Dishin & Swishin 10/01/15 Podcast: Previewing the WNBA finals with Mike Thibault & Brian Agler
When the WNBA season tipped off at the beginning of June, many people expected the Minnesota Lynx to be in the finals. They still had Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson returning, after all, and chief rival Phoenix were without Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor.
When defending Eastern Conference champion Chicago trounced the Indiana Fever, 95-72 in their first game of the year, not many felt the Fever would be ready to play for another WNBA championship though. They had a new head coach in Stephanie White plus Tamika Catchings was another year older.
On Sunday, these two teams will meet in the WNBA Finals, and both teams deserve to be there.
On today’s Dishin & Swishin podcast, two coaches that know the finalists intimately break things down.
Mike Thibault led the Washington Mystics into the Eastern conference playoffs, where they almost knocked off top-seed New York in the semifinals. Thibault’s Mystics won 2-of-3 meetings with the Fever this season. When he was coach of the Connecticut Sun, he saw the Fever “magic” from the sidelines, when Indiana came back to win conference final on their way to their WNBA title.
After years of success, including a championship, in Seattle, Brian Agler took the reigns of the Los Angeles Sparks this season. The Lynx won 3-of-4 games against the Sparks this season, but Los Angeles fell to Minnesota 2-1 in the conference semifinals. Agler did not get to see the healthy team he envisioned on the court all season, yet still gave the Lynx all they could handle.
Thibault and Agler discuss the strengths and weaknesses of both teams, their paths to getting to the finals, what their personal experiences show them about the finals and look at how to defend stars Moore and Catchings. Finally, the storied duo discusses “The Foul” at the end of the Minnesota-Phoenix series, and their thoughts on the changes in the WNBA from their beginnings to today.
For Minnesota, winning the Western Conference was not the walk in the park many expected. Losing in the playoffs last year highlighted a few deficiencies in depth, amplified with the loss of Janel McCarville (sitting out). In season injuries to key personnel made in-season trades necessary. Going into the finals, six of the twelve people on the roster were not on the 2014 team, including valuable players like Sylvia Fowles and Anna Cruz.
Perhaps the worst kept secret in the WNBA was Fowles’ desire to play in Minnesota while sitting out the start of the season in Chicago. Her arrival was supposed to trigger prosperity for the Lynx, but it has taken time to integrate such a different type of center into the Lynx offense; predecessors McCarville and Taj McWilliams-Franklin were high post, outstanding passers and screeners. Fowles is a true, back to the basket low post center.
Injuries to Augustus and Whalen further slowed the adaptation of the Lynx offense and defense as they missed valuable time as well. In fact, no one is exactly sure how close to 100 percent they are at this time, particularly Whalen.
Still, coach Cheryl Reeve has Moore, who is on her way to being crowned best player on the planet. The All-Star game MVP, Moore turned it on during the playoff series’ against Los Angeles and especially Phoenix. Her 27.8 points per game in the playoffs (29.5 against Phoenix) is double that of second leading scorer Augustus (13.8). She can go inside and outside, and is tenacious on both ends of the court. In fact, there may only be one player in the league with more tenacity than Moore.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, that player is Tamika Catchings, and she is playing for their opponent.
The Eastern Conference was extremely tough and extremely level this year; even the two teams that did not make the playoffs (Atlanta and Connecticut), had records that would put them in the playoffs out west. Indiana overcame a slow start to the season, White admittedly focused too much on improving the offense to the detriment of their trademark defense. With a roster featuring only two new players from the prior year, Shenise Johnson and Natalie Achonwa, White’s team was 1-4 after the first five games, but overall improved their record from 16-18 to 20-14. They followed their regular season success with playoff victories over higher seeds Chicago and New York. In both series, the Fever dropped game one before winning games two and three.
Indiana has experience too: Catchings, Erlana Larkins, Shavonte Zellous, and Briann January all were vital parts of their 2012 championship team. Catchings is unflappable. Not only a Hall of Fame player, she is one of the greatest cerebral players of all time, and an extension of her coach when on the floor. Larkins, Zellous and January turn it up that much higher during the post-season as well.
The Lynx swept the season series, 2-0, but throw those games out the window because Catchings missed game one, and Whalen and Augustus missed game two.
It should be a great playoff series! Talent, tenacity, determination. What else can you ask for?