MINNEAPOLIS — For years, the Minnesota Lynx were irrelevant in the WNBA, a listless franchise that couldn’t figure out a way to even make the playoffs let alone contend for a title.
Now they’re looking for back-to-back championships.
The Lynx host the Indiana Fever in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals today, hoping to become the first repeat winners since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001-02.
It’s been a startling climb for a team that made the playoffs just twice in its first 12 years. But starting with the hire of coach Cheryl Reeve and the trade for hometown star Lindsay Whalen in 2010 and going right on through with the acquisitions of Rebekkah Brunson and former Josey High School standout Taj McWilliams-Franklin and drafting Maya Moore, the Lynx are suddenly the class of the league.
“When I was hired I knew we had a group here that there would be a window of opportunity,” Reeve said. “Once we made the trade for Whalen and we got Rebekkah Brunson in here, we knew we had a foundation. We added to that Maya Moore and Taj, so now there’s that window of opportunity. It’s just a great time to be a part of it.”
The group that also includes dynamic forward Seimone Augustus steamrolled through the playoffs last season. But the Lynx have found that defending that crown has been an entirely different experience.
The Seattle Storm pushed the Lynx to the limit in the Western Conference quarterfinals, missing a shot in the closing moments of Game 3 that would have eliminated them. The Lynx then had to rally in the fourth quarter to beat the Sparks in Game 2 to complete a sweep of Los Angeles to get back to the finals.
“Definitely tougher. You start off the season with a target on your back,” Augustus said.
The Fever have shown resilience throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs to reach the finals for the second time.
They were down 1-0 in each of the first two rounds before rallying, including a 16-point win at Connecticut in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals despite losing star scorer Katie Douglas early in the game to a left ankle injury. It is uncertain if Douglas will be able to play tonight.
“We’re not afraid of anybody,” Fever forward Eriana Larkins said. “I think we play better with our backs against the wall.”
They’ve shown that so far. They faced elimination four times in these playoffs. Their 3-point shooting –the Fever hit 10 against the Sun in Game 3 – means they’re never out of a game. And the swagger that comes with playoff success is evident.
“If we play like we did (in Game 3),” Erin Phillips said, “absolutely we can beat them.”
The Lynx had all of last week off, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Whalen is nursing a bone bruise on her left wrist and an injured finger on her left hand. Having two days off at the beginning of the week proved valuable.
“Nothing’s come to us easy,” Brunson said. “We’ve had to grind out a lot games where I think we caught a couple teams by surprise last year. We were new. We were up and coming.
“But now everyone knows what we’re doing, knows what to anticipate, knows what to look for. So they are giving us their best games. But we’re here. We made it and that’s the important part. We persevered through everything that anybody threw at us this season.”
Tamika Catchings and the Fever will throw a little more. The Fever lost to the Lynx in both meetings this season, but by just two at home on Sept. 14 and seven on the road three days later.
“They are the defending champs,” Catchings said. “We lost to them twice this year, but I think in the games that we lost we played really well for about 20 to 25 minutes and we let the game slip away from us for about the last 15 minutes. On this team, we have to focus on playing 40-minute games.”
Given the difficulties this season, a title this time might prove more rewarding.
“Once you win one, it’s really hard to come back and win another one, especially back-to-back,” Brunson said. “The road is hard, but it would be extremely satisfying if we can go ahead and conquer this.”