Saturday, September 1, 2012

Can Lynx Repeat?

The MN Lynx open the 2nd half of the 2012 season as the defending champions of the WNBA, with the best record in the league to date, and with questions, questions, questions! There was a league-record 10-0 start, then a stellar 13-1 record after 14 games, just 1 win short of the league record for a 1-loss start to a season. But then came 3 straight losses (before a pair or wins), and suddenly the sky was falling! Or, was it?

Well, the Lynx finished up the pre-Olympic schedule with 2 more wins, albeit against the hapless Tulsa Shock. But then came the Olympics in which the Lynx and only the Lynx had 3 players--Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen--and all 3 have performed very well for Team USA. Moore has been steady especially in adding some rebounds and assists to her point total. Whalen led the team in scoring in the pre-Olympic exhibition season at 11 ppg, and provided a lift in a late 3rd quarter-early 4th quarter run in which the U.S. finally took control against a scrappy Croatian team.

So those 3 losses have been...well, no, they haven't been forgotten and Lynx fans worry about the following.


1. Is the inside defense tough enough? In all 3 of those shocking July losses, the Lynx got torched by posts Sophia Young, Candace Parker and Tina Charles. Of course, doesn't everyone. But clearly these are 3 posts the Lynx are probably going to have to face and defeat in order to repeat as WNBA champs. And Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault was quoted as saying, after his team surprised the Lynx at the Target Center, that "we thought we could go at Taj," and so they did.

It didn't help that Rebekah Brunson was hurting that night and finished with 3 points in 18 minutes while the Lynx were out-rebounded 48-38. But, overall, the Lynx are getting about 11 offensive rebounds to 10 for their opponents, where a year ago the edge was 11-8.

It also didn't help that rookie Devereaux Peters missed that game with a broken hand. She has played more and better than anybody had a right to expect, scoring 5 points with 3 boards in 13 minutes. Likewise, back-up post Jessica Adair, with her 3.5 points and 2 boards, was out after knee surgery.

But as the injuries get healed and/or sorted out, the question remains, Are the Lynx tough enough to handle the league's elite posts? The jury is pretty clearly out on that one as it relates to taking on elite players like Young and Parker and Charles

2. Can the Lynx make and/or stop the 3-ball? Surprisingly, the Lynx are shooting 42 percent and their opponents only 34 on the 3-ball. But the fact is that the 3-game losing streak was caused by the 3-ball more than anything else. Consider:

• San Antone made 13 3s and shot 52 percent. Minnesota shot 50 but only made 5. Becky Hammon, whom Lindsay Whalen usually handles with aplomb, hit 7-of-13 and scored 23 points. Hammon was +9, Whalen was -15.

• Kristi Tolliver of LA made an insane 6-of-6 3s and scored 29 points. The Sparks made 50 percent of their 3s, overall, the Lynx 35 percent. Whalen was -7.

• Connecticut's Kara Lawson made 3-of-7 3s and scored 22 points. Lawson was +13 while Whalen was -13.

3. What is wrong with Lindsay Whalen? As noted above, Hammon, Tolliver and Lawson ate her up. Lindsay scored 29 points with 12 assists in the 3 losses and was a cumulative -35.

For the year her minutes are down from 28 to 26 anther scoring is down from 13 ppg to 11. Her assists are down from 6 to 5. She is shooting about the same at a solid 51 percent. So she is having almost the same season, statistically. But last year she was the Lynx' best player. This year that's clearly not been the case. Her back-up, Candace Wiggins, has been better in several games down the stretch to the Olympic lay-off.

If she's tired, she's going to come back even more tired versus several 1s, including Hammon and Tolliver and Lawson, who aren't playing in the Olympic games, whereas Lindsay is.

Still, that one would even ask the question, What's wrong with Lindsay?, is based on the assumption that she can and should be playing at a very, very high level. Hey, she's Lindsay! So let's put it this way. How high of a level will Lindsay be at after the Olympic break? MVP level? All-Star level? Or something less? Clearly the Lynx need more than a "minus" performance from Lindsay to repeat as WNBA champs.

4. Will the real Maya Moore please stand up? Overall, Maya seems to be just about the same player she was as a rookie, deferring to the more veteran players. Her scoring is up from 13 ppg to 15, her rebounds down from 5 to 4, her shooting up from 44 to 46 percent, and her minutes steady at 28. A good journeyman performance, especially when you consider her youth and the caliber of veterans that she is deferring to.

But at times--and with increasing frequency--she's been the Lynx' best player. She scored an average of 26 points with 8 boards in the 2 Tulsa wins to close the 1st half of the season. But she had disappeared in the San Antonio loss with just 4 points.

Maya has been in the league long enough and has the obvious talent that she can begin dominating if she puts her mind to it. And if Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen are going to struggle a bit more than they have in the past (i.e. 2011), then Moore has to assert herself more than she's done so far.

5. Can the Lynx repeat? Well, of course they can. But will they!

If comes down to match-ups. And as well as the San Antonio Silver Stars are playing the year--and as well as they played versus the Lynx on Sunday, July 1--they don't concern me half as much as the LA Sparks. The Sparks with the WNBA's best player in Candace Parker have the potential to be a powerhouse by the end of this year.

• In the post there's Parker with 19 points and 10 boards per game.
• At the big forward spot you've got rookie Nneka Ogwumike, already contributing 14 points, 7.5 boards and 51 percent shooting.
• At the small forward, Delisha Milton-Jones is at a respectable 10 points and 5 boards.
• Point guard Kristi Tolliver is coming into her own, increasing her scoring from 8 to 9 to 11 and now to 17 ppg with 5 assists, almost twice her career average.
• Veteran guard Alana Beard adds 9.5 points but shoots just 37 percent.
• The bench is a little thin with only Marissa Coleman and Jantel Lavender making a significant contribution, but Coleman is shooting just 30 percent.

Then there's Connecticut with MVP candidate, center Tina Charles at 19 points and 11 boards. Still, I prefer Parker, and Parker's supporting cast is better.

But can the Lynx beat the Sparks in the playoffs? Well, home court advantage could be crucial. Right now the Lynx are 15-4, San Antone is 13-5 and LA is 15-6 in the West. Connecticut is also 15-4 and leads the East.

But can the Lynx repeat? Sure they can.

• The Lynx are out-shooting their opponents by a ridiculous 49 percent to 39 percent, out-rebounding them 37-31, and out-scoring them by 12 points (87-75).
• Connecticut is our-shooting opponents only 44-43 percent, and the rebounds are even at 25. That doesn't sound like a league champion to me.
• San Antone is at 45 percent versus 43, and is being out-rebounded 33 to 35. Ditto.
• Which leaves LA, already defined as the toughest threat. They're at 44 percent to 42 percent for their opponents, and the rebounds are 38-34. Their margin of victory is just 82.5-79.

So, sure, the Lynx can repeat. All it should take is doing the things they've done--out-shoot and out-rebound the opposition--while also shoring up the inside D, making more and denying more 3s, and getting Lindsay and Maya consistently untracked.

So, finally, will the Lynx repeat? Against the field, yeah. But against the LA Sparks in the Western Division finals, it will come down to holding on to the post-season home court advantage and making Candace Parker play like somebody other than the best player in the league. That will be a tall order.

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