Disappointment just seems inadequate to characterize the mood surrounding the Lynx after their 68-64 loss in KeyArena last night.
From the outset, it appeared as if it never occurred to point guard Lindsay Whalen, that you're not supposed to come into KeyArena and win unless Bing sponsored your jersey. The Minnesota native whose off-season trade to the Lynx brought with it such high expectations literally seemed to take it upon herself to will her team one step closer to booking a return trip to Seattle for the first round of the playoffs next week.
It's not just that Whalen was in some way responsible for 16 of the first 20 points of the game for the Lynx -- with either shots or assists, not to mention snatching rebounds off the boards defensively -- that helped them mount a 20-8 lead with 3:35 left in the first quarter. It's that she did so while looking determined without necessarily losing the nonchalance with which she can take over a game. There was a calm courage about her in taking on the league's best that it forced you to remember why so many people expected great from this team.
Lynx statistical MVP: Lindsay Whalen
"I just know right now we're in this playoff push and I'm one of the vets -- I need to set the tone," said Whalen, who asked to sit down in a chair outside of the visitor's locker room with her knees wrapped in ice. "I felt like I could get out on the bounce and get some things going. So, yeah, just trying to be aggressive, trying to take it to the basket, and then some things opened up and [I] tried to get some things going."
From spinning around Storm point guard Sue Bird for a layup and a foul on the first Lynx possession of the game to beautifully floating a pass to forward Rebekkah Brunson for a layup to put the them up 10-2 to force a timeout. Her unique blend of patience and aggression was particularly evident at the beginning of the second quarter as she stood on the left wing in triple threat position spinning the ball in her hands with counterpart Sue Bird standing in front of her and patiently waiting for the possession to unfold in front of her. After a lane opened up as Bird put her left foot forward, Whalen dipped her shoulder and went right around her, driving hard to the basket for another layup and a foul.
People talk about point guards being able to see two to three steps ahead of the defense, but what separates the good ones from the great ones is the ability to decisively act when an opportunity to make a play reveals itself.
"Whalen's a great player," said Storm guard Tanisha Wright. "You expect for to do those things. You try to contain her or not get down and whatever but she's a good player and she did what she had to do tonight in terms of attacking and getting the job done."
While Bird never really got things going, it seemed as though Whalen was able to get whatever she wanted whenever she wanted in the first half. When the Storm came out in the second half, stopping Whalen's penetration was undoubtedly a focal point.
"We just have to do better," said Storm forward Camille Little. "If we're going to be a defensive team, we have to be a defensive team every night. And it has to be 40 minutes. So that's just something we're going to have to continue to work on. But you're not going to win playoff games not playing defense."
Key stat: effective field goal percentage
While defensive energy -- particularly rebounding energy -- was certainly a major factor in turning the tide of the game, the biggest factor in shifting the tide of the game was that the Storm started hitting shots and the Lynx stopped. The Storm had an effective field goal percentage of 65.38% to the Lynx's 26.67% in the third quarter, primarily on the strength of three point shots from Little, guard Svetlana Abrosimova, and center Lauren Jackson.
"I thought they hit some shots in the second half, for sure," said Reeve. "First half we were pretty on it defensively, second half...we had some mistakes, but 68 points and 39%, I'm not disappointed in that. The story of the game plain and simple is 29%. Plain and simple."
The 29% that Reeve referred to was Minnesota's field goal percentage for the game, but entering the fourth quarter up by four points they only managed to shoot 17.6%. With the Storm starting to hit more of their shots in the third quarter and then cutting their turnover percentage from 31.25% in the third to 6.17% in the fourth, the Lynx found themselves inbounding the ball from underneath their own basket more often and it shut down the easiest of their scoring opportunities.
"Our transition kind of stopped," said Whalen. "We started walking it up more and they started scoring more. So it's just we had a lot of walk-ups, so we just had to I guess keep pushing the ball, keep pushing the tempo even when they were getting makes. So I think that that kinda slowed us down -- that kept me out of the lane because they were able to set their defense and set everybody in the lane."
Despite a significant rebounding 27-14 second half rebounding margin in favor of the Storm in the second half, a large reason for it was the shooting differentials. The Storm's 70% defensive rebounding percentage in the fourth quarter was actually about league average.
"We missed a lot of shots, so they had a lot of opportunities to rebound," said Whalen. "Defensive rebounding percentage means more than total rebounds. They have some great inside players and great rebounders. We worked as hard as we could."
Key player: Swin Cash
Yet there's no question that the Storm came out in the second half with a renewed focus after being held without an offensive rebound in the second quarter. That effort was led by Swin Cash who had 9 points and 4 rebounds in the third quarter and continued by forward Camille Little in the fourth quarter who chipped in 5 rebounds during the Storm's late comeback. Cash finished with a defensive rebounding percentage of 23.52% to go with her 58% true shooting percentage and 55.55% free throw rate while Little finished with an outstanding offensive rebounding percentage of 45.74%.
"It's just something that we had to do," said Little. "If we wanted to win the game, we couldn't just let the team continue to kill us on the boards. And so, if we're going to start with ourselves, I just tried to take the initiative and get it done so they could follow the lead. And I think once we got started going and getting it we all were going to the boards."
Cash's aggression going to the rim in particular tends to be contagious and sort of embodied the Storm's approach to the second half.
"We came back in the second half with a focus about that," said Wright. "I think they had five offensive rebounds in the second half. So for us to be able to limit it from 13 to 5 is a huge difference. So we came out with a new focus in the second half in terms of being aggressive. So I think you saw that in our second half: we got a little bit more aggressive on the boards and just in general."
However, what makes the Storm a particularly potent team is their ability to channel aggression and disappointment into productive play on the court. Rather than losing their composure, they almost became more poised as they showed more emotion.
"I just think mentally we were trying to execute a little better than we were in the first half," said Little. "The intensity of the game turned up. This is our job and we have to be ready for those moments and I'm glad that we were able to knock those shots down."
Storm statistical MVP: Lauren Jackson
Once again, Jackson did her job to contribute to the Storm's 16th home win by posting another MVP performance with a true shooting percentage of 63.55%. For Jackson, the performance -- hers individually as well as the team's effort to defend home court -- is an important part of getting into the right mindset heading into the playoffs.
"I think we're there," said Jackson when asked about what it means to get into the right "headspace" with the regular season coming to an end. "I think it's like Camille said: you get angry. You don't want to hear people talking shit about you as a player, as a team. It wasn't a fluke that we won as many games as we did this year -- we are actually that good. So we proved it all year that we are the best team and for us to get back there, the only way we can do it is by playing the game and playing the way we know how to."
When you look at a game like last night's, it becomes much easier to see what separates a team that locked up home court advantage throughout the playoffs a week ago from a team that is still struggling to get in with two games left on the road -- it's not only focused energy, but the ability to maintain that energy and possessing the poise to channel it into execution once the intensity level increases.
The Lynx fight on
"There's no question -- they increased their energy, which they obviously do in this building, all the time," said Reeve. "I think they tried to do that in the first half, but we answered each time. We punched and punched and punched in the first half. And we felt like they only punched us a couple of times in the first half. They threw more punches in the second half than we did. We didn’t have answers for those. We did not get our transition game going in the second half. I don't know what they shot in the first half versus the second half...I thought they got more hustle plays on the glass in the second half. So that was disappointing. We limited them really well -- we outrebounded them in the first half. So I'm not disappointed in our defense or our rebounding. It's just putting that little thing in that iron hole."
To extend Reeve's prize fight imagery, the game took on the feeling of a title bout in which the underdog came out doing everything they needed to do to take the fight 12 rounds, playing to their strengths for most of it and finding the energy to remain in the fight when it was obvious the win was slipping away. But just as a cheesy Hollywood rendition of a bout, something about the effort they put in and the damage inflicted on the champ that nobody expected to fall on their home turf made you want them to hope that they could leave with something other than the pride of simply saying they kept getting up off the canvas.
Despite their scoring struggles, with under three minutes left in the game, they were still moving the ball, setting up scorers, and possession-by-possession playing beautiful basketball as Storm fans grew more and more confident that the game would end just as the previous 15 home games did. Even without a key player in Nicky Anosike, we once again caught a glimpse of the Lynx people feared in the off-season even if defeat in KeyArena is starting to seem like a matter of inevitability.
"We're disappointed that we didn't get the win," said Whalen. "We knew it was going to come down to be a close game. They have a great team and a great crowd, and we knew it was going to come down to a couple of possessions at the end, and it did. They made a couple of big shots and it was enough to win. It's a tough loss. We defended well enough to win, but we didn't score enough points. Hats off to them."
If you can try to set aside your rooting interests aside for a moment (and perhaps embrace a not-so-private interest of mine), watching the Lynx walk off the court in front of 7,394 jubilant fans as every other opponent had done this season just didn't seem like an outcome befitting their effort. Whereas the Storm will just add this win to their portfolio as further evidence of their dominance over the league this season -- as if any was needed as they anxiously await the playoffs -- the Lynx needed this win and, for a half, they finally met expectations at a time when they needed it most.
As often as they mentioned the word disappointment, matching their account with the experience of watching the game seems to make that language inadequate. It's a cruel trick of fortune to watch a fading vision burst into fruition only to see it slip back into the distance, at once demoralizing albeit an experience that is uniquely human.
Either way, perhaps the beauty of competition in the relatively harmless confines of sports is that participants are expected to come back and willingly throw themselves into the same situation again, as Reeve alluded to after I wished her good luck as we parted after our post-game interview.
"Thanks," she said as she turned to walk away. "I hope to see you back here again next week."
For a look at what it will take for the Lynx to return to KeyArena next week, please see Kevin Pelton's analysis of the Western Conference playoff situation at StormTracker.