MINNEAPOLIS — More than six months after a fourth championship slipped through their fingers, the Minnesota Lynx still gnash their teeth when going over the Game 5 loss to the Los Angeles Sparks on their home floor.
It’s a veteran group that has been through just about everything on the court together, from winning titles and gold medals to bowing out in the conference finals. But from coach Cheryl Reeve to former MVP Maya Moore to point guard Lindsay Whalen, all said that loss to the Sparks was easily the toughest of their careers.
“High school, college, pro, everything,” Whalen said. “I think that was probably the hardest one. Just the way it ended. You all saw it. How it ended. We’ve won a lot of great series, a lot of great games over the years. To come out on the other side was definitely difficult.”
The Lynx were 4 seconds away from becoming the first repeat champion in the league since 2002 and tying the Houston Comets for the most championships in league history. Sylvia Fowles had blocked Nneka Ogwumike’s shot near the rim, but the league MVP was able to grab the rebound and score a putback to lift the Sparks to the victory.
“That was definitely the toughest or top two, other than my college career ending in a loss,” said Moore, who hit a jumper with about 15 seconds to play that put the Lynx in front. “This one was tough because we did enough to be champions that year. Both teams clearly were championship groups.
“Sometimes it doesn’t go your way and it’s a hard one to swallow. I definitely grieved it and was happy that I had space to grieve it.”
Reeve typically reviews film of all games quickly, wanting answers to what went right or wrong as soon as possible to help her move forward. This time, it took months for her to work up the gumption to watch it, to re-open the wounds after seeing just how close they were to history after a franchise-record 28 wins in the regular season.
“This group really, really wanted badly the championship last year,” Reeve said. “They really wanted to repeat. And we were all on a mission, all season long. … As a group, the total group, it was something they wanted badly. So to fall short, I can only imagine how it felt for them. For me as their coach, there is tremendous disappointment I couldn’t get us over the hump, to get the separation. It will haunt me forever.”
If anything, a loss so bitter may embolden a team with aging featured players like 33-year-old Seimone Augustus and 35-year-olds Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson. General manager Roger Griffith and Reeve have constructed a roster that should be able to withstand that. Moore is in her prime at 27 and Fowles is 31, and those two have become the focal points of the offense.
Whalen, Augustus and Brunson have also stayed home during the winter, bypassing lucrative opportunities overseas to give their bodies more time to rest and recover from a grueling 2016 season. They also added Plenette Pierson, a two-time champion, to give their second unit some more depth.
Augustus has dealt with knee issues over the last few seasons, and she decided to pass on an overseas gig this year after consulting with former Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett, who urged her to “listen to her body.”
“If you don’t listen to KG, I don’t know who you’re going to listen to,” she said.
Despite the loss to the Sparks, the Lynx being their season on Sunday against Chicago as the favorite to win the championship, according to a preseason poll of all 12 WNBA general managers.
“It’s time to get back on the court and make some new memories,” Moore said. “We gave it everything we had on the court in that amazing series, so it’s fitting to have some of that with us. But use it to motivate us.”
The Lynx will play this season at the Xcel Energy Center, home to the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, in St. Paul while Target Center undergoes significant renovations. And for the first time, every Lynx home game will be televised, either on ESPN or locally on Fox Sports North.
“They have the hunger and they have the passion,” Reeve said. “That’s a really, really dangerous set of ingredients to have all that, and to have that fire still burn so bright inside of them. That’s what makes our group special.”