The Minnesota Lynx returned back to Target Center off a 2-0 road trip in front of a raucous crowd eager to see their team avenge last month’s loss to the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Aliyah Boston, and the Indiana Fever.
After a back-and-forth affair in the first half, the home team pulled away to do just that, and extended their winning streak to a season-high four games in the process with a 90-83 win. Wednesday night’s win pushed Minnesota to an 8-9 record, good for a tie with the Chicago Sky for the sixth spot in the WNBA standings. The Lynx’s 7-3 record over their last ten games is the third-best mark in the league, trailing only the Las Vegas Aces (9-1) and New York Liberty (8-2).
The team’s 8-3 response to an 0-6 start has been a complete 180 from the Lynx team we saw play with an evident tightness and angst, withering themselves down from the grind of trying to win games ugly and coming up short. It starts with the spirit of the team that has been instilled by team captain Napheesa Collier and well-respected veteran leader Kayla McBride.
“We have great people in our locker room. We have people with a lot of confidence. We genuinely like each other. And I’m not saying it like that, but I’m saying at this level, it’s hard to find 12 people that like genuinely like each other,” McBride said postgame. “I think that we’re just very particular in the way that we do things. We don’t get too high and don’t get too low. I think we just may have to kind of find ourselves the way that we have to on our own time. And I think that’s the beauty of it.”
“We want to do well for each other. So when we see someone doesn’t have energy or we see something going wrong, we try to lift each other up because it’s not ‘I’ out there, it’s ‘we,’” Collier explained. “We have people that are wanting to do that, to fight for each other and are not just out there for themselves. It’s really hard to find, like Mac said, people who everyone has bought in because even if one person is not, it’s like a rotten apple in the bunch, it’s gonna affect everyone else.”
“If you walked into our gym when we were 0-6, you wouldn’t know it,” Head Coach Cheryl Reeve added. “We found out a lot about ourselves and we were able to stick with it. We were patient with each other, them with us as a coaching staff, trying to find right combinations. ... All it takes is one person to get sideways and be a distraction for the team, and we just haven’t had that. It’s a really good group.”
While the Lynx know their formula for winning is going to differ from night-to-night, their belief in each other won’t, and they put that on full display in Wednesday night’s win.
Let’s get into how it happened.
The Kayla McBride Game
It was impossible to watch the Lynx win over the Fever and leave the arena or change the channel without feeling a greater sense of appreciation for the player that Kayla McBride is for this team.
On Wednesday, like she does every time the Lynx take the floor, McBride guarded the opponent’s best perimeter player — in this case 2023 WNBA All-Star guard Kelsey Mitchell — and made her matchup’s night at the office extremely difficult. Mitchell, fresh off a 26-point, eight-assist performance against the Sky on Sunday, scored seven points on 10 shots, and created just seven points off assists.
“I know that, because Mitchell is an All-Star, she’s an amazing scorer, one of the best scorers in this league, you just don’t want to let her get hot,” McBride told Canis Hoopus postgame.
“Between me and [Lindsay Allen], I think we just kept switching it up. I would guard her for four or five minutes, she would take her for four or five minutes, and we just had an awareness. I think this has been who we’ve been the last couple games against whoever.”
Reeve said she couldn’t take McBride out because of the defense she played all night long.
“Her hustle plays, her giving up herself physically, you know, certainly when shots go in, but she’s been doing it without her shots going in. So, she’s been a leader in that area,” Reeve told Canis postgame, before explaining the value of McBride’s leadership on that end of the floor.
“That was something that she focused on wanting to be better for with his team as compared to maybe to last year’s defense. We trust K-Mac on every team’s best perimeter player. She knows them so well. ... We needed every bit of what she did today.”
The way McBride combines a veteran’s preparation with palpable pride in her defense doesn’t go unnoticed by her teammates.
“It’s honestly such a pressure release because we know that we can count on her,” Lynx star Napheesa Collier said to Canis postgame. “We need a lockdown defender on our team. So I know that whoever she’s guarding, she’s going to take care of her person and then we just got to worry about the rest of us and making sure that we’re doing what we need to do.”
While her defense is certainly an asset for the Lynx, combining it with intangibles she brings on and off the court truly maximize her overall impact on the game.
“K-Mac’s leadership, and just communication in timeouts, and her calm, and you know, like communicating to teammates, communicating with our staff, ideating on what we should be doing. She’s just really experienced,” Reeve said.
“Her calming presence is always super appreciated because throughout the game we have highs and lows, but she’s always out there like calming us down, telling us what to get in,” Collier added. “It’s just super appreciated. I can’t say enough about how much that affects us on the court in a positive way.”
Reeve added that McBride learned the most from the grind and struggles of last season and wanted to use that as fuel for change as a leader in 2023.
“When things are going bad, it’s so easy to like kind of internalize. And I think I caught myself doing that a lot last year,” McBride admitted. “No Phee, injuries, things like that. Syl’s last year. You could just feel the stress and the tightness of it. And I think even being down 0-6, just having in the back of your mind, you want to take that and learn from it.
“So just understanding that you still have control and every possession every play, and just be able to be in the present I think is something that that I’ve really been able to do and I’m trying to give that to them. I think you can see that through the adverse situations.”
Beyond her defensive contributions, the three-time All-Star supported Collier with 21 crucial points, including a team-high nine in the fourth quarter that helped seal the win. After a slow start to the season offensively, McBride credited her activity elsewhere in the game for getting her scoring back on track.
“Being back with Phee, inserting Diamond, Tiff comes in, Tiff goes back out, LA comes in. Just finding my way and then just trying to affect the game in other ways. I think that I get energy from that, especially on the defensive end,” McBride said.
“So just trying to take it for what it is and keep my effort and energy the same and just allowing the game to come to me, because I’ve seen a lot of games, I have a lot of experience. I know enough about myself as a player that I don’t have to worry about my offense. Just what does my team needs me to do and how can I do it at the best level, whether the shots go in or don’t go in. I know who I am.”
McBride finished with 21 points, six rebounds, three assists and a block on 54.5/42.8/100.0 shooting splits in what was certainly her best, most well-rounded performance of the season.
Another MVP(hee) Performance
I’m legitimately running out of positive adjectives to describe just how impressive Napheesa Collier’s offensive impact continues to be for the Lynx offense. The now three-time All-Star and reigning Western Conference Player of the Week led the way with a game-high 32 points, her third 30-point outing in the last four games. Collier serves as the heart of the offense, pumping life and offensive productivity through the rest of the team, who would be in a completely different place without her.
Despite injuries and illness creating a rotating door of players available to play alongside her, the former Rookie of the Year just continues to go about her business, unaffected by what Lynx fans know all too well. Collier described losing Jess Shepard — the team’s leading assister and best connector, who has missed almost a month due to an undisclosed non-COVID illness — as “a hole in the boat” that the team needs to plug.
“You have to get more attention in that area. Like we have to be really locked in on what Jess did and so we can make up for it, like rebounding or being strong in the post, like we have to adjust,” she said, adding the team has done well adjusting.
WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYER OF THE WEEK FOR A REASON pic.twitter.com/fupE5VJCLa— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) July 6, 2023
Perhaps the biggest adjustment has simply been in Collier taking her aggression to levels it has never been at the WNBA level. She ranks second in the WNBA in scoring (25.3 points per game) since Shepard went down and the team is 6-2 in that span.
“I’m just trying to be really aggressive. And honestly, I think we’ve gotten to the point of the season where everyone’s really in a flow like we had so many new people and so just finding out what works for us,” Collier said. “I think just finding where I want the ball on the court and being really aggressive when I get it there.”
Collier admitted that keeping her foot on the gas pedal has been an ongoing battle throughout her career, but now that she knows she can produce at this level, the game is slowing down for her. No matter what defenses throw at her, whether it’s above the break, in the post, on the roll, in the mid-range, in transition; you name it, and she has a counter for it. If she gets doubled on the block, she draws the defender in before making a pass. If defenses are playing in the gaps to take away her drives, she gets more active as a cutter. If she’s a roller in the screen game and plays a team in a drop coverage, she stops short on the roll for a mid-range jumper. If it’s more at-the-level defense, she’ll dive hard or set a ghost screen or slip to the rim. And, more simply, if defenses give her space, she makes jumpers.
Her scoring simply feels inevitable, to the point where you aren’t surprised when it’s the third quarter, and you look at the box score to see Collier already has 27 points with five minutes left in the quarter.
Reeve said she didn’t know what she’d get on Wednesday from Collier, who didn’t seem like herself in practice or in shootaround coming off the road trip. The Lynx star responded with a cool 32 points, eight rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block in just 32 minutes of action.
“I felt really focused just because she made an emphasis after shootaround that our energy was down and she was worried how we were going to come out in this game,” Collier explained. “You can feel it when it’s like that and you just have to be extra aware of it and come out even more locked in than normal. So I tried to get into that headspace.”
If Collier continues to stay in that headspace, the Lynx are going to be a tough team to play for the final two months of the 2023 campaign, and she’ll find herself in the thick of the MVP conversation.
A Diamond in the Rough
2023 No. 2 overall pick Diamond Miller entered Wednesday coming off of three straight games in which she set a new career-high in scoring, but struggled to find that same footing against Indiana. The Lynx rookie, who is notorious for getting off to quick starts, shot 0/3 from the floor in the opening quarter and wore an evident frustration on her sleeve.
“You’ve never arrived as a rookie. You’ve never arrived. You have three great games, you enjoy it. Now the next game is going to be a different journey. And tonight’s game was a little harder for her,” Reeve explained to Canis postgame.
“Short-term memory, just like when you had good games, you haven’t arrived, and what are your takeaways? She knows where she can be better. I think in terms of watching video with her, I think [she needs] a little more patience and getting the ball on the backside to attack close-outs. I thought she was really trying to impose her will on the game, and their defense was pretty packed in. So did she learn a little bit? I think so. I know she didn’t like sitting on the sidelines.”
Miller took only two shots over the final three quarters and finished with more turnovers (three) than points (one). It was evident that the former Maryland star tried to create her own offense at moments it wasn’t there because she wanted to be more impactful on that end. But the great thing about the young rookie is that she has an undying competitive fire and desire to improve.
“It’s rare today that you don’t have players that make excuses as to why. That’s why I continue to say that Diamond has a chance to be anything she wants to be, because she’s self-aware, open to coaching, listens to teammates, willing to be led. And she’s just highly competitive. She knows what she’s doing, and if it doesn’t go well, she’s not afraid to say that and then she’ll get back to a play and try to do it better.”
“Honestly, I don’t think Diamond has a confidence problem, which is awesome,” Collier said in response to a question about how the leaders of the team work to build up the rookie’s confidence after a down game. “Especially as a rookie, that’s when your confidence is honestly the lowest, up and down. She does a really great job of believing in herself, and we do too.
“I think that we’ve tried to tell her like ‘you’re okay, settle down or you got this’ because we do believe in her. We know she’s a great player and she’s young, she’s going to learn from her mistakes and she’s going to have these highs and lows.”
The good news for Miller is that she has two more opportunities in the next 96 hours to get after it again and play the way she wants to. With someone of Diamond Miller’s competitive makeup and indomitable spirit, it’s a good bet that she’ll make her presence felt moments after the ball goes up on Friday night.
The Lynx will host the Phoenix Mercury on Friday night, marking Brittney Griner’s first game in Minneapolis since returning to play in the WNBA. Fans can watch the 7 PM CT tip on Ion.