September 28, 2020 

Minnesota’s 2020 season was more than a ‘good learning experience’

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The Minnesota Lynx defied odds and took the next step in becoming Finals contenders in one of the most demanding seasons in WNBA history.

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The Minnesota Lynx’s 15-11 2020 season came to a conclusion on Sunday, Sept. 27, after the Seattle Storm claimed a 92-71 win over Minnesota in Game 3 of the semifinals. Photo credit: Minnesota Lynx Twitter account, @minnesotalynx

Moral victories aren’t highly celebrated by Cheryl Reeve-coached Lynx teams. There are no “happy to be here” sentiments despite the level of adversity or expertise of opponents her teams face.

Reeve made that clear when she addressed reporters at the end of her team’s 3-0 semifinals series loss to the Seattle Storm and addressed her disappointment before reflecting on the entire season.

“I wish things would have ended differently,” said Reeve after her team’s season-ending 92-71 loss to the Seattle Storm.

The loss didn’t take away from the special season the Lynx put together but it was “disappointing in so many ways.”

The Lynx fell to an early 24-8 deficit and were held to single digits until 40 seconds remained in the first quarter — a hole they’d never succumb from. They were slow to adjust to Seattle’s switch-heavy defense, committed a series-high 19 turnovers, allowed Breanna Stewart to force her will by scoring 31 points and gave up 48 points in the paint.

“We just weren’t as good as we needed to be in a desperation, elimination game,” Reeve said.

But after expressing her dismay over Game 3, Reeve touched on the heart of what made a semifinals appearance possible for her 2020 team.

“Every team I’ve been around that had success has that very important trait of being selfless and playing for each other and with each other. That desire …. This group had it, to a T,” Reeve said. “All the players say that’s the most special part of it. I think we were able to translate into wins and be one of the top four teams in the bubble. It’s really impressive.”

Reeve questioned the sustainability of fitting 22 games into seven weeks of play after the first week of the season — and rightfully so. Sylvia Fowles (calf), Karima Christmas-Kelly (Achilles), Lexie Brown (concussion protocol) and Shenise Johnson’s (calf) seasons were all cut short due to injuries. But the Lynx still found a way to exceed outsider expectations.

“As things were happening to us, you know the Karima Christmas-Kelly situation, or the Syl(via Fowles) situation, other injuries that happened,” Reeve said. “Lexie (Brown) early on with the concussion, and how much we had to be nimble, and somebody step up and fill. All the way to the end, where we had two staff members not with us any more. Katie (Smith) has to step up, we all have to step up and just be there for each other.”

On top of the physical toll, players and coaches were expected to perform at a professional level despite being away from their loved ones while a pandemic and ongoing racial injustice plagued our country.

“That’s the only thing positive about the season ending is that you get to reunite with your loved ones — ‘cause it’s been a lot,” Reeve said. “(The players) sacrificed so much and handled it so great. That’s what I just told ‘em. It couldn’t have gone any better for us, this experience.”

But when players addressed the media after their final game, they weren’t quite ready to come to terms with the reality that they’d soon be leaving their teammates and coaches.

“No crying,” said Damiris Dantas before letting out a sigh. “I love this team. I love the coach, everybody. For me, this is my family in America. This is my first team in the league. This team supports me and my family through everything.

“I’m sad because we lost in three games, but I’m happy for the season. It’s hard for us we lost Big Mom (Fowles), Lex, but we’re still together and played together. I love my teammates.”

Dantas — alongside Collier — took it upon herself to anchor the Lynx’s defense once Fowles was sidelined. She acted as a center in the paint but shot like a deadly shooting guard behind the arc where she shot 39-for-90 (43.3%) in the regular season and 14-for-27 (51.9%) in the playoffs, making it clear that she is much more than just a role player for Minnesota.

Dantas was asked to take on a larger leadership role at the start of the season, and based on the multi-year extension the Lynx offered her on Sept. 10, she believes her task was fulfilled.

“I think so,” said Dantas when asked if she met her goal. “I want to more playing over here, but I’m so happy with this season. I talked to Coach Cheryl in the offseason about this, and she believed in me, she signed a contract for me for two more years. So, let’s go. I want more.”

Reflecting on what lies ahead was more challenging for Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield who clearly saw a Game 4 in her team’s future.

The rookie was defended by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Alysha Clark in her first playoff series and was held to 14 total points on 5-for-18 shooting in Games 1 and 2. She recovered in Game 3, scoring 16 points, but like Reeve, her disappointment was evident.

“Um, I’m not sure,” said Dangerfield when asked what it will be like leaving the bubble. “I haven’t really thought about it. It’s hard. This team wasn’t ready to go home yet. I wasn’t ready to go home yet. So, yeah.”

Dangerfield was tasked with learning on the fly and moving on to the next game in an unprecedented rookie season where practices were rare and in-game learning lessons came often. And yet, her desire to win permeated throughout her team and allowed her to defy odds until meeting Seattle in the semifinals.

“It was everything I could’ve asked for with this team, how the season turned out, obviously not ending today but how we played over stretches of time under these circumstances inside the bubble, outside the bubble,” Dangerfield said.” Just the way the world looks right now, that they could pull this off and for this team to carry itself the way it did, win games that we weren’t supposed to win.”

Dangerfield’s belief in her team was emphasized with the air quotes she used to diminish “weren’t supposed to win.”

“It was a joy to be here.”

Co-captain Napheesa Collier concluded the Lynx’s final postgame media availability of the 2020 season, once again showing her wisdom and composure of a seasoned veteran.

“There are certain things you can’t really learn until you’re in that situation, and being in the playoffs is one of them,” Collier said. “Personally, I think I just learned how hard it is. It’s really hard to win a series, and they’re a really good team, but so are we.

“I just don’t think that we had it today for some reason, but we were right with them those other two games. I think it just proved to us that we can be really, really good. We proved a lot of people wrong this year.”

Collier fought throughout Game 3 despite getting off to a slow offensive start and finished the final game of her second WNBA season with 22 points, 15 rebounds, three blocks and two assists. She averaged 19.6 points, nine rebounds and three blocks per game and shot 52% from the field in the semifinals all while defending Stewart.

But a sign of her growth not shown in a box score came on Thursday when she read a statement on behalf of all WNBA players regarding the ruling in the Breonna Taylor case before Game 2.

“The result is outrageous and offensive,” Collier said. “No one needs to live in the commonwealth of Kentucky to understand this case. We won’t stop pressing for full transparency and full, complete justice. There are far too many questions left unanswered.”

After Game 2, Collier said she was honored to read the statement and noted the fury behind it.

“It’s terrible that we’re in this position, and we’re still fighting for this,” said Collier after Game 2. “Those charges are obviously not acceptable by anyone. We’ve been advocating for this all season long, and when we heard what those charges were, we were disgusted, enraged. So it sucks to be in this position right now.”

Collier, who, in just her second WNBA season, earned Defensive Player of the Year votes and will without doubt be named to an All-WNBA team, refused to stick to sports and proved to be worthy of her co-captain role.

“I also learned throughout the season just how much I love my teammates and how important it is to have that good chemistry,” said Collier after Game 3, “because it makes up for a lot. I’m so grateful to be able to play with them and to have this experience with them. I can’t wait to get back to it next year.”

But as Reeve noted, things won’t be the same next year.

“You never want to see it end,” Reeve said. “You never come back exactly the same. Next year bring something different, and there will be some people who won’t be here. And so, it’s never exactly the same.”

Kayla Alexander, Shenise Johnson and Erica McCall are all on expiring contracts, and the Lynx will have plenty of money to spend to entice free agents to join them.

“We have money to spend,” Reeve said. “That’s the great thing, that we kind of escaped duct-taping this thing together and just trying to hold it up. We’ve got some really good, key pieces to keep the franchise moving forward and to keep us as a playoff team, competing, as we did here in the semifinals. We got a great taste of it. I don’t know what’s next. There’s so many great teams in this league, and things have got to go your way, things went our way down here in the bubble, but we certainly need more.”

The Lynx have larger, long-term goals than qualifying for the semifinals and have laid the foundation for what’s to come. But describing the Lynx’s 2020 season as a “good learning experience” is a disservice to what they achieved in the bubble.

Players like Rachel Banham and Bridget Carleton carved out crucial roles for themselves after serving as limited bench players prior to this season. The Lynx once again quieted skeptics who had yet to learn their lesson about counting out Minnesota. They showed that team chemistry isn’t just a marketing scheme when devised correctly. And most importantly, they gave a voice to the voiceless and made sure their season wasn’t a distraction fans turned to to ignore the trauma of 2020. Instead, it was a call to action.

“This is a special group that accomplished special things together,” Reeve said. “We have a lot to be proud of.”

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