Defense and Bench Play Have Been Key Factors in Lynx Turnaround

(image credit: courtesy of the Minnesota Lynx on Twitter)

Following a rough start to the 2021 WNBA season, the Minnesota Lynx have started to figure things out entering the month of June as they near the one-third mark in the regular-season schedule.

The Lynx began the new year with a winless record through four games, but have since picked things up by winning three of their last four to climb out of the bottom of the league standings and back into the thick of things with other playoff hopefuls. Eight games into the 2021 campaign, Minnesota is now in the middle of a stretch that could make or break its season, so the recent winning ways have been a much-needed pick-me-up to get back on track.

“I think morale is definitely a lot higher,” Napheesa Collier said. “I think this is definitely the path that we want to be on. There are things we still want to work, but it’s still early in the season. If we can continue to build on (winning games), I think we’ll be OK.”

Minnesota (3-5) is No. 10 in the league standings entering Saturday’s game against the Los Angeles Sparks, but they are still very much in a position to continue to rise up the latter in the coming weeks. In order to do that, the Lynx will have to continue to focus on two key factors which have fed into the recent success: defensive performance and bench play.

In their three victories this season, defense and bench play have been two areas Minnesota has been much better in compared to when they’ve lost. As the Lynx look to continue the recent uptick since the calendar flipped to June, defense and bench play will continue to be two areas of focus.

The Defense 

A key piece to the Lynx’s success over the years has been their ability to limit opposing teams with their shutdown defense. It’s something that Cheryl Reeve and her coaching staff have stressed the importance of every year.

That continues to be the case for Minnesota this year, but it’s been an area filled with inconsistency in the early stages. When the Lynx are playing well defensively, led by deflections and keeping teams out of the paint, it opens things up for the offense and makes them tough to face.

“Deflections are something we keep track of every game and is something that is really important to us,” Collier said. “We know that it gets in teams’ heads and we can turn those into steals which gets us more shots on goal. … That’s something that’s really important to us.”

Through eight games, Minnesota holds a defensive rating of 99.8 (eighth in WNBA) while giving up an average of 82.3 points (seventh), 33 of those points allowed coming in the paint (sixth) on average. Opposing teams are also shooting 43.8 percent from the field (10th) and 35.8 percent from three (ninth).

The Lynx have looked much better defensively in wins compared to when they come up short:

Defensive Performance in Wins vs. Losses

Wins (3 games) Losses (5 games)
Defensive Rating 97.5 101.2
Opponent Points Per Game 79.3 84.0
Opponent Points in Paint 24.0 38.4
Opponent Field Goal Percentage 41.5% 45.2%
Opponent Assists Per Game 17.3 21.4
Turnovers Forced  17.0 14.0
Steals 8.7 6.4
Points Off Turnovers 19.0 10.6

“From a defensive standpoint, I think we’re defending in the quarter-court really well. … I think we’re just starting to understand how hard we have to play,” Reeve said. “Being hard to play against and being able to finish plays, when we get to that point and do those things, that’s when I think we’re a really good team when you’re playing off your defense.

“We cleaned up some things (on defense) where we said that we needed to better. … I thought (the players) took that to heart.”

Defense will continue to play a big role in how Minnesota performs the rest of the season. And with trust and chemistry starting to build with the roster nearly a month in the year, the Lynx feel as though they can build off the recent success on that side of the floor moving forward.

“It’s about trust, it’s about being connected, and I think that starts on defense. When our defense is able to stand up and hit adversity and push through it, that’s when our offense gets way easier,” Kayla McBride said. “Our identity is slowly becoming being a defensive-oriented team that plays in transition and plays off each other. … That’s just kind of what we’re falling into. We have to stick to our guns on defense and rebounding.”

The Bench 

Bench play has also driven winning for the Lynx, especially late in games.

The Lynx bench has ranked sixth in bench points (20.5), sixth in field-goal percentage (38.5 percent), first in assists (7.5) and fourth in overall plus/minus (plus-0.3) as a unit. In the three wins, that second unit has stepped up on multiple occasions and has proven to be nearly as valuable as defense has become to Minnesota.

With the recent addition of Layshia Clarendon and the veteran guard moving into more of a starting point guard role the last few games, that has resulted in Crystal Dangerfield moving to the bench to provide a nice spark to that group on both ends of the floor, especially late in games. Bridget Carleton, Natalie Achonwa, Rachel Banham, and Jessica Shepard have all stepped up to complement the starting five, and rookie Rennia Davis is set to join that group when she returns from a foot fracture.

“Shoutout Rachel Banham, (Natalie Achonwa), Jess (Shepard), Crystal (Dangerfield),” McBride said. “When our bench is playing like that, it’s really hard to stop us. I’m really proud of how we’ve trusted each other and are coming together.”

Like is the case with their defensive performance, the bench has played a key role into the success or shortcomings of the Lynx as we approach the one-third mark of the regular season.

Performance of the Bench
Wins (3 games) Losses (5 games)
Points Per Game 26.0 17.2
Rebounds Per Game 8.3 10.0
Assists Per Game 7.0 7.8
Steals 2.3 1.6
Field Goal Percentage 51.0% 32.0%
Three-Point Percentage 36.8% 25.7%
Minutes Played 13.0 11.3
Plus/Minus +1.9 -0.7

Like the defense, the bench has improved for the Lynx over the last few weeks, which has led to the team cracking the win column after an 0-4 start. They have been two key factors for Minnesota lately, and now the Lynx hope to keep those trends rolling to climb out of an early-season hole and get back on track this season.

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