June 7, 2024 

Defense defines Minnesota’s early season success

Napheesa Collier: 'We play everyday with joy'

The Minnesota Lynx enter their Friday night Commissioner’s Cup tilt with the Mercury in the desert with a 7-2 record — a mark good enough for the franchise’s best start to a season since 2017. Lynx fans need no reminder how that season turned out, of course. Minnesota currently sits at No. 1 in the Western Conference with seven wins and, after their last win, Lynx head coach and president of basketball operations Cheryl Reeve sits at No. 2 all-time with 307 regular season wins. A big reason for the Lynx’s success so far this season has been their effort on defense.

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“They’re having fun with it,” Reeve said after Minnesota’s 86-62 win against the Sparks in Los Angeles on Wednesday night.

“You don’t know how it’s going to turn out — you build a team in the offseason but until you’re in the trenches and you’re getting together, you don’t know how it’s all going to turn out. I can just tell you that in the first couple days [of training camp], they all knew what their feeling was about each other and being there together. These things came natural for them, particularly the defensive side of it. We’re not perfect. We’ve got shortcomings for sure. We’re going to continue to highlight those and see if we can be self aware and try to improve in some areas both offensively and defensively. 

“What you’re seeing, hopefully you’re feeling it when you watch us play, is that genuine, authentic bond,” Reeve said.

Minnesota’s 2023 season was a roller coaster, but the team managed a return to the playoffs and franchise pillar Napheesa Collier turned in the finest season of her career to date and finished fourth in MVP voting. As the calendar flipped to 2024 and season previews and power rankings alike began popping out of every corner of the W stratosphere, both Collier and the team took exception to the trend of low expectations many members of the media had of the team, several of whom ranked Minnesota as low as ninth in the league. 

“It’s pretty annoying,” Collier said after Minnesota’s 92-79 win against the Dream in Atlanta on May 26. “They do that every single year. I don’t know why. I don’t know why people always count us out every year, but that’s none of our business, honestly. We just have to come in every day to practice and do what we need to do to get better. Come into every game and do what we need to focus on, which is winning. Everything else will fall into place. We can’t control public perception [of] what we’re doing. We can just control what we’re doing. We keep winning and everything else will settle itself.” 

Napheesa Collier and Bridget Carleton exchanging words during Minnesota’s 84-67 win against the New York Liberty on May 25, 2024 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo credit: John McClellan)

Minnesota’s two losses have come in the form of a controversial one-point loss on the road to still-undefeated Connecticut, and a loss at home to the defending champion Aces. The seven wins include a pair of season-opening back-to-back wins against Seattle and a 17-point victory against New York. Strength of schedule metrics per Basketball Reference show the Lynx have played the fourth toughest schedule in the league (1.45) and have the second best average margin of victory (10.67). These numbers are perhaps a surprise to some, but not to Collier or her coach, who held different expectations heading into this season than most of the league’s power-ranking prognosticators. 

“That we would be better than ninth,” Reeve said before the game on Wednesday. “We were pretty sure. I was happy to see some players like [Collier], who has been around since 2019, she laughs and says ‘every year they pick us there and every year we’re outperforming.’ I don’t put a lot of stock into it one way or the other. If they picked us first I’d have something to say I’m sure.”

So how have the Lynx gotten off to the best start since 2017, the final championship season of their 2010s dynasty? It starts with Collier, who adds more fuel to the ‘M-V-Phee’ fire every game, but it certainly doesn’t end with Minnesota’s superstar. 

“I believe it’s one of those things that it’s hard for people to understand the construction of a team that doesn’t include the names that they know, that are the ‘stars’ of the league,” Reeve continued. “We have a star in Napheesa Collier. Napheesa Collier’s carried us. A team can be successful with a star and a lot of really good players around her that don’t have to be top five in the league.

“In free agency this past season we targeted two players that we believed could really help us in Courtney [Williams] and [Alanna Smith] and that’s proven to be true. You never know how things are going to work out exactly until you’re in the trenches, and for now it’s gone okay for us.” 

Minnesota’s current three-game winning streak has been a microcosm of Reeve’s belief in this roster’s construction. Collier’s been spectacular — but sparks, timely baskets and major contributions have come from almost every corner of the roster. 

Collier’s co-captain Kayla McBride has continued to be the trusted bucket she’s always been for over a decade in the league. Her open looks weren’t falling on Wednesday against the Sparks — not like they were in her historic performance earlier this season in Atlanta, anyways — making it a perfect time for Bridget Carleton’s best game of the season. Carleton sank all four of her shot attempts from behind the arc, finished with a season-high 15 points and is currently averaging 6.6 points per game, her highest per game total since the bubble. 

In the previous game, the Lynx found themselves in a tough and closely contested game with the Dallas Wings. Then backup point guard Olivia Époupa announced herself to the league in emphatic fashion. 

“[Époupa] did so good, I really think she was the momentum change when she came in,” Collier said after the win against Dallas. “Steal after steal, deflections, just being such a pest on defense and getting out in transition — I feel like it was neck and neck for a while and she came and just busted the game open for us.”

The 30-year-old French rookie known as ‘Oli’ made four key steals to go with four points and two steals in just over a quarter of playing time against Dallas. Her energy and pace earned her important minutes in the win against the Sparks where she turned in another multi-steal performance and dished out three assists in 10 minutes on the floor. 

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Rookie Alissa Pili sparked a bench performance for the ages in a 95-71 win against Phoenix on May 31. The No. 8 overall pick scored 20 of the team’s 50 points off the bench, shooting 7-of-9 from the field and 4-of-4 from three. 

The pace and potential of players like Époupa and Pili respectively, give the Lynx one of the deepest benchs in the league. A bench that also includes the likes of do-everything guard Natisha Hiedeman (who started 40 games to the Sun last season), second-year sensation Dorka Juhász (who started 27 games for the Lynx last season) and Italian sharp-shooter Cecilia Zandalasini (who was on that 2017 championship Lynx team). 

“I’m just having a lot of fun, it’s just such a fun group,” Collier said. “We come out and I feel like we play everyday with joy. We take so much pride in our defense. This is the best defensive Lynx team I’ve been on and this is my sixth season. It’s so fun. Playing with that mentality, obviously I’ve always loved playing, but the energy that we bring everyday is really contagious. I think it just makes you play with a different level of joy.”

Cheryl Reeve chats with Courtney Williams during Minnesota’s 95-71 victory against Phoenix on May 31 at Target Center on May 31, 2024 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota (Photo credit: John McClellan)

Several numbers jump out when looking at this Lynx collective. Minnesota leads the league in field goal percentage (46.2%), despite not having a single individual in the top ten in the category. They also lead the league in three-point percentage (38.6%) and have three players in the top ten; Smith (tied for No. 1, 50.0%), McBride (No. 5, 45.9%) and Zandalasini (No. 7, 43.5%)

Minnesota also tops the league in assists per game (24.1) and steals per game (10.7), and is second in blocked shots per game (5.9). The steals and forced turnovers are maybe the biggest surprises of the season as one of the team’s biggest pain points on defense a season ago. 

“I think you guys should all write about how we went from a team that could not turn a team over last season and now we have a team number one in steals,” Reeve said before the game on Wednesday. “It’s crazy, right? That is not what we sat around in the offseason and said, ‘you know what, we’re going to put a team together that steals the ball and this is how we’re going to do it.’ We at no point in time have schemed that part of our defense. We were really particular about what we were trying to get done on the defensive side to improve and it has translated into this group’s identity.”

Steals can often be a statistic associated with volatility, but what has not been volatile at all has been the Lynx’s swarming defense at every level of the court through nine games. Just one of many facets making the team’s performance so far in the 15th season of the Cheryl Reeve era feel like a sustainable approach towards championship expectations and much more than just a hot start. 

“I think it’s sustainable because of our defense,” Collier said after Wednesday night’s win. “It’s not like we’re shooting crazy numbers and we’re just on a hot streak offensively. We really rely on our defense … Generally, it’s been really, really good this year. Obviously there’s things we need to clean up — points in the paint for the other team is really big — but the way that we fly around and [provide] help for each other, I think it’s been really good. That’s why we’ve had such a great start. We’re not relying solely on our offense, we’re relying on our defense.”

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.

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