Cheryl Reeve saw it on opening night. Right there, in her team’s locker room.
She’d had an inkling that this Lynx team could have a special chemistry. In the middle of a pandemic, the team had bonded during preseason Zoom calls and grown closer in the week they spent in Minnesota before going down to the WNBA bubble at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. During training camp it was there. A toughness when things didn’t go well. A willingness to take responsibility, a refusal to cast blame.
“I didn’t have to coach any of that,” recalled Reeve, the team’s coach and GM. “They were good to each other. If someone make a mistake, it was like, ‘Let’s pick you up and move on.’ ”
That chemistry has been a constant in a successful regular season that perhaps exceeded expectations. The Lynx finished 14-8, earning the No. 4 seed and a playoff bye. Now they’ll face Phoenix on Thursday night in a single-elimination, second-round playoff game. A win means advancing to league semifinals for the first time since 2017.
But in that first game of the season: The Lynx had a difficult first half in which they scored 28 points and were down to Connecticut. In the locker room, center Sylvia Fowles, in a rare move, got mad, telling the team that poor shooting wasn’t OK, bad transition defense had to end and low energy needed to stop.
And the team listened. Down 11 in the third quarter the Lynx rallied to win. It was one of six times this season the Lynx have come back from down 10 or more points to win, tying a franchise record even though this was only a 22-game season.
The Lynx have been talking about chemistry all summer. You know, feel-good stuff. Off-court bonding, trips to the beach, things like that. All that’s nice, but give Reeve what happened in that halftime locker room any time. It’s not always about the niceties.
“Chemistry comes from trusting one another and leaders holding players accountable,” she said. “Chemistry is in the moments that are most difficult. I don’t want the chemistry that’s good chemistry when you’re up 10 and you’re going to win. I want chemistry when things are tough, in terms of how you respond to it. And that’s what we’re saying this group has done.”
There are lots of examples. The six double-digit comebacks. How the team was able to respond to losing one captain for the season early on when Karima Christmas-Kelly hurt her Achilles’ tendon and how it kept winning when a calf injury put Fowles on the shelf — putting the Lynx in prime position for her expected return Thursday.
Or how players have taken turns carrying the team. In the regular-season finale, Rachel Banham scored 29 points with 10 assists in her first start with the Lynx. She became the sixth Lynx player to score at least 25 in a game this season, which is a WNBA record. Again, in a 22-game season.
Five of those performances came in wins. None of the six scored 25 more than once. It was like the team spent the summer taking turns carrying the load, and everyone was OK with that. That’s what allowed the Lynx to get past the losses of Christmas-Kelly and Fowles, with guards Lexie Brown, Banham and Shenise Johnson also missing games.
“We care about each other,” said Bridget Carleton, who scored 25 in her first WNBA start, a victory over New York in early August. “We want to fight for each other.”
Napheesa Collier scored 26 in a victory over Indiana.
“I knew from the beginning it was going to be really fun being around this group,’’ she said. “It’s always fun to have that chemistry going onto the court. And I guess it was kind of surprising that it translated so easily onto the court. Because, you never know.”
The postseason push
That’s why the expected return of Fowles — though there may be some rust to work off, and the Lynx may have to make adjustments — should go well.
This team is about winning, not who takes the shots. Seven players on the roster average between 2.4 and 3.6 assists per game.
“We all really love to play together," Banham said. “Because we find ways to get each other the ball and we’re really just unselfish. I just think that makes us special. We all want to do well for each other, and we don’t want to let each other down.”
Seven players have led the Lynx in scoring this season, five in rebounds. Eight players have led the team in assists at least once.
“That’s why we’re still playing,” Reeve said. “There’s something special about this group and you’ve done some things well in the most difficult of times. So I’m very proud of us for that.”