The Las Vegas Aces improved to 3-0 over the Minnesota Lynx this season in a 91-85 win at Target Center last night that followed a script Lynx fans have gotten familiar with this season.
Becky Hammon’s high-octane offense came out firing on all cylinders while holding the resurgent Lynx offense, ranked first in the league over the previous five games, to just two points in the first 6:50 during a 15-2 run.
“I thought that we were impatient. I thought our spacing was poor. I think our power forward position was rough for us, and that we’ve relied so heavily [on them to be] making shots or making plays,” Lynx Head Coach and General Manager Cheryl Reeve said postgame of her team’s start to the game. “I think for us just not putting the ball int he hole, that just kind of leads to you to start squeezing a little bit, you get frustrated. But our spacing and ball movement was bad.”
As Reeve said, the power forward position was problematic. Damiris Dantas’s first stint lasted just 1:17, while Jess Shepard played for 3:33 before she was benched for Natalie Achonwa mid-way through the quarter. It didn’t improve much over the course of the game, either. Dantas, Shepard and Achonwa combined for 12 points on 5/17 shooting, nine rebounds, seven assists and five turnovers.
This has followed a recent theme of rotational experimentation for Reeve, who has been aggressively searching for her best lineups on a game-to-game basis.
“It’s not a fortunate place to be. And frankly, I left a couple of players out there that had no business being out there as long as they were out there. But, [I was just] searching for something,” she said. “Our bench puts us in a position where we don’t feel like we have to stick with somebody if they’re not bringing it.... Our bench has given us good opportunities to find combinations.”
A combination of Moriah Jefferson, Rachel Banham, Bridget Carleton, Achonwa and Dantas rode the wave created from a Banham triple to impose their will on a mostly-bench lineup for the Aces and get back within six at the end of the first quarter, successfully weathering a dominant six-point quarter from Aces point guard Chelsea Gray.
The GOAT took it from there. In her first six possessions mid-way through the second quarter, Sylvia Fowles did this:
We're getting the full Sylvia Fowles experience on both ends in this second quarter.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) July 2, 2022
• Checks in, immediately scores off an inbound
• Rips the ball away on defense
• Scores a put-back in transition
• Emphatically blocks Hamby
The has the crowd into it and MIN within two
With a Jefferson 3 mixed in, the Lynx were back within two and the Target Center was rockin’. But Gray and Vegas All-Stars Kelsey Plum, Dearica Hamby, A’ja Wilson and Jackie Young had other plans. They closed the half on a 17-6 run with five straight makes, including three triples, over the final 4:51 of the half to take a 13-point, 46-33 lead into the half.
Coming out of the half, Reeve found a one-woman combination that worked: Rachel Banham. The lone Minnesota native on the roster entered the game firing after scoring just three points in the first half.
One three to ignite the crowd.
Jefferson fed off that energy with defensive aggression resulting in a steal and two free throws on the other end.
“Yeah, I think it’s big for us. I think that’s why a lot of times I try to pressure the ball up the court, even if it’s just getting them into their offense later at like 16 seconds instead of 20 seconds or something like that,” Jefferson said, explaining why she looks to be aggressive with her team’s back against the wall. “When you can get those types of energy plays, it gets the crowd going, it gets the bench going, our team gets more hype and gets more involved.”
She turned the crowd noise up from a seven to about a 12.
Another Banham 3 cut the Aces’ lead to single digits.
“I love to hear the crowd. They fought for us. And I mean, we battled. It’s always good to hear that. I think it makes it harder on the other team, too,” Banham said of her hometown crowd. “So we’re going to need that for sure on Sunday.”
After Plum roared right back with a 3 of her own, Banham used her 3-point gravity to get down hill and score in the mid-range off the bounce, another consistently dangerous facet of her game.
A quick 4-0 Aces run pushed the lead back to double digits and took the crowd out of it.
Banham drilled another 3 she might has well shot from her native Lakeville to breathe life back into her squad, before dishing out two dimes before the third quarter horn to bring the Lynx within eight, 69-61, entering the fourth.
“I was just trying to say aggressive and Cheryl said to stay aggressive, especially in the ball screen schemes. We can really score out of those. Just trying to get downhill and if they slide under like, obviously, I’m going to shoot the 3. So, just let it fly,” Banham told Canis Hoopus about her mentality entering the third. “I didn’t shoot particularly well the last couple of games so it felt good to just kind of like, go out there just be aggressive and not think about it.”
She registered 11 points on 4/4 shooting, two assists and zero turnovers in her 8:22 of play in the quarter, her first double-digit scoring quarter of the season.
The Lynx came out in the fourth in attack mode, playing with house money. After Reeve tore into her during the third quarter, Aerial Powers came out getting down hill and to the free throw line, where she scored three quick ones. Kayla McBride and Nina Milić joined her, pushing Minnesota into the bonus with 7:35 left in the game.
That softened the defense for Banham to pick up where she left off in the third. The Maroon Mamba scored the next four points to cap of a 15-6 run over the first 4:07 of the fourth to take a 76-75 lead.
Gray decided that was enough. One of the greatest of all-time at getting to her spots, the four-time All-Star calmly drained a smooth pull-up jumper in the mid-range to re-take the lead.
Banham responded with yet another 3, her fifth of the game, to tie things at 79 before the Lynx simply couldn’t hold the rope any longer. She did everything she could, including scoring 21 of her season-high 24 points and draining five of her season-high six 3s in the second half alone, fueling a 52-point half, the best scoring in a second half of the season for Minnesota. But Gray and the Aces’ offense was just too much.
“Rachel’s a scorer, we know that on any given night she can come out and do what she did today. Super proud of her for the way she played. ... She just had a really good complete overall game and it sucks when you have a player who works so hard, they have a game like that, and we don’t win.” Jefferson told Canis Hoopus. “That’s kind of what hurts the most for me because Rachel every single day she’s always in my ear talking to me, congratulating me when I do something well like that. I wanted her to get that win today.”
Gray continued her dominance, drawing an and-1 to silence the crowd and instill sorely needed confidence in her teammates. The Gray boost propelled them to close the game on a 12-6 run over the final 4:01, after Banham tied things at 79, to a 91-85 win. The aptly nicknamed “Point God” finished with a team-high 21 points on 10/12 shooting, six rebounds and five assists to go along with two steals and a block.
“It’s hard to win versus really good teams when you get down in a hole like that. It takes a lot of energy, a lot of effort to dig ourselves out of those holes and things like that,” Jefferson explained postgame. “They’re really good at scoring back-to-back-to-back.”
Your defense has to be nearly perfect to stop an offense with an elite starting five — composed of five All-Stars and four Olympic Gold Medalists that account for 88% of the team’s scoring — down the stretch of a close game. Reeve said the team wanted to create a five-minute game in the fourth quarter and they did just that. But even then, if you can’t get stops, Las Vegas is a tough, tough team to out-score in a shootout.
“We just weren’t tough enough and in the last five minutes to be able to defend at the level that we needed to to be able to,” Reeve said after the game, citing bad shots feeding the Vegas offense. “Obviously it’s a really good team. We’ve not found a way to keep them off of 90 something. We get one more crack at it on Sunday.”
season-high 24 points for Rach pic.twitter.com/Z3LlJkWHZE— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) July 2, 2022
Banham’s Big Night
The former University of Minnesota superstar connected on 8/12 shots — and a season-best 6/8 3s — en route to a season and game-high 24 points, her first 20-point game of the season. Her career-high is 29 points, which came in a game in which she also had 10 assists during the 2020 Wubble season.
And with her first dime of the night, Banham reached 250 assists for her career. She and Natalie Achonwa each led the Lynx with four assists.
Aerial Powers’ first made free throw on the night gave her 1,500 points for her career.
1,500 career points ⚡️— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) July 2, 2022
Congrats AP! pic.twitter.com/ugscOcL5fE
it was a battle.— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) July 2, 2022
Rach - 24 pts. / 1 reb. / 4 ast.
Mo - 20 pts. / 2 reb. / 3 ast.
Syl - 12 pts. / 5 reb. pic.twitter.com/ButhnDPRc9
Minnesota will host Las Vegas for a rematch at 6 PM CT on Sunday at Target Center. The Lynx immediately following the game will retire the number of current Assistant Coach and W25 legend Rebekkah Brunson, who won four of her record-setting five WNBA titles as a member of the Lynx. Fans can watch the game on Amazon Prime and Bally Sports North.