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Can the Lynx get out of their funk?

Among Lynx fans, a nagging fear persists that their beloved team may be nearing the end of its championship run.

Lindsay Whalen putting her arms around fellow guards Alexis Jones and Danielle Robinson during warmups prior to the Minnesota Lynx-Washington Mystics game earlier this season. Center Lynetta Kizer is shown in the background.
MinnPost photo by Lorie Shaull

If you write “The Lynx are too old” enough times, sooner or later you’re going to be right, because that’s the way things go with athletes. Great players lose a step. Dynasties end. It happens. With apologies to the Cajun sage Seimone Augustus, when you dance with Father Time, sooner or later the music stops, and it’s time to go.

The Lynx have been hearing this “age thing” for three or four years now, enough for the topic itself to be, for lack of a better word, old. And every time, the veteran core revives, meets the challenge and hangs another banner. With four championships and six finals appearances in seven years, the Lynx are to the WNBA what the San Antonio Spurs are the NBA: A model organization, top to bottom. Champions in every way.

And yet, among Lynx fans, a nagging fear persists that their beloved team is nearing the end of its championship run. Already the 3-6 Lynx have lost almost as many games as they typically lose in an entire season. The revered veterans — Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson — look slow, injured or disengaged, depending on the night. Maya Moore isn’t quite herself, and neither is reigning regular season and finals MVP Sylvia Fowles.

Is this the last gasp for the Lynx? The music hasn’t stopped yet, but there’s a line forming at coat check. 

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Wednesday after practice at Mayo Clinic Square, Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve — who two weeks ago said, “Anybody that’s pushing the panic button is stupid,” which didn’t stop anyone from lunging for it — spent more than five minutes going over, in great detail, what’s wrong with her team. It was quite the manifesto, devoid of excuses, summed up in short phrases. Lack of focus. Lack of attention to detail. Forgetting what it takes to win close games. Not putting the organization first.

Reeve spent three days of practice this week hammering home those points, readying her team for vital Target Center games with the New York Liberty on Saturday night and the Dallas Wings on Tuesday night. Reeve plans to “ride or die” with her veterans, leaning more on her starters, along with Tanisha Wright and Danielle Robinson off the bench. That means, for now, less of Alexis Jones and Cecilia Zandalasini.

“We can’t keep going the way we’re going,” Reeve said. “The time is now for the response. If we don’t get a response beginning on Saturday, then I don’t know what we’re doing. Then maybe it’s just words. Maybe the collective will isn’t as strong. I don’t think that’s the case, but we will find out next time we play.”

The Lynx haven’t opened this badly since a 2-9 start in 2010, the first season in Minnesota for Reeve, Whalen and Brunson, and the year before Moore arrived. The 13-21 finish that year marks Reeve’s only losing record as a head coach.

That team had none of the pedigree of this one. Still, in a 34-game season, the Lynx can’t afford to struggle much longer. The WNBA playoff format heavily favors the two best regular-season finishers, who sit and wait for the semifinals while the other six teams duke it out in single-elimination rounds. The Lynx need an other-worldly next two months to avoid a single-elimination fate. That is, if they make the playoffs at all.

“Just because you’ve done something in the past, there’s zero guarantee it’s going to happen again,” Moore said after the 95-85 loss to Phoenix at home June 1, when the Lynx stood around and let Diana Taurasi and DeWanna Bonner go off in the first half. “That’s what we’re experiencing…All those little things that we made look so easy over the years are really hard.”

If Reeve is right, that this funk has more to do with concentration and commitment than age, it’s fixable. Certainly the Lynx need more from Moore, who missed almost all of training camp while playing in Europe, and Fowles. Moore’s .416 shooting percentage will be the worst of her career if it holds up, and Reeve plans to cut back her minutes and stop using her at power forward. Fowles’ .622 shooting percentage inside of five feet, her sweet spot, is 40 percentage points lower than last year and her worst since 2015. Brunson’s knees are bothering her, limiting her playing time and effectiveness.

Trades and free agency brought three new bench players — guards Wright and Robinson and forward Lynetta Kizer, all well-regarded veterans. That’s a lot of turnover, and the assimilation hasn’t been seamless, especially for Robinson. Losing Renee Montgomery to Atlanta in free agency cost the Lynx a three-point threat off the bench, something they miss. And the Lynx are thin up front without Natasha Howard, traded to Seattle in a salary dispute.

“For the starting five, we’ve been doing this the last eight years, but we’ve got to bring other people along,” Augustus said. “When (Whalen) isn’t in the game, you’ve got (Robinson) in. It’s been a challenge for her to get the communication down and get the things that we want to do down as far as what the Lynx do. As we continue to progress, she’s gotten better over the last few games, and will continue to get better. As role players come along, our team will be better.

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“It takes time. You hope it would have happened in training camp like most other teams, but it didn’t. So we’re going to learn on the go.” 

The biggest issue, Reeve said, has nothing to do with that. It’s failing to do the little, hard things to win games. Getting stops in big moments. Running plays with precision. Making layups and foul shots. The league is better, with Connecticut, Phoenix and Seattle all vastly improved, and the Lynx haven’t risen to meet it. And the players who should know how to respond aren’t doing it. 

“The first couple of years we were like, we can’t stay the same because the rest of the league has gotten better,” Reeve said. “I’m almost inclined to say it was lip service this year. Our players thought maybe they could come back, do the same things, and it would all come together. The league has put us on notice.”

What changed? Human nature, Reeve said. “They were all being pulled in so many different directions before they got here,” Reeve said. “I don’t believe we turned off all those things. It’s not Minnesota Lynx No. 1. It’s like No. 1 and 1A, and then there’s maybe a B and a C. That can’t happen.          

“There’s always been for this group, Minnesota Lynx are No. 1. We didn’t share that No. 1 spot with anything. Maybe the price of some success, opportunities to do things outside of playing, I think has kind of tugged at us. I think there was an assumption that we would just all come back here and it would just happen. It’s something I didn’t see coming.”

Whalen is the obvious example. She took the University of Minnesota women’s basketball coaching job a few weeks before camp opened and dove into hiring a staff and recruiting. Now she’s off to the worst start of her career (5.1 points and 3.1 assists). Whalen isn’t the first WNBA player trying to juggle playing and coaching. But she’s never been 36 before, and 12-plus seasons of relentlessly physical play may be catching up to her.

“It’s a natural thing to say her right away because she’s got two jobs,” Reeve said. “I don’t think you can escape the idea that it’s 1A and 1B. But that’s something we agreed to, and it’s not the root of the problem.” 

The post-practice scene Wednesday reminded some of us of the practice day between Games 1 and 2 of the Finals, after the Los Angeles Sparks ran the listless Lynx off the floor in a 28-2 first-quarter run before holding on to win. Bad-cop Reeve chewed out the players during a film session and demanded answers, while the easy-going Augustus essentially told everyone to chill. The next night Brunson’s tenacity on both ends sparked a series-tying 70-68 victory that saw all the starters score in double figures.

That’s the kind of response the Lynx need. “Nobody has to have some magical, complicated, analytical solution to it,” Reeve said. “It’s going back to the things this franchise has been built on, which is defending our tails off, and rebounding the basketball, and sharing the ball and moving the ball at the other end. Period.”