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The Lynx get a glimpse of life without Lindsay Whalen. It’s not so great

Whalen is closer to the end of her career than the beginning, and how the Lynx responds to her recent injury may determine whether the team pursues another point guard this off-season.

Lindsay Whalen, 35, is closer to the end of her career than the beginning, and this sliver of Life Without Lindsay may determine whether the Lynx pursue another point guard this off-season.
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig

Roughly an hour and 15 minutes before every Lynx game, Coach Cheryl Reeve and point guard Lindsay Whalen meet near center court to review the game plan and any last-minute instructions.

It’s a comforting time for Reeve, who has long called the veteran Whalen her security blanket and more recently “the head of the snake.” Whalen usually bounces out of the confab with enthusiasm and purpose, a cue to the rest of the team that it’s time to go to work.

Last Friday, Reeve and Whalen caucused as usual before facing the defending WNBA champion Los Angeles Sparks. But first Reeve met with Renee Montgomery, the starter while Whalen recovers from a broken bone in her left hand. 

Whalen chatted up her teammates during early warmups, her left hand deep in the pocket of her sweatpants for protection. At practice the day before, she took notes on a legal pad, and Reeve encouraged her to share her thoughts.

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Then Whalen took a seat one row behind the bench, between assistant coach Walt Hopkins and basketball operations manager Clare Duwelius, and watched the Lynx lose 70-64. Wednesday night at Seattle the Lynx struggled again offensively in a 62-61 loss, falling to 1-3 without Whalen while enduing their first back-to-back losses of the season. 

A bigger picture

It’s been almost two weeks since Whalen had her left pinky nearly yanked off in a scramble for a loose ball against Atlanta, the first significant injury to a Lynx starter this season. While Whalen is out of a sling and into a much smaller cast, the 21-5 Lynx don’t expect her back for at least two more weeks — in time for the playoffs, but probably not before.

The Lynx especially missed Whalen in the third quarter against Los Angeles, a 4-for-18 shooting quagmire, and in the second half Wednesday night at Seattle. The latter loss, coupled with a Sparks victory at Washington, pulled L.A. two games behind the Lynx for the No. 1 playoff seed, though the Lynx have two games in hand. The teams meet for the last time in the regular season Aug. 27 in Los Angeles.

 “She’s so good for us in the third quarter,” forward Rebekkah Brunson said of Whalen. “This year especially, she’s been a player that gets our going in the third and gets our wills going. It’s unfortunate we don’t have her right now, but we still have all the pieces that we need to go out and make runs and do great things. We just have to get it done.”

(Brunson injured her left ankle Wednesday night, and it’s not clear if she will play Friday night against Indiana at the Xcel Energy Center.)

But there’s a bigger picture to consider here. Whalen, 35, is closer to the end of her career than the beginning, and this sliver of Life Without Lindsay may determine whether the Lynx pursue another point guard this off-season. Montgomery must prove she can run the team for extended minutes, and the early results have not been good. The last two losses saw the Lynx score their fewest points of the season. 

Getting a feel for Reeve

Montgomery, 30, has been fine in a limited role since the Lynx, the team that drafted her in 2009 (and traded her to Connecticut a year later to get Whalen), re-acquired her for Monica Wright in July 2015. When Whalen and Seimone Augustus were hurt late in that year, she started the last five games, averaging 12.2 points and 4.4 assists.

After that season, Montgomery turned down a free-agent deal and a starting gig with the New York Liberty to remain as Whalen’s backup. The bubbly Montgomery proved terrific as a gnat-like defender and three-point threat off the bench, allowing Reeve to cut back Whalen’s minutes. 

“Renee, at the time, we didn’t know what to expect,” Reeve said. “And I told her: It could be a rent-a-player, or we could really like how this goes. If you want to be here, we want you. We’ll know over the next how many games. We both went into it kind of like, you do your thing, we’ll do our thing, let’s see if it’s a fit. It worked out pretty good.” 

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It’s one thing to sub into a game, disrupt the other team’s offense, hoist some shots, then sit and let Whalen close things out. It’s another to distribute the ball effectively over 28 to 30 minutes and keep the offense flowing, with Job One lobbing the ball into MVP candidate Sylvia Fowles.

“Any time you move up the depth chart, your accountability goes up,” Reeve said. “While Renee doesn’t have to be Lindsay Whalen in terms of her game, she has to bring us some intangibles in her own way — toughness, focus on what it is we’re trying to get done on a possession, and discipline. Those sorts of things are contagious. I call it the floor game. Renee’s floor game has got to be at a high level.” 

Friday night, Montgomery struggled in the third quarter like everyone else, missing three shots with one turnover and no assists. She was better in the fourth, hitting a runner and two of three foul shots early, then finding Brunson and Maya Moore for jumpers later as the Lynx cut a 15-point deficit to three. For the night she had five assists, four turnovers and 10 points. 

“As a lead guard, you can feel your way into the game,” Montgomery said. “You don’t have to worry about trying to do too much in a hurry. In that aspect, it’s different. It’s easier, too, when you’re playing with the first group. They have so much firepower that I don’t really have to come in there and do much at all, just call the plays and run the team. But it’s still hard in the sense that you want to start the game right, so you have that pressure.

“The whole learning curve is probably to learn coach — what she wants, when she wants it and how she wants it. Getting a feel for what coach wants is the hardest thing right now.”

The nights of 30-plus minutes are done

Whalen’s floor game has always been her strength, carrying her to more victories than any WNBA player and seven league finals in 13 seasons. But by certain analytic measures, that game may be slipping. 

This season Reeve again cut Whalen’s minutes while asking her to shoot more 3-pointers, limiting wear-and-tear to keep her fresh for the playoffs. Per, while Whalen’s minutes fell to a career-low 23.5 per game, her turnovers are up — 3.1 per 36 minutes, compared to 2.1 last year and 2.7 over her career. Her player efficiency rating, a complicated formula that weighs positive and negative statistics and skews toward better offensive players, dropped to 12.1, below the league average of 15.0 and by far the worst of her career. Last year it was 16.5.

Her 3-point shooting percentage is up big, to .353 from .273. But by taking more jumpers and fewer layups, Whalen’s overall shooting fell to .451 — not bad, though well off last year’s career high .513. Whalen averaged double figures in scoring for nine consecutive seasons. She just missed last year (9.8), and this year it’s down even more (8.0).

Yet there’s one thing that statistics, traditional or advanced, can’t reflect: Reeve’s implicit trust in Whalen to deliver the right play when needed. And let’s face it: Every fan who wears a No. 13 jersey to a Lynx game, or rooted for Whalen at the University of Minnesota, expects it as well. That’s what the great ones do.

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“She brings so many little things you can’t put in a stat sheet,” Moore said. “Everybody has to be a little more mindful of being connected and on the same page, because point guards like her are great at just keeping everybody connected, together and organized. We just have to do a better job communicating and being aware of each other so we can make up for that organizational leadership that Whay brings.”

Already we’ve seen the Lynx recalibrate their offense, emphasizing Fowles in the low post and Moore in open spaces, savvy moves that kept the Lynx in contention for more championships. The ongoing task is finding younger complementary pieces to eventually replace Whalen, Brunson and Seimone Augustus.

With Whalen, that’s where it gets dicey. It’s not as simple as finding a traditional playmaker. Point guards need to score in the modern game to keep defenses honest. If they can’t, that defender can float around, double-team a scorer or clog the passing lane into the post. Then the offense bogs down. Someone like Montgomery, a converted shooting guard, is the prototype. 

“No team, whether it’s men or women, at this point professionally can you have a player on the floor like we used to have in the point guard position that can’t score — can’t shoot it, can’t space the floor,” Reeve said. 

Whalen still loves to play, but her days of going 30-plus minutes night after night are done. That’s why the Lynx need Montgomery to succeed. Now. And down the road.