Veteran Lynx team ready to open playoffs, make Finals run
MINNEAPOLIS — About darn time.
That well could be the prevailing sentiment among a group of women’s basketball players for whom the regular season has become a mere formality. In some ways, it certainly is.
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“This is when it gets fun,” Lynx forward Maya Moore said of the playoffs.
But while Minnesota is an organization now operating under only the loftiest of standards, there remains an appreciation for all that’s been accomplished between training camp and Friday’s Western Conference semifinals opener against Seattle.
A third straight Western Conference regular-season crown and the league’s best record once again are tough to ignore — even for a team chasing its second title in three years after a bitter disappointment in last year’s WNBA Finals.
“We have an understanding for how hard it was to do,” coach Cheryl Reeve said. “It was a challenging season.”
Said Moore: “I definitely think our team does a great job of appreciating and enjoying what we’ve done and where we are in the moment, but we also know that we shouldn’t be satisfied with that.
“That’s not our ultimate goal.”
Indeed, any satisfaction is immediately tempered by memories of a mirror-image run a year ago that ended in bitter disappointment, stamped home in a 3-1 finals defeat against Indiana.
Some Lynx players used it as impetus. Others moved on. A few, including starting center Janel McCarville, weren’t around for it.
But, in any case, the time for reclamation has come.
Another one of the best campaigns in WNBA history served as both prelude and preparation for it.
“Every regular season is a journey,” point guard Lindsay Whalen said. “We feel really good about the accomplishments that we were able to do as a team. You kind of put that aside, because now it’s totally a brand-new season here in the playoffs, but you also take what you’ve learned and take what you’ve worked on and use the things that you’ve been successful at into the postseason.”
‘Best in the West’
In a profession where heavy emphasis lies in the day-to-day process, so many coaches stick to cliché ambiguities when it comes to long-term objectives.
Reeve, however, is as succinct and clear-cut as they come.
“The most important thing for us was to be the best in the West,” Reeve said. “And so we worked every day for that goal.”
Not that it’s some newfound stepping stone — rather, the baseline benchmark.
The two-time defending conference champs lived up early to their billing as a favorite to three-peat, winning seven of their first nine games and carrying a 14-3 mark into the All-Star Game, which featured Reeve and four of her players representing the West.
The first half wasn’t without its rough patches, including a pair of blowout losses at Los Angeles.
The season’s back stretch brought even more unrest. At one point in August, the Western Conference frontrunners dropped four of five contests and were in danger of yielding their standings lead to Los Angeles.
“When we lost the three in a row and everybody was in panic mode, it kind of freaked us out a little bit, too,” shooting guard Seimone Augustus said. “We were able to get back on track and get to where we needed to be.”
Feeding Augustus and Moore on a more frequent basis played a key role. Reeve added in sets that posted up the two wings against smaller guards, and at least one of them scored 14 points or more in all but one of the Lynx’s final nine games.
Thanks to that increased production, Whalen’s steady hand and the reliable post play of McCarville and Rebekkah Brunson, Minnesota went 8-1 over that stretch, with the only loss coming by a point at Los Angeles.
Back-to-back victories over Seattle clinched the conference’s top playoff seed for the third year in a row, and a 79-66 victory over Eastern Conference champ Chicago on Saturday locked up home-court advantage throughout the postseason.
The Lynx lost at the Target Center twice all season and set a franchise record with 18 straight home victories dating back to 2012, the WNBA’s third-longest friendly-venue streak ever.
“The Target Center, by far, is the toughest arena to play in, and it’s because our fans have made it that way,” said Augustus, the Lynx’s second-leading scorer at 16.3 points per game. “At times, we can’t even hear what we’re calling or what the coach is trying to say because it’s so loud.”
With McCarville — a University of Minnesota graduate like Whalen — taking over for retired center Taj McWilliams-Franklin and joining the already-established core group, Minnesota became the third franchise in WNBA history to win 25 games in three consecutive seasons.
Most valuable pair
The 2001 Charlotte Sting started off the season 1-11, won 17 of their final 21 games and advanced to the WNBA Finals as the Eastern Conference’s No. 4 seed.
Reeve was an assistant on that team and told the Lynx of its resiliency during practice this week. When Moore first heard the tale, her ears perked up. She was attending middle school in Charlotte then and had attended one of the finals games, dreaming of someday reaching that pinnacle herself.
“It was crazy,” Moore said. “I was like, ‘I was at that game. We were in the same building 10 years before we actually met?'”
It would be another decade before Moore and her coach united in the Twin Cities, when the Lynx drafted Moore first overall in 2011.
Whalen, though, was already here.
That same early summer, the Hutchinson, Minn., native was readying for her sophomore season with the Gophers — the first of three years she’d earn all-American accolades. Minnesota women’s hoops rose to national prominence during her and McCarville’s collegiate careers, culminating in the school’s first Final Four berth in 2004.
The Connecticut Sun snagged Whalen fourth overall in the 2004 WNBA Draft, and she spent the first five seasons of her 10-year career in the northeast. Minnesota traded for her in 2010, allowing Whalen to come home.
What a combination the state’s women’s basketball standard-setter in Whalen and worldwide-recognized phenom in Moore have become.
Both names have been brought up in a wide-open WNBA MVP race, though Moore appears the more likely candidate just because of her ability to score, especially after the season’s halfway point. Her 18.5 points per game ranked third in the league, and she enters the playoffs shooting field goals (50.9 percent) and 3s (45.3 percent) at more effective clips than ever.
Her defense, communication and leadership have all improved in year three, too, Whalen said.
“I think she has just been extremely focused and playing really good basketball,” Whalen said. “It’s gonna be fun to be on her team.”
Whalen, conversely, was scoring in bunches early on in the year then tapered off for a while.
That’s not by some bout with ineptitude. It’s by design.
Now 10 years into her pro tenure, Whalen has learned her best offerings will differ from night to night. Against teams with slower, smaller guards, it’s slicing to the rim and scoring. When she faces a better defender, the assists come in bunches as she displays deft command of Reeve’s offense.
She rarely takes a play off defensively, either, forcing timely transition steals and disrupting the entire flow of many half-court sets.
Add in her even-keeled intensity and veteran guidance — which can’t always be seen from afar, Reeve noted — and Whalen gets most in-house votes as the team’s most important piece.
Even if Moore is the most talented.
“Lindsay’s the heart and soul of this team,” said Augustus, who like Whalen received a multiyear contract extension near the end of the season.
Folks around here are all too cognizant of how injuries can quickly derail a once-promising season. Core Timberwolves players Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic missed a combined 109 games — 64 by Love — last year, and Minnesota finished last in the Western Conference Northwest Division.
No such issues have plagued the Timberwolves’ sister organization this season.
Despite a starting lineup featuring four players that are 29 or older, the Lynx have enjoyed relatively spectacular team-wide health this season. Augustus, 29, McCarville, 30, and Brunson, 31, sat out a combined six contests, and Whalen, 31, didn’t miss a single one despite her constantly tenacious, physical style of play.
Both Reeve and Whalen knocked on wood before broaching the topic.
“We’ve been fortunate,” Reeve said. “That’s the key to any championship run, is to stay healthy, particularly in this league.”
Nursing a twisted ankle, Augustus missed three consecutive early-July games but came back to reclaim her duties as the Lynx’s most consistent scoring threat behind Moore. Brunson sat out Minnesota’s loss Aug. 16 at Tulsa — the last of three setbacks in a row, the Lynx’s lone losing skid — then came back and kept tearing down rebounds to aid her team’s emergence from its middle-of-the-month rut.
A minor concussion kept McCarville out for two games in August, and Minnesota greatly missed her clear-out and offensive facilitating prowess.
But after a two-year layoff from WNBA basketball and her 31st birthday approaching in November, 32 starts in a 34-game regular season and 21.9 minutes per outing are nothing to scoff at.
McCarville did anyway. “It wasn’t as easy as I make it look,” she cracked. “There’s times where it was pretty tough. Coming back after the concussion was tough just because I had lost so much conditioning in that week-and-a-half I was off, worked so hard to get there.”
But the Lynx enter the postseason otherwise unscathed. In three regular campaigns, Moore has yet to miss a game and said she felt better than ever this time around after making significant dietary changes.
And then there’s Whalen, who almost looks like the hockey player she was growing up with all the padded sleeves she wears to protect her arms, elbows, knees and legs. Diving for loose balls and receiving ample paint punishment weren’t nearly enough to ever keep her out of the starting lineup.
Credit goes to Reeve and head athletic trainer Chuck Barta, Whalen and McCarville said. Reeve and Barta communicate constantly to ensure Minnesota’s veterans receive the proper amount of rest.
“She really handles people’s bodies well,” McCarville said of Reeve. “If you’re injured, you’ve got to get the treatment you need, and after games, recovery time, she really understands that kind of thing. I really do think we have some of the best trainers here, so the team’s fortunate, I’m fortunate, to get into this situation.”
A team that’s rather young behind its top six relied heavily on its starting five, especially down the season’s back stretch. Sixth woman Monica Wright filled in during Augustus’ absence and played like another starter during the first half of the season but has since regressed.
Her natural position is the two, Reeve said, but she’s currently the Lynx’s best option at point guard when Whalen needs a rest.
“I told her the story of 2001 in the playoffs, and really a lot of the playoff series I’ve been a part of, bench players end up being really important because the starters just beat each other up,” Reeve said. “And so it’s those X-factor players that come in, and Monnie is certainly that.”
It leaves Minnesota’s bench as the biggest question mark entering the Seattle series. Increased physicality will likely demand increased minutes from Wright and posts Devereaux Peters and Amber Harris, all of whom Reeve has asked repeatedly to perform better.
Riding the Storm out
By now, the Lynx and Storm’s starters are familiar enough to know what brand of eyeliner their adversaries typically wear. “There’s no secrets,” Augustus said. “They know everything that we do, and we know everything that they do.”
Minnesota swept the teams’ 2013 regular-season series, including back-to-back wins in Seattle last week. They’ve seen each other four times in the past month and seven times since last year’s West semifinals, when the Lynx needed three games to advance.
This year, the fourth-seeded Storm (17-17) have yet to close out a game within 13 points of Minnesota. But that doesn’t mean a first-round cakewalk into the Western Conference finals against either Los Angeles or Phoenix.
“If you look at Seattle, they’re probably looking for the upset,” Augustus said. “The No. 1 overall seed, they’ve got them. And they’ve been playing great basketball, so the intensity, the focus, everything just kind of changes.”
Seattle coach Brian Agler has several different effective tactics at his disposal, starting with the slashing of guards Tanisha Wright and Temeka Johnson. The Storm also wish to send the league’s all-time leading scorer and four-time champion Tina Thompson into retirement in fitting fashion.
After Friday’s 8 p.m. clash in the Target Center, the teams will travel to Washington for Game 2 on Sunday. It won’t take place at Seattle’s usual home but in the cavernous Tacoma Dome, roughly a half-hour south of Seattle, due to a scheduling conflict brought about by Microsoft corporate meetings at KeyArena.
No offense to loyal Lynx fans, but the Lynx are set against a return to the Target Center for a Tuesday, win-or-go-home rubber match.
“No way do we want it to go to a Game 3,” McCarville said. “We have to fight through that one there.”
Only seven times in WNBA history has a team fallen in the postseason to a team it swept during the regular season.
The Lynx were the most recent.
Following a summer awfully similar to this one, Minnesota didn’t possess the hunger it had on the way to its first championship in 2011, according to Augustus. Indiana took advantage with a Game 1 finals victory in Minnesota, then won two of the next three to conclude the Lynx’s season in jaw-dropping fashion.
Look out, Augustus said, because the ravenousness has returned.
“You can tell we’re more mellow, matured,” the eight-year pro said. “We’ve been through the ups, which was winning the championship, and then the down being that you weren’t quite able to pull it off last year or whatever.
“So now, we’re kind of meshing the two, and we’re ready to go.”
Said Whalen: “You use it as motivation. I think we’ve done that all season.
“It’s a fun time of year, you know?”
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