Minneapolis – It wasn’t pretty, but a win is a win.
After stretches of bad shooting, terrible defense, and 12 first-half turnovers, the Minnesota Lynx put away the Atlanta Dream Friday, 85-74, by stitching together just enough good patches of play to extend their winning streak to six, extending back 13 days.
Maya Moore led Minnesota with 24 points, while Sylvia Fowles had 13 points and 15 rebounds, and Seimone Augustus added 10 points.
The Dream’s lockdown defense disrupted the flow for the hosts and kept the score close in the first two quarters – something that didn’t surprise Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve.
“That’s exactly the type of game – especially in the first half – that we thought it would be,” she said. “Atlanta makes you play. They’ve got the No. 1 defense in the league. They get a ton of deflections, they get in passing lanes, they get steals. They really make it difficult.”
Minnesota got out to an early lead off back-to-back baskets by Augustus, after she was held scoreless Tuesday for just the second time in her career. The team seemed to be clicking as a whole on defense, so while they were up by just three with three minutes left in the first period, Reeve felt confident enough in her reserves to take out four of her starters. That confidence withered away quickly as Temi Fagbenle and Danielle Robinson turned the ball over on consecutive possessions. Moments later Robinson turned the ball over again, and Reeve screamed for point guard Lindsay Whalen to get back into the game.
The Dream looked to be taking a narrow lead into the second quarter before Lynx reserve forward Cecilia Zandalasini hit two three-point baskets to give them a 19-18 lead. After scoring exactly seven points the last three games, Zandalasini looked poised to get past that milestone in the remaining three quarters.
“We thought maybe she should change her number to seven,” Reeve joked about Zandalasini’s three straight seven-point games. “Now she had eight so tonight was a big night for her.”
The turnovers continued in the second quarter for Minnesota, as they allowed the visitors to stay in the game on 35 percent shooting. Rebekkah Brunson turned the ball over three minutes into the quarter for the defending champions, and Fowles and Brunson each followed suit. Reeve then put back in all five starters, but at the half, they led by just three points. At the break, the team made adjustments.
“We came in at halftime and talked about our turnovers and needing to play cleaner so they don’t get their hands on our passes and dribbles,” Moore said. “Just making sure we are keeping it simple. Our defense is what boosts our offense. Forcing them to take tough twos and then push the pace. Atlanta crashes the boards really hard, allowing us chances in transition.”
The Lynx stepped on the gas in the third quarter with a flurry of shots from Augustus, Whalen and Moore, to extend their lead to 14. Imani McGee-Stafford and Brittney Sykes hit consecutive baskets for Atlanta, cutting the lead to ten and forcing Reeve to call a timeout. Fowles stayed in the game with four reserve players – Tanisha Wright, Robinson, Fagbenle, and Zandalasini – another lineup in Reeve’s long list of rotations that she has tried this season.
Zandalasini hit another basket to climb to eight points, and Brunson subbed in for Fowles, giving the reigning MVP a rest after 25 minutes of playing time through three quarters. Robinson forced a foul and hit both free throws to extend the lead to 13. After three quarters, the Lynx led 64-51.
In the fourth quarter – Minnesota’s kryptonite this season – they again combined on both sides of the floor to shut the Dream down and pad their lead to 21. The performance inspired the raucous crowd of 9,209 to their feet.
McGee-Stafford led Atlanta with 15 points, while Sykes and Damiris Dantas each added 14.
“I thought we were really effective early,” Dream coach Nicki Collen said. “They just were better than us starting out the third quarter. Lindsay got aggressive and made a couple shots, and we weren’t guarding her very hard…….Fowles was not a huge factor other than on the glass but she got them extra possessions and she turned extra possessions into baskets.”
McGee-Stafford said guarding Fowles was a challenge.
“Obviously Sylvia is the MVP,” McGee-Stafford said. “Anytime you’re going against her she’s not only strong, she’s extremely talented and athletic as well. It is heavy, heavy assignment.”
Only Brunson and Fowles tallied 30 or more minutes, Moore played 28 and Augustus and Whalen each played 22 minutes, as Reeve has been trying to give her veteran core more rest.
“It was a little uncomfortable,” Reeve admitted about using a new lineup late in the third quarter. “We had a group out there, (and) that was not something that we like to do. (They were on the floor) about three minutes. It was a very long three minutes. Something good would happen and you would be like OK, then something bad would happen and you start reaching for players, and you know you really need them for the fourth quarter, so fighting that urge.”
The Lynx, now 9-6, begin a stretch of six days where they play four games, including three at home. They start on the road against Dallas Sunday. Atlanta, 7-8, travels to Indianapolis for a match up on the same day.