Look at the two rosters, the key players for both teams, and you might think that little has changed in three years.
The WNBA Finals will begin Sunday at Target Center with the Lynx hosting Indiana in a rematch of 2012, when the Lynx’s bid for back-to-back titles was denied. Three years later the key players remain: Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson for the Lynx. Tamika Catchings, Erlena Larkins and Briann January for the Fever.
But if the names are the same, some things have definitely changed.
“My black eye is gone, but it’s still there, underneath,” Moore said after Wednesday’s practice.
Moore was referring to the shiner obtained when her nose collided with teammate Sylvia Fowles’ elbow in a Sept. 4 victory over Indiana. Sort of. What Moore was trying to say was that this edition of the Lynx is maybe a little tougher than the one that was upset by Indiana three seasons ago.
Three years ago the Lynx were defending champions, coming off a 27-win regular season and had just swept a very good L.A. team in the Western Conference finals when Indiana sprung a Game 1 upset.
“We weren’t as mentally tough as we needed to be,” Moore said. “That was a great lesson for us.”
Perhaps now the Lynx — who were, according to Augustus, “gut punched” by that Game 1 loss three years ago — are now better able to take a punch.
Which was Moore’s point.
The Lynx, who will be seeking their third title in five years, had to play through a lot of adversity this summer. Augustus missed half the season because of injuries. Whalen was bothered by Achilles and ankle pain for a good while before missing the final few regular-season games. Fowles, Anna Cruz and Renee Montgomery joined the team midseason. During a 6-6 August the team struggled to adapt its offense to Fowles’ strengths and had to play without Augustus and then Whalen. It hit rock bottom — coach Cheryl Reeve’s words — in a late August loss at New York.
But Minnesota emerged from that, won the Western Conference title and has played steadily better as the playoffs progressed. The Lynx are, as Reeve said, battle-tested.
“What we went through in those moments has really prepared us well for any adversity we’ll face in the finals,” Reeve said.
And while the players might downplay the idea of using this series to atone for what happened in 2012, it is a rematch with many familiar faces and shared memories.
“I mean it stings,” Augustus said. “But what’s done is done; we’re focusing on what is happening now. But we have the opportunity to win the title against a team that kind of gut-punched us before. We understand what we’re facing, which is good to know.”
Both teams understand. Lin Dunn has retired as Fever coach. But current coach Stephanie White was Dunn’s assistant three years ago. Catchings, who has announced she will retire after the 2016 season, has again proven to be the heart of a Fever team that appears to be peaking late just like it did three years ago; while the Lynx are looking for a third title, the Fever is looking for a second in four years.
“As you keep going, and have more trips [to the finals], you know how special it is,” Whalen said. “So this is our fourth as a group. You know how special it is, and you never want to take any year for granted. This is where you want to be.”
So if the Fever comes out Sunday ready to throw a punch? Moore thinks the team can take it.
She already has, literally.
“We’ve been battle-tested,” Moore said. “It didn’t feel good going through it. August was tough for us. The last week of the season, with a broken face, didn’t feel too good. But we’re ready to move forward together, whatever happens. And that’s what it’s going to take to beat a good Indiana team.’’