After starting the season 0-4, the Minnesota Lynx are not only back in the playoffs for an 11th straight season, but they will also enter the postseason dance as the No. 3 seed after defeating the Washington Mystics 83-77 behind a season-high 27 points from Aerial Powers in her return to D.C.
“I don’t give a fuck what our record is,” Kayla McBride said after the Lynx fell to 0-4 on May 28. “I truly, truly believe in this group. I believe in this culture, this team. That’s why I came here, to be a part of the Minnesota Lynx, and I know that we’re going to figure this shit out.”
Over the subsequent 28 games, the Lynx overcame injuries to key starters Aerial Powers, Layshia Clarendon and Damiris Dantas, found their identity on both ends, and finished the season on a 22-6 run to claim the No. 3 seed in the WNBA Playoffs.
“[There was] a lot more pulling teeth early in the season and we’ve settled in,” Lynx General Manager and Head Coach Cheryl Reeve said postgame. “When I got back from the Olympic break, the team that I [came back to], I couldn’t have asked for anything better in terms of [getting to the] place we were trying to get to before the break. It happened organically, which was the great belief in themselves, great belief in each other and how hard we played.”
Reeve’s team put that resilience, buy-in, and belief in each other on full display this afternoon.
Minnesota got off to a fast start in an emotional first quarter thanks to a balanced offensive attack that saw seven players score en route to a 27-19 lead after 10 minutes. Then, adversity re-introduced itself to a team it is well-acquainted with.
After the Lynx built their lead up to 12 midway through the frame, a fiery Tasha Cloud and the Mystics came storming back in what was a “win and you’re in” game for them. Washington amped up the ball pressure, swarmed Sylvia Fowles in the paint, and forced Minnesota into two turnovers and 11 consecutive missed shots on an 15-3 run to end the half that left the game tied at 41 entering the break.
Despite a huge Mystics run, the Lynx tightened the screws on defense in the final two minutes and prevented a three-point Washington lead from growing any larger than that before half.
“We knew how hard it was going to be. Any time you’re trying to end a team’s season ... I thought it would be a great experience for us to go through something that difficult,” Reeve said. “I thought the key to the game was the end of the second quarter where we were able to regain control.”
Minnesota has struggled in the second quarter of late, but Lynx players remain confident because of the trust they have in each other and especially in Reeve.
“We have one of the best fucking coaches in the game of basketball, who has the ability to make adjustments,” Clarendon added. “That’s something when you get into the playoffs that you have to be able to do at halftime. ... I don’t know if there’s anyone better than Cheryl Reeve.”
The Lynx were evidently refocused offensively out of the break, fueled by Reeve’s tactical adjustments. After losing the points in the paint battle 24-10 and getting out-rebounded 17-16 in the first half, Minnesota turned up the tempo to move the defense and get into the paint and also placed a strong emphasis on crashing the glass on both ends.
“I thought our pace was considerably better in the second half,” Reeve said. “Washington had 15 deflections by our count at halftime. They had just six in the second half. And I thought that was because our pace was considerably better.”
A key part of that pace was pushing the ball into the half court quickly and getting Napheesa Collier the ball in places to attack a spread floor against bigger, slower defenders.
Phee and Syl create such unique pressure on the defense and collapse it often as a front court pairing, which opens things up for the other three perimeter players out there.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) September 19, 2021
McBride and Powers are getting open look after open look is no surprise and a sign of things to come. https://t.co/6jToWB7tBg
Minnesota turned to a heavy a healthy dose of ball screen actions to get both Collier and Fowles more involved.
Although Collier scored only three points on 1/7 shooting in the third, the way she drove and collapsed the defense was important, as were the three offensive rebounds Phee added on a night she made a clear effort to crash the offensive glass whenever possible.
Fowles scored six of her eight points in the third in large part because of Collier’s activity. On Fowles’ first bucket, the defense was in a scramble after Collier rebounded her own miss, allowing Fowles to get positioning on the offensive glass for a put-back. Fowles’ second bucket converted a Collier steal into points after Phee threw a feathery touch entry pass from mid-court to beneath the rim for a score. Finally, her third score was created by a great screen she set for Powers, who paid Fowles off with a solid pass into the lane for an assist.
The pressure those two created really helped get Powers rolling early in the third quarter, during which the electric wing scored 11 of her career-high-tying 27 points.
“That’s our job is to be able to do that and not only create plays for ourselves, but for our teammates,” Collier said about the team’s offensive balance and getting others involved when she and Fowles are struggling. “We knew coming in that they were going to really crowd the paint ... so we came in knowing that if we get it in and they’re crowding, we need to hit it out for shooters or go to work earlier. We just want to do whatever we can to help the offense.”
She got it done at all three levels in the third quarter, too. Powers shot 4/6 from the floor and 1/2 from deep, and also got to the line on a down hill attack. Because defenders respect her 3-point shot, they often crowd her, which opens the door for Powers to utilize her array of ball fakes, jabs, and dribble moves to break down defenders and get into the mid-range or all the way to the rim to score.
Behind their big three, Minnesota won the third quarter 27-17, giving them a 10-point lead entering the fourth quarter.
The Lynx knew that the Mystics weren’t going to go away easily.
“We got the ability to play a playoff game instead of playing a team who had nothing to really lose,” Clarendon said after the game. “That was a single elimination playoff game right there. ... So we’re really fortunate that we got that experience.”
When Minnesota extended the lead to 12, 78-66, with 4:34 remaining, the Mystics could’ve laid down and gone into the offseason quietly. Instead, they turned up the intensity, and scratched and clawed on the defensive end.
Washington forced five turnovers in the subsequent six possessions and got the game back within a possession after an 8-0 run in 2:35 of game time.
From there on out, Minnesota’s veterans got it to the finish line. Collier made an important free throw to make it a two-possession game, Fowles had three key rebounds, and Clarendon made two free throws, then secured a steal to put the game on ice.
“I felt good. It was really fun. I just love this team so much,” Clarendon said about the end of the game and needing to make big plays in a couple of big moments. “I was just trying to embrace that pressure and remember, ‘I know how to play basketball.’ ... Those are the moments you’re going to face in a game five and a playoffs in single elimination where, you’re up and a team is desperate and they’re trying to beat you.”
Reeve couldn’t have been more proud of her veterans, especially considering Collier and Fowles struggled for stretches of the game.
“I just loved how we kept our head. I love the leadership on this team,” she said. “I love that our best players weren’t playing great. I loved the way that the interactions, the conversations that they were having amongst themselves. I love how we came out of the locker room. ... I think that experience helped us in the second half that we knew that they had multiple runs left in them. We knew what we had to get done defensively.
Despite off-nights from Collier and Fowles on the offensive end, the team still found offensive balance and were able to muster up 83 points to win a huge game on the road.
“It’s good. We do have a balance ability to score with K-Mac adding 10, me adding [eight] in my first game back, AP’s ability to score we were missing [when she was hurt],” Clarendon said of the team’s offensive balance and making up for off nights from Fowles and Collier. “Just having that balanced attack, I think it really means a lot.”
Games like today’s win inspire confidence in the Lynx’s championship aspirations. Washington took away the focal points of Minnesota’s offense in Fowles and Collier — which is far more likely to happen in the playoffs than the regular season — yet the other five Lynx who played all stepped up and played to their strengths offensively while holding it down on the defensive end.
“I really think we’re a championship team. We have the inside presence in Phee and Syl and then we have the outside presence,” Powers said postgame. “So, I mean it’s really hard when we have all of those going. Who do you guard?”
That’s a damn good question, AP.
Any team who has that offensive balance and can score from all three levels, while playing excellent defense on the other end, will be in contention for the title when it’s all said and done. Especially when that team’s players have deep trust in one another.
“It’s all about trust. Anytime you have trust, I don’t care what it is, [whether] you’re doing basketball or anything else, you can achieve great things,” Reeve said. “We finally got to that place post-Olympics. That trust was there and it was real and we’ve kept it.”
Kayla McBride was right. The Lynx figured it out, largely as a result of A+ leadership and team culture, which have them in prime position to compete for a fifth title in 11 years.
Game Notes, Courtesy of Lynx PR
- Aerial Powers had a career-high-tying 27 points. It was her second career game scoring 25 points or more.
- Napheesa Collier tallied her fifth double-double of the season and 17th of her career. With her second assist of the night, she eclipsed the 250 assist mark of her career.
- Sylvia Fowles’ second steal of the night was her 250th in a Lynx uniform, becoming the fifth player to eclipse that mark. She joins Maya Moore (449), Svetlana Abrosimova (284), Seimone Augustus (268) and Rebekkah Brunson (267).
- Layshia Clarendon’s six assists were a game-high tonight. It is the 16th time Clarendon has led the team in dimes.
- Minnesota is officially the No. 3 seed in the WNBA Playoffs, finishing the season at 22-10. They will play next Sunday, September 26 (time TBD) at Target Center.