Renee Montgomery, Jia Perkins thriving as role players for the Lynx

Renee Montgomery and Jia Perkins were never teammates before joining the Minnesota Lynx, but the backup guards are now offering brilliant examples of synchronization to continue the team’s championship aims. Neither player boasts a stat line that would command attention, but they both allow the Lynx to uphold functionality in forms that few of their predecessors were able to achieve.

“Their ball pressure, their denying of entry passes…setting up a cut, reads on a ball screen. Things that don’t always show up on the stat sheet for them, but it assists our team. They’ve got good chemistry together,” said Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve.

Their shared dedication to intangibles means both Montgomery and Perkins are persistent threats to make plays that can be identified on the stat sheet; Montgomery’s biggest moment in 2016 came in a June 21 road game against the Los Angeles Sparks when she hit a game-winning three-pointer with 2.9 seconds left in regulation. The basket showcased her attentiveness and fearlessness, springing free from an unaware Essence Carson to find an opening in the corner.

“Renee has a reputation of being a timely shot maker,” Reeve said. “We’ve seen her have the confidence to step up and do big things like that.”

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Montgomery is also timely when it comes to steals. Usually stepping in at the point-guard position, the 29-year-old found early success by timing the dribble of her opponent. Even now, anyone who underestimates the feisty Montgomery runs the risk of being stripped, setting up a transition score that uplifts a Lynx team that thrives on pushing the ball.

“I knew that playing defense was going to have to be where I found my niche on this team, because this team is so loaded in every category,” Montgomery said.

Taking a stand on defense gives Montgomery a specific role that wasn’t assigned to her during her first stint with the Lynx in 2009, when she was drafted fourth overall. Attaining continuity was difficult; Jennifer Gillom took the head coaching job just days before the season began, and Seimone Augustus sustained an ACL tear in the sixth game of the year. Montgomery would make the All-Rookie team, but the Lynx failed to reach the playoffs.

Montgomery was traded to Connecticut in 2010, and her five seasons there continued the theme of mixed results. With Mike Thibault, she earned an All-Star selection in 2011 and the Sixth Woman of the Year award in 2012, but team morale soured after Thibault was fired and replaced by Anne Donovan prior to 2013; Montgomery stayed with the Sun for two more years before being traded to the Seattle Storm.

“That situation in Connecticut could have gotten ugly,” Montgomery said. “With some players, it did, but I wanted to make sure I maintained who I was through that whole thing.”

Photo courtesy of Abe Booker, III of Stratman Photography

Montgomery’s time in Seattle was brief. Midway through the 2015 season, another trade put her back in Minnesota. She was excited to play for a championship contender again, but a retooled roster and coaching staff meant a rigorous curriculum awaited her.

“Being a point guard, you have to know where everybody’s at on the court and what the play is for. When you don’t know that, I feel out of my element,” Montgomery said. “It took until the end of the season to figure that out, but once I did, I felt way more comfortable in myself and the team.”

Proof of Montgomery’s comprehension came in the 2015 Finals, when she drained a game-tying triple that preceded Maya Moore’s legendary trey in the third game of that series. Her pesky defense also caught Indiana off-guard en route to a title. Montgomery’s adaptation process was aided by Reeve’s brusque approach, which is an attitude evocative of her college coach: UConn’s Geno Auriemma.

“I like coaches like that. They shoot it to you straight and you have to either accept it, reject it, or change it. I don’t like things sugarcoated,” Montgomery said.

From afar, Perkins praised the camaraderie between Lynx players and coaches. Since she came to Minnesota in a draft-day trade with San Antonio this year, her appreciation has only solidified.

“They want you to succeed and they’ll put you in successful situations. They don’t ask you to do anything that’s out of the norm for yourself, but they expect your best every night,” Perkins said. “There’s no ego. Everyone wants to share the ball and the biggest concern is winning.”

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A 34-year-old who hasn’t lost a step—in the words of Reeve—Perkins bolsters Minnesota’s defensive tenacity. In the last four seasons, Perkins placed 10th or better in the league in steals, a commendable quality for an athlete filling in for Anna Cruz, who is committed to the Spanish national team in next month’s Olympic Games. Perkins also carries a jump shot that blends in smoothly with Minnesota’s array of perimeter shooters. Her accuracy can fluctuate, but each game brings a deeper understanding of the learning curve.

“Each team brings a different aspect to the game, different terminologies,” Perkins said. “I just want to keep learning.”

Reeve points to a May 27 meeting between Minnesota and Indiana as the juncture for Perkins. The Lynx built a huge lead early, so Reeve put in her reserves to gauge how well they could complement each other. The plan nearly backfired thanks to a Fever fourth-quarter rally, but a newcomer like Perkins overcame subsequent nerves as a result of that experience.

“Everything was new for Jia for that first month, and I think you saw that in her play,” Reeve said. “There was a lot of thinking going on, now you see her just playing.”

Building a bench has been an arduous assignment for Minnesota since Reeve arrived. Most holdovers from the previous regimes didn’t stay long. Attempts to develop through the draft produced some returns, but not enough to dispel the ongoing impression that Reeve was reluctant to take her starters out, so the strategy shifted to stacking the bench with veterans.

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Minnesota’s experienced players give its starters more rest; no one is averaging above 30 minutes per game, which could be crucial for post-season stamina, as four Lynx players also prepare for their Olympic duties. A drawback to this philosophy is not always having the likes of Seimone Augustus, Sylvia Fowles and Lindsay Whalen to close out wins when needed, but they won’t hesitate to stand up for the backups.

“My team has made it known from the start that they have confidence in me,” Montgomery said.

The kinship Montgomery and Perkins have with the Lynx is evident just about anywhere. Montgomery’s cheerfulness generates chipper conversations; she and Reeve shared laughs about the phantom defense from a Sparks fan who was sitting just behind Montgomery when she fired her clutch three-pointer. Perkins exhibits the modesty and wisdom gathered by her 13 years in the WNBA, and Minnesota has plenty of room to harbor their respective skill sets and personalities.

“They share equally in our success,” Reeve said. “We need them to keep doing the same things.”

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