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Just How Good Are The 3-1 Minnesota Lynx?

I rather rigidly maintained throughout last season that the Minnesota Lynx were not a bad team, but an injury-ravaged team that simply never had the opportunity to come together.

And when first year coach Cheryl Reeve briefly had her entire roster healthy and a few days of practice to bring things together in mid-June, the team showed glimmers of the potential that many people saw in them prior to the season.

It was a beautifully constructed basketball team last season - not just an immensely talented team - and it's hard for any reasonable basketball fan to simply ignore that. I even considered them the "ideal into to the WNBA" literally the moment they traded for Lindsay Whalen, who has consistently been one of the top three points guards since I started following the league and whose awesome pure point rating of over 10 thus far this season suggests that she might be the best so far this season.

Then they added Maya Moore, Amber Harris, and Taj McWilliams-Franklin this off-season, which only makes them more balanced and versatile as a unit that is mostly returning with a year of playing for Reeve under their belt.

So as you can probably tell, I struggle to remain rational about this team. And in getting off to a 3-1 start this season, the team is finally starting to realize the potential that I went so head-over-heels insane over while others had high, yet almost certainly more tempered, hopes.

And as described in yesterday's post about the Los Angeles Sparks, I began writing this post before they walked into KeyArena and proceeded to treat the mighty 2010 WNBA champion and consensus 2011 favorite Seattle Storm like they were the lottery team struggling to establish themselves.

It would seem that as irrationally excited as I've been about this team, the Storm game would put me over the top. But I think it's fair to say that game was a bit of an aberration - I'd be more stunned if the Storm ever get down by 20+ points at home again this season than I was while watching it the first time.

So just how good are the Lynx? Their home-and-home against the Los Angeles Sparks before visiting Seattle might have provided some insight that both reinforces my excitement about them and helps to ground my excitement again by showing where they have room for improvement.

Taking a look at the combined statistics of the early-season split between the Lynx and Sparks actually provides a more concrete glimpse into each team's strengths, weaknesses, and potential areas of improvement.

But with each team holding court in that split, a telling place to start is by looking at which team performed better as a whole statistically over the two games.

Two-game team MEV
Team Game 1 (6/3) Game 2 (6/5) Two game total
Lynx 79.95 89.95 169.9
Sparks 82.16 27.01 109.17

What can we take away from these two games? Perhaps it's unfair to say that the Lynx are unequivocally "better", but what we can say is that they were more consistent despite concerns about their relative youth down the stretch of Game 1.

What immediately stood out along the lines of consistency is that the Sparks had a turnover problem: the Lynx won the turnover battle 22-31 and it's no coincidence that the only quarter (of meaning) in which the Sparks had less than four turnovers was the fourth quarter of the first game.

But what tilted the balance in these two games?

Key statistic: Offensive rebounding made the difference in both games.

When looking at the statistical disparity between the two teams, the only thing that approaches the significance of the turnovers is the offensive rebounding situation. The raw numbers show the Lynx winning the two-game battle 26-20, but the percentages tell a more severe story, especially if you take out the fourth quarter of Game 2 which the Lynx began up 20 points.

Two-game offensive rebounding percentages
Team Game 1 (6/3) Game 2, Qtrs 1-3 (6/5)
Lynx 29% 41%
Sparks 39% 5%

One could certainly look at the Sparks' first game and point to their rather large shooting efficiency differential in the second half (45.5% to 36.7%) as the reason for their win but looking more closely, their second chance points resulting from offensive rebounds were a huge difference in the game: the Sparks won the second chance points battle 11-2 in their win; the Lynx won it 12-5 through three quarters in their win.

And so if rebounding played such a huge role in the game, that should begin to explain why Rebekkah Brunson has been so important to this team.

Lynx statistical MVP: Brunson's rebounding dominance carrying the Lynx right now

Given that Brunson's currently averaging a double-double with 14.8 points and 14 rebounds, it's obvious without too much effort that she's the most significant figure in the Lynx's rebounding situation - she had an offensive rebounding percentage of over 20% in the two games against the Sparks in addition to a defensive rebounding percentage of about 50% in their winning second game.

However, the problem for the Lynx is that they can go through stretches when Brunson is relied upon almost entirely for their rebounding. In both fourth quarters - when the Sparks outplayed the Lynx - the Sparks closed the rebounding gap. But in the Lynx's loss, Brunson was responsible for 3 of the team's 6 rebounds and the Lynx got beat 38% - 11% on the offensive boards. Perhaps unsurprisingly then - but not at all most significant - the Storm beat the Lynx on the offensive boards 29% - 14% in their 35-17 fourth quarter comeback attempt against the Lynx, with Brunson accounting for 4 of the team's 6 rebounds.

So as of right now, if the Lynx have a weakness, it's in the rebounding department - even in situations where Brunson continues to be dominant on the boards, teams can badly outrebound (and thus outplay) the Lynx by containing everyone else. So where will the help come from?

6'5" rookie forward Amber Harris made the biggest difference, grabbing 8 rebounds in 18 minutes in their win against the Sparks after hardly having time to grab a rebound in her five minutes during their loss. But that speaks more to a need to make sure Harris gets on the floor more often. Another significant difference was the rebounding they got from their wings.

Key player(s): Seimone Augustus & Maya Moore have to stay involved on the boards

Assuming Harris cuts into both Brunson's and Taj McWilliams-Franklin's minutes, the other key rebounders for the team have been Augustus and Moore.

In the first game, Moore had only one rebound in the fourth quarter (after she and point guard Lindsay Whalen combined for 5 of the team's 7 in the third) - just like with Brunson, rebounding became essentially the job of 1 or 2 people during a major turning point in the game. Augustus had only one rebound the whole game.

In the second game, Augustus went harder on the boards - she had all five of her rebounds in those dominant first three quarters while Moore had her best rebounding effort in the third again.

As described prior to the Seattle game at SBN Seattle, Moore's role as a scorer has been key to the Lynx's success thus far with her ability to add another mid-range shooting threat on the wing opposite Augustus in what has been a near-deadly transition attack for the Lynx. But you have to rebound to run what's seemed to most plague the Lynx thus far is that they go through droughts where only one or two people are rebounding and they're getting beat badly otherwise.

So why is that Sparks series so important?

Sparks statistical MVP: Candace Parker averaged 9.5 rebounds against the Lynx

As described in yesterday's post, the Sparks have not been a particularly strong rebounding team thus far this season. In fact, they once against have among the league's lowest offensive rebounding output through three games. Candace Parker was their most consistent rebounder (by percentage) against the Lynx and clearly someone who they're going to rely heavily upon to compete on the boards in addition to being a ball handler, scorer, and defender. She's obviously one of the league's most versatile players and her ball handling will be particularly vital to a Lynx team that has struggled with turnovers in similar ways to how the Lynx have struggled with rebounding at times.

So whether against the Sparks or the Storm, one common theme for the Lynx has been that they go as their rebounding goes - even in the midst of looking absolutely dominant against two very talented teams in the Sparks and Storm, at their worst moments, rebounding seems to keep coming up as a significant factor for them.

That's not to diminish just how amazing a team they've been and will continue to become as the season wears on - this is still an amazingly balanced team that I will still maintain is an extremely well-constructed basketball team. But their early-season performance also points to the fact that they do have a vulnerability that a couple of the top teams in the Western Conference have figured out how to exploit.