After the Fever blew past the Lynx in Game 4 on Sunday, Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve approached the podium and described what she saw as the difference in the game: an inability to disrupt the Fever’s offense.
“Doing what they do, straight line drives,” Reeve said. “Straight line drives, and our defense was not as good as it needed to be.”
The most obvious reason for the Lynx’s lack of defense in Game 4 would be Sylvia Fowles, who was relegated to the bench for much of the game with early foul trouble and only ended up playing 18 minutes. Without Fowles, one of the league’s premier interior defenders, the Fever were able to slice unabated to the basket.
Many of these cuts were made by Marissa Coleman and Shenise Johnson, who combined to go 10-of-19 from the field, scoring 29 points. The tandem was able to take full advantage of the Fowles-less paint, doing the majority of their damage inside the arc.
“Honestly, I think our perimeter defense, not the point guards, but our twos (shooting guards) and threes (small forwards) have got to increase their attention to the players they’re guarding,” said Reeve at Tuesday’s practice. “So I thought that so far, Shenise Johnson and Marissa Coleman have been real separators.”
For Reeve, it’s not just rejecting players once they’re in the lane, it’s keeping them out of the paint altogether.
The frequent cuts, dribble handoffs, kick-out passes, and ball reversals have slowly become entrenched in the Fever’s identity this season, but at no time has the new offense looked more dangerous as this series. However, even with the Fever’s offense playing at a high level, a player of Fowles’ ilk still demands the game plan be built upon neutralizing her skill set.
“You want to pull her outside the paint to open it up for penetration,” Fever assistant coach Gail Goestenkors said of the Lynx’s center. “We’d like to bring her outside, involve her in pick-and-rolls, and understanding we might not score on the first one or have an open look, but then reverse the ball. Have her in constant movement and constant screens so she can’t get set, and the defense can’t get set.”
Much of the responsibility to stymie the Fever’s plans will fall on the shoulders of Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus, who have been the primary defenders of Coleman and Johnson. If the Fever are unable to break through the arc and penetrate, their plans of keeping Fowles’ feet in constant motion won’t ever materialize. That’s why Coleman and Johnson need to continue to leave their defenders in their rearview, forcing the Lynx defense to switch and compensate for the kinetic attack.
“If we aren’t on top of our game and as locked in one-on-one and team defense-wise, that’s going to result in points in the paint,” Moore said. “So we’re definitely going to have to have a heightened awareness and determination to make it as hard as possible for those crafty guards.”
In the media scrum after practice, Fever head coach Stephanie White was asked, as an analyst, if she had to pick one aspect of the game that would determine who would be taking home the WNBA Championship trophy, what would it be? It was a question that many coaches could easily sidestep, demurring that there isn’t just one thing. But White, like her counterpart Reeve on the opposing bench, was willing to admit what both teams already know by now is the key to winning this series.
“It’s in the paint.”