Jessica Shepard’s injury and unsteady offense will force changes for the Lynx

The Minnesota Lynx suffered their second loss of the 2019 season last Saturday against the Los Angeles Sparks. The script for the loss was familiar, both for this season and for Minnesota’s recent history against the Sparks. The Lynx turned the ball over 21 times and lost by four points due to late-game shotmaking by noted Lynx kryptonite Chelsea Gray.

Jessica Shepard’s injury and what the Lynx lose with her out

While the Lynx were disappointed to lose the game following a truly special retirement ceremony for Lindsay Whalen, it was far from the greatest loss for the team that day. With less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Jessica Shepard left the game with what turned out to be an ACL tear. She will miss the remainder of the season. Injuries are always the most unfortunate part of sports (and have been an all too prevalent feature of this WNBA season). However, this injury is especially disappointing after the promising start to Shepard’s rookie season.

Shepard was second in rebounds and assists per game on the team at the time of her injury.  She made tons of hustle plays to create extra opportunities for the team. The rookie was also an active and capable defender. Shepard allowed just 0.571 points per defensive possession according to Synergy, the best mark on the team through their first six games.

Shepard had an obvious chemistry with fellow rookie Napheesa Collier. The pair frequently linked up on high-low passes from Shepard to Collier. Three of Shepard’s five assists in the game against the Sparks came from passes to a cutting Collier.

However, Collier wasn’t the only player that Shepard paired well with this season. The top four 2-player combinations for the Lynx that have played more than 10 minutes together all include Shepard. Those combinations in descending order are: Damiris Dantas-Shepard (38 minutes, 52.4 net rating), Collier-Shepard (71 minutes, 29.1 net rating), Odyssey Sims-Shepard (77 minutes, 27.4 net rating), and Danielle Robinson-Shepard (47 minutes, 22.0 net rating).

Furthermore, Shepard also was in eight out of the top ten 3-player lineups that have played at least 20 minutes together, including all of the top seven. Of the six 5-player lineups that have played 5 minutes or more for the Lynx this season that have a positive net rating, Shepard is in each of the top five lineups. As the lineup statistics show, Shepard is the kind of great “glue” player that really makes things work smoothly on the court.

Moving forward without Shepard

Shepard has been a key part of the Lynx’s success so far this season, and she won’t be easy to replace. In the meantime, head coach Cheryl Reeve said that the team will, “provide her all the support that [we]can.” She added that “we have tremendous resources here. I know she’s going to work hard and we’re going to use it as a time to improve her shot. So next time you see her, she should be a well-oiled machine.”

When asked about the outpouring of support for Shepard, Naphessa Collier replied, “Jess is a great person. That’s one of the reasons why she’s getting so much support. People love her and she’s such a great teammate, such a great person. So you never want to see this happen to anyone and I think everyone’s going to rally behind her.”

The Lynx will have to get creative with their lineups for the next few weeks. In addition to Shepard’s injury, Seimone Augustus is still sidelined indefinitely after arthroscopic knee surgery. The reinforcements that Reeve would rely on, Temi Fagbenle and Cecilia Zandalasini, are still gone for a few weeks with their national teams. Collier will now see significantly more time at the power forward spot. In turn, Stephanie Talbot and Shao Ting will likely see increased minutes at the small forward spot, as well as Karima Christmas-Kelly.

Coach Reeve looking for solutions

Irrespective of Shepard’s injury, the Lynx clearly need to make some changes to clean up their offense, which has not been on par with their stellar defense so far this season.

Even in wins, the offense has struggled. After the Lynx scored just 9 points in the fourth quarter against the Phoenix Mercury and almost gave the game away, Reeve said, “I just don’t think we identified where the easy passes were. That we forced some. It’s tough to do when you’re grinding the shot clock down every single time. I think we set a record for the number of times that the [shot]clock ran down. That was not something we were looking to do. But you know, as we work through this, [we need to]keep our defense where it is, and just find ways to win a game, and then improve the next time.”

Reeve added that changes will come on the offense. “To this point in the season [defense]  is what’s carried us. When we’ve played it we’ve won, and when we didn’t, we didn’t. And our offense has to catch up, obviously, honestly, I have to go back now and look at. You know, maybe we’re not running the right things. So maybe we’ve got to do some things differently. Anything’s on the table right now from an offensive standpoint.”

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She reiterated this sentiment when asked what she liked about the team’s offense after losing to the Sparks: “I don’t think a whole lot. I think having a will to fight [was good], despite getting down and things not going our way. But I don’t like our offensive execution. There’s not a whole lot that I like.”

Limiting turnovers and lineup solutions

A major part of the Lynx’s offensive struggles has been the egregiously high number of turnovers given up by Minnesota each game. The Lynx lead the league in turnovers with 18.8 turnovers per game so far. When asked about the turnover problems at Monday’s practice, Reeve said, “Yeah, but [it’s] really cool. We’re not doing it anymore. We met today and we’re not doing it anymore. Wait ’til you see us next time. Hopefully in New York, we’re going to shoot a shot before we turn it over. We’re going to play fast and we’re going to shoot a shot before we turn it over.”

In addition to playing faster and taking better care of the ball, the team will try to put Danielle Robinson (who has struggled from the field this season) in better positions to be successful. Reeve indicated at Monday’s practice that she may have been too impatient with Robinson recently.

“I did a bad job coaching her, first thing. And like I said, today I think reflects a little bit more [of]her strengths. So again, her playing short minutes and the way that I coached her was awful,” said the head coach. “Lexie was playing well and obviously we have a lot of trust in Odyssey. But at the end of the day I can’t coach anyone the way I coached Danielle in the last game.”

Reeve called Monday’s practice, which featured loud music blaring to help force players to learn to communicate better, “the best practice of the year.” The Lynx, now more shorthanded than ever, will need that practice to pay dividends as they begin a significant adjustment period.

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