September 17, 2020 

‘It’s a big deal’: Chemistry paves route for Lynx’s postseason success

How Minnesota overcame Sylvia Fowles' injury, and what they can accomplish now that she's back

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The Minnesota Lynx a playoff dinner on the water and an extended break after earning a first-round bye in the 2020 playoffs. Photo credit: Minnesota Lynx Twitter account, @minnesotalynx

It was a much-needed night.

After battling through an unprecedented, unexpected, unheard of regular season in the bubble, the Lynx capped off their regular season like they always do: with a playoff dinner. But unlike previous playoff dinners, Monday night’s came after playing every other day for seven weeks and receiving few moments to escape from basketball.

The Lynx weren’t literally allowed to escape from basketball Monday night, of course. Their playoff dinner was still held inside Bradenton’s IMG Academy campus where WNBA teams have been living for over two months. But instead of spending the night game planning for a first-round, single-elimination playoff game, the Lynx earned a night to just enjoy one another off the court.

“It was so fun. It was such a good night,” said Rachel Banham after confirming her ribs were still intact after her blooper-reel dive. “We really needed it just to get away from the court and not think about basketball and just enjoy time together. We were dancing on the boat and obviously I was belly-flopping. It was a really, really good time.

“I think every team kind of needs that in a regular season but definitely when you’re in a bubble, you just need time to have fun and unwind a little bit and then get back to focusing on the game. It was perfect.”

“I think the best part was our blooper video,” Crystal Dangerfield said. “We had some goofy moments shown to us, starting all the way back when we first got here. It’s just crazy to see how far we’ve come. This season has obviously been a shortened season, but there was a lot packed into this, and it was fun to see that, and then we can unwind and just enjoy each other’s company before we get into playoffs.”

“It was so fun, because we always talk about how our chemistry is so great. It’s like hanging out with 11 of my closest friends. You know, more than 11,” said Collier while making sure to acknowledge her appreciation for the Lynx’s coaching and PR staff. “It was so much fun. And I’m glad we got that bonding time, especially going to the playoffs. Because I am so proud of what we achieved. So it’s nice to kind of take a step back. The season goes by so fast you don’t really get a chance to really appreciate all that you’ve done. So it was nice to acknowledge that where we got is really commendable. It’s a big deal.”

The Lynx have goals beyond finishing the regular season 14-8 with a first-round bye in the playoffs, but finishing fourth in the league despite playing without Sylvia Fowles for 15 games was worth a night of commemoration — even to Cheryl Reeve’s standards.

“The team enjoyed the heck out of it,” Reeve said, “and they deserved every second of it.”

Because, as any team will tell you, the 2020 WNBA season hasn’t been easy.

On a scale of “flying by” and “never ending,” Reeve said the 2020 regular season fell somewhere in the middle.

“It flew in that we haven’t been here that long,” said Reeve after her team’s final regular-season game. “With just the every-other-day nature of this thing, there certainly was an element of monotony. I think both the NBA folks would tell you that as well as here, and that’s why I said you cannot give our players enough credit and certainly the entire league in how difficult this situation is. We love playing the game, but it took a lot of digging deep at certain times to try to fight through some of the monotony. Literally every other day, your days were identical in what you were doing.

“It’s what you would expect. There were some challenges.”

Finding Success Without Fowles

One of the greatest, on-court challenges the Lynx faced presented itself on Aug. 13 when star center Sylvia Fowles worsened a calf injury that would keep her sidelined for the Lynx’s remaining 13 regular-season games. The Lynx were 6-2 and boasted the third-best record in the league at the time of Fowles’ injury.

FLASHBACK: With Sylvia Fowles out, what’s next for the Lynx?

The Lynx’s 6-2 start to the season was a surprise to some (or most) even with a healthy Fowles, so when they remained a top-four seed at the end of the regular season, Reeve rightfully emerged as a top Coach of the Year candidate.

The Lynx recorded the league’s best offensive rating (111.3) and third-best net rating (6.1) despite their defensive struggles during Fowles’ absence. Not only did their final 8-5 stretch secure them playoff spot, it also allowed them to bypass the first round of the playoffs and give Fowles more recovery time. She’s now expected to make her return in Thursday’s second-round playoff game against the Phoenix Mercury, another team that has exceeded its expectations without its star center.

Fowles was listed as “QUESTIONABLE” in Wednesday’s injury report and practiced with the team on Tuesday and Wednesday. Attempting to reintegrate Fowles into the Lynx’s rotation is probably the best problem to have in 2020, but given the Lynx’s recent offensive success without their true center, her reintegration is at least worth mentioning.

“It’s one of those things that we certainly want Syl back in the fold, but you also have to kind of recall what were you doing before, what was our mindset back then,” Reeve said. But that’s pretty simple. Players aren’t thinking about that kind of stuff. But I think we’re defensively really going to get a big boost if we can have Syl out there.”

Fowles’ defensive presence is enormous. The Lynx held the second-best defensive rating (94.6) in the league before Fowles’ injury but dropped to fifth-best (101.7) by the end of the regular season.

Pivot Analysis lineup explorer shows that the Lynx shot 59.3% at the rim while their opponents shot 64.8% in the same area (-5.5% net) while Fowles was off the court. In contrast, the Lynx shot 65.7% at the rim and held their opponents to 55.4% shooting at the rim (+10.3% net) when Fowles was on the court.

Lynx and opponents’ shooting profiles with Fowles off the court. Screenshot from Pivot Analysis.
Lynx and opponents’ shooting profiles with Fowles on the court. Screenshot from Pivot Analysis.

“Offensively we’ll fine-tooth comb the areas that we were really good, and we’ll look at our rotations to make sure that when Syl’s not in the game that we’ve got a combination that brings out all the good things that we were doing without Syl,” Reeve said.

The Lynx’s improved 3-point shooting was largely responsible for the boost Minnesota offense saw without Fowles, one of the most effective scorers in the league.

The Lynx were shooting 33.5% (ninth in the league) from three-point range where they only recorded 25.2% of their scoring (seventh in the league) before Fowles’ injury. In the final month of the regular season, the Lynx shot a league-best 41.6% from deep and recorded 31.9% (fourth in the league) of their scoring from behind the arc.

The uptick in 3-point reliance isn’t a knock on Fowles’ presence, of course. Rather, it was a much-needed skillset the Lynx expanded to stay afloat without her — and one that should provide Fowles with more room in the paint than she ever had in 2019.

Going Big Against Phoenix

The biggest question regarding Fowles’ reintegration comes with moving Napheesa Collier from the starting 4 to the 3.

Without a true center who rarely made her way to the perimeter, Collier was free to roam the paint and perplex opponents with her swift back cuts. She found quite a bit of success at the rim where Damiris Dantas — who technically took over at center but served as more of a distributing, stretch-4 in Fowles’ absence — sent lob passes to her from beyond the elbow.

But, as if it couldn’t be overstated enough, reintegrating Fowles and moving Collier to the 3 presents more pros than cons for Minnesota — especially when doing so against a team like Phoenix.

Minnesota and Phoenix split their regular-season series 1-1 without either Fowles or Brittney Griner. The Mercury matched Kia Vaughn on Damiris Dantas and were able to keep Brianna Turner in the paint where she handled Collier’s interior game better than most defenders have this season.

Turner’s interior defense has been impressive this season as she’s matched A’ja Wilson’s league-leading 2.0 blocks per game. How would Phoenix’s interior defense be impacted if she’s dragged out to the perimeter once Minnesota moves Collier to the 3? If Phoenix decides to match Vaughn on Fowles and Turner on Dantas (a matchup that would still bring Turner out to the perimeter), who accounts for Collier?

The Mercury started three guards in their 85-84 first-round victory over the Washington Mystics on Tuesday, but asking 5’9 Shatori Walker-Kimbrough to defend 6’1 Collier can’t be a consideration. The Mercury could start bigger by adding forward Alanna Smith to the starting lineup, but it’d be the first time they’ve done so all season.

Even in the small sample size in which she did play the 3, Collier found her backdoor looks when the Lynx ran with Kayla Alexander, Damiris Dantas in their Aug. 21 matchup against Phoenix.

Screenshot from WNBA.com League Pass of Aug. 21 game between Minnesota and Phoenix

Regardless of where Collier plays, she’s going to get hers.

“I had to switch to the 3 last year,” Collier said. “And our offense, the way it works, the positions are pretty interchangeable. So the 4 is on the perimeter a lot anyways. I don’t think it’s going to be that different. And having Syl on the court with us is such a huge help anyway, I think it’s going to be really great. Might be some growing pains, but I’ll figure it out pretty quickly, I think.”

Limiting The Backcourt

With Fowles, Minnesota has a clear advantage in the frontcourt. Phoenix’s counter? One of the best backcourt duos in the league.

Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi have combined for an average of 41.4 points per game since Griner’s departure from the bubble, have averaged a combined 11.6 free-throw attempts per game and have both shot over 37% from 3-point range in that 10-game span.

“They’ve been pretty darn good as a backcourt duo. Just a handful,” Reeve said. “You pause on one they’re going to make you pay. They’re in sync with one another. Taurasi is so good at understanding how fast to get the ball into someone’s hands to take advantage of what the defense is doing. So I think DT has been really good for Skylar.”

Have fun with your first WNBA playoff matchup, Dangerfield!

The rookie point guard averaged 19.5 points, 2.0 steals 1.0 assists and 26.8 minutes of playing time against the Mercury in the regular season but played an uncharacteristic low-energy first half in the two teams’ Aug. 30 matchup.

“I definitely wasn’t happy with the way I played in the first half,” said Dangerfield after her team’s Aug. 30 loss. “I think my low energy kind of carried over to the team, so I take responsibility for what happened in the first half.”

Dangerfield knows allowing Taurasi and Diggins-Smith to dictate the pace won’t be an option come Thursday. Single-elimination games aren’t exactly a foreign concept to the UConn alum.

“Single elimination is not new territory, it’s just a different stage, and the goal is to win every time we go out on the floor, so that’s what we’re trying to do,” Dangerfield said.

“Everybody’s been talking to (Dangerfield),” Sims said. “At this point, she’s shown us what she can do on the court. We’ve told her that every possession matters, every turnover, every loose ball, every rebound, taking plays off, everything like that matters in playoffs. But besides that, she’s ready.”

But as the Lynx’s regular season has proven, their postseason success won’t be contingent on one player’s success — it’ll take a full-team effort.

Their WNBA scoring record of six players scoring 25-plus points in a game during a season proves their depth. Their boat night hinted they’ve fostered a team atmosphere where players and coaches enjoy spending a rare, free night together. Their fourth-seed shows how vital their all-together mentality has been while finding their way in the bubble without Fowles’ on-court presence.

“I don’t want the chemistry that’s good chemistry when you’re up 10 and you’re going to win. I don’t want that,” Reeve said. “I want chemistry when things are tough, in terms of how you respond to it, and that’s what we’re saying this group has done.”

Written by Katie Davidson

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