In 2011 it was all so new, Lindsay Whalen said. For the Minnesota Lynx, that was the year it all came together. Whalen, a healthy Seimone Augustus, a rookie named Maya Moore. All they did was win. “We didn’t know any better,” Whalen said. “We didn’t know any different.” The Lynx won 27 games, surged through the playoffs and won their first WNBA title in a sweep.
Seems like a long time ago. A year later the Lynx surged into the finals only to be upset by Indiana — their opponent again in this year’s finals. A year after that the Lynx won another title.
And now this: The Lynx, in their fourth finals in five seasons, on the cusp of establishing a legacy of dominance none of the players is ready to yet ponder, will look for their third title in five years starting Sunday at Target Center.
It’s an opportunity to avenge that 2012 upset, an opportunity for a core group of players to celebrate, again.
If 2011 seemed so new, this time it feels so sweet.
“Each year we do this it becomes more special,” Whalen said. “It’s sweeter. Because you know how hard it is, you know how much you want it.”
That can be said for both teams.
The Lynx will open the series with four of the five starters from that series with Indiana three years ago: Whalen, Moore, Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson. Indiana looks just as familiar. Forward Tamika Catchings, possibly the best motivator in league history, has said she’ll retire in 2016. Guard Briann January is still with the Fever, as is Erlana Larkins, who came into her own in that series three years ago.
Indeed, in an era where youth is trumpeted, this series is a throwback, with old vets rather than youngsters. The Lynx starters average 30.4 years of age, Indiana 29.2. The Lynx looking for a third title in five years, the fever a second in four seasons.
“This is a series that fans need to appreciate what they see on the floor,” said Rebecca Lobo, the former player who will be part of the ESPN broadcast crew. “Knowing Catchings only has a season left; this might be her last finals. Knowing this Lynx team, as it is put together right now, may be changing in the coming years. … It will be a great series.”
‘A veteran’s league’
Both teams have faced obstacles to reach the finals. Augustus, who had knee surgery and a sprained left foot, missed 18 regular-season games. Whalen battled ankle soreness, missing the final few regular-season games. For Indiana, Catchings has dealt with a balky knee and Larkins was limited to 21 games by injuries.
Both fought through them.
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve acknowledged that neither Augustus nor Whalen is likely to be 100 percent for this series. But the week off since the conference finals has helped.
Indiana, meanwhile, is peaking at the right time, just like it did three years ago. Larkins is back in form, and Catchings is as impactful as ever.
“It’s amazing to see us all back here,” Augustus said.
But then again, maybe not. Both teams have added new faces, both young and veteran, to supplement their depth. But both teams rely on a very familiar core group.
“It’s a veteran’s league,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “They understand the things it takes to win close games and to win playoff series. It’s not a surprise to me to have vets who have carried their teams at this point.”
Vets who know how to win.
“Players like Skylar Diggins, Elena Delle Donne? They’re all great,” Augustus said. “But they need to mature and grow. Where we’re at right now is where they’ll be in a couple of years.”
Legacy for later
So this matchup feels both familiar and special. The WNBA’s old(er) guard in another finals matchup. The Lynx are looking to continue their habit of winning the title every other year. The Fever looking to become the first Eastern Conference team to win a game in the finals since 2012.
“You never know how long a core group will stay together,” said Indiana coach Stephanie White, who was Lin Dunn’s assistant with the Fever in 2012. “For us to be sitting here, three years later, with so many familiar faces, it’s a little bit of a surprise.”
Or, maybe, not. There is a reason why both teams are back in the finals, and the reasons start with the veterans who squared off in 2012.
“I know it’s pretty cool that this is our fourth in five years,” Whalen said. “You don’t think about it now. Right now we’re thinking about what we have to do, today. Tomorrow. Getting ready. You can enjoy that later.”