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2011 WNBA Playoffs Preview: Minnesota v. San Antonio a “Must-See” for Lover’s of Point Guard Play

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Photo Credit: Among other critical match-ups, the Western Conference semifinals series between the league-leading Minnesota Lynx and the fourth-seeded San Antonio Silver Stars will feature two WNBA superstars: San Antonio’s Becky Hammon (left), one of the best field generals in women’s basketball, and Minnesota’s Seimone Augustus (right), one of the league’s top scorers and defenders.

Photo Credits: Becky Hammon Image Courtesy NBAE/Getty Images/D. Clarke Evans; Seimone Augustus Image Courtesy Minnesota Lynx/Getty Images

By Sharon Crowson

The first-round WNBA playoff series between Western conference champion Minnesota (21-7) and fourth-seeded San Antonio (18-16), tipping of Friday, September 16, at 9 p.m. Eastern, 8 p.m. local, matches two teams with more similarities than their respective records would indicate.  There are numerous individual match-ups that intrigue, not the least of which is the pairing of two coaches with histories of success in the league.

San Antonio’s Dan Hughes has established himself as a defensive specialist who has led his teams to seven playoff berths in his 10 seasons as a head coach.  And though Minnesota’s Cheryl Reeve, who has propelled her team to the best record in the league, is in just her second season as a head coach, she too has known success in the past. As an assistant coach (and later as director of player personnel and as general manager) for the Detroit Shock, she helped that team to three WNBA Finals appearances in which that franchise brought home two or their three national championships (2006 and 2008) during her tenure.

Series Will Feature Two of the League’s Top Point Guards

The Lynx-Silver Stars playoff series is a “must-see” for those who love outstanding point guard play.  The Lynx’s Lyndsay Whalen and the Stars’ Becky Hammon are savvy veterans who mirror each others’ style and are arguably two of the top three point guards in the WNBA.  Hammon has always outscored Whalen, but that is due as much to the fact that Whalen has played with better scorers than has Hammon.  Whalen had her highest career scoring average this season with 13.6 points a game, while Hammon added a solid 15.9 points on average for the Stars.

For her part, Whalen is a somewhat better individual defender than Hammon and this year she edged her out, 5.85 assists-per-game to Hammon’s 5.82, to win the WNBA assist title.

More importantly both the floor generals run their offenses extremely well and give their teammates their best chance for success. 

League’s Top Two Rookies on Display

The series will feature the top two rookies in the league this season.  Minnesota’s Maya Moore has been all that could have been expected of her as she averaged 13.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists a game.  Moore had her share of rookie inconsistency, but has played consistently well down the stretch and, of course, has a proven history of excellence in the postseason.

While Moore’s contributions were anticipated, those of San Antonio second round draft choice Danielle Adams were not. Despite leading Texas A&M to the national championship, Adams sat alone in the ESPN studio on 2011’s WNBA Draft Day, dismissed by many as an undersized and out-of-shape ‘tweener who would never make it as a post at the pro level. Hughes says he was overjoyed to find Adams still available when he picked her up, deep in the second round, at No. 20 overall, and she has repeatedly given him reason to be thankful that he did. Adams averaged 12.4 points and 4.3 rebounds in just under 21 minutes a game off the bench, and her three-point threat, as well as her ability to move her 239-pound body, made her an absolute match-up nightmare.  A Rookie of the Month in the early going and an All-Star by the season’s midpoint, Adams missed 11 games with a sprained foot in mid-season. The injury may have cost her Rookie of the Year honors, and it definitely cost her team, which lost eight of the 11 games for which she was sidelined.  Her return to health was a large reason for San Antonio’s winning five of their last six games to clinch a playoff berth.

Veterans in the Paint

At center, each team starts a veteran leader who provides stability to her team.  Minnesota’s Taj McWilliams-Franklin has yet to start playing like the 41-year old woman she is.  She averaged 8.3 points, six rebounds and 2.4 assists in 28.4 minutes a game this season while showing no reluctance to mix things up under the basket. Just as importantly, McWilliams-Franklin provides excellent leadership to her young teammates and is a large part of the reason the Lynx have maintained their composure during their title run.

On the other end of the court, San Antonio is one of the few teams in the league that in truth starts two centers, regardless how they may be denominated on the scorecard. Both are experienced and well acquainted with the postseason. Ruth Riley averaged only 5.6 points and 3.8 rebounds a game this year, but she is an excellent post defender and a consistent presence for her team. Moreover, a she proved in Detroit’s 2003 WNBA title run, when she was named Finals MVP, as well as in Notre Dame’s 2001 national championship, the former Irish great knows how to elevate her play in the postseason.

Meanwhile, forward/center Michelle Snow, a product of Tennessee and a veteran of the now-defunct Houston Comet dynasty, averaged 5.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game this year. Her scoring has been well off her career average of 9.0 points per game, but her 6-5 height and nose for the ball has helped the Silver Stars maintain a presence on the boards (albeit, given their height, far from the league’s best, with a -5.67 boards per game rebounding margin).

Two Powerhouses at Power Forward

At power forward San Antonio’s Sophia Young will match her 13.2 points and 6.4 rebounds against Minnesota’s Rebekkah Brunson, who had a breakout season with 10.2 points and 8.9 rebounds a game. Brunson is the more physical of the two while Young is more mobile.  Brunson has shown the ability to dominate the game for periods of time this season and, should that happen in this series, it will make the road to the Western Conference championship much harder for the Stars.


Superstar versus Committee Work on the Wings

Because of its unusual starting line-up, San Antonio lacks a traditional small forward on the wings. Her slender physique would make Young the instinctive choice at the position, but Young has no perimeter game, having attempted only six three-balls all season, netting none of them.

The Silver Stars use a rotation at shooting guard. Jia Perkins has been an All Star in the recent past and is the leading scorer at the position with her 12.0 points and 41.8-percent shooting percentage.  Tully Bevilaqua, who has played point guard her entire career, has gotten most of the starts at the two alongside Hammond.  She provides an excellent second ballhandler but scores only 2.9 points a game and does not have the ball in her hands at key moments.  She is, however, the best perimeter defender on the team and will likely match-up against Lynx star Seimone Augustus in that capacity.

For the Lynx, it is similarly difficult to say exactly who is playing what position. Call the rookie Moore the small forward for match-up purposes, and guard/forward Seimone Augustus the two-guard.

On a team of stars, the Lynx’s Augustus is the top player.  Augustus entered the league as a top scorer (21.9 points per game) in 2006 and despite injuries that have kept her off the court for extended periods, she has never lost her shooting touch. Although her 16.2 points a game this season was her career low, Augustus had perhaps her best overall season this year.  She shot 50.4 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from the arc while averaging 3.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists a game. 

But Augustus’s impact in this series, and the reason she will be the key player on the floor, is her defense.  Augustus has quietly become one of the league’s top defenders. In this series, Augustus will likely match up against Hammon on defense and that does not bode well for the Silver Stars: Augustus’s defense against the Stars’ superstar is a large part of the reason for her team’s 4-0 record against San Antonio.  Augustus is bigger, stronger and quicker than Hammon, making it difficult for Hammon to do what she does best, penetrate and create.  Augustus frustrated Hammon all year, holding her to nine total points in the teams’ last two games.  If she repeats that performance, Minnesota will move into the second round of the playoffs.

Plenty of Depth on Both Sides

Both teams have strong benches.  Adams comes off the bench for San Antonio, while former All-American Candice Wiggins gets close to starter minutes for Minnesota.  Wiggins averages 5.9 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists in her 17 minutes a game but her contribution goes beyond those numbers.  Wiggins is the proverbial Energizer bunny and has the ability to catalyze her teammates when she steps on the floor.

The Big Picture

As a team, San Antonio is a somewhat below-average squad in terms of key stats, averaging 77.6 points per game on 43-percent shooting while holding their opponents to 75.5 points and 42.7-percent shooting from the field.  They depend more heavily on the three-point shot, where they have made 35.6 percent of their 620 attempts this season.

Minnesota is the better team offensively, scoring 81.5 points a game while shooting a league-best 46.1 percent from the field.  Defensively, they give up 73.6 points a game and hold their opponents to 41.3 percent, for a league-best defensive record as well. They take almost five fewer three-point shots a game than San Antonio, but make 36.8 percent of theirs.

If the Augustus-Hammond match-up is one key to the series, the other is rebounding.  Minnesota was the best rebounding team in the WNBA, out-boarding their opponents by 6.38 a game, while San Antonio was the league’s worst.  They were outrebounded by 5.68 boards a game.  If this margin holds, it will be almost impossible for San Antonio to win the series.

Prediction: While the teams are closer than their records would indicate, Minnesota has several clear advantages.  They were 4-0 against the Stars during the regular season and their youth, which could be a factor as the playoffs go on, should not hamper them too much in the first round.  The Lynx should move ahead in two games.



Originally published Thu, September 15, 2011

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Week: February 7, 2012
1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
2 Notre Dame 23-1 2 2 2 743
3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
4 Stanford 20-1 4 5 4 685
5 Duke 19-3 6 8 5 650
6 Miami (FL) 20-3 7 7 6 604
7 Kentucky 21-3 5 15 7 584
8 Maryland 20-3 10 10 8 534
9 Wisconsin-Green Bay 20-0 9 24 9 530
10 Ohio State 21-2 11 NR-RV
10 483
11 Tennessee 17-6 8 3 11 476
12 Delaware 20-1 13 NR 12 434
13 Georgetown 18-5 15 11 14 379
14 Texas A&M 16-5 16 6 15 378
15 Nebraska 19-3 18 NR 13 309
16 Rutgers 17-4 14 12 17 372
17 Louisville 17-6 12 9 20 276
18 Gonzaga 21-3 19 NR-RV
19 234
19 Purdue 19-5 17 21 16 222
20 Georgia 18-6 20 12 21 202
21 Penn State 18-5 21 14 18 176
22 DePaul 17-7 23 18 NR-RV
23 Georgia Tech 16-6 22 NR-RV
22 104
24 South Carolina 18-5 NR-RV
NR 24 46
25 Vanderbilt 18-5 NR-RV
NR 45
Dropped Out: No. 24 North Carolina, No. 25 Kansas.
First-place votes: Total first-place votes received (if any) are indicated in parentheses following school name.
Others receiving votes: St. Bonaventure (22-2) 34; North Carolina (17-6) 19; California (17-6) 18; Florida Gulf Coast (21-2) 16; Middle Tennessee (19-5) 15; Texas-El Paso (20-2) 8; Texas Tech (16-6) 5; Brigham Young (21-4) 4; Fresno State (19-4) 4; St. John's (15-8) 4; Princeton (15-4) 3; Oklahoma (15-7) 2; West Virginia (17-6) 2; Kansas State (15-7) 1.
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Credit: Courtesy Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). The weekly Division I Top 25 Coaches' Poll, sponsored by USA Today and ESPN, is based on voting by a Board of Coaches made up of 31 head coaches at Division I institutions all of whom are WBCA members.