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What’s wrong with the Lynx?

The Lynx have been so good for so long that anything short of nightly domination brings angst to a fan base that has come to expect excellence.

Coach Cheryl Reeve: “Externally we look a little more vulnerable, and I don’t really care what the outside thinks.”
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig

With three minutes and 12 seconds left and the Lynx down 21 points to Washington on Wednesday night, Coach Cheryl Reeve engaged the universal gesture of basketball surrender. She summoned Shae Kelley and Renee Montgomery, the last two players on her bench, to replace Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen. Everyone knew what that meant: Garbage time. While Moore and Whalen found seats, fans grabbed jackets and filed out quietly out of the Target Center. 

The Mystics can play, but the Lynx were just frightful. The 79-61 loss represented their fewest points and largest margin of defeat at home since 2010, Reeve’s first season (and her only losing one). And their 34.4 percent shooting was the worst at home since a blip during the 2011 championship season. In addition, New York’s 73-45 rout of San Antonio gave the 17-7 Liberty, not the Lynx, the best record in the WNBA and the edge for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs by percentage points.

Melding newcomers Anna Cruz, Montgomery and Sylvia Fowles, all arriving since training camp, into the group remains a work in progress. At times Wednesday, the Lynx resembled an assortment of mercenaries who just met at the airport. Whalen twice misfired lobs inside to Fowles. Another time Whalen anticipated a teammate cutting toward half-court. When that teammate broke the other way, Whalen’s bounce pass caromed right to Reeve on the bench.

Oh, and Seimone Augustus sprained an ankle in her third game back after missing 10 with knee surgery and sat out most of the second half. That this came the day after a three-hour meeting among Reeve and the team captains made everything look that much worse. 

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Reeve’s postgame press conference was predictable brief, one minute and 56 seconds.  The normally engaging Whalen kept her eyes riveted to the floor throughout a locker room interview, and Moore never smiled at all. Losing back-to-back games for the second time in two weeks left the Lynx 3-4 this month and 18-8 overall, their worst 26-game record since — all together now — 2010.

That certainly isn’t a catastrophe. Think Flip Saunders would take 18-8 for the Timberwolves? Thing is, the Lynx have been so good for so long that anything short of nightly domination brings angst to a fan base that has come to expect excellence. The Lynx know they aren’t playing well enough to win their third WNBA title in five years. And time is short — eight regular-season games — to fix what’s wrong.

“It didn’t feel very good for them,” Reeve said, meaning her players. “But as I told them, this is a process. We’re on a journey right now. We have not yet peaked, and we’re going to work really hard to make sure that we’re able to get to that spot where we’re a great basketball team.”

While Fowles, Cruz and Montgomery give the Lynx depth and experience, they’re trying to fit in on the fly without the benefit of training camp, like someone parachuting into 10th grade geometry a month into the semester. Practice opportunities are limited this deep into the season. Games Friday in San Antonio and Sunday in Phoenix complete a run of four games in eight days for the Lynx, during which they will practice, at most, twice. Assistant coaches Shelley Patterson (guards) and Jim Petersen (post players) are spending extra time bringing the newcomers along.

“There’s been some change,” Reeve said. “There have been some starts and stops, if you will. That can be hard if you’re used to, this is our group, this is what we do. And I think we’ve done a good job.

By necessity, much of the learning takes place during games. The Lynx have never had an offensive threat at center like Fowles, who can run the floor and post up. That takes some getting used to. 

Too many nights the Lynx struggled offensively early, especially Moore, before storming back to win. Their six double-digit comeback victories lead the WNBA. In one respect, that’s what a veteran team with multiple scorers can do.

But it’s a dangerous habit to get into in a league with more depth than ever, where blowouts are rarer than they were even two years ago, when the Lynx won nine games by at least 20 points in their most recent championship season. Even more troubling: The Lynx have blown leads of eight to 10 points in four losses.

Moore’s .420 field goal percentage is the worst of her five-year career, and her .361 percentage on 3-pointers is well off her career average of .385 coming into the season. Wednesday the Lynx settled for jumpers early in the shot clock instead of moving the ball, creating mismatches and exploiting breakdowns.

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“We took a lot of questionable shots, a lot of quick shots,” Augustus said. “We’ve got to really run through our offense and execute to make it difficult for them. I feel like once we get into that flow of knowing where we want to go and how we want to attack, it’s going to cause a lot of difficult situations for other teams

“Offensively, we feel like it will come. We can’t really stress about that. We have too many great scorers on this team to panic on that end. But we also need to clean up some things – moving the ball around, putting people in tough situations so they can’t just clog the paint on Syl, or deny the wings on me and Maya, or pressure up on (Whalen) as teams have done in the past. We can’t make it easy for them, like tonight.” 

Said Moore: “We just want to make sure we’re getting quality shots. When we’re not getting quality shots, it’s something that concerns us.”

Securing home court advantage throughout the playoffs, as the Lynx did in both championship runs, remains the short-term goal. Wednesday aside, the Lynx are still in much better position to land it than last season, when Diana Taurasi-led Phoenix barged past the Lynx in June and never let up. (No need to remind Lynx fans how their Western Conference final turned out, especially Games 1 and 3 at US Airways Center.)

These final eight games include home-and-home sets with the Mercury (here Aug. 30) and the Liberty (here Sept. 6). The Lynx probably need to win six to ensure home court all the way. Reeve and Liberty Coach Bill Laimbeer are pals from their days coaching the Detroit Shock, so their Aug. 28 matchup at Madison Square Garden ought to be a show. Trust this: If the Liberty waxes the Lynx at the World’s Most Famous Arena, whoever sits next to Reeve on the flight home will deplane with a black-and-blue arm.

“Externally we look a little more vulnerable, and I don’t really care what the outside thinks,” Reeve said. “I only care about the feelings we have on the inside.”

Inside, the Lynx understand they have more to learn, and precious little time to master the material.