The only consolation that came from the Minnesota Lynx’s rough start to the WNBA season – a start that shocked virtually everyone who has a point of reference for the Lynx’s domination in the WNBA over most of the past decade – was a little “peace and quiet”, said head coach Cheryl Reeve.
“I didn’t mind the quiet,” said Reeve. A 3-6 start. That was another matter, entirely.
“We have said this ad nauseum, but after the first nine games, we weren’t playing well enough. It’s hard enough in this league, but we didn’t have a sense of urgency. We were like the feeble hunted. We didn’t have much passion or energy and we got our butts kicked.”
It was a challenging start for the defending champions. Six of nine on the road. Two games against Los Angeles (the team it has faced in the last two WNBA Finals), two games against the Washington Mystics, another against the rejuvenated Phoenix Mercury and finally the Connecticut Sun, the WNBA’s breakout team from a year ago.
The things that had worked for the Lynx over most of the last seven seasons, a commitment to team defense, offensive efficiency, chemistry and focus on the task at hand, weren’t working.
Reeve thinks her team forgot – for a stretch – how hard it is to do what they have done in winning four championships in seven years.
“We weren’t ready,” Reeve said.
Looking for Minnesota and seeing them near the bottom of the WNBA standings was a shock to the system. Shocking for coaches, players, fans and opposing teams. The Lynx got questions about the team’s age – they remain the oldest team in the WNBA – and whether they had done enough in the offseason to retool as they looked to keep their core group together. Questions about the contributions of their bench and how new players were being integrated into the lineup.
Reeve, who became the WNBA’s winningest female coach Thursday night with the Lynx’s statement win over Los Angeles, braced for the doubts that came flying from every direction.
“I felt like we spent a lot of time fighting and we were drained from the fight,” Reeve said of the early-season questions. “I did not see this coming but I didn’t believe I was wrong about this team. I was fending it off, telling people ‘You are wrong. This group does have a lot left.’
“After seven years of success, I’ve always marveled at how this group manages to get up and go again and the expectations are so high. It was shocking for people. But, these past few weeks, I think we’ve shown who we are.”
There was an opportunity for a reset and the Lynx took it.
Following an 89-75 loss at Connecticut, Minnesota had some precious time off in this condensed WNBA schedule, a week to figure things out.
“That was the turning point,” said Lynx center Sylvia Fowles, the 2017 MVP.
It was a week spent getting needed rest, needed practice and needed a re-examination of who they are and how they got here.
“I call it our ‘bye week’,” Reeve said. “The league put us on notice. If we don’t bring it, we are going to get beat. This wasn’t a hard sell. The players knew. They knew the feeling that was missing and fortunately, they still wanted to have that feeling.”
Maya Moore wanted to get rid of the dissatisfaction that was eating away at her.
“I accept it as part of our journey, but at the same time, we had to change things,” Moore said. “So many things go into winning, that I can’t say it was just one thing. I’m proud of what we did that week. It wasn’t a perfect week, but we got back to some of our staples and back to doing some of the things that make us so hard to play against. That week was hard, but it helped us.”
Fowles said she wasn’t panicked, worried or angry about the rough start, but disappointed.
“I knew we had a good length of the season to go and that we could turn it quick,” Fowles said. “But we were getting away from our roots, and that was disappointing. We needed to get back to what we stand for.”
It turns out a “bye week” was just what the champs needed.
Beginning with an 85-71 win against New York on June 16, the Lynx have reeled off eight wins in nine games to climb to 11-7 and the No. 5 spot in the league standings, just two-and-a-half games behind league-leading Phoenix. During this run, they have beaten the Mercury, Seattle and Los Angeles, all teams above them in the standings.
The play of star Maya Moore has been a catalyst. Moore has scored at least 20 points in seven of the last nine games, including a 32-point game on June 26 against Seattle. Though she has struggled in the last two games, including a 2-for-13 effort from the floor on Thursday in a win over Los Angeles that was dominated by Fowles, who had 27 against the Sparks.
The Lynx are playing more through Fowles and distributing the ball more as a result. In the last 10 games, the Lynx are averaging 21.7 assists per game.
“After winning the MVP, I knew this season was going to be hard for me,” Fowles said. “The coaches have made sure that we are playing around me and I’m getting mine as it comes. That’s been my big focus, get out and try to be as effective as I can.”
And they are playing the defense that has always been their hallmark. Only one opponent in the last nine games has cracked 80 points.
“It’s a process,” Fowles said.
Moore said she feels good about the team’s “buy-in” as they head into a pair of road games against Chicago (Saturday) and Wednesday in Indiana, where they will avenge a surprising loss Tuesday to the league’s last-place team.
“There are so many ways we could have moved backward or stayed the same with the adversity,” Moore said. “There are definitely moments and stretches where it feels great and we are clicking. It’s exciting to me that we are growing, that we are not yet where we are going to be and we are figuring it out game-by-game.”
Reeve said that while she feels many of the team’s issues from the early season are “fixed”, they are still going to face challenging parts of this fast-paced, competitive season.
“But I’m confident that we are going to be able to identify things more quickly,” Reeve said. “The league is wide-open and I think there are a number of teams that could win the whole thing. I don’t think at any point, we saw ourselves as the top dog. Winning games in this league is really hard. But as long as we are one of those top teams, I like our chances.”
Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.