Breaking Down the WNBA Finals

by Clay Kallam

This has been one of the best WNBA seasons ever when it comes to the product on the floor every night, and there’s no reason to expect the Finals to be any different. I don’t expect Minnesota to try to outslug the Dream as Connecticut and Indiana tried to do (and pretty much had to do).

Hopefully, both teams will focus on running and shooting, and we’ll get a high-scoring, highly entertaining conclusion to an outstanding WNBA summer. Set your DVRs now…

Point guard: Just looking at these two point guards, your first guess would be that they’re very different players—and though in a sense, they are, in more important ways they’re very similar (even aside from having the same first name).

Obviously, Lindsay Whalen is the bulkier guard, outweighing Lindsey Harding by at least 20 pounds, despite being only an inch taller. Not surprisingly, Harding is quicker and more athletic, but in terms of on-court effectiveness, it doesn’t seem to make much difference. Though Whalen’s offensive numbers are better, Harding’s defense is better and she’s faster.

Oddly, in a sport where outside shooting is pretty much the sine qua non for elite guards, neither Whalen nor Harding does much damage from three-point distance. Whalen had one of her best seasons, shooting 40.5%, but only took 42 threes during the regular season while Harding attempted just 33 threes, making 10 of them for 30.3%.

Whalen shoots a little more, but also has more assists, as she gets more touches than Harding, who often just watches as Angel McCoughtry or Armintie Price streak down court after a steal. In the end, there’s not much to choose, but I’ll give Minnesota the edge.

Shooting guard: We’ll call this pair Armintie Price and Seimone Augustus, anticipating the Atlanta matchup, but the four wings are all pretty much interchangeable. Price, an intelligent and athletic player who has worked hard to become a decent shooter to go along with a full basket of other skills, will probably draw Augustus, if only to keep McCoughtry out of foul trouble. She won’t test Augustus or Maya Moore at the other end as it’s safe to just drop in the lane and wait for Price to drive, but the assistant coach at Ole Miss is a fine passer and a very smart player who will take advantage of any mistakes.

Augustus, on the other hand, has been in the spotlight since she was in eighth grade, and after a couple injury-plagued seasons, has stepped up as one the world’s best. Against most teams, her size and skills present insoluble problems, but Price and McCoughtry have a better chance to slow her down than most. Still, advantage Minnesota.

Small forward: Angel McCoughtry might just be the best player in the WNBA, which is pretty much like saying she’s the best player in the world. She can score, rebound, defend and pass, though she does turn the ball over too much and is not a good three-point shooter. Nonetheless, her dramatic personality is perfectly suited to the big stage of the WNBA Finals, and if she stays out of foul trouble, put her down for 20 points a game—and at least three emotional outbursts.

Maya Moore is the anti-McCoughtry: Everybody’s darling who always says and does the right thing. She’s also a very good player, extremely smart, very competitive and very skilled. Unfortunately, she is way overmatched defensively trying to guard McCoughtry, so look for Augustus to draw that duty while Moore tries to stay in front of Price. That assignment, though, will tire Augustus a bit, and though she almost never fouls, no one who guards McCoughtry can seem to avoid sending her to the line.

But this advantage goes to Atlanta, regardless. McCoughtry can do things no other woman can (remember that spinning left-handed layup from behind the backboard, through contact, against Indiana?) and the only person who can stop Angel is Angel.

Power forward: This is one of the most intriguing matchups of the postseason, as both Rebekkah Brunson and Sancho Lyttle are long, athletic forwards who are capable of taking over games.

Brunson first: Even though she has a sometimes balky knee, she still might be the best jumper in the league. She’s athletic (John Whisenant originally envisioned her as a small forward) and has a nose for the ball—but really can’t shoot outside about six feet. Every once in a while, she’ll have a game in which she makes the elbow jumper, and when that happens, there’s not much the opposition can do to stop her.

Lyttle, on the other hand, doesn’t have that freakish leaping ability, but she’s a much better shooter – and is also a good rebounder. It’s no accident that when Lyttle was fully healthy, Atlanta started winning, and her five-game playoff stats (11.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 3.2 spg) are much more indicative of her ability than her regular season numbers.

Do you like pancakes or French toast? Even.

Center: Since Erika de Souza will be back in the States for four of the five games (after playing for Brazil in the Olympic qualifier), she gets the nod in this analysis—and that’s good for Atlanta. Taj McWilliams-Franklin is a cagy veteran, but de Souza has been around the block a couple times herself, and is 6-5 to McWilliams-Franklin’s 6-1.

McWilliams-Franklin is a better ballhandler and a better outside shooter, but de Souza’s presence in the paint will be a challenge for the Lynx. Nonetheless, she misses game one, so this one too is even.

Bench: When de Souza comes back, each team will run out three reserves on a regular basis. For Atlanta, that would be Iziane Castro Marques (who will start in game one), Alison Bales and Coco Miller. Castro Marques is the key, as she’s one of those players who makes big plays for both teams. Like McCoughtry, the only one who can stop Izzy is Izzy, and she does a pretty good job of it about half the time. Bales is a solid WNBA post, though at 6-7, she’s not nearly the inside presence you’d expect. Miller is the veteran guard off the bench but she needs to play better than she has in the first five postseason games (14.3% shooting, two assists in 43 minutes).

Minnesota will call on Jessica Adair (the Lynx’ only real inside presence), Candice Wiggins (emotional long-range shooter who attempted 124 three-pointers and 54 two-pointers during the season) and Monica Wright (another top pick who has yet to dazzle in the WNBA). The only real difference is that the Dream bench is more experienced, and all played in the Finals last year—so based on that, give the advantage to Atlanta.

Coaching: Both Cheryl Reeve and Marynell Meadors were roasted and toasted last year, and for some reason, a lot of Atlanta fans still don’t like Meadors, even though she’s taken the Dream to the WNBA Finals for two straight seasons. Both have done good jobs in all aspects of the job, so this too is even.

Intangibles: The presence of two college coaches—Price and Shalee Lehning—on the Atlanta roster, and Carol Ross on the bench, gives Atlanta a little more emotional ballast, which of course the Dream need with McCoughtry and Castro Marques around. Atlanta also reached the finals last year, and that counts for something, even though Minnesota’s individuals have plenty of playoff experience. Still, it says here that McCoughtry’s emotion, overall Dream leadership and last year’s trip to the Finals are enough to give Atlanta the edge.

In conclusion: The categories break down 3-2-3, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about this series. It should be close throughout, and though it’s possible one team will manage to win three close games (as happened last year in Seattle’s sweep), most likely this goes five games.

Of course, if Atlanta gets game one without de Souza, that might be enough to inspire the Dream to finish the series early. I’ll play it safe, though: Atlanta in five.