Who: #1 Minnesota Lynx vs. #4 San Antonio Silver Stars
What: WNBA playoffs, Western Conference, first round
When: First game - Friday, September 16 at 9 p.m. EDT (NBA TV/WNBA LiveAccess) in Minnesota (full schedule)
Season series: 4-0 Lynx (click here for summary)
#1 Minnesota Lynx
*Leads Western Conference
*Lowest in Western Conference
Strength: Dominant rebounding
One thing that hasn't been discussed enough about the Minnesota Lynx' season is where they fit in WNBA history in terms of talent and ability, regardless of whether they've won a title yet. Right now, they're by far the most dominant rebounding team in the league, the best defensive rebounding team ever, and forward Rebekkah Brunson is no small part of that effort as the player with the highest total rebounding percentage in the league during the regular season (19.24%). As already described in the All-Defensive teams post, that helps them defensively but it also obviously helps them offensively - it helps to rebound to run and the Lynx are third only to the Atlanta Dream and Phoenix Mercury in fast break points (14.68). Rebounding is as big a part of what makes the Lynx potent as anything else they do and their ability to outwork opponents as a unit - it's a group effort that allowed them to remain consistent when other teams didn't this season - makes them difficult to beat even if they have an off night otherwise.
Weakness: Free throw rate
There's not much reason to be concerned about this "weakness": good teams tend to have a free throw rate as their biggest weakness because they're strong in the other Four Factors (shooting efficiency, ball control, and offensive rebounding). Could they get to the line more often? Sure. They were second to last in the Western Conference in free throw rate just ahead of the Los Angeles Sparks. A big reason for that is they take a lot of jumpers. But when you have Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore shooting a lot of those jumpers and point guard Lindsay Whalen shooting a career-high 40.5% from the three point line, it's hard to even harp on this "weakness".
X-factor: Candice Wiggins
In two of their four regular season meetings the Lynx lost the turnover battle to the Silver Stars (another game was even). Wiggins has committed only two turnovers against the Lynx with both coming on August 28 so she wasn't the problem - her ball handling will be important against a Silver Stars squad that enjoys forcing turnovers. But where Wiggins and her quickness might be especially valuable is on the defensive end - the Silver Stars are deep at the guard spot and like to drive, draw attention, and kick out to shooters. Teams that are particularly effective against them stop that penetration and turn them into a jump shooting team.
In addition, Wiggins has been inconsistent as a scorer in this series but her 5-for-10 three point shooting in their August 4 win was as important as Taj McWilliams-Franklin's game-winning shot that day. The Lynx are so balanced that they don't necessarily have one make or break player, but Wiggins is probably one player whose contribution off the bench against the Silver Stars is a little more significant than her statistics might suggest.
Regular season statistical MVP: Lindsay Whalen steadying the team from the point
During a five-game road winning streak spanning late-June to early-August, Whalen averaged 20.0 points on 60.0% shooting, 4.4 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.60 steals per game. She hasn't played quite that well against San Antonio at all this season, but it is an example of just how good she can be offensively. But what might make her important in this series is defense.
All those instincts that Whalen shows on the offensive end do ultimately translate to the defensive end in terms of making rotations and playing angles. The challenge against the Silver Stars will be how the Lynx guards matchup against the current starting backcourt of 5'6" dynamo Becky Hammon and speedster Danielle Robinson. In their August 28 meeting, the Lynx backcourt held the Silver Stars duo to 3-for-19 shooting and naturally the Lynx won by 11.
#4 San Antonio Silver Stars
***Lowest in Western Conference
Strength: Best turnover differential in the league
What the Silver Stars do exceptionally well is move the ball without turning it over - they've been a model of chemistry since coach Dan Hughes took over in that they do a great job of patiently executing their offense to get a shot. Having as many efficient ball handlers as they do around the perimeter combined with bigs who can pass and not turn the ball over (Danielle Adams, Jayne Appel, Ruth Riley) their offense can be hard to track when they have the proper spacing to make passing a threat.
But on the other end, they force turnovers and that has made them the fourth-best defense in the WNBA (allowing only 95.79 points per 100 possessions). And part of it is discipline, but forward Sophia Young must also be credited with some of that. Somehow or another, she seems to be in the right place at the right time for her many of her 2 steals per game (4th in the WNBA) and has the athleticism to get additional deflections and just be disruptive.
The Silver Stars force teams to out-execute them to win, but they also hurt their own cause at times.
Weakness: Offensive rebounding is not a strong point
There's not much more to say than the numbers above do, but to highlight that their problem is retrieving their own offensive boards much moreso than keeping opponents off the offensive boards (their 72.5% defensive rebounding percentage is just above league average). But in any event, the Lynx have punished them on the boards in three of four meetings and we a bit less forgiving in the fourth - it has been a near-certainty that San Antonio will not win the rebounding battle against the Lynx.
Of course, the other way to think about this is that the Silver Stars win without rebounding well. So the fact that they've done better over the last few games of the season might have an impact.
X-factor: Danielle Robinson's growth
It's possible that we haven't seen the best of Robinson in her rookie year and the Lynx certainly haven't. Robinson started 9 games with 2 coming against the Lynx this season. She's steadily improved over the course of the season, remaining among the league's top 5 most efficient point guards - and leading the league in pure point ratio for one stretch this season - and, as the Tulsa Shock found out, she's getting increasingly comfortable with her jumper.
What we saw against Tulsa though was a player who's finally starting to get comfortable with a task that many point guards don't handle well in their rookie year - striking a balance between picking spots to score and picking spots when to pass and showing even more confidence in her abilities. Hammon and Whalen have mastered that in all aspects and Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird is no slouch either - these players are far more dangerous that they're given credit for because they put a ton of pressure on defensive units because it adds an element of unpredictability that keeps defenders off-balance play to play.
It's hard to know what Robinson will do against the Lynx this series, but the combination of her growth and Adams' presence could make the difference if they end up playing another one possession game.
Regular season statistical MVP: Becky Hammon's ability to set up her passing with her scoring
Anything I have to say about Hammon now has already been said after her 17-point quarter to clinch against the Sparks or why I think she's All-WNBA (and I've waffled - I think there's a good argument for her to be first team).
But in this particular matchup, it's also important to note that Hammon is critical to the success of this offense because she has been the one player that can break the flow of beautiful passing around the perimeter and create a scoring opportunity. Robinson is growing in that capacity and Perkins has done that primarily as a scorer, but Hammon is among the best guards in the league at knifing through traffic as a threat to pass, score, and generally dismantle defenses.
Key statistical battleground: Turnover margin
Surprisingly, this game might not come down to rebounding but to turnovers - again, the Silver Stars have gotten through this season without rebounding. They've also lost games in which they've rebounded well. But if the Lynx force them into turnovers - they do have the second best defense in the WNBA and are third in points scored off turnovers (17.09 per game) - the Silver Stars will lose. Their offense can't withstand turnovers against a potent Lynx offense.
I've enjoyed playing with this simulator and this matchup generated an interesting result. After playing with it a few times, I found an outcome where the Silver Stars swept. So how did they do it? In Game 1, they outrebounded the Lynx by 3. In Game 2, Young had double-doubles in each game and Jayne Appel added 8.5 rebounds per game. In both games they had less than 10 turnovers.
I'm not going to say that's impossible - interestingly enough, Young had a double-double with exactly 11 rebounds and Appel added 6 in that 62-60 loss on McWilliams-Franklin's game-winner. But it doesn't seem entirely likely either - Young has only had three double-doubles all year; the other two were against the Los Angeles Sparks.