After defeat of Tulsa, Lynx look to catch fire in season's second half
Heading into the 2014 All-Star break, the Lynx are patching up battle scars and leaving behind a grind-it-out first half.
After Wednesday's win in front of a regular-season franchise-record 16,413 fans, the Lynx have won four games in a row.
Stacy Bengs / AP
By Phil Ervin
MINNEAPOLIS -- The dish from Damiris Dantas was fluid, certainly unbecoming of a rookie who's still a toddler to this current Lynx run.
Early in the second quarter of Wednesday afternoon's 93-82 Minnesota triumph over Tulsa, Dantas took an entry pass and immediately, effortlessly and clandestinely deposited it via bounce pass in the hands of veteran point guard Lindsay Whalen, whose easy layup gave the Lynx a nine-point lead.
Synergy -- different, yet the same.
At this point last year, the Lynx were basking in the rays of the WNBA's best record. But heading into the 2014 All-Star break -- which won't be much of a respite for Whalen, MVP candidate Maya Moore and Minnesota's coaches -- they're instead patching up battle scars and leaving behind a first half that was much more grind-it-out than roughshod running.
"The trajectory is very upward," coach Cheryl Reeve said. "We haven't peaked."
After Wednesday's win in front of a regular-season franchise-record 16,413 fans (most of them screeching children at the Target Center for the team's annual "Camp Day"), the Lynx have won four games in a row. That's the 2011 and '13 champs' longest success streak since winning their first seven this summer.
But injuries to two pillars of this franchise's fledgling dynasty caught up with them. So did an increasingly difficult schedule that included five of six games on the road.
Eight Lynx victories this year have come by six points or less. They had two wins by the same margin in 2013.
From June 6-27, they went 4-5. Their six losses at the break are more than they've had since 2010, Reeve's first year in charge and the last time Minnesota missed the postseason.
But the coach now speaks about that juncture in the past tense.
"At no point was I ever thinking 'gosh, when we get Brunson back, this is gonna happen,'" Reeve said. "A lot of other people did. That's what people do, but for us, we were just locked into the group that we had."
Monica Wright and Devereaux Peters have bounced back from preseason knee operations to provide the Lynx (17-6) the depth they desperately require with a set of new faces in the second unit. Dantas has been a pleasant surprise starting in place of Brunson (knee), who has yet to play a game but practiced at full capacity Tuesday and could be ready when the season's stretch run commences next week. Seimone Augustus has missed seven straight games and eight overall with her own knee ailment.
But she, too, is expected back.
"It'll be great," Whalen said. "We've been all together for four years now. It'll be a great feeling and nice to get everybody back."
And if Minnesota -- which now sits 1 1/2 games back of Phoenix for the Western Conference's top playoff spot with 11 games remaining -- can continue to trend northward, the only way to go is back. To the WNBA Finals.
"You see the overall mood of our team, you wouldn't know whether we won 10 straight or lost 10 straight," Reeve said. "They're so even-keel in our leadership."
All-Star starter Moore continues to assert herself as the league's top player in her fourth WNBA season. She scored 32 points on 10-of-18 shooting and had nine rebounds Wednesday, her ninth 30-plus-point game this season. One more, and she'll tie fellow Connecticut product Diana Taurasi's single-season record for 30-point contests.
Moore's done much of it without Augustus on the opposite wing, though.
"I'm just playing," said Moore, the WNBA's leading scorer and top All-Star fan vote recipient. "Whatever's required of me, whatever it looks like, I'm just trying to help my team and be disciplined every play, whether it's Seimone on my side or Monnie or Tan (White), whatever guard's coming in, Brunson's back or not, I'm trying to help my team."
Said Shock (7-15) coach Fred Williams, who's coached against Moore in the finals twice and come away empty: "Maya's the Michael Jordan of this league."
And Whalen is the B.J. Armstrong.
Wednesday, the former Gopher scored 18 points to go with five assists. Coming into the day, she ranked third in the WNBA in assists and 12th in scoring and field-goal percentage.
She and Augustus were chosen as reserves for Saturday's All-Star Game, but Augustus' left-knee bursitis will prevent her from participating.
"For us to be sitting here at 17-6," Reeve said, "given all that we've been through, it's a huge testament to the leadership of Lindsay Whalen and obviously the terrific play of Maya Moore."
But it's been more than just the Olympians guiding the ship back toward the top. Wright's filled in for Augustus and consistently locked down on the opposition's top offensive threat. Peters has come off the bench looking more confident and mature and has notched 10 points in each of the past two contests.
The third-year veteran forward recorded her second career double-double in Sunday's 77-60 victory over Seattle.
Dantas, too, has been an influential post presence. The Brazilian rookie replaced Brunson in the starting lineup to start the campaign and averages seven points and 5.6 rebounds per game.
She had 10 and 11 Wednesday for her third double-double.
"We asked her what she had for her pregame (meal)," said Reeve, who as overseer of the West's reigning conference champion will coach in a second straight All-Star Game. "We wanted to make sure that was on order for the games going forward."
By game's end, the coach, her staff, Moore and Whalen were preparing to fly to Phoenix for this week's All-Star festivities. The rest of their comrades will disperse for the time being, recharging for a second "half" of the season they contend will be everything the first one wasn't.
"We've definitely weathered the storm," McCarville said.