There were 12 games left in the regular season and the Lynx were 20-2 when Lindsay Whalen broke her left hand. Suddenly, on the point, charged with running the Lynx down the stretch run: Renee Montgomery.
Over the next 10 games the Lynx went 5-5. Hand-wringing ensued as the gap between the Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks narrowed to a single game. It’s probably not fair that many looked at Whalen’s absence — and Montgomery as her replacement — as the reason.
Montgomery was having to learn how to play with the starters after being the leader of the second team. There were stretches when some of the other starters struggled a bit.
But Montgomery was the flash point. And, fair or not, know this: Montgomery kind of felt responsible, too.
“It’s like a Maserati,” Montgomery said. “They gave me the keys to the car, and I didn’t want to give it back to Wheezy [Whalen] all broken down. I was mad at myself. I was letting down Wheezy and my team. But I had to let that go.”
Montgomery’s Maserati analogy was delivered on the podium, in front of reporters, after she and the Lynx had whipped the Washington Mystics in the first game of the best-of-five WNBA semifinals Tuesday at Williams Arena.
Montgomery and Seimone Augustus, coming off a 24-point game, were sitting together and they put on a show. Augustus shared the story of her grandmother ordering her to shoot more. The two kibitzed and joked and at the end Montgomery looked at the assembled media and intoned, “Thanks for coming.”
The 30-year-old veteran has her career and her role in perspective.
Montgomery, who has started and come off the bench and was an All-Star in 2011, will accept any role. But she needs to feel she’s an important part of whatever success her team is having to thrive.
“That’s like everything to me,” she said. “When I feel my team needs me, that’s what gets my mojo going.”
For the first 10 games after Whalen got hurt, that wasn’t happening enough. Montgomery had some good games. But over that stretch she shot 41.8 percent overall, 37.8 on three-pointers and averaged 7.8 points. More distressing were the stretches in games when the Lynx offense couldn’t get a good shot.
And it bothered her.
“It was super tough,” she said. “Not for the reasons people would think. We were losing. The thing is, I respect my teammates so much, and I felt I was letting them down. I was letting Wheezy down, letting the coaches down. That was my frustration.”
So Montgomery went to work. She dived into film, watching the starters playing with Whalen, learning where they all wanted the ball, and when. She prayed. Ultimately, she accepted the fact that nothing was going to be perfect and got over it.
“It was just, ‘I have to do me,’ ” Montgomery said.
In the final two regular season games she shot 14-for-21 and hit seven of 12 three-pointers. Tuesday, back as a reserve, she and Whalen put the clamps on Washington guard Kristi Toliver. On the offensive end Montgomery was 7-for-10, making four of five three-pointers, including a leaning, clock-beating heave that ended Minnesota’s stellar third quarter.
“Renee gave them a big lift off the bench,” said Mystics coach Mike Thibault, Montgomery’s coach with the Connecticut Sun. “She should have been sixth person of the year, in my opinion.”
Montgomery’s past three games: 19 points per game, 67.7 percent shooting, 64.7 percent on threes. Her 18 points in Tuesday’ 101-81 victory is the second-highest total for a Lynx reserve in team playoff history.
She played just over 20½ minutes — almost four more than Whalen.
“She took some heat,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “People constantly asking, ‘When’s Lindsay coming back? You guys need her.’ She took that on personally.”
This has happened before. In 2015, with Whalen battling injuries, Montgomery was a big part of the team’s drive to a third WNBA title.
She would love a repeat.