Minnesota Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve called the team’s offense “A work in progress” prior to tip of the season opener on the road against the Seattle Storm, and that showed.
After an entertaining first half that featured a competitive series of back-and-forth runs, the Lynx let turnovers set the tone for their second-half struggles. Seattle head coach Noelle Quinn made a clear adjustment to play higher defense on ball screens to impact Minnesota with her team’s length so the Storm could create turnovers, then get out and run.
“If you ask every player, ‘What was the number one key?’ It was not to turn the ball over, because our offense had to be good,” Reeve said after the game. “We didn’t get that done.”
The defensive adjustment led to less Lynx passing, turnovers on three of Minnesota’s first five possessions, and a 10-0 Seattle run in the first 2:14 of the half thanks to eight points off turnovers.
The Lynx committed six turnovers in the first half but did a good job of preventing the Storm from converting them into points; that flipped entirely in the second half. To make matters worse, Minnesota’s 3/11 shooting in the paint in the third quarter added fuel to the fire that was Seattle’s fast break, which scored 10 points in the quarter.
“I thought what they turned up was their pace in sprinting up the floor and getting good shots off of our poor offense,” Reeve said postgame. “ Then that fuels them. The ball goes through the net for them and then now they’re set. Now they can turn [the defensive pressure] up a bit more, and things got progressively harder for us.”
Minnesota’s passing determined everything tonight. Early on, the Lynx swung the ball from side-to-side in order to keep a second defender off Sylvia Fowles and open up driving lanes for dynamic, downhill guards Aerial Powers and Yvonne Turner.
Minnesota is getting whatever they want on offense because they're attacking from all over the floor.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) May 7, 2022
Their eight field goals have come:
• Above the break
• Right elbow
• Left elbow
• Right short corner (x2)
• At the rim (x3)
That spread offense enabled the Lynx to score from all over the floor early in the game, especially on second chances. Minnesota scored 13 second chance points off of five offensive rebounds, including two put-backs from newly-signed Serbian F/C Nikolina Milić, who played made her WNBA debut tonight.
Reeve praised the rookie’s versatility before noting that Milić is a EuroLeague veteran who has played against most Storm players who have played overseas. That will be valuable for a Lynx team looking for rotational help at the 4 and 5 spots until Damiris Dantas (foot) is healthy.
“I think we still got good shots. We didn’t convert on some easy shots we got,” Reeve said of her team’s third quarter offense. “That was what we did in the first half. We answered when they were playing good offense. We answered them and were able to hang in there. That didn’t happen in the third quarter.”
The important question for the Lynx moving forward will be how much of what did work offensively tonight can they take with them back to Minnesota against a tough Washington Mystics team on Sunday.
“We got the ball moving really good. We got some easier shots for each other [with] u-turn passes, combo passes. And then in the second half, I feel like it wasn’t as clear to get the ball moving as much,” Powers said after the game. “Doing that is great to see, though, because we’re all still learning each other. Two girls just came recently, so we’re still learning each other. We’re gonna get better.”
Two players who have built chemistry through that learning process are Fowles and versatile forward Jess Shepard. Reeve has long lauded Shepard as the team’s best entry passer, a crucial skill on a team built around the best post player in WNBA history. But Shepard is much more just an entry passer.
“Jess has been having a really good training camp. So it was pretty obvious that she was my main distributor at this point,” Fowles said postgame. “But not just for me. Jess opened a lot of doors for our guards as well and then she’s getting in there and rebounding like she rebounded tonight. She just put us on her back.”
Shepard tonight played arguably the best game of her career to this point tonight. The Notre Dame alumna finished with a line of nine points, 12 rebounds and five assists in a career-high 31 minutes. She fell short of tying career-highs in rebounds (13) and assists (six) by just one apiece.
“I’m a big believer in that coming off of overseas seasons, that builds momentum. And that’s a young player that needed that,” Reeve said of Shepard. “Jess is always going to give you hustle plays. Always has. She’s growing in confidence from an offensive standpoint, that’s what I was really pleased with. She gives us another dimension; the ability to pass, the ability to offensive rebound and get us extra possessions. Those are really valuable things.”
Shepard brought down four offensive rebounds that led to four Lynx points and made life tough for 2018 WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart, who scored only four points on 10 shots in the first half before erupting in the second half. It is an incredible feat to step into the starting lineup in the season opener and produce the numbers Shepard did given her role last year as a rotational forward, but to do so while shutting down for extended stretches the best player in the world makes it so much more impressive.
Minnesota will need Shepard to continue performing well as a playmaker if their lead guards continue to struggle.
The Lynx after waiving incumbent starting point guard Layshia Clarendon are rolling with two lead guards on the roster: Rachel Banham and Odyssey Sims.
Reeve cautioned before the game that the back-court is still finding its way, and tonight showed there is room for growth.
Banham and Sims combined to score 11 points on 4/19 (21%) shooting and dished out seven assists to five turnovers. The two guards excel at different things — Banham is an excellent 3-point shooter and off-dribble shooter; Sims is adept at getting into the lane and scoring or playmaking from there, and is a plus defender — yet each struggled with their respective games. Banham misfired on all four triggers from deep and Sims shot 3/10 in the paint.
Whether their shots are falling or not, both will be required to move the ball early and often while limiting turnovers. Banham did that successfully in the first quarter, but struggled to stay on the court the rest of the way. Conversely, Sims struggled extensively in the first half before making more an impact in the second half on both ends of the floor. That is expected considering Sims signed on Tuesday and was not with the team during training camp.
Much of tonight was a tale of two halves for the Lynx point guards, as was the game itself. But, if Minnesota wants to stay afloat during the absences of Kayla McBride and Angel McCoughtry, piecing together four quarters of solid-to-good guard play — especially without Fowles on the floor when more ball movement is needed — will be crucial.
A Quick Regroup
Minnesota will have to remedy some of its offensive issues rather quickly, as they play again in less than 48 hours — on Sunday at home against the Washington Mystics.
Mystics coach Mike Thibault has already ruled out two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne (who is still recovering from a back injury suffered during the 2019 WNBA Finals).
That means Minnesota will have one less variable to deal with in what could be a tough equation to solve: Washington’s dynamic back-court duo of Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins is one of the best in the league and figures to put the Lynx’s adjustments to the test on both ends.
Sunday’s game is a 7 PM tip at Target Center and the game can be viewed on ESPN2.
FINAL: Storm 97, Lynx 74— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) May 7, 2022
Loyd: 17 pts
Stewart: 17 pts (13 in 2H), 8 reb
Bird: 11 pts, 9 ast
Prince: 13 pts
Fowles: 16 pts (4 in 2H), 4 reb
Powers: 14 pts (0 in 2H)
Shepard: 9 pts, 12 reb, 5 ast
• PGs: 11 pts on 4/19 FG (21%), 7 AST, 5 TOs
• Won 37-29 in REB, 42-32 PITP pic.twitter.com/F8Okz0NcjH