After three healthy seasons, champion Lynx must learn to win hurt

MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig
Tuesday, veteran power forward Rebekkah Brunson became the third player among the Lynx top seven to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery since training camp opened, correcting ligament damage in her right knee.

Practice was over, and Seimone Augustus needed a chair. “Can I sit down?” she said Wednesday, shortly after the defending WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx finished up on Target Center’s main court.

The night before, Augustus and her teammates waited tables at a Champps in Minnetonka to raise money for two Lynx foundations. Coming back with a rugged two-hour practice the next morning left the 30-year-old Augustus — a four-time All-Star entering her ninth season in Minnesota — eager to get off her feet.

“The practices we’ve been having have been pretty tough,” she said.

At least no one else got hurt. Tuesday, veteran power forward Rebekkah Brunson became the third player among the Lynx top seven to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery since training camp opened, correcting ligament damage in her right knee. Brunson, the team’s leading rebounder, could miss up to two months, or more than half the 34-game season.

Already the Lynx lost versatile reserve guard Monica Wright, an emerging star, and backup forward Devereaux Peters. Both are expected to miss six games, perhaps more, with left knee problems. And this bug all started with Coach Cheryl Reeve, who had surgery in April to remove a benign tumor from her upper spine.

In their three-year run at the top of the WNBA, the Lynx won two championships and reached a third finals by avoiding extended absences by its core players. Not since 2010 — when Augustus missed the first nine games following abdominal surgery — have the Lynx managed more than a few games without a player of significance.

Now the Lynx will open the season Friday night in Washington with only nine healthy players, three of them rookies: forwards Damiris Dantas, Asia Taylor and Tricia Liston. And second-year pro Lindsey Moore will back up Lindsay Whalen at point guard.

That’s a lot of inexperience for a team aiming for back-to-back championships, something that has happened only twice in the WNBA’s 17 seasons — the Houston Comets from 1997-2000, and the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001-02. In the annual WNBA general manager survey released Thursday, 58 percent picked the Lynx to repeat.

The Lynx return home Sunday to face Connecticut at 4 p.m., with a championship banner-raising and ring ceremony scheduled for 3:30 p.m.

“We’re thankful for the three really healthy years that we had,” Reeve said. “We just look at it as, it’s the hand that’s being dealt. We know we can’t hide. The one thing we’re darn sure of is, nobody feels bad for us. It’s even more fulfilling if we can be successful with a trimmed-down roster. That’s the challenge. Let’s see if we can do it.”

Unlike most men’s pro leagues, the WNBA has no disabled list or injured reserve. That helps contain payroll costs, an important consideration in an NBA-subsidized league. Rosters max out at 12 players, one more than last year. Until this rash of injuries, the Lynx considered leaving the 12th spot vacant, to save salary and travel expenses for someone unlikely to play much, if at all.

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Expect Reeve to lean heavily on 2012 U.S. Olympians Maya Moore, Augustus and Whalen, her top three scorers, as well as center Janel McCarville while the young players break in. Brunson’s starting spot will go to either the 6-4 Dantas, a 21-year-old from Brazil with Olympic and world championship experience, or the 6-1 Taylor, a former Louisville standout whose 18 points helped the Lynx beat Chicago, 76-69, for the WNBA preseason tournament championship in Orlando last Sunday.

“The younger players are getting thrown into the mix sooner, so they’ll be ready when Monnie and Dev come back,” McCarville said. “Asia Taylor stepped into the starting lineup and she jelled with us immediately. Same with Dantas. When you have the continuity we have with at least four starters back, people kind of understand, and find a role they need to play.”

Taylor thinks she has. “It’s a championship team,” she said. “They’re not looking for starters, people who can come in and score 20. I do all the little things. I rebound. I defend. Get up into somebody. We’ve got all those great players who are going to do the big things. I’m not afraid to do the little things.”

Dantas, meanwhile, receives daily low-post tutorials from McCarville while trying to grasp the nuances of English. Reeve keeps a cheat sheet of Portuguese phrases in her pocket, and players are picking up words to help Dantas, who also speaks a little Spanish.

Augustus cracked up everyone in a huddle one day when Dantas asked the name of a play — “Nombre?” — and Augustus, with a choice of two languages Dantas could understand, instead blurted out in English, “Time out — after,” which made no sense.

“We have our core group here that has been here through a lot,” Whalen said. “We’re just doing what we can every day to help them along, telling them what’s expected. They’re watching us, seeing how it is, and going out and doing it.”

Moore said it took almost the entire regular season last year to figure out what she was doing, and what Reeve wanted from her. Rookie guards have it tougher than post players, Reeve said, because most of the league’s best players operate on the perimeter.

Either way, the Lynx need something from their younger players to keep up in the demanding Western Conference. Phoenix, led by the dynamic Diana Taurasi and 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, poses a challenge. So does Los Angeles, with league MVP Candace Parker. Seattle gets back one of its seven-time All-Stars, point guard Sue Bird, but not the other, as forward Lauren Jackson sits out her second consecutive season following right knee and left Achilles tendon surgeries. And in the East, the teaming of Cappie Pondexter with recently acquired Tina Charles makes New York, coached by Bill Laimbeer, a trendy pick.

“They’re going to have to grow a little bit faster than most rookies,” Augustus said. “Their learning curve is a lot shorter. They’re going to have to step it up. I think they understand it. Every day at practice they stay a little extra to go over plays, or get here early to kind of get in there with the starting lineup to get a feel for how things are going to be.”

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