The game to highlight this week is obvious: The Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx went head to head, and had a lot of crunchy stuff to look through. As for the player, I chose Tina Charles; she's been incredible for the New York Liberty, anchoring both the offense and defense, and deserves a look.
LOS ANGELES SPARKS v. MINNESOTA LYNX
The Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks met in a historic matchup Tuesday, June 21. Both undefeated, this was a game that we rarely get: the true top two teams going head to head. It would, at least until they meet up again, give us a real number one. Perhaps even more important, that game would give a chance to really analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx.
The game itself wasn't flashy; it was a low-scoring affair, with both teams only cracking 20 points in a quarter once. The low score, coupled with the plays in the game itself, gave us one concrete truth: these defenses are for real.
These two teams own the top two defenses and offenses, and both were shut down, scoring-wise, after the first quarter. The Lynx won this game by three, proving both to everyone (myself included) that they are the better team. But it isn't by much, and unless people get hurt or something else similarly cataclysmic happens, I would call each subsequent game a toss-up.
Take a look at this clip:
This is a tough, tough shot; a turnaround jumper with no space to work with is never the end point of any successful offensive set. These kinds of shots were the only shots available to the Lynx; very rarely did they have an open look.
Candace Parker does an excellent job defending; she stays with her assignment, dropping into the lane with her, and then takes little steps to help clog the lane and stop the entry pass into the post. The Lynx make the shot, but it's a shot they can live with.
The Sparks are up against that same kind of defensive presence:
There is nowhere for the Sparks to go, and though they make a tough shot, Minnesota can live with it. The Lynx move so well; almost on a string, they guard and slide. One of the big mistakes you can make on defense is to lunge, and overplay; unless you have superior athleticism, that is a recipe for failure. The Lynx do not do this on this play, and rarely do it ever.
My favorite part of this play is watching Renee Montgomery. She comes up the floor, sliding down the right side. She guards her man on the perimeter, but loosely; she manages to ward off the threat of a pass to the interior with her half of a double team.
When her assignment shifts around the perimeter to the top of the arc, Montgomery goes with her, but slides inward to the free throw line, adding another body to help corral the driving Sparks player. She didn't overextend herself, and exhibited good defensive awareness; that's all you can really ask for from a defender.
This is what happens when you do overextend yourself:
This is great, great defense by the Sparks. They move so well, covering all bases; perhaps the most important feature of this play is that they hustle their butts off. They are forced to close out on two separate perimeter defenders, and recover nicely, save for the last bit of defense; though it was a good move from Maya Moore, the Los Angeles defender should never have left her feet.
Moore makes a tough, tough shot, but it would've been nigh-unmakeable had the Sparks player kept her feet. That's what lunging and jumping does for you.
Speaking anecdotally, the Sparks missed a lot of open shots. The Lynx did too, I'm sure, but I really noticed it from the Sparks side. This game was won on tough, pressure-filled shots, like this one:
That's a tough-butt shot that Los Angeles barely misses. But it's better defense from Minnesota. Pretty much every star player for either team shot the ball poorly, and generally put up bad to mediocre stats.
I expect every game to be a slugfest, especially if these two teams stay healthy. I would peg these two as healthy favorites to meet up in the WNBA Finals; I only wish they were able to play each other in the semifinals, too, so we could see them beat up each other for a championship.
The game clips I picked came from the June 22nd game against the Atlanta Dream. I picked this game because Tina Charles shot very, very poorly, hitting only 9-of-24 shots. Despite that, she managed to impact the game in ways that go beyond just scoring.
Take a look at this clip:
Even in a game that she shot poorly, the Dream still consider her enough of a threat to require a double team in the post. She makes an excellent read, showing excellent vision, dropping the ball into the hands of a cutting Liberty player.
She does it again, in this clip:
This time, she doesn't even pretend to post up; she catches the ball, and immediately looks for the backdoor cut. The Dream stay on her, though, because if they do back off, she can take that single defender to the hoop.
One last clip:
This is a flashier play, good for illustrating my point. She uses her length, along with her teammate, to force the Dream player into jacking up a shot. Her strength and smarts give her an advantage over most players.
The Liberty rely on her more than most franchises rely on their stars, and with good reason. She can and does anchor both ends of the floor, and makes everyone around her better. Maybe as important, teams are afraid of her, and take pains to make sure that she doesn't have open looks or easy baskets, opening up space for her teammates.