Following the conclusion of tomorrow’s tilt with the Washington Mystics in the Nation’s capital, the Minnesota Lynx will enter the WNBA playoffs for an 11th straight season - the league’s longest active streak.
In what has been a true rollercoaster of a season not only in terms of the standings, but also in terms of health, nearly every member of the Lynx team from top to bottom has been forced to play various roles and minute allotments, and in tens of different lineups while finding ways to impact winning.
That may not seem like a positive right now to a team who started the year 0-4 and would like to have those games back now in the midst of a battle for playoff seeding. However, that experience could prove extraordinarily valuable in the playoffs. Why is that? Because in postseason play, teams more frequently play seldom-used lineups to create and capitalize on mismatches to “steal” one, two, or three-minute stretches that can swing games.
The Lynx season-long battle with injuries has helped players who may not normally play extensive minutes together understand one another’s games and comfort spots, communicate with and trust one another, and know how to play off of one another.
“One of the things I [have been] most pleased with is how we engage with one another on the floor,“ Lynx General Manager and Head Coach Cheryl Reeve said at practice recently.
That communication has been crucial for a team who is filled with veteran knowledge at every position, whether in the starting lineup or off the bench. After Minnesota lost the third quarter by 12 to Indiana on Sunday, they didn’t panic or get down on themselves. They regrouped, hashed things out in the huddle, and came back to win the fourth quarter by 12, themselves, and won the game 90-80.
Reeve was proud of how her team responded.
“The game was, all the way through, about making plays,” she said. “How we treated each other and how we responded in those moments was my biggest takeaway. Obviously, that comes with chemistry and jelling with each other. ... I don’t ever want to coach a team that’s easy to break. I think our team’s not easy to break because we do handle difficult moments the right way, the way we communicate with each other, we problem solve together.”
That chemistry has been perhaps even more apparent with the bench unit than with the starters. Perhaps unlike some of their dynastic teams of old, the Lynx this season have relied heavily on one of the league’s most consistently effective bench rotations.
“It is one of our better years in terms of what we’re getting from the bench,” Reeve said. “There were a lot of years where the bench wasn’t playing a lot and [wasn’t this productive].”
It’s not often a bench unit can establish a true identity, but Minnesota’s has.
“They share the ball so well together. It’s a group that has always, from the beginning of the season, always played well together,” Reeve said after last a recent win. “They move the ball better than the first group. They have their style and that’s the group.”
Reeve’s confidence in her bench is apparent, too.
“That group is probably the hardest working when it comes to skills and watching video, and saying, ‘Okay, look we need to do this.’ And so then they get [to practice] and they work on it,” Reeve explained at practice on Wednesday. “Collectively, they’re very hardworking and they very much want to be able to contribute.”
Even off the bench, each player has multiple truly elite skills at the WNBA level that can be consistently relied upon to give the team a boost when the game calls a player’s number.
“That’s the sign of a good team,” Reeve said about knowing she can rely on any player to infuse the game with what’s needed. “It’s really, really valuable to have layers you know exactly what [they are] going to give you.”
Given Reeve’s belief in her roster from Sylvia Fowles down to her more situationally-deployed players, each player in the rotation will have a unique opportunity to make an impact when Lynx’s playoff run kicks off at Target Center next week. Let’s go through and break down one key way each player can do just that.
Sylvia Fowles: Interior Defensive Dominance
Sylvia Fowles is undoubtedly this year’s WNBA Defensive Player of the Year. She’s averaging 1.9 blocks and a career-high 1.8 steals per game to go along with 8.0 defensive rebounds per game and countless altered shots and defensive communications that have saved baskets throughout the season. What’s even crazier is that she’s doing it at age 35 in year 14 while playing over 30 minutes per game.
Whether it be keeping dominant bigs out of the paint or switching onto quicker guards and wings off of pick-and-rolls, Fowles will put the clamps on either way.
We’ll start with the latter.
Here, Fowles is probably a little higher than she needs to be given that Teaira McCowan isn’t a threat from outside the paint. Kelsey Mitchell is one the most explosive guards in the league, which makes her a very tough cover as a big defender caught too high in the PnR.
Instead of fouling or giving her the lane to try and block a shot in a trail position, Fowles slides her feet, walls off Mitchell and forces her to take a weird, fadeaway running layup that results in a block.
Fowles has incredible timing, which makes her such a difficult player to score on as a guard. Timing doesn’t just include when to go for steals or blocks, either.
“Her timing is really good,” Reeve said after the Lynx win over the Seattle Storm on August 24. “To have timing you have to have alertness for what’s happening and not only what’s happening, but what’s going to happen next.”
Fowles knows exactly when to jab at drivers to bait them into bursting past her to attack the rim, at which she beats offensive players far more than she loses. You know you’re an incredible defender when that “knowing what’s going to happen next” is simply you deciding and creating what’s going to happen next.
Perhaps what impresses me the most about Fowles’ defensive dominance is how she does it without fouling. The three-time defensive player of the year has committed only 30 shooting fouls the entire season, which is mind-boggling considering how many shots on which she is the nearest defender.
“Good players don’t foul, and Syl is a really, really good player,” Reeve said in that same postgame presser with a smile.
I’ll add to that - Hall of Fame players not only don’t foul when the game is on the line, but take over when you need a stop in the clutch.
Being at a standstill with the MVP of the league barreling down the lane at you (in the biggest game of the season at that point, no less) is a losing proposition, unless you’re Sylvia Fowles.
Fowles stays parallel to Wilson, waits until Wilson passes her and then squares her shoulders to the backboard and perfectly times her block without fouling. Textbook defensive positioning and timing from the greatest to ever do it.
It’s not often, either that defensive centers can consistently dictate where a post-up goes, but Fowles does that, too. She decides it won’t be easy for rookie Charli Collier.
When Charli Collier catches the ball, Fowles lets her know she’s right on her back. A tall task for a rookie to succeed with. Fowles opens her hips and shades Collier to the middle for two reasons. First, it’s where she has two teammates in the help. And second, it’s Collier’s weak hand; Syl knows Collier is more likely to miss, or take a shot she can block more easily.
In all three phases, whether it’s on the ball, in the post or in the help, Fowles is more than capable of dominating defensively. Despite her also being the offensive engine of this team, there are more players who can step up and help her on that end than there are on defense.
While I could go on and on about the ways Sylvia Fowles dominates, I’ll leave it there in the interest of time.
Napheesa Collier: Offensive Versatility
Napheesa Collier is one of the game’s most exciting young players because she can attack defenses from anywhere on the floor.
At 6-foot-1, she’s tall and strong enough to take smaller players down in the paint as a small forward, and quick enough to blow by bigger defenders when she plays the 4.
Since Damiris Dantas went down with a season-ending Lisfranc injury in her left foot on September 2, Collier has been thrown into the fire as the full-time power forward, and been successful in doing so. A big reason why is the spacing on the floor gives her more room to work in and makes it easier to be decisive, with or without the ball.
Collier’s game starts in the post. She is exceptional at sealing to win positioning inside, and often does so after rolling to the rim and forcing a switch onto a smaller defender.
Now that she’ll be a 4 moving forward, she can punish bigger defenders for being out of position at any time.
Here, Collier’s defender knows that Rachel Banham loves playing PnR and Phee sets a ton of ball screens, so she cheats expecting that. Instead, Phee sees that Fowles isn’t down low yet and the paint is wide open, so she hits her defender with a hesitation and darts past her for an easy 2.
What is most intriguing about playing Collier at the 4 is the way she can force 4/5 switches with Fowles, which Minnesota has done more since Collier has started at the 4.
In the first clip, Collier got a switch onto McCowan. Instead of settling, Phee hits her with a beautiful head fake and hits a runner in the lane.
Then, Collier receives for a ball screen from Fowles. Knowing that her matchup won’t get past a screen from Syl, she uses a hesitation to draw McCowan out by another step or two, allowing her to create enough space for a pull-up, mid-range jumper she loves to take from the short corner.
Fowles loves the prospects of more consistent 4/5 switches.
“It’s like a pick your poison type thing,” she said. “When Phee’s hot, I make sure to give her that room she needs to maneuver, to get where she wants to be. And then when I’m hot, she do the same for me. ... So we just try to feed off each other’s energy that way.”
Collier can impact the game in every way imaginable on the offensive end, but I’ll be looking for her to get her looks primarily from these three types of situations. We’ll see if Reeve agrees.
Aerial Powers: Self-Created Offense
Since Aerial Powers has been at 100%, the 2019 WNBA champ has been everything Reeve could’ve imagine when Reeve signed her to a three-year deal last offseason. Powers has averaged 15.6 points on 49.3/38.1/91.2 shooting splits, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 2.3 turnovers and 0.4 steals in 21.9 minutes per game over that seven-game stretch.
During Powers’ absence, the Lynx didn’t have anyone who could consistently make pull-up jumpers out of pick-and-rolls, making life much more difficult on Fowles. Powers has filled that void extremely well, knocking down shots off the bounce at a high clip.
Plays like this open things up for Fowles better than nearly anything the offense can do. Forcing paint defenders to play closer to the level gets Fowles more 1-on-1 matchups on the block.
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’ve never played with a dominant post like her,” Powers said at practice on Wednesday. “I realized coming off of ball screens or hand-offs from her, I have that little mid-range jumper I love. ... When they’re focused on Syl and me, the U-turn passes are open and we’re getting a lot more stuff out of our offense that way.”
When defenders crowd her on the perimeter, Powers also has the handle, burst and balance to take anyone off the dribble to the rim. Here, she gets a switch onto DiDi Richards, a very good defender, and takes her to the rim before finishing with a tough floater to complete the and-1.
Finally, Powers is a player the Lynx can go to when they need a self-created bucket. Whether it’s a late-clock situation or one in crunch time where an entry pass to Fowles isn’t feasible, Powers is going to be the one with the ball in her hands. She’s comfortable going right or left, is adept at changing pace and drawing fouls, and can shoot the J off the dribble with ease.
The Lynx haven’t had a player who can do that very consistently since Maya Moore stepped away from the game following the 2018 season.
Now, she’s not Maya Moore, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she can cook up some of the same late-game magic Moore always seemed to find in huge moments at the end of playoff games.
Kayla McBride: Perimeter Shooting
McBride is one of the best shooters I’ve ever seen in my life. Powers agreed with that notion at practice this week.
“Everybody knows she’s a great shooter. She shoots the lights out,” Powers said. “She’s like Steph Curry. If she gets an open shot, she’s gonna make it.”
Reeve and the Lynx coaching staff do an excellent job using ball screens to free up McBride in set plays in the half court. This flare screen was a beauty.
“I’ve learned in watching and playing with her that any screens with her are so good because [defenses] focus so much on her,” Powers said of McBride last week. “Sometimes you might set a screen and two might go with her and someone else is wide open.”
That’s exactly what happens here. McBride is an underrated passer, too. When the defense overcommits, she consistently makes them pay with quick, on-target passes.
My favorite part of McBride’s game is how good she is at what I call hunting open space. In this clip, Bridget Carleton lifts the second she sees Phee turn the corner on Wilson. McBride reacts and smartly flows into the empty corner with good pace. K-Mac catches it on the hop, squares her shoulders and feet to the basket, and lets it rip in a picture perfect, fluid motion for a classic Kayla McBride 3.
With how much attention Fowles and Collier will command inside, a player like McBride will create several open looks for herself and her teammates on scrambles with her off-ball movement and shot gravity. When paired with knockdown shooting, that’s a scary combination.
Layshia Clarendon: Pick-and-Roll Defense
Writer’s note: Clarendon uses they/she/he and them/her/his pronouns interchangeably.
I love watching physical, aggressive guards because they make life easier for their teammates on both ends of the floor. That’s exactly how Layshia Clarendon makes their mark on the game nearly every time she steps on the court.
Defending a ball screen is probably the most difficult thing a guard is asked to do in the WNBA, but Clarendon proves time and again he is up to the task.
Clarendon fights over the ball screen with their hands up, which is a great way to buy yourself a split second to take away an option for the ball-handler. Collier does a good job cutting off the drive, playing right into Clarendon. She is in good position after getting around the screen, which enabled him to tip the pass and come away with a steal.
Another great aspect of Clarendon’s defense is that even on the off chance they do get walled off by a screen, she’s never out of the play and remains aggressive.
Here, Clarendon is essentially on Williams’s back, so instead of letting Williams get down hill or rise for a jumper, he takes matters into his own hands by making a timely swipe from behind for a steal that results in a McBride tripe in transition.
Clarendon may only average 0.6 steals per game, but they cause much more havoc for offenses than that number indicates. She absorbs contact with her strong upper body and forces ball-handlers off their drives into help defenders. He commonly funnels drivers into positions on the floor, such as the block/baseline area, where Fowles, Collier or Carleton can make plays in the help side.
Best of all, they frustrate the hell out of opposing guards, which simply cannot be quantified.
Clarendon is looking to come off of a seven-game absence — due to a stress reaction in her right fibula — tomorrow versus Washington, but even if he doesn’t g, the expectation is they will be ready for the playoffs.
Crystal Dangerfield: Perimeter Scoring
2020 WNBA Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield is a nightmare in open floor and spread situations. She’s as quick as any player in the league and has a good handle to match, which creates a problematic infusion of buckets for opposing defenses.
Dangerfield changes pace well and is a strong pull-up shooter with range beyond the 3-point line. As a result, her matchups are often left to guess when she’s going to pull the trigger, often doing so incorrectly and creating opportunities for Dangerfield to take advantage.
Here, Jordin Canada expects Dangerfield to pull from 3, as she gets out of her defensive stance altogether. CD recognizes this and hits Canada with a hesitation move to get the Storm guard on her heels. Once Dangerfield gets back to the middle of the floor — floater territory — Canada guesses wrong again and bites on the sophomore’s up fake, setting up a perfect step-through move for 2.
Thankfully, Dangerfield has really found her groove offensively of late, most notably in the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s win over the Fever, in which she had nine of her 11 points. Even leading up that point, she was finding her rhythm playing in and shooting out of PnR and hand-off actions with Fowles.
Her biggest bucket of the game came in such an action, giving the Lynx a three possession lead in crunch time.
The way she comes flying off that ball screen and adjusts based on where McCowan is stationed is impressive. Dangerfield would’ve pulled up from the nail had McCowan been under the rim, but instead hits McCowan with a hesitation move to give her an extra few feet to get off a wide open jumper in the paint.
“To see her play well tonight and be aggressive and take the shots that we know she can make, it’s really good to see,” Collier said after the game. “I want her to continue to do that throughout the rest of the season.”
With Clarendon slated to return to the lineup in the coming week, Dangerfield may return to the bench, where she will have ample opportunities to impact the game as a scorer and less of a responsibility to feed players like Fowles and Collier. If Dangerfield can keep the offensive momentum rolling like she has been, that will be a huge boost for the Lynx in the playoffs.
Bridget Carleton: Defensive Versatility
Note: In case you missed it, a few weeks ago I broke down Carleton’s game in an extensive article here.
Cheryl Reeve loves versatile defenders, so it’s no surprise that she is an ardent supporter of Bridget Carleton. Whether she is playing off ball in the help on the interior, or on-ball on the perimeter, Carleton makes winning defensive plays night in and night out.
Where Carleton will be most impactful in the playoffs, though is as an interior help defender.
Here, just look at how many times Carleton’s head darts back and forth between her matchup, DeWanna Bonner, one of the WNBA’s toughest covers. Next, when Jasmine Thomas has the ball above the break, Carleton preemptively digs on Jonquel Jones’ post-up, which forces Thomas to throw the ball to Briann January for a corner post entry. Damiris Dantas then tries to front on the inside of Jones to allow her help to come from the back side, which Carleton executes beautifully to steal it from the likely WNBA MVP.
Once she steals it, Instead of waiting for a guard to come get the ball, Carleton immediately gets her head up and looks downcourt before running the break herself and finishing it off with a well-timed bounce pass to Fowles for a bucket. Turning defense into offense for easy buckets will be paramount in the postseason.
“Bridget Carleton every single day, she shows up, she plays her ass off. Her effort is there and she’s hard to play against,” Reeve said after last night’s win. “She doesn’t get anywhere near the credit [she deserves].”
Plays this illuminate exactly what Reeve is preaching.
Carleton is as good of a stunt-and-recover defender as the Lynx have, which is key in the playoffs because playoff teams are generally better 3-point shooting teams.
She first realizes Crystal Bradford is well above the break, which suggests she would have time to recover on a kick-out. With that in mind, she stunts to help Banham on the ball screen, so that Fowles can stay home on the roller, and which forces a kick-out to Bradford. Carleton closes out nicely, jumping straight across in front of Bradford to make a block above the break.
To do it inside or outside on the defensive end is huge, especially off the bench when Clarendon, Collier, and McBride have all struggled at times with foul trouble.
“I know every night BC is going to fight like hell with her matchup,” Reeve said at practice on Wednesday. “She’s gonna do everything that we ask scheme wise. Then, she’s just going to make simple basketball plays.”
At the end of the day, defense is all about playing to scheme and making simple reads/plays. Carleton does that consistently, and I expect we’ll see her do the same in the playoffs.
Rachel Banham: Pick-and-Roll Control
Outside of Powers, Banham could be the team’s most complete pick-and-roll threat, both as a playmaker and a scorer.
The Lakeville, Minnesota native shoots the ball well off the dribble and often enjoys plenty of space to get her shot off playing alongside veteran PnR partners in Fowles and Natalie Achonwa, who both set good screens.
For Banham, it starts with her scoring because of the way it pressures the defense. In this play, The Lynx have a double drag alignment set up for Banham specifically to get her a free look from the nail, one of her most comfortable spots on the floor.
She does a good job of letting Collier get back into the play and set a screen before getting into her shot and making a cash deposit.
“For me coming off ball screens, I am really comfortable in that area,” Banham said last week. “It’s been fun because I’ve been able to play a lot of the one. That’s usually when I get the ball and have the ball in my hands more, coming off ball screens [to shoot or] be able to find people.”
Finding her teammates becomes an easier task when her shot gravity opens things up.
In a very similar set, Banham sets up with Achonwa as her first screener. Achonwa sees Jones cheating up on the screen to defend a potential Banham pull-up, so she effectively slips the screen to the baskets. The attention Banham draws as a shooter coming off screens (whether it be Achonwa’s, or the one Fowles is trying to set) results in the assist, which was a pretty impressive jump pass.
Banham’s contributions as a bench playmaker have impactful all season long, as the Lynx second unit leads the entire WNBA in assists per game and assist-to-turnover ratio.
“Rachel has been steady,” Reeve said in response to a question about the aforementioned stats. “Rachel loves playing the point guard spot and is a pretty good thinker.”
Reeve knows she can rely upon Banham to be a bench engine through screen and roll actions, so expect to see her do more of the same in a playoff setting.
Natalie Achonwa: Ball Movement
Natalie Achonwa does a terrific job of moving the ball, primarily because she is 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.
“She’s a ball mover,” Reeve said after a win over New York last month. “She’s really good for the offense when we’re able to play through.”
Since her return to the Lynx lineup, she has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.6-to-1, which is phenomenal for a player who comes into the game to make quick decisions with the ball in her hands.
Here, Achonwa does an excellent job of selling the hand-off with a hard dribble to her left, toward McBride, who is frequently run off hand-offs for shots. Once McBride cuts, Achonwa hits her with a perfect bounce pass in stride for an easy deuce.
Achonwa’s high-low passing ability makes her an option not just at the 5, but also at the 4 alongside Fowles and Collier. She is a very good short roll passing threat, too.
Because she sets good screens, works well in hand-off situations, can knock down mid-range jumpers and throw accurate entry passes to two of the game’s best post players, she is a weapon when positioned at the elbow and the nail.
In addition to her work in the half court, Achonwa is a terrific transition passer. When she first calls for the ball here, she immediately gets her head turned back to the ball so she can identify trailers before making a decision to either look to score or kick the ball back out for a 3.
The Notre Dame alumna sees her fellow Irishwoman Jess Shepard rolling down the lane and hits her with a perfect dump-off pass for a fun bucket.
“Natalie is definitely the calm of that group,” Shepard said pregame yesterday. “She talks to everyone on offense, on defense and she tells you exactly what she’s doing so you always know exactly where she’s going to be.”
That on-court awareness, communication and leadership is a separator for Achonwa, and it’s no surprise those attributes combine to create a lethal passing skillset.
Jessica Shepard: Entry Passing
Jess Shepard is a high impact, low usage player who does what is asked of her just about every time she steps on the floor. More often than not, her primary offensive task is to throw on-the-money entry passes to any combination of Fowles, Collier and Achonwa.
At 6-foot-3, Shepard has the size to see over the first line of the defense and hold the ball above the reach of her defender. That combination creates consistently unique opportunities for her to cleanly throw the ball into the post on more of a line rather than a soft lob pass.
Even when defenders are able to take away the over-the-top looks, Shepard is crafty and can throw passes at just about any angle necessary to deliver on-time and on-target dimes to her teammates inside.
Shepard is a threat to be the best passer on the floor whenever she’s in the game, but don’t be surprised if you see her clear some tide-turning rebounds, either.
While the minutes each player will get will certainly vary based on the score, foul situation and opponent lineup combinations, there is no doubt that Reeve will look to utilize each rotation player in order to maximize each player’s impact and this group’s unique complementary skills.
The quest for title number five is alive and well. With the playoffs kicking off next week at Target Center, you better believe that the Lynx, from the top down, will be up to the challenge.
Despite what the media and Vegas’s odds may say, you can’t ever count out the Minnesota Lynx.