Last Thursday, before Minnesota Lynx left for San Antonio, Coach Cheryl Reeve gathered team captains Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen, Rebekkah Brunson and Maya Moore in the video room at the Life Time Fitness practice facility. The group was supposed to meet two nights earlier, but Reeve postponed it after a demoralizing 71-63 loss to Los Angeles — the team’s second straight — left everyone in a foul mood.
Reeve wanted to know a few things. Facing the final two games of the regular season on back-to-back nights, the Lynx needed one more victory to become the first WNBA team to post four consecutive 25-win seasons. How important was that to them? The team looked worn out, especially against the Sparks. With the playoffs coming, if anyone preferred rest to a shot at a 25th victory, Reeve said they could skip the San Antonio trip. Reeve was leaning toward leaving Augustus home anyway after a flare-up of the same left knee bursitis that had already kept her out of nine games.
The others turned Reeve down. To them, the concept was too obnoxious.
Without Augustus, the Lynx were no match for San Antonio on Becky Hammon Night. The Stars won easily, 92-76, after honoring their retiring veteran guard, who will join the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs as an assistant coach next season. With the Lynx down 12 in the fourth quarter and San Antonio rolling, Reeve prudently sat Brunson the final 8:17 and Moore and Whalen the final 7:08, saving their legs for the last game.
Saturday night the Lynx looked like the Lynx again, blowing out Tulsa at the Target Center 80-63 to finish 25-9. Fifteen consecutive points in the fourth quarter sent the players and the crowd of 9,505 home relieved. All was right with the world again. Bring on the playoffs.
“The 25 wins is important because we knew no other team had ever done it,” Whalen said. “But more for me, I wanted to compete. I know everyone else did too.
“Once we lost to San Antonio, I just wanted to go into this week feeling great about what we’ve got going. I felt the only way to make that happen was to compete as hard as possible Saturday to springboard us into this week. I always feel like, anytime you have a finish to a season, you want to finish on a high note.”
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Some springboard. A rejuvenated Lynx team practiced with energy and purpose the last two days preparing for Thursday night’s Game 1 of the best-of-3 Western Conference semifinals, against the Stars at the Target Center. Augustus pushed through full workouts both days and is expected to start. Game 2 will be Saturday night in San Antonio, with Game 3 if necessary in Minneapolis on Monday.
“It’s a weird thing,” Reeve said. “When they start playing for bonus money, their knees don’t ache as much, their backs don’t hurt, and they’re excited to be here. This is probably the most excited I’ve seen them be at practice. This is what they play for. I see a great bounce in their step.”
Wednesday, the bounce featured an eye-catching color. The players broke out orange sneakers as a reminder of their goal – a second consecutive WNBA championship and third in four years. Last year, the Lynx wore lime-green shoes in the first two rounds before turning to orange in the finals. (Dev Peters no longer had her orange kicks; she ran out and bought a new pair Wednesday night.)
Sneaker choices aside, entering postseason the Lynx aren’t anyone’s trendy championship prediction. People around the WNBA rightly consider Western Conference champion Phoenix (29-5) the favorite after the Mercury broke the league record for victories. The Lynx split two games with the Mercury when healthy and are eager to face them again in the conference final, if both teams get there.
“It’s a nice thing to have the attention somewhere else,” Reeve said. “At the same time, I know we’ve got some players where it kind of gets their goat that maybe the attention is somewhere else. We want it to be about us. We believe we’re the best team in the league, and we know we’ve got to back it up with our play. It’s a great motivator for us.”
But getting past the Stars won’t be automatic. The Stars had lost eight straight to the Lynx (four this season) and 17 of 19 before winning last Friday. Stars Coach Dan Hughes possesses one of the WNBA’s brightest minds; Reeve worked one season with him in Cleveland in 2003. “We’ve got to be one step ahead, and that’s going to be a big challenge for us,” Reeve said.
Frontcourt depth for the Lynx will be thinner without rookie Damiris Dantas, who missed the last three games and remains in Brazil dealing with a family issue. This season the Lynx struggled defending the 3-point line against San Antonio even in their victories, with Hammon and Jia Perkins particularly effective. Oh, and Hammon has never won a WNBA title.
“It’s a team we respect,” Augustus said. “We’re not looking past them, knowing that they’re going to come in and try to do what Indiana did (in the 2012 Finals), steal Game 1 to force home court advantage their way. We just want to come out and try to do what we do best — defend, rebound, and get out and run and score.”
The plusses for the Lynx? The big one: Championship experience. Moore, Brunson, Augustus and Whalen carried the Lynx to titles in 2011 and 2013 and a finals appearance in between. Janel McCarville started last year while reserves Monica Wright and Peters logged significant playoff minutes.
This season, Moore’s emergence as the league’s top scorer helped the Lynx steal several games on nights Augustus and Brunson sat out with knee injuries. Moore was named the league’s M.V.P. this morning and will be honored before tonight’s game.
Reeve recounted a puzzling story Wednesday she attributed to Geno Auriemma, Moore’s coach at UConn.
“Geno once likened Maya as similar to a shark – punch her in the face, and she will go away,” Reeve said. “I’m proud to say, if you punch Maya in the face (now), she won’t go away. She’s going to make you pay.”
I couldn’t find that quote — maybe I need a better search engine — but did read enough to learn Auriemma loves the punch-in-the-face metaphor. (Naturally. He’s a Philly guy.) When Moore was asked about it, she laughed.
“It seems like something he definitely would say,” she said. “I don’t know how to respond to that, except to say I’m always going to try to score, whether it’s finishing the play myself or finding a teammate.”
And that leads us to the other big thing in Minnesota’s favor: Only Phoenix has crunch-time players as reliable as the Lynx, who were 8-3 in games decided by six points or less and 22-3 when tied or leading after three quarters. In a tight series, that could be the decider.
“We take a great deal of comfort in knowing that we understand what it takes to win games,” Reeve said.