During a run that’s teetering on the edge of dynastic, the Minnesota Lynx’s veteran core is used to playing into September. It’s accustomed, now, to championship-or-bust expectations and aspirations.
The best-of-three WNBA playoff series that leave little margin for error or fatigue are nothing new. Neither are the heightened opponent outputs that come with winning two of the past three league titles — Minnesota’s entire 2014 campaign served notice to that.
And the final hindrance to the Lynx’s shot at glory is usually purple and orange in hue.
For as long as Minnesota has been the best in the West, the Phoenix Mercury have been right there behind it. This year’s Western Conference finals, which begin at 9 p.m. Friday at the U.S. Airways Center in Arizona, will feature the Lynx and Mercury for the third time in four years.
Each of the previous two occasions, Minnesota has swept its rival. Both those seasons, 2011 and 2013, the Lynx went on to claim the league crown.
"I’ve always tried to compete when we play Phoenix," said 2014 WNBA MVP Maya Moore, a rookie the first time the Lynx beat Phoenix on the way to a championship. "Since I was a rookie, I’ve had a heightened sense of excitement to play them just because they’re so talented.
"We have a sense of respect for a squad that has been there because they have that legacy there."
It’s a product of a small, 12-team league where parity tends to come more gradually. It’s also the result of guard Diana Taurasi willing her club to victory over and over, both before and after she had the help of phenom center Brittney Griner.
And that, combined with the Lynx’s success under coach Cheryl Reeve, make for a matchup that’s as juicy as they come.
"It’s a test of wills and systems," said Reeve, who oversaw a 2-0 series sweep of San Antonio in the first round. "It’s a big series, and even the league is talking about it, the league office. I think everyone is excited to see the two best teams on display and everybody is hopeful for just an unbelievable series."
When Reeve says that, she’s not being a homer. Her team’s league-record fourth straight 25-win season was second only to the Mercury, who won a WNBA-record 29 contests.
Eastern Conference champion Atlanta went 19-15 and was the conference’s only team to finish with a winning record. Minnesota and Phoenix’s 14 combined losses are fewer than every other individual team in the league.
History is on the Lynx’s side. But for the first time during their post-2010 run, they won’t have home-court advantage in the conference finals.
"It’s a totally different situation this year," head coach of the year Sandy Brodello told the Arizona Republic. "We’ve had a great season, so we should have confidence in what we’re doing."
That slate includes three victories over Minnesota, the lone loss a 75-67 decision July 31 at the Target Center.
That night, Taurasi — who beat out Moore in the 2013 MVP voting and finished second to her this year — shot 5 for 21 from the floor and 0 for 7 from 3-point range against a fully healthy Lynx club that had dealt with injuries throughout the season’s first 2 1/2 months. One of the most visibly emotional athletes in professional sports, Taurasi became aggravated and received a technical foul at one point.
"She tends to get frustrated when things don’t go her way, and then she pulls out her antics," said wing Seimone Augustus, a longtime friend of Taurasi’s who famously received a kiss from her while the two jawed during last year’s West finals.
Moore, Augustus and point guard Lindsay Whalen will be relied upon to keep Minnesota’s composure in check while scoring against an offense that defends the paint and the 3-point line with equal vigor. Down low, Janel McCarville and Rebekkah Brunson are charged with limiting Griner.
And keeping their own heads will be essential in what’s becoming an increasingly vitriolic rivalry.
"We can’t get too high. We can’t get too low," McCarville said. "Phoenix is going to be a huge obstacle for us. They’ve already beaten us three times. They’ve got a great team. It’s definitely going to be a good series for the fans."