September 18, 2020
Backcourt perseverance sends Minnesota Lynx to semifinals
'It was our defense that helped us win this game'
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The Minnesota Lynx advanced to the 2020 WNBA playoff semifinals after defeating the Phoenix Mercury 80-79 on Thursday. Photo credit: Minnesota Lynx Twitter account, @minnesotalynx
Thursday night’s Lynx playoff win was the type of game Odyssey Sims had envisioned as she prepared to return to professional basketball after giving birth to her son Jaiden.
The All-Star matchups, the 11 lead changes, the comebacks, the late-game timeouts, and of course, the Lynx advancing in the playoffs.
“It was very hard for me to come back. Very, very hard,” said Sims after Minnesota’s 80-79 second-round playoff win over the Phoenix Mercury. “Been working day in and day out to get here, into the playoffs. Every team we play, it doesn’t matter about seeding anymore. Everyone’s gonna play hard. They’re going to leave it on the floor. They’re gonna give everything they have because nobody wants to go home.
“You kind of saw that drive in us tonight.”
The Lynx came back from a 46-37 halftime deficit to fend off the Mercury who finished their season going 8-2 in their final 10 games. Minnesota outscored Phoenix 23-14 in the third quarter then came away with a ticket to the semifinals by holding off the team that advanced to the second round on a Shey Peddy buzzer-beater in crunch time.
Minnesota jumped to a 74-67 lead halfway through the fourth quarter. Then Playoff Diana Taurasi made her presence felt. Taurasi finished the night with a game-high 28 points, nine assists and four rebounds and was fouled on a made three-pointer, which narrowed the Lynx’s lead to 78-77 with three minutes, 17 seconds remaining in the game.
The Lynx held onto a one-point lead after two timeouts, two play reviews and a missed last-second shot from Skylar Diggins-Smith and rejoiced that once again, they recovered from a first-half hole.
“We don’t want to do it, but we keep coming out not energetic or whatever it may be in our first quarter, and we have to kind of dig our way back,” Napheesa Collier said. “It’s not a level of comfort, but it makes us stay calm because we’ve been in that situation a lot before so we’re definitely not in a panic situation. We stay pretty calm, cool and collected because apparently, that’s just what we do now.”
Phoenix’s largest lead of the game came in the first quarter when Taurasi had eight points in four minutes and her team hit all three of its first three attempts from deep.
The Lynx struggled to find an offensive rhythm early on but were able to stay afloat. Damiris Dantas scored 13 of her team-high 22 points in the first half, and a needed burst of scoring from Rachel Banham helped the Lynx recover from their first-quarter, 12-point deficit.
Meanwhile, Collier, Crystal Dangerfield and Sylvia Fowles shot a combined 3-for-10 from the field at the break.
Collier and Fowles ended up combining for 13 total points on 4-for-14 shooting. Fowles’ frustration was noticeable throughout her first game back since Aug. 13, and she didn’t return after being pulled with 4:28 remaining in the third quarter, logging just 18 minutes, six points, four rebounds and one assist in the game.
“I had every possible concern that a person could have for someone like Syl,” Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve said. “We were going to manage minutes, that sort of thing. Even when it didn’t go her way, we kind of anticipated that … the strength of Phoenix’s defense is in their post play, so it’s not exactly easy to come back against a team like that. We knew it would be pretty physical. She needs some good things to happen to her, and then ultimately, I don’t know what the situation is.
“We’ve seen Sylvia help us from the bench, it’s just not where I want her. In order to be successful, Sylvia’s gotta be on the floor for us. But Syl is tremendously giving, and she’s been a tremendous captain for us this season.”
But the Lynx have found multiple ways to win when having Fowles on the floor wasn’t an option, and in the second half of Thursday’s game, they turned to their starting backcourt.
“Odyssey got us going,” Reeve said. “We kind of laid into them about our pace of play — we were playing so scared, we were playing passive. Odyssey put her team on her back and showed us the pace that we have to play at. She was really efficient in that second half, and we followed her lead. Her and Crystal as a backcourt were really, really good. Phee needed them to pick her up because her matchup was a really hard one tonight.”
After combining for six points on 2-for-10 shooting in the first half, Sims and Dangerfield tallied 25 of their team’s 43 second-half points, shot 11-for-17 from the field and didn’t commit a single turnover in the final 20 minutes of the game.
Sims also recorded 10 of Minnesota’s 20 deflections on the night and was tasked with limiting Taurasi as much as possible.
“I was assigned Diana from the start of the game. She’s good,” Sims said. “I felt like I needed to be better defensively. Our defensive schemes weren’t really working. Our post players were there, but they weren’t up as far as we talked about. She was draining 3s left and right. I tried my best to get a little closer whenever she didn’t have the ball, make sure I just denied her and tried to limit her touches. When Diana has the ball, whether she’s at half court or inside the 3, she’s very, very dangerous.”
Sims helped hold Taurasi to 12 points on 3-for-10 shooting in the second half.
Dangerfield missed all of her six first-half shot attempts but reminded us why she was voted Rookie of the Year after the perseverance she showed in the second half.
“I just said, ‘Shoot it. You’re already 0-for-6, what are you going to go 0-for-7? Who cares? Just keep shooting, we get an offensive rebound,’” Reeve said. “I really, really think that it was Odyssey’s confidence that led to Crystal kind of feeling that and feeling like, ‘OK, they need us to play well right now.”
“O (Sims) just has a lot of energy,” Dangerfield said. “You’re always going to feed off of that. She was big getting steals for us. She led that third-quarter charge for sure.”
The Lynx also relied on improved team defense down the stretch as they held onto their narrow lead. Up 80-79 with 14 seconds left, Collier and Dantas were able to double a driving Diggins-Smith whose pass to Brianna Turner was deflected by Collier. Turner recovered the loose ball, but stepped out of bounds before doing so.
“After all that was said about our defense as we closed the regular season, it was our defense that helped us win this game,” Reeve said.
And it’ll be their defense that will give them a shot against the depth-heavy Seattle Storm who finished the regular season with an 18-4 record and a bid to the semifinals.
“It’s hard,” Sims said. “At this point, at this level, every game from here on out is going to be hard. There’s not going to be a 10-point win, 20-point win anymore. It’s going to come down to five points, two points, one point, last possession where you have to get a defensive stop, last possession of trying to go get a bucket to win the game.
“We beat a very good team, so I’m happy that we’re moving on and we’re in the semifinals.”
Minnesota and Seattle will face off for Game 1 at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday, Sept. 20, and their game is scheduled to air on ABC.