The No. 6 seed Minnesota Lynx opened their 2023 WNBA playoff journey on the road Wednesday night, taking on No. 3 seed Connecticut Sun in Uncasville.
One of the major separators coming into this series is the disparity in playoff experience between the two squads, both in terms of which players have taken the floor in the playoffs, and in the way that the core of this Sun squad has been together now for four playoff runs in a row. That took center stage early in Game 1.
Minnesota struggled with Connecticut’s signature aggressive, at-the-level ball screen defense, which often sends two to the ball and penalizes teams for slow decision-making, and couldn’t keep pace with a red-hot Sun 3-point attack out of the gates. The Lynx committed three turnovers and allowed three offensive rebounds early, fueling the Sun to get out to a major advantage in total shot attempts.
Down 14-7 late in the quarter, Lynx veteran Kayla McBride — who has played in a team-high 16 playoff games — changed that by scoring nine straight for her squad to end the first quarter and get Minnesota back within two, 18-16. She told ESPN’s Holly Rowe in a post-quarter interview that the team’s inexperience showed, especially on offense, and that she stepped up to calm everyone down with her scoring. That was crucial considering three-time All-Star Napheesa Collier started slowly, scoring five points on just three shot attempts in the opening frame.
The Lynx continued that strong play into the second quarter by way of getting to the free throw line. Aerial Powers, McBride, and Nina Milić combined to shoot 6/6 from the charity stripe in the first 1:25 of play, successfully make up for the gap in total shot attempts and Connecticut’s 3-point shooting, and gave Minnesota a 22-20 lead. From there on, it was all Sun.
Ty Harris, who lit the Lynx up for 17 points on 8/12 shooting in the two teams’ previous matchup, drained a pair of triples before five-time All-Star DeWanna Bonner and veteran Tiffany Hayes (who was set to be very limited with a left knee injury) added treys of their own to balloon the lead to 34-26 at the mid-way part of the second quarter.
Bench engine and Sixth Woman of the Year candidate DiJonai Carrington then made her mark with terrific transition attacks, aggressive perimeter defense, and energy-infusing plays that quickly turned a seven-point Sun lead into a 16-point advantage as part of an extended 21-3 run over 5:31 of game time in the back half of the frame.
Connecticut led 46-32 at the break on the back of nine made 3-pointers, a franchise record for most triples in any playoff half.
Things only got worse from there, as Associated Press Coach of the Year Stephanie White’s squad began the second half on a 10-4 run that pushed the lead to 20, where it hovered around or grew beyond until the scoreboard read 90-60 at the final buzzer. The 30-point blowout is the widest margin of victory in Connecticut franchise playoff history.
Collier found a rhythm in the third, scoring nine points on 4/5 shooting, but those around her connected on just four of 12 attempts and turned it over four times. That wasn’t going to chip into the Connecticut lead while the Sun continued to knock down 3-pointers in the third quarter and added in six makes from the free throw line to pair. Nothing changed into the fourth, as Minnesota shot 3/16 (18.8%) from the floor and turned it over five times, and the Sun drained all four of their 3-point fires, bringing them to a franchise playoff record 16 made 3s on 30 attempts (53.3%).
McBride led the way with 16 points (14 coming in the first half) on 6/14 shooting, while Collier added 14 points, six rebounds and a pair of blocks. No one else scored more than eight, and only three players made 3-pointers, while five Sun players connected on at least two. Bonner led Connecticut with 17 points, 15 rebounds and six dimes, while Alyssa Thomas delivered 15 points, 10 assists and five steals.
“They scored 30 points of our turnovers and 48 points from the three-point line. That’s 78 of the 90 points. We gotta take better care of the ball, but I think we’ve had to get more aggressive in getting down,” McBride said postgame. “It’s gonna be a collective effort, that’s what it’s been all season long. Everybody chipping in, everybody doing their thing. We gotta leave it all out there on Sunday.”
Minnesota will have an opportunity to get after it again in Game 2 on Sunday and bounce back like they have so well and so often this season.
“It’s a collective with this group. We’ve had hard times before. We’ve gotten smacked before. We were 0-6,” Reeve said postgame. “This team always gets up. We’re not going to not get up.”
“I think the fact that we don’t assign blame on specific people, we really do look at ourselves and see what we can do ourselves. Because of that, we’ve grown so close to the team. We have really great team chemistry, we want to do better for each other,” Collier told Canis at the podium, explaining why the team has been able to bounce back so well this season.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the collective. I think that’s what allowed us to turn our season around and I think that’s what’s going to allow us to play better on Sunday. We’re going to look at what we did, we’re going to see how we can make the team better and then we’re going to execute that.”
Let’s get into the takeaways.
Lynx Guards Struggled Against Pressure
Arguably the biggest key coming into this series was the Lynx guards needing to take care of the ball if they want to have any chance of advancing to the second round. It was certainly the story on Wednesday, as the Lynx turned it over 19 times, including seven by the starting guards and five more from the reserve guards.
“That was awful,” Minnesota Head Coach Cheryl Reeve said postgame, acknowledging that the Sun scored 30 points off turnovers, tying the most a Lynx opponent has scored in a game this season. “Give them credit for how they came out and how aggressive they were. For some reason, we were surprised by that.”
Reeve told Canis Hoopus on Tuesday via phone call that recognizing the pressure early was going to be important.
“In the second game that we played in Connecticut when we were up there for that little two-game stretch, the second game, our recognition of how to handle the pressure is really what hurt us. And so, we have to have an understanding that that’s how they’re gonna play and how to combat it,” she said. “We worked on that, and we’ll see if we can find a way to be productive. Because if you can handle the pressure, you like what you end up with. ... We just gotta find a way to be efficient. We cannot fuel their offense with our bad offense. That’s a huge focus.”
Unfortunately, the Lynx did fuel the Sun offense with their own bad offense. Minnesota’s 19 turnovers is the most they have committed in a game since... August 1 at Connecticut (19 turnovers) and... July 30 at Connecticut (20). The Lynx never looked comfortable in the half-court. Players often took two, three, or four seconds after catching the ball before making a decision about what they wanted to do with it.
“I think that’s confidence.” Reeve told Canis postgame. “[After we took the lead in the second quarter], we just had a stretch there where I think we just started turning it over. Just tried to dribble places and AT sticks her hand in there and steals it.
“They hedged us, jumped out on us on screens, whatever. And we kept putting ourselves in that situation, which didn’t make a lot of sense. And I think then it became, we were unsure of what we wanted to do.”
McBride offered some solutions.
“Just getting more aggressive. ... So when it does get swung, like just attacking and not holding the ball, that’s huge against Connecticut,” she told Canis. “We know how good they are with their pressure and AT and DB jumping out on screens and things like that. We have to get more downhill, and that’s just one of the adjustments we have to make for the next game.”
Minnesota will practice twice over the coming three days in between Games 1 and 2. Finding ways to create more rhythm and confidence on the offensive end is sure to be a key. Reeve was optimistic postgame that the team could figure it out, based on some of their play in the third quarter.
“We had chances where I thought we were starting to get a little more rhythm to what we were doing. And that’s the thing about a series or about the course of a game. You collect knowledge about things that you can maybe use in the next game,” she told Canis. “There were some good things that happened that we’ll try to focus in bring out a little bit more. But ultimately, we’ve got to be confident in what we’re doing. And, like I said, we need more. The players that didn’t necessarily bring it today, I know that they’re disappointed and we’re just all going to work really hard and try to bring it on Sunday.”
Off Nights For Diamond Miller, Napheesa Collier
All season, Napheesa Collier has been the focal point of every opposing coaching staff’s game plan, yet found ways to blow it up and dominate anyways. Her play has often overcome the off nights her teammates experience, a constant undercurrent of the Lynx season. But the playoffs are a different beast that require everyone’s best, Collier’s included.
Unfortunately for Collier, her teammates didn’t have her back production-wise, failing to make up for the three-time All-Star’s slow start. That starts with Miller, who entered Wednesday coming off a two-game stretch in which she scored 35 point on 14/21 shooting (66.7%) to close the regular season. The No. 2 overall pick in April’s draft scored five points on 2/9 shooting, continuing her scoring and efficiency struggles from the regular season games in Connecticut.
In our series preview, I wrote the necessity for Minnesota’s fire-starter — Miller — to play better than Carrington, her Connecticut counterpart. When Miller is on her game, making energy-infusing plays and scoring in transition, the Lynx are extremely tough to beat. But tonight, it was Carrington and her second quarter flurry as a perimeter defender and transition menace that proved to be a big difference in this one.
“It’s been one of the things that we really focused on, letting [rookies Diamond Miller and Dorka Juhász] experience these moments. There’s a growth mindset for our team. We stated that when we started the season,” Reeve said. “And putting these guys in these situations and playoff games is incredibly valuable. And we’ll see what they can do from Game 1 to Game 2. But it goes well beyond those two, that’s going to be necessary for us to be successful.”
Finding ways to get Miller the ball going down hill are crucial, but that’s extremely tough to scheme up given that the Sun hedge hard and often double on ball-screens and dribble hand-offs. Getting Miller into curl actions where a teammate sets an off-ball screen that she can come off of and get a head of steam to the basket will be an option, as will simply looking getting more stops and finding her on the break.
As for Collier, she was understandably disappointed after scoring just five points on 1/5 shooting in the first half.
“I’m disappointed in myself, obviously not how I want to come out for our first playoff game. Just have to learn from it and do better next game,” Collier said. “That’s the beauty about a series is that we get another crack at it. I think a lot of us feel that we wish we could do it tonight even because we’re just, we’re excited to get out there and prove that that’s not the team that we are now. We can do better than that.”
Kayla McBride shows her support for Napheesa Collier after the Lynx Game 1 loss to Connecticut, via IG: pic.twitter.com/wau2DYy6Dn— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) September 14, 2023
Reeve thought that her star was a little too one-dimensional in Game 1.
“She’s gotta be able to score at all three levels and right now she’s only focused on one. So we’re gonna help her identify ways to get easier offense and not so much pressure on her only scoring in the [restricted area],” Reeve explained. “So she’ll be better. And, again, Phee’s never awful. She’s always at least pretty darn solid and she fought and battled her way. But it’s a player that wants to play better for us.”
After Wednesday night, the four-time champion Head Coach is expecting more from everyone in Game 2 to help out their MVP(hee) candidate.
“The locker room was really disappointed, but probably the one most disappointed probably would be Phee, in terms of her own play. She will bounce back. She will be better,” Reeve explained. “And then when she’s better, it’s a little bit easier for K-Mac, a little bit easier for the others. We gotta get some stuff out of Mitchell, we gotta get stuff out of Carleton. ... We need help from everywhere, but our star players have to play better and they know that.”
A 3-Point Barrage
The Connecticut Sun average 7.2 3-pointers made per game (good for sixth in the WNBA), shoot 29.4% of their total field goal attempts from downtown (which ranks eighth of 12 teams), and shoot 36.0% from deep (fourth league-wide). But on Wednesday night, they blew those marks out of the water.
Led by sharpshooter Bec Allen’s 5/6 shooting from distance, Connecticut shot 16/30 (53.3%) on their 3-pointers, a franchise record for makes in a playoff game. If you look beyond Bonner’s 2/9 long range accuracy, Sun role players in Allen, Hayes, Natisha Hiedeman and Harris combined to shoot 14/19 (73.7%) on their 3-pointers — an absurd clip, which all started with Hayes banking in a 3 on the first possession.
“I think we kind of lit a fire in the beginning. They usually, they average seven threes a game and they had nine in the first half. It’s really tough. Once that gets going and gives a team confidence,” Collier explained. “Like [Reeve] said, they were kind of just shooting over us, it wasn’t even from our schemes defense. That’s just something execution-wise and being locked in that we have to fix for next game.”
“There were a couple of hard ones that we kind of go, ‘We’re gonna live with those.’ There were ones that we were standing right in front of somebody six feet off of them and kind of dared them to shoot, good shooters, that we just can’t do,” Reeve said. “Personnel tendencies, that was sort of lacking for us.”
Minnesota, comparatively, shot just 5/25 (20%) from distance and got outscored 48-15 on 3-pointers. It doesn’t matter what else happens in a game; if your opponent scores 33 more points than you from the 3-point line, it’s extremely difficult to win a basketball game, let alone when turning it over 19 times.
The Lynx will have their work cut out for them in Game 2 as they try to force the Sun to play below the 3-point line where long defenders like Collier and Juhász are able to make things more uncomfortable for the Sun perimeter players.
The Lynx and Sun will be back at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville on Sunday for Game 2, a win-or-go-home spot for the Lynx in a best-of-three first-round series. Fans can watch the 12 PM CT tip on ESPN.