The Minnesota Lynx were back in action on Thursday night, as they held Pride Night at Target Center and hosted the Connecticut Sun in the Sun’s first game without All-Star center, who likely tore her achilles in the team’s loss to the Seattle Storm earlier this week.
Coming off a long road trip and eager to be back in front of the home crowd on one of the best nights of the year inside the arena, the Lynx wanted to come out and perform for an energized crowd. Unfortunately, the Sun controlled the game after grabbing a lead early in the first quarter, and kept their collective foot on the gas pedal for the entire game en route to an 89-68 road victory.
“The game plan coming in was so really be aggressive with them, kind of get in their stuff, control the ball, be really aggressive on the ball, make sure that they can’t see things easily, get through screens,” Lynx star Napheesa Collier said postgame. “Our energy just wasn’t there. They came out really, really energetic and so, when you have that big of a contrast, it’s really hard to close that gap during the game.”
Let’s get to the takeaways.
Lynx Offense Outside of Collier Struggles Again
Collier’s ascension to superstardom this season is even more impressive when you consider she’s dominating as a scorer as the focal point of the defensive game plan every night, doing it all without any consistent scoring help. The two-time All-Star once again crossed the 20-point threshold on Thursday (21) on 9/20 shooting, while the rest of the Lynx combined to score 47 points on 15/56 (26.8%) shooting. So, how does Head Coach Cheryl Reeve and her staff go about solving that issue, other than No. 2 overall pick Diamond Miller getting healthy?
“If I had an answer to that, we wouldn’t be this many games into [the season] and have the same problem every game,” Reeve candidly told Canis Hoopus, letting out a helpless chuckle. “We’ve talked about different rotations. We’ve talked about using timeouts differently. We’re trying to, obviously, limit the number of times that that happens because it sucks the life out of us, and it’s really hard.”
The offensive struggles came to a breaking point in the second quarter, in which the Lynx scored just 11 points; Collier scored eight of them on 3/7 shooting, while the seven other Lynx who played in the quarter combined to shoot 1/9 (11.1%) and score three points.
“It’s just tough. I mean we’re certainly searching and trying to find ways. Phee is just such the focal point that, you know, when you have to run every play for her, that gets really hard, because, I mean, [every opponent] knows that,” Reeve continued. “And then if Phee struggles, the rest of the team struggles. ... But yeah, I mean we’re gonna keep working at it. And our staff, we’re gonna we’re gonna continue to just try to find ways to limit that because, again, it does suck the life out of you.”
Collier highlighted the symptoms of the problem postgame.
“I thought it was just really stagnant and I think our energy just wasn’t there. I don’t know if it was coming off a long road trip, but there’s really no excuse matter what the circumstances are,” she said. “I thought we were really quiet on both ends, and a lot of the times even if you know we use our defense to get our offense going, we use that energy to translate on the other end, and I just don’t think that we did that tonight.”
Minnesota didn’t move well without the ball all night, which led to rather poor shot selection, late-clock grenades, and players forcing the issue instead of playing in the flow of the offense.
Despite that, Collier still finished with 21 points, seven rebounds, two assists and four steals in her 34 minutes (she played the whole game before sitting the final 4:53). She became the third player in franchise history with multiple games of at least 20 points, five rebounds and four steals; it’s the fourth game Collier has had this month with at least 20/5/4, highlighting just how incredible of a run she’s on.
Now, if the Lynx want to continue trending towards .500, it’s on her teammates to find a way to help her out and lighten the burden on the shoulders of their team captain.
Poor Shooting Sinks Defensive Consistency
A key part of Minnesota’s slow start was their inability to maintain good off-ball positioning and close out onto Connecticut shooters. Rebecca Allen and Tiffany Hayes shot 3/4 from deep in the first quarter, in which the Sun connected on five of their nine looks from downtown. Reeve knew exactly why that happened.
“How many times did they get to one-to-five feet [from the basket] on drives that created their outside shots? So they were straight-line driving us every possession, multiple times,” she said, citing that her team compounded those errors by committing 24 fouls, resulting in the Sun shooting 29 free throws (making 23 of them, 79.3%).
“So we were just not in a space where we kept them from their will, you know, to get to that one-to-five feet and then they made passes. ... I know they didn’t score in the paint as much [as they usually do], but the paint was still a problem for us because they were able to get there and make plays.”
Hayes inflicted some damage as that problem.
“Hayes is a such a threat to get to the rim. So if you have a choice, you’re choosing — you don’t want to dare anybody to shoot — if you watch it back, you know, did we have a sense of urgency getting to the ball screen and make her unsure what we were doing? No, I thought we predetermined going under. And we don’t want to do that,” Reeve explained, citing the team’s need for more point of attack defense above the break. “Being disruptive, we sort of lacked that. And so, 3-balls where there’s penetration and kick-outs, those are the hardest ones. They’re the hardest ones.”
The Sun were in rhythm all night long, in large part due to the Lynx shooting a season-low 31.6% from the floor. Connecticut pushed the pace all night long and, as a result, often created advantages in crossmatched situations, in which they then capitalized on the drive.
“They push the ball so well. And so even when we make it, they push the ball really fast. So giving even those extra couple of seconds allows us to kind of get set on defense a little bit more, so with the misses and then a lot of them leak out,” Collier told Canis Hoopus. “They like to push it in transition. We knew that coming in. It is hard to get set in our defense, obviously, so that’s why it’s important to, obviously, make shots, which we struggled with tonight.”
A Pair of Role Players Play Well in Extended Minutes
Coming off a three-game road trip on which she played very well, Lindsay Allen took the floor determined to build upon those efforts. She played well in pick-and-roll, got to her spots on the floor from where she could create for herself and others, and did a fantastic job of setting up teammates both in the half-court and in the open floor in transition. The team’s lone ‘traditional’ point guard on the roster dished out seven assists and did not turn it over; that comes after she recorded eight assists to just one turnover in Tuesday’s 67-61 win over the Sparks. Her efficient play is a reflection of how well she manages the game.
“L.A. can get places as you can see, she can play pick-and-roll. She’s one of my few guards that can actually play pick-and-roll game. And that’s such a vital component to what most teams like to do. And so her reads, her unselfishness, and her decision of when to shoot,” Reeve told Canis Hoopus postgame.
“Overall, her field goal percentage is probably the reason why people don’t guard her. I think she’s in the 20s, but, I mean, she’s a much better player than that. And so hopefully she’ll continue to grow and take the shots that she knows that she can make, that she’s good at, and try to live in that space. But L.A.’s energy and her defense and her knowledge of what to run is pretty good.”
Allen also scored eight points and grabbed three boards to go with her eight points on 3/11 shooting.
In the 10 days since Emily Engstler signed with the Lynx on a hardship contract on June 14, she hadn’t received an opportunity to show what she can bring to the team. And that’s understandable, considering the 2022 No. 4 overall pick hasn’t practiced much with the team outside of shoot-arounds on the road. But that changed on Thursday night, when the former Louisville star played for 17 of the 20 second half minutes.
Engstler was incredibly active on both ends of the floor. She made quick decisions with the ball in her hands, cut well, made several good passes, and got in the mix on the offensive glass to either extend possessions or just make grabbing a defensive possession more difficult.
The former Indiana Fever forward grabbed a team-high-tying seven boards in her 17 minutes, the same number that Collier grabbed in twice the playing time. She finished with six points, seven rebounds and five assists.
“I really liked her aggression today. Her aggressiveness, just kind of being a force to be reckoned with. I think she had like six or seven rebounds and how many minutes does she play? So she got that really quick. Even posting up on the basket, She like backed someone down really, really easily. ‘Yeah, I was like, damn!’” Collier told Canis with a laugh. “o that was really nice to see to give her a chance to get on the floor and kind of for us to see what she’s made of, it was really nice. Even though she missed a couple, like she was right there, and I think once she gets into the flow of the game a little bit more, she’s gonna knock those down. So it was really nice to see her out there and do what she did tonight.”
Reeve echoed those sentiments.
“I was glad for her to get some extended minutes. That was our bright spot in the game,” Reeve said of the sophomore’s performance. “It was good to kind of see what she was about and what her value is because we were fans of her in college. Just see what what she brings to the pro game, the ability to pass, ability to compete for rebounds. She’s got length, that sort of thing. She’s just gotta get more comfortable with what we’re doing.”
Hopefully she will continue to grow that comfortability in the coming days, as Minnesota is set to practice on Sunday and Monday.
Reeve said pregame on Thursday she hopes Miller, who has missed the last seven-and-a-half games with a sprained ankle, will return to the practice floor either Sunday or Monday, and did not rule her out for the Lynx’s next game.
Minnesota will host the Seattle Storm on Tuesday at 7 PM at Target Center. Fans can watch the game on Bally Sports North or CBS Sports Network.