The Minnesota Lynx have struggled to close out games as of late. After starting off the season with 3 wins and 0 losses, the Lynx went 1-5 over their next six including a four-game losing streak. The Lynx weren’t losing by much. In fact, they lost those games by an average of just five points during the losing streak. Minnesota consistently put themselves in a position to win. Unfortunately, poor execution at the end of those games kept victory just out of reach.
Minnesota has been the league’s worst team in the 4th quarter
Every single one of the Lynx’s losses this year featured a narrow point margin heading into the fourth quarter. Their loss to New York on June 12 was actually the only loss in which the Lynx trailed by more than one point at the end of the third quarter. The Lynx trailed 63-62 to the Seattle Storm, 67-66 to the Los Angeles Sparks, 55-50 to the Liberty, and 68-67 to the Connecticut Sun, and had a 58-58 tie against the Las Vegas Aces heading into the final frame. Despite these even scores, the Lynx have not won a game this season where they did not hold a lead after three quarters of play.
By contrast, in their victories, the Lynx have led by at least two possessions at the start of the fourth. In four of those five wins, the Lynx led by at least 13 heading into the final quarter. This isn’t to say that all of the Lynx wins have been blowouts and the team hasn’t had to execute down the stretch. The Lynx have won some close games this year—though one game was only a “close win” because the Lynx hung on to win by two points against the Phoenix Mercury after they were outscored 20-9 in the fourth quarter.
However, close game or not, a fourth quarter lead has been vital for the Lynx so far this season. They have not outscored their opponent in the 4th quarter in any of their games (wins or losses) this season. Unsurprisingly, the Lynx have been by far statistically the worst fourth quarter team in the league through ten games. Their net rating in the fourth quarter so far this season is a staggering -24.9 according the WNBA Advanced Stats page.
The Lynx’s plan to fix the fourth
When asked for her thoughts on the reasons for the team’s fourth quarter woes after the Lynx’s loss to the Aces, rookie forward Napheesa Collier explained that the team needs to relax and play their game.
“I think that [when] we see that it’s a close game and that we’re down, and we see how much time is left we kind of speed ourselves up and that causes turnovers. In the second half we didn’t meet our goal defensively in what we wanted to do with stops,” said Collier. “So, I think we just need to not panic when we see the score . . . and just focus on what we need to execute and get that done because when we speed ourselves up we get a lot of turnovers.”
Winning close games is a common problem for teams like the Lynx with many players still learning how to play together. Head coach Cheryl Reeve stated after the loss to the Aces that sometimes, in order to learn how to close out games, a team has to experience the kinds of close losses that the Lynx have gone through.
“The unfortunate part is what I told [the team] is that it’s really hard. The only way you can learn sometimes is to go backwards, is to fail,” Reeve explained. “You know, we failed in 2010 before we had success. So you have to oftentimes fail first, which is unfortunate. I’d prefer it not be the case, but I’m hoping that [when] we’re in these situations that we’re learning. But right now we have to have a sizable lead to be able to finish out a game.”
Bouncing back against New York
After failing to close out several games in a row, the Lynx needed a win in a very bad way. The Lynx got that on Saturday against the Liberty, but they had to face their familiar fourth quarter demons along the way. After a third quarter surge, the Lynx held a 13-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter.
However, the team’s offense stagnated as the Liberty threw in some zone defense and denied easy looks for Sylvia Fowles. The Lynx started passing up open shots, winding the shot clock down, and turning the ball over. Through six-and-a-half minutes of play in the fourth quarter, the Lynx had only scored 6 points. The lead dwindled from 13 to 5 points. There was a very real sense that it could all collapse again.
Instead, a timely three-pointer from Collier and a three-point play from Damiris Dantas sparked the Lynx to create the separation needed to win. Minnesota sealed the game at the free throw line and ultimately ended up scoring 22 points in the fourth quarter, despite their earlier offensive anemia.
After the win, when asked about the team’s progress in closing out games, Danielle Robinson said, “I think it’s definitely a turning point. We definitely felt better about how we ended. You know, there’s always room for improvement, a few possessions here and there. But for the most part I think that we’re happy with our execution down the stretch.”
The Lynx weathered the proverbial fourth-quarter storm against the Liberty. However, in order to get back to winning consistently, they will need to make sure that they aren’t just surviving a late-game collapse. Instead, they will need to continue to execute through the end of the game.