Lynx have teamwork and talent to repeat
MINNEAPOLIS — You've been told they're the best, and they are.
You've even heard they're perfect, which in some sense they have been.
These are the reigning WNBA champions on a seven-game winning streak to open 2012, the first team to do that since Detroit won seven in a row to open 2007 after winning it all in 2006. The Lynx haven't lost, in fact, since Sept. 18 in the first round of the playoffs, and the last time they dropped a regular-season game was last Sept. 2.
This a team that's built quite the reputation. It's earned every accolade, except maybe that chatter about perfection. Because on Sunday night, the Lynx had the audacity to let their opponent score first.
How dare they? Seriously, what was that?
These are the expectations that the Lynx have built for themselves in the eight months since their championship. They went from mediocre at most, 13-21 in 2010, to the league's best team in a matter of months, but to suggest that this squad could fall as fast as it rose seems downright ridiculous. Its talent is a foregone conclusion, almost a stale subject. Before Sunday's 83-79 win over the San Antonio Silver Stars, Seimone Augustus gestured toward the squad warming up at the other end of the court, highlighting their hard work because "they may not have as much talent as we have."
That's that. To talk any more about it would be to gloat.
So if discussing their individual talent is a no-no, focus on the team as a whole. That's more appropriate, anyway -- no Lynx player leads the league in any of the major statistical categories (points, assists and rebounds), but the team as a whole posts the best field goal percentage in the league and averages the most points and rebounds per game. This is a team effort, and these women can make winning look easy.
Which brings us back to that winning streak. It's come to define the season so far, despite the protests of players and coach Cheryl Reeve, and right now, the team is playing on the cusp of history.
The Lynx's seven-game wining streak to open 2012 is one of the six best performances to open a season in WNBA history, and they've done it while playing seven games in 15 days. Los Angeles won nine games at the outset of 2001 and 2003, and Detroit, Houston and New York each won seven to open their seasons in 2007, 1999 and 1997, respectively. The teams all went on to make the WNBA Finals in those years; two won and three lost.
The Lynx, though they still need three wins to claim the longest such streak, have been impressive so far. Their 11.4-point average margin of victory during the seven games is the second-best among the six teams, and only Houston in 1999, which averaged a 13.7-point margin over its streak, posted a better mark.
What might be more impressive, though, is where the Lynx's opening games stand in terms of other reigning champions. Only four teams have opened their post-championship seasons with winning streaks of seven or more games: that 2007 Detroit squad, Houston in 1999 and Los Angels in 2003. Other reigning champions have begun the next season to everything from streaky play to a four game losing streak, which Phoenix did in 2008. No team has won back-to-back championships since 2003, but here are the Lynx, stepping over a "Road to Repeat" floor decal every time they run to their locker room and playing like they might make that scuffled, plastic message a reality.
On Friday, the Lynx beat Connecticut by 13 in an arena where they'd suffered seven straight losses dating back to 2004. But two nights before they blew a 20-point halftime lead against Washington and won only on a last-second shot, 79-77. Sunday was another such performance; the team went into the locker room at the half up 50-29 but won by only four points.
The team learned a lot those nights. It was reminded of the harsh reality that perfection in sports is nearly impossible. It learned, too, that win streak or not, those games are unacceptable -- Reeve made sure of that. They won, of course, but the Lynx this week came as close to fallible as they have since last September.
Games like those can taunt a team. They're bitter reminders that win streaks can and do end. The pain of a loss is always so close. But for the Lynx, it almost doesn't matter, not with their talent and confidence. Reeve said that she doesn't feel she needs to criticize her players too much after these games -- if she keeps lecturing them after wins, they'll think she's crazy -- and that she's not alone in her disappointment. Her players, too, know that playing well trumps however many wins they can string together.
"I don't think we really focus on them much," Augustus said of winning streaks. "If this was maybe a past Lynx team, then yeah, we would be excited about it. But this team, knowing the experience and the players that we have on this team, we know more so how to win."
There's no better coach than Reeve to temper the inflated expectations and even complacence that such a winning streak can breed. She's the first person to nitpick, to find the errors in one win that might be her team's undoing in a future game. She's been in this situation before, as an assistant on the 2007 Detroit team that was unable to repeat its championship despite its season-opening streak, losing in the finals to Phoenix.
"To the best of my ability, I'm going to cut them off from Internet service, and we're not going to read the headlines," Reeve said. "That's when bad things happen. We're just going to try through all of that just to stay focused at the task at hand, which is always just the next game, one possession, one quarter at a time. It'll be a challenge, though."
Reeve has emphasized how important it is to think of the season in steps, game by game and then series by series in the playoffs. That was one of the Lynx's biggest strengths last season, to take things as they came without dwelling on what they'd achieved, Lindsay Whalen said, and if it can apply that mentality again in 2012, the eventual end of this winning streak won't be its undoing.
And even if there were time to dwell, the Lynx likely wouldn't.
"We've had so many games at the start of the season that you just kind of move on to the next one," Whalen said. "Each win you can get, you're happy for . . . We've been so busy that we really haven't had time to think about it. Each night is a different, a new game."
So let the Lynx ignore their winning streak. That's for the best. But that doesn't mean the rest of Minnesota can't enjoy it. After all, this is a state whose current pro teams had won just three championships before the Lynx: the Twins' World Series titles in 1925, 1987 and 1991. None of those championship teams followed up the next season with such a start as the Lynx this year. In fact, only the 1992 Twins won on Opening Day after their title, and even they went on to lose the next game. And those Twins today? Since the Lynx came up short in the regular season, the baseball team across the street has posted 50 losses.
So no wonder this is a big deal. Even amidst the close games and sloppy second halves, these wins still matter. They're still part of what Reeve is building, and she can't stop a fan base and a city from reacting in a way she'd prefer they not.
For now, there will talk of streaks. If this thing balloons like it might, the talk will get bigger and louder. But when it ends -- be it on Wednesday or in July -- that end will likely be nothing more than a pause. Then, it'll be about bouncing back. This team has earned that kind of faith, and right now, it's can't seem to stop building it.
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