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The Lynx are winning because their stars are brilliant, but they need more help

The Lynx's perfect start to this year's WNBA season has masked a key flaw that could come back to bite them down the road.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Lynx played a competitive 40 minutes for the first time all season in a close 89-81 win over the Phoenix Mercury on Tuesday, the team's first scare in preserving an undefeated season eight games in.

With Seimone Augustus sidelined for the second half with concussion-like symptoms, stars Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles took over, much like they have all season. Trailing for most of the second half, the Lynx played a tighter six-player rotation, which led them to victory.

Trying to play a full nine has been an issue for Minnesota, which has grown accustomed to dominating through three quarters and resting its superstars. In back-to-back games on the road in Indiana and New York, the Lynx lost 23 and 24-point leads. They won both games, but this qualifies as the closest thing to a troublesome trend for an undefeated team.

It's easy to understand why the Lynx rely so much on Moore. She has an uncanny knack for creating scoring opportunities when there aren't any. Her 6-foot, 180-pound body is built like a wall, enabling her to absorb contact and bounce off defenders to create space and fade into her natural shot. These types of plays become fallback options when Minnesota can't find a flow in moving the ball.

She's also blowing by defenders in half-court sets. Help defense hasn't mattered much, with Moore able to step back to make room to get her shot off.

"Everybody is keying in on her and Sylvia," Augustus said following the victory over the Liberty. "We set a lot of screens. Wing screens, ball screens. She's patient, so she'll get off a good shot every time. And if she doesn't she's great at creating space for herself to get a good shot off."

Moore has the variety of moves a superstar needs to keep defenders second-guessing, as well. She shifts gears quickly whether she dribbles the ball up herself or catches the ball on the wing. Her mid-range game is succinct and she's tough to stay in front of in pursuit of the rim. She's a career 38 percent three-point shooter, so teams have to honor her out there, too.

It makes sense that a team's performance would suffer without the 2014 MVP on the floor, but the drop-off without Moore has been extreme. She can't be expected to always play nearly 37 minutes per game like she did in Tuesday's win.

Moore has help in her fellow starters. Augustus, Fowles and their fourth Olympic-bound teammate, Lindsay Whalen, are contributing on both ends of the floor. But remember: this is the same team that won Game 5 of the WNBA Finals a few months ago despite Moore scoring only five points. This year's Minnesota squad doesn't have all of its pieces in line yet.

"One of the hardest thing to coach through is when a team is up double figures," said coach Cheryl Reeve after watching a big lead fade against the Liberty. "You know that the game is never over."

The team's offensive possessions have been a problem when the reserves take over. The Lynx have yet to find a replacement for backup guard Anna Cruz, who is sitting out to prepare to play for Spain in the Olympics. Ball movement is much more difficult and motion becomes stagnant without the Spanish guard running the second unit.

"Bad offense," Reeve said. "Not having the focus when we had that bad offense that if we don't score, they don't score. We were swiss cheese there in our transition defense."

"It's just a matter of resisting that team's push to comeback when they are down big," Moore added. "Teams make runs, but to be able to stop those runs quicker is something we'll continue to try to do. [We need to] be able to get good shots up offensively and not let our offense lead to the other team's offense in transition."

Patching up the offense is something the Lynx must clean up in the next few weeks. A home-and-home against the also-undefeated Los Angeles Sparks looms on June 21 and 24.

The solution may involve redistributing Whalen's minutes. The vision and craftiness of team's next-best playmaker may serve as a catalyst for the second unit. Her minutes are down in her 13th season, but the 34-year-old is still one of best passers in the league.

With Whalen's ball-handling and court vision, reserves like Renee Montgomery and newcomer Jia Perkins, who is posting the worst shooting numbers of her career, could find space for better looks on the perimeter.

Most of Whalen's minutes with the starters aren't entirely necessary, anyway. She's playing in a stacked backcourt that sees Moore and Augustus also handle the ball, so they can pick up the slack. Whalen's production may improve if she played more with the reserves.

For now, the Lynx's play is good enough to preserve its perfect record. But if they don't clean up their weaknesses, they're bound to be exploited when the competition and stakes get tougher.

The Lynx are great, but not perfect as the league begins its second month of play. For now, the talents of Moore and Minnesota's fleet of Olympians are weathering the storm until the rest of the team returns to championship form. They'll have another tough test Tuesday night to figure it out as they play the Indiana Fever on ESPN2.