Everything the Minnesota Lynx have fought for all season, through every bit of adversity from injuries to external doubt to plenty of new players, all comes down to one game against the No. 6 seed Chicago Sky in Downtown Minneapolis on Sunday afternoon.
“I’m excited for our team,” Head Coach and General Manager Cheryl Reeve said after Friday’s practice. “We talked at our team dinner [about how the team] earned the opportunity to be at home.”
Reeve’s resilient bunch has certainly earned this lucrative opportunity to go to battle with the season on the line in front of their tremendous fans at Target Center, who represent a city clamoring for playoff basketball.
The Lynx began the season 0-4, which was only the tip of the adversity iceberg for a team looking to make a momentous leap after a promising rebound in the bubble last year. A team that has planted seeds in the midst of hardship, tension, and frustration could finally see its season-long trial bear the tastiest of fruit against an old rival, this time in a different uniform.
“It’s kind of made us who we are. Some of the shortcomings, the challenges, that’s all part of the journey and it’s made us,” Reeve said. “I think that’s fair to say that we’ve been through some stuff and we know how to navigate difficult moments in a game.”
The intensity level at Lynx practice was palpable this week. Several players, including key Lynx who have battled through injuries this season, are ready to have showcase their collective mindset, shaped by a rollercoaster summer.
“The ebbs and flows. I mean, us having to worry about rotations, who you’re playing with this day, who you’re not playing with that day because of injuries or because of whatever the circumstance may be,” said veteran forward Natalie Achonwa — who missed 11 games earlier this season due to a right MCL sprain — about what has prepared them the best for the playoffs. “That’s how the game goes. ... I think knowing that we’ve had that mentality, that fight, that grit all season long, it’s only gonna make us that more special when we come out and use that mentality in the playoffs.”
2021 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year and First Team All-Defense Sylvia Fowles echoed a similar tune, insisting that despite today’s matchup being a single-elimination game, that mentality isn’t a switch that can be flipped on for one game.
“It’s about building [trust and chemistry] throughout the season. That’s not a one-time thing. I don’t believe you can just turn it on if that’s not you,” Fowles said. “I think we gained that trust early on in the season after those first four losses of what we can do and what we can’t do, holding each other accountable for things. So this game is going to be a lot of that, plus more.”
What To Watch For
The Lynx have faced the Sky twice this season, splitting the season series at one apiece. Chicago was the only team Minnesota has faced just twice this year.
In the first matchup, Minnesota was not the team we know them to be; Aerial Powers and Achonwa were both out with injuries and the Lynx were still trying to find their identity, especially offensively. Chicago took game one at Target Center 105-89.
When the Lynx made the trip to Chicago a little more than a month ago, it was Powers’ first game back from her right thumb injury, and the Sky were without Candace Parker, which was obviously a major factor in the Lynx surging for a 101-95 victory.
Despite there being a preponderance of inapplicable play from the first two games, given injuries and the timing of the games in the grand scheme of the schedule, there are still a few keys to determining who will come out victorious.
Chicago’s Guard Play
The Sky are fueled its talented guard corps’ impressive offensive attack, which was on full display in both matchups.
Stunningly, Chicago’s backcourt rotations has registered 139 points on 55.3/51.9/84.0 shooting splits (on high volume for a two game sample spread across four players) and has a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio to complement its scoring.
Let’s get into a few ways they have made life difficult for the Lynx defensively, starting with Allie Quigley, who leads the Sky in scoring against Minnesota this season.
Quigley is one of the best shooters on the face of the planet and she has certainly showed that against the Lynx this season. When I turn on Quigley tape, the what immediately stands out is her lightning quick shot motion and release. It doesn’t matter if it’s a standing catch-and-shoot or a moving triple off screens or hand-offs; Quigley’s shooting motion is like an ATM at a five-star restaurant: clean, fast, and pays in cash.
Her stop-to-start speed when setting up screens is impressive. Here, Quigley lulls Bridget Carleton with a slow jog to the corner to set up a screen from her wife, Courtney Vandersloot, and fires off a rocket before Carleton, who did an excellent job hustling to recover, could block the shot.
Quigley’s over-the-screen catch-and-shoot ability pressures defenses whenever the Sky run a play for her. In this next play, you’ll see Kayla McBride get caught on the screen, expecting Quigley to fly around it. Instead, Quigley notices McBride has no chance of getting over — or under — the screen, so she flies back out to the corner, knowing Fowles won’t step out to contest a 3, for a wide open triple.
Perhaps most importantly, it is exhausting to guard her and we may see more of Carleton and Powers on the wing if McBride needs a few breathers throughout the game.
Copper leads the Sky in scoring on the season at 14.7 points per game. Her elite quickness and finishing touch around the hoop uniquely positions her to attack slower Lynx perimeter defenders with consistent success, and will surely make things more challenging on the interior for Fowles and Collier on switches and back-side rotations.
Here, Copper does an excellent job setting up the screen so that McBride gets turned around, which frees the speedy guard up to knife across the paint and get to her right hand at the rim for a nice finish over Damiris Dantas.
“She’s one of the fastest guards in the league,” Carleton said when talking about the challenges she’ll face when defending the Sky backcourt. “She’s so hard to stop one-on-one, so it’ll be team defense that’ll help stop her and keep her out on the perimeter and make her take tough twos.”
Simply put, the Lynx likely won’t be able to hang with her off the dribble in the half court. Minnesota will really need to pack the paint and force Copper, a 30.2% 3-point shooter, to settle for jumpers.
“She’s been playing well. She’s had a really nice year. There’s no one else in the league like Kah in terms of getting to the basket,” Reeve said on Friday. “She’s just really, really special, really, really gifted. What do you do?”
The other area where Copper figures to drive the Lynx crazy is in transition. At 6-foot-1, it’s difficult to put smaller guards on her because of her physicality on the drive; as a result, teams will often put similarly-sized wings on her that struggle to keep pace with her once the Sky corral live ball steals or defensive rebounds.
Once the Sky collect the rebound in this play, Copper explodes like a cannon on a full sprint down the floor. Former Lynx Lexie Brown hits her with a perfect pass and Copper does the rest, finishing over a much smaller Crystal Dangerfield.
I’m sure Reeve would love to put Napheesa Collier on Copper all game, but with a stretch big in Parker playing all over the floor, Collier will be needed there. I’d imagine Powers gets the first crack at slowing her down.
In the teams’ first matchup, Minnesota allowed a season-worst 32 points off turnovers and 15 fast break points (fifth-worst mark of the year), with Copper being a major factor in why. Taking care of the ball and sprinting back in transition will be paramount if Minnesota wants to keep one of the WNBA’s most electrifying guards in check.
Vandersloot is one of the W’s all-time great playmakers. The Chicago Sky lifer is fourth all-time behind Sue Bird, Ticha Penicheiro, and Lindsay Whalen, and — unsurprisingly — is leading the WNBA in assists again this season.
While the two-time All-Star normally raises hell for defenses with her passing, she can also light it up from all over the floor. She went off for 27 points on 10/14 shooting — along with eight assists — in the Sky’s loss to the Lynx in Chicago last month.
Vandersloot is incredible at baiting bigs into doing what she wants them to do, because they often play to take away her passing, especially considering how many weapons she has at her disposal.
Here, Vandersloot comes around a screen from Stefanie Dolson with pace. As a result, Fowles is playing higher on her, thinking she’s going to take it to the rim. Then, she hits Fowles with the slightest of hesitations and looks to her left, making Fowles slide a step in the wrong direction and creating a window for an open layup.
If there was a masterclass in assisting at all three levels, Vandersloot would be the professor. When watching the previous two Lynx/Sky games, I saw a few variations of this set.
Vandersloot does a terrific job of coming down hard off of the double drag screen to keep Fowles down in the paint while Layshia Clarendon catches up around the screen. In doing so, it gives Vandersloot two options, based on how McBride reacts to the screen from Dolson, who can shoot 3s exceptionally well herself. If McBride goes under, Vandersloot can hit a wide open Dolson popping off the screen; and if McBride goes over, well, Quigley will make her pay.
Expect to see option style actions like this one several times this afternoon.
Points in the Paint / Interior Battle
Sylvia Fowles may have just won her fourth Defensive Player of the Year Trophy, but even the greatest defensive center this league has ever seen can be overwhelmed inside if her teammates can’t contain dribble penetration. But, packing the paint is going to be a priority for Minnesota today.
“Copper had a great game [against Dallas]. She was pretty efficient from the field. That’s because she’s getting into the paint and that’s where she likes to be, getting to the foul line, getting layups,” Carleton said about how the team needs to pack the paint successfully to slow down the Sky’s guards. “It’ll be a total team effort for sure.”
Even if the Lynx pack the paint, the task in front of them is a tall one, especially for Fowles. Chicago had 42 points in the paint in both matchups the season, significantly above the team’s season average of 32.8 paint points allowed.
“We give her great responsibility. She’s not just guarding her player and that’s why she’s Defensive Player of the Year,” Reeve said about the challenges Chicago’s guards pose for Fowles. “She’s the one who’s coming to help on drives. Chicago plays in the paint. So when you’re in the paint, the frequency with which Syl is having to do things goes up.”
Chicago is a unique team in that their guards are extremely active off-ball and have a knack for getting into the paint with cuts after breaking plays by slipping screens, reading the defense and taking advantage of poor defensive positioning.
If a Sky player is open in the paint, you better believe that Vandersloot will find her. And if no one’s open, Vandersloot is so gifted as a passer and has such great vision that she can pass someone open with wizardry you rarely see on a basketball court.
Reeve is particularly concerned with how Vandersloot can find players inside.
“You get Sloot in the paint and Sloot’s so good at finding that assist in the rim area,” she said.
14 of Vandersloot’s 21 assists against the Lynx this season have come on baskets in the paint, which is remarkable given that Fowles and Collier are two excellent defensive players inside.
On the other side of things, Minnesota is averaging 47 points in the paint against a Chicago team that has allowed the second most paint points this season (37.9 per game).
Given that Minnesota has found a much better offensive rhythm and sense of balance on that end, the Lynx should have plenty of opportunities to either create mismatches inside with Fowles, or use Fowles’ massive defensive gravity to create openings for Collier or Powers to attack off the dribble.
Today’s game could very well come down to the interior: who wins the points in the paint game (each team is 1-1), who wins the foul game (Minnesota is 2-0) and who wins the field goal percentage game (each team is 1-1).
The x-factor in swinging those matchups may be Collier.
Collier had one of her best offensive games of the season in the two teams’ first matchup. She scored 27 points on 10/17 shooting and got to the line six times, making all six shots. Getting to the line was a priority for her in the second game as well, in which she shot 6/8.
I would bet that plays a factor today, as well, because she’ll have more opportunities to attack off the dribble at the 4 spot. If Chicago starts the way they have for the last 10 games and Parker is playing the 4, Collier will be able to get to the rim off the dribble, as well as by slipping screens and back-cutting, which has been particularly profitable of late. The more Collier can make the defense over-rotate and open things up for Fowles inside, the better off the Lynx will be.
Another facet of Collier’s game that could swing things today is her 3-point shot. She has made at least one three in seven of her last nine games and her 3-point attempt numbers are up considerably over that stretch compared to the previous nine-game period. Collier has taken 32 3-pointers over her last nine games, and took 15 in the nine games before that. That shot has become more of an emphasis with Collier playing the 4 and it her shot motion and selection has looked much more confident, too. Several of the 3s she has made of late have come in key moments as well, so expect Phee to get up four or five 3s, especially if she’s popping on screens or spotting up on the weak side of the floor.
Collier is one of the league’s most versatile offensive players and I fully expect the Lynx coaching staff to utilize her as such, putting her on the block, in the corners, at the elbows, above the break initiating offense, and as both a handler and a screener in the pick-and-roll game. If Collier steps up and plays at the Olympic level we know she can, it will be tough sledding for Chicago.