Very few players can set the tone on the road quite like Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud did tonight in a big win over the Minnesota Lynx, without two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne.
The Athletes Unlimited and former Saint Joseph’s standout came out firing, scoring from all over the court and talking a ton of trash while doing it. Cloud put the league on notice in the first quarter by shooting 3/5 from behind the arc in an explosive 12-point quarter.
Cloud, as well as fellow starting guards Ariel Atkins and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, got into the paint as a result of a schematic advantage drawn up by Mystics head coach Mike Thibault. No. 3 overall pick Shakira Austin, an athletic center, came to set very high ball screens as many as 10 feet behind the 3-point line, giving her guards a runway to get a head of steam towards the basket.
Lynx center Sylvia Fowles prefers to show on screens before retreating back to guard the roller, but was struggling to both show enough and recover to check Austin in the paint. The end result was guards in the paint, which forced the Minnesota defense to overcommit and, ultimately, created wide open 3-point looks for Cloud and her teammates.
When Cloud got into foul trouble and sat the final 5:43 of the quarter, Atkins picked up where she left off. The 2020 Olympic Gold Medalist-winning guard is excellent off the dribble as a shooter, creator, and interior scorer, and put it all on display — especially in her six-point, three-assist second quarter — en route to a fantastic night of 20 points, five assists and four rebounds. Atkins struggled with her perimeter shot at times, and needed 17 shots to score those 20 points, but got to the line a game-high seven times with her physicality.
The way the Washington offense forced Minnesota into scramble mode created an environment for Austin — a quick first and second leaper — to make an impact on the offensive glass. She had only two offensive boards, but was constantly around the ball and drew attention that freed up her teammates to corral loose balls for second chance opportunities. Fowles struggles with speed and Austin presented problems for her all night long.
“When I do watch film, I think about ‘How can I be better for my teammates?’” Fowles said postgame. “Tonight I wasn’t there defensively.”
Fowles’ defensive intensity tonight wasn’t at the level it normally is, largely because the offense again sputtered in the midst of an opponent’s run and struggled to deliver her the ball. Minnesota scored just four points in the second quarter (which ties the team’s lowest for a quarter since the WNBA moved to a four-quarter format in 2006) and found themselves in a 47-23 hole at the break that was too big to climb out of.
“You have to always come out with that energy and you have to always play that hard because every team in this league is really good,” forward Jess Shepard said postgame. “You can’t come out, even for two minutes, and not play as hard as possible, because as we saw tonight, you’ll get yourself into a deficit and it’s really hard to come back.”
.The Lynx second-quarter offense featured limited ball movement and off-ball activity, poor shot selection, and a lack of execution on good looks the team did get. Minnesota shot 0/4 in the paint, 1/6 on non-paint 2s, and 0/4 on 3s in the quarter for a total of 1/14 (7.1%) shooting. The aggression wasn’t there, either; after guard Aerial Powers did everything in her power to get into the paint to score or create for others in the opening 10 minutes, the team struggled to replicate that in the second, getting to the line only twice.
Minnesota head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve on one occasion called a timeout simply because it appeared that her team didn’t know what the called play was.
“I just want to make sure we are playing with a pace and a passion that we’re seeing that’s only part of the game,” Reeve said after the game. “It’s hard to win in this league, and it’s really hard if you don’t bring that level of intensity it takes to win possessions. I’m not talking about games, just win possessions. We talk about this ad nauseam.”
Fowles echoed that sentiment.
“I think we do really good things in spurts. But when we do bad things, it’s really bad. And everybody take turns doing those bad things,” she said. “I think the most important part is just locking in. I think our attention to detail these last two games has been at a minimum at best. So [the focus is] locking in and paying attention to details.”
Reeve explained that for the team to be successful, players performing better isn’t the only requirement.
“Clearly we aren’t playing well. That’s an understatement. We have some players that are better players than what we’ve seen,” Reeve said, evidently trying to holding back. “So, your only choice is to, as coaches, find a way to help. What I’m thinking is we have to go watch video. We have to go, ‘Okay, what can we give [players] that can help them?’”
That starts with helping the Lynx’s two best active players, Fowles and Powers, be more involved, efficient and effective within the flow of the offense. Minnesota has struggled so mightily with passing the ball to Fowles that tonight she resorted to going to get the ball herself on the perimeter.
“I just tried to do what’s best for the team. I mean, if they want to sit down and crowd the paint, then I might as well set some ball screens or receive the ball and let [guards] come up [and then get] down hill, but I don’t think that’s some place I want to live,” Fowles said. “But if it’s going to help my teammates, I’m willing to do that.”
A season that is supposed to be about Lynx players helping send Fowles into the sunset with a title has instead become about how the greatest post player of all-time can change her game because her teammates cannot consistently make post entry passes.
That’s a systematic failure.
The remedy for that problem is to infuse the offense with more pace and more ball movement.
“We need to have a sense of urgency from the start,” Fowles added. “We didn’t show up [from the jump] today and that’s kind of depressing.”
Thankfully for the Lynx, they showcased flashes of remedial proficiency in the second half that was largely driven by a reserve back-court of Odyssey Sims and Yvonne Turner, and Shepard’s do-it-all activity. They played dominant basketball against the Mystics’ starters and rotation players. Had there been a fifth quarter, the Lynx very well could have won the game.
Sims’ and Turner’s collective “get out and run whenever possible” mindset fueled a 24-10 run over the final 11:10 that featured terrific on-ball defense from Sims and Bridget Carleton, who defended at the point of attack whenever Sims was off the floor.
Minnesota in the half-court moved the ball from side-to-side with rapid pace, creating passing windows to feed Fowles inside. That’s the key to success offensively, according to Shepard.
“You can’t stare down Syl, because everyone knows where we want to get the ball. It’s not a secret,” she said. “It’s important we get the ball moving, find Syl when she is open, but that everyone also look for their own shots.”
The Lynx are still figuring all three of those out, but these two losses have evidenced that the key to unlocking all three is all driven by an unselfish approach rooted in quick decision-making after catching the ball, whether it’s driving an opening, passing, or shooting.
The cohesion will come. But for now, given all the new faces, new roles and limited practice time, the Lynx are focused on small talk, connecting with one another to remain positive and together emotionally.
“Just making sure we do small talk. ‘Hey, are you alright? What can you do better? What can I do better for you?’ type thing,” Fowles said, assuring that no one would stray away from the crowd. “Making sure we’re constantly talking to each other and checking in on each other is the biggest thing that gets us on track with what we’re trying to achieve.”
The Lynx found themselves in an 0-4 hole last season that prompted an epic Kayla McBride quote, before climbed out of it and finishing the season on a 22-8 sprint.
Kayla McBride on the Lynx's 0-4 start: “I don't give a fuck what our record is .. I truly, truly believe in this group. I believe in this culture, this team. That’s why I came here, to be a part of the Minnesota Lynx, and I know that we’re going to figure this shit out."— Jace frederick (@JaceFrederick) May 29, 2021
As much as the Lynx want to avoid repeating that start, they remain without McBride and Napheesa Collier, and the question has now inevitably become, can they do it again?
Mother’s Day History for ‘Mama Syl’
Fowles tonight continued her climb into the highest echelon of WNBA history. When the ball tipped, was 13th all-time in scoring, but with her 13 points passed Lauren Jackson, Seimone Augustus and Candace Parker to move into 10th place.
The Lynx legend also eclipsed 6,000 points for her career with her first basket of the night, making Fowles the 13th player in WNBA history to achieve that mark. Her Lynx teammate Angel McCoughtry (5,791) has a good chance to join her this season if she stays healthy. Fowles tonight became the first player in league history to score 6,000 points and collect 3,500 rebounds in a career, as well.
Odyssey Sims is starting to look like Odyssey Sims
Sims understandably struggled in her first game action of the season on Friday night, as she was not with any WNBA team during training camp. She played the majority (20:23) of the final three quarters and was effective in her areas of strength.
The former Baylor superstar drew three shooting fouls, created two assists at the rim and one from 3, and controlled the pace of the game on both ends. She got into the paint offensively and gave Mystics guards hell defensively with her intense ball pressure and quick hands.
Sims at her core is a hell raiser for opposing teams; she’s aggressive, intense, and lets you know any time she makes a big play. That energy can fill the void created by the McBride’s absence and, when fully optimized, strengthen the Lynx’s identity of getting stops, playing with pace, and feeding Fowles.
Jess Shepard is the real deal
The fourth-year Swiss Army Knife out of Notre Dame is playing the best basketball of her career in her first fully healthy season in Minnesota. Shepard has played the most minutes of any Lynx this season because Reeve understandably can’t take her off the floor.
“It just speaks to his organization, how they stuck with me through a lot of hard times. They kept me positive the whole time. And I think that’s what has allowed me to get to this point,” Shepard said wearing a smile. “And, obviously, we want to win. So, I just want to do whatever it takes for this team to win and whatever coach is asking of me now.”
She registered a double-double of a career-high 16 points and career-high-tying 12 rebounds to go with four assists and a block in a career-high 36 minutes that showcased why she is so valuable for Minnesota.
Her post entry passing is unmatched because she would rather trust Fowles is going to catch the ball every time she throws it high than not give the GOAT a chance.
“When you have Syl down there, it’s pretty easy just to chuck it at the rim, but sometimes I get in trouble for that,” she said with a laugh.
But what stuck out again tonight is that whenever a shot goes up, Shepard always finds herself near the ball on the rebound. Whether she gets a hand on it, brings it down, or just makes a defender work harder to rebound the ball, Shepard is always there, and that wears on a team over the course of a game.
When you combine that with the best passing skillset on the team, a much-improved jumper backed by renewed confidence, and the versatility to potentially guard 3-5, you get Jess Shepard, the MVP of the Minnesota Lynx through two games.
FINAL: Mystics 78, Lynx 66— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) May 9, 2022
Atkins: 20 pts, 5 ast
Cloud: 19 pts (all in 1H), 6 reb, 5 ast
Austin: 13 pts, 10 reb
Shepard: 16 pts, 12 reb
Fowles: 13 pts, 8 reb
Turner/Sims: 21 pts, 6 reb, 6 ast combined
• 10 OREB for 13 pts
• 23/66 FG (34.8%)
• 20 pts of 17 WAS TOs pic.twitter.com/t7tXYuHHor
Next up for the Lynx is a road matchup with the Indiana Fever on Tuesday in Indianapolis. You can watch the game at 6 PM CT on Bally Sports North Extra and the Indiana Fever Facebook page.