The much-anticipated WNBA Finals between the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks begin Sunday, October 9 at 3 PM ET on ABC. The teams finished with the top two records in the league and own the WNBA’s two best offenses to go with two of the top three defenses. The Sparks have the MVP, the Lynx have the Defensive Player of the Year. L.A. has the Sixth Woman of the Year, Minnesota has the Coach of the Year. Between the two teams, there are three members of the First Team All-Defense. In short, the teams are quite talented and evenly matched, which should lead to an excellent series. Before it tips, let’s take a closer look at some of the areas that will be key to who walks away as champions.
The old adage, ‘you’re not going to stop them, you can only hope to contain them’ certainly applies to Maya Moore, who is one of the toughest players to guard in the league. Her patented mid-range, pull-up jumper is near impossible to stop, but she’s also been shooting well from deep this year (40.4 percent), and is more than capable of beating her defender and getting into the paint. And when she gets to the line–which she does often, shooting five free throws a game this year–she’s automatic, shooting 86.8 percent.
In short, good luck.
One of the Lynx’s favorite plays for Moore is running her off a screen to catch the ball at the elbow. Once she has the ball there, it’s all over. Her release is so quick that her defender has no chance to block the shot.
And if you over-commit because you think you know what’s coming, she’ll make you pay.
Aside from the second matchup between Los Angeles and Minnesota (which the Sparks actually won), Los Angeles did a pretty good job of containing Moore. In game one, she shot just 3-for-9 and in game three, she went 7-for-18. How were they able to keep the former MVP (somewhat) in check?
Well first of all, the Sparks didn’t finish the season with the second best defensive rating (97.3) by accident. They have talented defensive players all over the floor. Alana Beard and Nneka Ogwumike were First-Team All Defense this season, and Beard, Ogwumike, and Parker have 11 appearances on All-Defense teams between them.
Specific to Moore, however, the Sparks have the luxury of having multiple strong perimeter defenders to throw at her. First of all, there’s Beard, one of the league’s premier perimeter defenders, and her high-pressure style is useful in giving Moore a different look.
Just watch how much pressure Beard applies on this possession, as she meets Moore at halfcourt, pestering her until Moore forces up a deep pull-up jumper.
During the regular season, however, it was Essence Carson who started against Moore and spent a lot of time dealing with her. Carson has good size at six-feet tall, and is also quick enough to stay with Moore up and down the court. She may not be quite the defender Beard is, but she’s strong and works extremely hard, as you can see on this possession in which she forces a missed jumper after working around Moore’s roundabout movements.
In addition, the Sparks have the perfect bigs for the job. Both Ogwumike and Parker are long and athletic, which is just what you need when trying to bottle up Moore. When Moore comes off a screen, either of them are capable of sticking with her off the dribble. And if she pulls up for a jumper, they both have the length to make the shot difficult.
Here you can see Ogwumike preventing Moore from getting past her on the dribble after the switch, eventually causing Moore to miss a baseline jumper.
And here, you can see Parker’s length influence Moore’s jumper, which clangs off the rim. (Carson also does well following Moore around on this play.)
Of course, Moore is still capable of hitting tough shots like those, but the most important thing is the Sparks have the personnel to make her life difficult all game long, which is really all you can ask for against a player of her caliber.
Sparks’ Three-Point Shooting
While the Lynx have a decided advantage on the offensive glass (see below), the Sparks have the edge from behind the arc. No one shot better from downtown during the regular season than the Sparks, who knocked down 37.5 percent of their 3-pointers.
They are lead in that regard by Kristi Toliver, who knocked down 42.4 percent of her threes during the regular season, and did it while shooting the third-most triples per game, at just under six. While Toliver is elite from downtown, what makes the Sparks especially dangerous is that nearly everyone in their rotation is a capable three-point shooter.
Besides Jantel Lavender (who shot just one three all year) and Ana Dabovic, everyone who plays major minutes shoots at least 30 percent from deep. As such, the Lynx have to respect everyone in the starting lineup, which in turn creates plenty of spacing for the Sparks offensively.
The Sparks’ ability to knock down shots from the outside will be one of the keys to this series. In the three regular season meetings between these two teams, the Sparks went 1-2; in their one win, they hit 11 triples, but in each of the two losses they hit just five.
While most of the team is solid from outside, Toliver is the main threat. Of the 21 threes the Sparks made in their three games against Minnesota this year, Toliver hit 12 of them. So let’s take a look at the ways they like to get her open.
The first, of course, is running Toliver off multiple screens ala Ray Allen with the “Big Three” Boston Celtics. On both of these occasions, the multiple screens prove too much for Toliver’s defender, and she finds herself open with plenty of time to knock down the shot.
Dribble handoffs–especially on the secondary break with Candace Parker bringing the ball up–are another favorite way for the Sparks to get open threes, and this option is not limited to Toliver. Parker’s defender usually prefers to sit back and protect the paint, and with Toliver’s (or Chelsea Gray’s, in the second example) defender picked off by Parker on the handoff, it creates plenty of space for a shot.
So how can Minnesota slow down Toliver, and by extension, L.A.’s three-point attack? Well for Toliver, the key is running her off the line and forcing her to put the ball on the floor. Like this:
In three games against the Lynx this year, Toliver shot 33 jump shots (not all of them were three-pointers, of course, but the point still stands).
|Shots Against Lynx||Percent Against Lynx|
|Off The Dribble||6-for-19||31 percent|
On catch-and-shoot opportunities, she went 8-14, or 57 percent. But on jumpers off the dribble, she was just 6-19, or 31 percent. That could be the difference this series.
Lynx’s Offensive Rebounding
Led by Sylvia Fowles and Rebekkah Brunson (the WNBA’s all-time leader in offensive rebounds), the Minnesota Lynx have one of the biggest and strongest frontlines in the WNBA. As a result, they’re one of the top rebounding teams. During the regular season, they were number one in rebounding percentage (“The percentage of available total rebounds a player or team grabbed while on the floor), pulling down 53.8 percent of possible rebounds, and third in rebounding per game, grabbing 35.8 rebounds a night.
Securing missed shots by the other team is important, and the Lynx do that well, but where their presence on the glass is most felt is on the offensive end. The Lynx were sixth in the league in offensive rebounding per game, getting 9.7 a night, which might not seem that impressive initially, but remember that you can only get an offensive rebound in you miss a shot and the Lynx knocked down 47.1 percent of their field goals this season.
That determination to get extra possessions is evident by their offensive rebounding rate, which was second best in the league. The Lynx hauled in 30.2 percent of possible offensive rebounds, or, in other words, they rebounded essentially one-third of their missed shots.
The Sparks, on the other hand, were last in the league at offensive rebounds per game, grabbing just 6.7 a night, and had the second-worst offensive rebound rate at 22.3 percent. That is more of a philosophical decision than a talent one, however, as the Sparks simply often don’t send players to the offensive boards.
One sneaky ways Minnesota likes to get offensive rebounds is by running a pick play of sorts during free throws which you can see below in a few different instances.
How it works, is the player opposite Rebekkah Brunson (or Sylvia Fowles, or whomever) runs diagonally across the lane after the ball is released, essentially setting a pick on Brunson’s player. As Brunson makes her way to the other side of the lane, her opponent is often caught sleeping, giving Brunson the advantage.
This, of course, only works on free throws, and the majority of missed shots are not on free throws. So how else do the Lynx grab offensive boards? Well for one, hustle and determination. Brunson especially, but Fowles as well, simply stay active and don’t give up on the play.
In addition, Fowles is able to sometimes pull down boards simply due to her size. She’ll often be matched up against the smaller Nneka Ogwumike in this series, and as you can see from a regular season matchup, Fowles is capable of reaching up and over Ogwumike, even when the Sparks forward has inside position.