Why the Dream struggled against the Lynx: Lessons learned from the 2013 WNBA Finals

Greg Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks ago, the Atlanta Dream were swept out of the WNBA Finals for a third time in four years. Last week, they decided to move in a different direction by severing ties to a coach who has been with the team since the beginning. So what can we learn about them from their performance against the Minnesota Lynx?

It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between "good defense" and "poor shot selection".

It was a theme that came up briefly during the Western Conference Finals: when the characteristically free-wheeling Phoenix Mercury shot just 4-for-39 from the 3-point line, things certainly got to a point where the "39" part of that equation was just as relevant to analysis as the "4". Yes, the Minnesota Lynx's defense that completely shut down the pick and roll that had been working so well contributed to the Mercury camping out beyond the arc, but shots that the Mercury have lived on for the past 5-6 years also just weren't falling (and forward DeWanna Bonner's shot selection is still difficult to understand). It's not a simple either/or - it's a bit of both, with the defense and offense able to claim some responsibility for that outcome.

But we saw a similar theme in the WNBA Finals: the Atlanta Dream shot terribly throughout the series and, once again, some measure of agency over their own shot selection had to be accounted for.

Key player: Monica Wright's defense on Angel McCoughtry

One reason for the Dream's struggles that wasn't very difficult to notice was was Angel McCoughtry's 15-for-56 (26.78%) shooting during the three-game series.

The Lynx defense certainly deserves some credit for that: about a quarter of those shots were defended by forwards Rebekkah Brunson or Devereaux Peters - either on help rotations or on switches - and they did a much better job than one might expect given their positions. More impressive was Monica Wright's defense: she ended up defending the lion share of those 56 shots and McCoughtry shot just 5-for-20 with Wright guarding her.

However, that's also one example where it's difficult to tell whether it's decision-making or defense that's influencing outcomes. On the one hand, McCoughtry seemed extremely reluctant to drive on Wright - she often took quick, long jumpers taking a dribble or less, which could either be a sign of lacking confidence in getting by her or simply feeling the pressure to score for her team. McCoughtry didn't really even try to drive on Wright until the second quarter of Game 3.

On the other hand, McCoughtry missed a number of shots that she we're accustomed to seeing her make, whether guarded by Wright or anyone else. She missed a few layups short, open jumpers, and probably had a legitimate case to believe she was fouled on a few others. As much as we could attribute McCoughtry's poor shooting to Lynx defense, part of it was a matter of McCoughtry having off games and it wasn't the first time she's had a bad string of three games even in 2013.

But there's little mistaking that McCoughtry's struggles as a volume scorer contributed greatly to the team's struggles overall.

Key statistic: Atlanta's scoring efficiency

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Four Factors for Game 1-3 of the 2013 WNBA Finals.

For context, it might help to know that the lowest shooting efficiency in the league this year belonged to the last place Connecticut Sun (10-24) who finished their regular season with an effective field goal percentage of 43%. Over three games, the Dream were below that even after a somewhat surprising 9-for-17 3-point shooting effort in Game 3.

We could probably point to a number of reasons for the Dream's poor shooting, not the least of which being the Lynx's ability to prevent transition scoring opportunities. But one that probably didn't get enough attention was the battle in the point, which had to be considered a key matchup going in given how good Erika de Souza has been as a scorer this season.

Key matchup: Post defense or poor post offense?

There is one huge key to stopping the 6-foot-5 de Souza from scoring: preventing her from establishing herself in the paint. The championship series was like a case study to prove the value of that: in plain terms, de Souza was deadly against the Lynx when she caught the ball in the lower half of the paint.

Made

Total

In paint

12

16

Out of paint

2

11

Erika de Souza's shooting distribution in the 2013 WNBA Finals.

When de Souza caught the ball in the lower half of the paint she shot 75%; when she caught the ball anywhere outside of that lower half of the paint, she was just 18.18%.

The key thing to note is that we're not talking about the location of the shot with those numbers above: in a few cases, when she caught the ball outside of that lower box, she made a move to get a shot at the rim. The important thing was that if de Souza was catching the ball outside the paint, she had to work to get a basket and Lynx center Janel McCarville deserves ample credit for getting that done.

Screen_shot_2013-10-21_at_12
Figure 1: Erika de Souza establishing position on Janel McCarville before a missed shot in Game 3.

In the play above, for example, de Souza did catch the ball and drive to the middle of the paint to get her shot off. However, she pounded her bank shot off the rim and out, which represents why it's so important to push her away from the basket - de Souza is not what you'd consider a finesse player and when forced to work for her shot she took a number of off-balance shots or shots with too much force.

In addition to just pushing de Souza away from the basket, McCarville should also be credited for creating tough passing angles for the Dream's perimeter players.

Screen_shot_2013-10-21_at_12
Figure 2: Janel McCarville denying Erika de Souza the ball in Game 1.

In both Figures 1 & 2, you see that McCarville created a really tough angle for the pass - the only way for a ball handler to get the ball to de Souza in either case was a lob over McCarville's hand, which would give time for help to rotate over and force a difficult shot. That's especially relevant in Figure 2, where you see that de Souza did in fact establish position in the block, but a pass would've been difficult with Maya Moore jumping into Tiffany Hayes' sight line (not textbook defense) and McCarville denying the high side pass.

Of course, after a ball rotation de Souza eventually found herself in a better spot and scored on that very possession in Game 1.

Screen_shot_2013-10-21_at_12
Figure 3: Erika de Souza establishing low post position on Janel McCarville in Game 1 before making a short jumper.

Figure 3 is where de Souza is deadliest: she has McCarville on her back and a foot in the restricted area with little opportunity for the Lynx to rotate and stop a shot.

Yet even the fact that Figures 2 & 3 occurred on the same possession represents what McCarville did very well throughout the series: before Figure 2, de Souza showed frustration about not getting the ball after beating McCarville down the court in transition. Then she moved to her position in Figure 2 without getting the ball. Then she finally got a pass in her direction with 10 seconds left on the shot clock.

Nevertheless, the other side of this story is that the Dream weren't consistent in their efforts to rotate the ball and run sets to help de Souza get open. When they did, good things happened.

Screen_shot_2013-10-21_at_12
Figure 4: Erika de Souza establishing position on Rebekkah Brunson before making a layup in Game 3.

Whereas Figure 3 resulted in a short jumper, Figure 4 resulted in an uncontested layup for de Souza, which is the ideal. In both situations, the Dream had to rotate the ball a bit to force the Lynx into a position where help was difficult. In Figure 4, de Souza did most of the work herself, sprinting to the block before pinning Rebekkah Brunson early in the possession in a position where help couldn't rotate before de Souza was at the rim with the ball.

The biggest problem for the Dream was that they just weren't always able to hit de Souza when she was open.

Screen_shot_2013-10-21_at_12
Figure 5: Erika de Souza posting up Janel McCarville before a missed shot in Game 2.

This is actually a very similar situation to Figure 4: de Souza has her defender pinned and there's no backside help (although Moore has ignored Armintie Herrington to sprint to de Souza). A sharp pass to her hand could have resulted in a look right at the rim. However, Thomas put a bit too much air under her pass and threw it a bit too far, which made it a tough pass to handle and ultimately resulted in an off-balance shot falling away.

And that does speak to part of the problem that became obvious as de Souza continued to look visibly frustrated with her teammates making poor passes or failing to see her when she was open (Figure 5 being no exception): not to take anything away from the Lynx's defense, but the Dream did a poor job as a unit getting her the ball.

Even the situation they were in during Figure 5 began with Angel McCoughtry setting a screen on McCarville to create the separation that de Souza needed to establish position on her. And that was a pattern seen during many of de Souza's scoring possessions: a combination of back screens and ball movement that allowed de Souza to get the low post position she needed to be most effective. That's not necessarily to say de Souza should generally be a larger part of Atlanta's offense, but moreso that when a team is shooting as poorly as Atlanta was it would make sense to milk the most efficient option on the floor.

But let's entertain the idea that the Dream should in fact consider re-orienting their offense around post scoring.

What might a new direction for the Dream look like?

Without saying that the 31-year-old de Souza should become the focal point of the Dream's offense, it's not at all unreasonable to say she could be a larger part of their offense with some more creative offensive sets (e.g. looking to get the ball to de Souza on the move, using screens to help her get position early in the offense). What the Lynx series demonstrated - to those that haven't watched the Dream closely all season - is that she can be a deadly offensive threat when she can leverage her size and strength to get low position and score immediately after the catch. Pushing her away from the basket - even beyond five feet - makes her a much less efficient scorer.

But re-watching de Souza and the Dream in the Finals did make me wonder what they could learn from other post-oriented teams from the past, not only in terms of strategy but also personnel. And with that, the old comparison between the 2009-10 Orlando Magic and 1994-95 Houston Rockets came to mind.

As Eddy Rivera of True Hoop's Magic Basketball has summarized, that NBA comparison isn't exactly perfect: the Rockets ran a true 4-out/1-in offense and relied upon Hakeem Olajuwon to do the rest with his array of low post moves. So for starters, let's just agree that 08-09 Howard was no Olajuwon. Nevertheless, the principles we can learn from that comparison could help in thinking about what pieces the Dream need to add this offseason as they consider moving in a different direction.

Long story short, de Souza is not Howard who is not Olajuwon. But the principles of how a post-oriented offense can be effective are similar and the Dream clearly lack one key ingredient in their post offense: 3-point shooters around the perimeter, including point guard.

Screen_shot_2013-10-21_at_1
Figure 6: Erika de Souza posting up during Game 3.

We see the problem with not having 3-point threats on the floor on this possession late in Game 3: de Souza does have strong post position on Brunson, but both Moore and Devereaux Peters are sagging way off of their assignments to narrow the passing lane. de Souza did eventually get the ball, but it resulted in a fade away jumper.

If you look across all of the possessions above, the pattern holds: the Lynx were sagging way off of the Dream's perimeter players, who are not considered deadly 3-point shooters. Not only does that clog up the post for de Souza to go to work, but it also shuts down driving lanes for McCoughtry.

Screen_shot_2013-10-23_at_9
Figure 7: Angel McCoughtry playing for a last shot at the end of the first quarter during Game 1.

Obviously everyone in the world knew what was going to happen in Figure 7: Angel McCoughtry was going to take this shot. And with no place to go, she ended up taking a long two point jumper.

Yet the point is that this isn't all that dissimilar from how teams - even beyond Minnesota or the Finals - played the Dream all season; it's not only that the Dream don't get the efficiency benefit of hitting the 3-point shot, but also that their lack of shooting prowess can compromise the talents of de Souza and McCoughtry for long stretches of time.

Obviously, it's weird to pick apart a team that has made the Finals in three of the last four years - we can debate whether Fred Williams deserved another shot or how much injuries across the Eastern Conference might have helped them return to the Finals this year. But if they want to get over the hump of beating the league's elite in the Finals, they have to find a way to maximize the strengths of both McCoughtry and de Souza with more dynamic offensive sets and more shooters - having players on the floor who can't knock down shots seriously bogs down their offense.

The healthy return of Sancho Lyttle would help in a number of ways on both ends of the floor. Tiffany Hayes is coming into her own as a threat off the dribble and a solid 3-point shooter. But otherwise, it's worth the risk of trying to shake the rest of the roster up a bit to enable a more consistent post offense to help the team be more resilient in the face of defenses looking to exploit weaknesses.

For more on the Dream-Lynx series, check out our 2013 WNBA Finals storystream.

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