Lynx aim to master details to regain title
MINNEAPOLIS — Like a well-aged but lesser-known brand of wine, the Minnesota Lynx lurked in the cellar of the Target Center all week.
The only WNBA team that didn’t play over Memorial Day weekend finally commences its season Saturday. And despite their appearance in the past two league championship series — including a finals crown in 2011 — and returning core that rivals any in WNBA history, the Lynx have become a relative afterthought.
The women’s professional basketball league’s current national perception hinges upon the drumming up of a rookie class that includes 6-foot-8 phenom Brittney Griner, up-and-coming teams with other fresh faces, and defending champion Indiana.
Less hype; no problem.
“We really don’t pay too much mind to what other people are doing,” 2013 leading scorer Seimone Augustus said. “They can have all the media attention, all the frenzy, and we’re just gonna keep working.”
The ESPN family of networks will nationally televise the Phoenix Mercury, reigning champ Indiana Fever, Los Angeles Sparks and Tulsa Shock on more occasions than Minnesota this season.
And while Griner’s high-flying dunks and the rest of the league’s teams took center stage last weekend, a veteran Minnesota squad rested. And watched. And waited. And worked.
“I understand the platform for ESPN,” said Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, whose team hosts Connecticut at 7 p.m. Saturday on FOX Sports North. “I’m excited about us broadening our partnership, and if this is where they want to put their focus, it’s fine with us. It comes at a good time as we are trying to retool what we’re doing here. With all the cameras out in Phoenix and Chicago and Tulsa, that’s OK with us.”
There’s not much cutting-edge or flashy happening in Minneapolis compared to the exploits of Griner and fellow top rookies Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins. Minnesota’s main names have been around for years now, a mark of steady consistency rather than spotlight-grabbing newcomers.
But if the Lynx are to meet their objective of a second title in three seasons, the limelight surely will shift at some point.
Although, franchise-face point guard Lindsay Whalen is quick to note, “That’s at the end of the season.”
Instead, the Lynx spent the preseason harping on miniscule details. There’s little else to emphasize with a bunch that contains four Olympians and four All-Star selections.
Defense and distribution have been key points of interest. So has finishing, especially after a disappointing championship showing against the Fever last October.
“Isn’t that boring? Honest to goodness, I wish it was more exciting,” Reeve said of her consistent message to take things day by day, possession by possession. “When you start thinking about a big picture, you lose sight of the small things, and when you don’t do the little things, you don’t win basketball games. This team really understands that, and if they were to tell you anything different, I’d be stunned, because this is a very smart group.”
Four of the five women that started all seven of the Lynx’s WNBA Finals games the past two seasons are back. Former University of Minnesota star Janel McCarville was brought in to help fill the void left by retired post Taj McWilliams-Franklin.
McCarville — who’s been working hard to return to form after a two-year break from WNBA hoops, but worked with the first team during Wednesday’s full-tilt scrimmage — and a helping of role-playing rookies are the only newbies in a locker room fraught with big-time experience.
Some teams rebuild. Others reload. Minnesota simply desires to reestablish itself.
That starts with third-year small forward Maya Moore. Considered an MVP candidate by some, her evolution as a closer and leader is paramount, as Reeve has emphasized the entire offseason.
And the steady hands of veterans Whalen and Augustus are just as crucial. Together, the gold-medal-winning trio — all of whom scored 11.5 points or more per game last season — will count on chemistry that’s developed over two full seasons together and be responsible for getting McCarville and fellow forward Rebekkah Brunson ample touches.
“We just kind of flow,” Augustus said. “Whalen’s the floor general, so she does a great job of managing to get people in places that we’re comfortable. After that, it’s up to us to knock down a basket or make the next pass.”
It could end up being Brunson who turns the most heads this season.
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound workhorse has morphed into one of the league’s best rebounders, setting the Lynx season record for total boards in each of her three years here. At her current pace (9.3 rebounds per game), she could be the franchise’s top career glass clearer by the end of the year.
There’s a reliable bench presence when Reeve’s first five need a spell, too, including do-it-all utility specialist Monica Wright. After averaging 19.4 minutes per game off the bench last season, she’s in line for more playing time as the team’s backup point guard but can also play the two or the three. Forwards Amber Harris (8.9 minutes per game) and Devereaux Peters (14.1) also expect increased workloads in the wake of McWilliams-Franklin’s departure.
And don’t forget the new girls.
In line with Minnesota’s waiting-in-the-shadows identity, draft picks Lindsey Moore, Sugar Rodgers and Rachel Jarry all have carved out roles in a short preseason.
How often the rookies will showcase their skills is up to them, according to Reeve.
“The bench, I really don’t have a great idea of who’s coming in and gonna do what,” said the second-winningest coach in the WNBA’s 17-year history. “What I hope that they give us, at minimum, is a group that can come in and be steady and not come in throwing the ball all over the place and not play defense and not get any rebounds. If they do the basics, the minimum, it’ll be really helpful to us.”
Those three weren’t around Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, when the Lynx watched in disgust as Indiana celebrated a title on its home floor.
But the returners that underwent that sting have moved on, giving it about as much thought as their new teammates.
Nationally recognized or not, the Lynx are pretty darn good.
“That feels like a long time ago now,” Whalen said of last year’s finals. “You do the right things, keep getting better — we’ve put ourselves in that position the last two years.
“It’s out there. It’s a long-term goal. But we have to worry about what we can do every day here to make sure we’re the best team that we can possibly be.”
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