The Lynx play hurt and stay competitive, but the team’s championship window may be closing

MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig
Six-time All-Star Seimone Augustus, above, and valued reserve Monica Wright had arthroscopic knee surgery on back-to-back days at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck, based on a superstition that’s older than your grandparents. So what’s the timeline for a broken glass backboard?

The Minnesota Lynx may be finding out.

Back on May 28, during Lynx media day at the brand new Mayo Clinic Square practice facility, a backboard cracked from corner to corner like a spider web for no apparent reason. No one dunked. Nothing crashed into it. It just happened, as if struck with an invisible hammer. A few shards fell on people standing underneath, but for the most part the glass held in its frame, so no one was injured.

That’s as good a reason as any to explain the string of tough luck that befell the Lynx beginning July 16, when injuries idled three key players within a four-day span.

Key players out

Six-time All-Star Seimone Augustus and valued reserve Monica Wright had arthroscopic knee surgery on back-to-back days at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Then last Saturday, Lindsay Whalen, another six-time All-Star, was poked in the right eye so badly at Tulsa she couldn’t finish that game, play the next one, or go to this weekend’s All-Star Game.

Four days after Wright’s surgery, the Lynx traded her to Seattle for former Lynx guard Renee Montgomery and a second-round draft pick in next year’s draft. Montgomery was still getting over a stomach virus when she arrived Tuesday night, and needed intravenous fluids to play in the Wednesday’s annual Camp Day matinee. A postgame bagel was Montgomery’s first solid food in three days. 

“How are you even walking?” Maya Moore asked her later, with genuine bewilderment.

Yet with all this mayhem, the Lynx defeated Chicago at home and Tulsa on the road before losing 78-77 in overtime to Connecticut, all without Augustus. That the Connecticut game was competitive, with Maya Moore shooting 9-for-32 from the field and backups Anna Cruz and Tricia Liston starting in the backcourt for Augustus and Whalen, says something about the team’s newfound depth and resolve.

Missed opportunity

With a club-record crowd of 17,414 shrieking for magic, Moore missed a running one-hander in the final seconds. The 12-4 Lynx still lead the Western Conference at the All-Star Break, but that didn’t make anyone feel any better.

“We don’t make excuses. That was a game we should have won,” Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve said. “We never talked about not having Seimone, Whay (Whalen) and Monnie (Wright) and all that. Nothing to do with it. We had a chance on our home floor in front of a great crowd to win the game, and we just couldn’t get it done.” 

Trading the well-liked Wright so soon after surgery suggests Augustus, and perhaps Whalen, may be out longer than the Lynx are letting on. Reeve guessed a mid-August return for Augustus, and hoped Whalen can play next Wednesday against Los Angeles at the Target Center, in the first game back after the All-Star Break.

Reeve described Whalen’s injury as hyphema, an accumulation of blood in the front chamber of the eye between cornea and iris. Whalen can’t drive a car, so she didn’t attend Tuesday’s practice or Wednesday’s game.

Championship window closing

The trade illustrates — again — the narrowing championship window for the Lynx Core Four of Augustus, Whalen, Rebekkah Brunson and Maya Moore; only the 26-year-old Moore is younger than 31. No one hears that ticking clock better than Reeve and Lynx General Manager Roger Griffith. Getting Montgomery, a former Lynx first round pick and WNBA Sixth Player of the Year, for Wright means the Lynx smell their third WNBA title in five years. That aroma is way too enticing to resist.

The draft-day trade with New York for the versatile Cruz, who plays both guard positions, looms especially prescient now. The 33-year-old Whalen, as hard as she plays, couldn’t continue to log 30-plus minutes a night. And the 31-year-old Augustus, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee six years ago and missed 10 games last year with left knee bursitis, just had surgery on her “good” knee, the right one. She needs more of a break, too.

“Knees have been a problem for Seimone,” Reeve said. “Every day of her life, that’s an issue as long as she’s a professional athlete.”

Cruz fit in seamlessly. “I’ve played with these kind of players, very good players, so it’s easy for me to adjust to this kind of place,” she said.

Freeing up Whalen

Reeve relished pairing Cruz, who is averaging 7.7 points and 2.8 assists, and Whalen in the same backcourt. The dynamic Wright lacked Cruz’s point guard skills and was hurt too often. Putting Cruz at the point frees Whalen to run the floor unimpeded and shoot perimeter jumpers — the fun stuff Augustus usually gets to do.

“It’s nice sometimes to let her take it, and let me get to the wing and go attack and make things happen,” Whalen said a few days before her injury. “The scouting report on me is to kind of make it crowded in there, play physical, pick up early. It’s been nice to take some pounding off your body, let somebody else use their strength with the ball. It’s been really great so far.”

Cruz contributed seven points, six rebounds and four assists in the loss to Connecticut, but wasn’t enough of a factor late as the Sun ended a six-game losing streak. Moore, playing the full 45 minutes, tried too hard to carry the scoring herself. Her 25 points broke her club record for consecutive 20-point games with eight. But even Reeve said 32 shots were too much for one player, even a reigning league Most Valuable Player.

Twice, late defensive lapses left Connecticut’s Jasmine Thomas wide open for 3-pointers. The first, with 1.7 seconds left in regulation, forced overtime. The second put Connecticut ahead 76-75 with 27.2 seconds left in overtime.

The Lynx missed Whalen’s leadership late in regulation, failing to foul with a three-point lead and the game clock winding down, the kind of thing Whalen would have demanded or done herself. But none of the players mentioned Whalen or Augustus unless asked. No one brought up bad luck, either. As Brunson and Reeve said, when a great player is out, everyone has to do a little bit more.

“We believe we can win every game that we play, and we’re very confident in the squad we bring out every night,” Moore said. “We just had a few breakdowns at the end that we couldn’t afford to have.”

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