The 2018 season for the Minnesota Lynx came to a close Tuesday night at the hands of the Los Angeles Sparks in their opening round WNBA playoff game. That meant that Lindsay Whalen, having announced her plans to retire earlier this month, had played in her final WNBA contest.
More on the Sparks playoff path, Whalen’s final game, and the Lynx franchise as it prepares for 2019:
Ready for it
Whalen started and played 30 minutes Tuesday night, finishing with nine points, five rebounds and five assists. Even in what has been a very up-and-down season for the all-time great, Whalen was on the floor, contributing in a big way throughout, even as part of Minnesota’s closing lineup that made it a one possession game for a good chunk of the fourth quarter.
Down by six entering the fourth, it was Whalen’s 3-pointer at the 7:22 mark of the period that made it a one possession game for the first time since the end of the first half.
Down seven with less than a minute to play, she found Temi Fagbenle for a corner 3-pointer coming out of a timeout. On the ensuing Sparks possession, Whalen doubled Chelsea Gray early to get the ball out of her hands — Minnesota got a stop, giving them another shot to make it a one possession game.
The Sparks went on to ice the game. But Whalen was out there, contributing, keeping her team within striking distance as they played once again without the services of Rebekkah Brunson (concussion) or her backup, Danielle Robinson (ankle).
“We dealt with a lot along the way, but we finished exactly the way I hoped,” Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said. “And that’s what I just told Lindsay. If you could script your last game of your career, other than winning the game, the way she played it — with the tenacity, the will, the leave it all out there mindset — I thought she played well.
“I thought we needed everything that she was doing. I expected nothing less from her. She was ready for it. I told her I was really proud of her other than not getting the win, it’s what you hope for in a last game.”
“She’s an ultimate competitor,” Gray said. “I think she’s gonna be great at Minnesota. She knows the game, her resume speaks for itself. So to have somebody like that on your staff coming off such a great playing career, she’s able to relate to the players a little bit. So that will be awesome to watch.”
Nneka Ogwumike has played against Whalen and the Lynx plenty of times, but because of Brunson’s absence, she drew a special assignment Tuesday night that turned out to be quite fitting.
“I would say the only thing that I feel kind of sad about — obviously everyone has their time, and that retirement is a celebration, especially when you can do it when you want to.” Ogwumike said. “But I told her before the game, I was like, ‘You’re one of the greatest PGs I ever played against, and my only regret is that I wouldn’t be able to play with you, say, if I make an Olympic team or for whatever reason we’re on the same team.’
“So it’s only an honor to be able to play against her. And I thought it was kind of fitting that I got to guard her tonight, so that was cool, too.”
Just in the recent playoff battles between the Lynx and the Sparks alone, Whalen been a part of an impressive string of memories that basketball fans will always remember. When asked to reflect on her career, she shared what she will truly miss most.
“The championships are great, having climbed that mountain several times,” Whalen said. “But it’s the journey and the people along the way that make it so special. Those will be what I miss the most about playing, and that’s what I’ve really tried to savor as much as I can this year is those times with my teammates.”
Look ahead to Thursday
It is the third-seeded Washington Mystics that await the Sparks for Thursday night’s second round matchup. Mike Thibault’s team led by All-Stars Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver appear to fit the bill of peaking at the right time.
Prior to Sunday’s loss in their regular season finale, a game which no longer had any value once Atlanta won and clinched the two seed, the Mystics had won nine of 10. With Ariel Atkins, LaToya Sanders and Natasha Cloud flanking Delle Donne and Toliver in the starting lineup, Washington has really hit its stride. That lineup has scored a whopping 131 points per 100 possessions in 290 minutes this season per Positive Residual.
The Sparks don’t just have a opponent hitting on all cylinders on the docket. Forward Candace Parker’s impact was limited Tuesday (1-of-6 shooting, four turnovers in 30 minutes), and L.A. head coach Brian Agler confirmed postgame that she had not been feeling well all night. Just as Ogwumike returned to the lineup, the Sparks faithful will now await updates on their other star forward ahead of Thursday’s game.
Lynx look to 2019 and beyond
What does the future hold for the Lynx? Danielle Robinson, signed recently to a one-year extension through the 2019 season, figures to slot in for Whalen. Brunson and Seimone Augustus will both be free agents, and it is fair at this point to at least wonder how much longer they will continue playing. (Star forward Maya Moore is a free agent will need to be re-upped to a new deal as well.)
Tanisha Wright, who turns 35 in November, came back from retirement to join the team this season. She has one year left on that deal. Should she return, Wright still provides solid defense on the perimeter, can handle some ball-handling duties, and hit 39 percent of her 49 3-point attempts this season.
Sydney Colson and Erlana Larkins joined the team on rest-of-season deals, and played sparingly in their limited time.
That leaves the only three players on the roster under the age of 25 — Fagbenle, Cecilia Zandalasini and Alexis Jones.
In year two, Jones didn’t quite crack the rotation on a regular basis, but has hit 36 percent of her 85 3-point attempts. If her defense progresses, more outside shooting and another player to push the pace would be a welcome addition. Zandalasini, also in year two, is further along defensively. And as a true wing that can open up more lineup combinations, re-upping her ought to be a big priority for Reeve.
That leaves Fagbenle, who like Jones, is still on her rookie contract. Fagbenle didn’t get a steady diet of playing time either, but showed some promising flashes — look no further than Tuesday’s game — backing up and even occasionally playing with Fowles.
“Temi, along the way, sometimes an injury will take you there,” Reeve said. “So Rebekkah not being able to return to activity took us there. Maya played the four, Temi got more minutes, probably at times not as consistent as maybe I should have. Because I think young players, they need those reps. They need that time.
“We did it with Zandalasini. She got out there, she made some mistakes, she just played through them. We were trying to get her ready for tonight to be able to play in a playoff game.
“Temi’s one of those players that’s just unafraid of the big moment that I just think doesn’t realize — she’s just playing. If you know Temi, she has all the belief of herself in the world. She was ready for this game. We had a couple of good conversations about where she was gonna help us. And she was so laser-focused on doing those things.
“Obviously without her, we were in big time trouble. We needed that – the extra possessions, the extra scores, the hustle plays, so I felt that she filled in as best you can for someone like a Rebekkah Brunson.
“What it gives us in an evolving young player on a small contract that you go, okay, Temi basically is earning a future with the Lynx by performing the way that she did in today’s game and then really just evolving throughout the season. She’s been a big time bright spot for us.”