Are We There Yet?
WNBA Finals Preview
by Clay Kallam
Over the course of a 34-game regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Seattle Storm have proven themselves the class of the WNBA – but to seal the deal, they have to handle the upstart Atlanta Dream in the best-of-five Finals that begin Sunday.
Will they prove to be the dominant team their record suggests, one of the best in the history of the league (which tipped off in 1997)? Or will they turn out to be one of those what-might-have-been stories while the Dream celebrate an unlikely three-year turnaround from 4-30 to the best women’s team in the world?
Getting to the glass: Atlanta is a spread-court, run-and-gun team that fires on all cylinders when Iziane Castro Marques is taking and making odd-angle shots at top speed, when Angel McCoughtry can knife through a not-quite-set defense and finish or draw or foul or both, or when 6-4 Sancho Lyttle trails the play and buries a nifty elbow jumper.
That’s a nice plan, but Seattle’s greatest statistical strength is its rebounding. Despite being slightly undersized (MVP Lauren Jackson is 6-5, but no other starter is taller than 6-2), the Storm’s rebounding is the best in the league. Camille Little is a battler underneath, Swin Cash is a great player who does everything, and two-guard Tanisha Wright is an excellent rebounder for a backcourt player. Toss in 6-0 Le’coe Willingham off the bench, who gets more boards per minute than anyone on the team, and all of a sudden Atlanta will need to focus so much on securing defensive rebounds that the Dream will have trouble triggering the fast break.
Handling the pressure: McCoughtry, a great young player, is still combustible, still emotional, still liable to fragment when things don’t go her way. Castro Marques is so tied to her feelings that she abandoned the Brazilian Olympic team in 2008 because she didn’t like the coach. The Miller twins, Coco and Kelly, have matured, but mental stability has never been their strong point.
That said, all of those players are capable of using their emotions to produce extraordinary performances – which are counterbalanced by the less-than-ordinary ones.
On the flip side, Seattle’s most notable emotion is grumpiness. Three-time MVP Lauren Jackson does not appear to be a happy person on the court, even as she terrorizes the opposition, and Swin Cash isn’t a bundle of yucks either. Sue Bird calmly runs the show, as the Storm just plays hard and plays well. They can control a game from tip to horn, or come from 11 down in the last few minutes as they did against Phoenix, and they will do so with professional efficiency – and maybe a few scowls.
It’s different now: Like the NBA, the WNBA’s summer schedule is crammed: Game, fly, hotel, game with maybe a practice or three every couple weeks. (In addition, WNBA teams don’t fly charters, so they have to catch the first flight out of every city to avoid missing a game.)
This is hard on the body, and a problem for two-person coaching staffs, who just don’t have time to scout and prepare as much as they’d like.
But in this conceivably-five-game series, things have changed. First, both teams swept through the first two rounds, and Seattle’s last game was a week ago – which means the older Storm had a nice long week to rest up. Jackson, Bird and Cash are all right around the 30 mark, and all play year-round, so a few days off are simply golden.
In addition, with the first two games at home, Storm players will be looking at ten days of sleeping in their own beds, a stretch that will allow for plenty of relaxing and rejuvenation.
Brian Agler, of course, hasn’t been sipping mai-tais the entire time, as the Coach of the Year got to watch Atlanta’s wins over New York 30 or 40 times, and the Storm will have every wrinkle of the Dream’s new look (two starters in postseason didn’t start a game in the first 34 games) analyzed and digested. Marynell Meadors has been doing the same in Atlanta, but she’s had less time, and is not quite Agler when it comes to preparing a professional women’s basketball team for a playoff series.
Put it all together, and it’s hard see how Atlanta can cap this Dream season (sorry) with a WNBA title – unless of course, the fourth place finishers in the East get lucky again and Seattle loses a starter to injury in shootaround before game one (that’s what happened to Janel McCarville of New York in the conference finals). Barring that, this looks like the Storm in four – or maybe even three.