Semifinals Preview: Seattle Storm

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In what feels like the blink of an eye, the WNBA playoff field has been whittled down from 12 teams to four. Single elimination is a thing of the past (until next year, when we get to complain about the playoff format all over again!) and Sunday marks the beginning of the best-of-five semifinals. 

We’re here to discuss the Seattle Storm. You’re familiar with them, I’m sure. 2018 WNBA champions. 2020 preseason title favorites. The team with the best Net Rating in basketball by a full five points per 100 possessions. The team that turns you over until your will to keep competing melts faster than the Wicked Witch of the West on a rainy afternoon. 

When this series tips Sunday at 3 PM on ABC, Seattle will be a clear favorite over opposing Minnesota. But by losing to Las Vegas on the final day of the regular season with Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird sitting out, Seattle dropped to second place, allowing the Aces to claim the top overall playoff seed. This was huge. Las Vegas now draws Connecticut, a team hot and brimming with confidence but nowhere near the Lynx’s level statistically. Seattle, meanwhile, is in for a serious tussle. Minnesota is capable of going all the way. 

Seattle won both regular season meetings, beating Minnesota, 90-66, in late July and then again, 103-88, in early September. 

It’s tough to nail down what version of the Lynx will show up Sunday. In the July meeting, Lynx rookie point guard Crystal Dangerfield had yet to claim a starting role. In the September meeting, future Hall of Famer and Minnesota starting center Sylvia Fowles was still recovering from a calf injury that sidelined her for the majority of the season. Fowles returned to action in the Lynx’s single elimination victory over Phoenix on Thursday, but she looked far from her peak self. Rust is to be expected. But seeing Minnesota close the game with an active Fowles on the bench was an odd sight. 

Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve said Fowles experienced some tightness in her calf during Thursday’s third quarter and is questionable for Game 1 against Seattle. Whether or not Fowles is on the floor in crunch time during this best-of-five will determine how the Storm go about attacking Minnesota on both ends. 

Let’s begin on defense. Minnesota turned the ball over 43 times to Seattle’s 23 in the season series. That explains the double digit victory margins. You’re not beating an elite team with sloppiness. What makes the Storm special, though, is the migraines they induce with swarming ball pressure and clogged passing lanes. Teams enter matchups against Seattle with an emphasis on not turning the ball over and still, Seattle will wreak havoc, force steals and convert easy buckets on the other end. The Storm trailed only Los Angeles this season in both opponent turnover percentage and percentage of points scored off turnovers. 

Will Seattle put its best defensive wing, Alysha Clark, on Dangerfield, as Storm head coach Gary Kloppenburg decided to do on September 6th? The Storm hid Bird on Lexie Brown and Odyssey Sims, daring the two Minnesota guards not named Dangerfield to beat them. Or will Clark guard Napheesa Collier, Minnesota’s best all-around player who is capable of operating from both forward positions, as was the case on July 28th? 

With Fowles not at 100 percent, the Storm should expect Reeve to trot out many of the smaller lineups that propelled the Lynx to the fourth overall seed this season. That means Damiris Dantas, Minnesota’s high-scorer in both games against the Storm, at center, Collier at power forward, and Bridget Carleton as the wing alongside Sims and Dangerfield. Brown remains in the concussion protocol and is out for Game 1.  

Despite a choppy offensive start to the season, Seattle center Natasha Howard – the 2019 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year – was again stellar shutting down opponents this season in the Wubble. She has the length to contend with Dantas’s ability to hit threes, and needs to stay attached at all times considering Dantas’s recent scoring eruptions. 

As was the case in many of the single-elimination matchups earlier this week, rebounding may determine who advances. The one clear advantage Minnesota possesses against Seattle is on the offensive glass. The Lynx are the best offensive rebounding team in the WNBA. The Storm ranked 11th in defensive rebounding percentage. It will be fascinating to see how Kloppenburg deploys his backup bigs, Mercedes Russell and rookie Ezi Magbegor. They can help in the rebounding department. 

This matchup gets really fun when imagining how things will look with Seattle on offense and Minnesota defending. The Storm are a joy to watch with the ball, sporting the best assist percentage in the league and the second best assist to turnover ratio (Las Vegas is No. 1). 

The Storm have three starters – Clark, Howard, and Stewart – who are excellent operating in the post and shoot threes at a high clip. This allows them to play four around one and it’s impossible to stop. Someone zips a pass into the post. The defense collapses, terrified of a Clark mini-hook, a Howard step through, or a Stewart ten-footer. Immediately, the post player will redirect a pass back to the perimeter where wide-open shooters await. 

Shot clock dwindling? Doesn’t matter. Jewell Loyd is one of the best shot creators in the league. Out of bounds plays? Seattle loves to set flare screens for its shooters with screeners capable of popping out behind the arc and hitting triples. What do you do when Loyd peels off a pick set by Stewart? This is as close to an indefensible action as you will see in all of basketball. 

The Storm run plenty of pick-and-rolls, usually pairing Bird with either Stewart or Howard. In the regular season, Minnesota defended these actions by trapping, only its traps weren’t fervent enough to secure the intended result: a stop. Dantas would leave Howard to contain Bird. With Dangerfield already stuck behind the play, Howard was able to roll unfettered to the hoop. If a Lynx defender – usually Collier – slid over from the weak-side to help slow Howard’s roll, Howard would kick the rock to an open Stewart or Loyd behind the arc. 

Using Loyd as the ball handler in more pick-and-roll actions is another good way to make Dantas uncomfortable on defense. Dantas was inclined to lag back in the paint when Seattle hit Minnesota with a Loyd/Howard pick-and-roll in the regular season. Loyd said, “Much obliged!” and dotted a jumper. Seattle’s goal should be to force Minnesota into as many split-second, “rock and hard place” decisions as possible. 

Complacency is the one thing Seattle must avoid if it wants to skirt a Minnesota upset. The Lynx love coming from behind, especially out of halftime. The Storm won’t likely take a Reeve-coached team lightly, but folks across the league already seem to be penciling Seattle and Las Vegas into the Finals. It’s too early for that. The Lynx are legit. 

Can we slow down for a moment and just appreciate the talent we’re about to be seeing on the floor in this series? MVPs. Hall of Famers. Rookies of the Year. Defensive Players of the Year. Professional podcasters. Exceptionalism will abound wherever you choose to train your eyes. 

Enjoy it. 

 

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