Lynx battled all season, but finally broke in West finals

Lynx players (from left) Maya Moore, Janel McCarville and Lindsay Whalen watch the closing moments of their Game 3 loss to Phoenix from the bench in the WNBA Western Conference finals.

Ross D. Franklin/AP

MINNEAPOLIS — Dam.

Like a master analogist, Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve painted the picture succinctly Thursday, two days after Minnesota’s run toward back-to-back titles abruptly crashed with a 96-78 loss to Phoenix in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.

All year long, Reeve said, the WNBA’s 2011 and 2013 champs represented a river-bound levee, with a stream of constant pressure assaulting it since before the season even commenced. Until Tuesday, MVP Maya Moore and company withstood it.

Then, Reeve said, "the dam broke."

The Mercury’s Diana Taurasi-spurred 18-0 run to clinch a WNBA Finals berth and send the Lynx packing earlier than normal proved the breaking point for a bunch that endured early attrition, injury and an uphill battle to secure a fourth consecutive 25-win season, a league record. For the first time since Moore joined the organization as the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, her club will watch the championship series rather than participate therein.

But in reality, Moore said, the last straw could’ve been placed much sooner.

"Just the way we handled ourselves, still being the people that held ourselves with humility and grace and competitiveness, we never quit," said Moore, the WNBA’s leading scorer during the regular season. "That’s something that we could’ve easily done this year.

"It’s humbling. It’s real life. You don’t always win."

Mercury 96, Lynx 78

Said Reeve: "We showed a great deal of resolve, and we have no reason to hang our heads. We’re disappointed, no doubt about it. I’ve got winners on this team, and when you don’t win your final game, we’re going to sit around and stew about it and figure out how we can get back to where we want to be."

Thanks to preseason knee surgery, 32-year-old starting power forward Rebekkah Brunson missed the season’s first 23 games and never returned to full form. Key reserves Monica Wright and Devereaux Peters underwent similar operations before the season and sat out 10 and six contests, respectively. Seimone Augustus, the 2011 finals MVP and an Olympian alongside Moore and point guard Lindsay Whalen, was in and out of the lineup during the season’s latter half thanks to bursitis in her own knee.

That led to massive minutes for Moore, Whalen and the team’s healthy contingent. Whalen, 32, played 30.6 minutes per game — her most since 2010 — and Moore averaged 34.8, second in the league.

Whalen, who has missed two regular-season games in the past six seasons despite a rough-and-tumble style of play that has her hitting the floor multiple times per game, says she didn’t mind the yoke.

But her coach did.

"I’m not comfortable at all with the workload, but it was out of necessity to get us through things," Reeve said. "They gave us everything they had and then some."

Even Reeve operated at less than capacity this year after offseason surgery to remove a tumor from her back. She was back to normal by the All-Star Break, she said, but spent the WNBA Draft in a hospital bed and wasn’t able to move around very well during training camp and the season’s first few weeks.

It was all compounded by a June slip-up that saw the Lynx drop four of six outings. That skid, combined with Phoenix’s league-record 29 victories, kept Minnesota from claiming the West’s regular-season crown for the first time in four years.

Still, after a hard-fought, two-game sweep of San Antonio in the first round, the Lynx were in position to become the first back-to-back champs since Los Angeles in 2001 and 2002. Tied at 67 with 1:25 left in the third quarter Tuesday at U.S. Airways Center, Minnesota had plenty of momentum.

Then came that questionable traveling call, a 50-foot miracle shot from Taurasi and a heavy dose of her and Griner in the fourth that had Moore neutralized and Whalen and Augustus looking fatigued.

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"We ran out of gas," Augustus said.

So the trio of Olympians and their Twin Cities comrades will move on. Moore, Whalen, Augustus and Reeve (an assistant to head man Geno Auriemma) will report to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., for Team USA’s training camp ahead of the women’s world championships Sept. 27-Oct. 5 in Turkey. Other members of the bunch will take a break before preparing for overseas competition.

Whalen won’t be among that group, as she’s taking the offseason to rest up. Brunson and Augustus plan to be, though Russia’s current political unrest with Ukraine may derail their plans to rejoin their Russian teams.

There’s a little time to look back on what might’ve been, but not much.

"It always takes a while to unwind and reflect," said Whalen, whose 5.6 assists per game tied Taurasi for the league’s regular-season lead. "It’s a tough series, so everybody’s a little tired or whatever. You just kind of take a few days and let it sink in."

Reeve and general manager/CEO Roger Griffith, meanwhile, will look to enhance a roster that’s won as many games in the past four years as any WNBA team ever has in the same amount of time. Reeve would like to get bigger in order to better defend the post but has total confidence a fully healthy starting five of Moore, Whalen, Augustus, Brunson and center Janel McCarville is enough to get back to the finals next year.

"If we were to make no changes whatsoever, but simply have our health," Reeve said, "I think we’d be in good shape. But it’s not realistic to think there won’t be any changes. We’ll look at some things, but we’re not going to be a team that pushes the panic button because we didn’t reach the finals."

Said Augustus, 30: "Despite everybody saying we’re old now, I think we’re mature enough to know we have to take care of our bodies.

"The window is closing. We understand that. We want to close out our legacies here in Minnesota on top, and we deserve to do so."

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