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Atlanta Dream vs. Minnesota Lynx: How A Duel Of Dominant Perimeter Scorers Can Explain An Outcome

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Fans of both the Atlanta Dream and the Minnesota Lynx had reason to find the officiating in Game Two of the WNBA Finals unsatisfactory.

Regardless of whatever we think about the nature of the nature of the calls made - whether the game was called "too tight" or whistles blown in response to imagined infractions - the frequency of the calls really made an otherwise exciting duel of two of the league's most dominant perimeter scorers choppy and, unfortunately, difficult to watch (and re-watch) down the stretch.

Patrick Reusse of the Star Tribune suggests that the 78 fouls called in the game might challenge one's thinking about the value of basketball as a spectator sport and our own James Bowman put all those fouls in perspective: free throws accounted for 10% more of scoring in that game than average.

So it should come as absolutely no surprise that what happened at the line - both the rate of attempts and made attempts for each team - was the most significant factor in determining the outcome of this game.

Key statistic: 24 free throw attempts

24 is the number of free throws the Atlanta Dream had over the final three quarters...that was matched by the Lynx in the fourth quarter alone.

While that should be alarming for Dream fans lamenting a chance to even the series up five points at the end of three quarters, the Dream are also guilty of not capitalizing on their attempts while the Lynx did - the Dream made only 62.5% (15) of their 24 free throws over the final three quarters while the Lynx made 79.16% (19) of their 24 fourth quarter attempts.

As much as the 24 number stands out as interesting, the free throw production differential wasn't much better for the Dream over the course of the whole game. And in a game decided by six points, that makes a difference.

Team FTs made FTs attempted FT percentage FT rate (fta/fga) FTs produced (ftm/fga)
Dream 21 32 65.6% 42.1% 27.6%
Lynx 38 46 82.6% 76.7% 63.3%

Free throw production numbers in Game 2 of the 2011 WNBA Finals.

The difference between free throw rate and free throws produced should be clear, but they're equally significant: even in a game without a ridiculous number of whistles, free throw rate is interesting a sign of aggression in attacking the basket in terms of how often a team put themselves in position to draw fouls and get to the line. Free throws produced is great - particularly for individual players - as a means of looking at the significance of free throw shooting to a team's scoring production.

What we see here in stark terms is that as much as halfcourt basketball is an unfavorable situation for the Dream, a free throw shootout proved to be even worse. And the free throw rate differential in the fourth quarter in particular - 200% (meaning the Lynx shot twice as many free throws as field goals) to 30.4% - is indicative of a larger problem for the Dream.

Kris Willis has already pointed out that the Dream forced things and shared the ball less effectively in the second half. And the result was a pattern very similar to that in Game One: they took a first half lead by living on jumpers and when the jumpers stopped falling, the Dream struggled to score. That explains the free throw rate differential as much as anything else - living on jumpers is already an unsustainable approach for the Dream and, in a game with so many fouls being called both ways, settling for jumpers means not taking advantage of potential free throw attempts. Moving the ball helps, but so does just continuing to go hard to the basket.

Of course, one Dream player did continue to do so.

Dream statistical MVP: Angel McCoughtry's jumpers stopped falling in the second half

Despite shooting only 2-for-13 from the field, Angel McCoughtry had 14 of the Dream's 21 second half free throw attempts. That - and her WNBA Finals record 38 points - was indeed impressive. But it also fits into the "one-woman team" narrative that James was talking about yesterday.

Let's set aside percentage of team production for a second and just focus on the percentage of possessions McCoughtry used during the game: McCoughtry had a usage rate of 35.93%, which was around average for her in the regular season. But it also means that she was the primary focus of the Dream's offense because she was almost solely responsible for generating offense. Although she finished with a true shooting percentage of 60.81% for the game, those 11 missed field goals in the second half were (often contested) jumpers and that negated one thing that was working well in the first half.

What Kris described as an offense lacking cohesion meant 10 less points in the paint (22 in the first half, 12 in the second half) with 7 fast break points in each half, short range transition points.  Having Erika de Souza back did help in that regard in the first half when she got 6 of her 8 points. But in the second half even she was taking jumpers.

A large part of what's happening is increased defensive intensity from the Lynx - they are as good as anyone as holding their ground in a team defense concept and making it difficult on opponents to score inside. For the second consecutive game, the Dream responded by drifting away from the basket. As the league's worst three point shooting team, they again shot more 8 threes in the second half, making only 1. And McCoughtry is actually a prime example - the Lynx are actually doing a solid job of stalling the Dream's offense, particularly in denying McCoughtry high percentage scoring attempts although she did get to the free throw line more often.

McCoughtry's high usage scoring was indicative of a systemic problem in the Dream's offense that they need to overcome to beat the Lynx: they have to find a way to continue attacking and stop settling for threes, even if that's what the Lynx are giving them.

That's why Seimone Augustus' scoring performance stands in rather stark contrast to McCoughtry's upon closer examination.

Lynx MVP: Augustus a model of efficiency in scoring a team-high 36 points

What makes Augustus a great scorer - particularly within a balanced Lynx offense that shares the ball better than anyone - is that she's extremely efficient in getting shots. And as difficult as many of her shots were in Game 2, she normally exhibits outstanding shot selection.

Clearly her free throw rate was outstanding (114% for the game) as she had 13 of the Lynx' 24 in the fourth quarter. But in comparison to McCoughtry what stands out even more is that she only missed 3 shots over the course of the entire game.

So in looking at who had the better game in the terms that James described yesterday - the percentage of a player's valuable contributions to the team's total production (PVC) - that difference in missed shots looms larger than the difference in total points.

Points FGM - FGA Usage% PVC
McCoughtry 38 10 - 22 35.93% 39.53%
Augustus 36 11-14 26.42% 42.66%

Seimone Augustus vs. Angel McCoughtry in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals.

Augustus might not have appeared like a "one-woman team" as much as McCoughtry simply because she wasn't spending as many possessions shooting the ball. But she absolutely carried the Lynx and a small part of the difference is what she did beyond scoring.

You could cut Augustus' rebounding in half and she still would've accounted for a greater PVC, but a 23.14%  defensive rebounding percentage (7 defensive rebounds) for a guard is impressive and makes her overall performance much more impressive.

The combination of de Souza, Alison Bales, Sancho Lyttle, and Courtney Paris indeed outrebounded the Lynx rotation by percentage leaving Augustus as the Lynx' leading rebounder.  But that leads to another key point about de Souza's return: the Dream did win the rebounding battle in Game 2 (31-30 overall; 25%-20.69% offensive rebounding).

Key player: Jessica Adair scores 13 points in 18 minutes

For all the focus on rebounding,  the Dream didn't win primarily because they're struggling to generate efficient scoring opportunities when it counts. The second quarter was really entertaining as both the Dream (71.05% effective field goal percentage) and Lynx (61.11% eFG%) were on fire, led by their dominant scorers. But that was almost entirely unsustainable for the Dream because of the way they were playing. 

Meanwhile, although Augustus was getting the majority of the Lynx' free throw attempts, the ball also found its way into the hands of a reserve like Jessica Adair who came through with 9-for-11 free throw shooting and 13 points.

It's weird to say that the Lynx' balance ended up winning this game because it wasn't nearly as pretty as usual, but they were more balanced than the Dream once again and that made all the difference.