During his introduction to the Atlanta Dream's game against the Minnesota Lynx on August 20, broadcaster Bob Rathbun commented, "You can gameplan for the stars in this league defensively, but the reason they're stars is that they can come through despite all the defensive pressure. That's certainly the case with Atlanta's Angel McCoughtry and Minnesota's Maya Moore."
And of course you can probably apply the same reasoning to Seimone Augustus.
Yet the thing that fans often forget when considering the defensive end of the ball is that defense is never entirely a one-on-one effort - it's always a 5-on-5 effort. Conveniently, examples of what the Dream need to do to succeed showed up within the first four minutes of their 88-73 win in late August.
1. Focused help defense
Within the first 30 seconds of the August 20 meeting, we saw an example of how good the Dream's defense can be when they're locked in.
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Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen dribbled out to the right wing to set up a screen from Rebbekah Brunson with the rest of the defense on the other side of the court (Frame 1). After the screen caused the switch, Whalen drove by de Souza baseline as she does so often but found herself with no room to make a play (Frame 2): de Souza was in position to defend a layup on the right side of the rim and Angel McCoughtry had rotated over to defend the rim. But the real key to this play was the weakside defense from Armintie Herrington: even as she turned her full attention to the driving Whalen, she remained in position to recover to guard Seimone Augustus in the corner. When Whalen tried to make a play from under the basket, she had nowhere to go and Herrington stole a poor pass (Frame 3).
The same principles are at work when the Dream defend the Lynx around the perimeter.
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Less than 30 seconds later, we see Whalen try to execute a pick and roll with Janel McCarville (Frame 1). Although the screen came from an awkward angle, the screen forced a switch with Thomas remaining in position to defend McCarville on the roll (Frame 2). With McCarville rolling and Whalen dribbling laterally, the Dream wisely switch back with Thomas on Whalen as well as every offensive player being accounted for by the Dream's defense (Frame 3).
This is pretty basic defensive basketball, but defensive discipline can be dangerous in basketball - both of the above plays ended in turnovers in different ways, with the second resulting in McCoughtry knocking the ball off of Augustus' leg out of bounds.
To say that the answer to beating the Lynx is to stop their ball movement is rather banal: obviously the way to stop a fine tuned machine is to...untune it. But the advantage the Dream have that most other teams don't is a number of athletic and versatile defenders. At their best, they can rotate, swarm, and recover quicker than any team in the league. Having an extended period to scout the Lynx and anticipating some of their habits on offense should go a long way to helping the Dream stall Minnesota's defense at times.
2. Scoring points in transition
It probably goes without saying, but what defines the Dream is their ability to score points in transition after making defensive stops and their win against the Lynx during the regular season was no exception: the decisive 22-5 fourth quarter was fueled by the Dream's ability to capitalize on Lynx turnovers.
Yet the only reason to bring it up in advance of this Finals series is that there's an important tension that played itself out in the August 20th game: while the Dream were the best team in the league during the regular season at scoring off turnovers (league-high 18.24 points per game), the Lynx were the best team at denying points off turnovers (12.09 per game).
Obviously the Dream are going to aggressively pressure the ball and make it difficult for the Lynx to run their sets or at least try to keep them from finding quality scoring opportunities in the half court. However, the Lynx can minimize the damage the Dream do in transition by simply not turning the ball over, which is part of the reason they're so good at keeping their opponents' points in transition so low (Western Conference-high 8.21 per game).
3. Finding mismatches with small ball
The Dream spent most of the entire fourth quarter on August 20th playing small ball with McCoughtry playing the power forward spot. That allowed them to do what most teams need the threat of a 3-point shot for: spreading the floor.
With a small ball lineup on the floor, the Dream can take a four-out approach to the game and force the Lynx into defending them off the dribble. In that first game, the Lynx simply weren't able to: the Dream had a 27-16 advantage in free throw attempts. And with Erika de Souza in the paint - she had a game-high 16 rebounds - the Dream were able to fight enough on the boards to win the game.
The only question might be whether McCoughtry can contain Rebekkah Brunson on the boards. However, there's a case to be made that rebounding is a concession that might work in the Dream's favor: Brunson had a game-high 8 offensive rebounds in that loss to the Dream; the associated challenge for the Lynx is stopping McCoughtry.
When the Dream went to a lineup of Alex Bentley, Tiffany Hayes, Armintie Herrington, Angel McCoughtry, and Erika de Souza and spread the floor, the Dream necessarily had a matchup problem: all four of those players can attack the basket to score and it really only makes sense for a big to play McCoughtry. As long as the Dream rotated the ball on offense, they were able to score.
But defensive, what occurred on a few possessions in August was that the Dream were getting offensive rebounds not on the basis of bullying players in the paint, but simply being quicker to the ball. The effects of that were clear from the first quarter.
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The sequence above occurred after a missed jumper by McCoughtry around the 6:30 mark in the first quarter. Herrington and Brunson are chasing after the ball, which Herrington actually wins (Frame 1). Yet at that point, you'll also notice Augustus already starting to leak out on the right side of the picture. The ball gets back out to Thomas who wisely recognizes that McCoughtry is essentially unaccounted for with McCarville in the middle of the key trying to be in position to guard two people since Augustus is out of the play (Frame 2). When McCarville rotates over to McCoughtry, no Lynx player rotates to protect the basket and de Souza is left standing at the basket wide open and begging for the ball (Frame 3).
Obviously that play began with Augustus leaking out in transition in a loose ball situation, but it also stood out as an example of how Atlanta's speed can overcome Minnesota's size: on a number of occasions, regardless of the players on the floor, simply being scrappier created scoring opportunities for the Dream as the Lynx scrambled to keep up.
Can they do it for 40 minutes?
The reason the Lynx came back to take a four-point lead at the end of the third quarter - in addition to just being the Lynx - was a number of defensive breakdowns by the Dream that led to easy points off cuts for the Lynx. Not surprisingly, they took back control of the game got back to playing the type of high-energy, cohesive defense that the did to race out to an early lead.
Although small ball could certainly be considered one reason for that swing, ultimately it mostly came down to defensive intensity: the Lynx went almost eight minutes in the fourth quarter without scoring a field goal. The problem for the Dream is that it seems to come in waves: they began the game playing textbook defense, got a lead, started to waffle a bit defensively, looked less engaged in the third quarter, then turned it back on in the fourth quarter to close the deal.
What the Dream need is a sloppy, high-energy game where their athleticism can help them create scoring opportunities in space, whether that be in transition or by spreading the court and identifying mismatches with a small lineup.
But regardless of the aesthetics of the game, to win their first Finals game in franchise history - much less than their first title - the Dream will have to maintain that intensity; it was that defensive intensity that helped the Dream accomplish another task that good basketball teams often complete: outshooting their opponents.
For more on the Dream and Lynx, check out our 2013 WNBA Finals storystream.