Jim Souhan
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She stayed in constant contact with her coach for the 36 hours before the game, as usual.

She jogged onto the court for pregame warmups, hugged everyone in sight and started encouraging her teammates, as usual.

She stood with her coach at midcourt, watching the end of warmups, discussing strategy, as usual.

When the game started, Lindsay Whalen took a seat on the bench. This was anything but usual.

On Sunday night, the greatest basketball player in Minnesota history came off the bench for the first time since her first game in the WNBA, in 2004. Cheryl Reeve, her longtime friend and coach, made the decision on Saturday, and woke Sunday to a text from Whalen saying, “I’m ready to go.’’

An era ended on Sunday night, during a season that feels like a coda for a group of champions.

The Lynx lost 81-72 to a powerhouse Seattle team at Target Center. The defending champs have lost more games this season than in the previous two regular seasons combined.

Before the season, Reeve traded a first-round pick to Phoenix for three-time All-Star Danielle Robinson, Whalen’s logical successor. Robinson played well when Whalen was resting during the previous two games, until Robinson suffered a high ankle sprain. Robinson may not play again this season.

With Robinson hurt and Whalen resting, veteran Tanisha Wright played brilliantly in Las Vegas. Wright will probably keep the starting job as long as Robinson is out.

Sunday, Whalen played 15 minutes, producing four points and zero assists. Wright played 35 minutes, producing three points and four assists.

“Certainly it would have been an easier decision, a no-brainer, had Danielle not have gone down,’’ Reeve said. “I think from a pace standpoint and ball pressure, things we’re getting defensively, I think Tanisha can play for longer stretches.

“I think you saw that tonight. Conditioning is probably more of what you need and it’s hard to do at this point.’’

Reeve said that Whalen accepted the news “exactly as you would think Lindsay Whalen would take it,’’ and after the game Whalen waited in front of her locker, in uniform, to answer questions.

“We talked quite a bit yesterday, we talked on the phone a lot,’’ Whalen said of her conversations with Reeve. “We talked for a while, then we talked this morning. Obviously it’s not a decision [Reeve] came by easily. She put a lot of thought into it and she’s got to do what’s best for the team, and I want to do what’s best for the team.’’

Whalen said she remembers starting every game in high school and at the University of Minnesota. She could remember coming off the bench only when playing for USA basketball, when she often backed up Seattle star point guard Sue Bird.

“I played off the bench for USA, so I just try to go into that mentality and try to bring as much energy as I could, and play at a productive level for as long as I could,’’ Whalen said.

If she had wanted to write the perfect script, Whalen could have retired after last season, when she helped the Lynx win Game 5 and the WNBA championship in Williams Arena, where she starred for the Gophers.

She became the Gophers’ coach in April, and has admitted that playing and preparing to coach has been difficult, if sometimes energizing.

This weekend, Reeve taught her a coaching lesson — that someday you may have to bench a local hero for the good of the team.

“I guess I’ll know a lot more when I’m actually a coach,’’ Whalen said with a smile. “She watches video and studies so many things, and she took a hard look at it and that’s the decision she came up with, and I fully support her.’’

The greatest basketball player in Minnesota history was not announced with the starting lineup on Sunday.

It was going to happen someday. The question is whether inevitability heightens or calms the pain.