With Sylvia Fowles and Cheryl Reeve, the Minnesota Lynx can never be counted out

The new-look Minnesota Lynx may be a longshot in this year’s WNBA playoffs, but they can’t be counted out.

PHOENIX — The advantage of familiarity won’t exist for the Minnesota Lynx in the 2019 WNBA playoffs, but few partnerships in the league have bred greater success than Cheryl Reeve and Sylvia Fowles. With those two, Minnesota is still deadly.

As Reeve considers the mentality and moxie of this year’s Lynx, she thinks back to her 2011 team, the first iteration of the roster that would win four WNBA championships. The legendary Maya Moore was a rookie, point guard Lindsay Whalen was in her second season in Minneapolis after a long stint with the Connecticut Sun, and Fowles wasn’t on the team yet. Minnesota lost just one postseason game en route to the first title for that core.

The similarities are powerful between 2011 and 2019 in Minnesota. Rookie Napheesa Collier may not be on the same track as Maya Moore, but both hail from the championship culture of the University of Connecticut and were All-Stars as rookies. Odyssey Sims’ rejuvenation under Reeve could be seen through a similar lens as that of Whalen, who could never break through in Connecticut. Sims won a title in Los Angeles in 2017 but was just the fourth or fifth best player on that team. Fowles, in this case, would be the 2019 version of 2011’s Seimone Augustus, the familiar veteran who sacrificed for the sake of winning. Surprise was a weapon for that first Lynx champion.

“That group had such a special vibe about what we were doing,” Reeve said after a comeback 83-69 victory in Phoenix. “We were sneaking up on people. Nobody really believed. Everybody thought the Lynx would collapse like they always did.”

No one would be foolish enough to tag Reeve’s Lynx with such doubt today. Though without Moore or Whalen, Minnesota was expected to look quite different and perhaps take a step back, they will never be counted out entirely. Collier, Sims and Fowles led them to a 7-seed in the playoffs and an identical 18-16 record that they achieved in 2018, a testament to the partnership between star player and coach. Fowles is one of just three holdovers from 2018 with Moore sitting out the year and Whalen retired.

Minnesota’s three All-Stars (Fowles, Sims and Collier) have transformed the Lynx into a much deeper and more versatile team than last year’s group and they haven’t missed a beat on defense. Fowles once again is a Defensive Player of the Year contender, if not the favorite. Role players such as Damiris Dantas, Lexie Brown and Stephanie Talbot have helped carry the weight of their legendary predecessors in gray and blue. Reeve is proud of how her team has adapted and grown quickly.

“We’re still learning about each other,” she says, and admits, “they’re getting coached maybe harder than what they want to.”

The other quality Reeve sacrificed building this year’s team is experience. Many of the Lynx’s most important players have never tasted the Finals, some never even a playoff series. The win over Phoenix was a microcosm of the trust and talent Minnesota has built over the course of its first season together.

Dantas, who scored 17 points, was aggressive as a shooter and scorer, spreading the defense out in a way few in the WNBA can. Brown started the second half in place of veteran Danielle Robinson and gave Reeve even more shooting and defense on the court, helping the Lynx overcome a halftime deficit to win by double digits. Though they would lose to the Sparks two days later to close out the season, beating Phoenix marked Minnesota’s fifth straight victory, a sign of momentum at the perfect time.

Still, the dumb luck sometimes necessary to win the single-elimination games that await them in rounds one and two laughs in the face of momentum. Reeve will likely have to lean hard on Fowles, the rock of the team. The center is readying herself for the excitement of the playoffs by settling down.

“You can’t really think about what your next opponent’s going to be doing,” Fowles says. “Just making sure we’re staying together as a team and we’re locked in on all cylinders and clicking and playing for each other. Whatever happens is going to happen, but at the same time, you just gotta go out there and give it your all. Never quit.”

A sign that the Lynx plan to combine past and future came with the news that Fowles had agreed to a new, multi-year contract extension.

“Obviously, we’re ecstatic,” Reeve said in Los Angeles on Sunday, after the news was announced. “Sylvia Fowles wants to be a Lynx and finish her career here. Wasn’t surprising to us, you know that she wants to, but obviously, we don’t take anything for granted. She’s been the, no pun intended, the centerpiece To this team. And it will be nice to have that going forward.”

Fowles’ consistency and focus are what make her special, and it has seeped into the personality of this squad already. They defend like hell. They fight. And they get up the next day and do it again. Other teams may have a scorer who can flip a single-elimination playoff game on its head, and while Moore used to be exactly that for Minnesota, Reeve constructed a group with no weak points and incredible depth to make up for that lack of typical star power.

CHICAGO, IL – JULY 10: Cheryl Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx and Sylvia Fowles #34 of the Minnesota Lynx talk during the game against the Chicago Sky on July 10, 2019 at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The head coach and team leader can rattle off what the team needs to do to be special.

Fowles says of Dantas: “She tends to rush, as well as myself. When you’re getting pounded, it’s hard to see things that you would normally see at a normal pace.”

Reeve says of Brown: “(She) has such shot credibility, they have to go out there and guard her.”

The Lynx have a feel for themselves and one another uncommon for a team playing together for the first time. The WNBA playoffs leave a lot up to chance, but Minnesota is combating that with a clear sense of self.

“We understand our identity, that’s probably the biggest thing,” Reeve says. “That’s what it’s about, knowing who you are. That’s the good, the bad, and the ugly. You gotta know those things.”

Sabreena Merchant contributed reporting to this story.

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