Lynx players knew, all season, that this summer was going to be a conclusion. A coda.
This was going to be a final run for the Lynx as both they and the fans have come to know them for most of the last decade.
This was before a condensed schedule took its toll, before Lindsay Whalen made official her intention to retire. Before a frustrating, up-and-down season relegated the Lynx to the WNBA’s seventh seed, requiring them to play Tuesday in a single-elimination first-round playoff game against archenemy Los Angeles in Staples Center.
“We had that perspective all year,’’ center Sylvia Fowles said. “We knew that, after this, things would be different. So you have to make sure you cherish these moments, cherish these times.’’
Whenever this season ends the 36-year-old Whalen will coach the Gophers women, full-time. Coach Cheryl Reeve knows that there are at least questions surrounding other players on the team. Rebekkah Brunson’s season has been shortened by injury; concussion symptoms could keep her out of Tuesday’s game. Will she want to play another season in 2019 at age 37? Seimone Augustus (34) is the franchise’s most tenured player. What are her plans?
With the Lynx on a run that included six appearances in the WNBA Finals and four championships in seven years, Reeve and her core players had an understanding. The band would be kept together until the run ended. It was a pact.
But everyone knew change was coming. “From the start of the season it’s been known,’’ Reeve said. “That this group, it was, ‘OK, let’s try to do this one more time.’ So then, now, this is the last playoff run for this group, for this core group of players who have been together for so long.’’
It could be very short. If it isn’t, it will only get harder. A win Tuesday would send the Lynx cross-country to either Washington, D.C., or Connecticut for another single-elimination game Thursday. A win there and the Lynx would begin their best-of-five league semifinals on the road Sunday.
The run could be short. It could be protracted. Either way it will be difficult.
“We want to fight to the end and send people off the way they should,’’ Augustus said after Sunday’s regular-season finale. “We did a great job last year. It’s not going to be easy this year. But we know we have what we need in this locker room to make this happen. We’re going to do what Whalen would do. We’re going to give everything. We’re going to throw the kitchen sink at everybody we play, starting Tuesday.’’
This matchup was supposed to happen later. But the two veteran teams have paid the price for the condensed season.
“It’s different,’’ Whalen said of the single-elimination format. “We’ve done it one way for years. We’ve never been the one-game situation since college. But we have to embrace it, have fun with it.’’
The Lynx and the Sparks have played each other in the playoffs in each of the past three seasons. Thirteen games total, with the Lynx winning seven of them. During the regular season the Sparks won three of four games, including a 22-point blowout in Los Angeles on Aug. 2.
Despite a season that had three losing streaks of at least three games, the Lynx have confidence. The team has seven seasons’ worth of playoff muscle memory. They have played in big games and know how to win them; the team won an elimination Game 4 in L.A. in last year’s finals, forcing the return to Minnesota for the fifth game and a fourth title.
After Whalen’s strong performance Sunday, Reeve is considering moving the veteran back into the starting lineup. She was encouraged by the bounce-back game Cecilia Zandalasini had against Washington. If Brunson can’t play, the Lynx will struggle to replace her defense and rebounding, but the spacing Zandalasini provides will make it harder for Candace Parker to double down on Fowles.
Whalen has been saying it for a while, and her teammates have begun slipping into interviews, too: Never underestimate the heart of a champion. This is a savvy, proud, playoff-experienced team. They should not be counted out, Fowles said.
“It would be foolish to do so,’’ she said. “For a team like Minnesota, which has been so successful over the years, sometimes you have to take a different route.’’
They will start driving that route Tuesday. Win or out, knowing that the end of this season will bring change. The Lynx have known that for months.
“But it’s a little more in focus now,’’ Reeve said. “Now, what does that mean? Typically it means a sense of urgency that isn’t sustainable through 34 games. But you know, for these 40 minutes, we have to play on the edge. I hope it means, like Lindsay said, that we put it all out there. That’s what we’ve always done in the playoffs. But it has a different meaning now.’’
The cohesion the Lynx showed on offense Sunday was encouraging. Can the Lynx carry that with them to Los Angeles — and beyond?
“If we can get going the way we know we can, every team understands,’’ Augustus said. “They don’t want to play the Lynx if we get ourselves rolling.’’