After Sunday’s loss at home to Atlanta, Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve changed her approach.
Before then, finishing with one of the top two spots in the WNBA standings — and the attendant bye into the league semifinals — was still a realistic hope.
Now it appears the Lynx, who ended a three-game losing streak with an impressive victory at Chicago on Tuesday, will have to play at least one single-elimination playoff game. And perhaps two. So, with the team headed down the stretch of the regular season, Reeve had to worry about more than just wins.
“We had to gear up for not getting as much rest,” Reeve said. “We have to try to win games without burning ourselves out.”
The Lynx played in Chicago without starting forward Rebekkah Brunson, who sustained a hairline fracture in her nose from a second-quarter elbow from Atlanta’s Tiffany Hayes on Sunday. Brunson didn’t make the trip to Chicago, and she won’t join the team in Las Vegas for Thursday’s game.
The Lynx were also without point guard Lindsay Whalen. Reeve gave her a day of rest, and might do the same Thursday.
“I haven’t made that decision yet,” Reeve said.
But what happened in Chicago has given Reeve fodder for decisions down the road.
The star of Tuesday’s victory, of course, was Maya Moore. She scored 31 points on 11-for-17 shooting; both her scoring total and her efficiency were good signs to Reeve, who had hoped Moore’s strong, aggressive second half in Sunday’s loss would carry over. It did.
“I thought she continued her aggression,” Reeve said. “She was looking for shots, she was being the go-to player. That’s what we’re used to seeing. Now we have to keep her in that phase.”
When Brunson missed three games in July, Reeve started Endy Miyem in one of those games and Temi Fagbenle in the other two, opting to replace Brunson with a big.
Tuesday Reeve moved Moore to power forward and gave Cecilia Zandalasini her first career start. Reeve liked the spacing that resulted from having two shooters on the perimeter. It gave Moore a favorable matchup on the offensive end, gave center Sylvia Fowles more space and gave Danielle Robinson — starting for Whalen — more options when she was able to penetrate into the paint.
“It’s a little different when you have the shot credibility of both Cecilia and Maya,” Reeve said. “I think it helped Seimone [Augustus], too.”
In the 85-64 win over Chicago, Robinson and Fowles each had double-doubles. All five starters scored in double figures. Zandalasini hit three of four three-pointers on the way to 11 points. And Moore was as efficient as she’s been all season.
This is a lineup Reeve will keep in the mix even when Brunson returns. It won’t always work; there will be nights when defensive matchups make the lineup difficult, and Brunson’s defense is almost always a plus.
But it’s a look Reeve liked.
“With Maya, on offense, the advantage is clear,” Reeve said. “But we have to make sure things work on defense.”
The Lynx have five regular season games to go. A victory in Vegas on Thursday would clinch a playoff berth, the eighth in a row for Minnesota. A top-two finish is likely not attainable — the Lynx are three games behind second-place Atlanta with five games to play, and the Dream has the head-to-head tiebreaker.
But sixth-place Minnesota is just two games behind Los Angeles and Washington, tied for third, with a home game with the Mystics still to come. Finishing in third or fourth place would allow the Lynx to avoid the first round of single-elimination games and give them a home date in the second round.
Of course, Reeve and her team can’t worry about anything other than Vegas right now. The Aces are in ninth place, two games out of the final playoff spot. It is a position made more difficult by their recent decision not to play a game in Washington after a difficult day of travel, a game the league ultimately made the Aces forfeit. The Aces will be playing with some desperation.
“I can’t talk about [playoff position],” Reeve said. “All we can do is try to control the controllable.”