Finally (relatively) healthy, Lynx look to make playoff seeding push

The Minnesota Lynx are officially in the playoffs for a ninth straight season.  It hasn’t been an easy journey.  Due to injuries and absences the Lynx have had seventeen players suit up for the team over the course of the season.  The season has had ups and downs and the last stretch has been no exception.

The Lynx had a very difficult schedule coming out of the All-Star break. Six of their first eight games were on the road. Their two home games were against the Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun, two of the top teams in the league. Given that only Washington has been able to accrue a winning record on the road this season, it was somewhat predictable that the Lynx would struggle through this stretch.  Minnesota went 3-5 over those eight games.

Despite these struggles, the Lynx appear to have hit their stride in their last home stand of the season, however.  Several important developments have taken place during the post-All Star period to get the Lynx playing well at the finish line of the regular season.

Seimone Augustus returns

Most importantly, the Lynx have finally gotten their longtime face of the franchise back in action. Seimone Augustus returned after missing the first twenty-one games of the season recovering from a procedure on her knee.  After all of the coaching and mentoring from the sidelines she had done this season she was finally able to lead by example.

Augustus’s impact was felt immediately as she gave the Lynx a needed shot in the arm.  Easy looks for Sylvia Fowles in the post came courtesy of entry passes from Augustus.  Her length on defense helped force opponents into bad shots. She was making jump shots and pocket passes. Most importantly, the team looked poised and confident in their execution with Augustus in the lineup.  They picked up a couple of wins including an impressive blowout against Connecticut in the first games after Augustus’s return.

After the win against Connecticut, Fowles talked about Augustus’s impact on the floor.

We’ve been getting some good practice in over these last few weeks and [we’re] pretty much just breaking down the basics. We overthink a lot of things, and we tend to overthink our offense, our defense. It helps having Seimone back of course, making sure she putting everybody in the right spot. She’s doing a lot of coaching when she’s out there on the floor and I think that helps the guards out a lot.”

Having Augustus back changed up the rotation for the Lynx as well, putting Odyssey Sims as the starting point guard with Danielle Robinson as the first guard off the bench.

Before the Connecticut game, Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve talked about the adjustment of Odyssey playing more at the point guard spot.

I really enjoyed watching her play the one last game [against Atlanta]. She had a command about her. You know there’s times I think if Danielle is the one I think Odyssey could go hide a little bit. Odyssey’s now at the forefront of what we’re doing.”

Reeve credited Sims’ engagement and energy at the one while saying that Sims would still see minutes as a two guard.

“She’s pushing in transition. She was a recipient of some transition before as a two. She’ll still play some two. That’s what I told her—she’s not going to be full time at the one, but a lot of her minutes are going to be there. I liked the way she looked. I like her interest in doing it and calling plays. It was only one game but I’m looking forward to more of that.”

Reeve also talked about the benefits of Robinson coming off the bench.

“I think for Danielle there is an element to coming in and changing the pace and being probably a little more relaxed. Feels a little less pressure. I told her also playing more with Steph and Lex was good for her.  She’s navigating all that pretty well.”

When asked if the shot distribution for the team would change with Augustus back in the lineup, Reeve said, “I don’t think it’s going to change a whole lot. I think it’s more the type of shots as opposed to distribution of shots. Seimone is going to be my pull-up jumper. Odyssey is going to be trying to be getting into the paint. ‘Mone’s going to shoot a three or make her one-on-one move. She’s going to come off a pin-down [screen]. Those are things that Odyssey doesn’t do. Odyssey’s more, ‘create it off the bounce with a burst of energy getting into the paint,’ or ‘shoot an open three off of help defense.’  Seimone’s going to take I hope—if she plays twenty minutes—she took nine shots in that last game, I hope she’s taking at least nine shots.  We need her to shoot the ball for sure.”

Knee issues persist, guard rotation fluctuates

Despite early success, the transition of Augustus’s return has not been seamless.  Her knee has continued to bother her and at times she has appeared uncomfortable on the court.  Similar to Diana Taurasi in her own return from injury, Augustus’s trademark shooting efficiency has yet to reappear.  These ongoing issues led to conversations initiated by Augustus with Reeve for a move to the bench for the time being.

In the wake of this decision, the team tried various lineup combinations, including starting Stephanie Talbot at shooting guard to preserve the new point guard rotation, as well as to maintain length and shooting at the two guard spot.  Ultimately the team settled on the original starting lineup with Sims and Robinson, at least for the time being.

After Minnesota’s win against Dallas, Reeve talked about Augustus’s starting vs. bench status as an ongoing process.

“In the conversations with Seimone, [coming off the bench]was not necessarily permanent. It’ll be a collaboration. Seimone did have her knee drained this morning. We have a lot of history with this, with Seimone. This is something she’s accustomed to. My understanding is this one [treatment]makes her feel better. Then there’s another one, another shot or whatever that she gets that makes her feel even better. So we just said we’re going to keep in touch, and I told her [to]tap me on the shoulder whenever she felt like she was ready. And obviously I would probably know it too, if she was tapping me on the shoulder. But until we get to that place, we’re both comfortable with what we’re doing.”

Improvements in scoring and shooting efficiency from Minnesota’s perimeter players

With or without Augustus playing significant minutes, the perimeter play for the Lynx has picked up significantly after the All-Star break.  Both Sims and Robinson have made significant strides in terms of offensive efficiency recently.

Before the break Sims was averaging 14.7 points per game on 38.9% shooting, 25.0% from three, and 84.4% from the free throw line.  Now Sims is averaging 13.5 points per game on 47.1% shooting, 32.0% from three, and 76.3% from the free throw line.  She is also averaging 5.5 assists per game, 1.6 steals per game, and 3.3 turnovers per game.  All of these figures are improvements over her pre-All-Star averages.

For Robinson, the most critical development has been a change in shot selection.  Before the break Robinson was averaging 10.2 points per game on 40.3% shooting, 21.1% from three, and 87.9% from the free throw line.  However, at about the halfway mark of the season, Robinson basically stopped taking three pointers.  She was 8-38 on threes in the first seventeen games of the season, and then shot 1-3 on threes over the next fourteen games.

Since Robinson stopped shooting threes, her field goal percentage has skyrocketed.  After the All-Star break Robinson is averaging 11.5 points per game on 52.7% shooting, 33.3% from three, and 87.9% from the free throw line.  Like Sims, Robinson has also improved in assists, steals, and turnovers per game.

While her free throw percentage is identical, she has been taking and making more free throws since the break.  Eschewing threes in favor of attacking the basket has netted Robinson a bump from averaging 1.5 makes on 1.7 free throw attempts per game to 2.6 makes on 3.0 attempts per game.

While Sims and Robinson have both been more efficient on offense, perhaps no Lynx player has improved more than Rookie of the Year candidate Napheesa Collier.  Before the break she was already averaging impressive figures, posting 11.2 points per game, 6.2 rebounds per game, 2.3 assists per game, 1.9 steals per game, 1.0 block per game, and 2.2 turnovers per game.

Since All-Star weekend, however, Collier has led the team in scoring and has regularly filled up the box score. Collier is averaging 15.9 points per game on 54.5% shooting, 40% from three, and 84.4% from the free throw line since the break. She is also averaging 6.8 rebounds per game, 3.0 assists per game, 2.1 steals per game, 0.8 blocks per game, and 1.5 turnovers per game in this timeframe.  These are two-way star player numbers, and Collier’s increased offensive production is coming at just the right time.

Sylvia Fowles goes through and breaks out of a rough patch

While the perimeter players for the Lynx began a surge in scoring and efficiency, Fowles went through a rough patch after the All-Star break. In the first twenty games of the season, Fowles had fourteen games with double-digit shot attempts and twelve games with double-digit rebounds. In the first ten games after the break, Fowles only had two games with double-digit shot attempts and two games with double-digit rebounds. In the first ten games after the All-Star break, she was averaging just 11.7 points per game and 7.0 rebounds per game after averaging 14.5 points per game and 9.8 rebounds per game before the break.

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Before their win against Dallas, when asked if Fowles’ struggles were related to coverages or things the team wasn’t getting done offensively, Reeve replied, “Maybe a little of all of that. Syl’s just kind of working through I think a tough stretch. That’s probably the best way to say that and there’s probably a lot of things that go into that. So we’re just trying to get her the ball when she’s open. Don’t throw it to her when there’s three people waiting to go knock it out of her hands, et cetera.”

Reeve added that physical and mental wear and tear hits all players at different times, and that everyone has to struggle through.

“I think Brittney Griner’s interview, if you’ve watched that one with Holly Rowe, would tell you a lot about maybe some of the challenges that exist, and things that you have to work through. You know, there’s probably times when they’re not up for it as much as you would like them to be. But I’d say overall it just happens to every player. This is her tough stretch and we’ve just got to stay with her and hopefully we get to the other side of it.”

Fowles appeared to break out of that tough stretch in a big way in the Lynx’s last win against Chicago. She had 25 points on 11-19 shooting and 12 rebounds.

After the game against Chicago, Reeve spoke more about working through this stretch with Fowles.

It’s a great life, being a professional athlete. It’s a great life. But there’s a lot that goes with it. It’s not easy. And so I think you just go through times, and you have to navigate those difficult times. They’re people too. They’re in relationships and they have family, just like all of us have. And so sometimes things get a little more difficult. I think it was at New York when we made the recognition that Syl was just struggling and she needed allies as opposed to challenging her. We knew we’d get to the other side of it. This homestand has been really good for her.”

When asked how she worked her way out of her tough stretch, Fowles replied, “Just looking out for [my]self. I know that might sound a little selfish. But I realized that me just making sure my teammates do what they do and just taking myself out of the equation wasn’t good for the team. And so I just wanted to come back and make my way within the way I’m capable of playing and not worry about everybody else but just making sure we clicking [with]me doing my part.”

Fowles said her approach during that stretch of games was perhaps overly concerned with, “making sure everybody got theirs. And it wasn’t working. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t working but I just wanted everybody else to play well and I kind of left myself out of the equation. But once I started doing what I do best and that’s just dominating down low and not worrying about anything, I’ve realized that the team works better that way.”

Lynx look to build, carry momentum into playoffs

 Despite all of their injuries and absences Minnesota has built a solid team this season.  The Lynx have the second-best net rating in the league since the All-Star break at +5.1 and the fourth-best net rating on the season at +2.7.

While they have slightly underachieved in terms of wins based on these stats, the Lynx are still well positioned to have a good playoff run.  During the team’s final four-game homestand, the Lynx have played some of their best basketball of the season. After their win against Chicago, they moved up to the sixth seed in the league standings.  The Lynx will hope to secure either the fifth or sixth seed so that they can host a first round single elimination game.

Reeve often  has referred to this last homestand as “season defining.”  In their win against Dallas, Reeve clearly was trying to make sure her team played to their potential and didn’t forget to take care of the small details of winning.  Afterwards, Reeve said it was essential to get off to a good start to this critical stretch of games.

We didn’t have a choice. Whatever they may have been feeling, in terms of they had six out of eight [games on the road], being tired, maybe beat up mentally a little bit, whatever they were feeling they had to put aside. When I saw them here early for some video I felt pretty good about their mindset…So I thought we came at it the right way. Win your home games. And so obviously getting back in the win column is good, and then [we’ll] try to keep this momentum going into this next game on Sunday.”

The Lynx have responded well to adversity, but there still is work to do.  Still, in a season with as drastic of an overhaul as the Lynx have undergone, the Lynx are taking time to appreciate what they’ve already accomplished as they prepare for their ninth straight playoff appearance.

Obviously the season’s been different, said Reeve after the team’s win against Chicago. “The idea of being in the playoffs—as I just told our team—even when we were running away with the number one seed, when we clinched a playoff spot we celebrated it, because that’s the first step. So that’s what we told this team, that it’s never a foregone conclusion. We never take that for granted. With the fight this team has gone through, some ups and downs and growing, and obviously letting us know on this homestand who they want to be. It’s a great accomplishment, and I wanted to make sure they celebrated those successes, though it is just the first step.”

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