Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve has a motto she’s drilled into her players, who repeat it automatically whenever asked about an upcoming opponent: The next game is always the biggest game of the season, simply because it’s the next game.
For Thursday’s Western Conference matchup against the Phoenix Mercury, those words are actually all-too true.
The Lynx (20-6) are 2½ games behind the Mercury, which is a league-best 22-3 and on a 16-game winning streak. While both teams already have clinched playoff berths and have seven (Lynx) or eight more games left in the regular season — including another meeting Aug. 9 in Arizona — this game could go a long way in deciding who wins the conference, and thus, home-court advantage throughout the postseason.
But tell any of this to Reeve, and she’ll wax unconcerned.
“We’re well aware that our fans and our media are going to build this game to be way more than what it is,” she said. “Because I am quite sure, with absolutely no degree of uncertainty, that nothing will be decided on Thursday in the standings. They’re not giving out a trophy.”
And she’s right, to a point. The short-term outcome of the game may mean very little, but long-term, it’s a peek into what the conference finals very likely will be and another building block to a burgeoning rivalry. In fact, the two times the Lynx won the league in 2011 and 2013, it was the Mercury they knocked out en route to the Finals.
Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said her team, much like Reeve’s, is just treating this game like any other as “championships are not won now.” But she did admit this time around will be a little more intriguing.
“We’re excited that we’re playing Minnesota back at full strength,” Brondello said. “It still is a big game in terms of just trying to be [in] that No. 1 spot and trying to beat the champions from last year and, obviously, one of the best teams in the WNBA.”
Phoenix beat the Lynx back-to-back in mid-June by an average of 10.5 points. The Lynx struggled defensively in those games, being outrebounded in the second game by nearly double. That series also kick-started Phoenix’s monster winning streak.
But the Lynx in both those games were without forward Rebekkah Brunson, who was recovering from knee surgery, while guard Seimone Augustus missed the second loss because of bursitis in her left knee.
Injuries have plagued the Lynx all season. Brunson, guard Monica Wright and forward Devereaux Peters missed the start because of knee injuries before Augustus sat out eight games in the middle. Even Reeve had to take some downtime after having spinal surgery in early April.
The team also has struggled to find a consistent practice facility. The Target Center’s Life Time Fitness facility is undergoing renovations, forcing the team to relocate to Minneapolis Community and Technical College and the Colin Powell Youth Leadership Center.
Augustus said the Lynx have been tested more this year than any other, but so far, the players have passed.
“This season has been very challenging,” Augustus said. “And yet we’re still in second place, in a position to maybe take over first with, you know, eight games left.”
Forward Maya Moore said while the 2012 season was mentally tough to come back from a championships season, this year has proved how battle-tested her team is.
“Some people can let challenges throw them off or set them back,” Moore said. “But I think this team has definitely used it to propel us forward.”
The Mercury faced adversity last year, with 6-8 center Brittney Griner missing seven games and struggling to get comfortable on the court in her rookie season. But this year, it’s been “smooth sailing” for her, according to Brondello.
Brondello attributed the Lynx still being competitive despite their obstacles to the stepped-up performance of Moore, the league’s leading scorer. Reeve said she is just impressed her team has managed 20 wins for a fourth consecutive season and hasn’t peaked yet.
While this matchup between two fully healthy, high-scoring, offensive rivals is sure to produce some highlight reel moments, Reeve said the big show is still to come.
“We win the game, nothing’s changing,” she said. “We’re still looking up at Phoenix in the standings.”