Minnesota won its second championship in franchise history and became the fifth team in the league’s 17-year history to compose a perfect playoff run.
“There was a lot of people that didn’t believe that we were still one of the top teams in the league,” said Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve. “It was a great motivation for us. Each journey is different, and this one was really special.”
The Lynx made the 2013 run special by overwhelming everyone in their path during the playoffs. Using their coveted balanced offense, six players scored nine points or more Thursday night. In the postseason, five of Minnesota's seven victories were double-digit margins.
Maya Moore, who was named Finals MVP, led Minnesota in scoring with 23 points, including a 9-of-10 mark from the free throw line.
“We know it’s not going to be perfect, but the sign of a mature championship team is how are you going to get through those tough moments, and that's what we did,” she said.
Tough moments included Atlanta catching Minnesota cheating inside, hitting 9 of 17 three-pointers to keep the game within reach. Defensively, the Dream stumped the Lynx on half-court sets, limiting the transition game that destroyed them in the first two games.
As a result, the Lynx held a mere 40-37 halftime lead.
“Everyone expected us to give up, but we kept fighting, and it showed in this game,” said Atlanta forward Tiffany Hayes.
Minnesota fought just as valiantly, and gained crucial separation in the third quarter, forcing Atlanta to the perimeter more frequently. The Lynx eventually exhausted the Dream’s agility, earning more free throw trips than the second game. Minnesota hit 26 of 31 shots from the line, compared to a 10-of-17 clip for Atlanta.
“Lindsay Whalen was just leading us as usual, getting us in our offense,” Moore said.
While disciplined, a championship did not damper Minnesota’s outgoing attitude, with the players trading jabs at each other in the press conferences. On the court, their camaraderie was evident in their ability to anticipate the position and reaction of their teammates.
“No one cares who gets the credit,” said Minnesota guard Seimone Augustus.
Other Lynx highlights included a second straight double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds. Lindsay Whalen added 15 points and six assists.
Hayes scored 20 points to lead the Dream, including four triples. Alex Bentley was also key from the bench, netting 18 points and 6 assists.
Dream head coach Fred Williams changed up his strategy significantly, benching Angel McCoughtry for most of the first quarter after an erratic start. Trailing 13-3, the Dream rallied as ball movement and shot selection improved.
“She wasn’t in rhythm at that time. It’s been a tough series for her,” said Atlanta head coach Fred Williams.
Tough would be an understatement. McCoughtry made just five of 14 shots Thursday, finishing with 13 points. She made just 28 percent of her field goals in the Finals, leaving Atlanta winless in the championship round in three visits (0-9).
The Dream simply could not keep up with the Lynx throughout the series. Their tinkering succeeded briefly, but there were too many weaknesses to withstand the multitude of Lynx counters.
“They’re great shooters. They’re great slashers,” Williams said. “We are slashers at getting to the rim, and we didn’t get there enough.”
Atlanta has been a consistent contender in the Eastern Conference, but if they want to do the same in the championship round, diversifying their offense is a virtual requirement. Perimeter shooters must develop to open more space for players who like to score down low, including Erika de Souza and Aneika Henry. Increasing the number of touches each players gets in a possession would also open up lanes and make volume shooters like McCoughtry less of a liability.
2013 was not without progress for the Dream though. The frayed tensions over a feud between McCoughtry and former head coach Marynell Meadors calmed, and a 10-1 start to the season will be a building block for 2014.
“We believe we can win a championship,” McCoughtry said. “You’ve got to commend these young ladies for just being strong. I’m just very proud of everybody.”