In the playoffs things are different. The intensity, passion and stakes go up a level. But in Thursday’s single elimination second round playoff matchup against Phoenix, Minnesota stuck to what they’ve been doing all regular season: winning in dramatic fashion after trailing by double digits.
In 2018 and 2019 the Lynx were sent home in the first round. They bucked that trend by defeating their former rival Phoenix Mercury 80-79 in a hard fought, closely contested game. The headlines before tip off were focused on the return of Minnesota’s best player: Sylvia Fowles. She missed her team’s final 14 games with a calf strain but rejoined the Lynx lineup on Thursday. Understandably Fowles looked like someone who hadn’t played basketball in a long time. Her instincts and defensive positioning were on-point but offensively she was noticeably rusty. She found herself with the ball in the restricted area a number of times but lacked her typical feathery touch. The shots were not falling, and Fowles was visibly frustrated with her performance.
“This is somebody that has been out for four weeks and your return is in a single elimination playoff game,” Cheryl Reeve said postgame. “I had every possible concern that a person could have for someone like Syl. We were gonna manage minutes. Even when it didn’t go her way we kinda anticipated her timing (would be off). Phoenix- the strength of their defense is in their post play. Not easy to come back against a team like that that you knew would be pretty physical.”
Attempting to inject Fowles back into the rotation hampered Minnesota’s offense in the first half. Phoenix’s swarming defense also contributed to the Lynx inability to score the ball. The Mercury forced 11 first half turnovers and cashed them in for 17 points. Nothing was coming easy. Meanwhile Phoenix scored with ease in transition and stepped into a litany of open three point shots. Playoff assassin Diana Taurasi torched Minnesota for 16 first half points. Damiris Dantas and Rachel Banahm were the only Lynx players who scored with any regularity in the first half. Phoenix closed the second quarter on a 12-2 run and led by nine at halftime. Things looked bleak for the Lynx.
Minnesota changed the game and made their move in the third quarter. The Lynx outscored the Mercury 17-8 over the final six minutes of the period. The catalyst was Odyssey Sims. She took on the task of, and somewhat succeed at making life tough for Taurasi. Sims had a number of “pick 6” steals that powered the Lynx run. On the offensive end she played her typical brand of bully ball and gave Minnesota a much needed edge.
“Odyssey got us going,” Reeve said. “(The coaches) laid into them on their pace of play (at halftime). We were playing scared. We were playing passive. Odyssey put the team on her back and showed us the pace we had to play at. She was really efficient that second half and we followed her lead.”
After three quarters the game was tied at 60. The banged up and shorthanded Mercury appeared to lose their wind as the period wore on. Gone was their defensive intensity that powered them in the first half. Meanwhile Crystal Dangerfield, the newly crowned rookie of the year, stepped up huge in the second half. Dangerfield had an ugly first two quarters but continued to pick up steam as the game went on. She scored 15 of her 17 points in the second half including nine in the fourth quarter. Dangerfield continued to be aggressive with her shot and gave her team the offense it needed to win the game. To a large degree, this is exactly the type of play that won her the rookie of the year award, yet somehow it continues to be surprising to see a first year player chosen in the second round perform so deftly in the clutch. Dangerfield summed it up nicely after the game.
“This was a win or go home situation and weren’t ready to go home just yet.”
Before the game it was announced that Cheryl Reeve was named 2020 WNBA Coach of the Year. The award goes to her for the third time in her career tying Van Chancellor and Mike Thibault for the most in league history.
Dantas was Minnesota’s rock all night. She played great on both ends of the floor all night. She finished with a playoff career high 22 points and eight rebounds. Her four three pointers were big, especially in the first half where the rest of her teammates struggled to put the ball in the hole.
Napheesa Collier had a tough night offensively. Phoenix did a nice job taking her away and assigned their best defender (Brianna Turner) to check her. Collier only took six shots for seven points but contributed in other ways by having nine rebounds, six assists, a steal and a block.
Rachel Banham played her role perfectly and packed a scoring punch off the bench. She went 5-7 from the field for 11 points in 15 minutes.
Skylar Diggins-Smith was the Mercury’s big offseason addition and disappointed in this game. She went 3-15 from the field for only eight points.
Minnesota advances to the WNBA semifinals where they will face the Seattle Storm. The Lynx will have their work is cut out for them in the next round. Seattle has been the league’s best team this summer despite dropping to the 2nd seed in the regular season finale. Game 1 is Sunday afternoon. Tip off is 2pm CT.