Lynx Wednesday: Minnesota doesn't look half bad in 2013
MINNEAPOLIS -- A fallen star, a coach's call-out and an under-the-radar flight through the summer's first two months.
A shorthanded Phoenix Mercury team served as the final, albeit minor, obstacle of another fantastic first half of a Minnesota Lynx season.
Like every potential deterrent so far, the WNBA's top team powerfully swiped it out of the way.
Streaks continued. Kids shrieked with glee. Cheryl Reeve beamed.
Wednesday's 81-69 Minnesota victory was a fitting segue into the league's All-Star break (although for 1/3 of the Lynx players and the team's entire coaching staff, it's not much of a respite). Following a brief second-quarter lull, the Lynx opened the third with a 17-6 run to go up 58-40 and never trailed by less than 12 the rest of the way.
Helpless. The only way to characterize a Mercury team playing without its two All-Stars against a Minnesota squad with four.
In front of a franchise-record crowd comprised mainly of youngsters on a summer camp field trip, the Lynx ran their club-best home winning streak to 16 games. They're 14-3 with 17 contests under their belt -- also tops in team history. They're 5-0 against Phoenix this year.
But the Mercury aren't alone in their plight.
"We're happy about the first half of the season," said point guard Lindsay Whalen, who scored a game-high 18 points and dished out seven assists. "We've been having a lot of fun, just playing hard and playing together."
It's a far cry from blowout road lashings administered by Los Angeles, the first of which prompted Reeve to criticize her starters and call out her entire team after a poor day of practice.
The loss of All-Star starter Seimone Augustus to a left ankle injury for three games was another cause for concern.
But when a lackluster training session and a minor ailment are the two most intense pitfalls for a team as deep and adept as the Lynx, life is pretty good.
"I definitely think we know who we want to be," forward Maya Moore said. "We've seen it. We've felt how it's supposed to be. The more we do that, the more comfortable and natural that comes -- just continuing to keep our expectation-level high and demanding a lot from ourselves and each other."
All Minnesota's done since losing by 30 at Los Angeles on July 2 is rattle off seven straight wins -- four straight on the road, where the Lynx struggled early -- and accumulate the WNBA's best record entering the All-Star break.
Augustus is back healthy, close to 100 percent, in her own words, Whalen and Moore are both scoring more than 16 points per game, and the Lynx's point differential ranks second in the league, only behind the Sparks.
After pounding Phoenix on Wednesday, the Lynx have two more wins than any other WNBA team. The bunch that few were discussing in the wake of Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins' entry into the league has become the frontrunner.
The core of four that's led Minnesota to back-to-back Western Conference championships is used to that position by now.
"We have a great group of players who play together and play well," said forward Rebekkah Brunson, who will play in Saturday's All-Star Game alongside Moore, Augustus and Whalen. "I think that's what separates us from other teams."
There are still hurdles to transcend: beat fellow West contender Los Angeles on the road. Improve defensively. Don't yield dead periods like the one in the second quarter Wednesday that allowed the Mercury to crawl within seven at halftime.
But for the third year in a row, there's a clear-cut favorite in the Western Conference after half a season of play.
And it's the same one that's played in the past two WNBA Finals.
"The first half of the season, I really like how we've improved as a team and the rate that we've improved at and what we've embraced," coach Cheryl Reeve said. "The light bulb has really gone on for us about the physical toughness, the mental toughness, the defensive toughness and the things that we know in order for us to accomplish our goals, we have to get done. It's dirty work."
Said Augustus: "We're right where we need to be."
Saving on travel: The only happy person in Phoenix's front office these days might be whoever is in charge of the transportation budget.
Only eight players made the trip to Minneapolis. Griner missed her sixth game with a nagging left-knee sprain, point guard Diana Taurasi was suspended, and forward Penny Taylor was off to rest an ailing knee of her own.
"Number one team, and we are down three bazookas," said Mercury coach Corey Gaines, whose club fell to 9-9 on the year.
It's unclear whether Griner will be cleared to play in Saturday's All-Star Game or not. Taurasi, the league's leading scorer, will be there as a starter, even after a league-issued suspension for accumulating seven technical fouls.
Per WNBA rules, that's the magic number for a one-game punishment, and the usually fiery Taurasi will miss another game for every pair of technicals she's issued the rest of the way.
Her absence left Phoenix's primary scoring duties to forwards Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner, who scored 15 and 17 points, respectively.
Fast break: Minnesota fully unleashed a transition element it's shown in flashes throughout the past several seasons.
Get ready for more, Augustus said.
"That's just a little taste," she said.
The Lynx outscored Phoenix 28-4 on fast-break points. Using alert outlets from Brunson and center Janel McCarville, Whalen and Moore pushed the offensive tempo and either found a teammate streaking to the rim or finished themselves.
In the fourth quarter, Moore slammed a bounce pass nearly half the length of the court to Whalen for a left-side layup. Moments later, Moore again found Whalen, who promptly dished back to Moore for a contested finish that kept Minnesota firmly in command.
The Lynx lead the league in assists with 19.13 per game. They had 25 on Wednesday.
"We have such an unselfish team," Reeve said. "They have no problem making one more pass; they don't care who gets the credit, and that's just a beautiful thing."
Milestones: In chipping in 14 points off the bench, Wright scored her 1,000th career point Wednesday.
Brunson had one of her quieter days with three points and seven rebounds but came off a 13-board effort at Phoenix on Sunday that moved her into first on Minnesota's all-time rebounding chart. For the season, the All-Star reserve averages 10.6 points and 9.2 boards per game. The scrappy power forward also chipped in four steals Wednesday.
But the most noticeable achievement came from McCarville. With 4:06 left in the first quarter, the veteran post stepped out and hit the first 3-pointer of the season and fifth of her career.
Laughing about the shot in the locker room afterward, McCarville finished with nine points, three rebounds and four assists.
Record crowd: In what's become an annual event, an 11,000-strong, rambunctious contingent of day-camp participants from across Minnesota invaded the Target Center on Wednesday, helping shatter the Lynx's previous attendance record.
The tally of 16,404 fans smashed the previous mark of 15,318 set in 2004, when University of Minnesota graduate Whalen returned with the Connecticut Sun.
Sporting matching t-shirts corresponding with their respective groups, the campers provided an ear-shatteringly enthusiastic atmosphere, even at times when it wasn't to the Lynx's advantage.
But there were no complaints from the home team after the fact.
"It felt like an outer-body experience," Reeve said with a laugh. "They're yelling and screaming at everything. We're trying to run a play, and they're screaming. We do something bad, and they're still screaming."
Rest and recharge: While Reeve, assistants Jim Petersen and Shelley Patterson and Augustus, Whalen, Brunson and Moore travel to Uncasville, Conn., for Saturday's All-Star festivities, the rest of the team has been instructed to lie low until it reconvenes Monday.
They won't play again until the following Friday, a home matchup against San Antonio.
"The ones that are actually gonna get a break is ... really go and shut down," said Reeve, who will coach the Western Conference due to Minnesota's conference championship last season. "Just kick back and relax. They've done some great things. The nice thing for us, from a scheduling standpoint, we have some time to ramp things back up when they return."
Follow Phil Ervin on Twitter