May 21, 2023
How one brutal quarter sank Minnesota Lynx in season opener
Minnesota has more questions than answers at the point guard position
MINNEAPOLIS — In just about every possible way, the Minnesota Lynx’s 77-66 loss to the Chicago Sky on Friday fully embodied any opening-night occasion. There was the usual excitement and anticipation for the curtain rising on a new season. A shiny new hype video played and lived up to its billing. Each player got their own pregame introduction, with the loudest reactions from the crowd of 8,024 coming for rookie Diamond Miller and captain Napheesa Collier.
But in the 40 minutes of gameplay that followed that pageantry, the Lynx went through the highs and lows that are to be expected from a young team opening its season.
The lowest of the Lynx’s lows — a historically bad second quarter — proved too big of a mountain to climb. In their own 10 minutes of hell, they hit one shot from the field (by Collier at the 7:50 mark), turned the ball over 10 times, and were outscored 22-3 despite Sky star Kahleah Copper spending most of the quarter on the bench.
“Do you have all the great stats from that second quarter?” Lynx head coach and president of basketball operations Cheryl Reeve asked with a laugh as she entered the press conference room after the game.
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“It was pretty darn challenging to overcome,” Reeve continued. “I don’t know the historical [record] on the points in the quarter, but the last one I remember … was when the Detroit Shock were playing the Sacramento Monarchs in the Finals. We held them to four in the third quarter to win Game 4.
“I was on the right side of that one. Today, we were on the wrong side of it, and that was pretty tough. Ten turnovers, 6% shooting. That was … obviously very tough to overcome. We won every other quarter, but very clearly we are a work in progress.”
Reeve’s recollection isn’t giving her quite the credit she deserves. The Detroit Shock (for whom she was an assistant coach from 2006-09) held the Monarchs to two points in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the 2006 WNBA Finals. There have also been four regular-season games in which a team scored two or fewer points in a quarter. Reeve and the Lynx were on the right side of one of those games, outscoring the Atlanta Dream 23-2 in the fourth quarter of a 69-54 win on Aug. 3, 2017.
But that statistical rabbit hole will provide little consolation for Reeve and the Lynx in 2023. The team entered training camp with a razor-thin margin for error at the point guard position with Lindsay Allen as the only true point guard on the roster. Allen wasn’t available for the season opener due to a strained right hamstring, so the lead guard duties fell mostly to shooting guards Rachel Banham and Tiffany Mitchell, who combined for seven of the team’s 10 second-quarter turnovers.
“We need someone who’s going to take command. We need somebody that’s gonna kind of go, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to run,’” Reeve said. “Our point guard situation, obviously, is one — as we know, Rachel is not really a point guard. And then Tiffany Mitchell’s, as we know, [the media] kind of jinxed us. We had gotten better play [from her].
“They all were saying the right things in terms of, ‘Hey, we’re not moving.’ We’re standing. We were all saying it and nobody was really fixing it. So I have to look at that. I gotta look at, in those moments, how can I help them to give them, call it a safe word or something, where we go, ‘Okay, let’s just get back to doing something really basic that we know will be really good at.’ And that’s just probably not something we have right now.”
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Despite the second-quarter struggles, there were moments throughout the game that will give the team something to build on. The defensive adjustments after halftime helped hold the Sky to 36.1% shooting from the field, compared with 50.0% in the first half.
The Lynx also did a good job of attacking the basket and getting to the foul line in the second half, attempting 15 free throws to Chicago’s two. They didn’t commit a single turnover in the final quarter.
The Lynx’s offense was at its best when it flowed through center Jessica Shepard. She led all players with seven assists (two off of her career best) to go with her eight points and eight rebounds, and she played all but 55 seconds of the second half.
“She just has a great instinct to make great passes. She’s very aware. It’s just kind of who she is as a player,” guard Kayla McBride told reporters after the game. “When she has the ball in her hand at the top and the middle … we’re very comfortable in what we do. Especially, I know me, [Collier], Rachel, we’ve had extended periods of time with Jess. I’ve gotten a lot of backdoor cuts. I scored a game-winner last year off one of Jess’s passes, and she’s very, very good and she continues to come back better.”
McBride herself did a lot to help right the ship in the second half, leading all second-half scorers with 10 of her 12 points coming after the break.
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Lynx fans also saw Collier’s first regular-season game since fully recovering from the birth of her first child, Mila, in May 2022. (She played four games in August 2022 but was not at full strength.) Her performance reflected the highs and lows the whole team experienced. She had 17 points and five rebounds but committed a team-high five turnovers. She also blocked a team-high four shots, three of which came against Copper, reminding WNBA fans of her all-world defensive ability.
“I think I could do better,” Collier said after the game. “I think we all, from this game, are not super happy with what we did. So there’s a lot of areas that I want to get better at. I think it’s kind of a learning curve, too. Obviously, we had training camp, where I played in that one preseason game, but I haven’t played in a regular-season game in a long time. I understand that there’s going to be a little rust to get off, but I just want to hit the ground running and make sure that I’m learning from what I did in this game and making sure that I’m not doing it again. And that’s all you can ask for.”
Collier’s four blocks tied for second-most in franchise history for blocks on opening night with Sylvia Fowles. Nicky Anosike holds the record with five in 2010. Collier’s second block of the game marked 100 for her career, making her the ninth player in franchise history to hit the century mark.
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.
“We need someone who’s going to take command. We need somebody that’s gonna kind of go, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to run,’” Reeve said.
Waive Banham and get a real point guard, and then Mitchell can do what she does. It’s that simple.