For the Minnesota Lynx, Turnovers Have Been the Root of All Evil

After a stretch of games where the Minnesota Lynx struggled to find consistency in the win column, the team has finally won two games straight, downing the Atlanta Dream and Las Vegas Aces in back-to-back close ones. In Atlanta, the Lynx pulled off an impressive comeback after going down as much as 18 to the Dream in the second quarter. Back home in Minnesota against the current second seed, the Las Vegas Aces, the Lynx pulled out a win in overtime after giving up their lead in the fourth quarter. 

In both games, veteran center Sylvia Fowles’ performances have provided a huge lift for the Lynx, continuing the career season she’s been having at age 35. For her efforts, Fowles was named as last week’s Western Conference Player of the Week, which was somehow her first such honor of the season.

Across both of these victories, a key to the Lynx’s success has been their ability to limit turnovers and points off turnovers. All season long, turnovers have been the root of all evil for the Minnesota Lynx. They currently stand at 10th in the league in turnovers per game with 15.9.  As for points allowed off turnovers, the Lynx are 12th in the league, allowing 20.1 such points per game, which reflects the issues they’ve had with putting together good defensive possessions in transition. 

As I said in our most recent Winsidr power rankings, the turnover problem in Minnesota has hurt the Lynx on both offense and defense. The defensive end of it is almost self-explanatory: Every time you turn the ball over, you’re giving up an extra offensive possession to the opposing team. Furthermore, you’re basically ceding the advantage to the team on offense, either allowing them to get out ahead of your defense in a fast break off a live-ball turnover or, on a dead-ball turnover, to catch their breath and run a play off the inbound. On offense, of course, turning the ball over means you get one less opportunity to score. Turning the ball over also prevents an offense from stringing together good possessions and building rhythm, consistency, and flow. Also, it’s just plain frustrating to turn the ball over, and that frustration can easily build into a disruption of focus and communication. When the Lynx’s turnover bug rears its ugly head, they look a lot more disjointed as a team, missing rotations on defense or failing to find good shots within the offense. 

“All year long the turnover thing has been talked about because it’s been leading to big challenges and losses,” coach Cheryl Reeve told me after a recent practice, “You can’t give the other team more possessions than you have.” Reeve went on to make it clear that the coaching staff members have hammered home the importance of curtailing the turnover problem, going as far as to say that they’ve spoken about it so much that “[the players]are tired of being hit over the head with this.” 

As it turns out, getting pestered over and over again about something can become pretty good motivation to work on it! The Lynx have done a lot of work to turn around their turnover problem over the last two games. In their most recent win against Las Vegas, the Lynx only turned over the ball 13 times. That match was also one of the few times this season that Minnesota actually won the points off turnovers battle, allowing 17 points off turnovers (which is, well, still quite a few) compared to the 20 points that the Lynx scored off Vegas’ 16 turnovers. While keeping those turnovers under control was key for the Lynx throughout the game, their focus on taking care of the ball was most apparent after the Aces were able to force overtime. The Lynx didn’t cough up the ball once down the stretch in OT, which may have narrowly won them the game. The win over Vegas was as squeaky as squeakers get; the Lynx only came out with it by a single point. If Minnesota would have allowed a single field goal off a turnover or given up the ball on one of the four possessions they ended up converting into two points, the game would have gone the other way.

However, of the Lynx’s 14 games thus far this season, none have made the value of not turning the ball over clearer than their second most recent win, an 87-85 comeback victory over the Atlanta Dream. Down 18 to the Dream at the 5:38 mark in the second quarter, the game seemed all but done for Minnesota. So what changed? Turnovers! In this case, more specifically, the Lynx were allowing too many points off turnovers. Things were looking ugly for Minnesota’s transition defense through the first 14 minutes of that game. Down 24-42 midway through the second quarter, the Lynx had already allowed 16 points off turnovers. 

Coach Reeve told me after the game that the turnover problem to this point was an issue of both effort and execution: “What we saw was players holding the ball over their head. We had been having success in throwing it to [Sylvia Fowles or Napheesa Collier] inside, but then we went through a stretch where that’s all we wanted to do. We would receive the ball on the perimeter and just hold the ball over our heads and throw it. They were pressuring. Their hands were high, and they were able to knock passes away. We weren’t throwing it high enough and whatever, execution-wise.” Looking back at the film, it’s easy to see what Reeve meant. In the following play from the first quarter, a poorly placed feed from Kayla McBride to the paint (meant for Fowles) turns into two easy points at the other end for Dream guard Courtney Williams. 

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But after that midway point in the second quarter, the Lynx looked like a different team entirely. After giving up those 16 points off turnovers early in the game, Minnesota focused on taking care of the ball better and locking in on the defensive end in transition. The Lynx only allowed five points off turnovers after that turning point in the second quarter, helping them to establish some consistency on both ends of the ball and close that 18 point deficit. Part of this turnaround, said coach Reeve, can be attributed to the Lynx running more plays off penetration rather than relying on lobs from the perimeter into the paint: “We’re better when we’re playing with pace and the balls moving side-to-side. When you can drive into the paint, it’s good for any team.” Sixth woman Crystal Dangerfield does a great job of demonstrating that in this highlight, where she uses the threat of her speedy drive to draw Dream center Elizabeth Williams off  Sylvia Fowles and then dishes the ball to her. This time, instead of a turnover, the feed to Fowles results in an easy layup off the late rotation.

 

While both these last two wins have been incredibly narrow, won by a combined margin of three points, the progress that the Lynx have made towards getting their turnover issue under control has been important in terms of getting some consistency going on both ends of the ball. Halfway through the season, the Lynx have not lived up to their own expectations in terms of their record (currently 7-7 heading into tonight’s game against the Phoenix Mercury) or their execution. If the Lynx can build on the progress they’ve made over these past two games in limiting their turnovers, this may be the turning point that they have been working towards. After practice earlier this week, Coach Reeve reflected on this: “Things weren’t working, and we’ve gone away from those things that haven’t worked. It’s been better the last couple of games. We’ve been really efficient, haven’t turned the ball over as much.”

“If we don’t turn the ball over,” Reeve continued, summarily, “I like our chances.”

 

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