You know the names Parker and Ogwumike. You’ve heard about Moore, Whalen, Fowles, and Augustus for months.
While these players will undoubtedly grab the headlines, there are two lesser known names that could potentially swing this enticing series their respective team’s way. Jantel Lavender could bring the first championship back to the city of Angels since 2002. Natasha Howard may be the catalyst behind a fourth title in five years for the Lynx.
They may not be household names now, but as one of the two team’s locker rooms have their walls remodeled with champagne, and players lineup for their selfies with the championship trophy, it could be because one of these two players played the pivotal role.
As is customary in any championship series the stars of each team are going to get theirs. Maya Moore will likely average 20+ points, Nneka could easily shoot well over 60% from the field, and the force field between Candace Parker and the swarming Minnesota defense will be well documented. But, Natasha Howard and Jantel Lavender will be partaking in their own particularly intriguing chess match off the bench.
Lavender is an athletic 6’4″ center who was drafted 5th overall by the Sparks in 2011. She averaged 9.6 points per game this season, but has seen that average bump up to 11.0 points in LA’s four postseason games thus far, a mark good enough for the fourth most on the squad. Her 73.3% shooting is what stands out as it’s the highest on the Sparks roster, a whole 13 percentage points higher than 2016 MVP and shooter extraordinaire, Nneka Ogwumike.
Lavender is listed as a center but plays more of a stretch four role when she comes off the bench. She has the uncanny ability to knock down mid-range jumpers. She’s hitting them at such a high frequency, the team has effectively named the shot, the “Lavender Layup.”
These can come in the form of off-ball screens:
Or, simply in catch and shoot opportunities:
Not be forgotten, she can also use her speed in the post to maneuver around bigger, less mobile defenders:
Lavender’s other-worldly shooting percentage is a testament to the Sparks’ spacing the floor. Head coach Brian Agler designs sets where Lavender either will get an open look, or have an isolation opportunity that she can exploit. It’s up to her to knock down the shot, and more often than not this postseason, she has.
On the other bench you can find Natasha Howard, a 6’2″ forward who like Lavender was a fifth overall pick but in the 2014 draft. Howard spent her first two seasons with the Fever before being traded to Minnesota prior to this season. Howard’s 6.7 points per game during the regular season don’t jump off the stat sheet but her 11.0 points per game in Lynx’s three postseason games draw a clear comparison to Lavender.
Similar to her Sparks’ counterpart, Howard’s offensive production has a lot to do with Minnesota’s ability to utilize the entirety of the floor. But, while the result for Lavender is open jumpers, Howard does most of her work in the paint.
Howard has mastered the pick and roll:
She also can be lethal with the ball in her hands around the rim:
The well-documented court vision of Lindsay Whalen allows Howard to get out on the break and run the floor:
And, if you thought that Lavender’s 73.3% shooting was impressive, Howard’s shooting an even more ridiculous 84.2% from the field in her three postseason games for Minnesota thus far.
The best part about this matchup is the fact that these two should see considerable time guarding each other. Both are similar in size and play in similar offensive sets. Howard holds the edge in steals per game this postseason, 1.7, and neither are particularly proficient at shot blocking. No, when these two clash it’s going to be all about the scoring.
On Sunday, these titans will enter the Target Center boasting household names, Olympians, and superstars aplenty. But, this slugfest has an undercard that’s just as fascinating as the title fights. Lavender vs. Howard is the showdown that may play the all-important role of who earns the title of Champion when it’s all said and done.