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The Lynx’s title hopes confront a much-improved WNBA

This is a different year in the WNBA, and these Lynx are a different team. There is a real chance they may not get out of the first round.  

It’s not clear what the Lynx can expect from Seimone Augustus, who has played only three games since undergoing arthroscopic right knee surgery July 17.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

Look closely at the royal blue sneakers the Lynx will be wearing for their Western Conference semifinal series against the Los Angeles Sparks. Seimone Augustus’s number 33 appears on the back of most. Augustus swears up and down this was a mistake, which is interesting, considering Augustus ordered the shoes from Nike herself.

“Nike sent over the ID and told me to ID them,” Augustus said, laughing after this detail was pointed out to her. “I figured I’d ID mine and they would kind of put everyone else’s on. They decided to put 33 on the back of everybody’s.”

In one of the WNBA’s cooler traditions, Lynx players break out identical brightly-colored sneakers for the playoffs. The color choice falls to Augustus, a nod to her seniority (she’s been with the Lynx longer than anyone, since 2006) and impeccable fashion sense. For a team beset by injuries and the general upheaval from two major trades, having even a sneaker order go wrong seemed so apropos to an off-kilter season that Augustus and her teammates laughed it off.

“Everybody got 33s,” Lindsay Whalen said. “Representing for Mone.”

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Expect Augustus, who missed 18 games with knee and foot injuries, and Whalen, out the last four with a strained right Achilles tendon, to start tonight’s Game 1 of the best-of-three series at the Target Center. For the first time since Aug. 19, when Augustus limped off the floor with a sprained left foot, the Lynx will be whole, their regular starting five together. Normally, the loyal Lynx fan base would find that encouraging.

But this is a different year in the WNBA, and these Lynx are a different team – a little older, more post-oriented, less sure of itself, and perhaps more fragile than any team Coach Cheryl Reeve has taken to postseason. There is a real chance the Lynx may not get out of the first round, and it’s not because they’ve slipped. The rest of the league has risen to meet them.

For the first time since Reeve arrived in 2010, four teams – the New York Liberty, Chicago Sky, defending champion Phoenix Mercury and the Lynx – can claim legitimate shots at the title. Each has stars, strengths and flaws. It’s noteworthy that even after going 6-6 in August, the 22-12 Lynx still won the Western Conference and fell one victory short of tying the Liberty for the league’s best record. Had the Lynx beaten the Liberty here Sept. 6, instead of committing four turnovers on its last five possessions to lose 75-71, the Lynx would have claimed the overall No. 1 seed for its superior conference record.

“We didn’t have somebody that had 25, 26, 27 wins,” Reeve said. “The field is wide open. For us as coaches, we’re saying there could be eight teams that could win it. Home court advantage is going to be something that we worked really hard for, and it could prove to be the difference.”

It’s not clear what the Lynx can expect from Augustus, who has played only three games since undergoing arthroscopic right knee surgery July 17. That’s her “good” knee, not the one with bursitis that kept her out for 10 games last year.

“Each game we have a chance to play, she’ll be better and better for sure,” Reeve said. “I think she’s worked really hard to try not to be too rusty, but there’s no way you can sit out that long and not have some element of things be a little off.”

Augustus creates her own shot better than anyone on the team. But jump shooters need healthy legs beneath them, and anything that disrupts the rhythm of a jump shot is troublesome. Augustus’s .440 shooting percentage is her worst since 2010, and well off last year’s .511.

“Defense, offense, whatever in the moment that’s needed, I’m going to do it,” Augustus said. “The knee, the foot, it’s just going to happen. I’m going to push through it just like I did the bursitis last year, and other things that I’ve been through over my career. I’m a warrior, and I’m going to be here for my team.”

Before injuring her foot, Augustus saw limited practice and game time with center Sylvia Fowles, her former Louisiana State teammate who arrived from Chicago on July 27 in a three-team trade. The Lynx never had a center as offensively gifted as the 6-6 Fowles, a low-post scorer and shot-blocker with the best career field goal percentage in WNBA history (.577). So Reeve and her staff redesigned the offense on the fly. The transition was anything but seamless.

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“Square peg, round hole,” said Bill Laimbeer, the WNBA’s Coach of the Year with the Liberty . “She’s a different style of player to their system. So they had to make some compromises, I’m sure, to figure it out. That takes time. 

“Janel McCarville fits their style better than Fowles does. McCarville is a high-post center who passes really well, and more of a perimeter player to draw the bigs away from the basket for Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus to operate around the basket.  Fowles isn’t that way. She takes up a lot of space in the paint. So you don’t get those back cuts and those cuts they used to have in their team before.” 

Fowles provides a counter threat to L.A.’s imposing front line of 6-4 Candace Parker, 6-4 Jantel Lavender and 6-2 Nneka Ogwumike. The Sparks aren’t a typical 14-20 team. They started 3-13 while two-time MVP Parker recovered from her winter season in Russia, then went 11-5 with Parker in the lineup. (She sat out the final two games, both losses.)

Efficiency on both ends improved under new Coach Brian Agler, formerly with the Lynx and Seattle. Parker averaged 19.4 points, 10.1 rebounds and a surprising 6.3 assists, becoming the first non-guard in league history to dish more than six per game. (Whalen averaged 4.3).

At times, Reeve will pull Fowles away from the basket to clear driving room for Moore and Augustus.  Other times the Lynx will pound it inside to Fowles, challenging Lavender and Parker. This week Reeve repeatedly reminded Fowles to use her left hand from the left side of the basket, making it harder for Lavender to block.

Anna Cruz, Renee Montgomery, Dev Peters, Ashja Jones and Tricia Liston give Reeve the deepest bench she’s ever had. Yet the series may come down to what Augustus can give them, and whether the rest of the Lynx championship core – Whalen, Moore and rugged forward Rebekkah Brunson – can play with their usual grit.  Moore, remember, is getting over a broken nose.

Augustus can’t wait to get out there.

“It’s very frustrating any time you have to sit out with an injury,” Augustus said. “It stabs you in the heart every time you have to see your team grind and try to pull out wins. I hear the fans going, like, `When you coming back?’ and things like that. It hurts.

“But at the same time, it makes me proud to see we’re still the No. 1 team in the West despite all that we’ve been through this season. So it makes me half-hope for the playoffs. Now that I’m back, everything’s together, and we should have a fun time.”