After a frustrating, season-worst 21-point loss on Wednesday in Las Vegas, the Minnesota Lynx came back to an electric home crowd at Target Center in search of a renewed vitality to their playoff push and the No. 4 spot in the WNBA standings.
Forward Aerial Powers was inserted into the starting lineup for the first time since her return from a torn UCL in her right thumb on August 21, and instantly validated Head Coach Cheryl Reeve’s reshuffling. Powers started the game with a steal off a hard-fought front in the post, and then forced a missed shot on a backside rotation, which she turned into two points herself with a pull-up jumper that got the 2019 WNBA champion into a rhythm early.
“AP gives us such good balance in terms of perimeter play,” Reeve said of Powers, who scored six of the team’s first 10 points. “She can shoot the 3, she can play in pick-and-roll. She can make plays plays in the pick-and-roll, which I think she can get better at, and started to do in the second half.”
Powers’ return and progression into the Aerial Powers Lynx fans had hoped to see when she signed with Minnesota could not have come at a better time, with Layshia Clarendon remaining out for the immediate future with a stress reaction in their right fibula. Throughout her ramp-up period over the past seven games, Powers has exhibited something the Lynx haven’t had all season: self-created offense.
“We’ve talked to her a lot about the fact that she does things that no other player on our team can do,” Reeve said pregame. “She knows that she’s creative in the way that she shoots. It also requires a bit more patience from from teammates, because she’s different.”
Reeve said her shooting reminds her of a familiar face in Minnesota.
“Some coaching staffs want the combos or the extras. Maya [Moore] wasn’t worried about the combos or the extras,” Reeve said with a laugh. Not to say that she’s Maya, but there are some players you have to give that space to, and we are going to allow her that space [to be herself on the court].”
That tough shot-making was on full display tonight. Powers can seamlessly execute dribble combos to create space for herself to rise up in one motion, which is particularly useful in the mid-range coming off screens from Sylvia Fowles. Of her 14 shot attempts, 10 of them came in the mid-range, where she shot 5/10.
Aerial Powers' shot chart was a thing of beauty tonight.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) September 11, 2021
Her 5/10 mid-range shooting really opened things up for Sylvia Fowles, Napheesa Collier, Natalie Achonwa and Jess Shepard on rolls and seals inside.
Having another ball-handler who can shoot off screens is big time. pic.twitter.com/JDPOYDfdgx
“I was teasing Chuck [Barta] before I came in here, ‘Hey once I took this wrap off my hand, I can shoot better!’”, Powers joked after the game.
Powers’ shotmaking kept the Lynx afloat during the first half. Her 11 points on 5/9 shooting forced the Fever to try and make adjustments with how they played her coming off screens at the break, which opened the door for Minnesota to get the ball in the paint and start getting everyone involved.
Going into the half, Minnesota led by five after trailing for a good portion of the proceedings thanks to a lack of ball movement on offense and an inability to contain dribble penetration on the other end. Despite Fever guards getting into the paint, it was the Defensive Player of the Year that continually bailed out the Lynx perimeter defenders for stops.
️D ️P ️O ️Y ️— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) September 11, 2021
You ain't got no alibi pic.twitter.com/WGlNaKPP6T
“That’s what Syl’s life is. The scheme is not for her to switch, but she always ends up having to switch because they have some quick guards and we get blown by,” Reeve said. “It’s a great comfort to know that Syl’s there in most cases to terminate what the guard is trying to do. And she takes great pride in it. She’s ready for it.”
Perhaps what is most impressive with Fowles’ defense is that she does so without ever getting herself into foul trouble. The angles she takes to impact shots is expertly calculated, yet so quick that it baits opponents into taking heavily contested shots that result in stops and run-outs the other way.
“You can’t make entry passes. She had four steals. You can’t just drive by her. And then she’d go and get every rebound,” Reeve continued.
Cheryl Reeve, with a smile, after praising Sylvia Fowles' 5-block, 4-steal defensive performance tonight:— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) September 11, 2021
"I'm not ever going to spend a day not being appreciative of Sylvia Fowles. Ever."
Fowles was one steal and one assist away from the league’s sixth 5x4 game, which would’ve been her second this season (6/25/21 win over Las Vegas).
On the other end of the floor, Fowles was pretty damn good, too. The seven-time All-Star poured in 13 points on 6/8 shooting and added three assists, one off her season-high.
Early in the third quarter, the two-time Finals MVP asserted her dominance sealing off her defenders, clearing the way for guards to throw entry passes for easy layups. As a result of Powers’ shotmaking, Fever bigs played higher on screens and hand-offs, which enabled Fowles to utilize her quickness and take advantage of the adjustments off the dribble.
Early in the second half, Napheesa Collier chipped in offensively with a few nice seals herself, which not only resulted in made baskets for her, but also forced Fever defenders to start swarming the paint, opening up Lynx perimeter players to receive kick-outs and force the defense into scramble situations.
Forecast called for rain pic.twitter.com/oFgmX6n4hd— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) September 11, 2021
In the back half of the third quarter, the second unit picked up where the starters left off and took the ball movement to another level, blowing the game wide open.
“I feel that [moving the ball and playing unscripted] is just the second group’s identity. Just being able to move the ball, pass, get shots off drive-and-kicks. That’s just what we do,” lead bench guard Rachel Banham said after the game. “When we do it, you can tell it’s really good. But that also starts on the defensive end when we get those rebounds and we got out in transition.”
That it did. The Lynx second unit turned several live-ball turnovers into points to kickstart their 23-8 run, including a pair of big shots from Banham, to end the third quarter, which was the most unselfish quarter of basketball I’ve seen the team play all season long.
“It’s a group that has always from the beginning of the season, always has played well together,” Reeve said of the second unit’s chemistry. “They move better than the first group. They have their style and that’s the group.”
What is most evident about the second unit is that they are supremely unselfish. They were key in the Lynx dishing out a season-high-tying 26 assists.
Center Natalie Achonwa each did a terrific job of moving the ball tonight, primarily because they are constantly reading the floor. I don’t know that I’ve seen a player whose eyes dart back and forth as quickly or as intently as Achonwa, and it pays off, because of how quickly she processes the game in the half court. That also includes making decisions to shoot, too, as evidenced by her season-high 10 points tonight.
Over her last 10 games played, Achonwa has an impressive 6.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and has also come up with seven steals, primarily on denying entry passes. That type of play from a rotational center is impactful, especially when you factor in her defensive communication and how well she functions as an anchor beside fellow Canadian Bridget Carleton and fellow Notre Dame alumna Jess Shepard.
Shepard’s rebounding and passing have moved the needle considerably at times for the Lynx, as well. Shepard, along with Fowles, led the team in rebounding at seven apiece, but Shepard’s often came in big spots to keep possessions alive or start run-outs. When you couple her great rebounding with her impressive passing ability, you have a break-starter on one end of the floor and a weapon that can throw teammates open in the half court.
When Achonwa and Shepard both play well, the Lynx are an extremely tough team to beat. The more minutes Minnesota can not only steal, but play well in without Sylvia Fowles on the floor, the better off they will be come playoff time.
At the end of the day, it was evident that the Lynx had fun tonight, and that fun, spurred by unselfishness, undoubtedly carried them on that third quarter run to take control of the game.
“I think that’s the biggest thing with this group is that when we’re having fun, we’re flying around on defense, we’re moving the ball, getting and-1s, getting out in transition. That’s when we’re at our best,” said McBride, who added 15 points on 6/12 shooting tonight, on the biggest difference between last night and the loss in Las Vegas. “We enjoy playing with each other. We feed off each other’s energy and that’s when it’s the most fun, and you can feel the energy. That’s something that’s part of our identity. We love playing here at Target Center in front of our fans.”
Minnesota rode that energy all the way through the fourth quarter en route to an 89-72 win in the first of a three-game set with the Fever. With just one game left at Target Center before the playoffs, you can bet the Lynx want to come out and have as much fun as they possibly can for round two on Sunday.
Game Notes, Courtesy of Lynx PR
- With the win, Minnesota now sits fourth in the WNBA standings.
- Aerial Powers tied her season high with 20 points. It was her sixth double-digit performance in the last seven games.
- With her fourth point of the game, Sylvia Fowles eclipsed the 3,000 point mark with the Lynx, joining Seimone Augustus (5,881), Maya Moore (4,984), Katie Smith (3,605) and Lindsay Whalen (3,233) as the only players in franchise history to do so.
- Fowles’ four first-half blocks tied a franchise record for most in a half.
- Natalie Achonwa scored a season-high 10 points, on 4/7 shooting, to go along with four rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block.
- Kayla McBride notched her 14th 15+ point performance of the season, this time with her parents sitting court side.
I asked Kayla McBride about what it meant to her to have her parents sitting court side for the first time since she joined the Lynx.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) September 11, 2021
Her response will make you smile.
"It's always about family for me. So to have them here, it means everything." ❤️ pic.twitter.com/Qo73uqSVgV