Who: #2 Connecticut Sun vs. #3 Atlanta Dream
What: WNBA playoffs, Eastern Conference, first round
When: First game - Friday, September 16 at 7 p.m. EDT (NBA TV/WNBA LiveAccess) in Connecticut (full schedule)
Season series: 2-2 split (click here for summary)
#2 Connecticut Sun
*Best in Eastern Conference
Strength: The Sun are the highest synergy team in the Eastern Conference
The Sun's ball control this season is something that caught me off guard a bit. In contrast to the Silver Stars who have some of the best ball handlers in the league at multiple positions, neither Kara Lawson nor Renee Montgomery are the most efficient playmakers and nobody else stands out as stellar.
What they do have is a team of players that simply doesn't commit turnovers - outside of Jessica Moore, nobody on the roster finished with a turnover percentage over 14%. If you adjust synergy rating to account for turnovers (which is something I'll post sometime in the future) the Sun are the best in the East.
Weakness: Shooting efficiency
However, their synergy is not due to outstanding shooting. The Sun are one of the least efficient shooting teams in the league and it got worse in the second half of the season. That's somewhat surprising given that they shoot threes pretty well (37.44%) at the second-highest rate in the East. Part of their problem is shot distribution.
The Sun's three highest usage players are Tina Charles, Asjha Jones, and Renee Montgomery. The problem is that the combination of Charles (50.07% true shooting percentage) and Jones (48.17% TS%) in the post is the least efficient scoring combo in the conference (and I'm not excluding Washington, which gets a majority of its post offense from Crystal Langhorne). In other words, two of the players taking the majority of their shots are missing more than average.
Regular season statistical MVP: Tina Charles the double-double machine
A lot of the reason for the inefficient post play is that these two players like to face up and take jumpers as opposed to higher percentage shots near the basket, as players like Langhorne or Sylvia Fowles might. That also means they don't get to the line terribly often.
Of course, Charles makes up for that with offensive rebounding and second chance points. And it's on the Atlanta Dream to figure out how to stop her, no matter what crazy numbers say.
X-factor: Kara Lawson is the most efficient shooter on the team
So for all the problems the Sun had with shooting efficiency (and it improved in the second half of the season), Kara Lawson has been outstanding for them off the bench shooting a 61.26% true shooting percentage. She's a definitely change of pace as a ball handler off the bench and leads the team in three point shooting at 43%.
#3 Atlanta Dream
Strength: Forcing turnovers
The Dream are remarkably athletic at almost every one of positions 1-4 and that makes them one of the toughest defenses to move the ball against in the league. In the second half of the season - presumably because of Angel McCoughtry's return - they got marginally better at third in the league behind only Indiana and New York. But what makes the Dream so dangerous in causing turnovers is their speed in transition: the Dream were first in the league in points off turnovers with 18.91 per game and the best team in the Eastern Conference in fast break points with 15.18 per game.
They like to push the tempo and have the combination of athletic wings and strong rebounders to make it happen.
Weakness: Lack of three point shooting
But where the Dream struggle is from the three point line, where they shoot 26.05%. Believe it or not, that improved from the first 15 games of their season when they shot 23.84%. However, unlike the Tulsa Shock (who shot 28.35% from three) the Dream also didn't settle for many threes at all - they had a league-low 9.7% three point rate. The poor three point shooting explains the low shooting efficiency, but they're so good driving to the basket and denying opponents easy looks that they actually outshot opponents in the second half of the season. Considering that you know exactly what they want to do on every play - go to the basket, likely with McCoughtry - that's impressive.
X-factor: Lindsey Harding's improvement as a ball-handler over the course of the season
Obviously, Armintie Price's improvement has been huge for the Dream and she has now become a consistent contributor as a starter who can put pressure on opponents by getting to the line on offense and applying ball pressure on defense.
But a key player to watch in this series is also Lindsey Harding, who has steadily gotten more efficient as a ball handler after a rough start to the season. In August, she averaged 5.5 assists and 2 turnovers per game; in their last five games - during which the Dream went 5-1 - Harding had 7.4 assists and 3.4 turnovers per game. But also of note is that her free throw rate went steadily downward to the point where she was only shooting 9.2 per game in their final five.
Why that matters is essentially the same reason Shalee Lehning worked for the Dream in the time that she did - they have one of the league's most prolific scorers in Angel McCoughtry and they just need someone to get the ball to her and their post players efficiently.
Regular season statistical MVP: Angel McCoughtry's scoring prowess
I'm going to defer to James on McCoughtry: sometimes you have to allow yourself to sit back in astonishment of what she's capable of and what she could still become. Defensively - regardless of what you think of her relative to the league - she's easily one of the most disruptive players there is (acknowledging, of course, that "disruptiveness" fits under "activity" in John Wooden's activity vs. achievement dichotomy).
She's good. Really good. Not a young Tamika Catchings - they're just very different players in almost every way you can think of - but extremely good in her own right. And for a Sun team that has struggled to shoot at times, McCoughtry could help make things ugly.
Key statistical battleground: Free throw differential
Both teams have a scoring weakness, which means they don't need to be tossing possessions away with turnovers. But the bigger thing to watch might be free throws: in their four previous meetings, the team with the better free throw rate won the game. That is almost never the case, but consider the situation: two teams that struggle with shooting efficiency in one way or another and have perimeter players (Lawson, Montgomery, White & Harding, McCoughtry, Price) capable of getting to the line. If Atlanta can't impose it's pace on the game with turnovers and transition points, free throw rate really could determine the outcome.
The simulator likes the Sun and that makes a lot of sense: home court advantage and a 15-2 home record, tied for best in the league with the Seattle Storm.
But I'm going to provide an alternative perspective: the Dream really are a tale of two seasons. Their first 12 games were not good, they were injured, and Iziane Castro Marques was having a down season. But their final month and a half was outstanding as they finished the season 14-1 with both Harding and McCoughtry (and Sancho Lyttle, to some extent) playing better.
It's not hard to argue that the Dream are playing the second-best basketball in the Eastern Conference right now and that's why it's hard not to favor them to win this series (and the East).