August 1, 2023
The Minnesota Lynx are turning learning into winning
Diamond Miller, Dorka Juhász leveling up fast
There was a poignant moment in the Target Center media room after the Minnesota Lynx fell to the Las Vegas Aces for the final time this season, a 98-81 loss on Saturday, July 22.
The loss dropped Minnesota to 10-13 overall, to 1-2 since the all-star break, and to 0-4 against the WNBA’s defending champions. Despite the team’s oft-mentioned 0-6 start, the Lynx had rallied admirably to climb back into playoff position in seventh place in the league standings. Good news. Unfortunately, the bad news was the Vegas loss dropped Minnesota to 1-10 against teams ahead of them in the standings. The worse news: five straight games against such teams loomed on the schedule after their final tilt with the Aces.
“I like learning. I like learning,” Lynx Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations Cheryl Reeve said after the Aces game when asked if she was glad to have the four regular season meetings with the defending champs in her team’s rearview mirror. “Playing against really good teams, that brings out the things that you’re trying to share with players. So when they do it in the game, they go, ‘ah, that’s what the coaches were talking about.’ Yeah, if I’ve got to play (Vegas) four more times, that’s fine. We’ll try again.”
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Now, more than halfway through that aforementioned six-game stretch, the Lynx have yet to taste defeat since that nationally televised matinee on July 22. They’ve ridden a three-game winning streak back to .500 overall and past the Mystics into the sixth spot in the standings.
It’s not the first time Minnesota has threatened to tilt towards a winning record in 2023. Diamond Miller returned from a lengthy hiatus due to an ankle injury in late June and the Lynx immediately won five straight to bring their record to 9-9. The newfound confidence appeared to be short lived as Minnesota took two painful lessons on the chin at the hands of Vegas and the Dallas Wings to head into the league’s midseason intermission.
There have been several key factors for Minnesota’s resurgence, but it’s impossible to ignore the play of Miller, who has been sensational in just about every moment since her return and even more crucial during the current absence of all-world team captain Napheesa Collier.
Mere seconds after Reeve left the podium after the loss against Vegas, Miller stepped to the microphone and echoed the same sentiment as her legendary head coach.
“I know the results of the game, it’s not what I want, it’s not what the team wants, but, as a rookie I feel like it’s just so much fun playing against them,” Miller said after scoring 17 points in 31-plus minutes of battling with perennial all-star Chelsea Gray. “They’re really talented. You know, Phee’s an all-star, and I play with and against all-stars almost every night and that’s really fun for me. I love basketball. I love to be competitive. I love to be like, ‘she’s really good, let’s see what I can do against that.’ I challenge myself and (Gray) is a big challenge for me.”
While the Aces may be in their own tier of mountains to climb, the Lynx have not been short on challenges faced over the past 10 days.
Reeve’s team endured through a high-octane and chaotic clash with the Mystics to come away with a 97-92 victory despite missing Collier for the final four minutes of the game due to a right ankle injury. Miller turned in one of her finest performances in a Lynx uniform to date, becoming the first rookie in WNBA history to post a game with 20+ points, 9+ assists, and just one turnover.
“There’s no other rookie that’s ever done that and she just keeps learning,” Reeve said following the Washington game. “If you look at Diamond, it’s just so refreshing that no matter the moment, she just wants to do well. You can tell her what she did (wrong). She wants to fix it. There’s no objections, a lot like Phee when we had (her) as a rookie. They just listen. I think that’s why she’s improved.”
Miller proved crucial again two nights later in New York, turning in the first ever back-to-back 20-point games of her career in a thrilling 88-83 win against the Liberty. A game in which Miller’s fellow 2023 draftee, Dorka Juhász, shone bright as can be on the W’s biggest stage. Juhász posted her third double-double of the season with 13 points and 10 rebounds, shot 60% from the field, and most impressively, didn’t flinch when faced with the toughest defensive assignment of her young career, helping to hold Breanna Stewart to just 5-of-19 shooting from the field.
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“I told Dorka, you know we keep giving her challenges of these great players to play against, this time I kind of laughed. I said to her ‘you’ve got Stewie,’” Reeve said. “You know, I’m not sure how this is going to go. Dorka was just so excited to play. It’s just so refreshing, Dorka and Diamond enjoying who they’re playing against in the moment.
“Obviously, Kayla McBride’s ability to put the ball in the hole really gave us separation. I just learned (about our team), like Kayla said in the locker room, we’re just, we’re tough, and it was good to see.”
McBride hit 11-of-14 shots in the Big Apple, then turned around and hit 7-of-10 against the Sun in Connecticut two days later to help the Lynx earn another close win, this time against a team they’ve already lost to twice on their home floor. After an ice cold slump right out of the all-star break, McBride is playing her best ball of the season and has hit 22-of-32 from the field over the past three wins. A hot streak perfectly timed right as Minnesota is missing its biggest gun.
“Obviously, Phee’s been having an amazing season,” McBride said. “When somebody like that goes out and all the things that she brings to the table, it’s just bringing our toughness and our level of competition up. For me it’s about finding the right times to be aggressive on the offensive end, but also bringing the toughness in the overall game so that everybody is lifted up. You can’t just replace (Phee) with just one person.”
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The 2023 Minnesota Lynx season hasn’t followed any type of formula to this point. A winding road has brought them to a .500 record and promising playoff position 65% of the way through the regular season. The record against teams higher in the standings stood at 1-10 after the loss to Vegas on July 22 and since then it’s 3-0, with the last two coming on the road against two teams with designs of challenging for the WNBA crown in 2023.
There will undoubtedly be more learning moments for the Lynx ahead, but they’ve clawed their way back into the thick of the action and shown they can beat any team in the league not named Las Vegas. A reality that felt totally impossible as recently as early June.
The Lynx started 0-5 in May, they went 6-4 in June and beat up on a number of teams they were expected to beat. They improved to 7-4 in July and beat the two best teams in the Eastern Conference to cap off the month. As the calendar turns to August, Minnesota Lynx fans should know it’s time to buckle up. No matter what the final 14 games of the season hold, it’s a certainty it won’t be boring.
Written by Terry Horstman
Terry Horstman is a Minneapolis-based writer and covers the Minnesota Lynx beat for The Next. He previously wrote about the Minnesota Timberwolves for A Wolf Among Wolves, and his other basketball writing has been published by Flagrant Magazine, HeadFake Hoops, Taco Bell Quarterly, and others. He's the creative nonfiction editor for the sports-themed literary magazine, the Under Review.