The many faces of Sylvia Fowles were on display Wednesday night, before, during and after a perplexing Lynx game.
Early warmups 45 minutes before the opening tip revealed Sweet Syl, sharing a few quick dance steps with Australian teammate Stephanie Talbot to the funky music blaring throughout the Target Center. Then Fowles laughed and pulled Talbot in for a hug.
During the game, when two Seattle Storm players pounded Fowles underneath on a shot, out came Seething Syl, gritting her teeth at the nearest official for not calling a foul. Fowles stopped short of drawing a technical foul or dropping an F-bomb, which happened after a similar non-call July 2 against Atlanta.
And after a listless 90-79 loss, one that annoyed Coach Cheryl Reeve so much she slammed a diagramming board and stormed out of a second-quarter timeout huddle, Sullen Syl sat at her stall in the Lynx looker room. That Syl took the defeat hard, though she did her best to prevent it, contributing 16 points and seven rebounds.
“You have a game plan and you don’t get it done,” Fowles said. “It’s quite a bit frustrating.”
It’s been that kind of season for Fowles and the Lynx, one of personal achievement overshadowed by the team’s nightly struggle for cohesion and consistency.
It’s been a weird season for the WNBA in general. Injuries to so many major stars — Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird of defending champion Seattle, Diana Taurasi of Phoenix, Angel McCoughtry of Atlanta, Candace Parker of Los Angeles, Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson of the Lynx — and the trade of center Liz Cambage from Dallas to Las Vegas shook the balance of power. If there’s a great team in this bunch, it has yet to emerge.
Everyone used to chase the Lynx and the Sparks. Now Vegas, with All-Star starters Cambage, A’ja Wilson and Kayla McBride, is the one on the rise. But as of Thursday morning six teams were within two games of the 11-5 Aces in the overall standings, the 10-8 Lynx among them. Eight teams make the playoffs.
It’s remarkable that the Lynx are above .500 without a minute’s contribution from their Core Four — former MVP Maya Moore (sabbatical), Lindsay Whalen (retired), Augustus (right knee surgery) and Brunson (lingering concussion symptoms). Reeve, also the Lynx general manager, retooled with a largely new cast. She traded for guards Odyssey Sims, Lexie Brown and forward Talbot, signed forwards Karima Christmas-Kelly and former Lynx draftee Damiris Dantas as free agents, and drafted forwards Napheesa Collier from UConn and Jessica Shepard from Notre Dame.
All that newness meant unfamiliarity. Point guard Danielle Robinson, given the unenviable task of replacing Whalen, struggled at times running the offense. Some nights were better than others, and season-ending knee injuries to Christmas-Kelly and Shepard haven’t helped. Sims, named an All-Star reserve, leads the Lynx in scoring at 15.1 points per game. But she also leads the league in turnovers, and her DUI arrest in early June leaves her at risk of a league suspension. Sims is due in court for a pre-trial hearing Sept. 10, two days after the regular season ends.
With Augustus and Brunson out, Fowles, the three-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, is the senior Lynx in point of service. Now a captain along with Augustus and Robinson, Fowles, 33, has had to be more of a leader than any point in her career. That manifested itself June 22, the night Reeve called her “Angry Syl,” praising her passion and willingness to hold teammates accountable.
Sufficiently annoyed by a four-game losing streak and the Lynx failure to execute basic plays late in games, Fowles took charge of a fourth quarter timeout. She demanded her teammates spell out their assignments, even fellow captain Robinson. Her tone meant mental mistakes were no longer acceptable. Fowles finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds, three steals and four blocks in a 92-83 victory over the New York Liberty, a struggling team that stunned the Lynx on the road ten days earlier.
“It’s really helpful, and it’s really good to see her like that,” Collier said. “When Syl talks, we listen.”
Said Fowles: “With all these new faces, I think it’s my job to make sure everybody is on the same page. Once we leave the huddle, I think my job is to go, ‘OK, where do you go? What are you doing? Who are are you screening for? What side are you on?’ And so those things, just to make sure they’re at the top of our brain until we get it.”
In the last week Fowles broke Lisa Leslie’s WNBA record for double-doubles with her 158th, and she was named an All-Star for the sixth time. She leads the league in field goal percentage (.586), rebounds (178) and win shares (2.9).
And yet, there have been stretches this season when Fowles’ teammates seemingly forget she is on the floor. Her scoring average is down more than three points per game from last year, to 14.3 from 17.7. And she gets to the foul line a lot less, averaging 2.6 attempts per game, about half of last year’s 5.0.
Wednesday night the Storm double and triple-teamed Fowles repeatedly, and the officials let all kinds of contact go on both sides. Fowles took only three foul shots, making two.
A few weeks ago the Lynx adjusted their offensive strategy with Fowles. Instead of waiting for Fowles to establish position in the post and call for the ball, allowing additional defenders to collapse inside, her teammates are supposed to read the defense and lead her to open spaces with passes. It’s a beautiful thing when it works, and it opens the lane to backdoor cutters for Fowles to find. But it’s still a work in progress. Wednesday night, Collier and Robinson threw the ball away trying to lob it deep to Fowles.
“It was easy with Lindsay because she knows everything,” Fowles said. “Like I was telling them, I don’t care if I have my hand up, I want you to pass to me in a certain spot. If you see that somebody’s there, don’t pass it there. Having that trust between us, and letting them lead me to where I need to be…that’s how I get easy buckets.”
Wednesday night, Fowles couldn’t do much to prevent an embarrassing loss. Every WNBA and NBA team runs some version of a high-post offense, and the Lynx defensive game plan featured one of their standard tactics — fighting over screens to stay tight on Seattle’s dangerous perimeter shooters.
Instead, Lynx players repeatedly ducked under the screens, granting the Storm ample shooting room. Seattle hit three 3-pointers in a five-for-five shooting start to lead 13-4, and the Lynx never caught up.
Within two minutes, Reeve was yelling at her players to fight over the screens. Nothing changed By the second quarter Reeve had had enough. Calling time with 7:35 left and the Lynx down 33-19, Reeve lasted only seconds in the huddle. Down went the board and off walked Reeve, leaving a surprisingly calm Augustus to talk the team through it. The Lynx trailed by 21 points in the third quarter before rallying back to 80-79 with 3:33 to play. But Seattle scored the final ten points to finish it off.
“They came out and punched us the whole first half,” Robinson said. “We didn’t battle until the second half. That was unfortunate.”
Reeve was in full South Jersey sarcastic mode afterward, sparing no one, including herself. She claimed her 4 1/2 year old son Oliver yelled from the stands, “Why would you go under screens?” though no one screamed it louder than his mom the coach.
“I don’t like getting out-competed,” Reeve said. “It’s unacceptable to get run out of the gym on your floor. I do appreciate we had that stretch where we got back in it and cut it to one. That’s the silver lining.”
Former Lynx forward Natasha Howard, days after her wife took to social media with domestic violence allegations, schooled the rookie Collier for a career-high 33 points. “(Howard) is a great player that the G.M. traded,” said Reeve, the G.M. in question. “What a dumbass.”
Sixteen games remain in the season for the Lynx to try to get it right, beginning Sunday in Las Vegas. How it goes may determine what face of Fowles we see the most.