Only two are left, the best two. By Clay Kallam
Finally, a Finals with finality.
Minnesota has won two of the last three championships, and three of the last five, and could elbow their way into the conversation with four-time champion Houston about the best team of all time with another title run.
Los Angeles won two in a row back when Lisa Leslie was playing, and would like nothing better than to add number three at the expense of the Lynx.
Both teams can score, and both teams have stars, but Minnesota, by advanced stats, has the best offense and the best defense in the league – and generally, that’s enough. But here’s a closer look …
Point guard: You couldn’t ask for two more dissimilar point guards than Kristi Toliver and Lindsay Whalen. Toliver is a slight, superb three-point shooter, and a converted two guard. Whalen has never really been able to shoot well, is strong and physical, and has always run the show.
Toliver is younger, but since Whalen has played very well down the stretch, that may not be a factor. Still, they each do such different things, and have such different things asked of them – Candace Parker often looks more like the point guard than Toliver – that comparing them is the classic apples and oranges quandary.
At the same time, though, each is indispensable to her team’s functioning, and both fill their roles very well. Naturally, Toliver is a little more inconsistent, as shooting is more of a day-to- day thing than running an offense but all in all, this one’s even.
Shooting guard: It’s hard to say how these matchups will go, but I’m going to guess that Essence Carson, a wing, will guard Seimone Augustus, another wing. They both could be called shooting guards, as could Alana Beard and even Maya Moore, but really, all four are really small forwards.
Nomenclature aside, Carson and Augustus are an interesting match. Augustus can score, but doesn’t really defend, while Carson defends, but can’t really score. That said, Augustus is a great player and has much more of a chance to impact the game than Carson. Of course, Carson’s had some games where she’s made three or four three-pointers, and if L.A. gets that from her, that could steal a game or two.
But really it comes down to this: Given a choice, how many WNBA coaches would take Essence Carson over Seimone Augustus? The answers give the edge to Minnesota.
Small forward: Alana Beard is a superb defender, and at best an average offensive player. Maya Moore is one of the best players in the world, and there’s very little that she cannot do on a basketball court. One of those things might be defending quickness, but she doesn’t have to worry about that against Beard (or Carson). That means her greatest weakness won’t be a factor, and her strengths should all be on full display.
Beard, of course, is one of the era’s elite defenders, and if anyone has a chance to shut down Moore it would be her. Still, ask the same question again: How many WNBA coaches would have Alana Beard starting ahead of Maya Moore? The answer is that Minnesota has the edge.
Power forward: Once again, we have a huge contrast in styles of play. Candace Parker is Miss Smooth, 6-4 of coordination and elegance — she can shoot it, pass it, and do just about anything you want with the ball in her hands. She’s also a good rebounder, but defense has never really been her priority, and though she’s much better with physical play at this point in her career, no one would call her a banger.
Rebekkah Brunson, on the other hand, is a banger pure and simple. When she hits the elbow jumper, she’s a tough cover, but that doesn’t happen every night. What does happen every night is that she goes to the boards hard and plays with the physicality that not many in the league can match.
Parker is quicker, taller, and, as the modern saying goes, a generational talent, so we’ll just refer back to the same question we asked in the last two breakdowns: How many WNBA coaches start Rebekkah Brunson ahead of Candace Parker? The answers this time give the edge to Los Angeles.
Center: First, Nneka Ogwumike is not a center. She is a power forward, and a quick and agile representative of that breed. Sylvia Fowles is the prototypical power center – 6-5, strong, not particularly offensively gifted, and an adventure every time a double team collapses on her.
Ogwumike was the MVP this year, but Imani Boyette gave her trouble in the Chicago series, and the same can be expected of Fowles. That said, Fowles will have trouble keeping up with the agile Ogwumike, whose quickness and relentless drive make her almost impossible to guard for the 30 or so minutes she’s on the floor.
Fowles, on the other hand, can be found on the block, as that’s where she does most of her work. This gives Brian Agler many options defensively, as knowing where the fulcrum of the offense is makes it much easier to plan a defense.
The key here though, may be foul trouble. If Ogwumike can force Fowles into a couple of early whistles, then the equation changes. Ogwumike is way too quick for Fowles to keep up with for extended periods of time; then again, Ogwumike may find it very difficult to score if her outside shot isn’t falling, as Fowles is a force around the rim and not afraid to use her strength.
It’s tough to go against the MVP, but I have to call this one even.
Bench: Brian Agler has never been known to use his bench, and this year, it doesn’t look like he has one to use even if he wanted to. Jantel Lavender is deservedly the Sixth Player of the Year, and gives Agler and the Sparks plenty of production, and Chelsea Gray has played very well down the stretch, despite some unusual turnovers.
Minnesota, however, can counter with depth at every position, starting with Anna Cruz, Jia Perkins and Renee Montgomery in the backcourt, Natasha Howard up front, and even Janel McCarville if necessary.
Clearly, the longer the series goes, the better it is for Minnesota. Advantage Lynx.
Coaching: Cheryl Reeve is widely acclaimed as one of the top coaches in the WNBA, and for good reason. Agler has done very well in his long career, but he has won only one WNBA championship, and until he catches Reeve (she’s won as a head coach and an assistant, you have to give the edge to Minnesota.
Intangibles: Sometimes momentum can come into play, sometimes a certain disdain for the opponent can make a difference, but in this series you have two veteran, professional teams that have been around the block more than once. Maybe LA is hungrier, but Minnesota is most likely more confident. Call it even.
In conclusion: Assuming the elite players each have their moments, and it’s fair to assume that they will, then the series will be decided by the lesser lights and complementary players. In almost every case, Minnesota has the advantage in those situations, so barring injury look for the Lynx to win in five.