It’s how the Lynx built the WNBA’s best record a third year in a row. It’s how they won more road games than any other team. It’s how they breezed past a stretch of four losses in five outings and overcame injuries to three different starters throughout the year.
It’s how they swept Seattle in the first round of the playoffs. And it’s how Minnesota clinched the return it’s coveted for almost an entire calendar year.
Sunday’s 72-65, Western Conference finals-clinching victory in Phoenix didn’t resemble the blowouts present in a win streak against the Mercury that now sits at 14 games. Instead, the upstart hosts came out firing and never really stopped in attempting to force a Game 3.
The Lynx withstood every Phoenix jaunt. It’s what champions do.
Minnesota can’t reclaim that mantle yet — at least not the one they set out for after failing last year to defend their 2011 league crown, the first in franchise history. The three-time Western Conference champs will take on Atlanta in a best-of-five rematch of that year’s WNBA Finals starting next Sunday at the Target Center.
It took a second tightly-contested road skirmish in as many weekends to get there.
After Seimone Augustus’ long 2 from the top of the key gave Minnesota a 68-56 cushion — the most comfortable one for either team — the Mercury mounted a 9-1 run to close within two possessions with 40 seconds remaining. Diana Taurasi hit a 3-pointer, won a jump ball on the other end, and then knocked down a jump shot from the left elbow.
On Phoenix’s next trip down the floor, the fiery point guard swept in for an offensive rebound and set up an easy Candice Dupree lay-in that made it 69-65.
But the Mercury, who earned the West’s No. 3 playoff seed despite a 10-11 start that resulted in the firing of coach Corey Gaines, would get no closer, even with Minnesota leaving a little room via missed free throws.
After Dupree’s make, Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen went 1 of 2 from the stripe with 32.2 seconds left, then converged with power forward Rebekkah Brunson to thwart Taurasi’s next drive to the rim. Augustus notched the last of her crucial 22 points with another 50-percent free-throw trip, giving Phoenix a chance to cut it to three with 24.9 seconds left.
Minnesota’s collapsing, man-to-man defense forced Alexis Hornbuckle into an awkward mid-range jumper, Janel McCarville tore down the rebound, and the Lynx could begin celebrating their status as the fourth WNBA team to play in three straight championship series.
They’d swept the Storm courtesy of a 58-55 victory last Sunday in Washington, then pummeled the Mercury 85-62 on Thursday at home.
Maya Moore turned in a gargantuan offensive performance three days later, scoring a game-high and career-playoff-best 27 points on 12-of-22 shooting. She and Augustus, the 2011 finals MVP, provided the only big scoring nights Minnesota needed.
Whalen went 1-for-12 from the floor and scored just three points but dished out seven assists.
The Minnesota native’s one field goal of the evening contributed to a 7-0 Lynx run that helped put them ahead 53-45 entering the fourth quarter. They held the Mercury to 10 points in the frame, largely a result of Phoenix’s wanton propensity for shooting ill-advised 3s.
They went 2-for-21 from beyond the arc and shot 37 percent from the field.
Yet the Mercury were very much alive after a first half that played out as tightly as the officials called it.
The Lynx — who were up by 23 at halftime of Game 1 — led by three at the break despite pulling ahead 38-29 courtesy of a 9-0 run midway through the second quarter. Augustus bookended it with a crossover layup and a left-wing 3, the last of her 14 first-half points.
Phoenix shot back with three straight field goals and two blocks of Whalen on her way to the basket. After averaging a career-high 14.9 points per game during the regular season, Minnesota’s all-WNBA first-team point guard did not score before halftime.
The two physical teams combined for 17 personal fouls during the first two quarters. Several of the infractions came off the ball as players tried to fight through screens or cut to the basket.
Fortunately for both sides, no player picked up more than two fouls.
By the referees’ estimation, a cleaner second half ensued. The Mercury committed a total of 21 fouls, but a handful came in the game’s waning moments as they tried to extend their season.
Moore appeared headed for early trouble after being whistled twice in the first 5 minutes, 15 seconds. But she dialed back a bit and avoided a third call the rest of the half, so Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve didn’t end up having to limit the MVP runner-up’s minutes.
Moore hit a pair of first-half 3s and had 13 points at halftime.
Minnesota will desire more balanced production when it returns home to host the Dream, who beat Indiana earlier Sunday to lock up a conference-finals sweep of their own. Having fallen 3-1 against the Fever in last year’s finals, it was a rather subdued Lynx group that gathered around WNBA president Laurel J. Richie to accept another Western Conference championship trophy.
It will be placed somewhere prominent within the team’s Target Center headquarters this week. Meanwhile, Moore, Augustus, Whalen and the gang will begin preparing to once again seize the hardware they’ve eyed since last October.
It’s within reach, provided they persist in their perseverance.