The Minnesota Lynx entered the night riding a season-high four-game winning streak built upon great offense, but flipped the script on Friday night, using excellent defense to defeat the Phoenix Mercury 75-64.
Head Coach Cheryl Reeve’s defense held the Mercury to 23/61 (37.7%) from the floor (including just 44% in the paint), moving Minnesota to 145-6 since 2011 when their defense holds opponents to under 40% shooting. All-Star forward Napheesa Collier’s 12 points led the way on the other end.
After an 0-6 start, the Lynx improved to .500 (9-9) for the first time this season, capping off a 9-3 stretch over the team’s last 12 games, which is tied for the second-best mark in the league in that span.
“I think we had a lot of young and new people in the beginning. So I think it just comes with experience. We had more games under our belt and I think we really try to learn from what wasn’t working for us in those first six games,” Collier said, explaining the reasoning behind the turnaround.
“And we have a really coachable team, honestly. We want to get better. We want to do everything that the coaches are asking from us. So, I think just learning from that and then finally clicking just comes with time and experience, building that chemistry on the court because we have so much off the court. So we’re really fighting each other and we want each other to do well.”
Let’s get into the takeaways.
Winning Ugly With Defense
Simply put, this one was a rock fight. Each team scored more than 20 points in a quarter just once, and the teams combined to shoot just 37/96 (38.5%) in the first three quarters.
After setting the league ablaze with three scoring nights of 30+ in her last four games, Collier struggled to find a rhythm offensively, putting up 12 points on 6/18 shooting, tying her least efficient scoring night of the season (also against Phoenix, on 5/25). She admitted postgame that she battled through some tired legs, but her teammates had her back.
“It was an off night, for sure. But I think collectively we had five people in double-digits scoring. So, [we] definitely spread the offense around, which is great. If you have multiple people scoring like that, who are you going to guard?” Collier said. “It was really ugly, but we were able to grind it out, and I think that was because, I don’t know, I thought we played really good team basketball when we weren’t in those slumps.”
The Lynx have proved over the last month that they can win with offense, especially when Collier has it rolling as a scorer. However, in those wins, their defense hasn’t been where they want it to be, so there it value in the Lynx seeing they can win an ugly game with defense like they did on Friday night.
“It is good to win this way. And again, there’s no asterisk beside a W, we’ll take the W no matter what,” Lynx wing Bridget Carleton told Canis Hoopus postgame. “But finding different ways to win, the ball is not always gonna fall. Sometimes our offense is a little shaky and we’re not getting in the right spots for some reason, our legs are fatigued.
“But, always, our defense has to be the consistent piece of that, because that’s effort and just being aware and focused and the little things that you can control and that starts on the defensive end. So, we got that done tonight I think for the most part.”
Reeve agreed with the notion that being able to win ugly has shown how far this team has come from its 0-6 start.
“It feels weird to be disappointed in any way when you win, especially where we came from. We’re certainly not gonna give it back,” Reeve said postgame, with a laugh. “We’re not that disappointed. So it was more of a ‘We know we didn’t bring our best. We were happy to win the game and let’s try to bounce back and be physically more ready to play that game on Sunday,’ because Vegas is coming off of their loss. We’re obviously going to have to play a lot better.”
A key part of that defensive effort was focusing on Mercury shooter Sophie Cunningham, who has given the Lynx trouble in recent matchups, and preventing Phoenix from replicating its performance in a win over Minnesota back in May.
“I mean their energy in that game still stands out to me. Their energy ... and playing in transition, and us not getting matched that sort of thing,” Reeve told Canis Hoopus postgame. “They were just knocking home threes with Taurasi and Cunningham. Cunningham was a focal point of what we were trying to do to make sure she didn’t get going from 3.”
Cunningham shot 1/5 from deep in her 30 minutes and scored eight points, her lowest output this season in a game in which she plays more than 20 minutes.
A Terrific Dorka Juhász Performance
Dorka Juhász has been asked to do quite a bit for her team relative to your average No. 16 overall selection in the WNBA Draft. Instead of letting it consume her like it might some rookies, she has stepped in between the four lines with an evident confidence that shines through in her performance in adverse matchups.
On Friday, the eager rookie drew eight-time WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner, who at 6-foot-9 is one of the only players in the league that towers over the 6-foot-5 Juhász. In order to make the Hall-of-Famer-to-be work, Reeve tasked Juhász with fronting the post to make entry passes as difficult as possible for the Mercury guards. The former UCONN star did exactly that, often forcing Griner’s teammates to throw the ball elsewhere. But on the passes they did attempt, they didn’t have much luck.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how great Dorka was in guarding Brittney Griner tonight. We talked about the way that Syl has guarded her through the years, and I very much have wanted Dorka to fight the post more, not just let it come [on] direct entries, and then have to guard it,” Reeve told Canis.
“She was terrific at getting position, getting around. She believed in what we were telling her. Our ball pressure was was fairly solid and so it was hard to complete the play over the top. I think they got it one time. So, I just thought Dorka was really pivotal in that.”
On top of her excellent performance defending Griner, Juhász collected eight defensive rebounds, stole two passes and blocked another, and drew high praise from her teammates for her efforts.
“We really stopped the ball from coming into [Griner] in the first place. Like, Dorka had eight deflections tonight, which is awesome,” Collier said. “So I thought she did a great job keeping BG on her toes and making it really hard for her on the shots that she did have.”
Beyond her defensive performance, Juhász recovered from a pair of bad turnovers in the first quarter to dish out four assists, and she grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds as well.
“I think what Dorka is learning is that people aren’t guarding her, and so she’s trying to create value. Phee’s obviously going to get the attention, so if you’re going to help off somebody, it’s going to be Dorka,” Reeve explained. “She knows she doesn’t want to stand on the perimeter just jack shots. And so she’s learning ways to make a defense pay.”
One way she’s been able to do that is by successfully throwing high-low passes into Collier while rim protecting centers are away from the basket.
“She has a way about her that she just understands the game of basketball and she’s like adapted very quickly. You don’t have to tell her a lot. She understands already kind of where she needs to be and what decisions she needs to make, and you can see that making high-low passes with Phee,” Carleton explained. “She just has an instinct, and I think that’s a credit to her UCONN experience. The Europeans, I think, they’ve learned a lot at a young age because they played against professionals like all throughout their high school career. And I think that helped her especially in this rookie season.”
Things won’t get any easier for the rookie center as she’ll face a Las Vegas Aces front line of reigning WNBA MVP and Finals MVP A’ja Wilson and two-time MVP Candace Parker on Sunday.
A Big Night for the Bench
During a game in which Collier wasn’t herself and Diamond Miller found herself in foul trouble for most of the game, the Lynx desperately needed good performances from their bench crew if they wanted to come away with a win. Thankfully, Carleton and Nina Milić answered the call when opportunity rang.
Carleton was the first sub off the bench midway through the first quarter and made an instant impact, throwing a dart to Collier down low for an easy bucket. Moments later, she fought amongst the trees for a big offensive rebound to create an open look for Milić, and then hit a cutting Kayla McBride for a floater in the lane.
Bridget Carleton was a nice bright spot for Minnesota tonight:— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) July 8, 2023
• 11 points
• 3/4 3PT
• 2 assists
• 2 offensive rebounds
• 1 steal
• +6 in 22 minutespic.twitter.com/zsMGzzmZQq
Those plays set the tone for what became an important scoring night for her. After a scoreless first frame, the steady veteran made a 3-pointer in each of the final three quarters, and added a pair of free throws in the final period to give her 11 points on the night, the second-best mark on the team.
“I think it was my pink shoes, so those are gonna stay in the rotation,” Carleton joked while talking about her performance.
I asked her if she sensed that the team needed her more on a night when the team’s two best players were struggling.
“A little bit. But I think my mindset going into every game is to be aggressive and to not turn down any shots I have available. Cheryl made that clear to me like coming into the season that she wants me to be aggressive,” she said. “I think in years past I have passed up on shots. And this year, I don’t think I have, which is just the growth I’ve made and just the confidence I have to fire away.”
The Lynx are now 4-1 this season when Carleton shoots five or more 3-pointers in a game, one that should continue if she’s able to scale her efficiency on higher volume.
Milić was right there with Carleton in terms of her bench impact. The fan favorite — who was playing for the second consecutive game with a broken nose and two black eyes sustained during the Lynx’s previous matchup with the Mercury — was aggressive from the moment she stepped on the floor. She put up two shots in the less than three minutes she played in the first quarter, before carrying it into the second frame and attacking one of the best rim protectors in league history, broken nose be damned.
“Nina is honestly fearless. Like she just has the attitude about her. That’s how we knew when she hurt her nose that it was bad because Nina’s tough. So when she’s down, that means something’s hurt. So I think she just has that mentality about her. It doesn’t matter what’s going on,” Collier told Canis postgame.
“She doesn’t even want to wear a face mask, which I’m scared anytime anything goes near her face. ... She knew she was going to be aggressive and go at BG, and obviously it’s always nice when the shots are going in. But I really credit her for staying so aggressive in that, because it’s scary when you hurt your nose like that.”
Reeve admitted this week that the coaching staff earlier this season asked Milić for some grace as they worked through different lineup combinations that may result in the Serbian National Team star’s minutes fluctuating.
“It’s just a nice change [with Milić on the floor]. You have to guard Nina, right? So, it’s different,” Reeve told Canis Hoopus, in what was no way a slight to Juhász. “Nina is a presence. Nina is going to get shots up. Nina is going to be in the paint, she’s going to run the floor. She’s gonna screen, she’s gonna roll. I mean, she took it at BG. I don’t know many post players that have done that through the years, and did it with success.”
“That’s what she gives us. She gives us a player that’s supremely confident in her offense. And, we’ve needed that. Think about the nights that she comes in and gets us double figures.”
Milić’s performance didn’t really need any further validation, but Reeve added postgame that in addition to Nina battling through a broken nose, Milić is also battling shoulder and knee injuries that have hampered her at different points during the first half of the season.
When teammates see a player overcoming that level of pain and discomfort to fight beside them on the floor, not only does it earn their respect, but it makes everyone want to rally around her and play for her. It’s another bullet point in a long list that explains why this Lynx team is finding success. They truly do like each other, which strengthens every player’s desire to help their teammates find success, and lift them up when they don’t. That aspect of this team has been a joy to watch, and a far cry from the Lynx team fans saw wear each other down amidst the grind of last season.
Reeve also shouted out her two hardship players — Kayana Traylor and Emily Engstler — for their play on a night where it was tough to come in and play with confidence in an offensive slog of a game.
“I was happy for [Kayana] Traylor to get a chance to score, because I think she’s been somebody that’s been really working hard and is trying to put herself in position to when she does get the minutes, to be a little more comfortable, and I thought she had a decent stretch with her minutes,” Reeve said.
“I thought Engstler when she was in there for a little bit, she made plays exactly what we’re looking for, driving it into the pain and playing. It’s hard when you’re playing behind Phee to get extended minutes.”
Engstler had a couple of nice assists in her minutes, primarily at the start of the second quarter and end of the third quarter.
Both players have played with a noticeable composure throughout their minutes with the Lynx so far this season, which is incredibly tough to do as a hardship player knowing you will get limited opportunity, let alone extended minutes, to stand out on the floor.
The Lynx have another tight turnaround as they’ll host the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces tomorrow at Target Center. Fans can catch the 6 PM CT tip on Bally Sports North.