Lynx ready for new challenges
Core group back from team that won franchise's first WNBA title last summer
Rebekkah Brunson and her Minnesota teammates will receive their WNBA championship rings Sunday at Target Center before their season opener against Phoenix. They'll take a few minutes to really appreciate all that happened in 2011.
Then, that's it. Time to move full speed ahead to 2012.
"We really didn't have much time to celebrate last year," Brunson said. "After the season was over, we all go our separate ways and refocus on our new teams [overseas].
"But we've discussed it since we got back. We've been excited to see each other. And we'll enjoy the moment a little while longer when we get our rings. That will be the finale of the celebration. After that, we can't really think about what we did anymore. We have to think about what we want to accomplish this year."
The Lynx are trying to become the first team to repeat as WNBA champion since Los Angeles did it in 2001-02. All the key players are back, including Seimone Augustus, last year's WNBA Finals MVP.
New faces are rookie forward Devereaux Peters, the No. 3 draft pick out of Notre Dame, and veteran guard Erin Thorn, who's in her 10th season out of BYU.
As much as everything is the same, it's never identical season to season. The Lynx's familiarity with each other should hold over and provide good chemistry. But that doesn't mean it's simply a case of picking up where they left off.
Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve remembers her days as an assistant at Charlotte when that franchise was still in the league. The Sting went to the WNBA Finals in 2001 and brought back most of the same team for 2002.
"And we just had trouble recapturing what had made us great down the stretch the year before," Reeve said. "We started the season 1-10. And then in Detroit, it was also amazing how different each season was regardless of if we had the same people or not.
"The dynamics change. Players are in a different place in their lives than they were the season before. Could be mental or physical or both. And there are things that you'll have to face that you don't know about yet."
Reeve also points to the same thing Seattle coach Brian Agler talked about after his Storm won the 2010 title. He said that for as much as everyone considered Seattle the dominant team that year, actually the Storm prevailed in a lot of close games that could have gone the other way. He saw a great season salvaged from a potentially average one because of clutch plays made by Seattle.
If the ball bounced favorably for the Storm in 2010, it did the same thing for the Lynx in 2011.
"A lot of things went our way in the last five minutes of games, whether we created the luck or not," Reeve said. "We hit some tough shots. The difference between winning and losing is so fine.
"Now we're starting this year. Does the ball not bounce our way? What about the things we can't control? Things just end up being different, and that's what I told our team: 2011 was amazing and special, but we've got this new journey. You can draw on the feeling you had last year, but recreating or recapturing it exactly is impossible."
Fortunately for the Lynx, if they stay healthy, they can do things a little differently this year but still have the same success. The ageless -- OK, she's actually 41 -- Taj McWilliams-Franklin is back as the Tina Turner of the WNBA: still rockin' against kids who are little more than half her age. Also returning as starters are Brunson (the team's top rebounder in 2011), assists leader Lindsay Whalen, scoring leader Augustus and WNBA rookie of the year Maya Moore.
Three of the Lynx's starters -- Augustus, Whalen and Moore -- will be with Team USA at the London Olympics during the July-August break in the WNBA season. Reeve said she doesn't really think in terms of needing to rest them any more than usual because of their Olympic duties. But by the same token, she wants to more effectively utilize her reserves all season.
"We are so focused on our task at hand, and the Olympics are not really on our minds," Reeve said. "We're not really thinking we have to conserve energy because of that. But I have the luxury of having a really strong bench that I have to use better than I did last season.
"If I can do that, the rest for everyone will kind of just happen naturally, not just because of the Olympics."
Guards Candice Wiggins, Monica Wright and Thorn all could play important roles off the bench. Thorn, who formerly was with New York and Chicago, got a spot with the 2012 Lynx because of her 3-point shooting prowess. Wiggins and Thorn both can play point guard in backing up Whalen.
Wright has worked on finishing better on drives by changing how she shoots when she's close to the basket.
"She can get by anybody," Reeve said of Wright's quickness. "Opponents will tell you, our team says it: Her first step is so explosive. We know she can get to the rim; we just didn't know what was going to happen when she got there. She's fast, strong, she gets there. She just has to finish better."
The 6-foot-4 Jessica Adair and 6-5 Amber Harris provide depth in the paint, although Harris is briefly sidelined by an ankle injury. As for Peters, some were surprised the Lynx took her so high, but Reeve thinks she's a perfect fit.
"I've got a team that's got big personalities, I've got scorers I need someone who is fine with doing the dirty work," Reeve said. "Someone who can set great screens and be happy to do it. Get me possessions, get deflections, rebounds and blocked shots. Do the little things and really embrace that.
"Talking to [Notre Dame coach] Muffet McGraw, she said she didn't run a play for Devereaux in four years. And Dev was OK with that. Plus, she's about as perfect a fit as you can get for us with her ability to receive the ball at the elbow and make plays. We do that a lot in our offense."
Brunson said the fit overall was good for everyone last year with the Lynx. She is hopeful it will be much the same this summer even if it is a distinctly separate experience.
"We have the same core group, but they'll be new challenges for us," Brunson said. "We have to continue to grow and get better. Last year wasn't about one person; it was about the group. We've always been that way, and I think we'll continue that."