From the moment the ball tipped on Saturday night at Target Center, New York Liberty superstar Breanna Stewart imposed her will on the Minnesota Lynx defense, leaving no doubt that she was the best player on the floor.
Stewart scored 12 straight points in the first quarter, leading a personal 12-3 run to give the Liberty an early 14-5 lead and put the Lynx in a hole that the home team couldn’t dig out of. Even as the Lynx began to buckets together with excellent ball movement and converting open shots in the back half of the frame, they couldn’t keep pace with a dynamic scoring machine and trailed 28-20 after one quarter. Lynx star Napheesa Collier didn’t get aggressive early enough in the quarter, as she didn’t take a shot until until the 5:49 mark of the quarter. Stewart nearly outscored the entire Lynx squad herself, putting up 17 in the first period.
New York’s offensive firepower absolutely obliterated a Minnesota defense that offered little resistance on the perimeter, frequently failing to stop the ball in transition, which resulted in Stewart walking into wide open 3-pointers and guards walking down the red carpet for layups. The Liberty’s ball movement was world class, as they swung the ball from side-to-side quicker than the Lynx could move, passing up good shots for great shots and making sure everyone was involved in a special output.
Head Coach Sandy Brondello’s squad put up 37 points in the second quarter alone on 16/21 shooting (76.2%), including 5/6 from deep, all while not turning it over and not scoring a single point from the free throw line. Three players scored at least nine points, as Stewart (10), Sabrina Ionescu (10) and Betnijah Laney (9) combined for 29 points on 12/16 from the floor (75%). New York scored an astounding 1.54 points per possession in the first half, fueling a 65-35 lead at halftime and all but wrapping up a win after 20 minutes of play.
“We didn’t play any defense. They made 3s. Their pace, they outpaced us, we didn’t pick up in transition, 28 points in transition. I mean, we just didn’t do anything defensively,” Lynx Head Coach Cheryl Reeve said of her team’s defensive performance. “[We struggled to defend on the perimeter] from the very first possession. So we didn’t guard one-on-one, our low defender help was non-existent. Pick-and-roll defense was terrible. Just everything. Everything.”
Stewart herself delivered 27 points on 9/11 FG in the first half alone, seemingly without breaking a sweat.
“She’s a really good player. A great player. I think great players when they’re in rhythm, it’s really hard to stop that,” guard Aerial Powers said postgame. “You have to not let them get in their zone. And I feel like she got in her zone really quickly. When a player like that gets in her zone, it’s really hard to stop them.”
The lone bright spot for Minnesota was Diamond Miller finding more of an offensive rhythm throughout the first half, as she connected on a pair of catch-and-shoot triples and generally looked much more comfortable moving off the ball in the half-court. She continued that into the second half, playing with the bench in an effort to get more game action reps. Miller finished with 18 points on 7/12 shooting, including an excellent 4/7 on her 3-point attempts.
“I’ve just been working like every day on my shot, trying to be more consistent and stuff like that,” Miller told reporters postgame. “So I’m happy she gave me time to grow as a rookie today. But yeah, I work every day, so I’m happy they went in today. But tomorrow, I gotta go in [and work] again.
“If there’s a bright spot, that’s it, Diamond maybe finding her way a little bit. She’s competitive and wants to improve. She’s been working, and so, good for her to find an opportunity to maybe get some rhythm. We need her, we need Diamond,” Reeve said of the No. 2 overall pick.
The second half was more of the same, but with different players on the floor. Powers — who has been left out of the rotation for essentially the entire season when she hasn’t been injured — got considerable run, scoring 15 points on an efficient 5/8 shooting and 4/4 from the free throw line, but all of her production game with the end result already decided.
Stewart finished with a ridiculous stat line of 38 points on 12/17 shooting (6/8 from 3 and 8/8 from the free throw line), 11 rebounds, two assists and zero turnovers, a pair of blocks, and she recorded a +36 in 27 minutes, leading the Liberty to a 111-76 blowout victory.
“She’s really talented. I mean ... some of her shots we could’ve contested better, whatever the case may be. But some of those shots were hard shots, where they were over sometimes three people, over Phee, and Phee’s really long. She’s tough,” Miller said of the Liberty star. “I mean, she’s in the running for MVP for a reason because she’s really talented.”
Miller shared a moment with the five-time All-Star in the second half, getting to talk to Stewart for a few moments during a delay before a Liberty player shot free throws.
“I think my teammates know. It’s no secret. I really like her game,” Miller told Canis Hoopus about the interaction. “I’ve been watching her ever since I was little, so seeing her like be on the same court as her is like ‘Wow, a little bit.’ I’m not trying to fangirl but I really do like her game and I just told her, ‘I like your game.’”
The Lynx will get a day off on Sunday before hitting the road to take on the Washington Mystics on Tuesday in our Nation’s capital. Washington, the No. 7 seed, defeated the first-place Las Vegas Aces 78-62 in Washington, D.C. on Saturday night, pulling within half a game of the No. 5 seed Lynx, so Tuesday’s matchup will carry some major weight in the playoff picture.
After that, the Lynx will host the No. 6 seeded Atlanta Dream and last place Phoenix Mercury on Friday and Sunday, respectively, before closing with road games against the Chicago Sky and Indiana Fever, two more lottery teams. Minnesota will likely have to go 4-1 over that stretch if they want to catch the No. 4 seed Dallas Wings, who are currently 1.5 games up on the Lynx.
Minnesota has all but locked up a playoff spot, but where they fall in the seeding will be crucial. Drawing Las Vegas in an 1/8 matchup or New York in a 2/7 would be a nightmare, but they could certainly upset the No. 3 seed Connecticut Sun (they’ve already won in Connecticut this season without Collier), and have shown the ability to beat both Dallas and Washington on the road.