Minnesota Lynx 75 @ Chicago Sky 72
Lineups: It was as expected for both teams, with the same lineups as in their previous games this season. Maya Moore had several stitches in the head wound from her collision with Seimone Augustus on Saturday, but was ready to play. Epiphanny Prince was still in street clothes after returning to the Sky on Friday.
Story of the Game: The much-anticipated matchup between Moore and Elena Delle Donne half-happened. Moore was on Delle Donne from the start, and did a solid job of sticking close to her around screens, making it difficult for her to get the ball, and then difficult to hit shots if she got them up. It’s a sign of how far Moore’s defensive game has come in the last couple of years that the Lynx gave her that assignment, while Augustus just had to stand somewhere near Tamera Young on the defensive end. Chicago avoided the reverse matchup, sliding Delle Donne over to Augustus and letting Young chase after Moore. Augustus is no easy cover herself, of course, but the Sky clearly felt Moore was the greater threat.
Delle Donne couldn’t find any space to score early on – and in fact only hit her opening shots once Moore went to the bench late in the first quarter – but Minnesota missed a lot of shots in the opening stages and allowed Chicago to take a small lead. Cheryl Reeve can’t be happy with her team’s defense in the early days of the season, despite the wins they’ve been piling up. Under her leadership they’ve been built on a tight interior and sagging help that protects the rim and prevents layups. But this year there’ve frequently been driving lanes on offer right down the middle of the Lynx defense, and they’re giving up far too many layups. Lindsay Whalen was beaten off the dribble countless times in this game, which isn’t that uncommon, but the lack of help behind her was disturbing. Obviously the loss of Rebekkah Brunson (and Devereaux Peters) hurts their interior defense, and the drop in chemistry from replacing her with a different player (regardless of talent level) hurts as well. But they have to get better. With Moore and Augustus they’ll outscore lots of teams, but defense is supposed to be your building block, especially under Reeve.
After Chicago led by as many as seven in the first quarter, Minnesota went small in the second and quickly came back into it. With Moore at power forward they were quicker and more aggressive, creating points in transition and developing some flow. Moore wasn’t doing much scoring herself, but the team looked sharper. The Sky stayed in the game largely through the shooting of Allie Quigley, who knocked down several shots from outside. She also blew a series of layups, but she was hitting everything she threw up as long as she was at least 15 feet away.
Minnesota led for the vast majority of the second half, but the gap was rarely more than four or five points. Whalen may have been getting left behind on defense by both Courtney Vandersloot and Jamierra Faulkner, but she was taking it all back at the other end on her own aggressive drives and mid-range jumpers. Moore never quite got going under the attention of Young and lots of help (and the heavy workload in three games in the space of 72 hours), but she has the all-round game to help her team even when she’s not piling up points.
We saw some 2-3 zone from Chicago, which didn’t look ready to deal with a team like the Lynx that knows how to move the ball and exploit it. But the Sky managed to slide back into the game and take the lead on a Delle Donne offensive rebound and putback midway through the fourth quarter. That one play was evidence of how much havoc she creates even when she’s not on the ball. She was looking for an entry pass in the low post, and the entire defense leaned in her direction to cover the danger. The ball reversed to a wide open Jessica Breland instead up top, who took the jump shot. Because everyone on the Lynx had been drawn out of position to hound Delle Donne and then had to try to recover to Breland, no one was in position to rebound – leaving Delle Donne on her own for the board and two points. The gravitational pull of superstars like Delle Donne and Moore can have a destructive effect even when they’re not carrying the offense with the ball in their hands.
Both teams went small for the closing stages, with Delle Donne and Breland the post pairing for Chicago, while Moore was at power forward for the Lynx alongside Janel McCarville. The extra room largely worked in Minnesota’s favour, when their ‘other’ superstar Olympians stepped up. Whalen and Augustus hit big shot after big shot down the stretch, coming off little curls for midrange jumpshots, or driving and kicking to each other. Chicago kept getting close, but those two kept holding the Sky at bay.
Quigley hit a three with under a minute to play, on a nice set drawn up by Pokey Chatman, that cut a six-point Sky deficit in half. Augustus came up just short on a drive, which gave Chicago the ball back with 22 seconds left in a one-possession game. A bizarre mix up between Chatman and Vandersloot wasted time, but they eventually got a timeout called with 12 seconds left. The ensuing play had options to both Quigley and Delle Donne, but was defended well by Minnesota and Vandersloot didn’t have an angle to get either of them the ball. Delle Donne came to get it as a last resort, but ended up having to fling a contested heave from 30 feet, which bounced hard off the rim and away. Ballgame over, and the Lynx win yet another close one.
Key Players: Moore didn’t produce the 30+ we’d been treated to in previous games, but her efforts against Delle Donne on the other end were effective. Augustus and Whalen carried the offensive load instead, although the team defense still needs some work. Tan White also produced her first meaningful stretch in a Lynx jersey in the Monica Wright role off the bench.
Jessica Breland was once again happy to benefit from all the attention being paid to Delle Donne, which isn’t to take anything away from how well Breland herself has played in their games so far. Vandersloot and Faulkner is looking like a nice point guard duo for the Sky, although they’ll be significantly better when Sylvia Fowles is back and can help cover for them defensively. Sloot is much improved on that end, but Whalen went at both of them all afternoon.
Notes of Interest: The Lynx were willing to use young forward Asia Taylor on Delle Donne when Moore rested, which was interesting. Obviously someone had to take her while Moore was on the bench, but that’s a surprising amount of trust for Reeve to place in a rookie.
Injury Report/League News
Seattle’s Jenna O’Hea has been ruled out for four-to-six weeks with a broken left pinky toe. So now one of the Storm’s psuedo-posts is out, and they’ve got even fewer options in the paint. Nicole Powell presumably becomes the primary backup to Camille Little and Crystal Langhorne, while Angel Robinson might actually be asked to leave the end of the bench and play.
Seattle @ New York, 7pm ET. Both these teams looked improved in their most recent outings (which is what ought to be happening early in the season). Tanisha Wright will hound Cappie Pondexter all night, but Seattle’s primary concern will be Tina Charles in the paint. Camille Little will try to push her out, and the Storm will send plenty of double-teams down towards her – then it becomes a case of whether New York can hit the open shots that are left elsewhere (or slash through the remaining holes to the hoop). At the other end, Seattle’s offense still needs plenty of work, and it’s a case of whether they can piece together enough points to keep them in the game. Maybe Sue Bird’s first game back in New York city for a long time will inspire her.