- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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There might have been a time, early in the WNBA season, when Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve wondered whether her team was a tad complacent about its ability to repeat as the league champion. She might have even said it out loud.
But in the afterglow of a two-game sweep of the Los Angeles Sparks in the Western Conference finals, that wonder has dissipated. Minnesota waits patiently for the start of the WNBA Finals on Sunday on its home floor. Indiana and Connecticut play Thursday for the right to try to stop Minnesota from successfully defending its title.
The Lynx are no longer the hunter in the WNBA, a team with an elusive quest. They are now the hunted, the team everyone is aiming for. But after a dramatic three-game series against Seattle, followed by a series against L.A. in which Minnesota looked alternately dominant (in Game 1) and poised (in coming back to win Game 2), the Lynx simply look ready for what's next.
"This is not easy, and anybody who thinks this should be easy for the Minnesota Lynx is not doing justice to the rest of the teams in this league," said Reeve following her team's clinching 80-79 win in Los Angeles. "L.A. is good, really, really good. If you look at our team and their team, there's not huge separation.
"For us to do this again we finished [the regular season] six of seven on the road, we went to the White House and now went through all this. This is a steady group with tremendous leadership. That is the only way you can accomplish this."
Minnesota finished 27-7 in the regular season -- the same record as in 2011 -- and 16-1 at home. The Lynx gracefully appeared to weather the stop-and-start of the Olympic break, including the reintegration of Olympians Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen. A three-game losing streak in early July was the biggest stumble, but other than that skid, there were no consecutive losses.
After going undefeated to win a gold medal in London, the Olympic trio returned focused for the second half of the season.
"We had a lot of momentum coming back and our team was ready to go," Moore said. "They were excited for us and we were excited. We just keep going."
And the expectations now, Reeve says, are higher than ever: The Lynx are starting to be tagged with the "D" word -- dynasty.
On Monday night, Moore was asked on ESPN whether this Minnesota team can be compared to the Houston Comets teams that won four straight titles in the early days of the WNBA.
"The expectations for this team are so high that anytime we falter, the sky is falling," Reeve said. "We try to be never too high, never too low."
Look no further than the late moments of the clinching win against Los Angeles, when L.A.'s Candace Parker banked in a long 3-pointer with 1:31 left in the game to give the Sparks a 79-77 lead.
"My first thought was, 'We're OK,'" Moore said. "We went back into the huddle and the attitude was, 'What's next?' We move on to the next play. That's the thing about our team. We try to stay consistent and eventually something will give. We just keep playing."
Reeve gives all the credit to her players for that mindset, but her steady management and unflinchingly high standards have helped put the Lynx back on this stage.
"I don't think any of it is me," Reeve demurred. "It's the core of who these people are. I do have a belief that if you have good people, good things will happen. I think we do things right. We are a testament to unselfish play. If you look at these players, no matter which team they play on, they all have the same reputation. It's a good group. If I can stay out of the way and let them hoop and be themselves I have great, great leadership."
A year ago, the Lynx were hungry for the first title. Are they as hungry for a second? Is that question even relevant to whether they can win another?
"I went through this in Detroit when I was with Bill Laimbeer, and knowing how difficult that was, going to the Finals three straight years, and now my experience here," Reeve said. "Last year was sweet because it was the first time. But I know a lot of these players have gone through it and we are going to just stay the course."
Defending WNBA champ Minnesota has gone from the hunter to the hunted. But what hasn't changed -- a steady, talented core -- is the key to winning back-to-back WNBA titles.