Odyssey Sims and Lindsay Whalen will be forever linked by one violent moment early in Game 4 of the 2017 WNBA Finals, a moment Lynx fans know by heart.
Trailing the Los Angeles Sparks two-games-to-one in their best-of-five series, the aging Lynx were in trouble, badly needing a lift to force a deciding Game 5 at home. Whalen, everyone’s big sister, provided it. Whalen flattened Sims with a karate-chop foul as Sims drove to the hoop at the Staples Center, a move lifted straight from the 1990s Detroit Pistons Bad Boys playbook. (Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve and Bad Boy provocateur Bill Laimbeer coached together with the Detroit Shock; draw your own conclusions.)
The simmering nastiness between the two gritty guards lingered into 2018. But that foul, in that moment, fired up the Lynx, who won the game and then a tense Game 5 at Williams Arena for their fourth championship.
Here’s the part nobody remembers: After replay review, the officials tagged Whalen with a Flagrant 1 foul. That meant, by WNBA rule, Sims had to shoot the free throws or sit out the rest of the game. Still groggy from crashing to the floor, Sims shook it off and stepped to the line. Made the first. Made the second.
“I wouldn’t say it was different,” she said. “I had to let it set in. But I think I look better in blue.”
That’s a line sure to get back to her old teammates in L.A., who hit town Saturday for a nationally televised game with the Lynx (KSTP-TV, Ch. 5, 2:30 p.m.), the same afternoon the club retires Whalen’s No 13. Sims vehemently declined to talk about the rivalry Thursday night after the Lynx held off an even longer-standing rival, Phoenix, 58-56, to improve to 4-1.
Sims did not replace Whalen. Veteran Danielle Robinson, back to full speed after major left foot surgery, assumed Whalen’s old point guard role; and it is Robinson, not Sims, who meets with Reeve at center court 90 minutes before tip-off as Whalen did. Instead Sims, a sixth-year pro from Baylor, shuttles between the point and wing guard. She was slated to come off the bench until Seimone Augustus needed right knee surgery. Now she starts at wing while still backing up Robinson, leading the Lynx in minutes played at 31.6 per game.
Reeve needs Sims to score, and she does; her 11.6 points per game average trails only former MVP Sylvia Fowles (13.6) and rookie Napheesa Collier (12.4). But her primary role remains defensive disruptor and all-around pest.
“She just plays so hard,” Robinson said. “Her energy, her passion and her grit is something that we need.”
Reeve believes the Lynx landed Sims as a byproduct of L.A.’s failed pursuit of Liz Cambage, the high-scoring Australian center who demanded the Dallas Wings trade her to the Sparks after her only season in that city. The teams negotiated for months but never agreed on a deal. Cambage ended up in Las Vegas. (Sparks general manager Penny Toler declined an interview request through a team spokesman.)
Meanwhile, Sims, a restricted free agent, signed an three-year offer sheet with Phoenix for the maximum salary allowed under the collective bargaining agreement — $115,000 this season, $117,000 in 2020 and $119,000 in 2021. Unwilling to lose Sims to the Mercury for nothing, L.A. matched the offer sheet. But it put them in a bind. The Sparks lacked salary cap room to add Cambage, keep its remaining stars and bring back restricted free agent guard Chelsea Gray, the notorious Lynx killer. Someone had to go, and that someone was Sims.
Reeve inquired about Sims early in free agency but was told Sims wasn’t interested. (Sims declined to talk about this.) That changed shortly after the draft in April, Reeve said, when the Sparks offered Sims to the Lynx. In return, L.A. wanted third-year guard Alexis Jones for her 3-point shooting and her roughly $48,000 salary, less than half of Sims’.
The Lynx needed offense with Maya Moore taking a year off. And Sims relished the chance to return to a scoring role like her first two seasons in Tulsa, when she averaged more than 16 points per game.
“I walk in here with pride,” Sims said. “I walk in every day happy. This is the happiest I’ve been since I’ve been in the league. Just to know I can roll out of bed and I have teammates like Seimone who’s really, really goofy. We come here, we talk to each other, we give each other hugs. I just feel so much love here. Every time I put on a Lynx jersey, I smile. I’ve been smiling ear to ear since I got to Minnesota.”
Reeve said the Lynx hated to give up Jones, a former first-round pick who spent the winter in Minneapolis on the team’s dime to work on skill development. But Reeve wasn’t interested in rebuilding. She felt she owed it to Fowles and Augustus to go for another title as quickly as possible. That meant Sims.
“We invested quite a bit in A.J., in ways that indicated how much we liked her and how much we believed in her,” Reeve said. “But the timing for this team…we needed someone like Odyssey Sims, who could be the alpha. I don’t think A.J. was ready for that part.”
Whalen herself loved the deal. “I liked Alexis and I liked being her teammate,” said Whalen, the University of Minnesota women’s basketball coach, at a Gophers event in Owatonna. “But when you have a chance to get Odyssey Sims in the prime of her career, that’s probably a good move. She’s someone that doesn’t back down. She’s someone who can create and also go get a bucket. If you have a guard who can create like that, you’ve got to go and get a player like that.”
Reeve discovered Sims is a better passer than she thought; Sims leads the Lynx at 4.6 assists per game. Reeve would love for Sims to shoot better, at least 40 percent, a figure she’s reached only twice in five seasons. (A 7-for-16 effort Thursday for 15 points put Sims at 37.1 percent so far.)
They talk all the time, but Reeve usually steers clear of one topic. The 2017 Finals. No reason to poke the former Baylor Bear. “It is fun to reminisce about,” she said. “But I don’t want to bring it up with her, because she’s smiling and in a really good place. I don’t want to piss her off and get her mad at me.”