steady anchor at point guard, ranking second in the league for assists at 5.5 per game. Her assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.0 was tops in the WNBA, improving her mark of 2.6 last season. Whalen's field goal accuracy of 48.0 percent was second in the WNBA among guards. The Minnesota native boasts a reliable mid-range jumper and does not flinch at the prospect of drawing contact in the lane, traits that are virtually unchanged from a year ago.

Whalen can also scoop a few rebounds if necessary, and came within one rebound of a triple-double in a July 10 victory at Tulsa, earning 21 points, 10 assists and 9 boards. Moore attracts hype, but Whalen's ball control skills and vision allow her teammates to operate with precision on offense.

Further exploring ball control, Minnesota committed the fewest turnovers among the league's 12 teams for a second straight year. Handling the ball was an issue early in the season, when injuries forced Reeve to use her less seasoned players, but giveaways dropped in frequency as Minnesota's reputable athletes recovered. The Lynx averaged 12.32 turnovers in 2014, slightly higher than last year's record low of 12.12, but good enough for opponents to likely seek alternatives in their game plan.

Minnesota's offense is still fearsome, finishing second overall with 81.6 points per game. Although Phoenix had a more explosive offense this season, Minnesota's potency cannot be ignored. Their injured players had several games to rejuvenate on the floor while their bench players received meaningful experience at the start of the season. Such a data set could be valuable for Reeve when she makes her substitutions, seeing the potential of folks like Damiris Dantas and Tricia Liston first-hand.

Rebounding dramatically increased in Minnesota's favor after Rebekkah Brunson returned from knee surgery following this year's All-Star break. In the 23 games she was out, the Lynx had 33.8 rebounds per game and a margin of 1.1 over their opponents. Following the All-Star break, Brunson's presence pushed Minnesota's rebounding margin to 6.0 as the team averaged 38.4 per game. The Lynx led the league in defensive rebounds for 2014, and that element will persist in pertinence with the key cogs back.

Seimone Augustus is one of those players aching to make another post-season run after enduring knee problems, which sidelined her for 10 games this season. Despite the vacancy, Augustus finished seventh in the WNBA in scoring with 16.5 points per game, on par with her 2013 output of 16.3 per contest. Augustus led all guards in field goal shooting with a 51.1 percent clip, and if she can avoid future flare-ups with her knees, Minnesota's sharp-shooter should have plenty of chances to fire away.

WHAT'S MISSING

Cheryl Reeve's emphasis on the shell defense, geared to protect the lane, leaves the Lynx very prone to a perimeter-based offense. This year the Lynx had the worst three-point defense in the league in terms of shots allowed. Opponents converted 216 of 624 three-pointers against Minnesota. Phoenix, the next closest team, gave up 153 triples out of 509 attempts. Minnesota's trend is a continuation from last year, when adversaries hit 185 of 581 three-point shots in the regular season.

Generally, the Lynx would rather concede three-point looks versus an opening in the lane, favoring the traditionally lower odds of a try from the perimeter. Playing the percentages can backfire, and teams with multiple distance shooters are aware that the Lynx lack the agility to rotate out once their defensive formation collapses inside. While the barrage beyond the arc often proves frustrating for Reeve and Lynx fans, three-point shooting may be a risk they have to accept in their fourth straight playoff appearance.

Last year, Minnesota's porous perimeter defense was more tolerable because they had a counter of their own with Moore, who led all players in three-point accuracy at 45.3 percent. Moore ended the 2014 season with a career-low 33.5 percent rate beyond the arc, and the Lynx may not have a reliable threat in the post-season. Liston demonstrated her marksmanship, converting 46.7 percent of her three-point tries in her rookie season, but her play has not been consistent enough for Reeve to utilize her on a regular basis.

Defense overall has also been more spotty. The Lynx gave up 77.2 points per game in 2014, a few ticks higher than their figure of 73.5 last year. As a result, Minnesota has been more prone to giving up leads, including an 82-80 loss to Phoenix on August 9, when they built a 13-point lead early in the contest.

There are also concerns about the team dynamic. To be sure, no rifts among the players and coaches exist. But the time lost due to injuries has compromised Minnesota's instinctual capabilities. Devereaux Peters, another knee sufferer, can be caught off-guard on passing routes, leading to unforced turnovers. Monica Wright, who missed the first 10 games of the season with a knee scope, has seen reductions in scoring and minutes due to an increasing susceptibility to fouls, particularly charging calls.

Beyond health, some criticism has been levied at Tan White, who the Lynx signed as a free agent prior to the 2014 season. Her on-court awareness has been the focal point, suggesting she attempts too many isolation plays when there is space available for a pass, leading to heavily contested shots that stagnate Minnesota's offense.

However, efforts to improve her efficiency produced measurable returns. After career lows in field goal shooting (32.9 percent) and three-point field goal shooting (19.7 percent) last season with Connecticut, White bumped those figures to 40 percent and 33.3 percent, respectively. Her role in the playoffs won't be as prolific as the starters, but she could dictate how far Minnesota advances in 2014.

PLAYOFF PREVIEW

Reeve refuses to apply the term "underdog," stating in practice on Tuesday that she believes the Lynx remain the standard-bearers in the Western Conference. The point is valid, since the Lynx now hold the longest active streak of playoff appearances in that group.

"It's fun to see all the experience, laughing about some of the past stories. There is no substitute for experience," Reeve said.

Minnesota and San Antonio have not dueled with each other in the playoffs since 2011, the year that launched Minnesota's rise to supremacy. The Stars dominated in the final meeting of the regular season between the two teams, winning 92-76 thanks to astute ball control.

Debate ensued over the significance of that result, since the Lynx were locked in the No. 2 seed while the Stars were still fighting for the playoffs, but Reeve was focused on the impending series.

"San Antonio is an extremely well-coached team. It's also a team that enjoys similar chemistry as our team. They're going to load up and really defend the paint hard on us," she said.

The outcome of this series will likely fall on a game of inside versus outside. San Antonio was the best three-point shooting team in 2014, converting 35.9 percent of their makes. Jia Perkins, Becky Hammon and Kayla McBride all made the top 10 in three-point field goal percentage, and Minnesota's style of defense figures to present many opportunities from long-distance. If the Stars fall behind, a barrage of threes could erase any deficit quickly. The Lynx may counter this by looking to draw fouls when the Stars are on defense.

"If you get players in foul trouble, we don't have to worry about them on the offensive end," Augustus said.

Minnesota holds a stronger presence on rebounds and should control that facet against a relatively small San Antonio interior. Brunson and Moore are both fierce on the boards, and both could limit second chance attempts on the opposing end.

Offensively, Minnesota's production is heavily concentrated around Augustus, Moore and Whalen, and the three of them can subliminally acknowledge that finding with their play on the court. If shots are falling for those three, the Lynx can rack up points with impunity, but if they struggle and resort to rushing shots, Brunson and Janel McCarville are the best options to bail them out.

San Antonio's offense is much more balanced. Four of their players average above 10 points per game, with one of them coming off the bench (Perkins), and they flaunt the fastest player in the league with Danielle Robinson.

"Our ability to shoot the basketball is good. We can turn you over and take care of it fairly well," said San Antonio head coach Dan Hughes. "We're going to win because maybe we can attack them in the mid-minutes and cause some trouble."

Reeve was more meticulous on areas Minnesota needed to refine to mount another playoff run.

"The attention to detail so we're not making the little mistakes that cost you when you get to a playoff series," she said. "Going under on a ball screen when you've got Becky Hammon standing there, you're going to have a problem. We made a lot of those mistakes the last time we played San Antonio. Every possession matters when you get to the playoffs."

The Lynx could be without Dantas for this series. She missed the last three games of the regular season for a family necessity that required her to return to Brazil. Dantas was originally scheduled to return for the playoffs, but she did not appear during the team's practices. No one is sure when she will be available.

Playing time for Dantas diminished after Brunson returned to the starting lineup, so speculating the extent of her absence is tricky, but her best game of the season came against San Antonio on May 30, when she scored 17 points in an 88-72 win.

Not having Dantas is also a detriment to Minnesota's rebounding, but no one is expecting the runaways of a year ago, when they finished the post-season undefeated.

"The adrenaline definitely kicks in more so in the playoffs. It's going to be more of a grueling match," Moore said.

PREDICTION: Although their offense is widespread, San Antonio's deficiencies in rebounding and a reliable post scorer results in going with riskier odds to win games. Occasionally, they can bypass this to get signature wins, including one on the road against Phoenix and one at home against Minnesota to secure a playoff spot. The Stars want to give a proper farewell to the retiring Hammon, who has never won a WNBA title.

However, the Stars were porous on defense and allowed the highest field goal percentage from opponents (47.6 percent), which is problematic with assignments like Augustus, Whalen and Moore.

Minnesota's attitude in practice was extremely focused as they seek to quell the notion of not being the best team anymore. Unlike the last meeting, this series matters significantly for the Lynx, and a first-round win would be an effective answer to any lingering worries about health. If they can withstand a counter-offensive when their reserves take the floor, Minnesota will have no trouble winning this series.

Moore has demonstrated her maneuverability all season, and the only thing that could obstruct her progress is her shot selection. The Lynx have more depth and experience, elements that could overwhelm the Stars at the end of games. Minnesota wins in a sweep.