The 2011 WNBA Finals might be the toughest to predict in some time.
As well as the Atlanta Dream have been playing in the latter part of the season and through the playoffs, we can hardly say for sure that they're done peaking, particularly with center Erika de Souza expected back some time during the Finals. And even if Iziane Castro Marques doesn't continue scoring the way she did in the Eastern Conference Finals, they've been so impressive adjusting to circumstances that it's hard to know what might stop them consistently.
And then there's the Minnesota Lynx, who just have the league's best record and methodically eliminated the Phoenix Mercury in the Western Conference Finals.
So who will win the series?
The basic team strengths and weaknesses haven't changed much in their five playoff games, so you can see brief profiles of the Dream and Lynx in their playoff previews here and here as well as the earlier post about synergy here.
That doesn't leave much left to discuss, but here are a few more specific notes.
Key statistical battleground: Turnover percentage differential
Looking at Four Factors stats, it's often more useful to look at tensions from similarities than advantages based on differences - when two teams rely on the same strength, something is bound to give. In this case, while rebounding is the Lynx' biggest strength, the most obvious tension in this matchup is the turnover percentage differential.
The thing is, the Dream's biggest strength by far has been their ability to force turnovers, keep opposing offenses off balance, and score in transition. Turnover differential is like icing on the cake for the Lynx, who can run off rebounds and score in a half court situations in a number of ways. While the Lynx' ability to control the ball will be critical to their success, the bigger question is this: what will the Dream will do if the Lynx don't turn it over and force the Dream into a slower game with less transition possessions?
The Dream have proven quite clearly that they can play in the half court even without a three point shot just by attacking the basket hard. But getting these turnovers are far more important to them than the Lynx.
Dream key player: Lindsey Harding on offense and defense
I've already noted what Harding did in the Eastern Conference Finals (here), but her impact on defense will be a big key against the Lynx.
Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen is the engine that makes the team go and even with the MVP votes she's gotten, it's evident that people still tend to underestimate how much the Lynx' offense depends on her individually to make their offense go by identifying players in scoring position and getting the ball to them the moment their open. Nobody does that better.
And given the Lynx' lineup, Lindsey Harding will be the player responsible for trying to disrupt Whalen to help disrupt that Lynx offense.
Harding was outstanding in the Eastern Conference Finals at getting that done against Indiana Fever guard Erin Phillips, completely taking her out of the game in Game 3 just by picking her up early and not giving her time to think. By no means are Phillips and Whalen equivalent - Whalen is bigger and was arguably the best point guard in the league this season. But the extent to which Harding can contain Whalen - as a distributor bringing the ball upcourt and as she drives to the basket to make things happen - will be a key factor in determining the outcome of this series.
Lynx key player: Seimone Augustus' defense
This is not to diminish the importance of Candice Wiggins who I said was the key player earlier in the playoffs - and deserved that game ball she got for her performance against the Mercury - but Augustus is the Lynx' best option for guarding Dream wing Angel McCoughtry.
Augustus has improved dramatically on defense, arguably deserving some consideration for the 2011 WNBA All-Defensive teams. This series will be her biggest test yet as McCoughtry's athleticism and ability to score so consistently going to the basket is unmatched.
The Lynx can generate offense in a multitude of ways; although defense is predicated on a strong team concept, Augustus is their best bet for staying in front of McCoughtry.
Prediction: Lynx in 5
I want this series to go five because as a fan I just want a good series. Clay Kallam of Slam Online has already made the argument for why the Dream might win in five. I think my reason that the Lynx might win in five begins with that discussion of intangibles.
There's a lot you can quantify or discuss concretely about what makes the Lynx a great team. What's hard to put a finger on is that they are a unit that doesn't have a central focal point. On offensively, the challenge in playing the Lynx is that any attempt to take away one thing leaves the defense vulnerable to something else - each individual is so strong that they can beat you from a number of different points in a number of different configurations; if one player is off, someone else can step up. Defensively, what makes them work so well is almost the opposite: they hold their ground and rotate extremely well and cause problems because they seem to constantly have someone in the right spot.
The Lynx are not invincible by any means - they can get caught up in relying so heavily on (long) jumpers that they negate the dynamic threats they have scattered around the court...but at least two of those threats are among the most efficient shooters in the game.
This is no slight to the Dream - they're a great team. What they've done to beat teams almost without a three point threat is fairly remarkable. But in a five game series, the Lynx are so balanced and so versatile - even from play to play - that they should be able to pull this out, particularly with the added benefit of home court advantage.
But I don't really care about my prediction here: I just want this series to be as entertaining as I'm anticipating it will be.