The Minnesota Lynx, following a pair of off days in the wake of the team’s 89-68 loss to the Connecticut Sun last week, held consecutive practices on Sunday and Monday, their first at home in nearly two weeks. Head Coach Cheryl Reeve took stock of her team at the one-third mark of the season, calling her group ‘improved’ from the start of the year, but ‘banged up.’
While we didn’t immediately following either practice, Lynx guard Tiffany Mitchell will not play Tuesday night against the Seattle Storm after injuring her left wrist in the team’s win over the Los Angeles Sparks one week ago.
In a corresponding move, the Lynx signed rookie guard Kayana Traylor to a hardship contract. Traylor was the No. 23 overall pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft. Lynx fans may remember her from torching the Lynx for 13 points in 17 minutes as a member of the Chicago Sky in the WNBA Toronto Game last month.
“A little more depth, a little more speed. I think those are things that when we looked for the hardship that we want [the player] to be different than what we have,” Reeve told Canis Hoopus on Monday. “We wanted it to be a young player that we can get a look at, and that’s why Traylor is here.”
The good news for Lynx fans is that No. 2 overall pick Diamond Miller, who has missed the last nine games with a sprained right ankle, is listed as probable and set to return on Tuesday night.
“I think having Diamond back has been fantastic just for us as a team for herself as an individual and also just us offensively and defensively,” point guard Lindsay Allen told reporters Monday, saying with a laugh that Miller is “very eager” to return. “She’s another player who could get to the basket, who can get to the paint, who can finish, who’s super athletic, super long, and I think it’s been great to see her and Phee play off of each other for the past couple days.”
Reeve has been pleased with what she’s seen from the rookie in practice ahead of her return. Miller will look to pick up where she left off in the first half against the Dallas Wings, her best so far as a pro. The former Maryland star scored eight points on 3/3 shooting, grabbed five boards and dished out four assists without turning it over in 12 minutes.
“That’s why she was kind of bummed. She’s like, ‘That’s the best I felt.’ And so it’s good that she tasted that,” Reeve told Canis on Sunday. “I think there’s a silver lining in a player watching and you know, kind of being over on the sideline kind of going, you know, ‘This should have happened.’ So now when you get out there you have that information. She was a sponge, engaged. ... She was engaged in everything, every timeout, every locker room situation. So, I know she’s excited to be back.”
Minnesota has certainly missed her on both ends of the floor.
“I think, really obviously, the full court abilities. The transition, the rim attacks. She started to really get where she was understanding when the 3-ball was there,” Reeve said of where the team missed Miller most. “So she’s gotta knock the rest off again and kind of get back into it, but her athleticism, her length, her ability to get to a spot really quickly really stands out.”
It’s a great matchup for Miller to return for, given that the Storm are 4-9 and do not have any defenders capable of consistently slowing down Miller off the dribble or in transition.
A Shift in the Half-Court Offense
Lindsay Allen has been fantastic since taking on a bigger role in Jess Shepard’s prolonged absence with an illness. In the four games Shepard has missed, Allen has recorded 18 assists to only two turnovers; her 9.0 assist-to-turnover ratio is the second-best in the WNBA in that span. When Allen runs things, the Lynx position players in a more traditional pick-and-roll look, compared to the horns and elbow sets that Reeve loves to run with Shepard running the show as a point-center and Mitchell on the floor as the point guard.
“The passers, in terms of what we’re doing, are different and how we’re getting to some of our post-ups, some of our cuts. L.A., I think she’s the one who has to establish the pace,” Reeve said Monday. “That’s something we’ve talked about a lot, especially on made baskets. So if we get scored on, we’re [scoring] 0.8 [points per possession on the ensuing trip], last in the league. So we’ve talked a lot about that. LA’s absolutely at the head of that.”
Cutting is much more prevalent with the Shepard/Mitchell duo, as the Lynx rank fourth in the league in total baskets off cuts (47) entering Monday night. But with Allen, opening up the back-side, making corner 3s and attacking close-outs will be key playing more primarily in pick-and-roll.
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“I think making sure our spacing is good, making sure we’re active on the backside, and keeping those players occupied so that the people in the pick-and-roll can really do their thing,” Allen told Canis on Monday. “We’re really running a lot of two-man stuff so that back side is wide open for those two players to kind of work off of it which I think is really good for us.”
Allen does a great job of organizing the half-court offense and is a good pick-and-roll playmaker, but will need to score more effectively out of those actions for the Lynx to be tougher to defend, as defenses consistently go under when she comes off a screen. She’s shooting 26.7% from the floor so far this season, and has only shot 50% or better once, but did connect on 52.6% of her field goals and 57.1% of her 3s last season.
However, if she can continue to control the offense how she has in PnR (10 assists alone in PnR in the last two games) her scoring won’t need to be much of a factor with Napheesa Collier on a WNBA domination tour and Miller coming back into the fold. The challenge for Allen and Reeve now becomes how they construct an offensive game plan without Shepard and now Mitchell, arguably the team’s best paint threat.
“What you always try to do is players on the court doing what they do best. You might have certain lineups that you go, ‘OK, now I’ll pick-and-roll,’ or maybe have lineups that you go, ‘No pick-and-roll,’” Reeve said Sunday. “We have pretty good recognition of those groups and what the play-calls — they have to understand [where their teammates’] happy places [are] that they find themselves in.”
Don’t be surprised if Collier initiates a good amount of the offense, too. Collier ranks third in the WNBA (min. 20 possessions) in points per possession created (1.10) on passes when the defense commits to her as a handler in pick-and-roll.
“I like it a lot. It’s something that we worked on from the beginning in training camp because I guess Cheryl knew that we were going to make that a big part of our offense,” Collier told Canis on Sunday. “I’m just trying to be really efficient because it’s such easy looks and you never want to waste possession, especially when sometimes we’re struggling. I want to make sure that I’m making the most of when we get easy shots.”
Reeve has loved that element of the team’s offense.
“We’ve worked on it, and I would say that makes me really happy because we’ve worked on it. And that was an evolution to our game that we wanted to put her in those situations,” Reeve told Canis on Sunday. “Now, it’s unique because I think she’s getting a lot of that as a power forward with a guard screening for her. And so, that’s creating nice matchups for her. I think that’s a large part of it.”
However, it’s not the addition to Collier’s game she’s had the most fun with.
Defensive Rebounding Continues to be Key
Perhaps surprisingly, the Lynx rank No. 1 in the WNBA in defensive rebounding percentage (78.1%) in the team’s first season without future Hall of Famer Sylvia Fowles, the league’s all-time leading rebounder. The gap between Minnesota and the second-ranked team (3.1%) is about as wide as the gap between No. 2 (75.0%) and No. 7 (71.6%). That should give the Lynx some confidence that when they get healthier and are able to put more familiar lineup combinations together, they are capable of fielding a sub-100 defensive rating defense.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s been a huge emphasis, obviously. Jess, our best rebounder is out. So, you know, especially Phee and me, we’re taking a little bit more responsibility, making sure we go after rebounds. And I think she’s doing an amazing job, every single game,” said Lynx rookie center Dorka Juhász, who has at least six rebounds in each of her last two full games played.” But that’s a team effort thing. I think there was more of an emphasis as well, as, ‘Okay, if the post players are boxing out, the guards gotta go in there and grab it,’ and they’re been doing a great job.”
Lynx guard Rachel Banham said Monday it’s been a key all year for the team.
“We emphasize it all the time. ... I think we’re kind of undersized compared to other teams. So a lot of times our bigs are needing to box out and us guards have to come in and crash and help rebound for them. It’s something we talk about all the time,” she said. “Defensive rebounding is gonna help us win games, so we’re getting better.”
Collier has stepped up in a major way, averaging 8.5 rebounds in the last four games, including a season-high-tying 14 in the Minnesota win over L.A. last Tuesday.
“[Defensive rebounding is] really important,” she said on Sunday. “I mean, it’s something that she’s been emphasizing for me, too, the whole year, and especially with Jess out, I feel like I need to step up more, because obviously, there’s a big hole that we have to fill there.”
But in order to improve the defense as a whole — and become an elite defensive team if they continue to rebounds — Collier knows the team needs to get better in another key area.
“1-on-1 defense. We really struggle. I mean, it’s something that we’ve been working on a lot, 1-on-1, because once you’re in rotation, that’s exactly what, as an offensive player, you want the defense to be in,” she explained. “So we want to be in that position the least amount as possible. So if we can get to keep our player in front of us 1-on-1 it would be really helpful.”
Reeve concurred, drawing attention to the team’s point-of-attack defense.
“I think our initial resistance, if that grows, then you’re going to see our defensive rating start to go down. If we can force three passes before an action gets to where they’re attacking, that’s going to help our defensive rating. Those are things that we’ve talked about.”
The Lynx rank last in the league in points per possession allowed to ball-handlers in pick-and-roll (0.931), per Synergy, a sign that there isn’t enough resistance above the break. Minnesota has shown the ability to make things difficult for their opponents, but needs to be more active on the perimeter. Getting back Miller — who is already a very versatile defender as a rookie — will be a key step in that direction, and turning loose Emily Engstler, who put on film some defensive great reps against Sun star Alyssa Thomas, will help, too.