The question of parity in the WNBA in 2018 continues to be an interesting one for both the league at large and the most dominant team of the decade right here in Minnesota.
The Lynx have had games, like Wednesday’s against Indiana, where they look somewhat like their old selves and outwork an opponent.
Then there are the games like Friday’s against the expansion Las Vegas Aces, who Minnesota had beaten soundly in Nevada. Things did not come so easy at Target Center, and the Aces did not trail in the second half as the Lynx dropped another home game 85-77.
The Aces, who entered still three games below .500, seem to be moving in the right direction. They had won three straight games coming into Friday, and their mix of an established scorer in Kayla McBride and young star talent in Kelsey Plum and A’ja Wilson has serious potential.
The asterisk that comes with this game from a Minnesota perspective will be Rebekkah Brunson’s absence for a second straight game. Temi Fagbenle started at the 4 in her place. While Fagbenle ended up with a decent night, both she and Endy Miyem struggled with foul trouble against a Vegas team with serious length.
The game opened at a quick pace, and Minnesota’s scoring came from an unlikely source. Lindsay Whalen had not scored more than 20 points in a game since Aug. 28, 2016, but was the Lynx’s most potent offensive threat in the first half.
Whalen hit nearly every shot she took in the first half, finishing 5 of 7 — 3 of 3 from deep — for 15 points. At one point after Whalen drew another foul, Plum put her hands up and shrugged. Plum’s comment about the Lynx’s age in the first matchup between these teams had drawn some ire, and the 36-year-old Whalen was flexing her experience.
The problem with Whalen being the Lynx’s most potent offensive force is that by definition, that means that Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles were struggling.
Moore finished the first half just 1 of 5 and Fowles just 2 of 5, with both missing shots that they normally make. The Lynx were doing just enough on offense, but their league-best defense was not getting the job done.
Las Vegas did not have a wide spread of offensive threats, but McBride was a killer.
The Lynx could not find an answer for her, and while Wilson was kept relatively quiet, backup center Carolyn Swords did an excellent job on Fowles for most of the night and contributed where needed on offense.
The Aces led by three points at halftime, and it could have been more.
The third quarter was a tale of almosts for Minnesota.
Several times, the Lynx pulled within one possession of the Aces, and not once did they tie or take the lead. Las Vegas was able to score just often enough to prevent a major Minnesota run and keep the lively Target Center crowd out of the game.
Even with the Aces struggling mightily with turnovers, the Lynx began to return the favor.
After only two turnovers in the first half, there were forced passes and offensive fouls that simply let Vegas off the hook. The Aces could have punished the Lynx much more than they did, as Minnesota’s sloppy play fed into itself and it entered one of the scoring funks that have characterized its worst performances of the season.
A six-point lead after the third quarter was enough to stave off the little that the Lynx could muster.
The struggles of the night for Fowles were typified by a possession in which she got the post position that normally seals a minimum of two points, but missed both the initial layup and the layup from the offensive rebound. Fowles finished with 17 rebounds, but only managed seven points on 2 of 9 shooting while going just 3 of 6 from the free throw line.
Moore’s struggles were similar.
She took plenty of shots she normally takes, but outside of a five-point burst that closed the Vegas lead to four points with just over two minutes left, nothing was working. She finished with just 12 points, and there were errors on the defensive end that did not help the team’s cause. Even Whalen finally stopped hitting shots late, and her 22 points could not drag the Lynx across the line.
This was a quality win by the expansion Aces, and they got contributions from all over. McBride carried the scoring load, but each of their five starters — with Swords in place of the actual starter Kelsey Bone — finished with double-digit points. Wilson was immense in every facet of the game, thunderously blocking Cecilia Zandalasini to crush a fourth-quarter moment and carrying Vegas’ rebounding with a team-high 15 boards.
The questions that follow this game for the Lynx are simple: where is this team’s consistency?
The team who rattled off wins over nearly every top team in the league also has losses to many of the worst teams in the league while looking like they belong in the latter category. What is Minnesota’s identity this season?
“Vegas was good, for sure,” Reeve said. “They were really good on offense. They converted right at us, makes and misses like they do. Their complete identity, they got to play to tonight. Their complete identity, on both sides of it. Their complete identity, they got to play exactly to it, and that’s disappointing.
“Anybody that’s part of this team has seen this before. I know exactly what we have, and it doesn’t feel very good when you’re seeing it happen. We’re finding ways to fight through it, stay in it, not get in our heads, that sort of thing. I don’t think we’re mentally tough enough in games like these. We start to feel sorry for ourselves, and we’re not a very good team when that starts to happen. Give Vegas credit though.”
The mentality was the clearest mirror in Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer’s comments.
“We talked about that before the game, about our poise and our mental toughness,” he said. “Really working on the mental aspect of the game right now for our young players, that whatever happens out there, keep your focus, keep pushing the ball. Teams will get tired playing against us, and then we can execute, but I think we’re making great progress mentally.”
For a team with the history and championship pedigree of the Lynx to be on the losing side of a game’s mental battle, something really does not seem right. The Lynx have never been able to separate themselves from the masses in the standings this year, and the league’s parity will swallow them up if they cannot find consistent quality play.
Minnesota dropped to 12-9 with the loss, and their game against Connecticut on Sunday looms large. The Sun can tie the Lynx in the standings with a win, and even Vegas is only two and a half games back of Minnesota at ninth.
The Lynx have shown their quality before this season, but these are the games that could cost them dearly at season’s end.