Whether the Minnesota Lynx's 92-67 rout of the Seattle Storm last night was their best performance of the season might be debatable.
But it was an almost perfect illustration of what makes this team so dangerous on paper.
In a battle of All-Star point guards, neither Sue Bird nor Lindsay Whalen played particularly well last night.
Although Whalen had four assists to Bird's one, Whalen's three turnovers left her at about the same distributor's efficiency as Bird (-1.38 and -1.28 pure point rating, respectively). Two of Whalen's assists were picked up in a garbage time fourth quarter. Neither player was that potent offensively and although Whalen's plus/minus was (obviously) significantly better than Bird's, it was Candice Wiggins in the game handling the ball along with Alexis Hornbuckle when the Lynx extended their lead during a 20-4 run between the first and second quarters.
The sub-par point guard play in last night's game put the burden on everyone else to make things happen. And while the Lynx found a way to get that done, the Storm simply didn't.
Key player: Maya Moore finishes with a game-high 6 assists, 1 turnover
All-Star rookie Maya Moore led the Lynx with a 39.16% assist ratio and 6.52% turnover ratio to finish with an extraordinary 12.5 pure point rating.
This is not to make the case that Moore was the purest point guard on the floor and thus needs to slide to 1 and push Whalen to the bench - she doesn't due what a Bird or Whalen does at the point, but has good enough court vision to make plays for others in transition or from the wing.
But Moore wasn't the only player to step up individually with Whalen having an off night - three additional players that played significant minutes stepped up as well to make plays.
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Lynx ball handling numbers against the Storm on 7/29/11. Click here for explanations of these numbers.
What's significant about those pure point ratings is not necessarily that the Lynx have elite ball handlers all over the floor, but that they had players fairly aggressively creating assists (particularly Moore and Wiggins, but Augustus and Brunson's assist ratios were also high) but hardly turning the ball over at all - those four non-Whalen players had five turnovers evenly distributed among them with Wiggins having two.
For the most part, the individual ball handling efficiency was the outcome of patience, not wasting dribbles, simply moving the ball to the open player, and recognizing open scoring opportunities by moving without the ball and playing off one another. There was no one player to focus on, no one player that was creating offense - it was a collective effort in which the team seemed to be in perfect harmony for most of the game.
Key statistic: Lynx shot 63.27% from the field through three quarters
Although both teams managed a high synergy without great point guard play, what's far more notable is that the Lynx managed not to turn the ball over without Whalen being their focal distributor.
Through the first three quarters, the Lynx only turned the ball over on 15.15% of their possessions; despite an impressive 1 turnover third quarter, the Storm turned the ball over on 22.39% of their possessions through the same time frame and on 28.65% of their possessions in the first half.
Capitalizing on the Storm's turnovers for transition points definitely helped the Lynx, but consider that in the third quarter when the Storm only turned the ball over once and shot 50% from the field the Lynx shot a scorching 70.6%. With everyone looking to move the ball and forcing the defense to constantly rotate, the Lynx only had to fill gaps and take the opportunities that came to them.
Just as we find distributing balance with the Lynx, we also find scoring balance - ironically, Whalen was their highest usage player (24.53%) despite being one of their least efficient on the night. It's not like one dominant player just got hot to help the Lynx shoot so well - after Whalen, six other players had a usage between 17.75 (Moore) and 20.89 (Wiggins), which is amazing balance for a team that has such amazing scoring talent.
Granted, said scoring talent did make some outstanding shots.
Lynx statistical MVP: Seimone Augustus gets a team-high five rebounds
When you're not giving the ball away, it's much easier to find some some rhythm, build confidence in one another, and make shots. But it's also easier to shoot 70% as a team when you have a player like Seimone Augustus who is able to shoot 8-for-10 from the field - despite falling backwards and having defenders fly at her - to tie for a team-high 16 points with Wiggins.
But Augustus' 20.43% defensive rebounding percentage was yet another illustration of how balanced this team can be.
Entering last night's game, the Lynx's most significant strength this season had been their offensive rebounding percentage differential (+9.80%), best in the Western Conference and the obvious reason that they led the conference in second chance points before the All-Star break. A large part of their rebounding prowess is due to the individual dominance of All-Star forward Rebekkah Brunson, so much so that earlier in the season the inability of the rest of the team to rebound looked like a potential weakness.
If we ignore last night's garbage time fourth quarter again, the Lynx won the offensive rebounding percentage battle against the Storm last night 27.78% - 19.05%, which is near their standard margin but beneath their standard rebounding performance (and well beneath the Storm's average performance, for what it's worth). It was a pretty strong rebounding effort and the Lynx used that to beat Seattle 17-4 in second chance points.
Yet it wasn't at all a strong rebounding effort by Brunson, who had only three rebounds at a well-below average rate. The Storm have actually done fairly well in containing Brunson in spurts this season*, but three is a season-low. So with Brunson not rebounding well, Augustus led the team with five rebounds, Whalen had a 22.98% defensive rebounding percentage, and rookie Amber Harris came off the bench for a team-high 27.58% defensive rebounding percentage.
Those defensive rebounding numbers might not seem like a big deal, except for what happened in the second quarter when the Storm shot 33.33% - by making it a team effort to hold the Storm to only 2 offensive rebounds in that quarter, they further hindered their scoring efficiency.
It's hard to say the Lynx were in perfect harmony with both Brunson and Whalen not really having normal games. But it was close, particularly when compared to the Storm.
Storm key player: Swin Cash's hot start was not a recipe for success
The 14-11 first quarter advantage that the Seattle Storm established against the Minnesota Lynx perfectly illustrated what separated the two teams last night.
Storm forward Swin Cash scored 10 of her game-high 18 points in that first 7 minutes and assisted on the team's other two shots to Le'coe Willingham and Ewelina Kobryn, thus accounting for all 14 of the Storm's points. 6 of those 10 points came from behind the three point arc as the Storm's offense was stagnant early on as their first 8 possessions consisted of three 3-point attempts, three turnovers, a missed fast break layup, and a contested Camille Little jumper as the shot clock ran out.
Looking at this blowout and saying the Storm simply didn't show up would be a complete mischaracterization of what actually happened - their start embodied an unfortunately familiar pattern of either Bird or Cash carrying the team. Although the final box score doesn't illustrate it quickly, Cash stopped scoring and they struggled to find any offense until Le'coe Willingham got 8 of her 14 points in the third quarter, in which the rest of the team was 2-for-7. The mild irony of this situation is that although the early score suggested the Storm got off to a good start last night, the reality is that they were playing an imbalanced style of basketball that has repeatedly proven to be completely unsustainable in terms of generating wins.
In contrast, the Lynx were quietly playing balanced, efficient, team basketball. All five Lynx starters contributed to their first 11 points. In getting out to an early 7-0 lead, the Lynx had a Moore three, a putback off an offensive rebound by Taj McWilliams-Franklin, and a Seimone Augustus jumper. Their 11th point came on a free throw by Brunson. Not that the second half really mattered much, but the Lynx shot 70% in the third quarter continuing to play balanced basketball even as the rout was in full effect.
Despite the scoring flow, the Minnesota Lynx truly outplayed the Storm from start to finish again. And although they got out played in garbage time, they didn't allow the Storm to cut the lead down to single digits as they did in the first game of the season.
What makes the Lynx great this season is strikingly similar to what made the Storm historically good last season: a balanced, versatile starting lineup led by a strong post player, strong wing play and an elite point guard. The big difference is depth that means they don't need dominant performances from any one player to win games. Every player plays to their strengths and complements one another almost to perfection.
It's not at all common to see a WNBA team play basketball as fluidly as the Lynx did last night without a lead ball handler with above average efficiency. But what the Lynx did last night shows just how dynamic and versatile a team they can be on both ends of the ball with everyone working together as a team and filling in blanks when key players have sub-par nights.
It's a beautiful brand of basketball that is quite likely still hitting its peak.
* In the first meeting against the Storm, Brunson was the only player who rebounded consistently when the Storm made their fourth quarter run, but the Storm held her to only one offensive board in the second half in winning the offensive rebounding battle. In the second meeting against the Storm, Brunson was held without an offensive rebound in the second half and had no rebounds in the fourth quarter as the Lynx lost.