The WNBA Finals are here. It’s no surprise to see the top-seeded Minnesota Lynx in the Finals, but the Indiana Fever stunned the New York Liberty in the Eastern Conference Finals after losing Game 1 and then going down big in Game 2 before coming back. Let’s take a look at this Finals matchup.
#1 Minnesota Lynx (22-12) vs #3 Indiana Fever (20-14)
Season series: Lynx won 2-0
This will be the second WNBA Finals meeting between these two teams, as the Fever won their first ever WNBA title in 2012 when they beat the Lynx in four games…
…Of course, that’s what one of the major storylines will be, but although these are two of the top organizations in the league, a lot can change in three seasons. The Fever, in particular, have reinvented themselves under first-year head coach Steph White. Whereas the 2012 team was able to upset the Lynx with dominant inside play from Erlana Larkins and the sheer willpower of Tamika Catchings, this year’s squad is much more balanced and offensive-minded.
Rather than the slow, grind-it-out style of play White’s successor Lin Dunn preferred, 2015’s Fever will look to push the ball far more often and generate more three-point attempts from the corners, utilizing the talents of wings Marissa Coleman and Shenise Johnson. In fact, their shooting as a team has been excellent all season, comfortably leading the league at 36 percent from distance (including five players who shot the three at 37 percent or better).
The Lynx, on the other hand, still boast the usual big names: Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and now Sylvia Fowles. Fowles is, of course, the one glaring difference between 2012’s Lynx team and this one. She gives head coach Cheryl Reeve a player who can defend the rim at an elite level and, when paired with Rebekkah Brunson, quite an imposing rebounding presence as well (the two combined for 54 rebounds in two Western Conference Finals games played last week).
As for the perimeter players, it’s been a role rearrangement at best. While Moore was still only in her second season the first time these two teams met in the Finals, she’s one of the league’s brightest stars now, as her USG% has jumped from 23.2 percent all the way to 30.5 percent. It’s, no doubt, Maya’s team now.
So, enough about the past…let’s focus on the present. The Fever and Lynx met twice in the regular season, with Minnesota taking the win in both meetings. Indy couldn’t stop the Lynx offense, as Minnesota scored 101 points per 100 possessions in their second game of the season and a whopping 112 points per 100 possessions on Aug. 4 (their third-highest offensive efficiency rating on the year).
That, however, may not be the best way to look at this series. The Finals are a best-of-five contest, which means that teams will have to make adjustments on the fly and there’s a lower chance of a one-game fluke. The previous three-game series was a great example of this: New York soundly beat the Fever in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals and held a 15-point lead heading into halftime in Game 2.
The Fever were able to adjust, though, holding New York to just under 12 points per quarter from that point on, stealing Game 2 at home and then carrying that momentum into Madison Square Garden to take the series from the flummoxed Liberty. It’s the perfect test of how well a team is able to execute and (if necessary) change tactics, facing the same opponent for up to five consecutive games with sparse time in between to rest.
So what will be the main keys to victory in this tight, exciting Finals format? What will determine who wins it all and who goes home empty-handed?
Let’s just get the obvious out of the way: Moore is hungry for another championship. The 2013 Finals MVP had another brilliant season (finishing second in regular-season MVP voting to Elena Delle Donne) and has stepped it up a notch in the playoffs, dropping 40 points against the Phoenix Mercury in the Western Conference Finals’ deciding game. Her knack for achieving success at every possible level has been well-documented, so it’s probably no surprise to anyone who’s followed Moore through the years that she’s led her team to this point…again.
Moore will be facing arguably her toughest challenge, though, in Catchings. No longer a spring chicken, Catchings is still doing everything that makes her great at 36. She remains one of the best defensive players in the league (yet another WNBA All-Defensive honor in 2015 makes me wonder if this award should just be renamed the “Tamika Catchings Team” when she retires), and if there’s a player whose will to win exceeds Moore’s, you don’t have to look any farther than the Fever star.
How the two forwards will match up is anyone’s guess. While Catchings will undoubtedly get a good crack at Moore before the series is over, the power-forward position she’s been playing since late 2012 (ironically, a move that greatly benefited Indiana in its previous Finals matchup) will have her matched up against Brunson.
It can go either way: Catchings still has the explosiveness and skill to take advantage of Brunson on the offensive end and the savvy to limit her defensively (a luxury that, even in the emerging age of small ball, few WNBA team enjoy), but this would leave the task of guarding Moore to Coleman. A more traditional frontcourt in Minnesota against a smaller one in Indiana that sacrifices size for speed and offensive versatility; whoever exploits this matchup to their advantage will be off to a good start, at the very least.
Whichever team controls the paint will also have the upper hand in another critical area: free throw shooting. Indiana’s fast-paced attack means that they get to the line quite often; their collective team free throw rate of .262 ranked second in the league during the regular season, and in Catchings, Larkins and Zellous, they’ve got a trio of players whose free throw rate exceeds .400.
There’s been no better team than the Lynx at limiting this easy offense, though, as they owned the league’s best defensive free throw rate in 2015 (.175). Keeping players like Moore and Catchings out of the paint and off the free throw line is easier said than done, of course, so both teams will have to ensure that their pick-and-roll defense is at its best to ensure their opponent gets minimal shot attempts at the rim.
I could go on; just about everywhere you look, 2015’s WNBA Finals projects to be a great series full of intriguing matchups. You have an experienced, well-oiled machine full of star power in Minnesota versus an up-and-coming, well-rounded Fever team built around an all-time great whose fire may never stop burning. Even if you’re geared up for NBA preseason, true fans of the game won’t want to miss this. Basketball history awaits!