Column: Despite Slow Start, No Need For Lynx To Panic

In 2016 and 2017, the Lynx started their season 13-0 and 9-0, respectively. This year, they’re 2-3 in their first two weeks of play—not the start they hoped for. Minnesota has been both dominant and inconsistent in their first five games. They’ve shown their ability to be the best team on the floor, and a frustrating tendency to let games slip away.

As I wrote last week, the league is locked in on the Lynx. Any cracks in the armor are an invitation for the rest of the WNBA to exercise a few demons from defeats past. As expected, the Lynx’s opponents have brought their best every night. As any of the players would tell you, Minnesota’s quest to repeat will not come without bumps in the road.

But the Lynx (and their fans) should avoid pressing the panic button quite yet. The start is certainly a bit disappointing, but even ignoring the fact that it is still early in the season, there are some real reasons for optimism heading into the team’s second full week of play.

No. 1: Sylvia Fowles.

Fowles, the 2017 WNBA regular season and Finals MVP, has picked up right where she left off last season. She’s averaging 17.5 points and 12.8 rebounds and shooting 67.5 percent from the field. It’s a small sample size, but if those rebounding numbers and shooting percentages hold, both would be career highs.

Fowles’ presence is so important to the Lynx because of her ability to control the interior and end possessions with her rebounding, and she’s incredibly gifted on offense. Check out the highlights from her best game of the season so far: an incredible 21-point, 20-rebound performance against the Dallas Wings.

Fowles, standing at 6-5, usually has a height advantage on her opponents, but that was not the case against the Wings’ Liz Cambage. Sometimes with taller players it’s easy to get caught in the trap of assuming their height is their primary advantage. That simply isn’t the case with Fowles. Against the Wings, Fowles scored the Lynx’s first three baskets, and gave us a perfect case study of her speed, intelligence, and agility in the process.

In her first shot, Fowles gets deep position on Cambage, and briefly fakes to the right side before turning and hitting Cambage with a lefty hook shot, using her body to shield the ball from Cambage’s long reach. For her second field goal, Fowles starts from the same position, but having established the threat of finishing with her left hand, confidently goes to her right and uses her speed to get around Cambage, who hesitates in order to protect against the fake Fowles had used previously.  In her third basket, Fowles notices how closely Cambage is playing her (no doubt trying to limit her room to pivot) and hits her with two fakes, the first to throw her off her rhythm, and the second to get Cambage in the air. Fowles then uses this little bit of space to finish a quick up and under with the right hand.

When you watch Fowles’ offensive possessions back to back, the way she thinks about the game becomes clearer. She’s always a step ahead of her opponents—thinking about the moves she beat them with last time, and what their adjustments will be. It’s abundantly clear how well Fowles understands post defense, and that understanding helps her put together sets on offense that are incredibly difficult for opponents to deal with. Fowles has impeccable footwork, and her fakes are absolutely brutal. She’s a generational talent, and as long as the Lynx have her on their roster, they’ll be competitive every single night.

No. 2: Numbers Don’t Lie

The most important number might be the Lynx’s record, but there are quite a few other statistics that paint a rosier picture of their season thus far.

The Lynx are holding opposing offenses to 40.1 percent shooting so far this season. That’s an excellent mark. Last year Minnesota finished with an opponent field goal percentage of 42.4 percent. The Lynx have also played a strong schedule in their first few games, so it’s likely that their good defensive numbers represent a pattern rather than an anomaly.

Also of interest is opponent three-point shooting. Opposing teams have shot more three-pointers against the Lynx than any other team, but they have only made 30.2-percent of them. This indicates that the Lynx are doing a good job of keeping opponents out of the paint and contesting three-pointers. Often, bad three-point shots come late in offensive possessions, so the Lynx’s ability to play stout defense throughout the entire shot clock helps them to force last-second threes that tend to miss. The Lynx defense doesn’t force a ton of turnovers, but it’s very solid. Minnesota’s players know where to be when to force bad shots.

Additionally, the Lynx are the best defensive rebounding team in the league. This is such a key piece of their identity. Their loss to the Mystics on Sunday was the only game where the Lynx were outrebounded, and it went very badly for them. Minnesota has to maintain their strengths while shoring up their weaknesses, and the ability to corral the boards and limit second-chance opportunities is huge. The Lynx defense operates best when they have time to get set and play a containing style—that’s hardest to do in the fast-break and during second-chance opportunities. This means that in order to set their defense up for success, the Lynx need to limit turnovers and get defensive rebounds. Turnovers have been a bit of a problem so far, but the rebounding has been encouraging. To start winning more games, Minnesota needs to keep the pressure on themselves to control every loose ball.

In addition to the positive statistics generated by the Lynx, there’s one thing that’s been hurting the team that is unlikely to persist—Maya Moore has had a bit of a rocky start to the season. She has by no means been bad, Moore is averaging 15.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, but she hasn’t been able to sustain the level of play that she and the Lynx both want to see. Moore always impacts the game when she’s on the floor, regardless of whether or not she’s shooting the ball well, but the Lynx could use more of her scoring. She’s shooting just 37.3 percent on the season, well below her career average of 45.6 percent, and her numbers from three-point range are down a bit as well.

Moore is being asked to play a lot of minutes at the power forward position which is definitely an adjustment. Being guarded by bigger defenders might be giving her trouble, or her placement in the Lynx’s sets might still just be a little unfamiliar. Whatever the case, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with Moore, and she will certainly elevate her play as the season goes on. Her teammates are more than capable of picking up the slack, but a locked-in Moore takes this team from good to great.

No. 3: Experience

If there’s any team that’s equipped to handle a few bumps in the road, it’s this year’s squad. They’ve played together and with coach Cheryl Reeve for many years, they’ve won championships, and above all, they trust and believe in one another. Even the new additions to the team fit in excellently from a cultural standpoint. It’s only a matter of time until that off-court chemistry fully translates to the floor.

While the regular season is important, the Lynx do not need to finish with the best record in the WNBA in order to compete for a championship. While having home-court advantage is certainly a benefit, Minnesota can win on the road, and they can win in hostile or adverse situations. The most important task of the regular season is incorporating their new additions and figuring out what they can expect from each of their players. This is not to say that the Lynx shouldn’t try during the regular season—far from it. They need to learn how to win with the new pieces they’ve put in place around their core. However, if a few games slip away because the Lynx are aggressively working out the kinks in their system, that’s OK.

The Lynx’s new veterans have loads of playoff experience: Danielle Robinson and Lynetta Kizer have each made the playoffs four times, and Tanisha Wright has been a part of an astounding 11 postseason runs. It’s early to be talking about the playoffs, but when the Lynx get to the postseason, they have a squad that will not shy away from the bright lights. I want to reiterate, this is not an endorsement of the Lynx mailing in their regular season—flipping a switch in the playoffs rarely works, and is a completely un-sound way to go about competing for a championship, but we should have some patience with this team. Minnesota’s history should be enough to give them a bit of the benefit of the doubt in the early going.

So that’s that. If none of the above has eased your nerves about the Lynx’s slow start it’s understandable—this is a franchise that’s used to winning. But bear with me and give your team a few more games to get things figured out. I have a ton of faith in the Lynx’s ability to play, and win, at a very high level. No need to panic, the season is barely a week old.

Highlight Reel:

Fowles’ performance against the Wings was incredibly impressive, but the single most impressive play of the week came from her fellow MVP Moore. With 23.5 seconds remaining and the Lynx down by one in New York, Moore took an inbounds pass from Whalen and launched an incredible three-pointer to give the Lynx a lead they would not relinquish. Moore was well-defended too. Shavonte Zellous had a hand in her face, but Moore was not missing this shot. Plays like this one are what makes Moore so great. She didn’t have the best night shooting the ball, but with the game on the line, she stepped up and delivered.

Theme of the Week:

It’s corny, but the theme of the week is perspective. Because the Lynx have championship aspirations, you can forgive the concern at their relatively slow start. Especially in this condensed season, there isn’t a ton of time for them to gel. But remember not to blow things out of proportion. The Lynx are 2-2. They don’t want to finish the season .500, but they’ve also only lost two games. They can bounce back. As I’ve outlined above, there are many reasons for optimism. It’s not a good practice to say that things are systemic when they’re working, and fluky when they’re not, but the Lynx legitimately have numbers to back up their claim that they are one of the best teams in the WNBA, it’s only a matter of time before their record starts reflecting it.

Quote Corner:

“The identity of this team is grinding out hard games on the road. We needed that. It could have gone one direction or the other. Getting key stops, that’s how you win on the road. Five minutes to go in the game, we have a chance to win the game, so we gut it out, and that’s what it took.” –Reeve on the win over the Liberty

“They just came out and were aggressive. They sent their guards to the rim, as well, to rebound. That also hurt us because their guards got in there to rebound, it wasn’t just their bigs. They capitalized on that tonight.” –Fowles on the Lynx’s loss to the Mystics

“The great ones have something a little extra, and Katie Smith is in that category. There’s a passion inside of her for the game of basketball. The way she played, she was a fierce competitor and hated to lose. She hates to lose! You should have seen that handshake. We are both the same, we hate to lose. You just don’t want to hear great game in that moment. I think it’s stupid that we shake hands. The way the NBA does it, with the wave, I prefer that. She’s just an absolute competitor. That’s why she’s a gold medalist, WNBA Champion. All the things she’s accomplished, she’s very deserving of being in the hall of fame.” –Reeve on Katie Smith

What’s Next:

The Lynx are in Atlanta Tuesday night facing Renee Montgomery and the Dream. They’re back home on Friday hosting the Mercury before traveling to L.A. next Sunday. The team has a few days off next week, but the string of games on the road continues. Things aren’t getting easier for Minnesota any time soon.