MINNEAPOLIS – Clinching is not a word Minnesotans have had the occasion to use very often in recent seasons.
Clinching involves playoffs. It involves winning, but more than that, it’s about hope and a chance at a season that won’t fade from memory. It’s about continuing and earning time, but in recent years Minnesota sports have dealt more in the currency of elimination than in the life-extending promise of clinching.
That’s one reason last season’s Lynx and their WNBA championship resonated; no Minnesota team had won a title for two decades, and finally, a city and a state got a claim to something better than just average or even good. When the Lynx hoisted their trophy last October, Minnesota got its chance to be the best, and now, less than a year later, the state is clamoring for that feeling once again.
It’s been a year of crushed dreams in the NBA and the NHL. It’s been a struggling baseball team and a year of football worth remembering for a new stadium and little more. In these last days of August, with the Twins’ postseason hopes long gone and the Vikings still in their preseason uncertainty, Minnesota is left with the WNBA. It’s remembering last season’s greatness and wanting, craving, needing it again.
That’s rational. It’s expected. But the Lynx clinching a playoff spot on Sunday means – well, to put it bluntly, it means nothing at all.
That’s no knock on what coach Cheryl Reeve and her cast of all stars have done this season at the Target Center. They’re dominant. They’re the best team in the league, and they sent the most women to the London Olympics of any WNBA squad. They are contenders for sure, and that became official Sunday night when they defeated Tulsa, 83-59, and clinched a playoff spot.
But everyone knew the Lynx would make the playoffs. We’ve known it since they won the first 10 games of their season, setting the WNBA record for a season-opening winning streak. We’ve known it since before the season, really, when nothing but a rash of injuries could have stopped the roster already assembled in Minnesota.
And yet now that it’s official, we rejoice? It hardly makes sense to celebrate a foregone conclusion, especially when it seems to be the last thing on the team’s mind. It hardly makes sense to celebrate when all this really guarantees is a chance, something that could be the path to a championship but is statistically more likely to end in a loss. It’s not that the Lynx aren’t favored. It’s just that being favored really doesn’t matter.
Last year, the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series. They were the National League’s wild card. They finished the season with 12 fewer wins than baseball’s best team, the Philadelphia Phillies, and went on to beat them in the playoffs’ first round. Just three months later, the New York Giants won the Super Bowl, beating a New England Patriots team that finished 2011 with four more wins than they did. And then in June the Kings took the Stanley Cup after finishing third in their division, with the 16th-most wins in the NHL.
And the Miami Heat – well, the Heat may have been destined to win, but even they didn’t have the best record in the NBA. They weren’t the first team to clinch a playoff spot, not by more than a week, but if the first team to clinch automatically won it all, well, what would be the fun in that?
So on Sunday, it didn’t matter that the Lynx had only a seven-point lead going into the fourth quarter against the league’s worst team, Tulsa. It didn’t matter whether Reeve felt like the team deserved to clinch (whatever that means) or even that they were the best team in the league. A team doesn’t need to deserve to clinch. It doesn’t need to be the best to clinch, and Reeve isn’t playing mental games with all this.
“I don’t think like that. I’m thinking more about how we’re going to go after the pick and roll, how we’re going to contain (Tulsa’s Glory) Johnson,” Reeve said. “Those things don’t go through my mind. I wish I were different. I’m not that kind of person.”
For Reeve and the Lynx, this is still basketball as usual. They know that winning a championship is as much about talent as it is about getting hot at the right time, and though the team’s three-game losing streak is behind it, that doesn’t mean something of that nature won’t happen again. But the further they get into the season, the more something like that can’t happen, and there are still goals. Instead of dwelling on clinching, point guard Lindsay Whalen was already talking of playing for home-court advantage and better seeding on Sunday. This is one tiny hurdle, one so small that there’s no need to pay much heed.
It’s been just 11 games since the Lynx were lauded for their season-opening winning streak. In 11 games, the WNBA goes from season-opening to the finality of clinching. This is fast. It’s short – 34 regular-season games – and it’s intense. There’s so little room to screw up, especially when there are so many teams right there, fighting to push ahead, gain a better playoff seeding and travel into the postseason with the momentum that the Lynx so hope to have.
Right now, there are two Western Conference teams within 1.5 games of the 17-4 Lynx: San Antonio and Los Angeles. They’re the most direct threats, but Reeve and company can’t forget about a Connecticut team in the Eastern Conference that has 16 wins. These teams are all dangerous, and clinching a playoff spot has nothing to do with them.
In fact, Reeve said, it even has little to do with the Lynx. Clinching is more about the teams at the bottom of the standings, the Tulsas and the Phoenixes. It’s about the margin between the conference’s best and its worst, and the worst have as much to do with creating that wedge as do the best.
So yes, the Lynx will make the playoffs. That’s no longer just an educated hypothesis. It’s a fact. But there’s so much left to question, everything from disaster (injuries) to the details of the game. Thirteen games remain, starting with Tuesday night’s contest in Seattle, and each of them matters as much as the first 21.
“It means absolutely nothing to us,” Reeve said of clinching the spot. “That’s not the mission. We know it’s part of the process.”
These Lynx are talented. They may just be the best team in the WNBA; there’s no compelling reason to argue that they’re not. They have a much higher ceiling than clinching a playoff berth, and if there’s anything worth celebrating, it’s that.