Maya Moore started the week expecting the Minnesota Lynx to practice on Thursday, in preparation for the fourth championship series in her four seasons in the WNBA. Instead, Tuesday night’s 96-78 loss at Phoenix in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals turned Thursday into a day for exit interviews and farewells.
At the Lynx practice facility, Moore answered questions in jams and a T-shirt instead of workout gear. Though typically gracious, Moore wasn’t happy. Two NCAA titles at the University of Connecticut, two WNBA titles and another finals appearance with the Lynx, plus a 2012 Olympic gold medal, spoiled her. Moore isn’t used to wishing another team luck in a championship series.
“It’s not fun to be so close,” she said. “It’s humbling. It’s real life. You don’t always win. It’s part of what happens. Losing to a team that played very, very well is respectable. It’s really kind of weird to say that.”
In the end, the defending WNBA champions lost because Phoenix was just too good. Dominating center Brittney Griner singlehandedly shut down the Lynx in the paint, and the Lynx couldn’t make enough perimeter shots to compensate. Once Diana Taurasi solved Minnesota’s pick-and-roll defense early in Game 3 to get to the basket, the Mercury took off. From late in the third quarter through the middle of the fourth, the Mercury scored 18 consecutive points to blow open a tie game while the Lynx misfired all 10 shots from the field.
Such a dramatic failure hit the Lynx hard.
“The championship is a goal for this team,” said Coach Cheryl Reeve. “Anything short of that is disappointing. When you don’t win your final game, you’re going to sit around and stew about it, and we’re going to figure out how to get back to where we want to be.”
So now what? Though every starter except Moore is between 30 and 33 years old, Reeve sees a team in its prime, one that posted a league-record fourth consecutive 25-victory season with Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, Monica Wright and Dev Peters limited by knee problems. Griner and Diana Taurasi positioned Phoenix as a dynasty in the making. But Reeve defiantly refused to concede anything to the Mercury beyond the series just concluded.
“When we’re fully healthy and fully engaged with that group, including (Janel) McCarville, including Monica, there aren’t teams that are going to be better than us,” she said. “That would be the case this year as well. I don’t think Phoenix is better than us. I think that Phoenix had a tremendous season and deserved to win and will probably win a championship this season. But I don’t think going forward that Phoenix is better than us.
“If we were to make no changes, and simply have our health, we would be in good shape. But it’s not realistic to think they will be no changes. We’ll look at some things, but we’re not going to be a team that pushes the panic button because we didn’t get to the finals. We still have a championship window we’re in. We know the way. We won’t stand pat just to stand pat, but we won’t make moves just to make moves, either.”
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In one sense, Reeve has a point. Phoenix and the Lynx raced around at such an exhausting tempo in their series that Eastern Conference Game 3 between Chicago and Indiana seemed like it was played under water. It reinforced the notion most folks around the WNBA already knew: The Mercury and Lynx are by far the league’s best teams. The talent discrepancy is so distinct that it’s hard to see how Chicago wins one game from Phoenix in the championship series, even with Elena Delle Donne healthy. So if you’re the Lynx, why dismantle a good thing?
“We always measure it by us, because we feel when we’re at our best, it’s really, really hard to beat us,” Moore said. “You can’t always say that with every team because you don’t the pieces. When we’re at 100 percent and our pieces are all clicking together, we feel unstoppable. Obviously Phoenix is very similar with the talent they have and the experience.”
The 33-year-old Brunson may be the key here. Brunson steadied the rebounding when she returned after the All-Star Break. But she never regained her footing offensively, shooting 39.5 percent after three consecutive seasons of better than 50 percent. Brunson limped up and down the court in Game 2 against Phoenix, and the Lynx got nothing out of her or McCarville in Game 3. If she returns to double-double form, the Lynx automatically improve.
Augustus scored in streaks but struggled to defend, a big reason why the team defense — a strength since Reeve’s arrival in 2010 — turned so spotty. Too many nights the Lynx failed to put away a team because the lockdown defense wasn’t there. That led to too many close games and too many extra minutes for the starters.
Reeve said McCarville must get in better shape so she can handle more minutes, defend more consistently and lengthen her career. It’s not the first time McCarville has heard this; will she actually listen this time? And Wright, after her knee surgery, never regained the explosiveness that made her so good in 2013 that the Lynx matched a Seattle offer sheet to keep her. If she’s strong, and Damiris Dantas progresses from her encouraging rookie season, it upgrades the league’s lowest-scoring bench.
The Lynx need Wright because Whalen, 32, won’t last if Reeve keeps running her into the ground. Whalen was magnificent in the playoffs, averaging 20.6 points, six assists and six rebounds per game. But Whalen played so many tough, stressful minutes all season that her legs were shot by the fourth quarter of Game 3.
“I don’t feel like it got to me,” Whalen said. “I had a lot of fun this season. It’s one of the most fun seasons I’ve had.
“I think we all need to get better. If we do those things, and everybody feels good and feels healthy, we’ll be ready to go. Four years of 25 wins and three finals, it’s hard to argue with that.”
This weekend Moore, Augustus, Whalen and Wright head to Annapolis, Md. for a Team USA training camp to prepare for the world championships in Turkey later this month. Reeve is going too, as an assistant on Geno Auriemma’s staff. Taurasi and Griner will join them after the finals. Reeve leaves town with one regret — getting ejected from Game 3 after back-to-back technical fouls with 1:58 to play.
Reeve thought the first technical, for griping to an official, was undeserved given the lopsided score and circumstances. Then she let her temper get the better of her, reacting with words that would get anyone thrown out of any game on any continent.
Before heading to the locker room, Reeve cleared her bench and shook Taurasi’s hand. But she couldn’t hug her weary starters as they left the court, or congratulate Phoenix Coach Sandy Brondello. Like Reeve, Brondello is a longtime WNBA assistant who succeeded when finally given a chance as a head coach.
Asked if she regretted the second tech, Reeve said, “Of course.” Then, unexpectedly, she began to cry. That’s how attached Reeve felt to a team that persevered through so much.
“Not being out there at the end…it was something I wish I could have done,” she said.