For years the Lynx operated with a concept that, stripping away all the X’s and O’s and game plans, was so simple: Find out what you do best, then do it. Turn down a good shot to find one that’s better. Play as a connected group, not five individual players.
So why did they stray?
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve admits to having pondered that very question most of the summer. But talk to the Lynx — who open their playoff run Friday night against Los Angeles in the WNBA’s Western Conference semifinals at Target Center — and they’ll say they’ve found the answer.
Just in time.
Not that it wasn’t elusive. Minnesota has dealt with injuries. And midseason roster additions — notably the trade for center Sylvia Fowles — forced the Lynx to radically change their approach on the offensive end on the fly. But those are excuses, not reasons. And it took a rocky month of August for the Lynx to get back on track.
“I think from the beginning, even when we had most of our group, I’m not sure that we really, fully, got our identity, of how we’ve been doing things and been successful,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “We did it in spot situations, but not consistently. So, looking back at it, when August hit, it was not a surprise.”
A month to forget
August. Twelve games, six losses coming in the form of three two-game losing streaks. After acquiring Fowles, the Lynx won six of eight games. But even then Reeve could see problems. Some players were getting out of their lanes, trying to do too much. Even the stars, the Olympians. Forcing shots maybe. Forcing the action resulting in turnovers. Not moving the ball or not moving without it. There was a one-sided loss in L.A., then a loss in Phoenix. Later, back-to-back road and home losses to Washington. On Aug. 23 the Lynx were soundly beaten in Phoenix. Five days later, in New York, the Lynx lost by 13.
That was the low point, wrapping up a five-game stretch that included four losses.
“That was the last time we wanted to feel like that,” Reeve said.
The Lynx returned to Minneapolis, watched film, talked. The next day, with the team scheduled to host Phoenix, there was no morning shootaround. Instead, there was a meeting led by captains Augustus, Lindsay Whalen, Rebekkah Brunson and Maya Moore.
The message: “We either want this or we don’t,” Augustus said. She was still on the sidelines because of a sprained left foot at the time. But she could see what was happening. “I mean, the coach has the blueprint to what we need to do. It’s been there since 2011, when we won it all. It’s been defense and execution on offense. The extra pass, setting a great screen. Nothing about one player. So it was this: Either we’re going to do that, or we’re not. … I said I’m gauging about five more years for me and that’s it. And in those years I have set some goals and I would love for my teammates to have those same goals with me. I think we do.”
The Lynx then went out and outscored Phoenix 37-22 in the second half in a 10-point signature win. Five days later they beat Indiana, another playoff team. That was followed by a loss to New York in which the offense sputtered at the end, but it didn’t deter Reeve’s belief that her team was finally playing the right way.
“Everyone was trying to do the right things,” Whalen said, “to make the right plays. But sometimes you cross that fine line of maybe trying to do too much, or maybe I’m not doing enough. … Getting back, grounded, has been really good for us.”
Said Augustus: “Our players are the best in the world. Just do what you do. And we did. We’re back to that.”
‘Band is still together’
Now they just have to prove it. Augustus and Whalen (Achilles strain) have been at practices all week and should play, though neither is likely 100 percent.
Minnesota had a three-year run of reaching the league finals stopped in Phoenix last season. The trades for guard Anna Cruz and, especially, Fowles were made with the idea of extending the team’s window for winning titles.
But, with the injuries and struggles, some have begun to wonder whether that window might be closing.
“I think this group has a time frame in mind,” Reeve said, “that this is not the end for them. They are not thinking this is it. But you want to capitalize on every season. They know this. This band is still together, and we have to make sure we play.”
The coach and players feel they’re ready. It took weeks, but the Lynx learned to play with a true post player in Fowles. They developed depth, particularly at guard, with Augustus and Whalen hurt. They feel they have returned to what made the team so good the past few years.
“The difference between winning and losing is so small,” Moore said. “With a greater emphasis on doing what we’re good at, and playing hard, everything will take care of itself.’’