August 15, 2020
With Sylvia Fowles out, what’s next for the Lynx?
Fowles to be sidelined indefinitely
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Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles (34) during the WNBA game between the Minnesota Lynx and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on July 06, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss
The injury bug has manifested into a swarm at IMG Academy, and this time, it came for Sylvia Fowles.
On Friday, the Minnesota Lynx announced center Sylvia Fowles has been diagnosed with a right calf strain and will be sidelined indefinitely.
Fowles missed Minnesota’s first games of the season against the New York Liberty and Los Angeles Sparks due to a right calf injury then aggravated the same injury on Thursday in the first quarter of her team’s game against the Las Vegas Aces.
We know from unfortunate experiences that Fowles’ non-contact injury could have generated a much more daunting diagnosis, but regardless, being without their star center indefinitely won’t be a breeze for the Lynx who are tied for the third-best record in the league at 6-3.
Sylvia Fowles can’t be replaced. That goes without saying. But the Lynx will have to mend the hole left by Fowles’ absence as much as possible if they want to avoid tumbling down the standings.
The Lynx started the season with three co-captains: Fowles, Karima Christmas-Kelly and Napheesa Collier. Christmas-Kelly has since been waived by Minnesota after tearing her right Achilles tendon, and Fowles won’t have an on-court presence for the time being.
The Lynx have never needed Collier to take over more.
So far in 2020, Collier has learned the hard adjustments of a second-year player whose scouting report has been memorized by opponents.
Going into Thursday’s game, Collier was averaging 12.8 points, 4.9 made field goals and 4.1 turnovers per game while shooting 46% from the field. Without Odyssey Sims’ playmaking presence, Collier was limiting herself to driving to the basket as she tried to create her own looks. Gone was the versatility she made look effortless as a rookie.
But things began to turn around on Thursday when Collier assumed her leadership role and recorded a season-high 21 points on 8-for-12 shooting.
Her 21-point, 14-rebound night wasn’t enough to defeat Vegas on Thursday, but it was a strong indication that she’s beginning to find her groove.
“I think I just felt more loose, more aggressive,” said Collier after Thursday’s double-double. “We were trailing for a lot of the game, so I just kind of got out of my head and tried to do what needed to be done in order to cut their lead down.”
Playing loosely will be a difficult task for Collier as she attempts to assume a larger leadership role without Fowles all while opposing teams throw their best defenders at her. But Collier’s success at playing her game will be the biggest determiner of whether her team sinks or swims during Fowles’ recovery.
“She’s showing you who Napheesa Collier is and trying to be our team’s best player,” said Reeve after Thursday’s game. “If we don’t have someone like Sylvia Fowles on the floor, now she’s it.
“Hopefully this is a game where she really gets going because we’re going to need it.”
Expanded scoring roles
But if the Lynx want to remain atop the standings even with Fowles out, Collier can’t be their lone, reliable scoring option.
The Lynx had a below-average offensive rating (100.0) even with Fowles in the lineup, and now they’ll have to try to make up for a lost 14.6 points per game and an effective field goal percentage of 60.9.
After Collier, Damiris Dantas has to be first in line for making up for Fowles’ lost offense.
Dantas is currently shooting a career-low 36.2% on 2-pointers while matching her career-high 40% from 3-point range. On Thursday, six of her eight field goal attempts came from behind the arc, which pleased Reeve.
“We want Damiris to shoot 3s,” Reeve said. “I like the balance of shots. She’s actually more effective facing the basket, shooting shots.”
But if the Lynx plan to keep Dantas along the perimeter, others will need to help Collier fill the gaping hole left in the interior.
Guards will likely be asked to attack driving lanes more often now that they can’t dump the ball to Fowles in the paint, but back-up center Kayla Alexander will also get a chance to create an inside presence for her team if she continues to shoot as efficiently as she did against the Aces.
The 6’4 center is averaging just 2.1 points and 5.6 minutes in her first season with the Lynx but recorded a season-high 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting in the 12 minutes of play Reeve allotted her against the Aces.
“If Kayla can play like she did today, we’ll take it,” Reeve said. “She’s going to get a lot more opportunity. We’ll try different things. We did play a couple of games without Syl, so we’re sort of familiar with what needs to happen and what our rotations will be. Kayla wasn’t playing very much in those other games but obviously will get an opportunity and was starting to get opportunities behind Syl.
“You will see Kayla, and I think if Kayla can be as efficient as she was today, we’ll be in good shape.”
Salvaging the defense
There’s no way around the Lynx defense worsening without Fowles. No one expects them to sufficiently replace the best defender the league has ever seen.
However, they’ll have to be a little more successful at defending without Fowles than they have been so far this season.
According to Pivot Analysis, the Lynx have registered a 98.66 defensive rating in the 311.15 possessions Fowles has played this season. Without Fowles on the court, Minnesota’s defensive rating hikes up to 102.37.
Lynx opponents score 30.7 points in the paint per game on average but have surrendered 37.3 points in the paint per game in the three games they’ve played without Fowles (including Thursday’s game against the Aces).
It can’t be a matter of one player stepping up to fill Fowles’ void defensively. According to Collier, it comes down to improved team defense.
“Syl is great for us on both ends, but on defense, she’s such a long body that it’s hard for people to go against her,” Collier said. “She’s a great defender, so it’s hard for them to shoot over her. Obviously, we don’t have another person like her on our team, so we’re going to have to do a lot of team defense, helping in the paint, making sure we have the backside covered.”
The Lynx have already been through the injury ringer this season, but their greatest challenge still lies ahead.