It was an emotional end to a rollercoaster season for the No. 3 seed Minnesota Lynx, who fell 89-76 to the No. 6 seed Chicago Sky Sunday at Target Center.
Head Coach and General Manager Cheryl Reeve stepped to the postgame podium with leftover tears in her eyes after a frustrating loss in front of a raucous home crowd.
“I can’t say anything bad about this team, and the team that we became. ... It just sucks,” Reeve said. “First home [playoff] game since 2017 and a great, great show with our fans, who were passionate. Obviously, it hurts not to deliver for them.”
After a hot start in the first quarter that showcased WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Sylvia Fowles’ ability to dominate a game on both ends of the floor, the Lynx simply couldn’t find a sustainable rhythm. Minnesota lead 23-22 after 10 minutes, but it was tough sledding from there.
No matter how you slice it, Minnesota gave the game away.
Simply put, the Lynx gave away the game.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) September 26, 2021
Not hustling back and giving up breakaway TOs resulted in a opp. season-high 22 FB points, 22 points off TOs and 48 paint points.
Fouling was key, too. Chicago shot 19/20 (95%) from the line.
In the preview I wrote for today’s game, I focused on three keys: Chicago’s guard play, points in the paint, and Napheesa Collier. Unfortunately for the Lynx, they ended up on the losing side of all three fronts.
In the first half it was the Sky’s guards who established themselves early, especially in the paint and in transition. All-Star Kahleah Copper had 11 points and Diamond DeShields added 8 of her own; both players found ways to consistently get to the rim off the dribble or jetting out on the break for easy baskets against a Lynx perimeter defense that had no answers for them.
Coming out of the break, Copper and DeShields handed the baton to the Vandersloot/Quigley household, who destroyed the Minnesota defense in every way a guard can.
Courtney Vandersloot got into the paint at will off of double drags and high ball screens, where she was able to toy with Lynx defenders and take what the defense gave her. When they started sagging off her to play the drive, she gladly took and made a 3, too. Vandersloot had 15 of her 19 points in the second half.
Allie Quigley, Vandersloot’s wife, really came alive in the fourth quarter, where she made arguably the two biggest triples of the game that were soul-crushing daggers. After the Lynx started the fourth quarter with some momentum and got the lead down to four, Chicago’s guards came back with three straight buckets, culminating with a Quigley 3-pointer to send the lead back into double digits with 8:43 left to play, taking the life out of the Target Center crowd. A few minutes later, after Collier hit a 3 to pull within four with 3:47 left to play and sent the building into a frenzy, Quigley came right back 15 seconds later with a contested, quick-trigger snipe to balloon the lead back to 7, which was the final blow to a crowd on edge for most of the night.
Points in the Paint / Interior Battle
Chicago outscored Minnesota 48(!)-to-32 in the paint, largely due to the Lynx allowing 22 points off of 20 turnovers and a season-high 22 fast break points. Getting into the paint isn’t simply post-ups and cuts, but also creating breakaways on pick-sixes and sprinting out ahead of the pack on live defensive rebounds. The Sky excelled in all of those areas, which has been a calling card of theirs the entire season.
“We spent a couple of days on our focal points and what was important,” Reeve said. “They were so persistent in their identity and we couldn’t break their identity. It’s the sign of a really good team.”
In addition to outscoring Minnesota in the paint, Chicago also dominated on the glass, 37-29, holding Fowles and Collier to just 12 combined rebounds, and Fowles to eight points in the final three quarters after a nine-point first quarter.
“Syl is a tough guard. ... We’re just trying to make things as tough as possible. Bring help and show her different looks,” Candace Parker said after the game. “But your work’s not over when she doesn’t get the ball. You still have to block out. I think in the first quarter we didn’t do that. And then the reason why we were able to kind of extend the lead in the last three quarters was because we did block out and we were able to get the rebound.”
It was a complete team effort from the entire Sky rotation on the glass and helping inside and it was a massive reason they are moving onto the semifinals.
Collier had a tough night, registering eight points on 3/11 shooting to go along with four rebounds, two assists, and three steals.
“I’m disappointed in myself just because I wanted to help the team anywhere that I could and I feel like I didn’t do that,” she said after the game. “I’ll just use it as motivation so I don’t feel this way again and I can contribute in a meaningful way next year.”
The Sky did a good job cutting off Collier’s straight line drives and forcing her into help underneath the basket, where Parker or Azurá Stevens were able to bother Collier with their length.
Collier stepped up when it mattered most, hitting that monster 3 to pull within four late in the fourth quarter, but it ultimately wasn’t enough to help get the Lynx over the hump.
Collier has been battling a plantar fasciitis issue in her foot, but insisted it was not the reason for her performance.
“I think everyone has things that are hurting at the end of the year, but it’s the playoffs, so you have to be able to push through,” she said.
Collier is as tough as they come and she absolutely pushed through, especially on the defensive end of the floor. Collier did a fantastic job defending Parker, who scored eight points on nine shots, three of which were 3-pointers, and made only one trip to the free throw line.
There were plenty of things that didn’t go as planned for the Minnesota Lynx tonight, including the health of starting point guard Layshia Clarendon, who has been battling a stress reaction in their right fibula for the last month.
Clarendon started tonight, but it was evident that she was not at 100%, despite how hard he fought through the injury and how badly they wanted to be there for their teammates.
“That was such a bummer. We needed Lay, we need Dantas,” Reeve said.
Reeve added that Clarendon addressed the locker room after the game.
“The amount of gratitude that they have for this being a place that could get her out of the darkness of [being waived by the Liberty], and how important it was to find what they found here,” Reeve said with a smile. “And, obviously, equally important for us. I loved everything they did for us and was for us. We were a different team when Lay’s healthy and running things and gives us our physicality, our intelligence.”
I asked each of Collier, Fowles and Aerial Powers to share what they took away from that and what it meant to have Clarendon as a teammate.
“Lay is very passionate about the game and that stood out. I think for all of us, when she came to the team and really helped turn over a new leaf,” Powers said. “We welcomed her with open arms, but she was so down for what our culture was from the beginning. So we’re happy that she’s a Lynx. While she was talking it was very emotional, but overall we’re happy she’s here.”
“I [told her] how proud I am of her and what she brought to our team from a leadership standpoint, from the point guard, and her work ethic,” Fowles added. “Not taking no for an answer, feeling like she had something to prove. So I think she was a good contributor to our team this year.”
“I’m also really proud of Lay. Just everything from the beginning, what they brought to the team and leadership wise, on the court coming in, when we needed that position filled and [it was] slowing us down on offense and making sure we were together,” Collier said. “And then leading in her own way. I really appreciated [how hard it is] to come into a new team, especially in the middle of the season, but she came in hitting the ground running and doing what she did. So it was appreciated from all of us.”
It was evident that Reeve was incredibly proud of what Clarendon brought to the Lynx this season.
“I’m thrilled that things worked out as well as they did,” she said with a smile. “It was one of the better stories of the WNBA season, where someone else’s discarded became our treasure. I’m happy that Lay was able to experience [that] and equally happy that we got to find out what Lay was about.”