Playing six of the year’s first nine games on the road is no easy feat – especially coming off a season where the Minnesota Lynx played later than almost every other team in the league in their 2017 championship run.
Now 3-6, coach Cheryl Reeve and her team know that it’s now or never for Minnesota, as the veteran team gets older while the rest of the league continues to get stronger in year 22 of the WNBA.
“We knew we were going to come out of the gates with six of the first nine of the road and it was going to be bang, bang, bang, bang,” Reeve said in her weekly podcast with Jim Souhan on June 12. “It’s everything we thought it would be, and then some.”
After their loss to the Connecticut Sun three days earlier, the Lynx traveled back to Minneapolis, coming off a three-game road stand that included some extracurricular activities to celebrate last year’s championship. The Washington D.C. event took place with state politicians present after the Lynx were not asked to the White House by President Trump – something the team was used to in previous championship years with former President Barack Obama.
With a full week break until their next game tomorrow, the team took Monday and Tuesday off and got back to the court Wednesday. Reeve said she has had to adjust her expectations of her starters – four of whom are over 30 years old.
“That’s been the hardest part,” Reeve said. “I didn’t see this coming in terms of, I thought we would continue to manage our players minutes. I think that was always part of the plan. We did that last year and we think that is why we were successful in the postseason.”
Reeve said that while her highly-competitive athletes didn’t necessarily want two days off or think they should take them, the players knew that it was best to recharge and refocus before facing the New York Liberty, who they narrowly beat three weeks ago.
“It has been quite the challenge and then on top of that, from a basketball standpoint, I don’t know if we were as ready as we needed to be, given the challenge of the season, given the newcomers that came on board,” Reeve said, comparing her team’s aging timeline to that of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs of the last couple of seasons.
“You get to a certain point where you are aging, and your veterans that have kinda carried you through the years, they can’t do night in and night out what you need them to do or what they once did. So you’ve got to put people around them so…..that when the playoffs hit, we are ready to go.”
One of the players Reeve has never had to worry about is forward Rebekkah Brunson, who has played 30-35 minutes per game for years. Now her knees are fatiguing under that workload, forcing Reeve to cut back her court time.
“The trainer came to me and said, if we keep going at this pace, we aren’t going to have her,” Reeve said. “That’s the last thing that I want is to not have Rebekah Brunson, especially at key times.”
Besides Brunson, coaches have noticed a drop off in the quickness of the other starters – especially point guard Lindsay Whalen, whom Reeve admitted has “lost a step.” This inability early in the season to begin as quickly as they are used to has allowed other teams to go on scoring runs that Minnesota isn’t used to giving up in their historic seven-year run during which they have won four league titles.
“Seimone was ready to be Seimone Augustus,” Reeve said of her superstar forward. “This season has been even more elevated in terms of Lindsay maybe losing a step, (or) however you want to say it. It’s been a little bit harder to manage. I haven’t done the best job. There have been times when I feel like I have Lindsay out, and I go back to the video and think, why do I have her out, she’s gotta be out there.”
One positive of the early game struggles for the Lynx has been that reserve players like guards Alexis Jones and Danielle Robinson have logged extended minutes, which may prove valuable later.
“I like…..the younger players that we have, and they are getting more playing time, and I think that’s important,” Reeve said. “At the end of the day, Lindsay, Seimone, Maya (Moore), Rebekah, and Syl (Sylvia Fowles) are going to be the reason why we get out of this hole we are in, and go on to be successful.”
The team aims for the turnaround to begin against New York in front of their home crowd. Minnesota is 1-2 at Target Center this season, but hope that four of the next six games there can right a ship that has already seemed close to sinking at times this season.
“All of us are highly-competitive people,” Reeve said. “Losing is something that none of us take well. I think we all know what we have to do, and I think more than anything, what I am looking for is for this group to find their collective will, their collective passion in competing together. Once we get that, then things will begin to take care of themselves.”