The Minnesota Lynx narrowly escaped with a 73-70 home victory to complete a 4-0 season sweep of the Los Angeles Sparks, behind historic performances from rookies Dorka Juhász and Diamond Miller, and an incredible clutch-time effort from All-Star forward Napheesa Collier.
After leading by as much as 20 points in the first half, the Lynx offense fell apart in the third quarter as part of a 30-6 Sparks run that continued well into the final frame and dug Minnesota into a seven-point hole, before the Lynx recovered and got it to the finish line.
Let’s get into the takeaways.
An Identity Win for the Lynx
“I think drama is good for a team,” Lynx Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations Cheryl Reeve said postgame, referring to in-game adversity on the floor. “I don’t think a team can be good without those challenges within the game and how do you respond to it. I know that people probably got a little nervous or whatever, but we hung in there.”
Coming through the other side of battles like this one is a key reason why the Lynx have grown so close as a team, galvanized around a growing identity that was on full display Thursday night.
“I think our identity is pretty solid right now. I think we all know the plays well. We know who should be getting shots. We know if someone isn’t playing well or has a tough matchup how to go somewhere else to get action,” Reeve said. “I think defensively, we’ve continued to grow there. You have to get stops when you’re down seven. You have to get stops to be able to get back in the game. That was a stretch that we did that.
“It’s not so much that at the beginning of the season we weren’t playing hard and all that and not trying, it’s just cohesion and chemistry. That’s something that’s developed through shortcomings. Sometimes you have to fail before you succeed. That’s the unfortunate part of life, but that’s what we needed.”
Minnesota is focusing on what they can control. Perimeter stopper Kayla McBride is a prime example of that. The beloved sharpshooter failed to connect on any of her seven shots, but came through with a steal that sparked a 12-2 Lynx run to win the game, during which she forced a shot clock violation with her off-ball defense and grabbed a key rebound that led to a Collier basket.
“She set the tone, if you go back and watch the first possession,” Reeve said of McBride. “We failed in the Atlanta game to come out ready to play. That was a focal point, we talked about that.
“We talked about tangible ways that we were going to influence the game in the first five minutes, and K-Mac led us in that area. ... K-Mac got through screens, got deflections, knocked the ball out of bounds, and we were disruptive early. K-Mac took a great deal of pride in really helping us at that end.”
Juhász was also terrific contesting Nneka Ogwumike passes and shots late, clogging the paint and protecting the rim down the stretch. Her activity to deny Ogwumike the ball, get physical on the catch, show hands after Ogwumike faced, and remain disciplined on the inside stood out in addition to her game-high 10 rebounds.
And after the Lynx get it done on the defensive end, they all believe in the gameplan to get Collier the rock on the other end. Minnesota scored just 15 points through the first 16 minutes of the second half before the three-time All-Star took her activity to another level. Collier struggled pretty much the entire first half to find any kind of rhythm, so took it upon herself to play her way into one. She got a put-back to fall with 3:42 to play to cut the Sparks lead from seven to five, just the Lynx’s second field goal of the quarter; then, Phee converted a McBride steal for an and-1 and followed it up by paying off another stop to cut the lead to one, 68-67, with 3:02 to go.
“What I enjoy in those moments is Phee’s communication in those moments, her emotional maturity,” Reeve said. “Of course it doesn’t feel good, she felt like she wasn’t helping us for a good stretch there. Then, see she kind of recognized how she could impose her will, insert herself.”
Miller and Lindsay Allen each got to the line and made both free throws to retake a 71-68 lead, before Collier worked with McBride to get an inverted ball screen that got her going down hill in the game’s biggest moment.
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After scoring 12 points on 4/13 shooting in the first three quarters, Collier responded with 10 in the fourth alone on 5/7 shooting to will the Lynx to final buzzer. Even on a down night, the Lynx superstar still finished with 22 points on 9/20 shooting, eight rebounds and a steal in 30 minutes.
“We always laugh when we say ‘hey, Phee struggled.’ And you look at her stat line and go, ‘man, I’d like to struggle like that in a game,’” Reeve joked. “She was big for us.”
That’s the Lynx identity. No matter how the offense is working out, refocus on defense and then parlay that momentum into creating a rhythm for Collier to score on the other end, before the defense commits to her and unlocks scoring for others. Now they’ve got 18 games left to see if they can play to it and earn their way to the playoffs.
Reeve was quick to point out after sitting down at the podium for her postgame press conference that her two rookies put together a pair of historic performances on Thursday night.
An efficient game for @Dorkajuhasz14 tonight:— Across the Timeline (@WBBTimeline) July 21, 2023
7-10 FG (70%)
Only WNBA rookie to put up 15+ PTS, 10+ REB, 3+ AST, and 2+ STL on 70% or better shooting from the field in the regular season.
Only rookie to do so in the postseason? Napheesa Collier.
Miller also became the only rookie in WNBA history to record a stat line of at least 13 points, nine assists, eight rebounds, one steal and one block.
You couldn’t have asked for more from Juhász than what she gave the Lynx, especially in the first half. She came out of the gates firing with a put-back and-1 on the first offensive trip, a contest and rebound on the first defensive possession, and then followed it up with another offensive rebound resulting in a Miller 3. The passion she played with was evident, as she was playing with special guests in the audience. Juhász — a Pécs, Hungary native — had her parents in the Target Center crowd to see her play for the first time as a professional.
“it was awesome to just kind of [look out in the crowd and see] where they are,” Juhász said postgame. “And having them definitely gave a lot of extra motivation for me.”
That motivation fueled an even higher level of play in the second quarter, as the former UCONN star scored a team-high 10 points on 4/4 shooting, including a pair of threes to go with a pair of assists and a steal, and an impressive coast-to-coast take after coming down with a rebound.
To me, that’s the epitome of Dorka’s talent. The transition play. Nneka Ogwumike is a great athlete with some speed. Dorka with the ball is really impressive. And we got to see a lot of that tonight,” Reeve told Canis Hoopus.
“She was just aggressive. Dorka Juhász is so good off the bounce. For a 6-5 player, she’s so good in her decision-making,” Reeve added. “I thought she was penetrating as teams play off of her. They make their choices they play off, so she got really used to that ... she recognizes her role and people are going to choose the other players. I thought she made them pay.”
“She was amazing. She was so deep in her bag today, scoring from all levels, being tough rebounding,” Collier said postgame. “She got hit in the face for like the third time against L.A., played through that. Super proud of what she did.”
Juhász admitted she’s still getting comfortable finding her spots, but has taken her impact as a creator in the dribble hand-off game and as a scorer attacking close-outs to another level from where it was at UCONN.
“Driving the ball was something that I wasn’t really utilizing as much and I think now that I’m getting more confident and also just putting a lot of more work in, whenever I have that mismatch or kind of I have slower big on me, I like to put it on the floor,” she said postgame.
“I definitely want to work on keep being just kind of a triple threat. I definitely want to make sure that you know I shoot from outside, I drive, but also if I have mismatches or something, post up. And whenever the shots are not falling from outside, I have to be able to kind of drive and maybe make passes or finish. But it’s a learning process and I think I’m definitely getting a little bit more comfortable. ... It’s good to learn through my mistakes and coach Cheryl obviously lets me do that, so that’s awesome as a rookie.”
While she didn’t score a career-high in points or play the leading role in a big win, I thought this was one of the most encouraging games of Diamond Miller’s young WNBA career.
Earlier in the season, Miller had tunnel vision for the rim; she often got caught not looking for her teammates and either forced up ill-advised shots or turned it over in traffic. But tonight, she frequently made plays like this, where she attracts attention in the paint on the drive, but then makes the right read and completes a pass to send the defense in rotation.
Her kick-out flows into a Tiffany Mitchell pick-and-roll, and then Miller correctly spaces to the wing, where she receives another pass and makes a quick decision on a quick swing to Nina Milić for a wide open straightaway 3. Just a perfect possession from a rookie who would’ve struggled to put that rep together even a couple weeks ago.
The No. 2 overall pick made plays like this all night long en route to netting a career-high nine assists, well beyond her previous best of five.
“You guys have watched the games and you’ve seen the crowded paint and Diamond trying to make a play, getting her shot blocked. It just came from those experiences of her going ‘ok, I’m not doing that again. That really hurts our team when that happens,’” Reeve explained. “We talked about it that, if it’s crowded, your action in a post-up is creating such good stuff for our offense. It doesn’t have to be you that scores and that’s what we saw a lot in the first half.
“We played behind the help defense that was flooding. And I thought our recognitions were much better. We made more passes on the perimeter. Diamond’s impact on the game offensively was immense.”
Miller knew it was an area of growth she wanted to make progress in.
“Yeah, like I said, I’m just constantly learning as I go. And I know they’re loading up really a lot on my drive and I can feel it now,” Miller told Canis Hoopus postgame. “And instead of getting blocked — it’s still gonna be a journey on that one — but instead of getting blocked, just realizing if there’s three people in there, just kick it out to open person to hit a wide open three.
“And I’m just trying to be an overall player, not just an offensive player but defense and like knowing that I’m not just a scorer, but I’m a playmaker as well. So I just think I gotta continue to keep growing and all aspects of the game.”
As for her scoring, Miller had poured in five straight performances of shooting less than 40% entering Thursday, and Reeve took some responsibility for that pregame, explaining that the coaching staff (herself included) needed to do more to help get Diamond easy looks.
“A lot of the things we do for Phee, we can do for Diamond,” Reeve said, understandably not elaborating on specifics in a pregame setting.
Reeve was clearly alluding to getting Miller involved by posting her up against the Sparks’ smaller, three-guard back-court. Miller a good deal of her time at Maryland in post-up situations and is clearly very comfortable scoring after catching with her back to the basket. Her post footwork and interior finishing angles are both quite advanced for a rookie guard, and she put it on display in the win.
Even when the Lynx weren’t able to find Miller on the block when she was fighting for post positioning, her teammates played behind her and found openings on the back side. This next play is a great example.
Miller spends the whole possession battling with Jordin Canada inside (impressive effort from Canada here, by the way), and at different points of the possession her activity draws into the paint Karlie Samuelson, then Dearica Hamby and Ogwumike, and finally Layshia Clarendon. Getting the attention of all five players on the floor in one possession is A+ work, especially when it creates a driving lane like the one Allen gets here.
Even though Miller doesn’t get the layup to fall, it’s a terrific sign that Miller’s competitiveness and willingness to fight like that can open up opportunities for her teammates to take advantage.
“It’s something she’s very capable of doing. ... She can get there from the perimeter and attack and I think her post game is a pretty darn efficient game. That’s where she gets fouled. I think she’s better at kind of making moves and getting away from a defensive and getting her shot off,” Reeve said.
“I mentioned that we probably called more plays for her in this game than what we have in a while. That was something that I just should have done against Atlanta to try and help Phee. We just weren’t going to make the same mistake twice.”
Miller knows that she can help get the team better looks even if she isn’t taking them.
“When they started loading up like that, that’s when more people can get open shots and easier shots in the game. And that’s one thing that’s really important for our team is just getting easier shots. Because sometimes when we’re playing a team, I’m like, ‘we’re taking hard shots every possession.’ And it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Basketball is very simple when you just look at it simply. When you pass, it’s very simple. So the fact that we have to make difficult shots every time is tough, and it’s hard to win games like that. So if I’m able to help in any way to make it easier on my teammates, I think that’s a win for our team.”
Juhász explained how Miller’s play can impact those around her.
“She’s a very, very tall long guard. And obviously when she has mismatches, it’s just trouble for the other teams. ... I think she’s getting more comfortable getting in there just posting up. Obviously just kind of like attract all the defensive players out there. So obviously that helps the other side getting some easy shots. But whenever she’s there and she has a bit of smaller guard, we’re passing it there, because she’s gonna score.
“But I mean, she’s just getting so much attention because she’s a great, great player. And she helps everybody around her and that’s the best, one of the best aspects of Diamond’s game, that she helps everybody else around get easier shots and just feel more comfortable.”
Beyond her efforts fighting on the block, Miller also made a key offensive rebound and got fouled before making both free throws to take a one-point lead with 2:21 to play. Those are the types of plays Collier has been making all season that will go a long way if the rookie is able to get in the mix and learn from her superstar veteran.
From here, the extremely self-aware Miller is focused on “stacking games” and making sure she doesn’t follow a great performance with a string of poor ones.
“That’s really what I’m working on, is trying to be more consistent for the team because I think when me and Dorka are more consistent, it can really help our win total.”
The Lynx have a quick turnaround as they are back in action tomorrow afternoon at Target Center, where they’ll welcome the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces for a 2 PM showdown fans can watch on ESPN.