Jennifer Stewart-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire
The Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx meet in the Western Conference Finals after splitting their regular season series (2-2), as described in WNBA.com's series preview. For the second series in a row for the Lynx, point guard play figures to be a significant determining factor in the series.
As Seimone Augustus said, the first round of the Western Conference playoffs between the Minnesota Lynx and Seattle Storm was a showcase of two of the best point guards in basketball.
Although Los Angeles Sparks guard Kristi Toliver isn't on the same elite point guard level as Storm point guard Sue Bird, point guard play will figure prominently in the Western Conference Finals between the Lynx and Sparks. A large part of that is due to the uncertainty surrounding how well Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen can play with the combination of a bruised wrist and broken ring finger on her left hand, as reported by Tim Leighton of the Pioneer Press.
Key statistical battleground: Turnover margin with Whalen injured
As Leighton described, there's always reason for concern when the rudder of your offense is playing hobbled, gutsy elimination game performance notwithstanding. Compounding that problem for the Lynx is that turnover percentage was their biggest weakness during the regular season.
Bear in mind, that talking about a weakness for the Lynx is all relative: they were an above average team across the board this season in terms of Dean Oliver's Four Factors. However, what makes turnovers a "weakness" is that they turned the ball over (by percentage) more frequently than their opponents. And while Whalen was the most efficient distributor in the league this season, they don't have an efficient replacement for her if her performance is affected by her injury. Along these lines, it's worth noting that the Sparks' second win against the Lynx came with Whalen sitting out (and both forward Rebekkah Brunson and center Taj McWilliams-Franklin playing less than 15 minutes).
Los Angeles was about average when it came to turnovers during the regular season, but they also turned it over more often than their opponents (by percentage) starting point guard Kristi Toliver was the most turnover prone starting point guard in the Western Conference despite her scoring prowess. While Minnesota wasn't the top defensive team in the league this season, they're certainly capable of applying pressure. In the Sparks' two losses to the Lynx, Toliver had 10 assists and 9 turnovers; in their two wins, she had 14 assists and 5 turnovers.
The reality is that in being a weakness for both teams, both teams can win in spite of that weakness. But given the matchups and Whalen being banged up, it could end up being a significant factor in this series - when the Lynx have struggled during stretches of this season, turnovers tend to be the culprit. Somebody has to "win" this battle and the team that does might find themselves with an edge in the series.
X-Factor: Bench play
The Sparks were last in the league in bench scoring during the regular season (15.09 points per game) and going up against the Lynx that could be significant.
The Lynx did go to a shorter bench against the Storm, as many coaches do in the playoffs, relying mostly on Candice Wiggins and Monica Wright during the three-game series. But those two guards do allow the Lynx to maintain a level of defensive pressure that could frustrate the Sparks' offense.
But the other end of that is how willing the Lynx coaching staff is to lean on their post players off the bench - Jessica Adair, Amber Harris, and Devereaux Peters were essentially non-factors in the first round series against the Storm as a poor-rebounding Storm team controlled the offensive boards in the first two games. While we typically laud the Lynx for their depth, their playoff rotation to this point has been shallow in the frontcourt and playing Maya Moore at the power forward spot has generated mixed results at best - the way the Sparks play, the Lynx might need some frontcourt help off the bench.
Key player: Candace Parker
In that Candace Parker is probably going to be the focal point of this series for the Sparks, she overshadows the role of Nneka Ogwumike in the low post: the Lynx certainly have the personnel to defend the post, but the Sparks are at their absolute best when they can establish an offensive game in the post to complement their perimeter shooters.
But Parker's play really is obviously still significant in this series: as much as turnovers might play a role in wins and losses in this series, rebounding is a dominant strength for the Lynx and Parker's defensive effort will be huge in helping the Sparks compete in that regard. The Sparks were last in the league during the regular season in second chance points allowed (13.97 per game); the Lynx were the best offensive rebounding team in the league and in turn scored the most second chance points per game in the league (15 per game).
Obviously, Parker can't shoulder the entire responsibility for defending the post, but a subpar defensive performance from Parker will hurt more in a series against the Lynx than it would against most opponents. Offensively, Parker sometimes has a tendency to settle for jumpers instead of attacking the basket - one-on-one play and settling for jumpers will only bail the Lynx defense out in this series.