"Having Erika, that’s my huge comfort level down in the post. It’s going to be great to have her back. She’s great on the boards. She’s great scoring inside and we’re definitely going to look for that, look at the rebounds. We need here and everybody else to step up." - Atlanta Dream point guard Lindsey Harding, via Jeff Shelman for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
After Game One of the 2011 WNBA Finals, it makes a lot of sense that people assume that Atlanta Dream center Erika de Souza's biggest impact in returning from the FIBA Americas Championship will be on the boards.
In Game One on Sunday, the Dream were out-rebounded 40-28 overall. And although the offensive rebounding battle looked compettive at 10-8, it was a 12% difference by percentage.
However - and not to negate her value as a rebounder - her greatest contribution to the Dream might not be rebounding at all. And it helps to start with going back to how the Dream beat the Indiana Fever in Games 2 and 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Is rebounding really the key to Atlanta's success?
The first thing you notice in watching Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals is that the Fever controlled the boards for much of the game and dominated the boards in the first quarter. Game 2 was a similar story.
The Dream were able to win those two games despite not rebounding terribly well because their ability to force turnovers and score in transition matters far more: they outscored the Fever 36-14 in points off turnovers over those two games.
As the team that both led the league in second chance points and held opponents to the least second chance points, rebounding undoubtedly matters to the Dream. On the other hand, the Dream also had the lowest three point percentage in the WNBA over the course of the regular season (26.1%) meaning that they struggle to score in half court sets because they can't really spread the defense. So the Dream need to score in transition or off the drive to win games.
The importance of driving to the basket for the Dream
Again going back to Game 3 against the Fever, what also stands out is that the Dream were driving to the basket a lot more than they did in Game 1 against the Lynx. That's obvious from watching or looking at the play-by-play, but also from looking at their free throw rate - they only had four free throw attempts in the first half and a well-below average free throw rate of 10% in the first half.
It's not just that they took jumpers - they took them at about an average rate during the season. Bear in mind that the Fever are not the Lynx, but the problem is that there were far too many Dream possessions where they were stagnantly doing nothing but looking for a jumper.
Of course, it might seem hard to complain about that given that they mounted a 12-point lead in the first half on the Lynx. But it comes back to a point I made in yesterday's statistical summary: even during that time when the Lynx were down, they were playing their game while the Dream were decidedly not. It's nice that the jumpers went in the basket, but it proved unsustainable - in the second half, the shots stopped falling for all but Angel McCoughtry, who caught fire in scoring 27 of the team's 35 points and getting 10 of the team's 12 free throws.
"Normally we hit our shots," said Meadors after the game. "But I just thought that we could have done a better job as far as running our offenses and taking a little more time off the clock. A lot of times we went with quick shots and missed them and they rebounded. They went and scored. And I think that was a huge part of the game where we lost the lead."
Part of the reason for the tendency to shoot quick jumpers was a strong defensive effort from the Lynx. It was not only the Lynx' 11 blocks - which is not something they'd ever done in a game before, playoffs or regular season - but also solid rotations that allowed them to contest most of the Dream's shots around the basket that didn't come on a fast break.
But either another reason - or maybe a causal factor of the first reason - was the logistics of how these teams matched up with the Dream playing small ball.
With McCoughtry playing "power forward", a power forward guarded McCoughtry
Something else mentioned in the AJC article was that Dream guards were guarding Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson, who finished with 13 boards. But in turn, Brunson was guarding wings at times as described at SB Nation's Minnesota Timberwolves site Canis Hoopus.
Brunson/McCoughtry is an interesting matchup, as Angel is more of a natural 3 than 4. She has a definite quickness and range advantage. But Brunson put her size to good use....Angel got beat up on in the first three quarters and ran out of spark in the fourth, when the Lynxs' backcourt did it's thing.
We can marvel at the fact that Brunson (and really Taj McWilliams-Franklin as well) were able to defend McCoughtry elsewhere. But that Brunson was guarding her and not a bigger player caused problems in the first half - McCoughtry had only 6 points and committed three fouls defensively.
With de Souza back, there's no way that kind of matchup will happen because either de Souza or Sancho Lyttle would have a field day in the paint with a guard on them. It's not so much that it balances their rotation as much as it just forces the defense to respond differently and likely put a smaller player (Seimone Augustus?) on McCoughtry. To be clear, it's not that Augustus is a bad defender - she might be having the best defensive season of her career. But she's not Brunson muscling up on her and Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin will something else to think about if they want to help off their assignment for blocks.
With a guard stifled at the basket by the likes of Brunson or McWilliams-Franklin, the Dream started drifting further and further away from the paint. We saw the results of that in the fourth quarter.
How will de Souza make the most significant difference?
So de Souza will make her biggest difference in two ways:
First, the Lynx will have to change their defensive matchups and schemes, which will make it easier for the Dream to put pressure on them because bigs will have to account for de Souza's presence inside even if the Lynx win the rebounding battle again. That's not to mention that a guard will not be trying to guard Brunson.
Second, de Souza will give the Dream back one of their most significant close range scorers, which helps to balance the court offensively and give them an option to break the pattern of falling in love with their jumper. de Souza had 197 (about 20%) of the Dream's league-high 979 attempts within 1-5 feet during the regular season, which was second on the team. That she shot 58.9% from that range makes her more of a threat. McCoughtry had the most attempts within 5 feet (228, 23.28% of Dream attempts) and Armintie Price - who also got to the line at a team-high rate of 57.69% - was third with 142 (14.5%) attempts at close range.
So think about what happened on Sunday for the team that took more attempts with five feet than any team in the league: de Souza was absent, Price was 0-for-5 from the field although she did get to the line twice, and everyone except McCoughtry went cold in the second half. In addition to just getting cold, they started to shoot threes more often than usual - in the regular season, they averaged eight per game but in the second half on Sunday they shot seven (and characteristically only made two).
Whereas they were driving aggressively against the Fever to make up for de Souza's scoring in the paint, they didn't do that in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals.
Should de Souza start Game 2 of the 2011 WNBA Finals or come off the bench?
There is a pretty strong argument for de Souza not to start Game 2 - they've won two of three games without her and continuity is something worthy of consideration.
On the other hand, de Souza gives them "a comfort level in the post" - as Harding said - that might get them off on the right foot and help avoid the temptation to drift away from the basket. de Souza not only gives them a big target to look to, but also a player who can convert second chance opportunities.
Again, comparing a Lynx game to a Fever game is obviously apples to oranges. But in this case, it serves as a reasonable illustration of how part of the problem for the Dream in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals was the way they played rather than who they were missing, albeit interconnected.
That's not to say that rebounding isn't important, but to temper the emphasis on rebounding. People seemed to ignore that the Silver Stars beat the Lynx in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals while getting killed on the boards - it's possible to beat the Lynx while losing the rebounding battle. They're among the best rebounding teams in league history and they will get theirs.
The bigger issue for the Dream is simply playing to their strengths, which is what got them to the WNBA Finals without de Souza to begin with.