- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- This is why repeating championships is so darn hard: Games like this, when you can't really tell the difference between the team that won its conference and the team that was fourth and had a losing record.
Minnesota survived Seattle 73-72 in the deciding Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinal. And "survive" is the appropriate word. Seattle's Lauren Jackson -- who sent Sunday's game into overtime with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer -- missed as time expired Tuesday at Target Center. But she didn't miss by much.
Her baseline jumper off an inbounds pass from Katie Smith bounced off the rim and then fell to the floor. That's how close the Lynx came to having a shockingly premature end to a season in which they are trying to repeat their WNBA title.
"I did everything that I could do," said Minnesota forward Rebekkah Brunson, who was contesting Jackson's shot. "You know, if she made it, it would have been a great shot. I just tried to make it difficult for her."
And the Storm, who finished the regular season 16-18 and had Jackson for just nine games in that time, did everything they could to make it difficult for the Lynx to advance.
In all three games of this series, Seattle -- the 2010 WNBA champion -- played well enough to win. But the Storm got only one victory: the double-overtime thriller in Seattle on Sunday.
"I feel like if you can get past the Seattle Storm with all their vets and their never-say-die will," Minnesota's Taj McWilliams-Franklin said, "then you can get past anybody. I almost felt like this should have been the series that got us to the [WNBA] Finals, not the Western Conference finals.
"Because it was such an amazing battle between the last two champions of the league. For me, it was just an incredible game. Fun to be a part of, fun to watch. It was only fitting that it came down to that last shot."
Unfortunately for Jackson and the Storm, it was crushing. LJ is nowhere close to being 100 percent physically, and neither is Sue Bird. Because Jackson stayed with the Australian national team for the first half of the WNBA season for Olympic preparation, the Storm as a unit really has not had that much time to jell.
What we saw these past two games from Seattle is what might have been all season had things been different.
"We put ourselves in position to win this game," Bird said in a quiet Storm locker room afterward. "To be in the situation we were in on their home court in Game 3, I think that says a lot about the team we have in here. It's unfortunate we didn't have this team at the beginning of the year. If this is what we look like now in just a couple of weeks all together, imagine what it could have been like."
That said, Bird and all the Storm players understand Jackson's commitment to her Olympic team. They also admire the fact that despite her ailments, LJ came back for as much of this WNBA season as she could.
Earlier in this series, Jackson said she never considered not returning.
"Seattle is my home over here [in the United States], and I've played here every year since I was a baby," said Jackson, who was drafted No. 1 by the Storm at age 19 in 2001. "I feel like until I retire, I have to be here. I can't say, 'No, I'm not coming back.' I wouldn't do that."
Jackson and fellow post player Ann Wauters were a combined 2-of-13 from the field Tuesday; the Storm, though, did get 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting from forward Camille Little. Jackson was hard on herself, as she usually is, after missing the last shot.
"She's had a long year," Smith said of Jackson, who finished with nine points. "You come back here, you're banged up, tired. And whether she touches [the ball] or not, she draws a lot of attention. She battled; everybody battled."
In fact, probably nobody had a more taxing night than Minnesota point guard Lindsay Whalen, who injured her left (non-shooting) wrist early on and left the game for a while, which the Storm took advantage of. Whalen came back with the wrist wrapped up, and still played 25-plus minutes.
Whalen was 2-of-9 from the field, but one of those made shots was key. It came with 3 minutes, 15 seconds left in a back-and-forth fourth quarter, putting Minnesota up 69-64.
"I had a lot of tape on my hand, but I was able to make that one jump shot," Whalen said, smiling. "And it ended up being a big one. I really wanted a couple more to go down, but it turns out that one was enough to help."
Several of the Lynx pitched in for this victory. Brunson had 16 points and nine rebounds, continuing what has been a clutch series for her.
"Rebekkah was huge," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. "I told her I appreciated the execution of the game plan. We identified what Seattle was giving us, and we knew that she was going to be available for jump shots. Without her, we really would have struggled."
Seimone Augustus led Minnesota with 21 points, and Maya Moore scored 20. Monica Wright had seven points and played valuable perimeter defense off the bench.
Ultimately, the Storm thought they did pretty much just what they wanted, including keeping the score in the 70s against the high-octane Lynx. Bird said in the end, too much Moore and Augustus was probably the biggest difference.
"Great offense beats great defense; I actually believe that," Bird said. "And there are only a handful or so of players who can do that in this league, and they have two of them."
The Lynx also have Brunson, a physical force who will be very important again as Minnesota moves forward to take on Los Angeles next. The Sparks finished their series against San Antonio on Saturday, so they're more rested than the Lynx.
"I feel bad for Minnesota," Bird said, "because I know if we had to play L.A. in two days, that would be very difficult physically."
Of course, she felt much worse for the Storm, who have lost in the conference semifinals seven of the past eight seasons. But this defeat came against the team that has been the best in the WNBA all season.
Now, though, the Lynx will have to prove that all over again. They're just glad they get the chance.
15dBonnie D. Ford