BENNETT: Fixing the Lynx’ Perimeter Defense

Written By Zach Bennett (ColdOmaha.com)

Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve after last Wednesday’s overtime loss to New York vehemently condemned her team’s perimeter defense, calling it the biggest disappointment of the season thus far. “It’s not registering. We’re not getting it done,” she said during her postgame presser.

“Perimeter players on every team have their way with us and therefore put so much pressure on our post players. It creates opportunities on the glass because we can’t keep it in front of us. We can’t get out there and guard the three, so obviously we’ve got to figure it out.”

In that moment it would have been fair to say Reeve — who holds the highest winning percentage (regular season and playoffs) of any coach in WNBA history — was more frustrated with her team than she has been all season. Rightfully so, as the Lynx had just lost their third consecutive game, having been beaten by a New York team playing without Tina Charles, the WNBA’s leading scorer and rebounder.

Two days later, Reeve, calmly and transparently, given time to review the tape, expounded on which aspects of perimeter defense she would like to see ameliorated going forward. “Staying in front,” she explained.

“Staying in front is just so vital. We’re aware of it. We’re trying not to need help, but, it just so happens that in these three games the opponent shot 46 percent from three. That’s the poison that we’re choosing. We’re not going to change and rip apart what we do well, what’s worked for us for a while.”

Statistically speaking, the Lynx are one of the league’s stingiest defensive teams. But, as Reeve points out, it just so happens that they lost games in which opponents shot incredibly well from behind the three-point line. Los Angeles (11-of-19), New York (8-of-17) and Washington (11-of-29) combined to shoot 46.2 percent (30-of-65) from beyond the arc in their respective victories over the Lynx.

Aside from what happened during the three game losing streak, the Lynx have not had trouble defending the three-point line. Opponents have knocked down threes at a 30.3 percent clip, a mark that drops to 26.1 percent when we remove games lost from the equation. Only Los Angeles and New York have held foes to a lower three-point percentage this season.

Before we delve into the ways in which certain teams recently exposed what Reeve considers to be the Lynx biggest weakness, perimeter defense, remember that her defensive philosophy is predicated around protecting the paint.

The Lynx aim to force opponents into settling for non-paint twos — shots taken from within the 3-point arc but outside the painted area — but they can live with a possession that ends with an opponent shooting a contested three. Such a strategy can be described as playing the percentages, being that opponents have made 56.2 percent of shots attempted within 1-5 feet of the basket this season, compared to 30.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Embedded below is a compilation of plays in which the Lynx had help defenders drop into the paint, so as to deter an offensive player from getting closer to the rim. Relatively speaking, regardless of outcome, knowing what we know about shots the Lynx want to give up, these are not poorly defended possessions. Notice that most of the contested outside shots happen after an extra defender drops down to protect the painted area, thereby preventing dribble-penetration. When this happens, aside from putting a hand up to contest, there is not all that much the defense can do to stop shooters from making shots.
Communication is another important aspect of perimeter defense, too, one where teams can almost always improve, especially in pick-and-roll situations.

But if the video above shows examples of well-defended possessions, where can the Lynx tighten things up on the defensive end, specifically as it pertains to perimeter defense?

“Can we do some things better to limit the threes? Sure, yeah,” Reeve admitted last Friday.

“The ones where they’re running off of screens and we’re not beating them to spots, or we’re taking the wrong path, those are the ones we gotta clean up.”

Reeve also acknowledged that the Lynx have struggled to get around screens. “That’s the area [where we’re], I don’t know if frustrating is the right word, perplexed, I think, in terms of the decision making on the path that we’re taking,” she added.

The video below shows a few examples of what I believe she might be talking about, possessions wherein perimeter defenders were screened either on or off the ball, resulting in easy baskets (3-pointers or otherwise). Note that possessions in which opponents ultimately missed shots were included, as these could be considered defensive miscues.

It has become abundantly clear that the Lynx, the league’s oldest and most experienced team, must improve at the defensive end to have any chance at capturing back-to-back titles for the first time in franchise history.