Minnesota Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve on Thursday announced to the media after practice that star center Sylvia Fowles will be out for Friday’s home game against the Washington Mystics with a right knee injury.
“She injured it in the New York game, unfortunately. She had an MRI when we got back yesterday,” Reeve said today. “She’s had a little bit of swelling. It’s an acute situation in this case.”
Since Reeve spoke with the media around 2 PM central time, the Lynx listed her as OUT on the status report for tomorrow’s game with a right knee injury, and have released an update diagnosing the injury as a “cartilage injury in her right knee.”
The severity of the injury is unknown at this time, but Fowles will be out indefinitely and the team will provide further updates when available.
Fowles was apparently injured on this play, according to Reeve.
“In that succession of competing for the ball, she felt something she knew at the time, if you looked at her, you knew she was very concerned about,” Reeve added.
Reeve also said the team is hoping to avoid a procedure with Fowles, but can’t yet rule that out completely.
“I’m going to let the medical staff communicate the specifics, but surgery isn’t required at this point. There are some things we can do to help Syl, but we can talk about those once [the injury news] is released.”
The Lynx don’t have time to dwell on the news or feel sorry for themselves, though.
“I think it’s a team that we’re just trying to take it one game at a time, right, like we have no choice. ... You know, you gotta go, ‘We’re trying to win the next day.’ And that’s all you can do is turn the page,” Reeve said honestly. “And it takes a lot to do that. This is a very competitive group. Much like you see with some other teams that are struggling. This isn’t fun.”
“We really can’t feel sorry for ourselves. Every team is going through something, so just continue to get better, keep growing, we gotta hold it down for Syl. Syl would do it for us, so we gotta do it for her and just keep working,” veteran guard Rachel Banham added. “No one feels sorry for us. So we kind of have to get over it and just keep playing basketball and get some wins.”
Reeve believe this team can get through it simply because the team has a chance to win every time they step on the court, but also more importantly because the team has good people.
“I always say you know, like if you’re gonna struggle, you’re gonna have a season as we’ve had so far, you have to have good people. If you don’t have good people, It’s very hard to get through challenging times,” she said. “That’s something I feel like we’re proud of. We always, I think nail it with a group that we have. And so they’re there for each other. They lean on each other. And that’s how you get through tough times.”
How Will Things Change Moving Forward Without Fowles?
The good news for the Lynx is that starting point guard Moriah Jefferson — who has missed the last three games with a left quadriceps strain — and forward Damiris Dantas — who has missed all 12 games so far this season with a Lisfranc injury in her right foot — are both listed as probable for tomorrow.
Those returns will be very welcomed ones for the Lynx, who will need to — in Fowles’ absence — really space out the floor and be as effective from 3 as possible. Jefferson leads the WNBA (among players with at least five games played and 1.0 3s attempted per game) in 3-point shooting at 56.3% on 2.3 tries per game, while Dantas has shot 38.7% from deep over her 4.5 seasons in Minnesota. DD is a fantastic pick-and-pop player, as well, which is a fun element of the Lynx offense that can be unlocked in a two-woman game between her and Jefferson or Banham.
Minnesota has largely been largely ineffective from downtown this season, as the team ranks 11th of 12 team in percentage of their total points scored from deep (20.7%).
“Some of it is personnel,” Reeve told Canis Hoopus, referencing no pure ‘shooter’ types in the starting lineup beyond star guard Kayla McBride. “I think for us, we’ve been exemplary, like you said, getting into the line. We’ve been really good at it. Without Syl in there we will be more wide open and we will shoot more 3s. With Dantas’s return, with Moriah’s return, you’re going to see more 3s.”
With both back, and Fowles out, increased spacing will fuel everything on the offensive end.
“That’s what we’ve seen in practice with Damiris, is that they all enjoy playing because it’s refreshing to have a big who can stand there and shoot a 3 if you help too much,” Reeve said. “I’ve always said this about Damiris: she’s just very trustworthy as a basketball player. She makes easy basketball plays.”
Minnesota will need to capitalize on converting as many easy plays as possible when they arise, so getting Dantas back will be a boost in that regard.
Attacking a More Open Lane
Those created 3s Reeve referenced will come off of dribble penetration and drawing defenders in, an area the Lynx have excelled in so far this season.
“We always talk about combos, drive-and-kicks. And for us, that’s what’s going to be really important now,” Jefferson said Tuesday. “When you lose a player like Syl who is a double-double player, who does have so many makes around the rim, now we have to do it instead of passing it in there. We’re going to try and penetrate in there, so we gotta work on that.”
“Without Syl, I think we’re gonna be moving the ball side-to-side a lot more. You know, probably getting a lot more perimeter shots up. More cutting. Guards doing a little bit more,” Banham said of the team’s offensive focus. “With DD coming back, maybe some pick-and-pops with her, you know, so it’ll be more bubble-esque.”
Minnesota played most of the 2020 bubble season without Fowles and registered the league’s third-best offense (106.7 ORTG). But obviously, they are now without All-Star forward Napheesa Collier, who was the team’s second-leading scorer in that season (16.1 PPG), and thrived in that five-out style of play. Dantas shot 43.3% from 3 on 4.3 attempts per game that season, too.
This year, Reeve’s squad is first in the WNBA in percentage of team scoring at the free throw line (22.6%). That number may even climb further without Fowles (who often draws two or three defenders in the paint at once) with a more open lane for downhill drivers such as Aerial Powers, Jefferson and Evina Westbrook to take advantage of.
“I think that the paint will always be something that we value, how you get there, whether it’s via the pass or via the dribble will still be on our minds,” Reeve said. “So we’re still gonna put the ball inside. ... That’s still top of mind.”
Jefferson, along with Powers, will lead that charge. She is as shifty as they come, has great touch around the rim through and around contact, and can stop on a dime and elevate to shoot a jumper in the paint.
Despite her commitment to her responsibilities as the floor general, the veteran point guard understands she needs to continue being aggressive in looking for her shot, too.
“You don’t try to go out there and do everything yourself, obviously. For me, it’s about reading the defense and taking what they give me. So if I come off a screen and the lane’s there, then I’m going. If the ball swings to me and I’m open up then I’m shooting it,” she added. “But am I going to come out and force it and try to jack up shots to make up for that? No. It’s about, like I said before, it’s about the entire team just picking up a little bit more of that slack and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Jefferson added her time off allowed her to view the way the Lynx play in a different light and learn where she can be more effective.
“It’s like watching film, and you get to watch him live for a few days. And so it helped me even just understanding the offense,” she said. “Sometimes when you’re on the court, you don’t see things that are open, but when you’re sitting off on the sidelines, it’s a little bit easier to see so it definitely helped me.”
Stronger Emphasis On Turning Defense Into Offense
Both Banham and Jefferson echoed similar sentiments when asked about how the offense can improve in a meaningful way, even without Fowles: it has to start with defense.
“But I think that when we come out with a certain type of energy, and we throw the first punch, I think you can tell [that] offensively, we just had like a different swag to us, a different energy, especially when we start that on the defensive end,” Banham explained. “When we get a couple of stops or big rebounds or a big block, we run it down and we just play really well that way. We get good transition [looks]. We get good flow. When we’re not getting stops and we play in the half-court the entire game, you can tell we’re super stagnant, and we’re all kind of just looking at each other.”
Playing with pace has been important all year for the Lynx; that is evidently a focus for Reeve, who can often be seen on the sidelines waving her arm around like a third base coach sending home a runner rounding third after her team secures a rebound. Doing that may be tougher now without Fowles, who leads the league in total rebounds (124) and rebounds per game (10.3).
“Our game plan is our game plan. It starts with defense and that shifts over to offense. So I think for us if we play really good defense and get out in transition, we don’t have to worry about that half-court offense anyway,” Jefferson added. “I really think on the defensive end is where we really need to focus and the offensive end it’ll flow and [we’ll get into] transition as well.”
Thankfully for Minnesota, their defensive cohesion is coming together. Reeve’s team has recorded a sub-100 defensive rating in three of its last five games — a key benchmark for success the GOAT sets for her team — after doing so just twice in the team’s first seven contests.
“Defending the paint is a big reason why we got that done. I do think we’re really mindful of, ‘You gotta do both. You can’t just do one and not the other.’ I think that we’ve been pretty mindful about our closeouts, as we defend the paint and then have to go back out there,” Reeve explained to Canis Hoopus. “So kind of putting it all together, you know, defending the paint, they throw wide, we got to go out and we got to get good closeouts, that’s discipline.”
That starts with perimeter defenders preventing opposing guards from getting two feet in the paint. Banham and McBride have done admirable jobs int hat department of late.
“I think that we just kind of discussed that we got to work on our identity, which is keeping people out of the paint and that’s gonna be our focus,” Banham told Canis Hoopus about what is driving defensive improvement. “You know, sometimes it’s hard because teams are able to hit shots and you start to lose your confidence. But we’re trying to just remember it doesn’t matter. ... So we’ve really honed in on just keeping people out of the paint, helping each other, trusting each other, being there for each other.”
The next chance the Lynx will have to build on that identity is back home on Friday after a three-game road trip. Minnesota will undoubtedly miss Fowles, but there still exists opportunity to get this season back on track. If the Lynx want to capitalize on that opportunity, it all has to start on the defensive end.
“Just coming in with a defensive mindset. We got to come in and throw the first punch. I think we’re a really good team when we come out with that kind of energy,” Banham said. “So I just think that we need to come out hungry and be angry and have a chip on our shoulder because we’re losing games. There’s no reason to come out and take it easy. You know, like I said earlier, no one cares. No one feels sorry for us. So we need to play with that kind of attitude.”