MINNEAPOLIS — It dawned on Cheryl Reeve the afternoon of Wednesday, June 19 as she sat alone in a Phoenix restaurant.
While the Lynx coach carried out her mostly solitary pregame routine — one that’s likely more meticulous than some of her players’ — it washed over her, almost overwhelmingly so.
“I remember sitting at dinner,” she said Friday, “and just being like, ‘This team is just …'”
Surrounded by a few blue-clad fans waiting for her autograph at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and remembering there was a reporter’s recorder in her face, Reeve stopped herself short of using an expletive.
“‘Great,'” she finishes. “They’re just great, and they’re just fun to be around. I just felt so blessed, and I found myself feeling that way, just kind of stepping back and watching them.”
That sense of comfort in simply turning her players loose and letting them do their thing stayed with Reeve all season long. It survived injury, discontent and a rare losing streak.
And it resulted in one of the most dominant postseason runs ever, in any sport.
It would’ve been easy for Reeve to excessively micromanage in the wake of a 2012 Finals loss to Indiana. A hands-off approach sure doesn’t come naturally for a coach who isolates herself to watch film and enjoy a pregame meal at a nearby eatery — always alone — so she can remain completely dialed in before a game.
And she certainly didn’t act laissez-faire when things went wrong this year, calling out star player Maya Moore frequently during practice and her entire team after one particularly poor showing. A stretch of four losses in five games during August had the coach scrambling to help get things back on track.
But perhaps more than any other time in her 47 years on this planet, Reeve was able to enjoy this ride that culminated in a second WNBA championship in three years. She certainly did Friday as dozens of fans awaited her and the Lynx at the airport.
“This year, more than anything, I tried to step back and enjoy the journey,” Reeve said, her voice still hoarse after a night of bubbly-spraying in Atlanta.
The journey ends around noon Monday when Minnesota’s championship parades concludes with a pep rally at the Target Center.
But Friday, back on their home turf with dozens of aficionados hailing the Lynx’s achievements, the celebration could officially begin.
“This is part of why we’re so happy to win, because we know that we are a symbol for so many awesome fans, and that when we step on the court, they feel like they step on the court,” said Moore, who scored 60 points during a three-game sweep of the Dream and took Finals MVP honors. “To know that we come home, that we’re gonna be embraced by something so special in this moment walking off the plane, knowing we’re gonna see our fans and celebrate, is beautiful.”
Local support was a motivating factor for the Lynx to seize the league’s best record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs for a third straight year. They capitalized to the fullest, taking momentum from each of their playoff series-opening blowouts at to Seattle, Phoenix and Atlanta to gut out hard-fought, clinching victories.
Minnesota left nothing on the table, Janel McCarville said. Sporting an orange Finals cap and taking a break from signing shirts, posters and photos, she could recite the checklist with ease.
“Oh yeah, it’s sunk in,” she said. “The season’s over. It better start sinking in. We accomplished a lot of things — pretty much everything we wanted to do.
“Lead the league in offense.” Check.
“Win overall standing.” Check, by two games over both Los Angeles and Chicago.
“Win the West.” Check, with two-game sweeps of Seattle and Phoenix.
“And then, obviously, win the championship.”
Check. Two 25-point thrashings at a rocking Target Center, then an 86-77 outlasting down in Georgia.
They became the second WNBA team to go 7-0 in the playoffs and the fifth organization hailing from the WNBA, MLB, NFL, NBA or NHL to sweep through an entire postseason that required seven or more victories for a title.
Never was that feat scribbled on a marker board this season, Reeve said.
“No, no, no, no, no,” Reeve said. “This group, we’re not thinking sweep. We’re just really thinking the next game. The result was a sweep, but that’s not what the mindset was.”
McCarville provided the latest title run’s signature moment Thursday, stealing an Erika de Souza pass, dribbling the other way and bouncing a scintillating pass through her legs to Rebekkah Brunson for a SportsCenter Top-10 play.
“Yeah, yeah,” McCarville beamed, “we talked about that one a little bit.”
It was the end of a long road for McCarville, who sat out the last two WNBA seasons after a dispute with her coach in New York. The 30-year-old didn’t miss a beat replacing Taj McWilliams-Franklin in a group that, though maybe not always openly, fumed all offseason about coming up short.
Its vengeance jaunt reminded McCarville a little bit of her and point guard Lindsay Whalen’s run to the Final Four with the University of Minnesota Gophers.
But the climax this time was even sweeter.
“It was pretty similar. We came out No. 1 this time. Obviously, with me and Whay at the Final Four, we didn’t get that championship. But I got one now with her. It’s a great feeling, and it’s still the city of Minneapolis.”
The sting of championship-series defeat was fresher for McCarville’s companions. Whalen, Moore, Brunson, Seimone Augustus and Monica Wright just plain didn’t finish a year ago following a regular slate that looked very much like 2013.
When Fever coach Lin Dunn text messaged Reeve her congratulations, the Lynx leader responded with a hearty “thank you.” Indiana’s 3-1 Finals triumph last year taught her group a thing or two, even after it had learned how to run roughshod through this league in 2011.
“I told her that they made us better, us going through that and the challenges that they posed for us,” Reeve said. “I think we carried it throughout the season, and we drew on that experience a ton where we’d say ‘Hey, we’re doing it again. We’re worried about officiating. Hey, a team’s getting physical, and look at how we’re handling it.’ So we’re used to it. But each time that happened to us, we got better and better at dealing with it.”
It’s what Reeve, owner Glen Taylor and chief operating officer Roger Griffith had in mind when they picked up Brunson in the 2009 dispersal draft, traded for Whalen in 2010 and drafted Moore first overall in 2011. The front-office trio saw a five-to-seven-year window in which championships would be the minimum expectation.That won’t change next year. Or the year after. Or the year after.
“We’re smack dab in the middle of it,” Reeve said.But first, an extended weekend of revelry that started with Reeve dumping Champagne on Taylor’s bald head and ends with Monday’s parade and pep rally.
Even the always-stoic Whalen has been letting loose, showing off her dance moves on ESPN and in the Gwinnett Center Arena locker room on Thursday.
“You never want to lose your focus too much or lose that just because you never want to let anything slip all season,” Whalen said. “You just want to stay focused and prepared, and then when you know it’s over and you won, it’s amazing. It’s just one of the best feelings, and all you want to do is celebrate with the team and have fun.”
So Whalen will. If you’re downtown Monday morning, keep an eye out for her and Augustus, who carried the championship trophy into the Terminal 2 baggage claim area Friday. Like they did in 2011, they’ll be tossing candy from the back of a convertible.
“I’ll be doing like trick-or-treating-slash-parading,” said Whalen, a Minnesota native.