Rule tweaks can’t stop Lynx offense

MINNEAPOLIS — Leave it to the Minnesota Lynx to man the forefront of the WNBA’s rule-change benefits.

Extending the 3-point line and promulgating a defensive three-seconds rule undoubtedly opened up the floor for every team, but no team has taken quite as much advantage as the two-time defending Western Conference champions. While Minnesota’s downturn in overall scoring and 3-point percentage this season mirrors an expected league-wide trend, the Lynx continue to pace the 12-club ensemble in offensive prowess.

They boast the WNBA’s best record (21-7) even after dropping four games in five outings earlier this month. They lead the league in scoring (83.11 points per game) and point differential (+8.79) for the second season in a row. They remain a favorite to claim their second championship in three seasons.

One huge reason: effective use of real estate.

“With the 3-point line being farther back and the defensive three seconds, the floor is kind of opening up now,” wing Seimone Augustus said. “The refs are kind of adjusted to making the calls and things like that, so the floor is a lot more open for us to make the cuts that we need or make the plays that we need to.”

Heading into Saturday’s home clash with Seattle, the Lynx’s scoring average has dropped almost three points from a year ago. Its 35.3 3-point percentage is almost a full five percentage points below its 40-percent mark in 2012.

It’s no different around the league. Last season, WNBA teams shot 35 percent from 3, compared to 32.4 percent this year.

Moving the 3-point stripe from 20 feet, 6 ¼ inches to the international standard of 22 feet, 1 ¾ inches has, of course, played a significant role in the drop-off in perimeter production. But it also stretches defenses a couple more feet.

When coupled with much more belabored defensive rotations resulting from the three-second mandate, it’s all the space slasher-shooters like Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Maya Moore require.

“I like where we position ourselves,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “It’s almost a foot (more space). So we use that line to go get open in certain areas; I definitely think that’s a help.”

Every player has reacted differently from an outside shooting perspective. Augustus has been just as prolific a scorer as always, but a lot of her buckets now come via long two-pointers.

“I never look down,” said Augustus, who averages 16.2 points per game and is shooting a team-best 52.6 percent from the field. “I’m not a 3-point shooter as it is; I just kind of knock down the open shots as they come.”

Moore, on the other hand, has actually improved her exterior touch.

Coming off a spectacular international season in China, she’s not only been able to get open on the backdoor wing for more 3-point opportunities; she’s knocking them down at the best clip of her career.

Moore is shooting 44.4 percent from long range, a number that ranks fourth among qualifying WNBA sharpshooters. But that’s on 133 attempts — 55 more than No. 1 3-point artist Elena Delle Donne, who has made 48 percent of her 78 3 tries.

“Maya doesn’t see a line,” Reeve said. “Maya does her thing.”

Like the majority of WNBA athletes, Moore is no stranger to the worldwide 3-point distance. Most of them play in international leagues, part of the WNBA’s reasoning in moving the line back.

But with the open lanes it helps create, some players, like Whalen, have adjusted their game accordingly.

Minnesota’s hard-nosed point guard was never a super-frequent 3-point shooter but did hit the occasional one in her younger years. She’s replaced that part of her game with more pull-up jumpers and slick finishes at the rim.

Whalen has thrown up only eight 3-pointers all season. She hasn’t made any of them.

That’s less attempts than center Janel McCarville, who’s 5-for-11 from outside in her first WNBA season since 2010. There’s no fluke to that number; assistant Jim Petersen works with every Lynx post player on outside shooting at the end of every practice, as Reeve’s offense often places them on the elbow or wing with the ball in their hands.

If there’s an open shot there, the coaching staff wants them to be able to hit it.

“We wanted her to be able to stretch the defense,” Reeve said of McCarville. “Anybody that was around us early on knows that all of our bigs have really focused on shooting 3s, NBA 3s, and just really expanding our range.”

But the meat of Minnesota’s scoring has come via the dribble-drive, exactly as the league’s new rules were intended to aid. When Whalen, Augustus and Moore aren’t slicing in for lay-ins or connecting on mid-range looks, they’re finding McCarville or Rebekkah Brunson on a block or kicking out to each other for perimeter shots.

The Lynx’s field-goal percentage of 47 is second only to Los Angeles (48.1 percent).

“I enjoy it,” said Moore, the league’s No. 4 scorer at 18.1 points per game. “It adds a little more of a challenge for some of those big players to continue to step up and try to knock those down. But more than anything, I really do enjoy the spacing that it creates.”

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