WNBA Finals Notebook: Getting Ready for Game 1
The Dream went with a three-guard starting set against the Fever due to the absence of Erika de Souza, and burned their bigger Indiana opponents up and down the floor.
But that doesn’t mean they’re going to be using the exact same set against the Lynx, although de Souza’s not expected back from her Brazilian National Team commitment until Game 2. Nor, of course, does it mean that they won’t.
“I don’t know yet, I just know we’re gonna go deep,” said Dream coach Marynell Meadors. “We use all of our players – let me tell you. We use everybody on our bench.”
Against the Fever without de Souza, the Dream couldn’t compete on the inside. So they didn’t even try. But against a Lynx team that’s more well-balanced, Atlanta may have to vary its looks a little more and rely on rebounding as much as racing, said point guard Lindsey Harding.
“Last series they were bigger than us, so we started saying ‘OK, let’s be quicker than them,’” Harding said. “This series we’re gonna play to our strengths, which is our quickness and our defense.”
But until de Souza’s back, look for Atlanta to keep the burners on – which should make for a very entertaining Game 1 – Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said.
“I think they’ll do the same thing without de Souza, there’s not doubt about that,” Reeve said. “[Angel] McCoughtry will play a little four – it’s tough matchup. I think they’ve been able to wreak more havoc with McCoughtry at the 4. Defensively, we know what we have to do. Offensively we’ve worked very hard to make sure we can still be efficient.”
Offensively, the Lynx say they’re prepared to counter a nearly nonstop running attack from Atlanta – and if they had any doubts, their two blowout wins against Phoenix (the league’s best offense) should have dispelled them.
So, the Lynx will play fast if need be. The key is just not trying to rush, Reeve said.
“We can be opportunistic in the full court, but at the same time we want to control tempo,” she said. “Atlanta wants chaos. We don’t want chaos. We have to have a recognition about when it’s time to get an easy one or slow it down.”
With chaos comes turnovers. And all year long, with turnovers have come Dream points. And against a team that leans on its transition game like Atlanta does, even a long rebound works like a turnover.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of keeping up,” said Lynx forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin. “I think their running happens when the offense takes a bad shot or when the offense turns over the ball, which Indiana did quite a bit. Connecticut also took quick shots against them.
“I think we’re a lot more disciplined to be able to do what we know would help us. I know Phoenix mentioned it in the press conference in Game 1 – you can’t run if you’re taking the ball out of the nets all the time 80 percent of the time.”
Point guard Lindsey Harding, in her first year in Atlanta, hasn’t had too much trouble fitting in with the Dream this year. Just a little bit of the New Girl stuff at the beginning – nothing that running point for the second-most-potent offense in the league couldn’t cure.
But she did have to do a little bit of playing-along when her teammates talked about the experience of getting to (and losing in) the Finals in 2010.
“They kept talking about how we know what it takes to get here, and I was right along with them like, ‘Yes, we know!’” she said with a laugh. “I know it left a bad taste in their mouth and I knew coming in that you may never get this opportunity again. You never know, so we’re gonna just play extremely hard.”
Last year, the Dream came from the fourth seed in the East into their first-ever WNBA Finals, shocking the league before falling in three games to the champion Seattle Storm.
But that three-game sweep at the hands of Seattle? When you look back on it, that was just good practice for this year, said Dream coach Marynell Meadors.
“Nothing substitutes for experience, and playing in Seattle with the crowd like it was, it’s gonna be the same thing there tomorrow when we play,” Meadors said. “I think just being there, knowing what it’s all about – it was exciting to get there last year, and this year it’s exciting to get here, but we’re in a different phase of our maturity and the experience of our team.”
“[And] the sweep was only eight points in three games,” she said. “So we were right there with everybody. I think just looking back, everybody said we were so close [to winning], and now we have an opportunity to take it all. We’re at a different level than we were a year ago.”
McCoughtry echoed her coach.
“I told everyone, last year we got there and it was like ‘Oh my God, we’re here!” McCoughtry said with a smile. “This year, it’s like we’re supposed to be here, so let’s go.”
Maya Moore admitted that it took a couple games for her to really feel comfortable with the pace of the Playoffs – thus the 10-for-26 combined opening to her postseason career between Games 1 and 2 of the Lynx’ Western Conference Semifinals series against the Silver Stars.
Ever since then, she’s gotten the hang of things, with a 7-of-10 effort in Game 3 of that series and then a combined 12-for-21 showing in the Conference Finals.
“I just always try to come aggressive and confident and learn from my mistakes,” Moore said. “Anytime I can help my team by being aggressive I will.”
“She’s gotten more and more comfortable,” said Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve. “It’s a lot like the season for her. In the beginning, everything was new, and same way with the Playoffs. … Her comfort level comes from what our veterans do and how our veterans are feeling. When they’re together and they’re feeling good, Maya feels good.”
But it wasn’t just Moore that had to get in the flow of the postseason, Lynx star Seimone Augustus said.
“It took two to three games to really get the feel for how the playoffs were, and that was for everybody,” she said. “It was a shock – it’s our first time here [as a team].”
But Moore did exactly what’s made her “the ultimate professional” all year long, Augustus said: she adjusted.
“As [Moore] got into the game and got into the groove of things, it was bound for her to break out,” Augustus said. “She had that in Phoenix, where she was more confident in the spots making shots. Defensively she was challenged – she had to guard Penny Taylor, one of the best scorers in the league. But she’s come around full-circle, and we’re expecting a good Finals run.”
Said Moore: “It’s time. Sunday needs to be here. We’ve had a long week of anticipating the Finals. Hopefully we’ll feel good tomorrow, and we’ll go out and play the way we have been.”
Seven-and-a-half years ago, local product Lindsay Whalen capped off her University of Minnesota career as the leading scorer in Gophers history. In her time running point at the U, she eclipsed virtually every scoring record and placed in the Top 10 of pretty much everything that was left, and famously led the Gophers to their first Final Four in history.
But her lasting legacy in maroon and gold – beyond her retired No. 13 that hangs from the beams at Williams Arena – might be the amount of people she brought to games.
The Minnesota women’s basketball team averaged right around 1,200 fans a game when she was a freshman. By the time Whalen graduated in 2004, somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000 people were showing up to games.
And while we certainly can’t attribute all of this to Whalen – Maya Moore was the top-selling WNBA jersey this year – the Lynx are undergoing their own fan revolution right now. Drawing more fans in 2011 than any year outside of their first season in Minneapolis, the Lynx sold 143,607 seats during the regular season, for an average of 8,477 per game. That pace surpassed last year’s total by more than 800 per game, and blew away the season-low total of 6,442 in 2006 – Seimone Augustus’ introduction to the team.
On Sunday, for the first-ever WNBA Finals game in Minnesota history, the lower bowl at the Target Center’s already sold out, and team reps are saying that it wouldn’t be a shock if the Lynx break the single-game attendance record of 16,000-plus fans – set in Whalen’s first game back in Minnesota as a member of the Connecticut Sun in 2004.
“We’re playing for a championship,” Augustus said, “and the whole city’s behind us.”
If you’re predisposed to prognostication, the Maya Moore-Angel McCoughtry matchup looks to be the one to follow this series. Moore, the Rookie of the Year, and McCoughtry, who looks like the heir apparent to Diana Taurasi’s run of scoring titles, may soon come to dominate the league.
But if you’re the kind of fan who appreciates a matchup of two of the best point guards in the league, pay special attention to the top of the key in this series, where Minnesota’s Whalen and Atlanta’s Harding will go to work.
“She’s really quick,” Whalen said. “She makes good moves, and she’s really playing with a lot of confidence right now. .. .We played against each other in all kinds of Team USA stuff, and we’ve known each other a long time, and I’m gonna have my hands full, that’s for sure.”