Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire
The Minnesota Lynx enter the 2012 WNBA Finals trying to become the third team in WNBA history to win back-to-back championships. In their way is the Indiana Fever, a franchise that is trying to win their first WNBA title after taking part in one of the most competitive Finals series in WNBA history in 2009. Having already looked back at the paths that both the Fever (click here) and the Lynx (click here) took to the WNBA Finals, we now look at the matchup itself. For more on the WNBA Finals, visit our storystream by using the menu to the right.
Scott Elliott of the Indianapolis Star describes the Indiana Fever as, "...the feel-good story of a plucky, underrated professional basketball team...making a run for an elusive first championship."
In contrast, in characterizing the Minnesota Lynx, Michelle Smith of espnW wrote, "... the expectations now, (Lynx coach Cheryl) Reeve says, are higher than ever: The Lynx are starting to be tagged with the "D" word -- dynasty."
"The only edge that I can think of is that the pressure is on them - they're expected to win," said Fever coach Lin Dunn during a post-practice press conference yesterday. "We're not the favorite, we're the underdog. The pressure is on them to protect home court right off the bat."
A potential dynasty in the making against a classic underdog led by one of the most likeable stars in professional sports - the contrast in narratives between the two participants make the 2012 WNBA Finals intriguing.
For those who follow women's basketball closely, it's easy to root for a player like Fever forward and 2011 MVP Tamika Catchings, who has done everything in her power to win her first championship. For sports fans who are tuning in just to see a champion crowned, the Lynx not only have a chance to establish themselves as one of the best teams in WNBA history but also stand as an example of how beautiful women's basketball can be at its best.
But I'll leave those storylines to others to flesh out; as usual, what we're interested in here is the matchup on the court and while most observers probably assume the underdog in this situation is probably overmatched - with or without injured guard Katie Douglas on the court - the Fever have already proven that they are capable of competing with the Lynx.
In their September 15 meeting in Indianapolis, the Fever were a contested Erlana Larkins layup away from going to overtime against the Lynx before falling by two points.
Two things stand out about that September 15 game. First, the two teams combined to shoot 4-for-30 from the 3-point line; over the course of the regular season, they tied for first in the league in 3-point percentage at 40%. Regardless of whichever team might benefit from improved 3-point shooting - and it's hard to ignore that it has carried them through the playoffs thus far - the bottom line is that it's unlikely to see these two teams combine to shoot under 15% from the 3-point line.
But the second thing that stands out from that mid-September game - maybe even moreso now than it did then - is the rebounding story.
Key statistical battleground: Can the Fever win the rebounding battle with the Lynx?
In that first of a home-and-home series between the Fever and Lynx on the September 15, the Fever actually beat the Lynx on the offensive boards and if you've been paying attention recently you can probably figure out who was a major reason for that: Larkins had a game-high 4 offensive rebounds in that game.
That was no small feat at that time - the Lynx were the best offensive rebounding team in the league (in terms of percentage and differential) and the Fever were the worst in the Eastern Conference. But as described in previous pieces about how each of these teams got here, that hasn't exactly held in the playoffs - both teams have played opponents about even on the offensive boards.
"I’m not surprised that we’re where we are," said Fever coach Lin Dunn yesterday. "I thought that if we defended at a high level and did a better job of rebounding that we would have a chance to do exactly what we’ve done."
That obviously makes the battle inside between Larkins and Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson pretty significant, regardless of whether it's always a 1 on 1 matchup; although Larkins has been stronger on the offensive boards during the playoffs, Brunson has been dominant on the defensive boards.
"Erlana Larkins could be matched up against Rebekkah Brunson and that will be interesting to watch – two absolutely relentless rebounders going at it," said Fever guard Erin Phillips during yesterday's interviews. "That will be special."
Yet the entire frontcourt rotations will be interesting in this series. While Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve has significantly shortened her frontcourt rotation and gone small quite a bit, Dunn has gotten rebounding production out of both Jessica Davenport and Tammy Sutton-Brown in the limited minutes they've played at center. Of course, the Fever start "small" with Catchings starting at the power forward spot and playing big minutes, which might actually favor the Lynx compared to how their smaller lineup worked out against the Seattle Storm in the first round and the Los Angeles Sparks in the Western Conference Finals.
In any event, if there is an aspect of this game where a "chess match" will occur it's probably upfront. And with Catchings' versatility as a defender and Dunn's willingness to change on the fly so far, it will be interesting to watch how that plays out.
X-Factor: Fever ball handling
Indiana was the least turnover prone team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, which helped them to give up the fewest points off turnovers in the league. The Lynx on the other hand scored the most fast break points in the league during the regular season.
The potential problem for the Fever - and their defense - is this: they've been more turnover prone in the playoffs while the Lynx have thrived on forcing turnovers. We saw how an aggressive perimeter defense can have an adverse affect on the Fever in Game One of the first round against Atlanta - turnovers and points off of turnovers. Not only did that Game One performance trigger Larkins' insertion into the lineup but also Erin Phillips' move to the starting lineup. And with Briann January still struggling to run the offense at times and creating assists at a lower rate - in addition to Phillips also creating assists less often - the performance of the Fever's ball handlers has to be a focal point for this season.
At their best, the Fever are a team that relies heavily on ball movement to rotate the ball to open shooters combined with penetration to take advantage of poor rotations by their opponents. But if the Lynx can frustrate January and Phillips anywhere close to what they did to Sparks guard Kristi Toliver or any number of other guards this season the Fever could find themselves falling behind in this series quickly - in addition to the sputtering offense, if January continues to struggle with turnovers, the Lynx could turn the game into a track meet and get easy buckets in transition.
But this is at least in part why Douglas' presence is so important: against a defense like Minnesota's, extra ball handlers help. And although Douglas wasn't a dynamic play maker during the regular season, she kept her turnover rate awfully low. Then of course there is Catchings.
Similar to the frontcourt, the Fever have options for ball handling duties. The question is just how well they will play as a unit after seeing some struggles at point guard during the playoffs.
How significant is Katie Douglas' injury?
Douglas' biggest impact on this series isn't just scoring: it's the ball handling help she would provide against Minnesota's defense and her defensive ability against a Lynx team that is difficult to defend no matter who you have on the court.
It's sort of silly to ask whether they can win without Douglas on the court - they wouldn't be here if they couldn't win a game without Douglas. The question is really about who can step up over the course of a three game series to help them at least win their home games and give themselves another chance to win a title in a decisive Game 5 situation. The Fever's road to the finals has included so many adjustments that it's hard to make a prediction about how many games they could win.
But one thing they know from the season is that they're probably not as far away from being competitive as the narratives might suggest.