How Minnesota escaped the Western Conference playoffs and returned to the WNBA Finals

Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

The Minnesota Lynx' path to the 2012 WNBA Finals hasn't been without a couple of close calls: they were a Lauren Jackson jumper away from being knocked out in the first round. But the very fact that they've been able to survive the best shots that their Western Conference opponents could muster says quite a bit about this team statistically. For more on the WNBA Finals, check out the storystream with the menu bar to the right.

Earlier today, we discussed whether the final four minutes of Game 22 of the 2012 WNBA Western Conference Finals embodied the narrative of the season for the victorious Minnesota Lynx and the heartbroken Los Angeles Sparks.

And really, it comes down to that play when the Sparks left Lynx guard Monica Wright wide open on the right wing to hit that three: despite playing well for much of the game, the defensive lapses that have haunted L.A. all season caught up to them when it mattered most and Minnesota had the poise and wherewithal to capitalize on that mistake and ultimately return to the WNBA Finals for a second consecutive year.

Narratively, there is something to be said for the idea that the last few minutes of the Sparks' season was indeed a microcosm of their failed bid for their first trip back to the WNBA Finals in over a decade. Statistically, the fourth quarter as a whole is a far more telling story.

The Sparks turned the ball over 5 times in the fourth quarter which led to 7 points off turnovers for the Lynx; Minnesota's lone turnover was a shot clock violation, which both speaks to their struggle in figuring out L.A.'s defense and that they managed to maintain control of the ball even as they did. Neither team was particularly careful in valuing possessions during the season, but turnovers figured to be a decisive in this series and when it came down to the fourth quarter that - and an inability to maintain defensive intensity when it counted most - ended up doing the Sparks in.

And while scoring efficiency was arguably the single biggest statistical factor in the Lynx winning that game, if you're looking for a consistent factor in Minnesota's five-game playoff run, turnovers aren't a bad place to start.

Key statistic: Lynx turnover differential

For all the criticism we could heap on the Sparks for what they did wrong in the fourth quarter, the one thing they did well throughout the game was rebound.

After getting killed on the boards in Minnesota in Game 1, the Sparks came out in Game 2 with a seemingly renewed focus led by a dominant 15-rebound performance by superstar forward Candace Parker. Rebounding was what earned the Seattle Storm a win against the Lynx in the first round and had the Sparks won last night the story would undoubtedly been the Lynx allowing them to get more than half of the offensive rebounds available to them. What makes all of that somewhat surprising is that rebounding was the Minnesota's biggest strength during the regular season - they were the best rebounding team in the Western Conference during the regular season by any reasonable standard.

So with rebounding and even their league-best scoring efficiency often neutralized, the Lynx have survived the Western Conference playoffs primarily - and almost exclusively - on their ball control. Whereas turnover differential was a weakness during the regular season, Minnesota has turned things around in the playoffs: they've dropped their turnover percentage down to 13.31% during the playoffs (for perspective, the lowest turnover rate during the regular season belonged to the usually San Antonio Silver Stars at 16.7%). If you're not consistently out-shooting your opponents and playing about even on the offensive boards (by percentage), it helps to throw the ball over a bit less often; it happened in Game 3 against the Storm when the Lynx only turned it over on approximately 1 in 10 possessions and it happened again last night when they turned it over just once in the fourth quarter after a sloppy third quarter.

Key player(s): Seimone Augustus' ball handling

Sorting out a MVP for the Lynx is always difficult, but if turnovers have been a problem in the regular season and a strength in the post-season with point guard Lindsay Whalen playing hurt, then Seimone Augustus deserves some credit for what she's done during the post-season.

To be fair, both Augustus and More have been outstanding as ball handlers: Moore actually leads the team as the most efficient distributor with a pure point rating of 3.20 while Augustus is only turning the ball over on 7.43% of her possessions. With Whalen less than efficient as a distributor so far in the playoffs, having a pair of dynamic scorers who can both create for themselves and others is essential.

What might set Augustus apart is her performances in Minnesota's clinchers: against L.A. last night she had a team-high 21 points to go with a 5.71 pure point rating; in Game 3 against Seattle, she also led the team with 21 points and had a 5.26 pure point rating. She didn't turn the ball over in either game.

When you consider what Augustus has given the team defensively, the fact that she has been so efficient with the ball in her hands in key games is huge.

Key question: What's up with Minnesota's rebounding?

Minnesota had two major strengths in the regular season: rebounding and shooting efficiency.

The fact that their shooting efficiency has suffered in the post-season is primarily a result of playing a three-game series with Seattle, the league's second-best defense during the regular season with Lauren Jackson playing just nine regular season games. And though the Sparks aren't a particularly strong defensive team, they played well for long stretches in Game 2. In short, when you're playing against playoff defense, shooting efficiency will struggle.

But the rebounding thing is a little bit harder to understand. And ironically, part of it could be explained by their playoff rotation.

During the playoffs, the Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve has played Jessica Adair, Amber Harris, and Devereaux Peters - 3 of their best 4 defensive rebounders behind Rebekkah Brunson - a total of 19 points per game; those minutes have gone almost directly to Augustus, Moore, and Whalen. That's perfectly understandable - none of those players played big minutes during the regular season and a lot of teams shorten their rotations in the playoffs - but rebounding might just be the tradeoff, especially when they're playing a teams like the Storm who had multiple players on the floor who could exploit smaller lineups or L.A.

Who should the Lynx be rooting for as a Finals opponent: Connecticut or Indiana?

Given the above reflections on Minnesota's rebounding thus far, it might be reasonable to say that the Indiana Fever are the better matchup for them.

Despite the Fever's outstanding rebounding in the first round led by Erlana Larkins, Rebekkah Brunson would figure to continue being a force and at least if the Lynx did go small they wouldn't be hurt quite as much (and forgive me for not mentioning Brunson to this point - she has been playing like a woman possessed this postseason). Conversely, Indiana has a capable set of perimeter defenders to guard the Lynx and if the minutes continue to be distributed as they have been, versatile Fever forward Tamika Catchings will give them problems on the boards - there's a reason why the Fever were within two points in Indianapolis.

The Sun, on the other hand, handed the Lynx their lone home loss of the season by dominating the boards. And nobody wants to see 2012 WNBA MVP Tina Charles. But if a team's scoring strength is on the perimeter, which defense would give them more problems? Equally important, which team is easier for the Lynx to defend?

I could go either way on that - the Sun can struggle to score from the perimeter at times and if Lynx defenders can lock down the perimeter, the interior game is easier to stop. On the other hand, the Fever can spread the floor, light it up from 3-point range, and Catchings can pose a major matchup problem even if she would struggle to guard the likes of Brunson.

The thing is that if the Fever can figure out a way to battle with the Dream on the boards, they can probably do so against the Lynx, especially the way Larkins has been playing during the playoffs. Combine their ability to get second chance points with their ability to spread the court from deep and I could see them giving the Lynx more problems than some people might assume.

But it looks like we'll just have to wait to see who makes it first.

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