“It was a grind,” Minnesota Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve said after her team’s hard-fought, comeback win over the New York Liberty. “It was a grind for both teams. After having a big first quarter, things got difficult for us.”
Where the Lynx changed their tune tonight was the sense of desperation they played with despite offense becoming progressively more difficult to generate as the game marched on.
Minnesota led by as many as 13 in the first quarter, but Sabrina Ionescu, Han Xu and Natasha Howard came punching back in the second quarter to bring things within three at the half. The game didn’t get any easier out of the break. Liberty sharpshooter Bec Allen found her stroke, connecting on three, run-fueling 3-pointers in the third quarter that prompted a Minnesota timeout with 2:54 left and a once eight-point lead down to a tie game.
Reeve made a crucial schematic adjustment from there. Out of the timeout, assistant coach Rebekkah Brunson pulled Lynx guard Aerial Powers aside and had an extended conversation.
“We switched our defense to a no-help on Allen because she was kind of shooting it unconsciously, like she wasn’t even thinking about it. Once the ball was touching her hands she was shooting it and she was making her shots,” Powers described to Canis Hoopus, citing that Allen only made one 3-pointer after that. “I mean, that was a big, big stop because she was kind of on fire and we had to kind of put that out so we did a good job. K-Mac did a good job helping. Everybody did a good job when we had her.”
The team defense they played on Allen from there on out was emblematic of how the Lynx had to collectively scratch and claw their way to their first home victory of the season. The offense didn’t come along, so the team had to dig extra deep defensively to gut it out.
Minnesota in the first quarter shot 12/16 (75%) from the floor and connected on all three 3-point tries. The home team from there on out made only 14 shots on their remaining 54 attempts (25.9%).
New York made a change in the second half to double Sylvia Fowles from both the high and low side while starting center Stefanie Dolson was on the floor, and the Lynx didn’t have an answer for it. The ball movement stalled while trying to force it into Fowles and guards couldn’t drive it into the paint.
“I thought our recognition of what was open was really poor. Syl’s in there, she played 33 minutes, right? And so she’s getting a lot of attention. You know, so recognition of like, ‘What’s open or attacking a close out?’ we just didn’t get that,” Reeve said postgame. “We were throwing strong side where there was no defensive adjustment. Yeah, that’s pretty easy to guard. So we just couldn’t get them in close-out situations.”
The Lynx struggled to create space off the bounce, which is why those close-out situations weren’t there. Their three primary shot creators in Moriah Jefferson, Kayla McBride and Powers, struggled profusely on the offensive end, shooting a combined 9/33 (27.3%). In previous games they had been able to get open and create shots for themselves or others, but that just wasn’t there tonight.
“I think the biggest thing for us is to get stops and kind of create that transition where [Fowles] can kind of have her own space. And that’s something that we’re going to continue to work on,” McBride said postgame. “She’s gonna draw a lot of attention and that’s where it becomes on the guards to make sure we get her the ball and also being aggressive and attacking them.”
When your guards can’t penetrate and collapse the defense, life is bound to be tough offensively. Minnesota began to turn it over, and it fed the Allen 3-point avalanche.
“We were just very kind of first option oriented and not layered in what we were doing,” Reeve explained to Canis Hoopus asked about the stagnation offensively. “We got that in the first quarter. We penetrated the nail (area below the 3-point line atop the key and above the free throw line), we dove off the nail. We got really good offense out of it. When that went away. We didn’t have the next steps. And if we dive the nail and they fill up and we pitch it to you, you don’t shoot, you’re attacking in a closed sale and then create the next one. So driving and kicking was non-existent for us.”
Jefferson has been excellent in that department since arriving, but had an off-night beyond the first quarter; Reeve turned to Rachel Banham for the final eight minutes of play in hopes she could provide more playmaking and getting through screens.
To the Lynx’s credit, they didn’t let all of those missed shots become transition points on the other end. New York scored only nine fast break points to Minnesota’s eight; keeping that battle close helped keep them in the game long enough to take control in closing time, during which the Lynx rode the home crowd to the finish line. But that crowd needed a match to spark it; like she has so many times before in a Lynx jersey Powers became that match.
“I think I screamed so loud I lost my voice on that block,” said an already-hoarse Powers, who has been battling a cold recently. “I was so hyped.”
Whenever Powers made a play from then on, she was quick to rev up the crowd and keep them in the game. Even when things started to slip in the first half of the fourth quarter, when the Liberty saw a lead as wide as eight at the 8:43 mark, the Lynx bench remained positive and really cheered on the team, especially on the defensive end.
“I saw my teammates out there celebrating our defensive stops,” Powers said with a smile. “And that’s big for us like positive touches and celebrating though the different defensive stops because I feel like we haven’t been doing it but today we were on one today about that.”
The Lynx on the floor needed that positive reinforcement because they kept the game within reach, but just couldn’t muster up the offense to recapture the lead.
Instead of letting an eight-point lead become 15, the team’s emotional leaders — McBride and Powers — set the tone on defense by hounding Ionescu and Allen, respectively, who combined for six points on 2/8 shooting in the fourth. The star pairing helped the Lynx force a season-high eight runs of three consecutive stops, something McBride, Powers and Reeve all were sure to mention postgame. They also combined for 14 fourth-quarter points, with 10 of those coming at the foul line. Their other shots weren’t fouling, so they got aggressive and scored from the line, instead, where they combined to make more free throws (19) than the Liberty attempted (18).
“I would have been really surprised if [McBride and Powers] didn’t come out and compete defensively the way they did. I would have been really disappointed, given the last two days. They both had been challenged,” Reeve told Canis Hoopus postgame. “That’s what they get paid to do. They’re not just scorers. You got to be able to get stops at the other end.”
McBride echoed that.
“We got to find ways to win and we had to find ways to bring energy and intensity on both ends of the floor,” she said. “It has to come from us, you know, it can’t just be Syl, you know, we have to take responsibility for what we do on both ends of the floor, starting on defense.”
The three-time All-Star responded to a big Ionescu 3 at the 3:40 mark — that gave New York a three-point lead — with a tough, downhill layup, and then followed it up by making several key stops, including the steal and assist that gave Minnesota a lead they held until the final buzzer.
“The mindset was we’re not losing the game,” McBride said postgame. “I think that in that last seven or eight minutes we kind of just grinded it out. And I think we haven’t been able to figure out how to win like that yet as a group until today so I was really proud of how we kept fighting.”
The Lynx closed the game on a 21-7 run over the game’s final 8:43, with 13 of those points coming at the free throw line. Winning a grind-it-out slugfest like tonight undoubtedly lifts a weight off of this team’s collective back as they enter two straight off-days, the first McBride will have since arriving in Los Angeles from Turkey last Monday.
“You know, it’s not easy. The beginning of the season hasn’t been easy. You know, it hasn’t been easy just being in the gym. And seeing film and seeing things you do wrong and not winning games is hard, but we’ve talked a lot about it as a team, with the coaches. And it was more so about doing it today. And I think that we really, we took a big step today.”
Tragedy in Texas
Basketball was not the only thing on Reeve’s mind tonight. She made an emotional plea for change prior to tonight’s game.
Lynx HC Cheryl Reeve was moved to tears when asked about the mass shooting today at an elementary school in Texas:— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) May 24, 2022
"...it’s nonsensical. My kid got out of the car today and I ran and hugged him. I can't imagine. I can't imagine what those families go through."
Full statement ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/So0ZWiYcJU
needed that.— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) May 25, 2022
AP - 18 pts. / 9 reb. / 2 ast. / 2 blk. / 2 stl.
Mac - 15 pts. / 5 reb. / 3 ast. / 1 stl.
Syl - 14 pts. / 14 reb. / 1 blk. / 2 stl. pic.twitter.com/Q5SkaRAnFM
The Lynx will be back in action on Sunday at Target Center at 6 PM CT against the Los Angeles Sparks, whom Minnesota defeated 87-84 on the road in L.A. last week. You can watch the game on Amazon Prime Video and Bally Sports North.