For the better part of the first 60 minutes of the WNBA Finals, Indiana guard Briann January had pretty much had her way with the Lynx, penetrating off the dribble, causing havoc in the middle of the Lynx defense.
And it had to stop.
This is why, in the second half of Tuesday’s Game 2 at Target Center, Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve went small. With starting guard Lindsay Whalen struggling to guard January, Reeve went with a lineup of Anna Cruz and Renee Montgomery at guard, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore at forward and Sylvia Fowles at center.
Reeve, explaining the move, said simply: “We felt we had to do it.”
It worked. And it might have changed the dynamic of this best-of-five WNBA Finals, which is tied at a game apiece going into Friday’s Game 3 in Indianapolis.
The ability of both Cruz and Montgomery to engage the Indiana guards early in the possession, to hound the ball on the perimeter, to work around picks and prevent dribble penetration changed the tenor of the game.
Montgomery went into the game for Brunson 2 minutes, 19 seconds into the third quarter with the Lynx down seven. Less than a minute later, with the Lynx down nine, Cruz went in for Whalen, as Augustus, Moore and Fowles stayed in.
Over the final 6:53 of the quarter, the Lynx outscored the Fever 20-7 to take a four-point lead.
The impact was that immediate, on both ends of the floor.
January had scored 11 points on 5-for-9 shooting with four assists and no turnovers in the first half. In the second half, with both Montgomery and Cruz guarding her at different times, January — the star of the Fever’s Game 1 win — had six points, one assist and five turnovers.
And while that smaller lineup also seemed to give the Lynx offense some flow — particularly for Moore — it was defense that made the difference. The Lynx did not have a basket in the final 5:03. But they won because, over that same stretch, the Lynx forced six Fever turnovers.
“Just to be able to help the team when we needed it, I think that’s the best feeling you can have as a player,” Montgomery said. “I think when me and Cruz play together, it’s very difficult [for the opponent]. We hustle a lot. That’s all it is, hustle.”
And while Fever coach Stephanie White might have felt the Lynx got away with overly physical play, she had to admit that the Lynx defense, led by Cruz and Montgomery at the top, made a difference.
“That small lineup really caused us some problems,” she said.
Indeed, White compared Cruz to a longer, leaner version of former WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Debbie Black, whose pesky on-ball defense earned her the nickname “The Pest.”
“She’s like a little gnat that all over you,” White said of Cruz. “I mean, it’s exhausting and irritating and you just want to slap her away. And I mean that with much respect. … So to have Cruz, someone who can hound you and hound you and she never gets tired, and then Montgomery as well, absolutely it makes a difference.”
Cruz was already the first guard off the bench. But what happened Tuesday will give Montgomery more time, likely at Whalen’s expense. Especially with Whalen slowed by ankle bursitis and Achilles problems that have plagued her the past few weeks.
Seeing Reeve go to the small lineup is not a huge surprise. In a late-season victory over Indiana that both Whalen and Augustus missed because of injuries, Cruz and Montgomery started and combined for 25 points and 13 assists. It just appears to be a good matchup. Montgomery’s ability to hit the three gives the Lynx good spacing as well.
“We just needed to dictate more,” Reeve said. “Be the aggressor. “This was the first time Indiana has seen us go to that level. And now we have to do it on a more consistent basis.’’