Back when the Lynx won WNBA championships every other year — which, by the way, wasn’t that long ago — players and fans enjoyed various pre- and post-game traditions. Early arrivals often caught Coach Cheryl Reeve and point guard Lindsay Whalen gabbing at half-court during warmups. And postgame victory celebrations featured an elaborate routine led by superstar Maya Moore: A leaping high five with a teammate (usually a rookie), and dancing to the Sugarhill Gang with a bunch of kids from the stands.
Time and the coronavirus put those traditions on hold. Whalen retired in 2018, and pregame conversations between Reeve and her point guard (Layshia Clarendon these days) now happen behind closed doors. Last season, the WNBA prohibited postgame anything in its so-called “wubble” in Bradenton, Fla.
“Almost as soon as the clock ended on the floor, you pretty much got off and went to the locker room,” said center Sylvia Fowles.
But when the Lynx returned this season to the Target Center, and fans returned to the stands, Fowles — a team captain and the senior Lynx in point of service — brought back the postgame traditions with certain modifications. She and fellow Olympian Napheesa Collier do a controlled jump-and-bump. And with COVID-19 restrictions prohibiting contact with spectators, the entire team dances without the kids. Back in the day, veterans Seimone Augustus, Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson usually bugged out before the music started.
“(We’re) just trying to keep traditions, something that’s normal for us,” Fowles said. “We didn’t want to break that. We knew the team was a little different, felt a little different. But some things you just got to keep doing at home. It’s something we’ve always done after the game, and we didn’t want to get rid of it.”
Sunday afternoon, the Lynx will restore another tradition that fell by the wayside in recent seasons — home playoff games. The Lynx face Chicago on Sunday in the single-elimination second round, with the winner advancing to the best-of-five semifinals.
The Lynx haven’t played a postseason game in Minnesota since beating the Los Angeles Sparks in Game 5 of the 2017 Finals at Williams Arena, their second alternate home during Target Center renovations. (The first was Xcel Energy Center, which the Wild reclaimed for training camp shortly before the WNBA playoffs.) The last playoff game at Target Center? A thrilling Game 5 of the 2016 Finals — a final-seconds loss to the Sparks that saw a club-record crowd of 19,423 rock the joint before filing out in silence.
Fowles is the only active Lynx player remaining from those teams. It’s taken Reeve, also the club’s general manager, four years to rebuild (a term she hates) the Lynx into a championship contender. Now, they’re right on the cusp.
This season it took awhile for things to jell. Overseas commitments kept Collier and prime free agent acquisition Kayla McBride out of training camp. Reeve signed the rugged veteran Clarendon, cut by New York, after the season began. An 0-4 start included home-and-home losses to defending WNBA champion Seattle, which swept the Lynx 3-0 in the league semifinals the year before.
The Lynx were still only 5-7 on June 23 when they came from 18 points down on the road to beat Atlanta, 87-85, the first of seven consecutive victories going into the Olympic break. They went on to win 17 of their final 20 games to finish 22-10 and secure the No. 3 seed on the playoffs behind Connecticut and Las Vegas — coincidentally, the only teams to beat them during that stretch.
The 35-year-old Fowles carried much of the load, averaging 16 points on a league-best 64 percent shooting. She also finished second in the league in rebounds (10.1) and blocks (1.8).
Healthy after missing most of last season with a strained right calf, Fowles has put together some extraordinary games, topped by a 29-point/20-rebound/four-steal/three-block effort in an August 24 victory over Seattle. (Fowles didn’t commit a foul or a turnover that night, unheard of for a post player.)
All summer long Reeve campaigned for greater recognition of Fowles’ body of work, promoting her for Most Valuable Player (which she won in 2017) and Defensive Player of the Year (she’s won it three times, most recently in 2016). Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones is the favorite for both, though the Associated Press named Fowles its DPOY this week. The WNBA announces its award winners during the playoffs.
“If she’s not the Defensive Player of the Year, what a travesty that would be,” Reeve said of Fowles. “She’s been absolutely unbelievable on that end of the floor.”
Unlike the championship teams, Fowles might be the only likely Hall of Famer on the roster. But these Lynx still offer balance and depth. Collier (16.2 points per game), McBride (13.7) and a healthy Aerial Powers (13.4) provide the scoring, Clarendon the grit, and Crystal Dangerfield, Bridget Carleton and Rachel Banham the spark off the bench.
Four times this season the Lynx overcame double-digit deficits to win. And they finished the season with the league’s lowest defensive rating in the fourth quarter (86.9), a telling sign of a team that’s learning how to win. In seven late-season games Clarendon missed with a stress reaction in her right fibula, the Lynx went 6-1.
“We’ve experienced ups and downs together,” Reeve said. “We understand what we have to do when backs are against the wall and things aren’t going our way. That’s what I enjoy more than anything, our response when things are difficult and not going our way.
“I don’t ever want to coach a team that’s easy to break. I think our team is not easy to break, because we handle difficult moments the right way. We communicate. We problem-solve together. It’s nobody’s fault, so to speak. We just try to correct things and go on to the next play.”
That’s another tradition the Lynx are glad to have back.