A week ago in Los Angeles, the Lynx lost to the surging Sparks and suddenly the distance between the top two teams in the WNBA was a razor-thin single game.
Playing without guard Lindsay Whalen, the Lynx had lost five of nine games. They knew they would probably have to win their last three regular-season games.
Surging into the postseason with an offensive flourish, the Lynx finished that stretch 3-0 with an 86-72 victory over Washington on the last day of the regular season, in their last game at Xcel Energy Center, in front of an announced 10,321 fans.
With it comes the WNBA’s top seed for the fifth time in seven seasons, with L.A. still one game behind.
“We went out and did it,’’ said Maya Moore, who hit 10 of 19 shots, three of six three-pointers and scored a game-high 26 points. She, like the team, is entering the postseason on a roll. “It’s one thing to talk about it. But we were about it on the court.’’
And, with their first playoff game set for Sept. 12 — at Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus — the Lynx (27-7) might have regained some of that air of invincibility that might have slipped out of the bubble during that rough stretch.
“With the injuries, it was hard for us,’’ Seimone Augustus said of playing without Whalen since Aug. 3 and for four games without Rebekkah Brunson. “But we always find a way to get it done. That is the beauty of this team. We always find a way.’’
Whalen is set to return when the Lynx resume practicing Wednesday. Suddenly the team looks deeper than before, given the way Renee Montgomery — Whalen’s replacement as a starter — is playing.
Montgomery scored 18 points Sunday — 15 in the second quarter, including an amazing, personal 9-0 run. She enters the playoffs having shot 14-for-23 and scored 39 points in her last two games.
“I’m so happy Wheezy will be back,’’ Montgomery said. “We’re a one-two punch. And she’s the one.’’
Afterward, coach Cheryl Reeve opened her news conference by praising the work ethic and poise of her group.
“I told them they have two days to really soak it up,’’ Reeve said. “Recognize all they’ve done. It shouldn’t be lost on anybody how hard this is to do. And after that? We’re not allowed to think about those things.’’
Because, with the Lynx, there are bigger goals. Still, there is momentum building. Determined to get Moore going at peak level, Reeve has seen her star average 20.1 points and shoot 50 percent — both overall and from three-point range — over the past seven games. Whalen is returning. Over their three-game winning streak, the Lynx averaged 92 points and shot 53.9 percent.
Sunday, the Lynx had some rough patches. But neither Moore nor Montgomery would let them lose. Moore had 11 points in the first quarter and nine in the fourth, when the Lynx shut down Washington (18-16), which was led by Kristi Toliver’s 20 points.
“We stepped up to the challenge,’’ center Sylvia Fowles said. “It’s proving to people we can get it done. You heard some talk, and that was to be expected. We had two starters out for a little minute. But we withstood all that. And we have the No. 1 seed.’’
That’s no guarantee of a fourth title in seven seasons; they had the top seed last year, too, only to have their hearts broken on the Target Center floor by Los Angeles in Game 5 of the finals. But it’s a start.
“Where we finish in the regular season is not what matters,’’ Reeve said. “Where we finish in the postseason is what matters.’’