Column: The Devil’s In The Details As Lynx Seek More Balanced, Consistent Play

Man, has it been a strange week for the Lynx. They lost to the Indiana Fever at home in a game everyone expected them to win, beat the Los Angeles Sparks in what might have been the best game of the season, then turned around and dropped a road game in Chicago to a Sky team with a far inferior record, before absolutely clobbering the Fever in Indiana on Wednesday afternoon.

Consistency has been enemy No. 1 for the Lynx this entire season. They’ve flashed an incredibly high level of play, but they’ve also turned in several confusingly bad performances.

The undeniable truth about this season is that it will always be viewed in the context of Minnesota’s rough start. Even the best teams lose a few games they should win, but the margin for error, especially in terms of perception by the media, has changed.

“We’re not going to be perfect. We’ve dug this hole at the beginning that now anything we do, we win seven straight and you guys are like ‘Ok cool you’re back,’ then we lose one to an Indiana team and you guys are like ‘Oh they’re Jekyll and Hyde,’” said coach Cheryl Reeve. “So, no matter what we do unless we win all of our games, because of that beginning we’ve created this scenario.”

Of course there’s a narrative—the Lynx are one of the most dominant teams in WNBA history, any cracks in the armor are headline-making material—but it’s easy to forget that there were obstacles in those other seasons as well. What’s remembered is the championships, what’s forgotten is the work.

However, the last thing the Lynx want to be doing now is thinking about the big picture narrative of their season. What’s really holding them back are the little things.

“When you don’t pay attention to detail at both ends of the floor you’re very up and down,” said Reeve. “Sometimes you set a good screen, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you take a good shot, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you play the scheme, sometimes you don’t. That leads to very up and down [play].”

The Lynx are also seeking increased balance in their offensive game—most notably, there has been a consistent need for a third scorer. It’s not enough to expect perfection from Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles every single night. The games where the Lynx have looked the strongest they’ve gotten scoring from elsewhere on the roster.

It doesn’t need to be the same person every single night, but with defenses keying in on Moore and Fowles, Minnesota needs to make teams pay for their focus on shutting down the Lynx’s star players.

“We’re certainly going to win games if Maya and Syl are good, but in order for us to achieve higher level goals, it’s always been about balance,” said Reeve. “It’s about finding points at your point guard position, it’s about the bench coming in and they don’t know which way you’re going to go. Right now, it’s just key on Syl, key on Maya, keep [Seimone Augustus] under control, don’t let her go nuts, then where else? We’ve got to develop that balance.”

Finding more scoring shouldn’t be difficult with the talent on the Lynx roster, but it’s complicated by the fact that it’s a different person every night who provides that punch. There hasn’t been a single player that has emerged to fill that role, so the game plan changes. Sometimes it depends on matchups, sometimes it’s just whoever is feeling it that night.

“We need a third scorer. Every game we need a third scorer,” said Reeve. “Whether that comes from a starter or bench player, you need a third scorer. But you also need the others, whether it’s four or six, you need to have that extra. It can’t just be three scorers. To be a really good offensive team that’s what you hunt for.”

The development of Cecilia Zandalasini has been a huge positive for the Lynx this year, but she’s not quite ready to step into a role of scoring double digits for the Lynx every night. Zandalasini is undeniably talented, and an incredible shooter, but she still has trouble getting her own shot and taking defenders off the dribble. Sometimes the ball sticks with Zandalasini as her understanding of the Lynx offense develops. That will all come, and the young Italian may well become that third option for the team down the line, but for now, Zandalasini’s role is more as a bench threat than a game-in game-out scorer.

The role of that third scorer is going to be passed around from game to game, but it will usually fall to the talented and crafty Seimone Augustus. The Lynx are a different team when Augustus plays at her best. Provided Fowles and Moore are performing, the addition of Augustus’ shooting pushes the Lynx offense to a different level.

This is all really easy to write—of course the Lynx offense is better when their players score. But the Lynx have a formidable defense and are one of the best rebounding teams in the league. They don’t need to put up points like the Storm or the Sun to win games. When they score over 80 points the Lynx have only lost one game. They average 79.1 points per game on the season.

“Eighty has got to be our number on offense,” said Reeve. “We’re looking at our actions, this is that point in time where you have a couple days where you can look pretty hard at what are we doing well, and how to put ourselves in more positions of doing those things, what are you not doing well, let’s try to haul those things back, not do that as much. Some of it is personnel some of it is schemes.”

Eighty points. Let’s break that down. Fowles and Moore should be good for a combined 40, so already that number is cut in half. If Augustus gets to double digits that leaves 30 or so unclaimed points on the table. Zandalasini has been hitting a couple threes every game and usually at least one additional shot from the field, so let’s say she gets eight. Throw in another eight from Rebekkah Brunson and you only need to find 14 points—seven buckets—from elsewhere on the roster. The trio of Danielle Robinson, Tanisha Wright and Lindsay Whalen can certainly get at least two buckets each (Robinson had 15 in the win against the Fever) and throw in a field goal from the rapidly-improving Temi Fagbenle and you’ve got yourself 80 points!

Eighty is a reasonable number for the amount of talent the Lynx have on offense, and the team’s proficiency on defense affords them some room for error, but this scoring output is far easier said than done. The Lynx are a relatively deep squad, but with that depth comes the difficulty of players not always knowing what their role or minutes will look like on any given night. When you have a lot of different kinds of talent at your disposal, and many ways to approach different matchups, that can sometimes be harder than having more limited options. Throw in the inevitable fatigue that comes with this shortened season and Reeve has herself a bear of a coaching job.

Reeve is more than up to the task, but it’s a learning process for her too. Early-season experiments with minute management failed, but fatigue has been hurting the Lynx lately. What do you do when the excuses are also the real reasons behind your failure?

“Eight games in 16 days you’re going to get slippage,” said Reeve. “Like I told the team, there’s no team that isn’t going to go through being tired. You got to win the game. It’s like Seattle did last night they played tired, won the game, and then talk about how tired you are. Don’t lose the game then go oh well we were tired. Win the game.”

It’s been a two steps forward, one step back kind of year for the Lynx, but they’re still in a position to make some noise down the stretch. However, thinking about the postseason as anything more than motivation to perform well every single night is a trap Minnesota doesn’t want to fall into. In a grind of a season, it’s the little things that count—setting screens, finding the open shot, sticking to the defensive scheme. You can’t build a skyscraper without first laying the foundation, and oddly enough that’s what this year seems to be about. It’s not what everyone expected, and it’s probably not what they’d hoped for, but this is the season the Lynx have now, and it’s on them to keep fighting in what is turning into one of the most competitive WNBA seasons ever.

“It’s been a funky year,” said Reeve. “However, many losses we have and we still have a chance of achieving our goals. But it’s not even about that right now, we’re just so locked in on wanting to play at a higher level, with more consistency.”

Highlight Reel:

The highlight of the week has got to be the Robinson three-point shots! Robinson hit the first two threes of her career in the Lynx’s win over the Fever.

While Robinson is a decent shooter, her game has always been mostly about getting to the rim and she has never attempted all that many threes. However, if she can start hitting from beyond the arc (or at least establishing that threat), look out. A better-shooting Robinson would have the ability to make her defenders pay for sagging off of her, or blow by them if they play her tight. Even in the game against Indy, the three-pointers opened up her ability to use her pump-fake to get defenders in the air. Robinson is a super unique player in the WNBA because of her speed, and it’s been really fun to see her find ways to open up games for Minnesota. Keep shooting, D-Rob!

Theme of the Week:

Defense. While the Lynx offense has struggled at times in the last week, they’ve consistently been one of the best, if not the best, defenses in the WNBA. Over their last five games the Lynx have allowed their opponents the fewest points, and have the lowest defensive rating in the league. Some of these stats are a function of competition—the Lynx haven’t exactly been seeing high-powered offenses lately—but Minnesota’s consistency on defense has been absolutely crucial in their successes. They continue to play great defensive schemes, rebound the ball, and force bad shots. If they keep doing those things like they are now when the competition gets better in the coming weeks, the Lynx will walk away with a lot of wins.

Quote Corner:

“One of the losses was to this team, obviously, at our place. I think the Lynx’s focus was about trying to be as good of a team as we know ourselves to be. We had a good couple days after our road trip in Chicago where we got together a good couple days of work and really focused on some of the details that we were missing. It was time well spent.” –Cheryl Reeve on the Lynx’s win in Indiana.

“I think it’s been well documented, the progress this league has made. Just the level of talent, it’s better over the years. Look at the class that came in this year. Obviously, they’ve got Diamond here in Chicago, we’ve seen a number of other young players that are just really, really good, so I think it’s a product of the league being around for so long, that evolution that you see, and these kids, they don’t know a life without the WNBA. They have a chance growing up to have a dream and work for something.”—Reeve on the growth of young WNBA talent.

“Two days make a whole lot of difference, especially when you can put eyes on things. Like I said, the stuff that we watched was very correctable. Just going out there with a clean slate, knowing that it was a new game and just trying to play my game and take what LA gave me. Everything pretty much just worked in our favor tonight.”—Sylvia Fowles on the Lynx’s win over the Sparks.

What’s Next:

The Lynx are back at home for a while now. The Aces are in town on Friday, followed by the Sun on Sunday. Then Minnesota faces the Fever yet again for an afternoon game at Target Center next Wednesday. These are all winnable games, and the Lynx should jump on the opportunity to climb in the standings before the All-Star break.