That has, for the most part, held true: The third-seeded Indiana Fever outlasted the favored Sky and Liberty, and while the Minnesota Lynx have regained their dominant form, they were pushed to the brink in the first round by the fourth-seeded Sparks.
Now we enter a Finals series that is loaded with intriguing storylines. WNBA.com’s Anthony Oliva, Josh Zavadil and Brian Kotloff offered their takes on the action to come.
What is the most intriguing storyline of this year’s WNBA Finals?
Anthony Oliva: Maya’s legacy. Not to downplay the significance for the rest of the Lynx core, namely Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus, but another Finals victory for Maya Moore, at the age of 26, will start to vault her even higher into the list of all-time greats based on her accomplishments. If that seems premature, consider a win would give her three WNBA titles to go along with a Finals MVP, a regular season MVP, a scoring title and and an All-Star MVP. Again, she’s only 26.
Josh Zavadil: The obvious storyline is Tamika Catchings and her chance to win a second WNBA title in her second-to-last season in the league. But her coach presents a rather intriguing story as well. Stephanie White is the first head coach to make the finals in her first season with no prior head coaching experience. She’s done it by installing a free-flowing offense and enforcing a defensive mentality that has been the norm in Indiana for years. The entire team speaks glowingly of White and, according to Catchings, they’re playing as much for White as they are for Catchings.
Brian Kotloff: There are plenty to choose from: the 2012 Finals rematch, Maya Moore’s unprecedented young career (three titles in her first five seasons?), the chess match between Cheryl Reeve and first-year head coach Stephanie White. But I’ll go with Tamika Catchings’ quest for Ring No. 2. Besides Elena Delle Donne’s brilliance, this season has been defined by Catchings reaching milestone after milestone, and seeing her a win a title no one expected her to win would be a fitting conclusion. Plus, it would add to her resume as one of the greatest women’s basketball players of all-time.
Who is more important to their team: Maya Moore or Tamika Catchings?
AO: Maya Moore. If you’re looking at the entirety of a season, Tamika Catchings would be the logical choice, but for one series I am going with Maya Moore. There’s no doubt Catchings sets the tone for the Fever and that leadership is invaluable, but at this point in the year, that job is just about done. On the flip side, the Lynx are relying on Moore more heavily than ever before. In fact, she has become a bit of a high-volume shooter as the Lynx increasingly defer to her offensive brilliance. As a result, nobody will have a greater impact on this series. Quite frankly, the Lynx will go as far as Moore takes them.
JZ: Tamika Catchings. Honestly, this one could go either way. But when you look at the Lynx roster – five Olympians and a host of talented players – you could make the argument that Maya Moore isn’t nearly as important to her team. So, I’ll go with Catchings. Why? Well, look no further than their run through this postseason. She has been the player that has willed Indiana to wins on numerous occasions. Head coach Stephanie White even noted that the players thanked her for doing “everything” after one recent game. She impacts so much of what the Fever do on both ends of the floor, and she’s the reason Indiana is even in this position.
BK: Tamika Catchings. I don’t know where the Fever would be without her. Her importance goes beyond just the court — you can’t put a value on having a leader who has accomplished virtually everything a player can accomplish and is respected throughout the league. And she also sets the tone on the court, of course, putting her scoring second behind defense, passing and everything else she brings. Moore is ultra-important, too, but the Lynx have All-Star-level talent surrounding her.
Which team has the edge in the frontcourt?
AO: Indiana. When it’s all said and done, the Lynx may end up outrebounding the Fever behind efforts from Rebekkah Brunson and Sylvia Fowles. Despite that, it’s tough to side against any frontcourt that has Tamika Catchings. Catchings is the heart and soul of this team and it’s likely that she will make more game-changing and/or impact plays than her counterparts in Minnesota. Additionally, the Fever can match Minnesota’s depth with most notably Erlana Larkins — who was a force in the 2012 Finals — and Lynetta Kizer.
JZ: Minnesota. Erlana Larkins’ return from injury has been huge for Indiana, but you cannot overlook Rebekkah Brunson and Sylvia Fowles. Brunson, the all-time leader in offensive rebounds in the playoffs, has been a workhorse on the glass throughout her career, and her ability to create second chances on the offensive side of the floor has been huge for Minnesota. And then you add in Fowles, a 6-foot-5 beast on the block who was a huge get after the All-Star break. A two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, she’s an enforcer down low and has the potential to greatly impact Indiana’s chances near the rim.
BK: Minnesota. Indiana really has no match for a dynamic talent like Sylvia Fowles, whose post scoring isn’t needed as much in Minnesota but who is a game-changing defensive player. And they have a bruising complement in Rebekkah Brunson, the all-time postseason leader in offensive rebounds. Both teams present matchup problems – the Fever have a versatility in the frontcourt that make them tough to guard – but Minnesota may be able to win this series just by playing bully ball inside.
Which team has the edge in the backcourt?
AO: Minnesota. The distinction between frontcourt and backcourt is becoming ever blurred in modern basketball, but we’re including Moore in this category. Even without arguably the best player in the game, though, the Lynx might still have the edge. Accompanying Moore on the wing are fellow Olympians Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen. While both are not 100-percent healthy, they still have an abundance of big-game experience and, more importantly, a resume of big-game moments. Anna Cruz also gives the Lynx added versatility to mix up their looks on both ends and give the veterans a rest. The Fever have plenty of options in the backcourt too, but the Lynx have the edge here.
JZ: Minnesota. Any team that can roll out Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus simply has to have the edge. Those three are likely on the list of the top 20 players in the league, and although Augustus and Whalen have battled injuries this year, they’ve looked good in the playoffs. The bumps and bruises have done little to slow down the Lynx, but don’t expect it to be easy pickings for them against Indiana. Briann January is a tenacious defender – both off and on the ball – as is evidenced by her placement on the WNBA All-Defensive Team. Shenise Johnson prides herself on her defensive acumen as well. The Lynx have the edge, but Indiana certainly has what it takes to make things interesting in those matchups.
BK: Minnesota. This one may be a closer call than it appears because Briann January and Shenise Johnson are tough, can shoot and dig in defensively. Still, any team going up against the trio of Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen will be at a disadvantage in the backcourt. It’s just an impossible task to slow down all three, so the Fever have to hope their depth wins out over the course of this series. Going small – a la the Warriors in the NBA Finals – may be the answer.
Who is the best under-the-radar player for each team?
AO: Shavonte Zellous and Rebekkah Brunson. Having Zellous — a key cog on the 2012 team — come off the bench is a luxury for the Fever. She is somebody who can energize an Indiana team if it is struggling to find a way to score. Her fearlessness will help her step and make big plays in when the other team is on a run. Both of those qualities will be important in this series, especially in Minnesota. Zellous also doesn’t shy from the big stage. In the 2012 WNBA Finals, she scored 30 points in the Fever’s Game 3 win.
It’s hard to believe that Brunson is still considered under-the-radar, but when you’re on a team with five Olympians, it’s easy to forget about the player that quietly does all the dirty work. There is no glamor to Brunson’s game, but the 12-year veteran has been vital to this team’s success over the past five years. Look no further than her 19-rebound performance in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. She’ll have a touch matchup with Erlana Larkins — a player of similar build and grit — but if Brunson can win the paint for the Lynx, Minnesota will be tough to defeat.
JZ: Shenise Johnson and Anna Cruz. Shenise Johnson had the best year of her career this season and thrived in White’s free-flowing offense. She was vital to what Indiana looked to do offensively, but she also brought a strong defensive presence as well. And for Minnesota, Anna Cruz stepped up in a major way when Lindsay Whalen was injured, and she’s continued to make an impact since Whalen’s return. The second-year guard from Spain gives head coach Cheryl Reeve a confident plug-and-play option. Cruz plays tenacious defense and spells both Whalen and Augustus when needed. In a year where both have struggled with injuries, Cruz has meant a lot to what Minnesota has accomplished.
BK: Shenise Johnson and Rebekkah Brunson. Johnson is the classic Fever player; she may not have the name recognition of a Seimone Augustus, but she’s a key piece to Indiana’s puzzle after being plucked from the bench in San Antonio. The runner-up for the Most Improved Player award, Johnson averaged 10.9 points – second on the team behind Tamika Catchings – and her 47% shooting ranked first among guards (tied with the Liberty’s Epiphanny Prince) who averaged in double figures.
Meanwhile, the Lynx have so much elite talent that it’s easy to forget that Brunson is a three-time All-Star and former champion with the Sacramento Monarchs. Championship-level teams need players like Brunson who sacrifice scoring to do the dirty work on defense and the boards – think Dennis Rodman teaming up with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.