Even after the Lynx lost for the third straight time Thursday night, coach Cheryl Reeve was upbeat about her team’s morale as well as its playoff prospects.
“We’ll have to see how we finish the regular season [vs. Indiana] on Saturday,’’ she said. “And then wherever we land seeding-wise, we’ll be ready to play when the playoff starts.’’
They landed in the best spot they could, as the fourth seed, after Phoenix lost to Seattle on Friday night.
The Lynx and Phoenix entered Friday’s games tied for fourth place in the WNBA, the last position that gets a first-round playoff bye. The WNBA’s tiebreaking procedures start with head-to-head competition, but the two teams split two games. The second tiebreaker is record against teams with .500 or better records. The third is point differential in the games between the teams, where the Lynx have the edge.
Teams finishing fifth through eighth take part in a one-game first round on Tuesday. The winners of those two games take on teams that finished third and fourth in a second-round single-elimination Thursday, with the winners advancing to the best-of-five semifinals against the top two teams.
Connecticut’s loss to Atlanta on Friday means that the Mercury had a better record vs. .500 teams heading into Phoenix’s with Seattle. But the Mercury’s loss to Storm meant Phoenix had the same record vs. .500 or better teams as the Lynx, and so Minnesota clinched the fourth seed in the playoffs regardless of whether the Lynx win or lose Saturday.
There is reason for Lynx optimism should 6-6 veteran center Sylvia Fowles return healthy for the playoffs.
If you count the Aug. 13 game against Las Vegas, in which she injured one of her calves just 83 seconds after tipoff, as a missed game, the Lynx are 5-1 with Fowles in the lineup and 8-7 without her.
One of the biggest problems for the team — especially recently — has been the defense. In particular, the interior defense. Lynx opponents have averaged 42 points in the paint over the past three games.
But the difference with and without Fowles is stark.
The Lynx opened the season 6-2. In that time their defensive rating was 94.6 (second in the league) and the Lynx held opponents to 29 points in the paint per game, best in the league.
In the 13 games since the Lynx’s offense has become more effective. But the Lynx’s defensive rating of 104.9 in that stretch is more than 10 points higher than before Fowles was lost for the rest of the regular season.
A perennial all-WNBA defensive team player, Fowles figures to tighten up the Lynx interior defense and improve the team’s defensive rebounding, which also has been an issue at times.
Her return also would make the team’s rotation deeper.
The Lynx have managed to qualify for the playoffs despite losing Karima Christmas-Kelly to a season-ending Achilles’ tendon injury, being without Fowles for the majority of the season, and being without guards Lexie Brown, Shenise Johnson and Rachel Banham at different points in the season.
Since Fowles was lost, Odyssey Sims has returned and has worked herself into shape. Bridget Carleton has emerged as a solid starter. Crystal Dangerfield has strengthened her Rookie of the Year credentials. And Damiris Dantas has emerged as a consistent scorer.
With Fowles back on the court the Lynx would have to adjust offensively. But having Fowles drawing attention in the post could space the floor for a lineup that is perhaps the best three-point shooting team since Reeve took over in 2010.
The Lynx have attempted 21.5 threes per game and made 8.0. Both are the best marks in the Reeve era. The team’s 37.5 three-point shooting percentage — third best in the league — is the second best of the Reeve era. Dantas, Napheesa Collier, Carleton and Banham all could see more open looks on the perimeter if Fowles returns.