Sports

The Minnesota Lynx are in The Finals Again, and Making the Case for Best Ever

If the Lynx win the WNBA finals this year they will have a legitimate case as best team in WNBA history.

by Howard Megdal
Oct 3 2016, 7:32pm

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Mercury, featuring Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner, won the 2014 WNBA title and were selected by a preseason poll of WNBA general managers to win this year's championship. Sunday afternoon, the Minnesota Lynx ended their season in a sweep, crushing the Mercury on their home floor, 82-67, in a game that wasn't even that close.

The win lifted Minnesota into the WNBA finals for the fifth time in six years. It also reinforced this Lynx team's case for best in league history.

The standard for WNBA teams was set early on by the Houston Comets. Those Comets teams won each of the first four WNBA titles in league history, from 1997-2000. Led by a trio of all-time greats—Cynthia Cooper, Tina Thompson, and Sheryl Swoopes—the Comets won in 1997 with an 18-10 record despite getting just nine games from Swoopes. From there, they showed their true dominance with a 27-3 record in 1998 and 26-6 in 1999, dropping a single game in each year's playoffs en route to titles. In 2000, they finished 27-5, and despite the postseason expanding to three rounds, the Comets didn't drop a game, completing their 6-0 postseason run with a 2-0 series win over the New York Liberty.

And then that was it. By 2001 the Comets were without Cooper and Swoopes. The latter returned in 2002, the former briefly in 2003, but they never again won a playoff series as a trio. So the run was four seasons, including three in which the Comets finished atop the league in both offensive and defensive ratings.

As for the Lynx, their trio of Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, and Lindsay Whalen has been together since 2011, the second year of coach Cheryl Reeve's tenure with the team and Moore's rookie season. They finished 27-7 that year, raced through a longer WNBA playoff gauntlet than the one the Comets faced, and finished by sweeping the Atlanta Dream and Angel McCoughtry in what was her best season as a pro.

Their reign has continued ever since. It is notable that the only seasons that have interrupted their championships—2012 and 2014—required superhuman efforts by some of the greatest players in the history of the league. In 2012, it took Tamika Catchings doing everything—in the clinching game for the Indiana Fever, she scored 25 points, dished out eight assists, grabbed four rebounds and a steal, and blocked three shots. In 2014, Phoenix beat Minnesota because Diana Taurasi scored 31, made 12 of her 17 shot attempts, and added seven assists, five rebounds, a steal and a block in Game 3.

And that's it. Those are the only times this decade anyone has derailed the Lynx from winning it all.

While the Comets had four seasons as the best, the Lynx, after four years to rival Houston's, went out and got better, adding the league's best center, Sylvia Fowles, in a trade midway through 2015. It was the WNBA's version of Durant to the Warriors. The results were rocky at first—it required Reeve to completely reconfigure the offense and a host of accomplished Olympians to buy in.

They did, and in time for the Lynx to win the 2015 title, and for Fowles to earn WNBA Finals MVP honors.

This season, the Lynx have been the best they've ever been. They finished atop the league with a 28-6 record. They were first in offensive rating, first in defensive rating. The Mercury came into the semifinal series against them on a high, having just gone to New York and defeated the third-best team in the Liberty.

And in none of the three games did Phoenix make it particularly close. Griner, who'd been unstoppable since returning from the Olympics, scored just two points in Game 2, and nine points in Game 3, with Fowles serving as the ultimate equalizer. Taurasi got hers, but the rest of the Mercury looked like they understood Reeve's Lynx were inevitable. And so they were.

To win a WNBA championship in 2016, they'll need to beat the league's second-best regular season team, the Los Angeles Sparks, who feature current MVP Nneka Ogwumike and former MVP Candace Parker, or a Chicago Sky team that could get 2015 MVP Elena Delle Donne back from injury in time for the finals. The Sparks lead the Sky in their best-of-five series, two games to one.

If the Lynx complete this six-year run with a fourth title, it will be hard to argue any team's been any better in the history of the WNBA. And frighteningly for the league, there's no sign these Lynx are anywhere close to finished making history.