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Sky 77, Lynx 66: One Tough Quarter Makes All the Difference

Napheesa Collier scored a team-high 17 points, but it wasn’t enough after a three-point second quarter doomed the Lynx against a scrappy Sky squad.

Chicago Sky v Minnesota Lynx Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

The Minnesota Lynx opened up their 2023 WNBA Regular Season at Target Center looking to exact revenge from the Chicago Sky following their preseason loss to Chicago in the WNBA Toronto Game last weekend.

Despite winning three of the four quarters on Friday night, Minnesota’s disastrous second period showing dug too big of a hole to climb out of. The Lynx lost the second quarter 22-3, in what was one of the worst offensive showings in a single quarter in franchise history. A young team fought their way back into it, but Chicago’s 3-point shooting proved to be just enough to keep Minnesota at bay and steal one on the road to open the season.

Let’s get into the takeaways.

Chicago Sky v Minnesota Lynx Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Offensive Struggles Create a Problematic Second Quarter

Lynx Head Coach Cheryl Reeve admitted what her team made clear in a trying 10 minutes: “Very clearly we are a work in progress.”

Her team shot 1/15 (6%) from the floor in the quarter and turned it over 10 times to only one assist.

“I thought that shot selection overall wasn’t great. Our movement was minimal. They kept saying it like they knew, you know, that we weren’t getting the cutting that we were really accustomed to doing. We need to do a little more than just kind of standing,” Reeve said. “I think we just started to press and then it was like, ‘Okay, I’ll fix it for us.’ And somebody would go in there and take a hard shot. When we got open shots, we didn’t make them.”

“So it was one of those things where it just snowballs. It gets contagious and they get a little frustrated and then you don’t defend because you’re in transition defense for 10 minutes. The entire second quarter we were in transition defense.”

Playing on their heels made it tough for the Lynx to get stop and fuel fast break scoring chances for Napheesa Collier and Diamond Miller, who each scored a pair of buckets on the break in the first quarter, but couldn’t get it going in transition after that. As a result, Minnesota had to play in the half-court, and struggled to make passes against an aggressive Chicago pick-and-roll defense that successfully hedged and blitzed Lynx ball-handlers. Rachel Banham and Tiffany Mitchell combined for seven turnovers and zero assists in the quarter, and that doesn’t take into account the passes they threw that got deflected and didn’t result in turnovers. Sky center Elizabeth Williams was fantastic in her activity on the perimeter, making plays like this:

“I think it’s just more of the silly, we talked about this, stop throwing over the top. We did it in practice. We keep trying to tell them you stop throwing over the top. We play against the guys, the guys do the same darn thing. So hopefully we’ll just keep improving with that,” Reeve said.

However, some of the issue was that other Lynx players weren’t coming to help their guards out when they faced added pressure.

“It happened in Canada too. You know, we talked about that. We were leaving people out there just facing pressure,” Reeve told Canis Hoopus postgame, preaching the need for her team to get into offense earlier in the clock more often. “We had some of those possessions in the second half, and we really locked in on more cutting and we got more sharing of the ball. Our pick and roll offense just was not good. We knew they were going to hedge and our just our reads and our finds, just didn’t happen for us.”

That will be an ongoing battle for the Lynx this season, as they will face plenty of defenses with long, rangy, athletic forwards. But they did find success in the second half running more of their offense above the break through Jess Shepard, who was fantastic tonight. Shepard acted as an offensive hub, coming to receive the ball early in half-court possessions and flowing into dribble hand-off and quick passing actions to get her teammates involved. The veteran Lynx forward dished out a game-high seven assists (to just one turnover) to go with her eight points, eight rebounds and two steals.

“She just has a great instinct to make great passes. She’s very aware. It’s just kind of who she is as a player. When she has the ball in her hand at the top and the middle, playing off of for her, we’re very comfortable in what we do,” Kayla McBride told Canis Hoopus, praising Shepard and her work overseas in the offseason. “Especially I know me, Phee, Rachel, we’ve had extended periods of time with Jess. I’ve gotten a lot of backdoor cuts. I scored a game winner last year off one of Jess’s passes, and she’s very, very good and she continues to come back better. ... We’ll keep building around her.”

“I think just we saw what’s wrong, which is really encouraging. Like, this is our first game. We have a lot of new people. And at least we could recognize what’s going on, like the first step to changing is recognizing you have a problem,” Collier said of the team’s offensive struggles. “I think we did learn from it after that quarter. I wish we would have done it during the quarter. But at least we took what we saw and changed it. We just have to be able to do that a little bit sooner.”

Chicago Sky v Minnesota Lynx Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Napheesa Collier’s Long-Awaited Return

It was no secret how much the Lynx missed both Collier the player on the floor and Collier the person in the locker room last season amidst a frustrating campaign. But on Friday, 600 days since her last live game action at full strength in the regular season or playoffs, the two-time All-Star made her return to the Target Center floor and showcased everything that makes her one of the league’s elite players.

Collier was excellent defensively; she switched onto perimeter players without any hesitation, walled off drivers, and rotated well on the back side of the defense either to deny or deflect entry passes, or contest shots at the rim. Phee also blocked four shots, one shy of her career-high, and stole a pass, too; three of those rejections came against 2021 WNBA Finals MVP Kahleah Copper, one of the W’s most explosive scorers on the drive.

Offensively, Phee worked the rust off quickly. She outscored the Sky 8-7 in the first five minutes of the game, which included an attack in transition and scores at all three levels of the floor, and a nice and-1.

Although Collier shot 1/4 from downtown, it is easy to envision a season in which Phee shoots closer to the 36.1% (2019) or 40.8% (2020) showings she had from downtown earlier in her career. Collier and her husband Alex (who is also her trainer) put in significant work on her 3-point shot form over the offseason to remove a once-noticeable hitch in her motion and create a more smooth, fluid jumper.

The one area Collier will surely look to improve on Tuesday is her playmaking. Her turnover-to-usage ratio is normally rock solid, but the 2019 Rookie of the Year turned it over a game-high five times on Friday compared to just two dimes. Reeve attributed some of that to Phee adapting to a new role.

“She’s still getting there. You know, finding her way. We just talked about this with our coaches, that Phee kind of working from the perimeter to find her offense is new for her, and we have to sort of be patient and make this an evolution. You don’t want to have one game and it go like you want it to do and then you go and you kind of tear down the house,” Reeve told Canis Hoopus postgame. “I liked that she found her way into the paint off of some of the perimeter stuff where she would get a screen, dive in there and post. And so that’s more posting up than she’s done probably in training camp. And so I was happy to see her getting into that place.”

The honest, self-aware Collier admitted she’s still learning, too.

“There’s a lot of areas that I want to get better at. But, you know, I think it’s kind of a learning curve too, like obviously we had training camp where I played that one preseason game, but I haven’t played in a regular season game in a long time. So I understand that there’s going to be a little rust to get off,” she told Canis at the podium. “But I just want to hit the ground running and make sure that I’m learning from what I did this game and making sure that I’m not doing it again. And that’s all you can ask for.”

Collier will have a great opportunity to improve upon her opening night performance when the Lynx welcome the Atlanta Dream to Target Center on Tuesday.

And, of course, no Phee presser would be complete nowadays if Baby Mila didn’t make an appearance.

Quick Hitters

An Improved Second Half Defense

Minnesota held Chicago to just 13/36 shooting (36%) in the second half, largely because they did not turn the ball over in the fourth quarter and were able to slow the Sky down in order to keep them in the half-court. Between Collier, Diamond Miller and Kayla McBride, the Lynx have great defensive versatility on the wing and they put that on full display in the second half.

Reeve rolled out a five-woman group of Tiffany Mitchell/Bridget Carleton/Collier/Dorka Juhász/Shepard that played with terrific energy and defensive activity that generated a stops at a high rate, which allowed the Lynx to gain momentum and ride it to crawl back into the game. Juhász showed off her wingspan and ability to play in space by blocking a jump shot, Carleton found the touch with a pair of 3s to pay off big stops, Collier was a menace on the back side to protect the rim, and the team gang rebounded.

Debuts for Minnesota’s Rookies

Although No. 2 pick Diamond Miller and second-round selection Dorka Juhász were introduced to Target Center in the preseason opener, they were formally welcomed in front of a great crowd on Friday night for their official WNBA debuts.

“Both of them had some good moments. Rookies get thrown into the fire and they both want it. They both want to be in those situations and obviously we’re taking a long view with those two. Throw them into the fire and let them feel it,” Reeve said.

Reeve did just that with Miller by giving her the Copper assignment, one of the toughest in the WNBA.

“We don’t want to hide her from things. We want her to grow. And she’ll take on any challenge that you give her,” Reeve added, with a big smile.

That attitude is exactly why the legendary coach has been so effusive in her praise of the talented rookie. Miller welcomed the challenge and stepped up to the plate; the former Maryland star nicely walled off Copper on the drive multiple times, blocked one of the All-Star’s shots, and grabbed a pair of rebounds she flew up the floor with.

Miller finished with nine points on 3/9 shooting, seven rebounds, two assists, and a block in 23 minutes of play.

Juhász came in and made an immediate impact by putting back a missed 3 for an and-1, her first WNBA points, before letting out a roar in tandem with the crowd. Defensively, though, is where the former UCONN star will be able to best drive winning early on. She once again showed she is very comfortable switching out onto the perimeter and defending in space, where she held her own on Friday night.

“Certainly Dorka has an agility about her that’s I think a bit deceptive. Her switches on the perimeter, her guarding a one-on-one. Had that nice block,” Reeve said of her 6-foot-5 rookie center. “Dorka’s just confident. She’s a confident, mature person.”

The Hungary native finished with five points, three rebounds and a block in 15 minutes of play.

What Did the Rotation Tell Us?

Perhaps surprising to some, Juhász played more than twice the minutes (15) that Nina Milić (seven) played, despite Milić making the team to play backup center behind Shepard. Milić struggled on the glass and, potentially as a result of her late arrival to training camp last week due to overseas commitments, was out of position several times offensively.

The biggest takeaway here is Aerial Powers logging just five minutes. She didn’t play well in the preseason and struggled to find any offensive rhythm in her lone stint. Powers didn’t play in the second half, as all the backup wing minutes went to Carleton and Juhász, while Collier played most of the third and fourth quarters. I wouldn’t be surprised if Powers’ days in Minnesota are numbered, considering the fact that recently waived rookie Taylor Soule was at Target Center to take in the action.

Shepard also played basically the entire second half before Collier relieved her with 55 seconds left to play, a sign that Reeve fully trusts Shepard to play hard and play the right way, but also may not trust Milić out there until she gets more time on the practice floor.

Next Up

Rhyne Howard and the Atlanta Dream will visit Target Center on Tuesday night for a 7 PM CT showdown that fans can watch on Bally Sports North Extra, CBS Sports Network, or Twitter Live.

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