After season’s best practice, Minnesota wins playing ‘Lynx basketball’

Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson goes up for a shot against Mercury center Brittney Griner during Minnesota's 75-67 win over Phoenix on Thursday.

Stacy Bengs/AP

MINNEAPOLIS — Cheryl Reeve didn’t say much during the Lynx’s practice Wednesday.

Her back, from which she had a tumor removed in early April, was just fine. So were her vocal cords, despite a season that’s been more demanding than most.

But for the first time all summer, Reeve didn’t have much use for them. Minnesota’s on-floor leaders tended to most of the necessary verbal communication.

But even that was in short demand. Plays and defensive sets were executed so fluidly, little correction was needed.

"Focus. Gelling. They’re things we’re accustomed to having long before now," Reeve told the media after her team held off Phoenix 75-67 in a pivotal Western Conference battle Thursday night. "When you get accountability from your players, your Lindsay Whalens and Seimones (Seimone Augustus) and Mayas (Maya Moore) and Rebekkah (Brunson), when they’re turning and telling teammates (what to do), you don’t have to as a coach.

"You heard very little from me . . . because they wanted it to be done a certain way."

Lynx 75, Mercury 67

By the end, the Lynx’s male scout players were panting. A swarming defense had them more befuddled than they’d been all year. "We beat the hell out the practice guys yesterday," forward Seimone Augustus said after scoring 19 points in Thursday’s win. "We stumped them good.

"Sorry to the guys, but we had to beat the hell out of them to get where we needed to be."

After making similar work of Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and friends, no apologies sprung forth from the Target Center’s home locker room.

It wasn’t pretty. Two teams on pace to break Minnesota’s 2013 single-season field-goal percentage record shot season lows of about 37 percent. Moore’s game-high 20 points came on 7-of-20 shooting, while fellow Connecticut product Taurasi missed 16 of her 21 attempts.

"I don’t know how they were feeling about their shots," Moore said, motioning in the direction of the Mercury’s dressing room after dropping 12 points on them in the fourth quarter. "I thought our defensive energy when we were disciplined and together was great."

It wasn’t clean. The squads were issued a combined 39 fouls. Taurasi, Augustus and Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello all picked up technicals, and a handful more could’ve been called. A roaring crowd of 9,513 voiced its displeasure with several of the officials’ decisions and Taurasi’s usual on-court antics.

The only higher decibel levels at a 2014 Lynx home game featured thousands of screaming summer camp attendees July 16 against Tulsa.

"It’s always what we expect from here," Phoenix guard Penny Taylor said. "They’ve always had a good crowd."

It wasn’t easy. Minnesota led by as many as 13 but allowed the Mercury to nip at its heels all night. Not until Moore’s 14-foot jump shot that made it 73-67 with 44.8 seconds left did the outcome feel secure.

"Blue-collar," just like Minnesotans, Augustus called it.

But in many ways, it was perfect.

"That was Lynx basketball," Reeve said. Moore repeated her coach verbatim moments later.

The opportunities to display such a gritty, full-fledged performance have been scanty this season. Knee injuries to Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, Monica Wright and Devereaux Peters kept them to a minimum.

Wednesday’s workout inside the Target Center Lifetime Fitness center wasn’t the gang’s inaugural full reunion. But it was the first time Reeve saw all 12 of her players healthy and working as one unit, from MVP candidate Moore to early-season trade acquisition Nadira McKenith, who’s played a grand total of 14 minutes for the Lynx (21-6) this year.

"I think it’s just people being excited to be together and work and start our final push here with all of our weapons," Moore said. "When everybody brings it and has that want-to, it’s so fun."

Said Reeve: "Yesterday’s practice was the first time that it felt like the Lynx."

The 2011 and 2013 WNBA champions unleashed the same formula Thursday on Phoenix (22-4), which came up two victories short of tying the 2001 Los Angeles Sparks’ 18-game winning streak. The Mercury cling to a 1 1/2-game lead for the Western Conference’s top playoff seed.

With eight regular-season games remaining — including an Aug. 9 clash at Phoenix, which before Thursday night beat shorthanded Lynx groups by a combined two-game score of 172-151 — it’s still an uphill battle for Minnesota to overtake the Mercury and claim home-court advantage in the playoffs for a third straight season.

But the Lynx are used to those by now.

"This could be the turning point for us now, playing a team that was on the streak and everybody’s talking about, ‘rah-rah-rah,’ and we was just kind of sitting here marinating, pissed off," Augustus said. "We’re second place. We’ve been through hell with players in and out . . . crazy stuff that’s been happening all year.

"And here we are, right there with them."

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