For the better part of a decade, the Minnesota Lynx were the WNBA’s greatest certainty. Two years ago, that certainty dissolved suddenly into haze. Maya Moore missed a pair of late-game free throws in the first round of the 2018 playoffs, and an already-rocky season for the Lynx, winners of four championships in seven years, ended unusually early.
A course of grim news began rolling in. Floor general Lindsay Whalen retired at the end of the season to go coach the Golden Gophers; Moore took an indefinite leave from basketball to focus on ministry work and to help free a wrongly convicted man (whom she recently married) from prison; Rebekkah Brunson, an all-time rebounder, sat out the 2019 season to recover from a concussion before she retired this February; and contract negotiations went south with 14-year Lynx veteran Seimone Augustus last year, before she signed with the Sparks, Minnesota’s most hated rival.
So it was pretty remarkable, after all that, to watch a decidedly post-dynasty Lynx squad snag the four-seed and bounce Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury from the playoffs Thursday night. (Appropriate, too, that the win came a few hours after Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve was named Coach of the Year.) The second-round single-elimination game was neither team’s best basketball—Minnesota took a while to click on offense and Skylar Diggins-Smith was a non-factor for the Mercury—but the Lynx hung on through an ugly first half to pull out an 80-79 win, one they managed without much help from Sylvia Fowles, the last remaining member of the team’s great era.
Minnesota now faces the Seattle Storm in the semifinals, which tip off this afternoon. (Update, 2:44 p.m. ET: The WNBA has postponed this game due to inconclusive COVID test results.) For the Lynx, a detached, big-picture approach to this series is probably the way to go. Thinking too seriously about the opponent at hand will only kill the mood. In both regular-season meetings, the Lynx were squarely outmatched by the Storm, who are strong title favorites with a serious depth advantage, the ageless Sue Bird, lockdown defenders Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard, a complete star in Breanna Stewart, and the best offensive and defensive ratings in the league. Will this sound like something parents tell their dopey kids? Yes! It is also true and bears saying anyway. The Lynx aren’t likely to beat the Storm, but they should take pride, either way, in a quality so rare for a dynasty’s ashes: Their future is bright and they will be just fine.
The role players who kept the Lynx alive through Thursday’s game—three-point whiz Rachel Banham, breakout offensive threat Damiris Dantas and veteran Odyssey Sims—weren’t even on the team two years ago. Neither was the brightest star in Minnesota, last year’s Rookie of the Year, Napheesa Collier. Her 27-point WNBA debut last summer immediately threw into question any plans of a rebuild. This year, Collier followed it up with an MVP-caliber regular season, shooting 52 percent from the field and 41 percent from three-point range. She’s blossomed into an elite and versatile defender, too, both inside and on the perimeter, with a 6-foot-7 wingspan that can usually be counted on for a couple of blocks and steals each game.
Collier spent the spring lobbying Reeve to draft her former UConn teammate, point guard Crystal Dangerfield, who just might dethrone Washington’s Aerial Powers in having the coolest name in women’s basketball. Dangerfield’s slow to warm up sometimes but a must-watch when she’s on. She’s a mean shooter with an almost perfect hesitation dribble.
Dangerfield wasn’t some scrub in college; she logged one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the country. Rebecca Lobo, Huskies royalty, called a freshman Dangerfield “the best passer UConn has had at the point guard spot since Sue Bird.” But at 5-foot-5, Dangerfield was small enough to worry GMs. She fell to the second round of the draft, where she was taken 16th overall by the Lynx, making her the first second-round pick to win Rookie of the Year in WNBA history.
That bit of trivia stings as much as it thrills. Second-round picks don’t ever win Rookie of the Year, because second-round picks don’t typically end up making WNBA rosters. In a league of only 144 players—a league not eager to expand and without a developmental system—a staggering amount of talent falls by the wayside. One wonders, a little wistfully, about other would-be Dangerfields, drafted late and never awarded the minutes to prove that someone’s pegged them wrong.
A gift of this particular WNBA season, which is being played without Elena Delle Donne, Liz Cambage and a few other familiar faces, has been to see promise in unexpected places, owing not to players’ sudden growth but to their sudden opportunities. The Lynx may no longer be a certainty of women’s basketball, but they do enact a new one: When the old guard falls away, you’ll be surprised by how little separated them from the next women up.