Fresh off of losing superstar forward Napheesa Collier to a right ankle sprain on Wednesday, the Minnesota Lynx’s outlook looked grim on Friday night after allowing a 15-5 run to the start the game against the star-studded, second-place New York Liberty in Brooklyn.
But like they have for most of the season, Minnesota fought right back with a 7-0 run of their own, after veteran leader Kayla McBride in a timeout huddle made sure everyone knew the Lynx’s flat start was unacceptable. Minnesota then parlayed their punch into a 17-2 run to close the final 6:18 of the first quarter behind exceptional performances from McBride and No. 2 overall pick Diamond Miller and take a 22-17 lead after one quarter.
Minnesota relied all game upon a consistent collective defensive intensity that was evident in the team’s strong ball pressure, crisp rotations and team rebounding, beyond their two best players delivering as scorers on a night their teammates needed them most. The Lynx adopted the fearless attitude McBride and Miller each exude, pairing perfectly with relentless effort on both ends of the court that physically drained a Liberty squad playing on the second night of a back-to-back.
The Lynx controlled the game until Miller rolled her right ankle (the same to which she sustained a sprain that caused her to miss nine games earlier this season) mid-way through the third quarter with Minnesota leading by 15. Miller briefly exited and the Liberty took advantage by scoring five straight points, before a massive Lindsay Allen 3 buoyed the lead back to 13 and secured the Lynx a 12-point lead entering the fourth.
After the lead reached 15 once again by way of a McBride 3-pointer at the 7:47 mark, the Liberty looked out of gas and the game out of reach. New York then rifled off a 14-0 run to cut the game to one with 2:57 left, capped off by a pair of tough, momentum-swinging jumpers from Sabrina Ionescu, who led the Liberty with a game-high 31 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and five stocks.
The tone of the Lynx timeout huddle after the shot above was far different from the first, with McBride still at the center of things in Collier’s absence.
“When they’re coming back like that, [the message] was really just, ‘Don’t panic.’ I felt like we had done enough throughout the game that we deserved to win the game, so ‘Go out and take the game,’” McBride told Canis postgame.
Miller heard the message loud of clear.
This is exactly the type of game that shows the world how special Diamond Miller is.— Canis Hoopus (@canishoopus) July 29, 2023
Without Phee, as the focal point of the defensive gameplan...
✅ 6/15 FG | 2/5 3PT | 8/11 FT
✅ 5 rebounds
✅ 2 assists
✅ +7 in 34 minutes
“For Diamond, she’s probably thinking why not? ... What’s the worst thing that’s gonna happen, miss again?” Lynx Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations Cheryl Reeve said postgame, praising her rookie’s mindset. “[Diamond has] belief in herself, likes the big moment. She had a lot of family here so I think that was really fun for her.”
Miller added four more free throws to help her team earn a hard-fought 88-83 win on the road without its superstar, finishing with 22 points, five rebounds, a pair of assists, a steal, and an impressive 8/11 tally from the free throw line.
Let’s get into the takeaways
A Vintage Kayla McBride Performance
There are likely few things Lynx fans enjoy more while watching their favorite team play than a ‘Kayla McBride Game.’
After shooting 6/28 (21.4%) from downtown in the team’s previous five games, one of the league’s elite 3-point shooters was due — in every sense of the word — for a breakout performance. The veteran came through when the team needed her scoring and calming, two-way veteran presence most, without Collier. Perhaps fittingly, this was the last post McBride made on Instagram before stepping on the floor on Friday night.
The three-time All-Star came out with a palpable confidence and swagger. She started 2/2 from beyond the arc and maintained a rhythm throughout the night, delivering a season-high 26 points on 11/14 shooting, including a season-high-tying four made triples.
“[McBride’s mindset] was contagious. Once we got our footing and made some shots in the first quarter, then we really gained some confidence,” Reeve told Canis postgame. “Kayla carried us there making shots, and we battled pretty well defensively to kind a little separation.”
“I knew I had to be aggressive from the jump. So, obviously, I made my first one off of something that was super simple. ... When I do stuff like that, I know that I feel the game and the flow of the game. ... when you see the first one go in, the rim immediately gets a little bigger,” McBride said on the podium. “I believe in the law of averages and I know that I’m a great shooter, so I just continue to shoot my way through it. But yeah, it’s good to feel good.”
No stranger to adversity, the former Notre Dame star welcomed the challenge of leading a young squad into an improbable situation.
“I know that I’m capable,” McBride said. “Obviously Phee’s been having an amazing season, but when somebody like that goes out, with everything she brings to the table, it’s just bringing our toughness and level of competition up.
“For me, it’s about finding the right times to be aggressive on the offensive end, but also just bringing the toughness in the overall game so that everybody is lifted up. Because, like I said, you can’t just replace Phee with one person. ... our whole toughness as a group is [what brought us a win]. That’s what I was most proud of.”
Kayla McBride needed another resurgent game and delivered in the biggest spot of the season— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) July 29, 2023
• 26 points
• 11/14 FG | 4/7 3PT
• 5 rebounds
• 4 assists
• 0 turnovers
• 1 steal
• Terrific defense all night long
Best game of her 2023 seasonpic.twitter.com/Dg7DAfNWzP
Reeve was also quick to praise McBride for the way the 10-year veteran embraced the Lynx’s two rookies this season — a key factor in the team winning.
“McBride’s influence as a veteran, it’s been nice to see her embrace the young players. Sometimes the old dogs don’t like the puppies, they find them annoying. K-Mac thinks they’re cute, so she plays with them, she’s patient with them, and she gets a kick out of them, with some of the stuff that they do — Diamond in particular.” Reeve said, unable to hold back a laugh.
“She gives. Every timeout, every stoppage of play, she’s helping them consider the play calls and why [they were called]. The play may not be for K-Mac, often it’s for her to set up Diamond, or for the team to be successful. ... I think leadership wise, Kayla’s had a huge impact on Diamond and Dorka.”
Rookies Shine on The Big Apple Stage
It may seem hard to believe at this point given how much Miller and Dorka Juhász have played and contributed in clutch-time moments for the Lynx this season, but they are still rookies, and the way in which they are producing for first-year players is incredible.
While most rookies across the league have had a tough time making rosters and playing their way onto the floor for rotation minutes, Juhász and Miller are thriving. They rank second and third, respectively, in win shares added among rookies, and are locks to make the WNBA All-Rookie Team, for reasons on full display Friday night in New York.
Miller was atop an opposing defense’s scouting report for the first time this season, but you wouldn’t have known it with the way she found success early. The No. 2 overall pick in April’s draft combined with McBride to score the team’s first 12 points, and sparked key runs with important bounce-back buckets in the first and fourth quarters that stopped the bleeding against an elite offense.
Particularly in the fourth quarter, Miller draining the biggest shot of the game (the aforementioned 3-pointer) while the Liberty had all the momentum at home — on the heels of the Lynx going scoreless for 5:23 of game time — was something you just don’t see from rookies very often. As if that wasn’t rare enough, when Miller drew a foul to get to the free throw line and essentially clinch the game 1:30 later, she let everybody know about it. The fans. The Liberty players on the bench. The Liberty players on the court. Her teammates. E-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y.
The passion and confidence she plays with is extremely rare for a WNBA star, let alone a rookie thrust into a role asking an unfair amount out of her on the road against a championship contender. It’s Miller’s superpower. And you can bet it fueled her teammates on a night the team was short-handed and needed all the energy they could get to make New York uncomfortable for 40 minutes.
“It’s just a fearlessness that’s contagious. I think her energy and effort and willingness to compete, I mean, our rookies have come in and they just compete their asses off, and that’s just as much energy and effort as it is anything else,” McBride told Canis postgame.
“With Diamond, specifically, her energy and her willingness to put her body on the line, put herself on the line and take those shots, want the ball at the end, shoot those free throws, and things like that, that gives everybody else the confidence,” she continued. “All those things, they add up; I think it’s just the fearlessness and confidence. ... It comes with the chip that she had on her shoulder coming into the like and [that’s] contagious.”
As for Juhász, the No. 16 overall pick stepped up to the plate for quite the challenge on Friday: guarding fellow former UCONN star Breanna Stewart. After getting adjusted in her first stint on the floor, the Pécs, Hungary native was terrific over the final three quarters, helping to hold Stewart to 5/19 shooting (26.3%), the former WNBA MVP’s third-worst shooting game of the season.
“Guarding Stewie is a whole different thing. She’s a post, she’s a guard, she can do everything,” Juhász said after the game, noting how she has matched up with players that have a wide variety of skillsets. “I wanted to embrace [the tough matchup’ because I feel like these are the games when I can really just challenge myself and get better. ... It’s a fun thing for me and it just challenges me to get better and better every single day.”
That mentality and constant desire to improve is what has drawn Juhász praise from her four-time champion Head Coach, and helped her lead a team defensive effort that limited a New York team with two former MVPs in Stewart and Jonquel Jones to 24 points in the paint, tying a season-low for the Liberty.
Juhász finished the game with 13 points and 10 rebounds, to go along with an assist and a steal in 29 minutes.
Beyond that, the way Juhász carries herself with such an emotional maturity shows up big in games like this, going against some of the league’s elites.
“I’m really proud of our even keeled-ness, especially from the rookies,” McBride said postgame. “It’s actually kind of unheard of to have rookies come in and just kind of be able to weather the storm.”
Fresh off of signing a seven-day contract Friday morning, sophomore forward Emily Engstler played a phenomenal first half in front of friends and family in what was a homecoming game for the Queens, New York native. Unfortunately, Engstler sustained a significant blow to the left shoulder when Liberty forward Kayla Thornton dove for a 50/50 ball; as Thornton made a play for the ball, she accidentally twisted Engstler’s left arm, further compounding the pain the Lynx forward was in.
Engstler left the game and did not return with what the team called a shoulder injury. Reeve did not provide much of an update beyond confirming Engstler sustained a left shoulder injury, offering well-wishes to the 23-year-old and stating she was proud of how the former Louisville star played in front of the fans there to support her.
Miller left the game and went back to the locker room briefly, but returned to the game after about 10 minutes of real time. Reeve said that Miller will be sore but that she believed her star guard was ‘fine.’
Minnesota will release a status report for Sunday’s game on Saturday afternoon.
The Lynx will continue their road trip this weekend for a pair of games at Mohegan Sun against the Connecticut Sun, the first of which will come Sunday at 12 PM on CBS Sports Network and Bally Sports North Extra.