Professional Basketball

Lynx start season as league’s last unbeaten team… again

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Minnesota Lynx guard Seimone Augustus settles for a pull up jumper in the first quarter of Tuesday’s game at the Xcel Energy Center. Photo by Abe Booker III/Sports Page Magazine.

With a 5-0 record to begin the 2017 WNBA season, the Minnesota Lynx remain at the top of the standings as the league’s last undefeated team. It is the fourth consecutive season and the fifth time in six years that the team managed this feat.

Back in 2012 when the team was striving to repeat after winning their first championship, they began the season 10-0, then a league record. The Atlanta Dream was the last unbeaten team the next year after Minnesota fell in a June 8, 2013 contest to the Washington Mystics 85-80.

Since then the beginning of the season has been all Minnesota. They went 7-0 in 2014, 3-0 in 2015 and set another record at 13-0 last year when they downed the also undefeated Los Angeles Sparks 72-69 on June 21. Three days later the Sparks got revenge and upended the Lynx 94-76.

Considering that the Lynx have been in the WNBA Finals in four of those five seasons and won two additional championships, it may seem like this is either easy or the key to winning championships. The team and coaching staff think otherwise.

Take Friday’s 82-68 win over the Connecticut Sun at the Mohegan Sun Arena. Minnesota put in a dominating performance after narrowly winning Tuesday’s matchup against the Sun, 80-78, at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

Center Sylvia Fowles, who has shown dominance thus far in the season, knows that every night is a challenge. She led all scorers with 20 points Friday night.

“You think that was easy? We knew we had a lot of things we need to improve on from the first game. Connecticut is very scrappy, they have fast guards and they have people crash the boards from all positions,” said Fowles. “We wanted to utilize a few things, keeping our rebounding up and limiting our turnovers, which I think we did well tonight after they got 31 points off of our turnovers last game, and that is something we needed to eliminate tonight.”

Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen agrees with Fowles.

“It wasn’t easy, they are a really good team and they are very quick and showed on Tuesday how they pushed us in all facets of the game,” said Whalen. “Tonight, I thought we shared and moved the ball well and communicated on defense. We also held them from some fast break points because on Tuesday they were able to get out on the break, but we got a few more stops in the transition game and made them play a little more in the half court which is good for us.”

So how have the Lynx continued to stay at their dominating peak for so many years?

It wasn’t too long ago when the team was in what seems like a perpetual youth movement, always getting younger and more athletic talent but always near the bottom of the league in median age. For the 2017 season, they’ve returned eight players from the previous year with a median age of 30.70 (oldest in the league) and an average of 8.18 years of experience, making them the most senior team in this league. In fact, four of the oldest five players are Minnesota Lynx players. At 36.57 years of age, Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird is the league’s oldest player followed by Lynx players Plenette Pierson, Rebekkah Brunson and Jia Perkins.

It starts with the head coach, Cheryl Reeve. Since taking the helm in Minnesota in 2010, she has constantly demanded accountability from her players, instilled a one-game-at-a-time approach to game preparation, and is always working on improvements – improving efficiency, conditioning, rebounding with an emphasis of improving performance in every manner possible.

After the May 14 home opener against the Chicago Sky, Reeve noted that there were still areas of improvement despite securing a 70-61 win.

“The most important thing was winning the game. A lot of stuff we have to work on. Conditioning was a factor. I thought for the most part we got good shots, so just making shots when you get them. I just thought we played slow in the second half,” said Reeve. “Funky game, they played fast. They put us in that spot that we were slow-footed because we got tired.”

Conditioning appears to be the Lynx biggest challenge so far this season with several of the veteran players opting to not play overseas during the WNBA off-season in order to extend their longevity in the WNBA. Despite the challenge, they still find ways to win.

The Associated Press picked the Los Angeles Sparks as the top choice to win the WNBA championship during their 2017 pre-season poll, but the WNBA general managers picked the Lynx to win it.

“We appreciate the people giving us that kind of respect, although I know that there are several really, really good teams in this league,” said Sparks coach Brian Agler. “We feel like we can be good. There are some teams that are really strong as well. People have improved through the offseason, improved through the draft.”

In Minnesota’s case, they haven’t had to make many changes. They added more experience with forward Plenette Pierson, but they added youth in rookie guard Alexis Jones through the draft, and rookie forward Temi Fagbenle, who was drafted by the team in the third round of last year’s draft.

However, the core of the team is still the quartet of Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen. With Friday night’s win over Connecticut, they sport a 116-29 overall record, the second-highest total for any foursome in WNBA history. The Sparks quartet of Tamecka Dixon, Lisa Leslie, Mwadi Mabika and DeLisha Milton-Jones notched 121 wins together from 1999-2004.

The heart of this Lynx team’s run at dominant season starts and championship season endings started with building and maintaining a quality core. Other teams have noticed. The Dallas Wings, Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun have all adopted the “Minnesota Model” in building their teams.

“We have to stay together in the locker room. There’s no moral victories at this level in the professional game. We have to take away from some of the pro’s and learn from the con’s. They have to stay together,” said Sun head coach Curt Miller following Tuesday’s game. “Our culture is the most important thing for us. We know our best years are ahead. We just played a team with seven of the eight top players in their 30’s. We don’t have a player over 27 in our rotation. We have four players in our top six that are still on their rookie contracts. It’s very, very important

about our culture and staying together in the locker room. We know our best days are ahead. We just have to stick together.”

For Minnesota, the hard work and due diligence will continue tonight as they attempt to extend their winning streak by one more game as they steadily march towards the season-ending goal of their fourth WNBA championship. Tonight they host the San Antonio Stars at the Xcel Energy Center at 6 p.m. CT.

 

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