Bill Laimbeer, coach of the New York Liberty, was incredulous when he discovered how his team’s game against the Lynx would begin.
“I don’t buy it,” he said after hearing the Lynx purposefully lose each game’s opening tipoff.
But the Lynx have not had the opening possession in any of their 20 games this season. The team did not win an opening tipoff in any game last season, either.
The last time the Lynx did win one was during the 2015 season, when they did so five times. They lost four of those five games.
The motivations are murky — part strategy without statistical basis, part superstition — but the Lynx, owners of the WNBA’s best record and winners of three of the past six league titles, do not mess with what works.
And some team members would prefer not to discuss it. Coach Cheryl Reeve said only that it was “strategy.”
“Secrets, secrets are no fun, unless you share with everyone,” forward Maya Moore said. “I’m no fun. I’m not sharing.”
The team that loses the opening tipoff receives the ball to start the second and third quarters. The Lynx believe beginning the second half with a basket provides an extra jolt of momentum.
Seimone Augustus, in her 12th season with the Lynx, said losing opening tipoffs is one of multiple quirky strategies the Lynx have, examples of Reeve’s obsession with details. Augustus declined to list any others, but she believes this one has been around since Reeve became coach in 2010.
“I don’t know what other people’s scouting reports look like,” Augustus said, “but we have a miniature phone book.”
Losing the opening tip isn’t part of scouting reports, though. It is a cemented idea, one that took 6-6 center Sylvia Fowles a few games to learn after she came to the Lynx in 2015. Four of the opening tips the Lynx lost in 2015 came within a month of Fowles arriving via trade.
“Out of habit, I used to tip it and give it to us,” Fowles said. “And she [Reeve] was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no. We don’t want the jump ball.’ ”
Now, Fowles sometimes performs a “fake jump.” She crouches and looks prepared to take off but never leaves the floor. Other times, she will tap the ball to an opponent.
And when the tipped basketball comes the Lynx’s way?
“Everybody just kind of backs up,” Augustus said.
If it works for the Patriots ...
Football teams, including the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, often defer possession to the second half with hopes of finishing the second quarter with the period’s last possession and a score. They then receive the ball to start the third quarter, which could mean two touchdowns without their opponents possessing the ball.
There are far more possessions in a basketball game than in football, so the strategy doesn’t hold for Minnesota, according to Micah Adams, a stats and info specialist with ESPN. Also, Adams said, no one possession in a basketball game is more valuable than another, so having the ball to start the second and third quarters rather than first and fourth makes no difference.
The Lynx continue to lose the opening tipoff, anyway.
“The one time we win the tip and lose the game, you just associate it with that,” assistant coach Shelley Patterson said. “Whether it’s true or not.”
Patterson isn’t certain, but she believes the practice’s genesis occurred in 2011, when the Lynx won their first championship. The starting center that season, 6-2 Taj McWilliams-Franklin, rarely won the tipoff.
“She couldn’t jump higher than a credit card,” Patterson said.
There are other practices that have continued organically after becoming tied to winning, too.
The Lynx keep a bottle of Fiji water behind a toilet. When the team travels, Reeve, Patterson and assistant coach James Wade eat at the same Japanese restaurant in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Shoyu.
Most curiously: Bottles of MD 20/20, an inexpensive “wine-based flavored refreshment,” sit above players’ lockers. That’s another practice, Augustus said, that began in 2011.
“The only game that we lost here this season,” Patterson said, “somebody was parked in my parking spot.”
Reeve once asked Patterson whether she had been a part of other teams as superstitious as the Lynx. Patterson, an assistant with three WNBA teams before joining the Lynx in 2010, has not. She has also never experienced more success with a franchise.
“You’d be surprised the stuff that we focus on here that I never had to focus on with any other team,” Fowles said.
In Tuesday’s home victory over the Liberty, Fowles faced Tina Charles in the opening tipoff. Fowles is 2 inches taller than Charles, so she skied above her — and easily tapped the ball to Liberty guard Epiphanny Prince, who had no Lynx players around her.
“She never wins the jump,” an observant fan said of Fowles. “I don’t know why.”
The answer, of course, is that the Lynx lose in order to win.