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Film Study: Minnesota’s Game 2 Defense

LOS ANGELES — After getting burned for easy basket after easy basket in Game 1 of the 2016 WNBA Finals, the Minnesota Lynx put together a stellar defensive performance, holding the Los Angeles Sparks to a season-low 60 points on 32.9 percent shooting on Tuesday night.

Let’s go to the tape to see how the Lynx were able to hold the Sparks in check in Game 2.

Staying with Cutters

Game 1 featured a parade of Sparks cutting to the basket for uncontested layups. Game 2 was a different story.

On the play below, Candace Parker has the ball just outside the 3-point line and as she puts the ball on floor, the Sparks have two players — Alana Beard followed by Kristi Toliver — run back-cuts in order to either catch the defense asleep so Parker can hit them with a quick pass for a layup or clear the left side of the floor so Parker can operate one-on-one against her defender.

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Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen do their job by staying with the cutters, leaving Rebekkah Brunson alone against Parker, who backs down into the post before putting up a fadeaway jumper from just outside the key that Brunson contests. The shot misses and the Lynx collect the rebound, which is something they did a lot of as Minnesota won the rebounding battle, 46-32.

Throughout Game 2, the Lynx played less denial defense so they wouldn’t be caught overplaying while trying to prevent perimeter passes and get beat backdoor with a quick cut to the basket. The Sparks were able to move the ball around the perimeter, but did not get the same open lanes in the middle to exploit.

Stopping the High-Low Game

Another way that the Sparks got a lot of easy buckets in Game 1 was utilizing the high-low game between Parker and Nneka Ogwumike. Scheming against this MVP connection has been a priority for the Lynx since this matchup was determined.

“They are a high-low team and we don’t let them play to their identity,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve told her team in practice prior to Game 1.

“I was a little surprised we didn’t handle it better because that’s mostly what we’ve guarded over the last few days, but I guess it’s different when it’s Nneka and Parker doing it versus the couple practice guys we have,” Reeve said following the Game 1 loss.

Game 2 was a different story, as the Lynx had help defenders packing the paint to clog things up and prevent clean passes between the L.A. bigs.

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As Parker dribbles the ball inside the 3-point line, Ogwumike flashes a quick post up in the key, but there is no passing lane availbale for Parker to get her the ball. Brunson is defending Ogwumike from behind and Maya Moore is sitting back in the paint at the elbow, while the player she’s defending — Essence Carson — is out beyond the 3-point line on the left wing. The Lynx are willing to give up the 3-pointer to Carson rather than the post up to Ogwumike.

The play continues with Carson clearing through the lane and a dribble hand-off between Parker and Toliver on the left wing. As Whalen goes over the Parker screen, she is trailing Toliver so Brunson hedges to cut off the lane. But that leaves Parker all alone in the corner. As Toliver delivers a pass to Parker, Moore has once again left Carson in the lane to close out on Parker in the corner. Moore’s strong closeout forces Parker to put the ball on the floor rather and she shuffles her feet for the traveling turnover.

Now, when the Sparks were able to execute the high-low pass — as the clip below shows — the Lynx had help defenders crash the paint to prevent layups and force the Sparks into another action.

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On this play, Ogwumike is at the high post with Parker down in the paint with a size advantage over Maya Moore. Parker is able to seal Moore and spin to the basket as Ogwumike delivers the pass over the top. But as Parker has to stretch to make the catch. Sylvia Fowles leaves Sandrine Gruda and drops down from the right block to prevent a Parker layup. After Parker gathers the catch, Fowles has her guarded underneath the basket, which forces Parker to make a pass to Gruda, who is unable to make the catch, resulting in another turnover.

Forcing Outside Shots

In order to prevent the easy shots that come from the Sparks’ cutting and high-low post game, the Lynx would have to give up something in return, and in Game 2 it was 3-point attempts. L.A. attempted 20 threes in Game 2, some wide-open and some well contested, but only three found the bottom of the net. L.A. led the league in 3-point shooting during the regular season (37.5% on 15.7 attempts per game), but in Game 2 they shot just 15.0% from beyond the arc on even more attempts than usual.

In the clip below, the Sparks run a pick-and-roll with Toliver and Parker against Jia Perkins and Brunson. As Perkins fights over the screen and trails Toliver, Brunson hedges before recovering to defend Parker on the roll to the basket. As this is happening, Ogwumike moves from the top of the key out to the 3-point line, but Fowles does not go with her; instead she stays planted in the paint to ensure that Parker won’t be open on the roll before Brunson can recover. Toliver passes to Ogwumike, who takes the open three with only a minimal contest from Fowles. This was the only missed shot of the game for Ogwumike.

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Are the Lynx gambling a bit by giving up a wide-open three? Sure. And yes, Ogwumike shot 61.5 percent from beyond the arc this season, but that was on only 26 total attempts. Minnesota can get burned by this strategy — as they did in Game 1 as Moore got caught helping off Alana Beard and was unable to deflect the pass or block the shot that turned into the game-winner at the buzzer.

While they left Ogwumike open for a 3-pointer, they are not employing that same strategy with Toliver. The clip below shows Whalen’s defense against Toliver on pick-and-rolls — Whalen always goes over the pick in order to prevent open 3-pointers for Toliver, whose 42.4 percent shooting from three ranked fourth in the league this season.

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Conversely, the Lynx are going under screens against Essence Carson, Alana Beard and Chelsea Gray in order to prevent drives to the basket.

Through the first two games of the Finals, Toliver has shot 4-of-13 (30.8%) from three, while the rest of her teammates have gone just 2-of-19 (10.5%). For now, the Lynx can afford to allow 3-point attempts while they take away the easy buckets around the basket. Can the Sparks make them pay for it in Game 3?