Though the Lynx don't begin the WNBA Finals until Sunday, forward Maya Moore already knows what she will recall most fondly about this season.
It won't be her team's 13-0 start, or her status as the leading scorer for a franchise pursuing its fourth league title. "It's one thing to remember amazing plays," Moore said. "But this group is a real dream team. The combination of talent, experience and selflessness is just so rare and so special. It's the way basketball is supposed to be played."
The Lynx already have stamped this as an unforgettable season, setting a franchise record with 28 regular-season victories and a league mark with that opening win streak. Beginning Sunday at Target Center, they will chase more history. A fourth WNBA title would tie the league record set by Houston, and they could become the first team in 14 years to repeat as champions.
It has been uniquely memorable inside the team for more deeply felt reasons. Always a close and unselfish group, the Lynx forged even tighter bonds this season, thanks to the most talented roster in their history. Players who could have been bigger stars elsewhere have excelled in limited roles, providing invaluable support to Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Sylvia Fowles and Rebekkah Brunson.
Coach Cheryl Reeve knew she needed to beef up her reserve corps this season, even after the Lynx won their third WNBA crown in five years. The confetti had barely been swept off the floor when she began looking for players with top-five skill who were willing to set aside their egos for the common good.
The core that has led the Lynx to five WNBA Finals appearances in the past six years — Moore, Whalen, Augustus and Brunson — continues to set the tone. But they are quick to note they are back in the Finals because of reserves Renee Montgomery, Jia Perkins, Natasha Howard, Anna Cruz, Janel McCarville and Keisha Hampton, who made the Lynx stronger in every way.
"We understand we need each other, each and every one of us, starting with the starting five," Augustus said. "The biggest thing is, we understand the bigger picture. We all play off each other, and as long as we're together, I don't feel like anybody can beat us.
"What we're doing here is very special. Everyone here is like sisters; we're like family."
Sub chasing titles
Montgomery, who joined the Lynx for a second time last season, could have started — and made more money — if she had signed with New York as a free agent last winter. Instead, she chose to stay in Minnesota, knowing she would back up Whalen and might play as little as 15 minutes in some games.
She averaged 19 minutes and 7.5 points per game during the regular season, allowing Whalen — who is 34 and battled injuries last year — to reduce her workload. As a group, the Lynx bench contributed 26.4 points per game, 36 percent of the team's minutes and a number of plays that helped turn games.
"I knew exactly what I was getting when I came here," Montgomery said. "At this point in my career, I wanted to win championships. And the cohesiveness this team has, that really sets us apart."
Reeve said that remodeling the Lynx reserves was her most important task leading into this season. Brunson also is 34 and had knee surgery in 2014. Augustus, 32, missed 28 games over the past two seasons because of problems with both knees and a sprained left foot.
Whalen, Augustus, Fowles and Moore also made the U.S. Olympic team, making this an even busier and more stressful season for them. If the Lynx were to make another run at a championship, Reeve needed a bench capable of playing significant minutes without any drop-off. She also needed players who would buy into specific, limited roles.
Perkins, a starter for San Antonio and a 12-year WNBA veteran, came via trade in April. McCarville returned in May after taking a year off. Howard was obtained in a February trade, Hampton was signed as a free agent in March, and Cruz was re-signed after playing for Spain in the Rio Olympics.
While the reserves fill smaller roles, they have given Reeve more flexibility and versatility. The three guards can speed up the pace of a game and apply intensive pressure on defense. McCarville is a superb passer, while Howard's nonstop hustle sparks the Lynx on both ends.
"To be able to have so much confidence in whoever comes into the game has just been unbelievable this year," Moore said. "… Players six through 11 have had our backs so many times this year. It's just been so fun to watch them succeed."
As seamless as it might look during games, Moore emphasized the Lynx's teamwork is not that simple. Reeve and assistant coaches Shelley Patterson and Jim Petersen worked extensively with the reserves to refine their roles and ensure they are thoroughly prepared. Each of those players has done whatever has been asked of them.
Moore said everyone on the bench understands how important their parts are to the team's success. No one has had to waste time or energy convincing them, and the starters are happy to yield the floor.
"It's been rewarding to see," Reeve said. "For [the starters] to be on the bench, rooting for what's happening on the floor, that's genuine.
"They're OK if they only play 20 minutes. They're in a different place right now. Nobody's seeking out statistics and awards; they just want to be ready to go as we start the Finals. And they are physically in a great place because of what the others have done."
The starters' attitude, Montgomery said, has been integral to the strong bonds that run through the team. They have set their egos aside as well, treating everyone on the roster as equals and setting a standard for work ethic and professionalism.
The mutual appreciation extends beyond the gym. The Lynx players all live in the same area and often get together to watch movies or sports events, play games, cook or share Bible study with team chaplains.
Their care and concern for one another has made this year all the more fulfilling, Moore said. That's how she will remember the season regardless of how the Finals play out, though a trophy would be the ultimate tribute.
"Things like back-to-back [titles] and legacies and dynasties, those are things you look at in hindsight," Moore said. "We want to get everything we can as a group, because we've worked so hard and been so good to each other."