Guru's WNBA Playoff Report: Minnesota Makes History; Atlanta Ties Indiana
By Mel Greenberg
Five months after a quest for a third NCAA title game and second championship fell just short in the national semifinals at the hands of Big East rival Notre Dame, former UConn sensation Maya Moore is going to play for a major team trophy this year after all.
But the WNBA rookie of the year is just one of the reasons the Minnesota Lynx advanced to their first-ever best-of-five championship series Sunday by completing a 2-0 sweep of the former two-time champion Phoenix Mercury with a 103-86 win over the No. 3 seed in the conference in Arizona for the Western playoff crown.
Veteran Taj McWilliams-Franklin, the 41-year-old ageless wonder who once played for the former Philadelphia Rage in the defunct American Basketball League in the late 1990s, had a season-high 21 points, grabbed six rebounds and dealt seven assists.
“We didn’t want to see (Phoenix) on our plane going back to Minnesota,” quipped Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, the former La Salle star in Philadelphia in the late 1980s from South Jersey on Minnesota’s quest to close out the series Sunday.
The triumph marks yet another milestone in a season of many for the Lynx, who set franchise records for wins with an overall WNBA best 27-7 record to take a first-ever conference regular-season title while also picking up firsts with a win streak along with capturing a conference semifinal series prior to Sunday when they eliminated the San Antonio Silver Stars 2-1.
Reeve, who is in her second year with Minnesota, paid tribute to the Lynx front office, who also own the NBA Timberwolves, for not abandoning ship during the lean years.
“I know they took a lot of heat for keeping the WNBA team,” she said.
Minnesota, whose only past WNBA playoffs were first-round eliminations in 2003 and 23004, will meet either the Atlanta Dream or Indiana Fever, who are tied 1-1 after the Dream’s 94-77 win Sunday in Atlanta at Philips Arena evened the best-of-three series to send it back to Indianapolis for Tuesday night’s showdown at Conseco Fieldhouse.
The Lynx swept the third-seeded Dream in a weekend series, home-and-home in mid-June and split with Indiana 1-1 in games that were won in the other team’s arena.
Neither of the three squads still active in the playoffs have ever won a WNBA championship.
A year ago Atlanta, in the third season of the franchise’s history that began as an expansion team in 2008, emerged from the East as a 4-seed after dispatching the Washington Mystics and New York Liberty in consecutive 2-0 sweeps.
The Dream then fell in three straight in the WNBA finals to the Seattle Storm, though the two teams combined for fewest overall differential in combined average.
Two years ago in Indiana’s only previous finals the Fever took a 2-1 lead over Phoenix but fell at home in Game 4 and then lost the deciding Game 5 in Arizona in the closing minutes.
Atlanta was missing one of its stars Sunday with center Erika de Souza having left Saturday for as long as potentially through this Saturday to join the Brazilian national team in Columbia for the single-elimination FIBA Americas Champions for Women tournament, which is part of the qualifying process for next summer’s Olympics in London, England.
However, Iziane Castro Marques, another Brazilian on the Dream who chose to remain with the WNBA squad, scored a season-high 30 points after Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors decided to use a smaller, quicker lineup in adjusting to de Souza’s departure.
While Atlanta is down one player besides having lost Shalee Lehning to a knee injury earlier in the season, the Fever developed potentially equally critical roster problems, maybe more, when veteran All-Star Tamika Catchings, voted this season’s MVP in the league, was carried off the court by her teammates late in the game with an undetermined injury to her right knee.
“We know it’s not an ACL,” Indiana coach Lin Dunn said at the postgame press conference. “She knows that from previous experience.”
Catchings, who had scored just eight points Sunday, had surgery for an ACL on her right knee in 2007.
Dunn said she would not have further details on Catchings’ situation until Monday.
The Fever have already had a roster deduction to a knee injury in late June when starting point guard Briann January was forced to the sidelines.
Meanwhile, back in Phoenix, Reeve discussed McWilliams-Franklin’s performance after having been able to lure her to a reunion in Minnesota as a free agent from New York.
The two were on the former Detroit Shock’s last of three WNBA champions in 2008 when Reeve was an assistant to Bill Laimbeer.
“I think for Taj, she’s just so smart,” Reeve said. “She plays the angles and knows exactly what’s happening. There isn’t anything she hasn’t seen after all these years.”
Moore, defensively, drew Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi, yet another UConn all-time great along with Seattle’s Sue Bird among several current ex-Huskies in the WNBA.
Taurasi had 22 points but Reeve noted, “On a bad night Diana’s going to get 20.”
Moore had 21 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
The game was close with Phoenix leading deep into the third quarter until Minnesota went on a surge.
“We tried to switch things up, but they always had a pretty good answer for it,” Taurasi talked about the frustration dealing with the Lynx. “They were well-prepared.”
The Minnesota roster, off a collection of draft lottery picks because of the Lynx’s low standings in previous seasons, is deep and talented, which means teams can’t just concentrate on Moore or Seimone Augustus.
Additionally, former Georgetown star Rebekkah Brunson was a second overall pick a year ago in the dispersal draft of the Sacramento Monarchs roster while local star Lindsay Whalen returned home off a blockbuster trade a year ago that sent the No. 1 overall draft pick, which became former UConn star Tina Charles, and former Huskies All-American Renee Montgomery to the Connecticut Sun.
“With our team, you have to pick your poison,” Reeve said. “I think there was a lot of effort made on Seimone and I thought Seimone was very tested, very challenged. I think as a result of that we were able to get other people involved whether it was Taj or Maya.
“My team, they were tough. Phoenix kept coming at us and coming at us,” she added. “They played really hard but I just thought they were tough. I thought in the second half we defended much better. We weren’t happy with our defense in the first half so we picked it up, we got some rebounds and we got some confidence on offense.”
Moore spoke of how Minnesota didn’t get rattled and always stayed on an even keel, something she could draw on from her days playing for Hall of Famer Geno Auriemma at UConn.
“I think this team has done a phenomenal job of celebrating and enjoying and being in the moment when we win,” Moore explained. “When we lose, we throw it away. Whether it is a win or a loss we move on to the next game. “We are absolutely enjoying this and making sure that everyone feels needed and wanted and appreciated and we are going to move on to the next series and be tested.”
Whalen had 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists; Augustus had 16 points.
DeWanna Bonner, the former Auburn star who was voted the WNBA’s sixth-player winner for the third straight season, scored 22 for Phoenix, while former Temple star Candice Dupree had 18 points and 11 rebounds.
Phoenix had advanced to the conference finals by rallying from a 1-0 deficit to Seattle in the semifinals, evening the series at home, and then shocking the Storm in the Northwest when the Mercury ended their one-year rule of the WNBA as Dupree scored on a putback before time expired in Game 3.
“We’ve definitely had some bumps throughout the year,” Taurasi said. “I think every time we hit a rough patch we came together as a team, which got us to this point.
“Tonight, we just didn’t have enough to get over the biggest bump, which is Minnesota. Because they’re bumpy.”
Phoenix coach Corey Gaines saluted the Lynx.
“We got beat by a good team. They were the No. 1 team all year,” Gaines continued. “All five starters in double figures (Sunday) and Lindsay really took over the game when they needed shots. She hit some big ones down the stretch and in the first half to keep them close. She’s a good point guard, maybe one of the best in the league.
They will probably win it,” Gaines predicted. “Not putting other teams down but they are tough and have a lot of scorers in every direction. Taj killed us from the beginning. She’s a veteran though. She may be slow in step-throughs and putbacks, but she hit them.”
In Atlanta, Castro Marques said she also had an option to join the Brazilian team but chose to stay with the Dream.
She had been a starter at the beginning of the year but played more off the bench after Atlanta had struggled to a 3-9 start before going 17-5 the rest of the way.
Meadors alluded to the switch during her praise of the guard:
“She had tendinitis on her foot earlier in the season, which held her back,” Meadors said. “But she looked like the old Izi today.
“I couldn’t ask for anyone to step in and play any better than what Izi did today,” the Atlanta coach said. “It was an awesome performance. She was the X factor for us that kept us going. She kept hitting shot after shot. She hit tough shots.”
Angel McCoughtry, who was held to 11 points in Game 1 and played just 17 minutes because of foul trouble, scored 27 for Atlanta.
Indiana’s Tangela Smith, who had 25 points in the opener, suffered a reversal of fortune in the direction opposite from McCoughtry by scoring just five points and also coping with foul problems.
Katie Douglas, who hit five three-pointers, hit the 20s in her fourth straight playoff game, scoring 25 against Atlanta.
And so the two teams headed off the Indiana where Monday would bring more news on Catchings and one last day of practice to see who heads home and who gets to challenge Minnesota.
More to come.