"I tell you, we gotta make shots and we're not making any shots. We were going in the entire third quarter trying to fouled. And you know, just go up and shoot your shot." - Atlanta Dream coach Marynell Meadors in her end of third quarter interview on ESPN2.
Kris Willis of SB Nation Atlanta is absolutely right that a rough third quarter was what cost the Atlanta Dream Game Three of the WNBA Finals, consistent with how coach Marynell Meadors summed it up during the Dream's 73-67 loss.
The Dream were better in Game Three than they had been in the previous two games against the Minnesota Lynx - whereas they won only the first halves of the first two games, they won three out of four quarters in the decisive game.
Nevertheless, a lapse in the final six minutes of the third killed the Dream in familiar fashion.
Key player: Maya Moore's tie-breaking layup in the third quarter swung momentum
It's always weird to reduce the outcome of any game one play or one player, but momentum is a strange thing and a single sequence marked a turning point for the Dream that resulted in them falling into the same pattern that killed them in Games One and Two.
Before Maya Moore's backbreaking three pointer to put the Lynx up by 8 with 2:12 left in the fourth quarter, she hit a routine fastbreak layup with 6:11 left in the third quarter that had what appeared to be a demoralizing effect on the Dream.
To be sure, that layup was arguably the least spectacular aspect of her efficient 15 point performance during which she finished with a team-high tying 72.67% true shooting percentage. But for some reason the Dream began playing differently at that point.
Just before Moore's layup, Dream wing Angel McCoughtry lost the ball while driving into traffic with the game tied at 39, resulting in the fast break and Moore's layup. After that point, the Dream seemed to start the process of coming apart at the seams - they became increasingly stagnant, Harding started dribbling the ball more often as a result looking for someone to get the ball to, and they were shooting after only one pass for the vast majority of their remaining possessions in the quarter.
And it's not just that they were taking quick shots but that - once again - they were taking jumpers.
Key stat: The Dream shot 22.22% from the field in the third quarter
Once again proving that they simply cannot live on jump shots in half court sets, the Dream shot themselves out of the game in a third quarter in which they shot 4-for-18 (22.22%) while the Lynx shot 9-for-18 (50%) leading to a 19-8 Lynx advantage in the third quarter.
Dream coach Marynell Meadors was absolutely right that they just stopped making shots and appeared to be forcing things, particularly - for whatever reason - after the McCoughtry turnover/Moore layup sequence. It doesn't entirely make sense except to say that they stopped running two types of plays: plays inside to center Erika de Souza and plays in which they patiently moved the ball until someone got an open lane to the basket, either off a cut or drive.
They only had 2 assists to their 4 turnovers - for an adjusted synergy rating of -44 - and didn't get to the free throw line at all. Even if the game slowed a bit, the Dream seemed frazzled in the second half and just weren't doing the types of things that earned them their 37-33 halftime lead.
While the Dream were slowly falling apart offensively in the third quarter, the Lynx were chugging along relying upon an efficient and balanced attack - while Moore led the way with 6 points, six Lynx players scored and they had an elite adjusted synergy rating of 61 in another example of how well they share the ball even as both teams started to really look exhausted.
Yet what made the balance particularly impressive last night was how the Lynx responded to the Dream's adjusted defensive strategy.
Lynx statistical MVP: Seimone Augustus responds to change in Lynx defensive strategy
The Dream sent a double at Lynx guard Seimone Augustus almost every time she touched the ball, forcing her to give it up instead of having the opportunity to consistently burn someone one on one as she did in Games One and Two.
But possibly the most subtle contribution Augustus made during this game - and in being the clincher, arguably to the outcome of the series - was her ability to respond to the double teams by quickly passing out of it and finding others for four assists (20.12% assist ratio). And that of course makes her team-high 16 points on a 62.11% true shooting percentage all the more impressive.
And something has to be said for Augustus' ability to remain so efficient even while being significantly limited by the Dream's defense. Sometimes it's not the dominant scoring performances that make a MVP, but what they do when that's taken away. Augustus showed last night why she deserved to be Finals MVP in less spectacular fashion than she did in the two previous games and her efficient scoring numbers support that.
Dream statistical MVP: Armintie Price does everything but score in Game 3
But despite digging themselves a hole in the third quarter, the Dream indeed displayed a never-say-die mentality in the fourth quarter that once again leaves fans with something to be proud of.
And similar to why - not how - Augustus was the Lynx' statistical MVP, Armintie Price surprisingly popped up as Dream statistical MVP in terms of her contribution to the team's total statistical output, a game-high 25.63%.
On one hand, her 5 steals - including three late in the game when the Dream closed the deficit to one with 1:17 left - were even more impressive that her 6 points on 3-for-7 shooting performance in Game 3 that made her the most efficient scorer in the Dream's starting lineup (a mediocre 42.85% true shooting percentage). To say that everyone else was just off would be an understatement and it's hard to ignore McCoughtry as a key figure in that narrative: she had a game-high usage rate of 42.75% - which is indicative of at least trying to be a "one-woman team" - and was even less efficient than she was in Game Two in shooting only 9-for-25.
On the other hand, Price's lack of scoring in this series after a Most Improved Player caliber regular season represents one of the things that contributed to the Dream ending their season in WNBA Finals disappointment once again - some combination of Lynx defensive intensity and Dream lapses was what separated the 2011 WNBA champion and runner-up.
Framing the outcome in Game Three as the Dream's third quarter performance costing them the game is not necessarily to take anything away from the Lynx but moreso to highlight just how close the Dream have been to a pair of dominant champions despite getting swept twice in a row.
It wasn't a terrible performance for a team in its fourth year of existence. The Lynx (and 2010 Seattle Storm) have just been better.