We are just two years removed from a Minnesota Lynx WNBA Championship that ended with a thrilling Game Five win over the Los Angeles Sparks.
That 2017 Lynx team won their fourth title in a seven year stretch, which also included six championship appearances. With a nucleus of Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen, Sylvia Fowles and Rebekkah Brunson, the Lynx entered every season a heavy favorite to compete for a title. However, this season looks different with Moore, Augustus, Whalen and Brunson all not playing due to being called to the ministry (Moore), injury (Augustus), retirement (Whalen) and motherhood (Brunson).
In the recent June 16 game against the Las Vegas Aces, the starting lineup was Odyssey Sims, Danielle Robinson, Naphessa Collier, Damiris Dantas and Fowles.
It is a new look for the 8,300 fans that came to support on Father’s Day.
The game seamlessly gave viewers a metaphor for the current status of the Lynx after losing a tightly contested game.
“We’re not losing by that much, it’s the little things that we’re not doing too well,” Fowles, the 11-year vet, said. “I would say it’s the last five minutes of the game, just making sure we lock in, stay focused on the task at hand.”
Minnesota jumped on top of the Aces in the first quarter with a 19-6 start.
The team looked locked in defensively with three steals, forcing eight turnovers and holding the Aces to 30 percent shooting in the first period.
The team played scrappy from the opening tip. It started with Fowles’ anticipated matchup down low against 6’8” Australian, Liz Cambage. Each team ran sets for both to start the game and their physical play was on full display all game. Fowles held Cambage to just two rebounds and a goose egg in the points column of the box score.
Fowles set the tone during their run by denying an entry pass to Cambage that led to a transition layup for Sims.
Guard play was also key in the Lynx’s early game success. Robinson and Sims harassed Ace guards Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young as soon as they crossed half court. There was no drop-off when Lexie Brown, the second-year Duke star checked in the game. Brown was engaged defensively and was rewarded with a fast-break layup after she collected a steal.
After the first period the Lynx saw what was a 13-point lead slowly dwindle for the remainder of the game.
A key reason why their lead was carved away was their inconsistency on the offensive end. There were multiple mental lapses that resulted in errant throws, mishandled balls and repeated shot-clock management issues.
“We’ll probably tweak with the offense a little more,” Cheryl Reeve, Lynx head coach and general manager said.
Another reason was the number of foul shots the Aces accumulated during the course of the game. The Aces went 24-27 at the charity stripe, which is nearly an 89 percent clip.
“We clearly lost the game at the foul line,” Reeve said. “That discrepancy seems, for lack of a better word unfair.”
The Lynx only shot 10 free throws, hitting all but one.
Outside of Dantes’ excellent performance (22 points on 8/15 shooting, 5/10 from beyond the three-point arc), there were times in the game where it seemed that nobody wanted to handle the scoring load.
“I mean this (is) just the time where we need each other,” Fowles said. “We just make sure we come in and we don't play the blame game, we hold each other accountable but at the same time knowing that this is a team thing and that we’ll get better eventually.”
Augustus, who has been sidelined due to a surgery on her right knee, noticed the lapses and took any chance she got to be vocal on the sidelines during action and in timeouts but her veteran presence was missed on the court.
The Aces outscored the Lynx in the remaining three quarters and never looked back after the game was tied at 72 with 2:35 remaining in the fourth.
“Overall, I think our team gutted this one out,” Las Vegas Aces Head Coach Bill Laimbeer said. “We’re growing, it was a great experience for us to keep our composure in the first half.”
The Aces pulling out the win can be attributed to their shooting woes fading away. They finished the game shooting 40% from the field and Kayla McBride’s 22 points led the way for them. Kelsey Plum also added 21 points and went 5 for 8 from the three-point line.
“Obviously disappointed and hurt in that locker room,” Coach Reeve said when asked how the team handled the loss. “I told them in the last five minutes we have to grow in that area-being able to execute on both ends. We never got the stops in the second half the way we got stops early in the game.”
With only one remaining player still in the lineup from the championship run two years ago, there have been hardships in the Lynx’s 4-5 start – a team that opened with three straight wins, but with the June 16 loss have dropped four in a row. Even with the team’s struggles, there is still a strong emphasis on establishing a defensive presence.
“From a defensive identity it’s there. I think offensively we were really good in the first half in terms of what we were trying to get. We’re growing there. I think we’re probably close to it,” said Reeve after being asked where the team identity currently lies.
Up next for the Lynx are games Tuesday (June 25) at Indiana and Sunday (June 30) at Dallas.