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How the Minnesota Lynx swept the Phoenix Mercury to advance to the 2013 WNBA Finals

Entering the 2013 WNBA Finals, we'll hear a lot about the Atlanta Dream's defense and justifiably so. But after the Phoenix Mercury shot just 34.26% from the field in the Western Conference Finals, the Minnesota Lynx's defensive prowess probably deserves some credit as well.

Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to the 2013 WNBA season, Albert seemed to capture the general consensus about the Minnesota Lynx around the Swish Appeal community in his preseason predictions while all about us others were jumping on the Phoenix Mercury bandwagon.

Why #1: The Lynx return four of their starting five from last year as well as most of their rotation front court players. With a starting backcourt and wing trio of the aforementioned Augustus, Lindsay Whalen, and Maya Moore all still with at least some of their best basketball ahead of them, this team will be tough to beat.

When considering why the Lynx are where they are now, there isn't a whole lot more explanation than that necessary.

To support the Mercury as favorites to win the title as enthusiastically as many people did prior to the season required some reason not to expect the Lynx to continue their run of dominance for a third year. As Albert alluded to then, the Lynx had the chemistry, experience, and talent to at the very least keep pace with their previous two years - everything was in place to continue performing at the same level.

Whereas the Lynx could be considered the favorites just by maintaining the status quo, it was clear that the Mercury would need a lot to go right in order for them to meet the lofty (and sometimes just absurd) expectations that some people had set for them. Without going through a deep analysis now, suffice it to say that things turned out looking a lot more like Albert's worst case scenario than the best case.

The outcome of the Western Conference sort of put those "chemistry gap" between the two teams on full display, starting with what showed up in the box score.

Key statistic: shooting efficiency

There was one thing the Mercury absolutely had to do in order to even have a shot at winning this series: shoot more efficiently than the Lynx. Unfortunately, that never materialized.

























Four Factors statistics for the Minnesota and Phoenix: first three quarters of Game 1 & 2 of the West. Conf. Finals.

The key thing to note here is that the Lynx didn't exactly shoot the lights out in this series - their shooting efficiency was right around where it was during the regular season (a league-high 50.2% effectively field goal percentage). Their 52.88% efficiency in Game 1 was certainly outstanding, but they fell back down to a more pedestrian 45.97% in Game 2 (which just so happens to match league average for the regular season).

The question therefore becomes whether the Mercury's poor shooting efficiency was a matter of them engaging in extended "self-guarding" or the Lynx defense. The answer is probably a mix of both.

"I honestly didn't feel like they took us out of tons of stuff," Mercury coach Russ Pennell said in his post-game remarks via a release. "I thought what we did was we settled for the easy things. Again, maybe that's their defense doing it, but we didn't have any problem moving the ball, we didn't have a problem getting to our spots.

"We shot the ball incredibly poor, but I think a lot of that was we took ill-advised shots. When they helped we just didn't find the open player. That was kind of the theme all night was make the open pass."

The pick-and-roll game that helped Phoenix overwhelm the Los Angeles Sparks in the first round simply didn't work against Minnesota as they did what every grade school teams is taught to do and successfully communicated and switched. With their length across their roster, solid rotations, and ability to guard most Mercury players one-on-one - most notably, Janel McCarville using her strength on the interior to make it difficult for Brittney Griner to even establish position - the Lynx just systematically cut off most of what the Mercury wanted to do. Or, perhaps more accurately, exploited their pre-existing tendencies.

Mercury MVP: Diana Taurasi's shot creation ability

As most WNBA observers know, the Mercury are a team that doesn't think twice about hoisting up shots that most teams wouldn't even consider taking. But the 39 threes they shot in the Western Conference Finals was extreme even for them: that's nearly five more than their per game average for the season. And the fact that DeWanna Bonner went 0-for-12 for the series is only overshadowed by the fact that they shot 4-for-39 (10.25%) as a team - had she finished with even a mediocre efficiency, the Mercury would've had a much better chance at winning Game 2.

It's difficult to avoid explaining that volume of threes without granting the Mercury some degree of agency in their own shot selection, but their inability to hit those shots - which weren't 100% contested - was just compounded by their inability to find the scoring opportunities they wanted on a consistent basis inside the arc. When that happened, it only made sense that Diana Taurasi would be the player to pick up the slack.

The discussion about how badly the Mercury need a point guard to put Taurasi off the ball will probably continue throughout the offseason, but in cases like the Western Conference Finals that's a moot point: with Bonner being a non-factor, the pick-and-roll not working the way it did against the Sparks, and McCarville effectively preventing Griner from establishing position, Taurasi was the best option to create shots for the Mercury, even when she was inefficient.

What the Mercury needed was anyone else who could help make something happen in the backcourt, whether that be another combo guard next to Taurasi or dynamic playmaker at point guard. That helps to explain Penny Taylor's value to the team: in the past, Taylor was the player who could share ball handling duties with Taurasi to help take some of the pressure off of her. Without her available, they didn't have another option to crack Minnesota's defense.

Key player: Seimone Augustus' defense, playmaking

One recurring theme that came up in discussions of how to defend the Mercury was Augustus' role in just wearing out Taurasi on the defensive end, and that was certainly part of what helped add to the Mercury's problems when other things had gone awry offensively. But Augustus' offensive performance can't be ignored either.

Augustus got her 22 points in Game 2 using screens, her crossover, and her mid-range shooting ability as well as driving aggressively to the basket and finding herself with opportunities from the free throw line.

Unfortunately, Augustus was also a significant part of the story of how the Mercury kept themselves in Game 2 or rather how the Lynx allowed them to hang around: Augustus had a team-high 9 attempts but only made 4 as the team shot just 15-for-27 (55.55%) overall. Leaving all those points on the table against a team as talented as the Mercury is always dangerous... unless you're a team as talented as the Lynx.

Lynx MVP: Maya Moore's playoff career-high 27 points in Game 2

On a team with a defense that held an opponent to under 35% shooting from the field, had Augustus scoring pretty much in whatever way she wanted to, and arguably the league's best point guard running the offense, it's almost unfair to imagine that the Lynx had more going for them. But they did: we haven't even gotten to Maya Moore yet and she's probably the one who best represents what make this team so hard to beat.

When facing an opponent as talented as the Lynx, standard basketball wisdom would probably suggest that you at least make it hard for them to score by forcing them to take the least efficient shot possible possession to possession; in halfcourt sets, that means not giving up layups, closing out on 3-point shooters, and trying to force a lot of long contested jumpers.

But here's the problem with that: they have two players who will gladly live in the mid-range and knock down jumper after jumper. In the abstract, the Mercury could even consider the shot charts for Augustus and Moore a "success".



Game 1

Game 1

Game 2

Game 2

Shot charts for Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore for Game 1 & 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

Against normal players, holding Augustus to just 3 shots out of 26 in the paint over the course of a series would be a victory. Likewise, the Game 1 shot chart for Moore reflects a team that held her to most jumpshots.

The problem is that these aren't normal players and they can go about their business of torching a defense with 50%+ shooting on jumpers. And when a team can do that to you while you're not hitting a shot, it can just be demoralizing.

And yet he Game 2 shot chart for Moore is a complete nightmare: a number of breakdowns led to her getting 8 shots in the paint, transition buckets notwithstanding. Then she still shot 8-for-14 outside of those close range shots. What exactly does a defense do about an opponent that is just killing you nearly everywhere?

To their credit, Phoenix did one thing that the numbers do suggest is a good idea: the Mercury did themselves a favor by holding the Lynx to an offensive rebounding percentage under 20% over the two games, which is one thing they have done better since Pennell took over. But the Mercury also have a long way to go: there were numerous breakdowns that led to Moore getting so many easy scoring opportunities in Game 2 that were not due to impeccable execution as much as inattentive defense (we could probably pick on individual players for that, but it was really an issue of help defense as a unit). With the Seattle Storm reloading next season with their injured stars returning and the Lynx clearly not going anywhere, the defensive end of the ball is still where the Mercury need to clean things up if they hope to make it out of the Western Conference next season.

Yet in Minnesota's case, the responsibility for their offense's performance is not so hard to discern: it's extremely difficult to stop all the threats they present an opposing defense, even if the opponent has plenty weapons of their own.

For more on the Lynx-Mercury series, check out our Western Conference Finals storystream.