Lynx facing tough road to repeat as WNBA champs

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
The Lynx aren’t assuming they will become the first team since the 1997-2000 Houston Comets to reach four consecutive league finals. And they shouldn’t.

No Minnesota Lynx player or staff member’s birthday goes uncelebrated, with store-bought cakes mandatory. But Thursday’s little shindig, following a morning practice downstairs at the Target Center, had the feel of the last day of school.

The double-layer cake, carried by basketball operations coordinator Clare Duwelius to the post-practice huddle, was for players and staffers whose birthdays fell outside the season. Assistant coach Jim Petersen pulled out his smartphone and gathered everyone for a group photo.

These are things that happen when you’re not sure you’ll be together again. The timing, a few hours before the team flew to Phoenix for Friday night’s Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, was especially curious.  The Lynx probably won’t practice Saturday — they usually skip it on travel days coming home — and Game 2 of this best-of-three series falls Sunday afternoon at Target Center.

Are the defending WNBA champion Lynx expecting the Mercury, the top seed in the playoffs, to sweep them?

Not exactly. More accurately, the Lynx aren’t assuming they will become the first team since the 1997-2000 Houston Comets to reach four consecutive league finals. And they shouldn’t.

The Mercury set league records for victories and field goal percentage. They match the Lynx in All-Stars (three) and Team USA participants (four). Phoenix beat the Lynx three out of four games this season, splitting the last two with the Lynx at full strength, each winning at home. Point guard Diana Taurasi might be the best player in the world – the Mercury keep saying that, anyway – and shot-blocking 6-foot-8 center Brittney Griner just won the league’s defensive player of the year award. These aren’t high-flyers who crumble in the last five minutes.

And for the first time in four postseasons under Coach Cheryl Reeve, the Lynx enter a series without home court advantage. If the Lynx can’t steal Game 1 at US Airways Center — a monstrous challenge given Phoenix’s league-best 16-1 home mark — their season could come to a crashing end Sunday. That prompted Reeve’s plea for fans to show up for Game 2, which still hadn’t sold out as of mid-afternoon Thursday.

“If you make the assumption that we’re going to be in the finals, and you miss the steps and attention to detail along the way, you can have a situation where you don’t end up in the finals,” Reeve said.

“From our fans perspective too, we need their help along the way. Making the Target Center what it’s been all season for us, and pushing to get 12,000 or 15,000, gives us a very distinct advantage. So if you’re in the Twin Cities area Sunday at 2:30, we need you at Target Center.”

Lynx officials are still cringing over the turnout for Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals, announced at 8,523, about 700 short of capacity and the second-smallest for a Lynx playoff game since 2011. To these eyes, about 1,000 were no-shows. The Lynx averaged 9,333 a game in the regular season, second in league behind Phoenix’s 9,557.

Scheduling Game 2 of the conference finals on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend with the State Fair in session isn’t the savviest thing the league has ever done. But for the Lynx, it’s been that kind of season.

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From the moment the Lynx broke training camp with only nine healthy players out of 12, Reeve harped on plowing ahead and presuming nothing. After a 7-0 start, it was an arduous slog to a 25-9 record, second-best behind Phoenix, an accomplishment in itself. Maya Moore excelled in such an all-encompassing role that she won the league Most Valuable Player Award award in a landslide.

The two-game semifinal sweep of San Antonio certainly wasn’t any breeze. In Game 1, the Lynx squandered a 15-point fourth-quarter lead before Seimone Augustus and Moore delivered the 88-84 victory. In Game 2, Lindsay Whalen dragged the Lynx back almost singlehandedly from a 22-4 first-quarter hole to finish it off on the road, 94-89.

“It’s kind of the story of our season — ups and downs, challenges, injuries, unorthodox ways of getting to our goals,” Moore said.

Taurasi and Augustus, longtime Team USA teammates who claim to be friends off the court, resume their on-court rivalry. This season Taurasi cut back on her scoring (16.2 points) to lead the league in assists, edging Whalen at 5.6 per game.

Game 1 of last year’s West Finals featured Taurasi famously kissing Augustus on the cheek during a fourth-quarter altercation. Augustus’ postgame reaction – “I always say she just wanted some of my deliciousness” — might have been the WNBA quote of the year. Taurasi’s was pretty good, too: “We were just trying to make sweet love. That’s about it.”

Said Augustus: “If I had to take it for the team again, I would. That’s part of her frustration. She tends to get frustrated when things don’t go her way. It’s either throw a punch or get a kiss. I think the best option was to get a kiss. We’re good friends, so we laughed about it.

“She’s a great person. If you need anything, she would be the first person to try to figure out a way to help you out and get it to you. She’s funny, very sarcastic. We always say she’s a little bit of an a-hole, but in a fun way. You probably all have friends like that.” 

Defensively the Lynx figure to use Rebekkah Brunson to defend power forward Candice Dupree, who averaged 14.5 points and holds the league record for career playoff field goal percentage (57.2).  Griner, though, presents the biggest challenge. She blocked a league record 129 shots in the regular season while averaging 15.6 points. Her dunk against Los Angeles in Game 2 of their West semifinal, one of nine shots she made without a miss (another record), essentially ended that series.

“We don’t want to let that happen, period,” Augustus said. “But it’s the playoffs. There are no easy layups, no easy baskets. If we have to hack her… not trying to hurt anyone or nothing like that, but send a statement that it’s not going to be easy. If you come in the paint, we’re not going to let you dunk on us.”

Most women’s teams these days recruit men to practice against. Petersen finds them for the Lynx. Six-foot-11 Xavier Crawford, a 27-year-old former center at Cal-Northridge known around the Lynx as “X,” is one of the regulars. Whenever the Lynx play Phoenix, Reeve turns Crawford loose to roam the paint and block shots, simulating Griner’s game. That’s what he did this week.

“I feel like I’m helping a championship team that is going to go in the history books, and I’m going to say I was part of it,” he said.

That, certainly, would be something worthy of a cake. But a lot has to happen first, starting on Friday.

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