After Indiana stole Game 1 of the WNBA Finals in Minnesota on Sunday, the Lynx had their backs against the wall last night. You can afford to drop one game at home, but if they went down 2-0 before heading back to Indiana for the next two games (if two were even necessary), Minnesota would’ve become huge outsiders to repeat as champions. They needed this one, but it was going to take a better performance than they produced three nights earlier to pull it off. The Fever would’ve settled for a split of the opening two games if you’d offered it to them before the series began, but once you take the first you get greedy. They’d beaten Minnesota on their own floor once already; why not twice?
There was still no sign of Indiana wing Katie Douglas for Game 2, still back in Indiana rehabbing her ankle and hoping to recover in time to play some part in the series (although reports from her European team suggest that might be unlikely even if the Finals go all five games). So the starting lineups were the same again, with Shavonte Zellous filling in for Douglas.
The opening minutes weren’t much better for Minnesota than Game 1. They gave up cheap turnovers on sloppy passes; Erin Phillips and Briann January were knocking down jumpers for the Fever; and Seimone Augustus was struggling to find her range. To top things off, point guard Lindsay Whalen picked up two fouls within seconds of each other trying to chase after January, so less than 4 minutes into the game Minnesota’s floor leader had to head back to the bench. It was only 11-9 Indiana at the first timeout, but it was hardly the barnstorming opening Minnesota would’ve been hoping for.
On the bright side for Minnesota, there had been a couple of early scores where they finally exploited the overplaying Indiana defense. The Fever are undersized and scramble around the floor to help each other where necessary defensively. That often means that an extra defender is shading over to the strong side (the side where the ball is) so that she can arrive and help as quickly as possible. The best way to beat that is to move the ball sharply from one side to the other, or make the extra pass when the help defender commits to coming across and leaves space behind her. Minnesota didn’t do that enough in Game 1, and they still weren’t in Game 2, but there were one or two plays where they found the open player to score from the weak side of the floor. It showed an awareness of the opportunities, even if they weren’t managing to attack them consistently.
There were one or two other evident differences from the Lynx in the first quarter. There was less double-teaming or hard showing on ball screens, simply switching or letting the defender fight around instead. It meant the opportunities for Indiana off the pick-and-roll weren’t as open, and whenever the ball did get down low to Erlana Larkins, the defense was collapsing on her immediately. Larkins didn’t just have an impact on the glass in Game 1 – she also ended up with far too many easy finishes at the rim under minimal pressure. The Lynx were clearly more determined to make her fight for her points this time around. Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve also tried to use her bench earlier and to a greater extent in Game 2, but was hampered by some weak performances from her reserves. Devereaux Peters, Amber Harris and Candice Wiggins all failed to impress in first quarter opportunities, leading to the return of the starters they were meant to be helping. Even Whalen, with her two fouls, was back in the game late in the first quarter, thanks to Wiggins’s inability to run the team or hit a shot. Led by penetration from Tamika Catchings and good ball movement to find open shots for Phillips, Indiana were up 18-11 to end the first period.
Unlike the first game, where she’d played the opening 30 minutes without a break, Catchings got some rest to open the second quarter, as Jeanette Pohlen and Jessica Davenport provided a little help from Indiana’s bench. Indiana’s lead even reached 12 points when penetration from Phillips found Pohlen wide open to knock down a three. But unfortunately for Indiana, the injury bug hit them once again. While trying to defend Maya Moore – something she’d managed surprisingly successfully in the series to that point – Pohlen twisted and went down. It was one of those scary injuries where no one actually touched her, and she had to be helped back to the locker room. It was later diagnosed as a left knee problem, and she didn’t return (nor is she expected to play in Game 3 on Friday night). With Douglas already out, it left Indiana desperately short of perimeter players. They were down to their three starters and Karima Christmas – who hadn’t played a single minute in the postseason.
Regardless of the disruption of losing another player, Indiana were still on top. Despite a couple of conversions via passes to the weak side, and a growing dominance on the glass, Minnesota’s frustration at failing to find consistent offense was growing. With over 5 minutes left in the first half, Whalen picked up her third foul by lowering her shoulder into January to try to create space for a shot. After watching Wiggins struggle in the first quarter, Reeve went to a lineup that she’d virtually never used before. Monica Wright came in for Whalen to play with the four other starters, a lineup that essentially doesn’t have a point guard. And it worked like a charm. Wright’s speed and defensive aggression injected some life into the Lynx – and their crowd – and suddenly they had a little rhythm. A couple of easy finishes inside led to a couple of makes from outside, leaving the game right back in the balance.
Finally Minnesota’s defense was forcing Indiana deep into the shot clock, Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Rebekkah Brunson were protecting the paint, and the Lynx were right back in the game. The Fever responded through a pretty baseline drive from Zellous and a Catchings three, but the mood was much more positive in Minnesota. McWilliams-Franklin finished off the half by shoving January out of the way – no whistle came – then finishing inside just before the buzzer, drawing Minnesota within 33-31 at halftime. A physical, low-scoring game that fitted Indiana’s M.O. more than Minnesota’s, but the Lynx had ended the half stronger.
Both sides ended the first half with double-digit turnovers, which wouldn’t have pleased either coach, but Minnesota were up 8-2 on the offensive boards. As mentioned in the preview before this series, Indiana would’ve happily settled for a tie on the glass, and thanks to the efforts of Larkins they came close in Game 1. The Lynx had done a better job of keeping Larkins quiet, and crashing the boards as a team. No individual Minnesota player had more than 5 rebounds at halftime, but as a group they were starting to take charge inside. As part of that effort, Moore hadn’t seen a single second at power forward – although that had required a lot of minutes from Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin.
The ESPN video from the locker rooms brought us contrasting clips of the halftime speeches from the respective coaches. Indiana’s Lin Dunn was asking for more effort from her team, focussing on those 8 offensive boards they’d given up; Reeve was talking about sticking an elbow out on drives, creating contact and forcing defenders to collapse down and be called for fouls. Indiana have a long-standing reputation as a physical team, but Minnesota are pretty similar these days. Reeve was schooled by Bill Laimbeer, among others, and she was asking for borderline dirty play from her team. But as many coaches will tell you, if the refs don’t call it, you can do what you like.
Minnesota made a decent start to the second half, with Moore and Seimone Augustus knocking down jumpers, but Indiana quickly responded with drives and transition points from January and Phillips to build a 6-point lead and force an early Reeve timeout. Then Augustus took over. A jumper, a drive into the lane for a finger roll finish, then a spinning turnaround through contact and the game was tied. The beauty of having players with this much natural offensive talent is that sometimes they’ll just fire you right back into games all on their own.
Reeve still wasn’t happy, especially with the way she perceived calls were going against her team. McWilliams-Franklin had been forced to the bench after picking up her fourth foul midway through the third quarter – leaving Minnesota to go small with Moore at power forward for the first time all night – and Reeve boiled over when Lindsay Whalen failed to draw a whistle on a transition drive. January had stuck her arm in and prevented the layup by Whalen – January caught plenty of ball but a lot of arm as well – and the Lynx point guard drew a technical for her protestations. That sent Reeve over the edge, picking up her own technical foul as she ranted and angrily tore off her jacket before throwing it back to the sidelines. She was desperately lucky not to be tossed from the game.
While it might’ve looked like a coach going nuts, you can rest assured that Reeve knew exactly what she was doing. Many coaching technicals are picked up with a purpose, and this was certainly one of them. First of all it riled up the crowd, who always love to see their coach showing emotion like that. It made a dramatic point to the officials about how she felt the calls had been going all night. And it made it clear to her team that she wanted that kind of energy and emotion from them as well. Even if she had been tossed, it might well have been worth it.
Catchings hit both technical free throws for a 50-48 Indiana lead with 3 minutes left in the third quarter, then did everything she could to repeatedly shut up the Target Center crowd. She hit a gorgeous turnaround in the post, and drilled a three moments later, but Minnesota had found their mojo. Their defensive energy was feeding off the crowd, with the smaller lineup finally working exactly as it’s supposed to do, forcing mistakes and turnovers from Indiana. On offense, the Lynx were attacking inside, continuing to dominate the glass, and Augustus topped off the period with a three in January’s face. In the third quarter alone the Lynx had an 8-1 advantage in forcing turnovers, and a 5-0 edge on the offensive board. That combination led to Minnesota taking 25 shots to Indiana’s 13. They were only up 60-55, but for once it felt like they were in control of the game.
The opening basket of the fourth quarter – Erlana Larkins’s first of the game – pulled Indiana within 60-57, but that was as close as they’d get for the rest of the night. Dunn picked up her own technical for a much less demonstrative complaint, but her shorthanded team were starting to look a little tired. Beyond that, this time Minnesota’s star scorers refused to stay quiet in crunch time, and the Lynx were still vastly superior on the glass. Augustus, Whalen and Moore all made shots in the fourth, and the Lynx even got some solid minutes from Peters when she was given a second chance to make an impact. In fact, Peters played so well that Brunson got to spend almost the entire final period relaxing on the bench. With Catchings still fighting Indiana did what they could, but the Lynx had been on top ever since Reeve’s wild outburst. The Fever shot 63% in the final quarter – but it was on just 8 shot attempts. They couldn’t get a rebound, couldn’t end Minnesota possessions, and the game ran away from them. A step-back three from Catchings with 3 minutes left cut the gap to 9 points and raised brief thoughts of a late comeback – before Augustus drilled her own three on the very next possession. Minnesota eased home for an 83-71 win to even up the series.
It would minimise the Lynx performance to say that they simply “wanted it more”, although it would probably be fair to say that simple desire was a factor. The rebounding battle that Larkins had held somewhere close to even in Game 1 was an absolute massacre, with Minnesota ahead 32-20 by the end of the game – including a 17-2 edge on the offensive glass. It led to a 24-3 advantage in second-chance points that obviously played a key role in Minnesota’s victory. It wasn’t a matter of one player outdueling Larkins or pulling down a huge number of boards – in fact, Brunson was the leading Lynx rebounder with just 7 – but they worked much harder as a team to go after the ball and keep it away from the Fever. The Lynx offense still wasn’t great for long stretches, but their big players made shots when they had to. Augustus (11-23 for 27 points), Moore (7-15 for 23) and Whalen (6-9 for 14) were the primary scorers, but it was the defense and rebounding that enabled the offense to be more successful. There was greater activity defensively, better closing out on the Fever’s perimeter shooters, and the Lynx forced 24 turnovers that led to 27 points. That’s one of the few areas where Indiana would expect to be on top of the Minnesota, and yet it didn’t happen in Game 2.
Until hitting a series of threes in the deciding game of the Eastern Conference Finals, Jeanette Pohlen had been pretty awful in her brief opportunities in the playoffs. But losing her in this game disrupted the Fever’s momentum and rotation, and left them with little opportunity to rest anyone. Karima Christmas played a few minutes in the third quarter but was quickly back on the bench. Assuming neither Douglas nor Pohlen are available for Game 3 – as is expected to be the case – they may well need Christmas to play, because otherwise January, Phillips and Zellous could have to play 40 minutes apiece. The other option is sliding Catchings back out to small forward, but Dunn won’t want to do that for more than a couple of minutes. Backup centers Jessica Davenport and Tammy Sutton-Brown just aren’t quick enough to keep up the activity and pace of the Fever’s defense.
However, the whole Indiana performance can’t just be put down to fatigue and limited personnel. Indiana’s overpursuing defense led to players being out of position to rebound, and that came back to haunt them far more than in Game 1. Their lack of size relative to Minnesota isn’t something that’s going to change, so it has to be a team effort to rebound as well as to defend. Larkins and Catchings can’t be expected to do it all on their own. They also, obviously, have to take better care of the ball. The Fever actually shot pretty well (48%), led by Catchings at 9-14 for 27 points, but took only 52 shots to Minnesota’s 74. That’s down to the rebounding and the 24 turnovers. It should be easier in front of their own crowd, where any outside influence on the officials might go in their favour, but it also comes down to Indiana’s own composure. They’ve shown that they can match this Lynx team – now they just have to come out and prove it all over again.
Lin Dunn was not happy about Reeve’s outburst and said so after the game. She felt Reeve should’ve been ejected, and was even less impressed when informed of Reeve’s speech at halftime. Players, coaches and fans who’ve faced Indiana’s own physical defense over the years may not have a lot of sympathy. As with every championship series, a lot of this talk in the press is simply an effort to gain every possible tiny edge. Reeve wants more calls to go her way, and her jacket-tossing outburst had the desired effect. Now Dunn wants to encourage things to slide in the opposite direction. It’ll be interesting to see if the officials for Game 3 try to take a heavier grip on the physicality of the series. If they do, it could slow things down, which should favour Indiana. But stop-start games with lots of whistles also tend to take the crowd out of the action, which would lessen the home-court advantage. Either way, Game 3 is poised to be another cracker on Friday night.
Remaining WNBA Finals Schedule (best-of-five series tied at 1-1)
Friday October 19th:
Minnesota @ Indiana, Game 3, 8pm ET
Sunday October 21st:
Minnesota @ Indiana, Game 4, 8pm ET
Wednesday October 24th:
Indiana @ Minnesota, Game 5 (if necessary), 8pm ET