Semifinals Preview: Minnesota Lynx

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The Minnesota Lynx won their single-elimination matchup with the Phoenix Mercury in a nailbiter, holding onto an 80-79 victory. While they have made it through the gauntlet of single-elimination play, they now face the significant challenge of winning a series against the Seattle Storm.

Seattle has been one of the most statistically dominant teams in league history

The Storm finished the season with both the number one offensive rating (108.3) and the number one defensive rating (93.3) in the league, which (obviously) combined for the league’s best net rating at +15.0. Though it was only for a 22 game season, this still stands as the third-best net rating in the history of the WNBA behind the 2000 Houston Comets (+18.4) and the 1998 Comets (+17.4).

While the Storm’s offense has been stellar this year, it is their defense that has separated  them from other teams. Seattle’s defensive rating of 93.3 is the best since the 2015 New York Liberty (92.4). The Storm excel in most aspects of defense—driving down opponent’s shooting percentages, defending without fouling, and forcing turnovers. Seattle not only led the league in opponent effective field goal percentage but also had the second-best marks for opponent free throw rate and opponent turnover percentage. Seattle’s team defense is phenomenal and they have numerous standout individual defensive players. Jordin Canada and Jewell Loyd had two of the top three defensive PIPM figures for guards while Natasha Howard, Breanna Stewart, Alysha Clark, and Ezi Magbegor all ranked in the top nine in defensive PIPM overall.

Minnesota has specifically struggled against the Storm in recent years

While Seattle’s overall dominance would present a challenge for any team, the Storm have been a problematic matchup for the Lynx in recent years, even when they weren’t arguably the best team in the league. The Lynx have lost six straight games to the Storm going back to last season, including in the first round of the 2019 playoffs. The Storm shot at least 40 percent on three pointers in each of those six games and over 50 percent from the floor in all but one of those six games.

This year, the Lynx lost by 24 points in their first game against the Storm (with Sylvia Fowles) and lost by 15 points in the second game (without Fowles). These were easily the two most lopsided losses of the season for Minnesota.

The Storm do a great job at spreading the floor for pick and rolls, putting defenses in rotation, and finding open shots at the rim or from beyond the arc. The Lynx have had a more difficult time defending the Storm’s offense than that of most other teams in the past two seasons, and they will need to tighten up their defense to have a chance in this series.

Turnovers have been the biggest problem for the Lynx against the Storm

On the other end of the floor, the biggest key to Minnesota competing with Seattle is limiting turnovers. In their two meetings this season, the Lynx had 22 turnovers leading to 27 Storm points, and then 26 turnovers leading to 28 Storm points. Both of these points off turnovers figures were more than the final margin of victory for Seattle.

Turnovers are a major component of how the Storm generate offense. They finished the year second in percentage of points scored off of turnovers at 21.2. Taking care of the ball would go a long way in Minnesota closing the gap with Seattle.

The value of the Lynx making sure that they get shots off against the Storm (rather than turning the ball over) is amplified by the fact that for the second straight playoff matchup, Minnesota’s best advantage is their offensive rebounding. The Lynx were the number one offensive rebounding team in the league this year and defensive rebounding is the weakest aspect of Seattle’s defense.  Minnesota needs to maximize scoring opportunities against the Storm.  If the Lynx can avoid turning the ball over and focus on at least getting an initial shot attempt up, even if they miss there should be plenty of chances to score off of offensive rebounds. Minnesota won the second chance points battle against the Storm in both of their matchups this season (22 points to 12 points in the first game, 14 points to 13 points in the second game), but they will need to press that advantage even further to win games in this series.

Fowles’ availability and play will decide the ceiling for the Lynx in this series

Unfortunately for the Lynx, Sylvia Fowles may be limited in this series. Cheryl Reeve mentioned this week that Fowles “experienced tightness” in her previously injured calf and is officially listed as questionable for Game 1.

If Fowles is unable to make an impact in this series it is going to be much more difficult for the Lynx to win. However, beyond this series, there is nothing (that is reasonably predictable) of higher priority for the Lynx than making sure Fowles’ injury does not turn into something more serious. Minnesota will likely be extremely cautious with their approach to Fowles playing in this series.

If and when Fowles does play, expect the Storm to try to test her mobility by running actions to pull her out of the paint, such as perimeter screening actions for three point shots that punish bigs for not coming out to defend at the level of the screen.

With Fowles off the floor, the Lynx’s ability to protect the rim and secure defensive rebounds drops considerably. To make up for this on defense, the ability to switch as much as possible on screens should be useful against Seattle’s offense. This may lead to more minutes in this series for players like Bridget Carleton, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, and Erica McCall in smaller lineups.

Minnesota is ready for this series

While the Storm present a daunting challenge for Minnesota, the Lynx are playing to win and are ready to prove that they are better than their regular season matchups with Seattle.

In response to Neil Olstad of Lynx Dynasty’s question about avoiding complacency with their achievements this season, Reeve said, “I’d say you probably could guess that that’s not something we’re going to allow. This is a competitive group. They certainly understand and have perspective. They know that we played Seattle two games [so far]and we were horrendous in a couple situations that just can’t happen. I’m eager for them to get another crack at it another few times.”

“This is not a, ‘Hey, you have nothing to lose,’ [situation],” Reeve added. “That [attitude]doesn’t work. We have a certain mentality, that I will be really disappointed if we don’t come out with, that we are in the series to win the darn thing.”

“I think that they didn’t see the best of us,” said Collier of their previous games against the Storm. “The way we played as a team isn’t what we showed during the year and isn’t definitely our best. So I’m excited to go out there and play the game that we know how to play.”

“We haven’t played well against them yet, so I am really excited to go out there fists flying.”

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