The Minnesota Lynx departed Minneapolis on Wednesday afternoon losers of their last three games and their playoff hopes hanging on for dear life as the team took off to begin the biggest three-game road trip of the season.
Their first stop was a matchup with the No. 8 seed Atlanta Dream, losers of five of their last seven games in their own right. Regardless, it was a must-win for Head Coach and General Manager Cheryl Reeve’s Lynx squad.
Before the game, Sylvia Fowles was honored by Dream co-owner Renee Montgomery— a two-time WNBA champion with the Lynx and former teammate of Fowles — with a pair of custom Nikes and flowers as she made her final trip to Atlanta.
Unlike their first matchup with the Connecticut Sun last Friday night, which was also a golden opportunity to steal a win, her team responded.
From the first tip, Minnesota was locked in, especially offensively. Guard Aerial Powers got off to a fast start, showing how dangerous she can be when she’s confidently getting to her spots in the mid-range and in the paint. The former Michigan State star led the Lynx with eight first quarter points on 3-4 shooting, and did it without turning it over, which had to have elated the Minnesota coaching staff.
Powers got help, too. The tone she set drove an inside-out approach that paid dividends. Moriah Jefferson looked more like her explosive self, scoring an impressive layup on the drive and getting into her mid-range jumper off the bounce. Jefferson also pushed the pace phenomenally well in transition, assisting on a pair of Bridget Carleton jumper that helped extend the Minnesota lead. It was Jefferson’s best game since she hyper-extended her knee back on July 6.
Those three combined to score 17 of the team’s 25 points first quarter point on 7/8 shooting, working to build a 25-16 Lynx lead with a foundation of offensive efficiency. Minnesota shot 11/15 (73.3%), which was necessary to get out in front because Atlanta got rookie All-Star Rhyne Howard going, as she scored seven points on 3-5 FG.
Carleton continued her offensive aggression in the second quarter by draining another 3 before passing the baton to Fowles, who was her wonderfully dominant self to close the half. Fowles played great defense and cleared possessions with six defensive rebounds in the quarter, and poured in five points on the other end, including an and-1.
Fowles’ dominance on both ends was at the heart of a 29-8 run for the Lynx, spanning 10 minutes of game time from 1:34 left in the first quarter to the same time in the second quarter). Minnesota did a terrific job of turning defense into offense, as the Lynx scored seven points off of five Dream turnovers and won the fast break points battle 6-0 in the quarter. They held Tiffany Hayes and Howard, the team’s top two scorers (20.2 PPG and 18.8 PPG, respectively) over the last five games, to a combined four points 2-8 shooting.
The result was a Minnesota lead that got as large as 23 before settling at 20, 49-29, at the break. Impressively, those 49 points came by way of 21 made field goals (on 65.6% shooting) — tied for the most makes in a first half this season for the Lynx — and only three made free throws. The Lynx also tied tied their best 3-point percentage in a first half (66.7%), and tied their best defensive performance in a second quarter in 2022, allowing just 13 Atlanta points.
Furthermore, seven of the eight Minnesota players who attempted a shot in the first half not only scored, but shot north of 50%, and every player who saw the floor was a positive +/-. When every member of the Lynx plays up-tempo, unselfish basketball that works to their teammates the ball where they like to operate, Reeve’s offense flourishes in a way that makes their second-ranked offensive rating (107.7) over the last 15 games seem low.
Things stagnated offensively for Minnesota in the third quarter. The ball wasn’t moving at the level it did in the first half and as a result the Lynx turned it over five times. While in losses that has been a fatal blow, Minnesota did a good job preventing Atlanta from turning those stops into points.
The Lynx scored just 16 points on 7-15 shooting and did not make a free throw, but their lead held strong at 20 entering the fourth because their defensive intensity remained largely excellent. Minnesota forced five misses in the paint, and contested very well on mid-range jumpers on the way to holding Atlanta to 4/15 (26.7%) shooting in the half-court.
It was a good thing the Lynx led by 20 entering the fourth, because they ended up needing the buffer. Minnesota fell into ‘play not to lose’ mode and allowed Atlanta to halve the deficit in the first four minutes, even cutting the lead down to just six, 73-67, with a Hayes free throw at the 5:35 mark. Former Lynx Tanisha Wright’s squad put together a 22-6 run in 3:31 of game time, with Hayes scoring 18 (!!) of the those points.
After the Dream scored just 45 points in the first three quarters combined, Hayes’ explosion was part of a 40-point fourth quarter for Atlanta, as they became the sixth team in WNBA history to score 40 points in a quarter.
Powers wasn’t going to let the Dream ruin her night, though.
She responded with a personal 7-0 run that ballooned the lead back to 13, giving the Lynx the necessary breathing room to get the game to the finish line. It was a complete, two-way performance from Powers, who finished with 25 points on 10-16 shooting, including 4-4 from the free throw line. Her eight points in the opening frame and nine points in the fourth exemplify exactly what they need her to be down the stretch: a tone-setter that can also put teams away.
Fowles continued her stellar defense in the fourth quarter, adding a block and three rebounds — plus a crucial and-1 on the other end — to help put Atlanta away. The greatest to ever do it inside finished with 12 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks in 27 minutes. It was her 99th career double-double in a Lynx uniform and 191st overall. Her defense led Minnesota to yet another win while holding the opponent under 40% shooting; Reeve’s Lynx are now 141-6 when doing so since 2011.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from last night’s big win was the offensive efficiency. The Lynx finished shooting north of 55% from the floor (35-63 | 55.6%) and 50% from deep (8-15 | 53.3%), but did so scoring only 28 points in the paint with two second-chance points. Minnesota is third in second chance points per game (12.0) has usually relied on getting inside (fourth in PITP at 37.0 per game). The Lynx moved to 39-2 all-time when shooting at least 55% from the floor.
Simply put, it was an excellent shot-making display, which has to put a smile on Reeve’s face — at least until Sunday.
Next up for the Lynx is a must-win Sunday night matchup in LA with the No. 7 seed Los Angeles Sparks, whom Minnesota trails by 2.0 games in the standings. Five of the Lynx’s final six games are against teams that would be playoff teams if they season ended today, so Minnesota faces an uphill climb to get into the playoffs. Taking it one day at a time will be important; all the Lynx can do is win the day, whether it’s practice or a game, put in the work, and trust that the scoreboard — and the standings — will take care of themselves.
You can watch Sunday’s 6 PM CT tip on Bally Sports North Extra and NBA TV.
191st career double-double for Syl pic.twitter.com/wFoj6uzYjg— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) July 29, 2022