MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota talked about winning the WNBA championship during training camp four months ago. The Lynx then had such a dominant season they lost consecutive games just once and won 22 of the last 26 to set the franchise record for victories.
Now, they know they’ll need to keep up their intensity when they open the conference semifinals Friday night against San Antonio — a team the Lynx went 4-0 against during the season.
“So far we are right on track to do what we set out to do in the beginning of the season,” rookie Maya Moore said. “Every time we step out on the court, we’re working for a championship, we’re working to win.”
Minnesota (27-7) started out with three losses in their first eight games, then had just four more the rest of the way. The Western Conference champions finished nine wins better than their previous franchise-best and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2004 — and the third time overall.
However, the Lynx also aren’t getting ahead of themselves, and know they need to beat the Silver Stars (18-16) in the next step toward their goal. They swept San Antonio, but two wins came on last-second shots.
“We’ll take it one game at a time,” veteran point guard Lindsay Whalen said. “We’re just focused on San Antonio this weekend. We had a great regular season and that’s over now. So on to the playoffs. We’ll have the same pressure as everyone to win and stay alive.”
The postseason begins Thursday night with New York (19-15) visiting Indiana (21-13) in the East and Seattle (21-13) hosting Phoenix (19-15) in a West series. Connecticut (21-15) hosts Atlanta (20-14) in the opener of the other East series on Friday night.
Minnesota’s biggest challenge in the West figures to come from the Storm, who played without three-time MVP Lauren Jackson for a 20-game stretch due to a hip injury. Sue Bird and Swin Cash helped keep the defending champions in contention in Jackson’s absence, and Seattle won eight of its last nine to take the conference’s No. 2 seed.
“Minnesota got out early and they had a wonderful season, but if you look at everyone else’s record, we were right there,” Cash said. “We kind of got through our trials and stuff and over some obstacles through the regular season. I think we’re mentally tough and we understand what it takes obviously to win a championship. We have core players on our team that have experienced that.”
One year after finishing 17-0 at home in the regular season and then 4-0 in the playoffs during their title run, the Storm were 15-2 at Key Arena — tying Connecticut for the league’s best home record. Now, the Storm face a Mercury team they’ve beaten eight of the last nine meetings the last two seasons, including a sweep in the West finals a year ago.
“You have to beat the defending champions if you want to go anywhere,” said Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi, who won her fourth straight scoring title. “It’ll probably be the toughest task we have all year.”
In the East, things are a lot tighter as two games separated first and fourth place in the standings, and the teams matched up in the conference semis split the four meetings with their opponents during the season.
None of the teams in the East have won a championship, although Liberty coach John Whisenant and four of the players — Cappie Pondexter (Phoenix in 2007, 2009), Plenette Pierson (Detroit 2006, 2008), Nicole Powell (Sacramento 2005, coached by Whisenant) and Kara Braxton (Detroit 2006, 2008) — did with other teams.
“At this point, it’s a matter of who wants it the most,” Pondexter said. “We can add all our championships up and it still doesn’t matter. It’s a matter of us going out there and trying to win and be the champions this year. Hopefully we’re good enough, we can make a good run and win it.”
New York, which had a chance to earn the conference’s second seed on the last day, finished fourth and opens against a Fever squad that lost six of its last nine, including the final two after locking up the conference’s No. 1 seed. Indiana, which reached the finals two years ago, reached 21 wins for the sixth time in seven years.
The road team won the first two meetings before the home team took the last two, including New York’s win last Friday.
Indiana also has dealt with some injuries this year, though coach Lin Dunn said point guard Erin Phillips — who missed the last two games with an ankle injury — and seven-time All-Star Tamika Catchings — who has been nursing a sprained knee and sat out the season finale — will be ready to go.
Connecticut held off New York for the second seed, beating the Liberty on Sunday. The Sun face Angel McCoughtry and a Dream team that won 17 of its last 22 just one year after a surprising run to the WNBA finals.
The home team won all the matchups in the regular season, something that would favor the Sun in this series — especially they since have seven players with less than three years’ experience, including MVP contender Tina Charles.
“For the first series and the first game, it is important for our group to have the first experience of the playoffs be here at home,” veteran guard Kara Lawson said. “You’re just more settled and more confident. It’s more routine.”
San Antonio won seven of eight to start the season, and then five of six to end it. In between, the Silver Stars struggled and went through a stretch in which they lost 10 of 12. Danielle Adams was the rookie of the month for June before missing some time with a foot injury.
With everyone healthy now, San Antonio is hoping to build off its finish. Coach Dan Hughes acknowledged the tough task facing his team against the league-best Lynx.
“They’re a solid team in every statistical way. Cheryl (Reeve) has them executing well across the board,” Hughes said. “Where I think the separation has been is their rebounding advantage with us and a lot of teams.”
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