Cheryl Reeve was grouchy when she came to work Tuesday.

The Lynx coach had only three days to prepare her team for its first playoff game in seven years, and started complaining to assistants Jim Petersen and Shelley Patterson.

The team's players anticipated Reeve -- detail-oriented and ultra-competitive -- might be stressed with time running short before Friday's game against San Antonio. So they acted.

As Reeve walked into the team's practice facility at Target Center, she saw old pictures of herself taped up everywhere.

She was 20 years younger in the pictures, a college assistant. Each photocopy also had a short, handwritten scouting report -- on Reeve.

She was forced to smile.

"That's the epitome of them," Reeve said, referring to 11 players ranging in age from 22 to 40. "[They] lightened the mood for me. It's a fun group to be around."

Reeve laughs easily, but rarely is satisfied. She expects a lot from her staff and players. She wants the Lynx to play the perfect game -- and would like that to happen in the playoffs.

Ignoring Dad

Larry Reeve coached his only daughter in youth softball and taught her to be tough.

"He didn't want me to wimp out of anything," Reeve said. "You roll your ankle sliding into second base, he'd tell you, 'Get up. You've got another ankle. Don't worry about it.' "

Larry, a career Air Force man, died in 2008 of multiple myeloma. He wanted Cheryl to pursue a career in the computer field, not coaching.

"My dad was very concerned that I wouldn't be able to make a living," Reeve said.

Even when she became a WNBA assistant in 2001, her father kept asking her when she would get a real job.

"I don't want one," the second-year Lynx coach said. "I like this one."

She is good at it, too. After 12 years trying to find a winning formula, the Lynx, who have two playoff appearances and one playoff victory in their history, might finally have the right coach.

Petersen, a former NBA player, said he is still learning new ways to view basketball from Reeve.

"She could coach guys because she commands that kind of respect," Petersen said. "She could coach at any level, any gender, any league."

A year ago, the Lynx and Los Angeles tied for the second-worst record at 13-21. This season the Lynx (27-7) have the best record in the WNBA, six more victories than any other team, and nine more than any other Lynx team.

Petersen gives Reeve much of the credit for the turnaround.

"She has made a big a leap as I have ever seen in terms of improving her weaknesses as a coach," Petersen said. "She has identified them and then has gone about changing them. Like when she goes off, in the moment she is very upset, but afterward she can laugh about it."

A career path

Reeve, who attended high school in southern New Jersey, decided to become a coach before her senior year at La Salle University in Philadelphia. The Explorers' point guard had two jobs that summer: She was an intern for the IRS, configuring computer systems, and a basketball camp counselor, interacting with kids. She took a bus to her IRS job, worked from 9 to 5, got an hour for lunch.

"I hated it," she said.

After getting a degree in computer science and management information systems, Reeve was a graduate assistant on the La Salle women's basketball staff for two years. Next she became a full-time assistant at George Washington for five years, then head coach at Indiana State for five more.

Her WNBA career began as an assistant on Anne Donovan's Charlotte staff in 2001. She also worked with Cleveland, then with Bill Laimbeer at Detroit from 2006 to 2009. The Shock won two WNBA titles during that stretch before moving to Tulsa.

Laimbeer actually left Detroit early in the 2009 season and a couple of months later became a Timberwolves assistant. When the Lynx could not agree on a contract with coach Jen Gillom to return for the 2010 season, he openly lobbied for Reeve.

"This is the person you should hire," he said he told Roger Griffith, the Lynx executive vice president. "She is a strong-willed, talented individual with a good dose of championship basketball."

Laimbeer taught her about getting teams ready for games, Reeve said.

"Everything has gone about as perfectly as it could to this point," Reeve said.

But that wasn't the case last year. After an embarrassing 89-51 loss to Indiana in early June, Reeve let her emotions spill out.

"We are a bad basketball team," Reeve said. "It starts at the top. I have not been able to get them to understand defensively what we need to get done and, clearly, our offense is one of the worst in the league."

The business side of the Lynx operation howled. How were they going to sell tickets?

Reeve was being Reeve.

"I don't sugarcoat anything," she said. "It is not always pleasant, but at least you know where you stand."

Reeve knew she had players who didn't fit in last season. In the exit interviews, she asked her core players -- the ones she knew would return for 2011 -- who they wanted to play with and what kind of players the Lynx needed. She had her own idea, too.

"I know what a good basketball team is; I know what they do," Reeve said.

The makeover

Luck was responsible for one change. The Lynx got the first pick in the draft -- the "Maya Moore Lottery" -- and nabbed the college basketball superstar out of UConn. She has been a starting forward since the first game, and likely is on her way to Rookie of the Year honors.

Moore was one of four key new players.

Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a 40-year-old center, signed on because "I needed somebody in the trenches," said Reeve, who watched "Mama Taj" start on Detroit's 2008 WNBA champions.

To strengthen the bench, the Lynx re-signed 6-4 center Jessica Adair, who joined the team briefly last season and played one game. This season she turned into a valuable reserve in the post. Adair played at George Washington for Joe McKeown, the same coach who once hired Reeve. Adair obtained the old Reeve photo, although she claimed "I have no recollection of what you are talking about."

The fourth new player was Amber Harris, the No. 4 overall pick in the draft this year. She had her best game as a pro with 12 points and three blocks against New York on Sept. 4, but suffered a concussion -- a rare injury for this season's edition of the Lynx. Harris missed two games, the first missed by any player on the team because of health issues.

In 2010, star guard Seimone Augustus had abdominal surgery the day before training camp opened, and Candice Wiggins played only eight games because of knee and Achilles' tendon injuries.

"It is amazing how different it is just from a year ago," Reeve said.

The most obvious difference is that the regular season is over, and the Lynx still are playing.