To say the Minnesota Lynx have struggled this season would be an understatement.
The defending and four-time champion Lynx have won three straight games to get back to .500. Minnesota is coming off an impressive road win in Phoenix, where the Mercury saw their eight-game winning streak come crashing down.
Minnesota (6-6) gets a chance to extend its winning streak on Sunday when it concludes a short, two-game road trip against the upstart Las Vegas Aces (5-9) at Mandalay Bay Events Center on the Las Vegas Strip.
Playing in a new city with hungry fans, a really, really good rookie and a Hall of Fame coach has energized a franchise that has not won more than eight games since it went 8-16 in 2014 while playing in San Antonio.
All coach Bill Laimbeer has done in his first season at the helm in the desert is take the league’s worst team and squeeze out five wins in the first month. Last year as the San Antonio Stars, the franchise won only eight games all year.
The rookie is No. 1 draft pick A’ja Wilson, who averages 20.8 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. Kayla McBride provides a solid second punch at 17.2 points per game.
What’s impressive is that after a slow start, Laimbeer has his squad coming together and playing better each time out. The Aces have won four of their past six games.
Las Vegas, behind McBride’s 27 points, defeated the New York Liberty on Friday. Typical of a Laimbeer-coached team, defense was on display as the Liberty managed to shoot only 37 percent from the field.
“Our defense is starting to carry us a little bit better also, giving us a chance to win,” Laimbeer said. “It worked for us tonight.”
Playing at home ignited the Aces.
“The crowd was unbelievable, and they carried us, especially in that second half,” McBride told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “It wasn’t always easy. … But I was really proud of our team and how we were able to continue to grind.”
Wilson added 20 points and 14 rebounds, but she faces perhaps her stiffest test yet when she goes up against Sylvia Fowles, Maya Moore and the rest of the Lynx, who are coming off an 11-point win over the Mercury.
Minnesota held Phoenix to 40 percent from the field, forced 17 turnovers and had a 20-12 assist advantage. All that adds up to Minnesota playing Lynx basketball, a bad sign for the rest of the league.
“From our perspective, we did a lot of things we wanted to do,” coach Cheryl Reeve said. “I thought we had pretty good focus on our game plan both offensive and defensively, had some success early, built a lead, and were able to hang on.”
The Lynx take pride in their defense and understand that is the key to climbing back to the top of the standings.
“We just wanted to try to make it difficult,” said Moore, who had 23 points and six rebounds. “They have great scorers and we had to have an understanding of what they were trying to do, because they do it so well. I thought our focus and our intensity came together pretty well for the most part on defense.”
Coming into Sunday’s game, the Aces are averaging 81 points per game and the Lynx are averaging 79.8. On defense, that’s another story. The Aces are giving up 84.9 points per game and the Lynx allow 79.2 per game.