The Minnesota Lynx’s sole home preseason game sure felt like it was shaping up to be one of those games after the opening minutes of the first quarter against the Las Vegas Aces.
The starting group’s offense generated two points on one made field goal through the game’s first 4:32 for two main reasons. One, the Lynx’s perimeter players couldn’t get the ball into Sylvia Fowles effectively as a result of not looking to her consistently enough, and two, the team wasn’t sharing the basketball. As a result, they turned it over four times during that stretch.
Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve didn’t mince words when explaining the issue with the starters.
“Selfishness,” she said quickly and bluntly. “And I can tell you, we will not start the season with a selfish team. It’s not going to happen. What you do in training camp you do in the regular season. I’ve seen enough.”
Minnesota missed the presence of veteran forward Angel McCoughtry, one of the greatest offensive players in WNBA history, who sat out as a precaution with knee soreness. McCoughtry will serve as a connective player who can score in the mid-range, get to the basket, and take advantage of mismatches in a variety of ways, but most importantly, understands that Fowles needs a touch on every trip down.
Reeve will never accept what she saw from the starters today in terms of their work to involve Fowles in the game on the offensive end.
“So, you know, how do you pick each other up? Understanding that Syl is the face of this franchise. Every time you come down if you’re not thinking about [getting the ball to Fowles], you don’t understand how to play the game,” an understandably frustrated Reeve said. “Because we have been saying this. This is not new. We didn’t go out there for the first time today and try to throw it to Syl, and then we have to make adjustments. You don’t throw it at six feet. If you don’t understand it by now, and you probably aren’t good enough.”
The Lynx starting five scored 32 of the team’s 87 points on 9/24 (38%) shooting from 2 and 3/7 (43%) from beyond the arc, got to the line five times and registered an assist-to-turnover ratio of 0.50 despite playing normal minutes — excluding Layshia Clarendon, who was on a minutes restriction.
Aerial Powers’ continued, uncharacteristic offensive struggles, despite brief bright spots, stood out. The dynamic guard scored seven points, connected on two of her seven shots and turned it over six times to one assist after producing a nearly identical line in the team’s first preseason game. Minnesota desperately needs Powers to play at her best if they want to position themselves to compete for a WNBA title this fall.
When you consider that the Minnesota offense struggled in the first preseason game as well, today’s performance creates a significant level of concern about the team’s offense entering the regular season. Unfortunately, Kayla McBride — Minnesota’s best shooter and perimeter defender on the wing — is still completing her EuroLeague commitments overseas. McBride isn’t expected back on the team for a minimum of two weeks, so the team’s ball movement and buy-in offensively will have to improve quickly if the Lynx want to stay afloat without her.
The team’s poor offensive production, compounded with excessive fouling and breakdowns on the back side of the defense that led to open 3s, put them in a 46-33 hole entering the break.
But, you play two halves for a reason.
Minnesota dug deep to find an added fire and a high compete level in the second half — as any Cheryl Reeve-coached team does — despite a poor start from lineups featuring mostly starters for the first seven minutes of the quarter.
When Rogers, Minnesota native and former University of South Dakota star Hannah Sjerven entered the game for Fowles at the 3:27 mark of the third, the Las Vegas lead stood at 19. Then, the Aces’ first-year head coach Becky Hammon pulled her starters at the 1:28 mark and everything changed.
Minnesota closed on a 7-3 run that cut the the lead to 13 before the third quarter buzzer sounded. Reeve’s team gained crucial momentum entering the fourth because of how intensely it played on both ends of the floor. That translated to the fourth quarter.
Once third-year point guard Crystal Dangerfield and veteran combo guard Yvonne Turner entered the game to play alongside first-year players Rennia Davis, Kayla Jones and Hannah Sjerven, it all clicked.
Five players who are all competing for roster spots played with an incredible connection built upon a foundation of selflessness and hustle, which is special considering the context.
“Basketball is a team sport. It’s never about you. It’s about having your teammates’ back,” Turner said postgame. “It’s just a matter of picking our teammates up and fighting for one another. That’s the will of basketball, and the fun with it, is that all five, whoever is on the court, supporting us.”
Despite their play today, it was encouraging to see the Lynx rotation players cheer on those fighting for roster spots the way they did throughout the final 12 minutes of play.
2021 first-round pick Rennia Davis missed all of last season with a stress fracture in her foot, but is back this season and making an impact on both ends of the floor.
She showed off an improved jumper that translated to two key buckets in the fourth quarter and ignited a 10-0 Lynx run to pull within two, all while playing lights out defense and dominating the boards on both ends. Davis finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds (five offensive) in an impressive Target Center debut; after experiencing home games last year on the bench, it meant a lot to her to be out there this afternoon.
“It meant a lot to me,” Davis said. “Today I really just wanted to lock in, do the little things. Defense, rebounding. Everything else just handled itself. So it was good to be out there in front of the fans.”
Her work on the defensive end, alongside the versatile defending rookie Kayla Jones, enabled Dangerfield and Turner to push the pace in transition and create easy buckets. The Aces were setting up in a 2-3 zone for chunks of the fourth, so they worked to get open looks before the defense could get set and it worked wonderfully.
The guard pairing of Dangerfield and Turner scored six and 13 points in the fourth quarter, respectively, while combining for three assists to one turnover. Their energy was infectious.
“That’s Yvonne. Leave it all out there. You know, did she play a perfect game? No. But man, did she help our team,” Reeve said of Turner postgame. “She’s somebody that you have a young group that can follow, so she was perfect for them.”
Sjerven also played a good final frame. The rookie battled on the glass and scored a crucial bucket, off a perfect drop off from Turner, to extend the Lynx’s lead to three with 12.0 seconds to play.
The excellent performance of the team’s final five presents a challenge for Reeve, who has to submit her final roster of 11 to the league on Thursday.
“That’s what we’re hoping for. And as I told them, I’m excited for them. You know, we don’t have any obvious decisions across the board,” Reeve said with a smile. “24-4 run that they went on. ... Was it 57 points they had off the bench? 24 rebounds. 13 assists, 4 turnovers. I mean, they sure gave us a lot to think about.”
Reeve and her staff are also right up against and battling the salary cap while weighing the roster decisions, which would almost be equally as difficult even without the cap factor.
Lynx forward Damiris Dantas (Lisfranc injury) will not be ready for the start of the season, nor will McBride (overseas commitments), which means Minnesota will likely open the season in Seattle on Friday with a roster of 11 players (including WNBA All-Star forward Napheesa Collier, who is due to give birth to her baby at the end of the month), plus two additional hardship players.
Fowles, McBride, Powers, Natalie Achonwa, McCoughtry and Dantas are the guaranteed contracts on the roster, meaning it is likely they will be on the Lynx roster come Friday barring any trades, along with Collier. Clarendon and Bridget Carleton project to be key pieces of the Minnesota rotation this season, too.
If those nine make the roster, there will be two season-long spots and two hardship contract spots to select from a pool that figures to include seven players: Rachel Banham, Turner, Dangerfield, Davis, Jones, Sjerven, and Jessica Shepard.
It will be an interesting wrinkle to this week in Lynx Land as the team prepares for its season opener on the road in Seattle on Friday night when Fowles, Powers and company battle Breanna Stewart, Jewel Loyd, Sue Bird and the Storm at 9 PM CT.