The Minnesota Lynx open their semi-final playoff series against the Seattle Storm this afternoon. The Storm are, with good reason, the prohibitive favorites to advance to the WNBA Finals. The finished 18-4 on the season with a league leading 11.5 point differential, while the Lynx finished 14-8 with a 3.8 differential. The Storm also crushed the Lynx in both their meetings this season by a combined 39 points. It was not close.
With that out of the way, this is not a preview of the upcoming series. Instead, I write to celebrate what has been one of the more enjoyable Lynx seasons in my memory. Yes, the title winning seasons, and the entirety of that fantastic decade of dominance was an amazing fan experience. Those squads were loaded with All-Star caliber talent, brilliantly coached, and an all around delight.
In truth, I was always seeing the end of the road for that group, and kudos to everyone involved, they held it together at a championship level far longer than I expected. I thought the 2016 Finals, which they lost to the Los Angeles Sparks, was the end of the road. Several of their stars were aging, and I didn’t see things getting better. But they brought the group back and won a fourth championship the next year, showing amazing resilience and fortitude. It was a spectacular experience largely because it was, at least for me, unexpected.
After that, of course, they regressed, as was inevitable. A pair of 18-16 seasons and first round, single elimination exits brought us to this season. Frankly, I expected more of the same—I thought this was a .500 team at best, with real weaknesses especially on the perimeter, and a lack of quality depth.
Instead, in this bizarre bubble of a season, the Lynx found a combination of talent, chemistry, and joy that led to a 14-8 record and for me, an exceptionally enjoyable season.
There were any number of terrific individual accomplishments to savor:
Let’s start with Damiris Dantas. The one time Lynx draft pick from Brazil left for a couple of seasons for Atlanta, but came back last season. This was her best season yet, with career highs in scoring, assists, and three point shooting. She was sorely needed on the front line on both sides of the floor in the absence of Sylvia Fowles. Dantas has had an odyssey in her personal and professional life, and seeing her succeed for her family has been a joy.
Napheesa Collier followed up her Rookie of the Year campaign with an even better second season. She has emerged as the fulcrum of the squad, doing what’s necessary, defending as well as anyone, raising her offensive game, and establishing herself as one of the young stars in the league. Collier isn’t voracious for points, but contributes in all ways, and after dropping to 6th in the 2019 draft, is poised to be the centerpiece of Lynx teams for years to come.
Bridget Carleton and Rachel Banham. These two have provided surprising depth to the roster that has been essential in maintaining momentum throughout the season. Carleton was a second round pick by the Connecticut Sun in 2019, and played a total of 40 minutes between the Sun and Lynx last season. She wasn’t someone fans were factoring in heading into 2020, but she has emerged as a vital cog for the Lynx. She wound up starting 15 games due to injury, and averaged nearly 26 minutes a night. Her numbers aren’t eye-popping, but she was efficient with her opportunities, limited mistakes, and showed impressive grit on defense.
Banham was a bigger story: The hometown college hero came back to Minnesota after four years with the Sun. Thanks to injuries and poor play, she never really established herself as a factor in Connecticut, and I feared she would be a disappointment to her local fans. But she had a mini-breakout this season, especially over the second half. She set career highs in minutes, scoring, and three point percentage, and had several big games off the bench. She significantly improved as a playmaker, which might be the biggest difference in her game. She started finding open teammates and dropping dimes with regularity, adding some valuable zest to her scoring game.
Finally, Crystal Dangerfield, the newly minted Rookie of the Year, was an absolute revelation. After an excellent career at UConn, she was widely expected to be a mid-to late first round draft pick, with her diminutive size and occasional inconsistency keeping her from the top of the draft. Instead, she fell to the second round, where the Lynx, who passed on her in the first, grabbed her with the 16th overall pick. She proceeded to astound, leading the team in scoring, showing an ability to finish at all three levels, and showing a particular knack for fourth quarter heroics, helping the Lynx to several late wins.
Stitching it all together is Coach of the Year (for the third time) Cheryl Reeve. In addition to her coaching chops, she has shown a good eye for drafting players since taking over the GM role, nabbing two straight Rookies of the Year with the 6th and 16th picks.
Unlike past successful Lynx teams, this is a young team with some veterans sprinkled in—Fowles of course, who missed much of the year, and Odyssey Sims, recently back from pregnancy leave. It’s been fun and refreshing to see the younger players developing, and seeing a new pair of stars emerge. Their commitment and confidence in each other has been exciting to see develop, and despite a few bumps in the road, they’ve been the surprise team in the WNBA this year.
Their thrilling 80-79 win over the Phoenix Mercury in their playoff opener was a case in point, with the team falling behind but refusing to give up on the game or each other. Instead they roared back in the second half, with Dangerfield, who struggled miserably early in the game, doing what she does have leading the team to victory in the second half, with help from Dantas, Sims, Banham, and all the rest of the Lynx in overcoming All-WNBA fixture and future Hall-of-Famer Diana Taurasi and a very talented Mercury squad.
Whatever happens the rest of the way, it’s been a terrifically enjoyable season to watch, with significant promise for the future. What more can we ask?
Today’s game is on ABC at 2:00 central. Talk about it below.