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Year-round season kneecaps Minnesota Lynx star Seimone Augustus

A sore knee puts the WNBA champs’ ‘Ms. Reliable’ out for at least two games — a consequence of a lower-paid sport where off-seasons don’t really exist.

Coach Cheryl Reeve said Seimone Augustus won’t play or practice until the knee is pain-free.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

The hopeful, conservative plan for Lynx star Seimone Augustus’s troublesome left knee fell apart. Even after two days in an immobilizing brace, three days of medical treatment and no practicing, Augustus said she still felt pain and swelling at the team’s morning shoot-around last Friday in Seattle. 

She gamely tried to play anyway but wasn’t herself, shooting 2-for-10 from the field for a season-low five points in 35 minutes, her first game below double figures. One of the misses was an airball — unusual for the franchise’s career scoring leader, and alarming to everyone else. 

“A lot of teammates were like, ‘Are you OK?’ I shot an airball, and they’re like, ‘I haven’t seen you shoot an airball,’” Augustus said after practice earlier this week. “It was just kind of weird. At that point I think the doctors, the trainers, my teammates, everybody knew I was in way more pain than I had ever been in. So it was time to get something done.”

The “something” included sitting out the second game of the home-and-home series with the Storm, a 74-69 Lynx victory last Sunday at the Target Center; an injection of cortisone with a painkiller; and more rest. Coach Cheryl Reeve said Augustus won’t play or practice until the knee is pain-free.

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How long that will be, the Lynx aren’t saying. But don’t expect Augustus in uniform Thursday night against San Antonio, and perhaps not Sunday afternoon in New York either.

“We want to make sure that when she comes back, she’s fully healthy,” said Reeve. “We don’t want to do a couple of days at a time, and then she’s out again. 

“We thought that the time we gave her the week prior was going to be enough time, in that three to five-day range, to get it under control. That didn’t work. After that first game (against Seattle on Friday), it’s kind of like, let’s not go down that same path. Let’s give her the time that she needs.”

The Seattle game was the second Augustus missed with what she has taken to call “this annoying little injury.” She also sat out June 18 at Phoenix, the second night of a back-to-back.

The team’s medical staff and trainer Chuck Barta still believe the problem is bursitis, not a ligament or meniscus tear, based on where Augustus reports the pain. Augustus tore the anterior cruciate ligament in that knee in 2009. Reeve said no further tests are planned.

“We’re pretty certain what’s going on,” Reeve said.

There is no off-season for pro women’s basketball players, who make more money playing winter ball in Europe and Asia than in the WNBA. Many players go right from their winter team into WNBA training camp, with little rest. Often, the pounding catches up.  Just ask forward Rebekkah Brunson, who had right knee surgery May 13 and isn’t expected back until later this month.

Augustus said the knee never bothered her during a 34-game season with Dynamo Kursk in Russia. But with backup guard Monica Wright out the first 10 games recovering from right knee surgery, Augustus had to play a lot more — an average of 34.2 minutes per game until Wright returned, up from 29.7 minutes last year. Augustus wondered whether that caused the knee to flare up.

“We’ve been playing a lot of minutes, probably more minutes that I’ve probably played in a long time,” said Augustus, 30. “Wear and tear, playing year round, things like that.

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“It was hard, not just for the other night but the night that I played, feeling like I was limited. I didn’t feel like I had the explosion, the burst.”

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Janel McCarville’s Lynx career high 22 points on Sunday, plus 12 off the bench from forward Dev Peters, made up for the absence of Augustus, who averages 17.2 points per game as the WNBA’s sixth-best scorer. Wright chipped in late with tough defense on Sue Bird, Seattle’s seven-time All-Star guard. Wright harassed Bird so much on an inbounds pass with 12.9 seconds left and the Lynx up by three that the normally reliable Bird threw the ball away.

“Man goes down, everybody else mans up,” Wright said. “It’s kind of like a theme for this season.”

Reeve is less worried about her team’s defense, with Wright starting for Augustus and Tan White and others coming off the bench, than she is about the offense. Maya Moore leads the WNBA in scoring at 22.8 points per game, and Lindsay Whalen hits big shots inside and outside. But with the game on the line, Augustus remains Ms. Reliable, with that uncanny knack to create her own shot and make it. 

“For Seimone, what you really miss is the ability to put the ball in the hole,” Reeve said. “I’m a much better coach, and my plays look much better, when you’ve got a player like Seimone out there. We got through that pretty well in the Seattle game, pretty much sharing the load, obviously Janel stepping up. Who knows? If Seimone doesn’t play, or anyone else is out, you’ve got to find the offense.”

Meanwhile, with 17 games left in a 34-game season, Augustus needs two healthy legs. The thought of missing two more games aggravates her. “I don’t want to do more than two. This already (stinks) that I missed two already,” she said.

But Augustus understands she can’t play effectively like this.

“I need to be able to contribute what I’m normally used to contributing,” she said. “I don’t want to have to put more pressure on any other player to have to do more than they normally do. I just have to wait and see until I’m 100 percent back and I’m ready. I don’t think they’re going to force it. There’s a lot of season left to go.”