WNBA

Lynx make statement that they’re legitimate WNBA title contenders

Lynx make statement that they're legitimate WNBA title contenders

ELMONT, N.Y. — Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve delivered a clear message ahead of her team’s first Commissioner’s Cup championship game. Win, she told her team in the pregame locker room Tuesday, and people will start discussing the Lynx as real title contenders.

“You have to talk about us now,” Reeve said later that night, wearing a championship hat for the first time since 2017.

The Lynx entered the season overlooked and underappreciated amid a growing list of WNBA Finals favorites. New York and Las Vegas returned every starter from their superteam squads that clashed in the 2023 Final. Seattle and Phoenix crashed into the conversation with their own All-Star free agency signings. Though they weren’t projected to compete for the title, Indiana, Chicago and Los Angeles drew their own attention with hyped lottery picks.

That left Minnesota, the most recent WNBA dynasty that won four championships in seven years, battling for relevance. A Commissioner’s Cup victory, which the Lynx secured with a 94-89 defensive showcase against New York, gave it to them. Nearly all of the six previous Cup game participants went on to earn top seeds in the playoffs. The 2022 champion Las Vegas Aces went on to win their first WNBA championship, and the 2023 game between Las Vegas and New York became a Finals preview.

The Minnesota Lynx celebrate after defeating the New York Liberty, 94-89, to win the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup at UBS Arena. (Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports)

“It’s just a testament to where we’re at this season,” Cup MVP Napheesa Collier said. “It’s been so fun. This is the best group. The way that we’re jelling, our personalities just mesh so well, the chemistry. Any night anyone can have 20.”

Collier and Bridget Carleton broke the threshold Tuesday night with 23 and 21, respectively, to lead the Lynx. Collier accepted the trophy, but said it should have gone to Carleton for nearing a career-best performance. Carleton went 6-of-8 from deep, using triples to stop New York runs in a back-and-forth contest.

“We answered every run on the road,” Reeve said. “And that tells you everything about our basketball team and how they feel about each other, their belief in one another.”

New York could have become the first back-to-back champions in the title game’s young four-year history, and most attention was on the Liberty. Asked pregame about stopping New York’s dynamic duo of Sabrina Ionescu and Breanna Stewart, Reeve countered she has one of her own in Kayla McBride and Collier, a league-leading 3-point shooter and a standout MVP candidate respectively.

Ionescu and Stewart arguably won the battle by scoring a combined 47 points and shooting 50% to McBride’s and Collier’s 33 points on 34%. Ionescu shot 75% in the first half, but neither she nor McBride (2-of-9) shot particularly well from 3.

It was the cast around them that determined the game offensively. Cecilia Zandalasini scored 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting off the bench for the Lynx. Liberty center Jonquel Jones scored only three points, all from late free throws. It was a season low, coming in below her four-point outing against Minnesota last month.

That’s the game McBride said the team began to settle in offensively and complement a defensive effort that had been there since training camp.

“If you look at our New York game at home, that was one of our more efficient games. Everybody did everything,” McBride said at shootaround. “When you have games [with a] team’s five starters scoring in double figures, that’s a testament to an efficient offensive team.”

The defense continued to show up against New York. The Lynx lead the league in 3-point defense (27.1%) and although New York shot 41.4% from 3 (second best against the Lynx this season), Minnesota’s defense cooled off the Liberty enough after the hot first half.

“We make it really hard for teams,” Collier said. “Our aggressiveness, our willingness to sell out on anything. We have each other’s back on defense, and I think it’s really hard for teams to play against that.”

Minnesota made up for the Liberty’s solid 3-point shooting by taking the ball (12-7 steal advantage) and more crucially getting points off turnovers (27-9). Four players had at least two steals and collectively they sped the Liberty up and forced them deep into the shot clock repeatedly.

“We weren’t able to get really anything that we wanted and they kept finding, no matter who it was, one of their players [to hit] corner 3s, late shot-clock 3, late shot-clock something,” Stewart said. “And that’s going to make it really difficult for us, and obviously 21 turnovers is never going to win the game.”

Minnesota has now defeated New York twice, Seattle three times, Phoenix twice (2-1) and Las Vegas once. The Lynx lead in defensive rating (87.6), rank third in offensive rating (102.3) and have two of the league’s top-20 scorers. They lifted the season’s first trophy, celebrated in the curtained-off hallways at UBS Arena and turned their attention to a matinee game on Thursday, when the condensed season resumes for them in Dallas.

“You always want to win championships,” Collier said. “This is a championship that we won. But at the end of the day, there's more work to be done. We're only not even halfway through the season. And there's a lot of games to be played and we want to build upon this. We don't want to peak here.”

More than a trophy, the Lynx received another indication they’re ready to be talked about as title contenders. The Liberty, runners-up still seeking their first WNBA championship, are looking to emulate the success.

“It’s a great learning experience to be honest,” Ionescu said. “It’s not like we’re not going to face this team again. And I think we can continue to learn what they’re doing great defensively and try to use it ourselves as well.”

Minnesota comes back to New York to the Liberty’s real home at Barclays Center on Tuesday. That game, unlike the Commissioner’s Cup championship, counts in the standings.

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