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Aerial Powers playing the best basketball of her career, Lynx gain a game on everyone in playoff hunt

Aerial Powers is creeping up on Sylvia Fowles as the Minnesota Lynx’s top scorer, playing up to her max contract as one of the team’s best players.

Phoenix Mercury v Minnesota Lynx
Aerial Powers
Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Aerial Powers scored 32 and 22 points, respectively, in the Minnesota Lynx’s much-talked-about back-to-back wins over the second-place Las Vegas Aces and first-place Chicago Sky right before the All-Star break. She remained one of the hottest players in the league with a career-high 35 Tuesday night in a 118-107 double-overtime win over the Phoenix Mercury at Target Center in Minneapolis.

Powers averaged then-a-career-best 11.4 points per game during the 2019 regular season before playing a key bench role for the Washington Mystics’ during their championship run in that year’s playoffs. She took on a bigger role for the Mystics in the following season’s wubble and posted scoring outputs of 27, 20 and 20 in three of the six games she appeared in before being sidelined for the remainder of the season with hamstring injury. That 2020 season was really the first signal that she could be a core star and the following offseason the Lynx felt that way, signing her to a max contract of $190,550. Powers’ first season in Minnesota was marred by more injuries that caused her to play in only 14 games. She played well in her limited time though (13.4 points per game) and the team went 10-4 with her in en route to a third-place finish. She closed the year with a 24-point performance in the team’s one playoff game, another sign that she was becoming a legit star.

This year, the Lynx have of course been without one of their two best players in Napheesa Collier (maternity leave) and began the season 3-13. Powers has been even more key to the Lynx with Collier out and, while Collier’s absence was more to blame for the poor start by the team than any shortcomings of Powers’, Powers was not satisfied with her performance.

But over the Lynx’s current three-game win streak, Powers’ scoring has been phenomenal and she has been the fuel energizing the team, as you can see from this picture:

Chicago Sky v Minnesota Lynx
Aerial Powers (jersey #3)
Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

After Tuesday night’s game, she said what has changed for her has been, “Not being just a shot-taker, but shot-maker. ... Getting my butt more in the gym. Working on shots that I think I need to. More fast break repetitions that I’ve been doing.

“I didn’t start as well as I would like to in the first half of the season. I shot poorly, really poorly. So just trying to do as much as I can, just continue to grind. And I was like, ‘Something’s gonna have to change!’ So I’m happy that I’m shooting well now.”

A sobering fact about Powers’ performance Tuesday night was her career-high nine turnovers, but, because the Lynx won, it was something the team could joke about afterwards. Head coach Cheryl Reeve pointed out that Powers nearly had a triple-double in points, rebounds (13) and turnovers.

Watching Powers Tuesday was like going on a roller coaster for Reeve.

“You just gotta go on the ride with her,” said the four-time championship-winning coach. “You try not to get too high or too low. ... She was able to come up with big baskets for us, get us off to decent starts in the overtimes. We just have to keep working on some of the other stuff.”

“Whew, I had some bad turnovers,” Powers admitted. “But at the end of the day, you gotta keep playing. I know we needed this win. My teammates helped keep me stay mentally engaged, especially when I had a couple turnovers back-to-back, cuz I think any player would kinda get down on themselves. I’m like ‘Damn, you keep turning the ball over! Ok well how can I make it up, like can I get a defensive stop, can I get a score, what can I do? Can I get a rebound?’ So just trying to stay out of my own head and keep playing. ... And thank goodness for my teammates being able to talk to me and me being able to listen to them.”

The Lynx were up 13 with 4:51 to go before Phoenix went on a 12-0 run over the next 3:22. What ended up being a two-overtime game had very much looked like it would be a Lynx win in regulation.

“I’ve watched Phoenix a lot and I knew they weren't going away,” Reeve said. “I think with a little over four minutes, we kinda got cocky. ... And we just stopped playing and we stopped being focused. And that’s obviously not something you can’t get away with. And Phoenix always comes back. Phoenix is always in the game. And it was disappointing that we didn’t respect that moment and try to really put ‘em away. But give them credit. They made big plays.”

“It should have been over earlier, as I think we all know,” said Lynx guard Rachel Banham, who was four off her career high with 25 points (6-of-9 from three). “We gave ‘em way too many opportunities at the end, those three pointers, and they were hitting, and, gosh, we just made that a lot harder on ourselves. But we can clean it up.”

Powers (14.7 points per game this season) is oh so close to overtaking Sylvia Fowles (14.8) as the Lynx’s leading scorer. The Lynx will certainly take these scoring outbursts from her where she's way above her season average. They’ll also take the 25 from Banham, who averages 7.9. Banham had another big game (24) on July 1. Before that her season high was 14.

“I think earlier in the season, she’s not somebody that responded well to my hard coaching,” Reeve said of the Minnesota native. I’ve left her alone now a little bit more. And she’s just a player that’s confident in shooting the ball. And I think she was a player that was in the beginning not shooting that well percentage-wise. I though she was playing ok, but just (not) percentage-wise. And so that’s a bit of a regression to the mean for Rachel.

“Happy for her. Without Rachel we don’t win today. Moriah (Jefferson) struggling a little bit in terms of her knee from the last game. She didn’t have what she needed to be able compete at a high level. And so we needed Rachel Banham to play the way that she did to be able to get us a win at home.”

So Tuesday was a big day for Powers and Banham. It was also a particularly good day for the team as a whole, because, in addition to the win, the next five teams above of it in the standings all lost, putting it 1.5 games out of a three-way tie for sixth.

We’ll see if the Lynx can keep rolling.