Coming off the long Olympic break (which was not so much of a break for the four gold medalists on the roster), the Lynx were one game behind the Los Angeles Sparks in the overall WNBA standings with nine games left to play. Six games later, after hanging on to win in San Antonio on Sunday while the Sparks continued their free-fall with a loss to Seattle, the Lynx have clinched the top spot in the league.
If they win their remaining three games (beginning tonight in Chicago, 7:00 pm CDT, ESPN2), they will match the 2014 Phoenix Mercury for most wins in season, though I doubt that’s a particular goal for this team, whose focus is preparing for the playoffs and a run at their fourth title in six years and second in a row, an accomplishment that would put an exclamation point on their run of excellence during this decade.
Getting the top seed is particularly valuable this season with the change in playoff format the league is introducing. The top two seeds--the Lynx and Sparks—will advance straight to the semifinals, avoiding the dangerous single-elimination first two rounds. Both the semis and finals will be best-of-five series in a 2-2-1 format, which will guarantee the Lynx game fives at Target Center should they be necessary. Their semifinal opponent will be the lower seeded team that emerges from the first two rounds.
The 3rd and 4th seeds receive a first round bye, and while the New York Liberty have earned the 3rd seed the 4th is still up for grabs, with three teams (The Indiana Fever, Atlanta Dream, and Chicago Sky) currently sitting at 16-15 with three games left to play. The Sky received a blow with the news that Elena Delle Donne will miss the remainder of the regular season and almost certainly at least some of the playoffs after undergoing thumb surgery.
The 5th-8th seeds, who will play single-elimination first round games, will be two of the above, plus probably the Storm and Mercury, though the Washington Mystics are not mathematically out of it. The playoffs will begin September 21st.
It hasn’t been easy for the Lynx, but then it isn’t supposed to be easy to be the best team in the league. Especially following their 13 game winning streak to start the season, there have been moments when they’ve looked vulnerable, but other than a three game losing streak (and four of six) following their record-setting start, the Lynx have consistently found ways to win ball games, and are currently riding a stretch in which they’ve won 11 of 12.
They’ve done it on both sides of the ball, featuring the second rated offense and top rated defense in the WNBA. Before the season, I wrote a preview with my questions about the Lynx; looking back, I think they were relevant questions, most of which have been answered positively.
The main tactical question I had was whether the team had enough three-point shooting. Not surprisingly, this has not been a strength for the Lynx: They are simply not constructed to take a lot of threes. They are 11th in the league three-point attempts and seventh in percentage.
Meanwhile, defensively, they allow the third most three-point attempts in the league, but also allow the third lowest three-point percentage to their opponents. This appears largely by design—their defense is geared to stop easy paint points and free throws (lowest opponent true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage, third lowest free throw rate.) They have the talent to bait teams into long jump shots while still effectively contesting, and they put so much constant pressure on opponents to make shots that eventually they break down.
This strategy has bitten them occasionally, notably in their first loss of the season to the Sparks, who, led by Kristi Tolliver’s 7-11 from three, the Sparks made 11 threes as a team in their 18 point win. If they run into trouble in the playoffs, I suspect a big part of it will be another team getting hot from beyond the arc.
My other questions from before the season mostly centered around health, age, and depth. This is a veteran team, one that has dominated the league for six seasons with a core of personnel that includes several aging players who are on the downsides of their careers.
Coach Cheryl Reeve has responded by managing the minutes of her starting back court of Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus aggressively. They are both averaging career lows in minutes, (each around 25 per game), bolstered by reserves Renee Montgomery and Jia Perkins, and now Anna Cruz who returned to the team following the Olympics as well. Up front, Rebekkah Brunson, who became the career leader in offensive rebounds this season, is also averaging just over 24 minutes a game, her fewest since joining the Lynx.
Whether because of minutes management, luck, hard work, or a combination, the Lynx have been remarkably healthy this season. Among the top nine players in their rotation, only Augustus (four) has missed more than one game this season (knock on wood.)
Whalen in particular has responded in ways that have made me look foolish on more than one occasion this season. There have been times when she has looked susceptible to strong ball-pressure and has struggled defensively, and yet every time I think it’s a permanent condition, she follows up with a huge game. She is shooting a career high field goal percentage, and averaging a career low turnovers per 36 minutes.
Minutes management has been possible thanks to mostly excellent bench play this season. Both Montgomery and Perkins have had big moments, and despite neither shooting the ball particularly well, their contributions have been tremendous, particularly on the defensive end. Their ability to come in and change the game defensively is a big part of the team’s top rated defense.
Up front, Natasha Howard, acquired in a trade for Dev Peters before the season, has been a revelation. After shooting 44% and 38% in her first two season in Indiana, she is sporting a spectacular 58% field goal percentage this season. She’s also averaging per 36 minute highs in rebounds, free throw attempts, assists, steals, and blocks. It’s been a terrific season, and something I did not see coming.
Depth and defense are two of the keys for the Lynx going forward. In their championship seasons, they have been one of the top couple of defenses in the league, in recent seasons when the fell short, their defense has been slightly off the top tier. Similarly, when they’ve gotten quality bench contributions—like last season with Montgomery and Cruz in particular—it’s helped them reach their ultimate goal.
As they prepare for the upcoming playoffs, things are looking good for the Lynx in their quest for another title. They’ve secured the top seed thanks to a great defense, a solid bench, and of course the ever-expanding game of Maya Moore. It’s been a fun season to watch, and that should continue in the post-season. Capping off the year with back-to-back titles, and a gold medal for four of their stars sandwiched in between, would be icing on the cake for this group of players who have provided us with championship level basketball for the last six years.
As I said before the start of the season: I can’t wait.