LOS ANGELES – Their role, at this point, has been well established. The Lynx bench contributed mightily to a 28-6 regular-season record, functioning as an effective, energetic second unit that could keep the starters fresh and force opponents to adapt on the fly.
That depth of backup talent could have an impact on the WNBA Finals as well. But in the first two games, the Lynx’s bench has not measured up to its reputation. After averaging 25 points per game in the semifinals against Phoenix — helping to fuel a three-game sweep — the reserves have averaged 11 per game in the Finals against Los Angeles, contributing only eight in a Game 1 loss.
Coach Cheryl Reeve told her bench Thursday that its performance has been “OK.’’ And that, she emphasized, is not OK as the series resumes Friday with Game 3 in Los Angeles. To win on the road, the Lynx need much more from Natasha Howard, Renee Montgomery, Jia Perkins, Janel McCarville and Anna Cruz.
“If our bench does what we normally do, it could be helpful, and it could loom large in a longer series,’’ Reeve said. “I think the players have just got to do what they do. They’re going to get opportunities. That’s how we’ve rolled all season.
“[The bench] has obviously been really good for us. We haven’t been able to get to that just yet in this series, and hopefully, we’ll see more of that, starting with Game 3.’’
A new look
Reeve reconfigured the Lynx bench this season to give her veteran starters a stronger supporting cast. More talent in the reserve corps ensured there was little drop-off when the starters took a seat, which kept them fresher both late in games and late in the season.
The top five — Montgomery, Perkins, Howard, McCarville and Cruz (a late addition) — each averaged at least 10 minutes per game during the regular season, and Reeve has had the confidence to use them in all situations. Montgomery hit a game-winning buzzer-beater to give the Lynx a victory over the Sparks at Staples Center the first time the teams played this season. Howard scored 21 points against San Antonio in July, the most by a Lynx reserve in four seasons.
That continued in the semifinals. Howard played a major role — including a 17-point performance in Game 3 — and Montgomery, Perkins and Cruz provided outstanding defense and some key baskets. That series also showed how the bench could quicken the pace of the game, forcing opponents to instantly adjust.
“Their team changes [when the reserves enter],’’ Sparks coach Brian Agler said. “They’re quicker, and they can apply more pressure on the perimeter.
“This is the best team they’ve had. And it’s better because of their bench, and because of how their second unit complements their first. You have to make adjustments defensively when they start subbing.’’
‘Lead with our defense’
The group, though, has been less effective in the Finals. In Game 1, Howard got into foul trouble and played only seven minutes, with two points and no rebounds, and Montgomery played only 9 minutes, 6 seconds. The Sparks used only two bench players: Jantel Lavender, the WNBA’s Sixth Woman of the Year, and guard Chelsea Gray. They scored 20 points, and Gray set up the winning shot.
The Lynx bench was better in Game 2, combining for 14 points and nine rebounds. The reserves also were part of a stronger Lynx defense, something Perkins wants them to continue in Game 3.
“We know L.A. is going to come out with a lot of adrenaline,’’ she said. “We have to come in and lead with our defense. Playing on their home court, we don’t want them to get their fans involved. And if we’re aggressive on defense, that’s going to spark us to get flowing in our offense.
“We know what we’re supposed to do. We take great pride in our role. We just have to stay strong and stay with the game plan.’’
Reeve and the starters are counting on that.
“We’ve been kind of struggling,’’ Howard said. ‘’But our bench, we always bounce back. And I know we will in Game 3.’’