Shootaround Access: Lynx vs. Sparks

Mark Remme
Lynx Editor/Writer

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The “next game is the biggest game” philosophy is nothing new to the Minnesota Lynx—it’s something the team has said before virtually every game during the 2012 season. It’s an important motto to follow for the defending champion particularly since the Lynx get every team’s best shot each night.

Heading into tonight’s matchup with Los Angeles, Minnesota isn’t straying from that mentality. The Lynx were adamant during their morning shootaround that tonight’s 7 p.m. tilt at Target Center against the team with the Western Conference’s second-best record is just as important as every other matchup in their 34-game regular season schedule.

If the Lynx follow their gameplan and stay focused on the game ahead, they’ll be in good shape.

“It’s extremely important: It’s the next game,” center Taj McWilliams-Franklin said. “So that is the game we’re most focused on and nothing else.”

Of course, this matchup includes several other aspects that will have implications beyond tonight. The Sparks come in having lost two straight road games, and a defeat against Minnesota would put them at 4.0 games behind the Lynx in the Western Conference’s race for the top playoff seed. With three weeks to play, time is running out for both the Sparks and San Antonio Silver Stars to catch Minnesota and its 21-4 record. Those three teams are a combined 34-4 at home compared to 23-17 on the road, so securing home court in the West is a goal they each share.

For the Lynx, having that four-game lead would be a nice lead heading into a rather long stretch away from Target Center. After Friday’s game at home against Atlanta, Minnesota will play six of its final seven regular season games on the road.

If there’s one thing about tonight’s tilt coach Cheryl Reeve pointed to as most important, it’s taking care of business on home court.

“It’s a home game, and I think we’re going to have great focus on wanting to do well here,” Reeve said. “And I think the end result is that perhaps it gets separation for us, but that’s not what the mindset is for us. You focus on the task, and the big picture happens later.”

Tonight’s matchup will likely come down to the Lynx’s ability to control the rebounding game as well as put pressure on Sparks guard Kristi Toliver, who is leading the team with 18.7 points per game and is shooting a career-best 50.0 percent from the floor.

On the offensive glass, Minnesota has reaped the benefits of McWilliams-Franklin, Rebekkah Brunson and Maya Moore owning the boards over the past week. In the past two games against Tulsa and San Antonio, the trio pulled down a combined 29 offensive rebounds and were crucial in the Lynx pulling out a pair of home wins. Brunson has been on a roll in that department since the break; she’s got 30 offensive rebounds in her past six games and has pulled down five or more in five straight contests.

That could be a big factor tonight against L.A., because the Sparks’ front court tandem of Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike are equally dangerous on the boards. Minnesota owns an 88-66 points in the paint advantage over the Sparks in two meetings this year.

Parker and Ogwumike are combining for 6.0 offensive rebounds per game in 2012, and Reeve said Ogwumike is averaging six put-back points each night. Containing her and making sure she doesn’t get fouled on those put-backs will be pivotal tonight.

As for Parker, who is averaging 17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, the key will be McWilliams-Franklin’s defense. Mama Taj said it’s important to play physical and be prepared for Parker’s multi-faceted offensive attack, particularly understanding that Parker has a second and third option in mind when she’s attacking the rim. She likes to get the defender off balance with her first move, then try to score on her second or third move to the hoop.

With Toliver, who was 6-for-6 from 3-point range and scored 29 points against Minnesota in a 96-90 win on July 5, the key will be making sure she doesn’t get easy looks at the basket—especially early. Guard Lindsay Whalen said hitting a couple shots early gives any player confidence, and making it difficult on Toliver from the start could be the difference between a big night and an average night.

Reeve said with Toliver teams need to respect her 3-point efficiency, but she also has the ability to do damage inside and get to the foul line.

“We need to make sure we get to her on the full court, make her think about things and then see if we can’t run our schemes and get deflections and get her under duress,” Reeve said. “If we do that, we’ll have a chance [to contain her].”

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