Lynx challenged by new roster in tough start

Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson and Lindsay Whalen are part of Minnesota's longtime veteran core. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill.
Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson and Lindsay Whalen are part of Minnesota’s longtime veteran core. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill.

Prior to the May 12 preseason game vs. the Chicago Sky, Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve chatted with reporters at half court of Target Center, a place the Lynx didn’t play at in 2017 because of renovations.

The upgrade included, among many things, a brand new locker room which moved them out of the locker room where they had found much success.

“That side room was pretty good to us,” Reeve joked, talking about the previous locker room, of of which they grew three of their four WNBA Championships since 2011. “Hopefully this new locker room can be as good to us, or we will move back to the side room.”

Now, five games into the season, Minnesota might want to consider moving back down the hall.

With a 2-3 start – the worst since 2010 – the Lynx just don’t look like the defending champions that they are. They have suffered two losses from last-second shots. In every game there have been long, scoreless stretches where both starters and reserves miss easy shots. Frequent defensive lapses have allowed opponents to go on scoring runs from which Minnesota must then try to crawl back. What were blowout wins in recent years are duels to the death this season.

“We probably aren’t going to have the best record in the league,” Reeve said to Kent Youngblood of the Star Tribune before boarding the plane from Washington D.C. to Atlanta earlier this week. “We knew that.”

Tuesday night the Dream defeated the Lynx, 76-74, on a buzzer-beating three-point shot by forward Angel McCoughtry.

Minnesota’s season opener, against arch rival Los Angeles, was overloaded with 24 turnovers, and was also lost on a last-second shot. In the team’s first win vs. Dallas, the Lynx held the Wings to four points in the second quarter, only to score just nine points in the third quarter by allowing their opponents to inch back into the game.

The issues? An aging personnel and a changed roster, according to Reeve.

The average age of the veteran core – Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen, Rebekkah Brunson, Sylvia Fowles and Maya Moore – is over 30 years old, the oldest in the league. In the offseason, key reserve point guard Renee Montgomery signed with the Dream. Minnesota signed six-year veterans Danielle Robinson and Lynetta Kizer, and brought 12-year veteran Tanisha Wright out of retirement.  Their returning second-year players, Temi Fagbenle and Alexis Jones, play very limited minutes off the bench.

“As we made changes in the offseason, and we got a little older, this was clear: this was going to be a challenge this summer,” Reeve said. “Also, the rest of the league, that’s sick and tired of the Lynx, they want to beat us. They’re going to line up. They smell blood right now. We’re going to have to withstand a lot.”

With the immediate emergence of many of this year’s high-performing rookies, as well as other young players, “withstanding a lot” for Minnesota will mean learning how to defend a crop of players who are taking over the league, which is already beginning to push older players out. With her new role as general manager, Reeve will look at how to transition her own team this year, and in years to come.

“There’s going to be a change in terms of what it’s been,” Reeve said of the talented players in the league today. “The (Diana) Taurasis and the (Sue) Birds and the Whalens and the Augustuses — it’s not going to be those kind of players. It’s now going to shift to (Elena) Delle Donne in her prime, Stewie (Breanna Stewart) in her prime, those type of face-up players and then all these centers that you’re talking about, so we’re going to see a little bit of a shift in terms of positional talent.”

With the season still young, the Lynx will keep working towards a brand of team play that looked almost perfect for most of last season. Athletes will continue to mesh as they play more games together, and a five-game home stand in June should help them get into a groove that rights the ship, as they derive great energy from their home crowd.

Fowles said the team needs to return to the “groove” that they have had in the past.

“(We) just (need to be) playing on the same page,” she said. “We all want to do well and we’re all going out there and playing hard, but we’re not in sync right now. There’s a lot of pressure on us individually, for us to get it done instead of doing all the little things we normally do that makes us so good.”

“We need to make sure we’re there for each other and have a positive attitude.”

Minnesota’s next test will not be easy, as they face off tonight with a similarly-struggling Phoenix Mercury, which also heads into the match up with a 2-3 record. And like their opponents, Phoenix has a core of experienced veterans and some newcomers that are trying to gel together. Both teams are physical and competitive, and whichever team wins will not only rise in league standings, but will undoubtedly get a psychological boost.

“You’ve got two teams who are feeling a level of desperation that could make it a really good basketball game,” Reeve said.

The Lynx took extra time in practice Thursday to refine their approach, as well as their game. Reeve said her message centered around team identity.

“There better be……a mindset of a sense of urgency about what we’re doing,” she said. “I think we’re getting there. Do I think we’re there yet? No…..we’re working through some stuff. We’re not a well-oiled machine, and each game is an adventure for us.”

“It’s a 34-game season. All of our goals are still intact, and we have winners on this basketball team. I don’t know how many games we’re going to win, but if anybody’s panicking, I don’t want you around us.”

The game tips off at 7 p.m. CT at Target Center.