Lynx are rightfully confident as season's second half arrives
MINNEAPOLIS -- Perhaps a year or two ago, it would've been a relevant talking point.
After a sizzling first half, the Minnesota Lynx are faced with the privilege-laden challenge of replicating their success formula through the WNBA season's back stretch. Four All-Stars, a deep bench and a talent-maximizing coaching staff together have forged the league's best record. The midseason break has allowed reality to set in for the sports' 11 other professional American franchises: if a championship is in sight, there's a royal blue and green valley that has to be crossed first.
"I know people respect us," said forward Maya Moore, the leading point producer on a team with five double-figures scorers. "Our game speaks for itself. But people want to beat us as well."
The thing is, this has become old hat since Moore came to Minneapolis.That was in 2011, when the then-rookie phenom and current MVP candidate joined forces with coach Cheryl Reeve and veterans Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson and Lindsay Whalen -- all of whom practiced for the first time Tuesday since representing the Western Conference in Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game. Each of the past two seasons, that bunch has entered the midseason respite on a scorching tear.
Each year, they've come out even hotter.
In 2011, Minnesota won nine straight games following All-Star festivities on the way to the franchise's first WNBA championship. Last summer, following a five-week layoff for the London Olympics, the Lynx won eight of nine contests.
Reeve can't even remember those sojourns out of the second-half gates.
"You guys are really good about that, telling us what we've done after days off," the coach joked with reporters. "I can only go on past experience. I've got a group that's been here before. We understand that it's simply the halfway point of the season.
"We haven't done anything."
Those words come after the Lynx compiled the best record (14-3) through 17 games in the organization's 15-year history.
Merely trivial numbers, just about anyone on this team would respond.
"The first half doesn't mean anything if we don't build on it," Moore said. "We got ourselves off to a very good start, and if we continue that way, teams won't be able to -- hopefully -- catch us. We have to continue that every night, knowing we're gonna get every team's best shot."
Scoring from just about anywhere on the floor and shooting a career-high 42.3 percent from 3-point range, Moore leads an offense that often forces defenses to choose their own doom.
Double-team Moore, Whalen or Augustus, and they're sure to find an open teammate. Play straight matchup defense, and center Janel McCarville's likely to set one of them up via a nifty pass, a hard screen or, in some pick-and-pop scenarios, both.
Whalen's been especially forceful with the ball in her hands, adding a career-high 16.2 points per game (just a sliver below Moore's average) to her already-unmatched mastery of the offense and on-the-fly distribution skills. When it comes to overall contribution, she and Moore give Minnesota two legitimate MVP candidates, though Moore has received much more of that attention thus far.
Part of that can be attributed to a bit of a slow start. But in each of her past six games, Whalen has scored 15 or more points and dished out five or more assists four times.
"She took on this persona of 'Get out of my way, I'm here to hoop,'" Reeve said of Whalen. "And it's on both sides of the ball."
And don't forget about Brunson. When teams do, the leading rebounder in Lynx history flies in for second chances and tough stick-backs, averaging close to a double-double.
Thanks to a Whalen-led defense that forces 14.2 turnovers per game, WNBA frontrunner Minnesota has the league's best average point differential at 8.59 per game.
But the sense of urgency associated with the season's latter half means the Lynx are in for a tougher test the next month-and-a-half, starting Friday at home against San Antonio.
"Oftentimes, the midseason point is a reset button for teams where they can kind of go, 'OK, let's start fresh, let's start now,'" Reeve said. "The hunger level goes up after All-Star break, because you've got the teams that are scratching and clawing to be a playoff team, you've got playoff teams that are playing for position. That's what we have to be ready for."
Starting with the Los Angeles Sparks.
Minnesota's one unattainable feat so far is beating on the road the team that trails it by 2 ½ games in the Western Conference standings. Even playing competitive basketball in the Staples Center would be an improvement -- the Sparks thrashed the Lynx there by a combined 58 points in two meetings earlier this season.
But Minnesota returned one of the favors with a 24-point victory at the Target Center, providing evidence of what wonders homecourt advantage could do for the Lynx when the postseason rolls around in mid-September.
If it returns to full health, Phoenix (5.5 games back) could also make a run in the West. On the other side of the league, Chicago leads the Eastern Conference but only by half a game over Atlanta, which carried the league's best record for most of the season.
A 94-72 drubbing in Minneapolis helped knock the Dream off that perch.
It also helped a group that didn't get a whole lot of preseason run -- both because its prowess isn't a fresh story and because three ultra-talented rookies are a lot more marketable than a group of workhorse veterans -- earn recognition that it is, once again, the team to beat in the WNBA.
"I think there's a healthy respect for the Lynx" around the league, Reeve said. "We definitely have a target on our back."
Thanks to the past couple seasons, Minnesota's roster doesn't contain many strangers to such pressure.
"We come in here every day and focus on what we need to do, on what Lynx basketball is," said sixth woman Monica Wright, who's excelled in her expanded role as a backup point guard this season. "We attack each game as if it's the most important game, the next game. We don't look too far ahead in the future, nor do we backtrack and look at last games or whatever."
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