Ray Floriani often refers to the importance of the first four minutes in setting the tone of a basketball game and I actually didn't think it was possible that we'd see the Minnesota Lynx - or any team this season for that matter - play as well as they did in the first four minutes of Game One of the Western Conference Finals.
By the six minute mark of the first quarter against the Phoenix Mercury, the Lynx had already established a 15-3 lead and went on to finish the first quarter up by 17 points. But what made that run so remarkable was that they did it: with an array of jumpshots, contested and not, that any logical person would've figured would simply stop falling at some point. Of course, the shots did sort of stop falling and the Mercury sort of found their way back into the game before the Lynx routed them 95-67.
Those are the kind of performances where casual basketball observers easily swoon over: dominant individual players making spectacular plays.
But last night's 88-74 win against the Atlanta Dream in the Game One of the WNBA Finals was impressive in a slightly different way, particularly in the fourth quarter.
Key statistic: Fourth quarter shooting efficiency breaks the game open for the Lynx
In the first four minutes of the fourth quarter last night, the Lynx outscored the Dream 11-0 (and if you're generous enough to extend that time period to 4 minutes 15 seconds, we can say 13-0). But they did it in a slightly different way, that began with defense. They challenged shots, forced turnovers, and got out to score a couple of easy buckets in transition.
They went on to shoot 52.6% from the field in the fourth quarter - without the help of a three pointer - while holding the Dream to just 18.8% shooting on 3-for-16 shooting.
Running? Angling for high percentage shots? Missing the one three they took? Forcing the Dream into turnovers on 30% of their possessions? That sounds more like the Dream's profile than what most people seem to imagine about the Lynx. But that's sort of the point of bringing that stretch of dominance up alongside Game One of the Western Conference Finals: the Lynx are a basketball team capable of not only beating opponents in multiple ways, but also doing so in dominant fashion.
This isn't just the profile of a favorite with a championship mentality that "finds a way to win the face of adversity"; this is a team that far more often is chugging along until they find the right combination of personnel, strategy, and opponent vulnerabilities to make games feel unwinnable. In that big win against the Mercury we saw an example of a dominant team over the course of an entire game that set the stage early; last night we saw an example of a team that weathered a rough start - in which they were mostly getting very similar and better shots than they did against the Mercury - to pull away late.
Both were impressive victories in their own right independent of the final scores and both were examples of an exquisite balance that make this team both difficult to beat and equally difficult for some people to appreciate.
Lynx statistical MVP: Rebekkah Brunson leads the team with team-high 26 points
Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson's 13 rebounds were pretty much what we've come to expect from her. But what was uncommon relative to the regular season was Brunson's scoring effort.
Brunson led the Lynx with eight fourth quarter points and had a usage rate of 23.10% and a true shooting percentage of 71.90% thanks to a 46.66% free throw rate, all well above season averages. In keeping with the theme of a team that is more flexible in style of play than people even give them credit for, she scored those points in a variety ways: in transition, in halfcourt sets, rolling to the basket and even a nice jumper.
I think the easy response to that performance would be that Brunson won't be able to score that efficiently with Dream center Erika de Souza back in action for the remainder of the series. But that again points back to what makes the Lynx so dangerous: they don't need Brunson to average a double-double to win and certainly not 26 points. Game to game, they'll find someone to step up even when someone - like wing Maya Moore, who shot 2-for-9 from the field last night - is having an off game.
And they share the ball so well that finding scoring opportunities is easy - as good as Brunson was, she "only" accounted for 30.66% of the team's overall statistical production while Augustus complemented her with 20.52% of the production.
Lynx key player: Seimone Augustus had 7 assists and 1 turnover in high synergy game
Augustus' shooting took center stage last night because that's what happens when you score over double teams and finish with 22 points - that kind of thing stands out.
But in a game that the Lynx struggled to take advantage of scoring opportunities for long stretches in the first half, Augustus' passing is noteworthy.
In my first year or so covering the WNBA, a Storm fan told me that Augustus is one of the most underrated passers in the league. A lot of that is that she's a pure scorer - she spends most of her time on the court efficiently going about the business of finding opportunities to score on the court. Last night, for example, she had a team-high usage rate of 25.75%. But as someone who draws a ton of attention from the defense as she's raining jumpers on them, she also has opportunities to set up teammates for scoring opportunities.
Last night she had an assist ratio of 24.23% and turnover ratio of only 3.46% to finish with a pure point ratio of 10.18 that would mark an outstanding game even for the likes of an elite point guard like Lindsay Whalen (who had a PPR of 6.06 last night). Yes, we know the Lynx share the ball well as is, but when your highest usage scorer is also able to use her threat as a scorer to set up teammates for scoring opportunities it makes the unit even more difficult to defend. Do you stop running doubles at Augustus so others (like Brunson) don't hurt you too? Or do you figure that making her give the ball up and forcing others to shoot is the more successful proposition?
Pick your poison - last night, there was no clear answer and that was just one example of the matchup problems the Lynx present.
Dream statistical MVP: Angel McCoughtry impressive in carrying the Dream with a game-high 33 points
Similarly, I'm not sure what you can do with Angel McCoughtry when she starts going all Lori Ann on you. Typically, forcing her into jump shots is a reasonable strategy, if only because that's a tougher shot than a driving layup or free throws. But last night she found a zone and got to the point that defending her seemed like an act of futility.
Yet in contrast to the Lynx' balanced attack a primary reason that the Dream lost was that they didn't give McCoughtry enough help - she was responsible for 49.50% of the team's statistical production and an extraordinarily high usage rate of 38.85%. In the second half alone, she had 27 points on 8-for-15 shooting while the rest of the team only had 8 points on 3-for-20 shooting. And given that the Dream shot only 3-for-16 in the fourth, when the Lynx shut both her and point guard Lindsey Harding down in the fourth, it was over.
But the thing to highlight moving forward is that the Dream did not play "their game" - they forced well below their average rate of turnovers with the Lynx finishing with only 10; as a result, they were scoring on a lot more jumpers than they're accustomed to and getting to the free throw line a rather low rate of 18.7%. Lindsey Harding was great, but her 19 shots represented a career-high - she was shooting far more often than normal and part of that is because Sancho Lyttle and Armintie Price had usage rates that represented them being "nearly invisible" (under 12%).
Nevertheless, this is not at all a time for the Dream or their fans to panic.
Regardless of how imbalanced the Dream were, last night just wasn't their ideal style of play - even when they were winning - which is predicated on multiple players going hard to the basket and forcing opponents into a series of mismatches and difficult rotations. And in getting de Souza back, they will match up a lot more evenly with a Lynx team that was the best in the league.
Yet just noting all that in a situation where the Lynx once again adjusted to their opponent mid-game underscores a point that makes the Lynx so tough to beat: it's not clear what the Lynx' ideal style of play is because they can adapt to so many circumstances.
It's what at once makes them the favorite and so badly misunderstood.