Thursday, September 8, 2011

Lynx Ready for Playoffs; Whalen for MVP

The Minnesota Lynx disposed of the stubborn Chicago Sky 78-69 Thursday night in their penultimate tune-up for the WNBA playoffs, wherein they have the #1 seed and the home court throughout.

The Sky, though already eliminated from the playoff picture, came to play and play hard, and shocked the Lynx with a 19-5 2nd half run to a 53-52 lead just 30 seconds into the 4th quarter. But Lindsay Whalen responded with 3 buckets and 3 assists over the next 6 minutes and the Lynx gradually pulled away.

Seimone Augustus led the scoring with 22 points, but Whalen was the obvious star of the game with 20 points, 10 assists, 7 boards and 2 steals. Maya Moore added 16 points and 7 boards. Sylvia Fowles and Erin Thorn scored 17 points each for the Sky.

In fact, the game started out as a showcase for MVP candidates Fowles and Whalen. Fowles is currently rated #2 in the MVP race and Whalen #8 behind teammate Seimone at #6. Fowles scored Chicago's 1st 5 points and 11 in total in the 1st quarter on 5-of-7 shooting, and she added 3 rebounds. Whalen picked up her 2nd foul at 1:45 of the 1st, but before she sat down she scored 8 points on 4-for-4 shooting with 3 assists.

I mean, this is the Lindsay and Seimone show. Moore, not to mention Rebekah Brunson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin, are admirable role players--all-star caliber players, all three--but in a supporting role. So, with Whalen on the bench with those 2 fouls, the Sky scored 7 straight points to get within 30-26 at 5:34 of the 2nd. Lindsay checked back in and over the next 3 minutes found Taj (twice), Moore and Seimone for open shots, which they knocked down, for a 41-32 lead.

She then opened the 3rd with a reverse lay-up off a baseline drive and another assist to Seimone, and the Lynx were up 47-34. Another driving lay-up made it 49-42, and it was 49-44 when Lindsay took a seat on the bench again. The Sky rallied to within 52-50 after 3, then took their 1st lead since 11-10 on a 3 by Epiphanny Prince. Whalen checked back in and once again the Lynx took control of the ball, the tempo and, ultimately, the game.

After her stellar 1st half of work Fowles, on the other hand, disappeared. She made 6-of-9 FG in the 1st half, just 1-of-4 in the 2nd. And Chicago's other bigs, Carolyn Swords and Michelle Snow, also punished the Lynx' out-sized interior defense with 5-of-9 shooting. I mean, let's be honest, if there's a weakness on this team, interior defense would be it with its 6-2, 6-2, 6-0 starting front line. And so the Sky's big 3 out-scored Brunson, Taj and Jessica Adair 29-11. And yet, at crunch time, Fowles was not a factor.

Rather, Chicago became guard-oriented as the game wore on. Erin Thorn was terrific on offense, hitting 4-of-7 from 3-point-land. Her understudy, rookie Courtney Vandersloot doubled Thorn's assist total 4-2 but made just 2-of-10 shots, 1-of-6 from beyond the arc. Prince made just 3-of-12 with no assists. Advantage Whalen and the Lynx.

Chicago's bench was also more productive than the Lynx' by 18 points to 12 and 6 assists to 1. The Lynx' bench did out-rebound Chicago's 13-10. Candice Wiggins, so effective for most of the season and especially the past 4-6 weeks, scored 5 points but with no assists and 2 turnovers. The Lynx out-scored the Sky by 2 with Wiggins on the court for 18 minutes, and by 16 with Whalen on the court for 28 minutes.

The biggest Lynx, Amber Harris, was out with a concussion, and I'm not aware that there's been any announcement of when she'll return. It's hard to say she was missed, considering that the Lynx shut down Fowles in the 2nd half, anyway, but it would be good to have the additional size available for the playoffs.

San Antonio and the Playoffs

Oh, yes, the playoffs. The Lynx now have just 1 regular season game remaining at Phoenix on Sunday night. They've drawn the San Antonio Silver Stars for the playoffs, which open at the Target Center on Friday September 16. A Sunday (September 18) game at San Antonio follows with the rubber match, if necessary, back at the Target Center on Tuesday September 20.

The good news is, well, two-fold. The Lynx swept the Stars in 4 games this year--OK, two were close (70-69 and 62-60) but the 2 more recent games were decided by 10 and 11 points. And San Antone doesn't seem to be the type of team to beat the Lynx, anyway. They don't have anybody like Sylvia Fowles--well, nobody has anybody like Sylvia Fowles. But the Stars are just not big and strong inside, as evidenced by their 37-31 per game rebounding deficit throughout the year.

That leaves it up to Becky Hammon, the former Lynx who scored 37 points last night on 14-of-19 shooting. But over 4 games, Whalen out-scored Hammon 14 ppg to 10. Hammon had 26 assists to Lindsay's 24, but Hammon also turned it over 18 times to Lindsay's 10.

Not to underestimate the Stars. They will present stiff resistance, especially now with rookie all-star forward Danielle Adams back from injury. But the Stars not only get out-rebounded, they shot 42.5 percent, same as their opponents. The Lynx shoot 46 percent and hold their opponents to 41 percent. And San Antone seems a bit prone to turn it over. They will not defeat the Lynx.

And if Lindsay Whalen can consistently out-play people like Becky Hammon and Sylvia Fowles, then she ought to rank well above #8 in the MVP race. In fact, if I had a vote, I'd pencil her in at #1.

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