The Minnesota Lynx last night got back to playing the brand of basketball that they’ve made the rest of the league respect for more than a decade, even though they lost to the reigning WNBA champion Chicago Sky and fell to a league-worst 0-4.
Newly signed point guard Moriah Jefferson infused the offense with a level of pace and shot creation that stimulated ball movement the Lynx didn’t have in the first three games of the 2022 season. She wasn’t shy in breaking down the Chicago defense off the dribble looking to score, and in turn made life easier for key pieces Sylvia Fowles and Aerial Powers en route to dishing out five assists with only one turnover.
“Moriah gave our team a confidence to let people settle back into what they usually do. That [point guard] position was taken care of,” Minnesota head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve said postgame. “Obviously that’s been a challenge for us. Do I think she’s gonna go five for seven and three for three every night? No, but it was more the command of the game and the things and places that she got to.”
Powers and Jefferson pushed the pace whenever possible, creating several open looks either in transition or early in the shot clock both for themselves and their teammates. It fueled the team’s unselfish play and helped get the crowd back in the game, too. Perhaps most importantly, it created a spread floor that enabled Powers to score more easily.
“We can already see a difference,” Powers said about Jefferson’s impact. “Pushing the pace. Our fast break is fast now, and the way she sees the floor — not only that — she’s also a penetrator, so she makes things happen for us on the offensive end.”
The fiery core Lynx piece didn’t have that last season, so hopefully it will bode well for Powers getting back to her usual offensively impactful self.
Jefferson made several shots off the dribble in the mid-range after flying around screens and getting downhill very quickly, a skill the Lynx have missed at the point guard spot over the last year. The former No. 2 pick racked up 16 points, shooting 2/4 on 2s and 3/3 from behind the arc, and got to the line four times, where she made three foul shots. Her spot-up 3-point shooting is going to be very valuable moving forward, too.
Granted I’ve only seen Jefferson play one game in Minnesota, but it is evident that her skillset fits what the team needs better than any point guard I’ve seen play for the Lynx since Odyssey Sims’ 2019 All-Star season. Jefferson has the potential to be even better than Sims, too, because she’s a versatile shooter that unlocks a more multiple offense.
For example, Minnesota was able to run a UCLA-style action for Bridget Carleton to take advantage of smaller defenders guarding her, because Jefferson’s shooting gravity, coupled with Fowles’ interior scoring gravity, created an open lane. This is another way to utilize Jess Shepard’s passing without force-feeding it to Fowles and get other players involved.
The Minnesota back-court competed on the other end of the floor, too. They struggled to contain the ball in the first half, which forced the defense out of rotation and created offensive rebounding opportunities for Chicago early in the game. The Sky converted five offensive boards into eight second chance points off in the first five minutes of the game, during which the Lynx collected zero (0) rebounds.
“I think that’s one of those things that you can talk about, you got players that have [rebounding] as an innate skill,” Reeve explained. “And I just thought that they recognized it: if we’re giving them multiple shots, and if we fix that then we can be okay. That’s when the field goal percentage started coming down.”
Reeve made some schematic adjustments in the second half that worked very well. Minnesota went away from their traditional front-the-post defense and instead played behind bigs to keep everyone in front of them. Guards more often went under screens on Courtney Vandersloot, with bigs showing and getting physical with her before Minnesota’s guards got back into position.
This kept Chicago’s guards out of the paint in the second half, and kept the Lynx in rotation on defense, thus making rebounding a much easier task. Minnesota ended up winning the rebounding battle by nine thanks to a 21-9 rebounding advantage in the second half.
Rookie guard Evina Westbrook made her official WNBA debut last night and was a significant factor in that second half turnaround.
“She just seemed to be in the right spot at the right time every time. ... She was really aggressive when she got the ball, got some drives. I think she had five assists in the game,” Jefferson said about her fellow UCONN alumna and second half running mate. “I think it’s going to be good for us to play together and I definitely enjoyed it.”
Reeve said Friday the team was still learning about Westbrook and what the rookie could bring to the team. She and her staff on Saturday night learned quite a bit.
“She knows how to play, and hopefully she’ll grow into being efficient in terms of shooting the ball, recognizing when she’s open and just getting in the gym to work,” Reeve said. “She’s got a physicality to her. She can defend. There’s some good things there.
Westbrook put her stamp on the game with intense defensive ball pressure, culminating in this moment pictured below, when she knocked the ball out of bounds after making a ball-handler uncomfortable late in the third quarter.
Assistant coaches Plenette Pierson and Rebekkah Brunson were fired up after Powers lit into the usually calm and quiet Westbrook right in front of the Lynx bench. The move fired up the home crowd entering the fourth, which Minnesota as a result began on a 6-0 run to pull within two points.
“It was fun. For me, I look to bring the energy out of my teammates, because I feel like when we all have that energy going it’s just very contagious. And when I seen her do it it was just like, ‘Hell yeah, that’s a good stop!’” a still-energetic and upbeat Powers said about Westbrook postgame. “That’s the energy we need on defense. I made sure I came over there and clapped her hand and said, ‘Good job’ because I think we all need that. ... That was a big time in the game when she did it, too. So it was fun to see her out there and playing well and confident.
Forward Nina Milić also joined the second half party, fueling the Lynx comeback primarily on the offensive end, where introduced herself to the WNBA with a game-high 18 points on 6/10 shooting. That includes two monster second-half 3s that kept Minnesota afloat offensively.
“I can say that I finally introduced myself to the WNBA tonight and I’m very grateful the coach trusts me,” Milić said postgame. “I just focus every time to be ready and to do my best every time she calls my name and even if that’s 20 minutes or five minutes or 20 seconds. I’m just focused on ways to do my best. So yeah, of course I’m happy that I did my job [well] tonight.”
The Bosnian EuroLeague veteran was noticeably more aggressive tonight after playing only four minutes in the team’s previous game.
“After the Indiana game that was one of our regrets, was not using Nina more,” Reeve said about Milić. “We just kind of committed to making sure that substitution-wise that we were doing better for our posts, because Nina can really play and she just has a toughness.”
Reeve noted that Milić saw a couple of Belgians on the other side, Sky forward Emma Meesseman and assistant coach Ann Wauters, and felt “really prideful.” Milić made sure to add that she knows many WNBA players, because they play overseas in the EuroLeague.
“In the EuroLeague, I have experience playing some high level basketball. I met these players in Europe so I know them a little bit and I know their style and how they play,” Milić explained. “We obviously do good scouting anyways, and the coaches make sure that we know what we need to do in defense, in offense, but it obviously helped that I knew these players from before.”
The furious Lynx comeback effort ultimately fell short in the fourth quarter because missed free throws from foundational players came back to bite them. Fowles and Powers combined to shoot 5/11 (45.4%), which simply cannot happen if the Lynx want to win close games. Throw in five fourth-quarter turnovers and you have a good recipe for beating yourself in winning time.
Overall, Minnesota shot just 14/23 (60.9%) from the stripe, while Chicago drained 18/20 (90%) freebies. Traditionally a very good free throw shooting team, the Lynx are now shooting 64.3% on the season, 8.4% lower than the second-worst team (Indiana Fever at 72.7%.
Reeve’s team will have to improve in those two areas, but almost everything else that took place tonight was a positive step in the right direction and, given how the team played in its first three games, that cannot be understated.
“We looked more like the Lynx,” she said. “I told them there were so many so many good things, fun things, promising things, that we want to take forward with us.”
Minnesota’s next step will be putting out another great showing in Los Angeles against the Sparks on Tuesday night. Fans can view the game on Bally Sports North Extra at 9:30 PM CT.
Aerial Powers Looking More Like Aerial Powers
The plan for the 2022 Minnesota Lynx was never to have Powers be relied upon to be the primary creator for the team’s offense. But with the point guard position in flux that was what she tried to do in the team’s first three games. It didn’t go well.
That changed with the arrival of Jefferson.
“I think the biggest thing that helped AP is having Moriah. [Moriah is] someone else to generate offense, shots, and not exposing AP so much to those situations where she feels like she has to go do something. That’s a player who was kind of pressing,” Reeve said postgame.
Outside of finding easier, more efficient offense tonight, Powers logged the best defensive performance I’ve seen her put together as a Lynx. She credited Reeve challenging her to do more on that end as fuel to her fire Saturday night.
Cheryl Reeve challenged Aerial Powers to be more active on the glass last night. AP responded with nine boards.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) May 15, 2022
I asked what AP how she was able to respond to that challenge.
"It's always good to have a coach that believes in you. I think I needed to hear her say that." pic.twitter.com/m7Z43FTa6h
“I love coach. She believes in me and she was talking to me about ‘Hey, you know offense will come. We don’t care about that. Just get some defensive stops, get some rebounds and do the other things and other parts of your game will come,’” Powers said postgame in an appreciative tone. “It’s always good to have a coach that believes in you.”
Reeve believes Powers will have to press even less with Kayla McBride back in the fold.
“I think as we add Kayla McBride, you’re gonna see an even better AP, it’s gonna be a little bit easier for everyone, when you have a little more balance and people they can have their moments to take some pressure off.”
Powers will look to build on a very complete 11-point, nine-rebound, four-assist game on Tuesday night.
The Return of Kayla McBride
Fenerbahçe, McBride’s EuroLeague team, won the Turkish Championship last night, marking the end of K-Mac’s EuroLeague commitments for 2022. McBride is expected to meet the team in Los Angeles and return to the Lynx starting lineup on Tuesday. With the Lynx sitting at 0-4, it’s familiar territory for the three-time All-Star.
McBride brings exactly what Minnesota needs more of: perimeter defense and perimeter shooting. The pairing of Jefferson and McBride as a shooting tandem will be one that can revolutionize the Minnesota offense around Fowles and create more scoring opportunities inside for her. They will force defenses to guard the Lynx differently and hopefully that will help the Lynx string some wins together. Westbrook is going to impactful in both areas, as well. Being able to learn from McBride will be an invaluable blessing for the rook.
Also note that Yvonne Turner is the hardship replacement player tied to McBride, so she will likely be released ahead of Tuesday’s game against the Sparks. Reeve would have to release all three hardship players if she wants to keep re-assign those hardships to different players, but keeping Turner makes less sense given the upside the Lynx have with Westbrook.
The Post Rotation Moving Forward
The emergence of Milić may mean slightly less playing time for Shepard moving forward. Shepard on Saturday played 21 minutes, a far cry from her 35+ minute outings in the team’s first three games.
Shepard had a wrap on her thigh during pregame warmups and was seen on the bench with recovery technology on her knee in the second half while Milić was rolling with the comeback crew.
I asked Reeve if the forward rotation may look more like what we saw Saturday, with Milić providing more rest opportunities for Shepard.
“For sure. ... It’s hard for [Fowles and Shepard] to play a 20-minute half like we did with that group [against Indiana],” Reeve answered. “So Nina has proven that, you know, she plays like a vet because she is a vet. It’s just her first year and the W so she’s confident so I have confidence in her. The team has confidence in her. We should have a nice post rotation with her.”
Shepard did not aggravate any existing injuries on Saturday and simply had opportunity to kickstart her postgame recovery. She is experiencing her first fully healthy season since she tore her ACL in 2019, just six games into her WNBA career.