The Minnesota Lynx on Tuesday night looked to bounce back from a season-opening home loss, but collapsed late and blew a 19-point second half lead to the Atlanta Dream as a result of an ill-timed offensive power outage.
Atlanta clawed their way back into the game with tough interior play that racked up free throws and hard-earned buckets at the rim, before a stone cold Aari McDonald 3-pointer gave the Dream their first lead of the game with 42.9 seconds to play and sucked the life out of a stunned Target Center crowd.
Although they sit at a disappointing 0-2 record considering how they’ve played in six of their eight quarters so far, Minnesota learned lessons on both ends of the floor they can carry with them deeper into the season.
Let’s get into the takeaways.
Building Trust and an Offensive Identity Will Take Time
Head Coach Cheryl Reeve was not shy in her assessment of the team’s offense, especially late in the game.
“Certainly, it’s a team that, we have two players out there that, you know, actually three players that don’t necessarily know kind of what we like to do when we have pressure situations. And so we have oftentimes two of the players don’t know what the other three players are trying to do,” Reeve admitted in a matter of fact tone. “So, identity wise, we’re still getting to know each other, kind of a thing.”
Through a pair of exhibition contests and now two regular season games, it is clear that the Lynx don’t have a bankable half-court rhythm they can get into without running scripted offense, and that’s perfectly okay at this stage. The 2023 squad is a young one — with new pieces added into the mix — running a system different from last year’s. What works and what doesn’t will be an up-and-down affair, much like we saw on Tuesday night.
After Minnesota found success with their pick-and-roll offense in the first half, Atlanta worked to take away pocket passes, forced the Lynx to move the ball around the perimeter and create from the outside, and got more physical with bigs and drivers inside.
“Atlanta’s activity and aggression. You could feel it, especially as you’ve got the latter part of the third going into the fourth. I don’t know if we get tired, I don’t really know. But I just didn’t think we handled them taking us out of our stuff,” Reeve told Canis Hoopus postgame, explaining what changed for their offense in the second half. “Give Atlanta credit. ... Just unfortunate for us that we couldn’t hold them off, because that was just a good game for us for three quarters.”
“I think we got a lot more stagnant (in the second half),” Collier told Canis Hoopus. “We weren’t hitting or finding the things that we did in the first half, like the pocket pass, and they were collapsing a lot more. We were taking hard shots.”
Even though the Dream defended the Lynx PnR attack well in the second half, Minnesota finding at least some rhythm in that regard was an important step in the right direction.
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Jess Shepard is too good of a passer for the Lynx to not be able to consistently leverage her short roll playmaking to open up the offense from the middle of the floor. Three of her four assists came after setting a screen and either rolling to the basket or posting up inside.
“I thought post players, we would get [them] into ... position to score or make plays on the back side. So that was an improvement over the last game, our pick-and-roll reads. We talked a lot about it,” Reeve said. “And I thought we did well there today.”
A key part of unlocking that is to be able to quickly get the ball up the floor against a crossmatches and take advantage of a defense before it gets set.
“Our defense leads to our offense, as well,” Shepard told Canis. “So I think we let them kind of get rolling on offense and then that makes our offense harder because then they’re in a set defense.”
The Lynx offense is going to be much more efficient when they can sprint up the floor and attack in transition, which we saw plenty of early in the game. More so than teams that play a slower brand of basketball, Minnesota’s offense and defense will go hand-in-hand because of how much they will rely on pace to gain an edge on both ends. They will want to speed up opposing offenses to force turnovers, and then run in transition to beat teams down the floor with Collier, Diamond Miller and Tiffany Mitchell. When they can’t turn teams over and infuse their offense with pace, it will trickle back into the defense.
Atlanta Took Advantage of a Reeling Defense
The Lynx in the first half did everything they could’ve asked for on the defensive end of the floor. They rebounded as a unit and limited the Dream’s second chance scoring; Kayla McBride held All-Star scoring machine Rhyne Howard to just two points on 1/6 shooting; the guards switched well on dribble hand-offs and high ball screens; and, perhaps most importantly, they limited one-on-one post-ups for Cheyenne Parker.
Every time Parker touched the ball with her back to the basket, she saw a second Lynx defender almost immediately, which forced her to kick the ball back out to the perimeter, where Minnesota rotated phenomenally well to prevent open 3s and drives. Because Atlanta wasn’t getting the paint penetration they are accustomed to from McDonald, Howard and Allisha Gray, Head Coach Tanisha Wright pivoted; she turned to a low-post scorer Naz Hillmon to build the foundation of the team’s comeback. Hillmon scored nine of her 13 points in the third quarter on 4/5 shooting, but mostly against single coverage — something Reeve was not pleased with.
“Give Hillmon credit, who just imposed her will on the game,” Reeve told Canis. “But our basic scheme defensively, I don’t know if [our players thought] that it didn’t apply to Hillmon. But we don’t like anyone to be in a one-on-one situation. We’d like our guards to dig down on the move.”
The first clip is a prime example of what Reeve is looking for. Miller and Collier dig once Parker begins her post move, and Collier gets the steal going the other way.
Here, Hillmon catches across the middle of the lane, but no one digs on the move to help out Miller on defense. As a result, Hillmon scores with ease after facing up without seeing any pressure.
“We just lost our minds in terms of what our defense is, and they got 38 points in the paint,” Reeve said postgame. “When you get in those moments, and it gets a little bit harder. I don’t know if it’s fatigue, if it’s fear, or what not, then you start not to trust [the team scheme]. I don’t want my man to score, kind of thing. And that’s obviously was not how we were successful in the first place. Them seeking to paint the way that they did and having that success, that was probably the most disappointing thing.”
The Lynx were able to shut that off, which Reeve pointed out and was glad to see, but it came at the cost of struggling to hold down Howard and Allisha Gray, who both got loose in the fourth quarter. Minnesota gave Gray a runway for a cutting and-1, and allowed the 2020 Olympic Gold Medalist to follow up a Howard triple with a huge 3 of her own to pull Atlanta within two points with just under 3:00 to play, firmly securing the Dream momentum.
Howard did her damage both as a playmaker driving and kicking, and as a scorer in key moments. Even though she didn’t get into the paint, her scoring gravity pulled in defenders and created passing lanes to set up Gray and McDonald right slot 3s that eventually sunk the Lynx.
Certainly, losing Collier by way of fouling out in the fourth hurt, but Minnesota will need four quarters of scheme discipline (and turn the ball over significantly less than their 16 TOs for 25 Dream points) if they want to put together a more complete defensive effort.
Non-Linear, But Important Growth for Collier, Miller
Napheesa Collier put on full display against the Dream why she is heralded as one of the league’s most dangerous players. She fueled the half-court offense both as a scorer and a passer in the first quarter, before foul trouble sent her to the bench mid-way through it, and kept here there for most of the second, too. But she came out of the halftime break a completely different force.
Minnesota’s two-time All-Star went on a personal 10-0 run to balloon a seven-point Lynx halftime lead to 17 in just 2:41 of game time. She drilled two big 3s, got into the mid-range for a bucket and scored at the free throw line, too.
The most encouraging aspect of Collier’s outburst was that none of her points came out of post-ups, where Phee has been most comfortable to start her career. Reeve has said it will be an adjustment for Collier to derive most of her offense on the perimeter (whether on the drive or in spot-up situations), but scoring runs like that highlight the potential Collier has on offense when she puts it together.
“It’s something that I worked really hard on in the offseason, so it’s something that I want to start implementing more in the game,” Collier told Canis postgame. “I think in the past my game has really been in the lane and driving and things like that. And I have to be more cognizant and really intentional about taking open 3s because it’s not my first option. They’re going to be open for me, especially in the beginning [of the season] because that’s not something that I’ve shown so far in the league. So I’ve got to take advantage of that. And then when people start guarding, I can get to the things that I like more.”
While Collier’s offense was up-and-down in the opener, her defense was rock solid. She recorded four blocks and a steal, while shooting just 5/14 from the floor. Last night, she scored 20 points on an efficient 8/16 shooting, but ended up fouling out in the fourth quarter partly because her early fouls came from late rotations — something she was very on-time with in the first game.
It’s a good reminder that Collier has played just two full regular season games back at full strength since giving birth to her daughter Mila last May.
“I think with each game I feel a lot better. Just, like you said, kind of getting back into that rhythm,” Collier said, commenting on her comfort level working back to her 2021 form. “The game is really fast and I haven’t played in a long time. With each game, I feel like I’ve been more comfortable.”
Similarly, No. 2 overall pick Diamond Miller will experience some ups and downs. However, those are ones that come with being a rookie and will take some time to grow from, whereas Collier has already proven she can put it together over a full season. But that’s the fun part; we get to watch Miller grow into the star she’s eager to become, even if it comes at the cost of some crucial late-game mistakes early in her career.
“She just has to learn every game. I mean, you know, she’s gonna be disappointed. I think she’s figuring it out. Now, I like a lot of things that she does, but then you make a defensive mistake by going to double off of Howard and they kick it out for 3,” Reeve said, referencing this play:
“Things like that, it’s just, ‘Hey, you gotta go through it.’ There’s not an IV that you can inject into somebody to give them the experience and knowledge of those situations. And she just has to learn. I enjoy Diamond a lot and we’re going to continue investing in her.”
Miller also struggled with foul trouble in this game, as she played just six minutes in the first half, largely played well defensively and was again a force in transition when she was on the floor. We also saw what can happen when she harnesses her athleticism to make plays in the half-court; she can get past just about any defender in front of her, but finishing plays is the next step. Miller is as eager of a learner and as spirited of a worker as you can find, so there’s no doubt that she’ll put it together, but it just may take some time.
The Lynx’s headliners deserve grace as they work back from pregnancy and develop as a rookie, respectively. While we’ll see the flashes of greatness on a nightly basis, it won’t happen consistently for full games on end for a little bit, and fans need to understand that is perfectly okay — and to be expected — as Collier and Miller work through it.
The Lynx will visit Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi and old friend Moriah Jefferson in Phoenix for a battle with the Mercury on Thursday night. Fans can catch the 9 PM CT tip on Bally Sports North or Amazon Prime Video.