Lynx Does It With Defense

Kevin Pelton, | Sep. 23, 2004
It is said that sports teams often take on the personalities of their coaches, and the 2004 Minnesota Lynx are no exception. In their second year under Suzie McConnell Serio, the Lynx has developed into the same kind of feisty, scrappy team that their coach was during her basketball career, which included a Kodak All-American first team selection, two trips to the Olympics and an All-WNBA first team selection for the first of her three WNBA seasons. Not bad for someone listed at just 5-foot-5 - taller than only one current WNBA player.

McConnell Serio's team has taken on her hard-nosed personality.
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty
"You're looking at a Pittsburgh girl, blue-collar mentality," says McConnell Serio's Seattle Storm counterpart and former Olympic teammate, Anne Donovan. "She was an overachiever as a player. You look at Suzie at 5-foot-whatever she is, 5-foot-5, to be an Olympian, be a successful player and coach, she's definitely got the mentality."

A year ago, the Lynx did not have that same mentality. Minnesota was tied for the second-best offense in the Western Conference in terms of points per possession, but was the conference's second-worst defensive team. To blame was a lopsided roster that forced McConnell Serio to use a lineup with three forwards and no center much of the season. Janell Burse's insertion into the starting lineup helped change that down the stretch, but that left forward Sheri Sam coming off the bench.

Over the off-season, McConnell Serio and Lynx Chief Operating Officer Roger Griffith presided over a makeover of the team to fit it more to McConnell Serio's image. The cost - Sam and Burse were both traded to the Storm - was high, but, after one season, the Lynx has to be pleased with the results. Led by four rookies who have adapted quickly to the WNBA at the defensive end of the court and Helen Darling, once McConnell Serio's protégé in Cleveland, the Lynx have quietly become the WNBA's answer to Eastern Conference NBA teams like the Pat Riley Knicks and Heat or the current Detroit Pistons.

With leading scorer Katie Smith missing the final 11 games of the season, the Lynx finished up as unofficially the WNBA's worst offensive team at 88.8 points per 100 possessions (official figures are not yet available). However, the Lynx still went 18-16 and made the playoffs by allowing opponents just 90.5 points per 100 possessions, the league's best mark.

How offensive- or defensive-minded a team is can be evaluated by comparing their ratings at each end of the court to league average. The Lynx were 5.9 points per 100 possessions worse than the league average of 94.7 points per 100 possessions on offense, but 4.2 points per 100 possesions better on defense. Add the two marks, and the Lynx were 10.0 points per 100 possessions better on defense than offense.

What makes that figure remarkable is how balanced the rest of the league was this season. The next most defensive-biased team was the Houston Comets, 3.0 points better on defense. The most offensive-biased team was the Washington Mystics, 3.5 points better on offense (the Storm was 2.7 points better on offense).

Without putting too fine a point on it, the fact is that what the Lynx did this season was relatively unprecedented in the WNBA. Most teams that show such a high defensive bias are, like last year's Phoenix Mercury, "okay" on defense and abominable with the basketball (the 2000 Seattle Storm also fall into this category).

The closest comparison for the current Lynx squad is probably the 2000-01 Miami Sol of Ron Rothstein (assisted by current Storm assistant Jenny Boucek). In 2000, the Sol was the most competitive of that year's four expansion teams, going 13-19 and finishing third in the 16-team WNBA in defense, 15th in offense. The following year, Miami went 20-12 despite the league's 12th-best offense, ranking second on d.

Historical perspective aside, the Lynx's defensive prowess explains a lot of why a team so widely picked to be an also-ran in the Western Conference (this site, we'll sheepishly admit, had Minnesota dead last) finished in third place. Generally, a team's defensive ability is much more difficult to predict than its offensive performance, because so much relies on the interaction of players and the coach's scheme. (And, honestly, because observers are worse at analyzing defense than offense). When people wrote the Lynx off as untalented, that was an assessment of their offense, one that proved to be reasonably accurate. Nobody really realized how good Minnesota might be at the defensive end of the court.

Darling's ability to hound opposing ballhandlers has been a big part of Minnesota's defensive success.
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty
What is more important for the Storm over the course of the playoff series with the Lynx is how Minnesota has done it. Basketball on Paper author and WNBA statistical consultant Dean Oliver lists four factors of success on offense or defense: Effective field-goal percentage (which differs from traditional field-goal percentage by giving an extra half-field goal for three-pointers to account for their greater value), turnover percentage, rebound percentage and free throws divided by field goals attempted.

Of those four factors, the Lynx only has one real weakness on defense, allowing opponents to get to the free-throw line regularly. Minnesota was fourth in the WNBA in terms of committing the most fouls this season. In rebounding and forcing turnovers, Minnesota was essentially average. But the Lynx shined in terms of keeping their opponents from making shots; only they and Los Angeles, both at 43.1%, allowed opponents an effective field-goal percentage less than 44%.

As far as how the Lynx did it on the court, a lot of credit has to go to Darling, who played behind McConnell Serio as a rookie in Cleveland and with whom she shares an alma mater, Penn State. When she entered the starting lineup on June 27, Minnesota was 5-7 and had lost four of its last five games. With Darling as a starter, the Lynx went 13-9 - despite Smith's injury - and cut its scoring average allowed from 64.7 to 64.3 points per game. As a result, Darling had the second-best plus-minus rating on the Lynx, as Minnesota outscored its opponents by a point per 40 minutes with her in the game.

There's also the bench, which has become one of the trademarks of this Lynx squad. Outside of center Vanessa Hayden, this reserve group is not very talented on offense - perimeter players Amber Jacobs, Amanda Lassiter and Tasha Butts shot just 31.0%, 34.8% and 30.0% from the field, respectively, three of the worst 13 field-goal percentages in the WNBA amongst players with at least 250 minutes played - but truly got after it defensively. Three times this season, Minnesota made up double-digit deficits in the second half of games. Notably, on Jul. 9, the Lynx came back from being down 20 with 6:30 to play, and did it with the bench on the court. The group hasn't always been successful, but it has always showed great heart and determination.

With the injury to Smith - herself an underrated defensive player, though she's known for her scoring touch - Minnesota became even more defensive-minded. It was 21 forced turnovers that led the Lynx to a victory over the Storm in Minnesota on Sep. 10, and they held Los Angeles to 37.7% shooting last Friday in the victory that eventually sealed the third seed in the playoffs.

"I think that's always been their M.O., and even more so now with Katie out," Donovan says. "They have to scratch and claw and scrap to win games."

Would their coach want it any other way?