In reading Roman Augustoviz's preview for the Minnesota Lynx vs. Seattle Storm game this past weekend, an otherwise benign factoid seemed to jump out at me and remind me what should have been for Minnesota's 2010 season.
Gameday: Lynx vs. Seattle | StarTribune.com
Preview: A game featuring two of the hottest teams in the WNBA. The Lynx (7-11) are 5-2 in their past seven games and coming off an 83-81 victory over Atlanta, the first-place team in the Eastern Conference.
To break that down a little bit further, the Lynx had actually only been 2-2 over their previous four games since guard Candice Wiggins suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon with 8 seconds left in the fourth quarter of their 75-68 win against the New York Liberty on June 22 at Madison Square Garden. However, with the win the Lynx had won three in a row after finally having a chance to practice as an entire unit, with guard Seimone Augustus healthy. Yet just as they finally seemed to be realizing the potential some had raved about during the off-season, it was all stripped away.
"Win the game, lose a player, kind of the thing for the year," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve was quoted as saying after the game. "Our hearts go out to Candice. Candice gives us a lot of things, she gives us flexibility, she gives a second ball handler. She was really getting going and playing well, she's a leader so were going to miss some intangibles and certainly some very specific basketball things and we're just going to have to find a way to fill the void."
But the reason I come back to this now is that when they face the San Antonio Silver Stars tonight, the Lynx will have a chance to continue in their quest to make the playoffs this season despite the injuries that have led them to underachieve. I'm not sure how much of a consolation prize that is - even if they sneak into the playoffs under .500 somewhere behind the Seattle Storm, knowing what could have been this season has to be frustrating. However, if there is hope for the future of this front office and this combination of players, it lies in the fact that for three games this season, things were exactly the way they were supposed to be for the Minnesota Lynx.
After the Lynx beat the Tulsa Shock 92-78 on June 19th, I sat down and wrote about how the Lynx looked like they had finally overcome the tough times and arrived. But instead of just posting it, I held it figuring that a) it was just two games against one opponent and b) that one opponent was the Shock, who were struggling and have continued to struggle. My thinking was that I would give them one more game to prove that they really had arrived as a team - if they could just beat the New York Liberty in MSG, I figured, I'd have a little bit more reason to continue to be excited about the potential of the Lynx. Anticipating a victory in New York, I began to finish writing what I started while I watched the game, as follows:
With Seimone Augustus and Candice Wiggins healthy for the Lynx and the full unit we had imagined in the off-season finally having the opportunity to come together, the Lynx managed to turn things around. In doing so, they did exactly what the pre-season optimist in me had hoped for - they pieces seemed to fit together so well that the whole was bigger than the sum of its parts.
While gushing about the Minnesota Lynx way back in February after the blockbuster trade for homegrown star point guard Lindsay Whalen, I alluded to the fact that in losing Roneeka Hodges - the team's leader in three point attempts - they might have an additional hole to fill. Through the first 11 games, that was essentially the story that played out -- the Lynx were not only 11th in three point percentage (32.6%), but dead last in field goal percentage by a rather significant margin (38.89%).
So the not-so-subtle story in Saturday's win on the road in Tulsa is not just that this team that couldn't win had suddenly won two in a row in a back to back home and home, but that suddenly this team who simply could not shoot found a way to start making shots. Of course, the immediate impulse would be to attribute that to Augustus (who was 4-5 from the three point line) or simply that they outplayed a Tulsa team that entered the game struggling in their own right.
"The man wasn't working, the 2-1-2 wasn't working, nothing was because they had I believe seven threes made in the first half out of eight tries," said Shock coach Nolan Richardson after the game. "That is incredible shooting the basketball. If you had nobody guarding, normally they're not going to make seven out of eight but they did and they shot the ball extremely well throughout then entire ballgame."
But consider that the previous night with the same personnel at home against the same team Minnesota shot 9-27. Taking into account that Augustus shot 5-10 from the three point line on Friday, the rest of the team shot 4-17 from the three point line. Somehow in the plane ride over night, the entire team learned how to shoot. Luck? Maybe. Poor defense? It was not Tulsa's best effort. Yet there's something else worth taking into consideration.
Last weekend's games were only the second and third times the Lynx had played with one another as a full unit, but they came after four days of practice. Moreso than attributing everything to the return of Augustus, I would instead suggest that their noticeable improvement was more directly attributable to them finally hitting the court as a unit. What we witnessed was that with each successive addition to the unit - forward Rebekkah Brunson, guard Candice Wiggins, and then finally Seimone Augustus - there was a shift in how the individual parts functioned.
The rest, as it still sits in pieces on my computer, was that statistically there were a whole set of things that happened - touches were redistributed, Lindsay Whalen was much more effective as a distributor, rookie guard Monica Wright was suddenly more efficient without having to carry the load as the team's perimeter scorer. As the pieces of the unit came together, the tendencies of the players started to change with each individual finding a comfortable role within the collective. The result was a performance in which they actually started to play better than the sum of their parts, independent of what New York or Tulsa was showing them. For a team that had failed to meet expectations to that point, it was impressive.
"We wanted to come in and get our third win in a row, get on that streak," said Lynx center Nicky Anosike after the 75-68 win over New York. "We don't feel like teams respect us. We win two in a row against Tulsa and they tell us ‘oh, well you know Tulsa's not that good' so we needed this win to prove that we can beat someone other than Tulsa."
Yet the loss of Wiggins again made it difficult to get excited about turning a corner with so much uncertainty ahead.
So why bother posting this now?
After interviewing Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love at the Gatorade Athlete of the Year luncheon prior to the ESPY awards last week, I've been thinking (far too much) about what it takes to build a successful team. Long story short, I think vilified Timberwolves GM David Kahn does have more of a plan than people give him credit for, but it would appear as though he is fixated on fitting players into a system that he wants to implement rather than trying to find a system that fits the players. There's a method to what looks like madness there, but the execution might prove to be problematic once they hit the floor this fall.
In contrast, for whatever you think about the Lynx's moves in the past or the fact that they might seem cursed no matter what they do, it's worth appreciating that they built a unit around talented players that complement one another and simply haven't had the time to fully establish a system. Yet they still have the potential to do some great things when healthy.
"They got Wiggins back, they got major players back, they've got Seimone, major players - I mean, big time players," said Richardson after the June 19th loss. "They were out when we played them and the people that were playing a lot for them are now sitting on the bench. That just goes to show you that they were good without them, but now they're real good with them."
Although, the Lynx proceeded to drop their next two games on the road before returning home to get a rare non-Storm Western Conference over the East's elite by beating the Atlanta Dream and then giving the Storm a challenge in a 73-71 loss this past Saturday. Even if they got beat down in those two games following that brief 3-0 run, the Lynx have demonstrated a renewed chemistry since then.
Saturday's game against the Storm was a glimpse into what even a brief flirtation with chemistry for three games can do for the performance of a team. Although the Storm did outshoot the Lynx - 41.2% - 21.2% in the decisive fourth quarter - the Lynx actually outplayed the Storm in every other significant way.
Storm-Lynx Statistical Summary: Storm Simply Outshoot The Lynx - Swish Appeal
Despite the Lynx outplaying the Storm in offensive rebounding (30% - 25%), turnover percentage (15% - 28.05%), and free throw rate (29% - 25.4%), the Storm won this game with their shooting.
Sitting at 7-12 and fighting for a playoff spot in what has to be among the oddest conference races in sports is probably not what Lynx fans hoped for when they acquired Whalen in the off-season. But there is plenty of reason for hope. If they can continue the small surge without Wiggins over their next three games at home, they could find themselves in strong position as regular season runner-up to the Storm. Given the circumstances, that's not a bad outcome, even if they don't win the championship they set out to get.
Moreover, that 3-0 stint - even if two games came against the Shock - is reason to believe in the vision of the unit this team has put together. Even if we were to quibble with minor aspects of this roster, what we've witnessed briefly is that when this unit is together they complement each other so well that they in fact realize possibilities that might not be immediately evident from an analysis of its individual parts.
Am I being defensive here after singing the praises of the Lynx early in the off-season?
Certainly you can't dismiss that possibility. However, a friend constantly reminds of how tragic it is that I'm a Golden State Warriors fan because they stand for the opposite of pretty much everything I "stand for" in basketball (up until now of course: ladies and gentlemen, meet David Lee! Jeremy Lin! Ekpe Udoh! Stephen Curry! YOUR 2010 NBA All-Character team!). The Lynx, on the other hand, are a team that resonates almost perfectly with me and my basketball sensibilities, conceptually, qualitatively, quantitatively, or what have you. My interest in this team is that it's similar to the type of team -- independent of specific personnel -- that I might envision putting together and experimenting with. Call it an instance of "liberated fandom" maybe, but the day I cease to be a basketball fan with a legitimate love for the game and curiosity about all its minor nuances will be the day I quit writing (and save you the 2000+ words/post).
But the bottom line is this: although we live in a world of instant gratification when the idea of holding on to a vision of what's to come seems intolerable - unless of course, you're waiting 2-3 years for LeBron James to sign with your favorite team - the next three games could end up giving Lynx fans plenty to be excited about for whenever their team comes together as a full unit again. That's one of the best reasons to watch sports.
- More philosophical overkill from what I wrote previously:
What the Lynx may represent is the epitome of a unit in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That cliché is tossed around often, but the Lynx might actually be adding some substance to phenomenon. I previously referred to philosopher Hans George Gadamer's concept of a fusion of horizons to explain conceptually what the Lynx have put together - that essentially these pieces that are individually extremely talented at what they do come together and realize possibilities as a collective that are not necessarily possible by analyzing the team as a discrete set of parts. I referred to one part of Gadamer's formulation of the concept -- "wirkungsgeschichtliches" - but that's a partially inaccurate and incomplete characterization of what's at work on a basketball court. The full term is "wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein", which can be translated as a "consciousness in which history is already at work", according to Dr. Richard Palmer. However, the key terms here are the "wirkung" and "Bewusstsein", which translate into a working consciousness always defined by the situation in which one exists with others. Of course, these terms are accompanied by "Gesprach" (conversation) and "Solidaritat" (solidarity). The idea here is perhaps simpler than Gadamer makes it, without oversimplifying too much: it is only in interaction with others that the individuals realize their full potential on the court with others.
- You too can pronounce "wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein"!
- "That's one of the best reasons to watch sports"...and suffering through a decade and a half of Chris Cohan only makes the light at the end of the tunnel brighter and a little warmer and fuzzier!