The postgame celebration for Minnesota Lynx victories at the Target Center goes something like this: Upbeat, pulsating music after the final horn; Maya Moore, Monica Wright and other players dancing at midcourt; and Moore, on a wireless microphone, thanking the boisterous crowd for cheering the team to victory.
None of this happens when the Lynx lose, of course, though home defeats are so infrequent — just nine over the last four seasons, compared to 72 victories, playoffs included — that fans expect the celebration as much as the national anthem or the opening tip. That made the finish of Tuesday night’s 71-63 loss to the Los Angeles Sparks, as well as the team’s reaction to it, so unusual—and so disturbing.
The Sparks scored nine consecutive points in the final two minutes, a time when the Lynx veterans usually dominate, to obliterate a 63-62 Lynx lead — the second consecutive game where the Lynx, who lost 82-80 in Phoenix last Saturday, could not pull it out at the end. The Lynx missed their final four shots, three of them rushed jumpers; let Sparks guard Kristi Toliver break free for a short turnaround jumper and a 3-pointer; and failed to grab a rebound or force a turnover.
Coach Cheryl Reeve put in Tricia Liston, who hadn’t played all night, as a 3-point option in the final 23 seconds with the Lynx down by six, but Liston drove to the basket instead. And missed.
Fans started leaving with 12.1 seconds to go and Jantel Lavender of Los Angeles shooting fouls. At the finish, players and coaches walked to the dressing room silently. No one danced. A crestfallen Reeve appeared so quickly for her postgame press conference that some reporters, perusing the final stats, scrambled for seats.
“I just told the team that this is a disappointing trend for us,” Reeve said. “That’s the second game in a row with five minutes to go we didn’t make play. We didn’t play hard enough defense to make a team earn a `W’ in our house. I’m disappointed in that.
“We typically close out these games, but we have not the last two games. That’s something we have to really look to reverse.”
This hit the Lynx like a roundhouse to the head. The playoffs begin next Thursday with best-of-three conference semifinals, and the Lynx hardly look ready.
The 11-game winning streak that ended last Saturday night in Phoenix might as well have been a month ago. The Lynx appear tired, ragged and beaten up, and the closing schedule does them no favors – back-to-back games Friday night in San Antonio, which like L.A. needs a victory to get in the playoffs, and Saturday night against Tulsa at the Target Center. Thursday, Reeve cancelled the team’s post-practice media availability on 10 minutes notice, unusual for the Twin Cities’ most media-friendly team.
It’s been a weird year in the WNBA. Though teams are more physical and balanced than ever, only three of the 12 have winning records. Exceptional effectiveness at crunch time separated the Lynx (24-8) and the Mercury (27-5) from everyone else.
The problem is, the Lynx endured so many close, stressful games compared to last year that it might be taking a toll. The Lynx haven’t lost back-to-back games this late in the season since 2010, Reeve’s first year, though they did drop two of their last three in 2012 before reaching the WNBA finals.
Last year the Lynx blew out teams much more often, winning 16 times by at least 15 points, with only four games decided by six points or less (1-3). This season the Lynx endured 11 games in that six-or-less range, nearly three times as many, winning eight. That’s exceptional success for any team, especially one missing starters Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson for extended periods with knee injuries. But so many tense finishes can wear on a team mentally and physically.
Lavender’s foul shots took Tuesday’s loss out of the six-or-less range, but hardly lessened the stress. It’s been more than a month since the Lynx beat anybody by 15 or more points, the barest definition of a comfortable victory. Eight of the nine games since the double-overtime, 112-108 thriller over Atlanta July 22 — the night Moore scored 48 points — have been tight in the fourth quarter. The Lynx weren’t all that efficient in their last victory either, needing a fourth-quarter burst to outlast Chicago, 74-64, on Aug. 7 and overcome 39.4 percent shooting.
“Every team has gone through a lot,” guard Lindsay Whalen said. “Every team has its ups and downs. We’ve got to be playing better than we are at this point in the season. We don’t want to make any excuses. Just keep fighting, keep working hard, and keep playing as well as you can.”
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As it is the Lynx will finish second to Phoenix in the Western Conference, giving the Mercury home court advantage in the conference final, if the Lynx get that far. That’s troublesome, since the Mercury is even better at home (a league-best 15-1) than the Lynx (14-2).
There are other concerns, too. Brazilian rookie forward Damiris Dantas returned home this week for personal reasons; the team expects her back Sunday. Augustus skipped a day of practice to rest her balky left knee, then struggled Tuesday, managing only eight points on 3-for-10 shooting. If bursitis in that knee is acting up, it’s unlikely Augustus can play two games this weekend. Moore turned her right ankle in the first 30 seconds on Tuesday yet finished the game, scoring 20 points with seven rebounds. Augustus and Moore both put up rushed shots at the end when poise was required.
“I’m not concerned about (anything) snowballing, because we’re in control of that,” Moore said. “If we were a team with less talent, less experience … but I think we’re absolutely going to respond.
“And for us, it’s the small things. It’s nothing major that we just don’t have at this point in the season. It’s just a matter of tightening up, coming together, being as locked in and connected as possible. And everybody feeling that sense of urgency and finding that way to do it together. We’ve been able to overcome all the bumps that have come so far. This is no different.”