Sylvia Fowles was back in practice Tuesday with the Lynx.
This is big news.
Earning the fourth WNBA playoff seed helped the Lynx in general — but even more so Fowles, who was lost for the rest of the regular season Aug. 13 when she aggravated a right calf injury 83 seconds into a game with Las Vegas.
The Lynx were 6-2 entering that game. Counting that as a lost game for Fowles, the Lynx were 8-6 without her, which was still good enough to finish in fourth place and get a first-round bye. They found out Tuesday night they will face Phoenix on Thursday in the second round.
The Mercury, seeded fifth, beat defending league champion Washington 85-84 on Shey Peddy’s three-pointer at the buzzer. Skylar Diggins-Smith scored 24 points — and got her fifth assist on the winning basket — and Diana Taurasi had 23 points for Phoenix.
The Mercury split two games with the Lynx this season, winning the first meeting 90-80 and losing the second 83-79 nine days later Aug. 30.
The Sun, seeded seventh, defeated sixth-seeded Chicago 94-81 in the opening first-round game.
Meantime the Lynx, starting Tuesday, had two days of practice to reintegrate Fowles into the lineup.
This is a big job.
“It’s one of those things where we certainly want Syl back in the fold, but you also have to kind of recall what you were doing before,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “I think defensively we’re going to get a big boost if we have Syl out there. Offensively, we’ll fine-tooth comb the areas that we were really good. … We’re going to do our best to marry the best of Syl and the best that we did without Syl.”
Fowles’ expected return Thursday will immediately help a Lynx defense. The Lynx were first in the league in points allowed over the first eight games (75.0) but eighth over the final 14 (83.6).
On offense it could be trickier. In Fowles’ absence, Reeve went with a smaller lineup with Damiris Dantas at center and Napheesa Collier at power forward and Bridget Carleton in the starting lineup.
Over their final 14 games the Lynx had the second-best offensive rating in the league (110.4) and were third in points per game (87.5) with an offense that stretched the floor more and featured Collier posting up and slashing into the lane.
The Lynx also became a better three-point shooting team. Minnesota was ninth in threes made (6.6) and three-point shooting (33.5) after eight games. The final 14 they were second in makes per game (8.4) and first in percentage (41.0).
Both Rachel Banham (47.2) and Carleton (45.7) broke Maya Moore’s team record for three-point accuracy (45.3) set in 2013.
Both Collier and Dantas will have to adjust to having Fowles back in the post. And Carleton could return to coming off the bench.
“It’s really awesome having her,” Collier said. “She looked really good. Like she never left. I don’t think it’s going to be that different [with Fowles].”
But it will be a challenge. The offense Fowles is returning to is different from the one she left.
“Having Syl back, when we do get stagnant, we know we can go inside and get a bucket,” said guard Crystal Dangerfield, who was named Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press on Tuesday and rookie of the month for September by the WNBA.
Reeve was named AP Coach of the Year and Collier was named to AP’s All-WNBA second team.