The stakes are at their highest. The pressures of defending — successfully, this time — the WNBA crown have moved to the forefront of the league-wide consciousness.
You’d have never known it if you sat in on the Lynx’s pre-playoff team gathering Monday night, Cheryl Reeve said. The feisty, accomplished coach isn’t feeling much heat, even with Minnesota’s postseason opener two days away and a late-season slide in the not-so-distant past.
Instead, her sensation is one of relief.
"It was nice being in our playoff meetings last night and looking around at a number of people who have been through playoff meetings," Reeve said after practice Tuesday. "It’s kind of fun to see all the experience, laughing about past stories, things we’ve gone through in our championship runs.
As Reeve preps for her team’s 8 p.m. tipoff Thursday at the Target Center against San Antonio, there’s little sense of concern present. The knee injuries that plagued her team all season are, for the moment, behind them. So are the multiple futility streaks not witnessed since this mini-dynasty first took hold three years ago.
"The regular season is just kind of placing — getting your playoff position," said veteran forward Seimone Augustus, who missed 10 games this season due to nagging knee issues. "(The playoffs are) kind of like Christmas day for kids."
There wasn’t much childlike joy present when Augustus went down with left-knee bursitis, or when power forward Rebekkah Brunson missed the season’s first 23 contests after preseason knee surgery. Monica Wright and Devereaux Peters underwent similar operations in May but returned relatively early in the schedule.
With a battle to usurp the target on their back turning into one of endurance more than anything else, the Lynx lost four of six games in June and three straight before beating Tulsa in Saturday’s regular-season finale. It marked the first time since 2010 that Minnesota lost three of four games twice during a single campaign.
Phoenix became the first Western Conference opponent since that year to finish ahead of Minnesota in the Western Conference standings, albeit with a WNBA-record 29 wins.
"It took a team to have a history-making season to put us in second," Reeve said, "so there is no shame in what we’ve done."
Indeed, a league-record fourth straight 25-win season is nothing to scoff at. But what has Reeve supremely confident isn’t what’s been done the past four months.
It’s the past four years.
Augustus, Brunson, point guard Lindsay Whalen and MVP candidate Maya Moore have been around since the party began. They were together for 2011’s upstart title run, they suffered together when Indiana upset them in the 2012 finals, and they returned with a vengeance last year to win their second championship in three years.
"You have to walk the walk; there is no more time for talking," said Moore, who received WNBA Peak Performer accolades Tuesday for finish as the league’s leading scorer (23.9 points per game, the third-best single-season mark in WNBA history). "And because we’ve seen each other do it so many times, I think it naturally gives us a confidence with each other when we step on the floor."
Augustus played 26 minutes in Saturday’s 80-63 win and scored 14 points. She looked fine during practice Tuesday, Reeve said, and hopes to be 100 percent when starting lineups are announced Thursday.
Brunson has started the past 11 games and averages 7.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per contest.
The only player Minnesota will be without is backup power forward Damiris Dantas. The rookie filled in admirably for Brunson during her absence but has been in Brazil dealing with a personal matter since last Tuesday. Reeve said she isn’t sure when Dantas will be back.
She was originally expected to be back in time for the postseason, but Reeve said the Lynx are prepared to move forward without her.
They’d prefer all the help they can get against a well-coached San Antonio team Minnesota vanquished in the 2011 conference semifinals and went 4-1 against this season. The lone 2014 loss came Friday, a 92-76 defeat that represents the Lynx’s largest losing margin of the season (though their starters played fewer minutes than normal).
"(Stars coach) Dan Hughes) challenges you," Reeve said, "so that’s why I say I appreciate the heck out of that. He makes us better. We know that if we’re not working and we’re not on point, they will come in here more prepared than us, and we won’t win."
But what San Antonio doesn’t have is a core that’s been to three straight WNBA Finals together.
"We went through a lot (this season), but give a lot of credit to the people who rehabbed to get back," Whalen said. "Now, having our whole group together, it’s a great feeling."