Monday, September 24, 2012

Lynx lose 2 of 3 going into playoffs. So what?

The Minnesota Lynx open the defense of their WNBA title on Friday (September 28) at the Target Center against the Seattle Storm having lost 2 of their final 3 games. So what?

Well, it's fair to say that the Lynx and their fans expect a repeat, but that it won't be easy and an upset in the Western Division finals is not out of the question. Assuming they get by the Storm (16-18) which, frankly, seems likely, they'll get the L.A. Sparks or the San Antonio Silver Stars. The Sparks hammered the Lynx 92-76 last week while it was the Stars who clobbered the Lynx yesterday 99-84.

Still, the Lynx finished up with a stellar 27-7 record, compared to 25-9 for Eastern Division leader Connecticut, 24-10 for L.A. and 21-13 for the San Antonio Silver Stars. None of that means a whole lot, of course. Any of these 4 has the talent to win the WNBA title, it's a question of who plays best over the next 7 to 10 games. But it does get the Lynx the home court advantage throughout the playoffs, and everybody knows that that's a pretty good deal maker.

The Five

What else is a deal maker for the Lynx is--well, everybody knows about their 3 Olympians--Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen. But seriously, I prefer to think about their starting 5 including Rebekah Brunson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin. All 5 of them are back from the 2011 championship edition of the Lynx, and the fact is that as a 5 they've been better than they were a year ago.

Last year the team's MVP was either Augustus or Whalen, and between the 2 of them they split enough of the vote to finish 5th and 6th in the voting. This year it's Augustus and Moore who have stood out, and who will split up the MVP voting and probably finish 5th and 6th, or maybe 4th and 5th. All 3 played great ball and contributed mightily to the U.S. Olympic gold medal this summer. Nobody can put a dynamic trio on the court like these ladies.

Augustus remains the 1st option. She finished the year with 16.5 ppg on 49 percent shooting with 4 boards and 2.5 assists just for good measure. (Last year she was at 16.2, 50 percent, 3.5 boards and 2 assists.) Not only that but she's become the Lynx' defensive stopper, more often than not being assigned to the opponent's top perimeter threat.

Moore has, of course, come on like gangbusters, as everyone expected her to do. She overtook Seimone for the team scoring lead with 16.6 ppg on 47 percent shooting, and added 6 boards and 4 assists (compared to 13 ppg, 44 percent, 5 and 3 a year ago).

Lindsay seems to have slipped, I suppose. She's not mentioned as the team's MVP anymore. But 11.5 ppg on 51 percent shooting with 5 assists and 4 rebounds in hardly child's play. (Last year she was at 13.6, 51 percent, 5 assists and 3.5 rebounds. The bottom line is she took 68 fewer shots than a year ago.) And anybody who saw the Lynx flounder against L.A. last week with Lindsay out for the night knows what a difference she makes regardless of what the box score says.

Meanwhile Brunson and Taj have more than held their own in the paint with 20 ppg, 14 boards, 4 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks between them. (Last year it was 18.5 ppg, 15 boards, 4 assists and 2 steals.)

The Bench

But, along with Moore, the biggest improvement has been in the Lynx bench, and specifically rookie Devereaux Peters and 3rd year Monica Wright. Peters is scoring 5 points with 4 boards on 57 percent shooting, and has come on like gangbusters just recently--10 ppg, 11 boards, 3 assists and 3 blocks per game these past 3 outings. Wright is up to 8 ppg on 45 percent shooting versus last year's 5 and 37 percent.

As a Team

And as a team they've improved on most of their numbers from a year ago, out-scoring opponents by 10 (86-76) versus 8 (82-74) a year ago. They're out-rebounding 'em 38-31 versus 36-30 in 2011. They're out-shooting 'em 47-40%, while a year ago it was 46-41%. And they're getting 21 assists per game versus 18 a year ago, while opponents got 15 each year.

So the 2012 Lynx look better than their 2011 alter ego.

The Challenge

But the challenge is not to be better than the 2011 Lynx, it is to be better than the 2012 Sparks, Stars, Sun and so forth, and all of their main challengers look better than a year ago, too. Connecticut, #1 seed in the east, is 24-9 right now versus 21-13 a year ago. L.A. is 24-10 compared to a mere 15-19 last year, when Candace Parker missed 15 games and the Sparks missed the playoffs. San Antone is 20-13 versus 18-16 last year, when they nevertheless carried the Lynx to a 3rd game in their Western semi-final series.

Fortunately we'll only play one of L.A. and San Antone, because those are a couple of tough hombres. Personally I think we'll get the Sparks, if only because they (the Sparks) have the home court advantage against the Silver Stars in the other Western semi. But they also have the WNBA's best player who won't win the MVP award in Parker. Her numbers are slightly inferior to Tina Charles' and so the award will go to Tina. But at crunch time, personally, I'd rather not face Parker. But in addition to Parker being healthy, L.A. also has a more mature Kristi Toliver, who raised her scoring from 11 ppg to 17.5 this year, and her assists from 3 to 5. She's become, simply, one of the WNBA's premier point guards, surpassing San Antone's Becky Hammon in the process.

But the bottom line is the Lynx are the better team. As we saw (above) they out-scored their opponents by an average of 10 points (86-76). For L.A. it was 84-78, San Antone 82-77 and Connecticut also 82-77.

The Lynx out-shot their opponents (all FG) 47-40%. L.A. 46-42, San Antone 44.5-43, while the Sun were 43-43.

The Lynx out-rebounded our opponents 38-31. L.A. 37-34. San Antone and Connecticut were both out-rebounded 33-35 and 34-35, respectively.

Again, that's too many advantages. Besides, when the Lynx lost to L.A. and San Antone--first, against L.A. Augustus was just back after missing 3 games with a sprained right foot, and Whalen was sidelined with a cold. Against San Antone, it was Brunson who got a rest (of course, it should be pointed out that San Antone rested both of its big guns, Sophia Young and Becky Hammon).

But Wait, What About Seattle

Yes, I'm overlooking Seattle, which is probably not a good idea considering they were WNBA champs as recently as 2010 (to go with a previous title in 2004) and boast 3-time WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson (2003, 2007, 2010). Jackson played in just 9 games this year, but is now back from a left hamstring injury. And with Sue Bird, whom Geno Auriemma called "the greatest point guard on the planet," also in the lineup, Seattle might be described as a dark horse.

Or maybe not. I think not. The Lynx have trouble matching up with elite post players, but Jackson is no longer playing on the level of Charles and Parker. And Lindsay Whalen neutralizes Bird as well as any point guard in the league. And the two of them just don't have enough help. Lynx in 2.

Then in the Finals

L.A. falls short of the WNBA finals, winning 3 games at home (2 against San Antone and 1 against the Lynx) but none on the road. That means they're 2-1 in the semis, but 1-2 in the division finals. And the Lynx will move on to face Connecticut and likely MVP Charles.

Here's why. Because the Lynx have too many weapons, too much balance and too many smarts. They'll take what the opposition gives them. And they'll play with all the intensity that its opponents can possibly bring, and then some.

And that is also why they take the Sun. But this one goes a full 5 games for the 1st time since 2009, and the Lynx again prevail 3-2. Tina Charles, Kara Lawson and Renee Montgomery typically give the Lynx fits, but Olympian Aisha Jones has been slowed by injury and that could be the fatal blow to the Sun's championship dreams.

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