UNCASVILLE, Conn. — The final days of these Minnesota Lynx are coming fast and furious, so quickly that even the players themselves could be forgiven for overlooking their full significance.
“Just appreciating what we have and trying to stay in the moment,” Maya Moore, the team’s leader among leaders and four-time W.N.B.A. champion, said courtside before Minnesota’s game against the Connecticut Sun on Friday. “I don’t want to think about it too much, otherwise I’ll get too emotional.”
With that, she ran back over to her teammates for another pregame drill.
It is a group with more success than any other in W.N.B.A. history. Even that undersells all that Moore, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, Lindsay Whalen and, since 2015, Sylvia Fowles have accomplished under Coach Cheryl Reeve. There were titles in 2011, in 2013, in 2015, in 2017. These Lynx also dominated in the 2012, 2014 and 2016 regular seasons, with the champions each of those years needing to go through Minnesota to win.
They had been the power center of the league since the start of the decade.
That has not changed, no matter how the W.N.B.A. playoffs, which begin Tuesday night with a pair of single-elimination games, turn out. But these Lynx are experiencing a self-imposed final hurrah, made public last week with Whalen’s announcement that she’ll be retiring at the end of the season.
Even beyond Whalen’s departure, the season itself has been filled with signs that whatever era the Lynx have entered, it is fundamentally different from the dominance they’ve come to expect.
A team that regularly finished atop the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency finished just fourth defensively in 2018 and were an almost unbelievable 10th offensively, a drop that came despite the presence of Fowles, the reigning winner of the W.N.B.A.’s Most Valuable Player Award, and Moore, who won the 2014 M.V.P. and is easily the league’s leader in offensive win shares since she was drafted first overall in 2011.
The Lynx are in the playoffs but finished seventh in the league, at 18-16, meaning no double-bye in the W.N.B.A.’s playoff structure. A team that could have used, in Reeve’s estimation, “a week of rest and a week of practice,” instead must travel across the country for a single-elimination game Tuesday night in Los Angeles. The reward for winning? A trip back across the country to face either the Sun or the Washington Mystics Thursday night.
“We don’t have enough time,” Reeve said before Friday night’s game, referring to the league’s condensed schedule to accommodate the FIBA World Cup in September. “Nobody has enough time. This season has been absolutely ridiculous. … It’s not fair to players. Frankly, it’s not fair to older coaches like myself. We didn’t need to do this.”
Part of the Lynx decline, simply put, is age. Brunson and Whalen are each 36. Augustus is 34. Fowles turns 33 in October. And even Moore, who plays full-tilt on both ends at just 29, has almost a decade of the no-off-season life W.N.B.A. players routinely experience, which has taken a toll on her legs and back. The entire league faced the altered timeline of the 2018 schedule, but putting extra time pressure on these Lynx in their final year together may well have expedited their decline.
Younger, athletic players like Chicago’s Diamond DeShields have found openings in the Minnesota defense. DeShields scored 28 last week in the kind of home loss these Lynx have seldom experienced. Fast break points were once a hallmark, with the Lynx routinely leading the league; this season, they finished ninth.
“We still defend, and we still rebound at a high level,” Reeve said. “And there’s certain combinations where we’ll run. But it’s not the combination that has Lindsay and Seimone as the backcourt.”
It is that search for combinations that has bedeviled Reeve all season. Complicating the age of her roster is the frustration of a second-unit plan foiled by injury. After losing Renee Montgomery (Atlanta) and Natasha Howard (Seattle) in the off-season thanks to an unforgiving W.N.B.A. salary cap — the two are now key starters for their new teams, the league’s top two seeds — Reeve signed Lynetta Kizer to back up Brunson and Danielle Robinson to serve as heir apparent to Whalen at point guard. But Kizer played in just 14 games this season before she was waived, and Robinson, after starting two games while Whalen rested, was lost for the season with an ankle injury.
That leaves the Lynx trying to combine a core in need of rest with an extremely young bench, trying to fill minutes without being overcome by the inevitable mistakes of fatigue or inexperience. And Reeve has had to do it without the league’s all-time leader in rebounding, Brunson, who suffered a concussion Aug. 5 and was still not symptom-free by the end of the regular season. Her status for Tuesday night remains uncertain.
Despite Robinson’s injury, Reeve has decided Whalen will be most effective in three- to four-minute spurts, ideally playing 15 to 18 minutes per game. That leaves veteran guard Tanisha Wright, a point guard of necessity, to start and soak up most of the remaining minutes, along with the just-signed Sydney Colson.
But the math doesn’t always add up. Friday night, two quick fouls on Wright meant Whalen entered the game less than three minutes in. And the Sun quickly showed how teams have gotten the better of the Lynx for much of the season, with point guard Jasmine Thomas blowing past Whalen for an easy layup in a half-court set.
But the four familiars — Whalen, Moore, Augustus and Fowles, who were joined by the rookie Cecilia Zandalasini — found their old rhythm quickly all the same. Fowles, whose numbers are virtually identical to her 2017 M.V.P. form, scored 14 in the first quarter, mostly on feeds from Whalen around the hoop. The Lynx took a 26-21 lead, the Sun crowd quieted, all of it feeling a lot like, well, much of the previous decade, Fowles said following the game.
“Yes, I want to be a focal point, but at the same time, it takes more than just me to get it done,” Fowles said, adding a note of caution. “I make some early but at the same time just playing through the whole team. And if they give me the ball, they give me the ball.”
Still, the precarious state of the Lynx revealed itself before the quarter ended: Fowles accumulated two fouls in quick succession, sending her to the bench. Whalen needed to rest. Moore and Augustus were left to create for themselves, taxing them further. Wright had several costly turnovers, allowing the Sun to get out and run. By the end of the night, Connecticut had sent Minnesota to a 96-79 defeat.
But there was no time to practice which combinations worked best. It was back onto a plane, home for an emotional Sunday win over the Mystics, with No. 13 Whalen honored by an appropriate number of paid attendees — 13,013 — and then back onto a plane.
This time it’s to face their 2016 and 2017 finals opponent, to extend the longest dynasty in W.N.B.A. history just a little bit longer.
Moore, the champion of champions, the face of these Lynx, sat in front of her locker Friday night and acknowledged that their run has come down to a series of discrete events.
“It’s just game by game,” Moore said. “That’s all we have. So we’re gonna take every moment that we have and make it work. And after the season’s over, everybody’s going to look back and evaluate. And until the last game that we have, we’re going to take every opportunity to work for something.”