First round team preview: Minnesota Lynx

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On Wednesday evening the Minnesota Lynx will face the defending champion Seattle Storm in a single-elimination first round matchup. These two teams have had very similar seasons. Both finished 2019 with an 18-16 record. Each of them also had to deal with several missing starters from last season as well as copious injuries during the 2019 season. Let’s take a closer look at this great matchups between the last two WNBA champions.

The Similarities

Even looking at advanced statistics for these two teams, Minnesota and Seattle seem like funhouse mirror images of each other.  When comparing the four factors of winning—effective field goal percentage (eFG%), offensive rebound percentage, free throw rate, and turnover percentage—both teams have an eerily similar profile.

The Lynx and the Storm both turn the ball over a lot.  The Storm finished the season 11th in turnover rate while the Lynx finished 12th.  However, both teams also turn their opponents over a great deal as well.  The Lynx finished 1st and the Storm finished 2nd in opponent turnover rate.
Both teams do a good job of keeping their opponents off the line. This season, Seattle finished 3rd and Minnesota finished 4th in opponent free throw rate with 0.220 and 0.230 respectively.  As for getting to the line, both teams had a 0.230 free throw rate this year, tied for 6th in the league.
Minnesota and Seattle also finished neck-and-neck in opponent OReb% (Lynx 4th, Storm 5th), and opponent eFG% (Lynx 9th, Storm 11th).  Essentially, both teams’ defenses are good at forcing turnovers, defending without fouling, and securing rebounds.  However, the Lynx and Storm still allow opponents to shoot high percentages on the shots they do get off.

The Differences

Really, the biggest “Four Factors” gaps between Minnesota and Seattle are in eFG% and OReb%.  The Lynx had the 3rd-best eFG% on the season while the Storm finished 7th.  Minnesota also finished the season with the 3rd-best offensive rebound percentage while Seattle finished 8th.
Looking at advanced statistics for these two teams, it appears that the Lynx should be the superior team.  The Lynx finished 5th in net rating (+3.0) to the Storm’s 7th (-0.2) and nearly ran the table on Seattle in terms of rate statistics.
Still, the playoffs are all about matchups, and the Storm have had a decided advantage in this year’s season series. After the Lynx won the first game of the season against the Storm, Seattle won the next three fairly decisively. Minnesota had a difficult time defending Seattle in these matchups, who appeared to get most of the shots they wanted in the last three contests.  If the Lynx are to survive and advance, there are a few specific things they will need to clean up.

What the Lynx need to do to win

The two main areas the Lynx will need to focus on against the Storm are three-point defense and rebounding.

Stopping Seattle’s perimeter attack

The biggest difference in style between Minnesota and Seattle (the previously mentioned “funhouse mirror” element) is how they score.  The Lynx pound the ball into the paint (47.5% of their points on the season, highest percentage in the league) for most of their scoring. Meanwhile, the Storm score a lot more of their points on three-point shots (28.4% of their points, second highest in the league).
In the first game of the season, Minnesota was able to keep Seattle’s perimeter attack under control.  The Lynx held the Storm to 36.4% shooting overall and just 2-15 shooting from beyond the arc.
However, in their subsequent meetings, the Storm lit up the Lynx from distance.  This spacing gave Natasha Howard plenty of room to carve up Minnesota inside as well.  Without limiting the Storm’s perimeter play, the Lynx ended up caught between a rock and a hard place.
As a result, even in the losses where Minnesota shot well, Seattle shot even better.  In their three wins against the Lynx this year, the Storm shot 54.5% from the field, 46.6% on three-pointers, and 88.1% from the free throw line.
If the Lynx want to win this game, their three-point defense against the Storm has to be better. This doesn’t mean Minnesota can just forget about protecting the paint and can allow a lot of wide-open layups. It does mean they will have to make sure to run shooters off the three point line, go over screens, and contest every shot.  The Lynx can probably survive a good outing from Natasha Howard alone.  But if the Storm get good looks at threes and start hitting, they will likely get everything they want on offense again.

Winning the battle on the boards

The other crucial component of this kind of defensive effort is securing rebounds.  The Lynx out-rebounded Seattle by double digits in the game they won.  Conversely, the Lynx were out-rebounded in every loss.
Failing to secure a defensive rebound can torpedo any good defensive possession.  Some of the most wide open looks for three-pointers come off of offensive rebounds where a defensive players are no longer matched up.  Too many second opportunities for the Storm will almost assuredly doom the Lynx.
Despite the way the season series went (and despite being on the road) the Lynx can win this game if they can limit the Storm’s offense.  The Lynx have enough talent and have been playing some of their best basketball at the end of the season.  Minnesota’s identity from the start of the season has been predicated on defense and rebounding.  If they can live up to that in Wednesday’s game, they should be able to advance to the second round.
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