Lynx still feel they are the team to beat

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 20, 2014 - 12:14 PM

They’re champs until someone takes the trophy from them.

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Lynx Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson celebrated after Brunson scored during the second overtime against Atlanta in July.

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Tuesday’s practice was barely over and Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve was already busy laying down the company line with the playoffs two days away:

Nothing has been decided yet.

For the first time in four seasons the Lynx (25-9) are not the No. 1 seed heading into the Western Conference playoffs. For the first time since 2011 they are not the most talked about team that most people are picking to win the WNBA title. This time it’s the Phoenix Mercury, which, virtually injury-free, won a league-record 29 regular-season games. On the national scene, the Mercury is rising.

“When you look at what team has been dominant from beginning to end, that’s Phoenix,” said Rebecca Lobo, a WNBA analyst for ESPN. “That’s why they’re the favorite.”

Reeve is having none of it.

“We don’t believe we’re the underdog,” said Reeve, whose defending champions will open the Western Conference semifinals against San Antonio on Thursday at Target Center. “We still believe we’re the team to beat. … There is no championship associated with a regular-season first-place team. So the mindset is that our goal is still intact, which is to be the best in the West.”

The Lynx enter the playoffs having become the first team in league history to win 25 games in four consecutive seasons, winning the league title in two of the past three seasons. The Lynx managed to win 25 games this season despite dealing with injuries all season. Rebekkah Brunson, Devereaux Peters and Monica Wright were all out at the beginning after knee surgeries; Brunson didn’t return until after the All-Star break. Seimone Augustus missed 10 games because of knee problems of her own.

And so this year feels a little different. Led by Maya Moore, who had an MVP-caliber season, the Lynx remained a high-scoring bunch. But the defense has been up and down; the Lynx finished in the middle of the WNBA pack in points allowed. The team lost four out of six games midway through the season. Toward the end of the season, it lost three in a row.

On paper, the Lynx remain a formidable team, filled with playoff experience. But they do not appear to be the juggernaut they were in 2011 and 2013 as they embark on defense of their title.

“It’s been a different path,” Moore said. “I think we’re more battle-tested than last year at this point, which gives us confidence going into any situation, knowing we can overcome it.”

Augustus said Tuesday her knee felt as good as it has all season. Brunson, who missed the first 23 games and had to battle through some soreness upon her return, appears poised to return to the level she was at last season.

But the fact is, only five times in WNBA history has the team with the best regular-season record not won the league title. So there is a reason Phoenix is the odds-on favorite to win it all.

On the other hand, there are four starters who will take the floor Thursday who have played in three consecutive WNBA Finals, winning twice. And all five starters return from last year’s team.

“That experience carries a lot of weight,” Augustus said. “We just look forward to being a healthy team, being together, enjoying the energy that the fans are going to bring.”

To Augustus, it has been a progression. In 2011 the Lynx learned how to win a title. In 2013 they learned how to win it back. Now it’s time to show that the team has learned how to defend that title. “What have we learned?” she said. “What growth have we experienced over the last three years that will help us right now?”

The main thing is knowing what it takes come playoff time.

“There is no more time for talking, this is about walking it,” Moore said. “And because we’ve seen each other do it so many times, it gives [us] a confidence when we step on the floor.”

Dantas remains out

Rookie forward/center Damiris Dantas remains in Brazil dealing with a family matter and could miss part or all of the Lynx’s series with San Antonio.

  • LYNX VS. SAN ANTONIO Game 1: 8 p.m. Thursday • Target Center • TV: ESPN2 (106.1-FM)

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