- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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PHOENIX -- When this season began and the entire women's basketball world anointed the Mercury, with the addition of Brittney Griner, as the team to beat for the WNBA championship, the Lynx probably just sat back and watched and smiled.
And it probably looked quite a lot like the satisfied smiles they had on their faces Sunday at US Airways Center when they defeated the Mercury 72-65 on the way to a third straight trip to the WNBA Finals. Minnesota is the third team in league history to make three consecutive trips to the league championship series, joining Houston and Detroit.
Not coincidentally, Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve was an assistant coach for the Shock during Detroit's run and remembers this part most of all.
"It was hard," Reeve said.
This was hard, too.
"Everything was a challenge," Reeve said Sunday. "As you thought it would be in a closeout game."
In running their win streak over Phoenix to 14 straight games, the Lynx were far from top form -- despite a combined 49 points from Maya Moore (career playoff high 27) and Seimone Augustus (22). Lindsay Whalen endured a 1-for-12 shooting night, finishing with three points, but also adding seven assists. Minnesota went 15-of-27 from the free throw line, and was outrebounded 43-35.
"This is not going to be one of those games where we say, 'Wow, that was fun. We did a lot of great things,'" Reeve said.
Phoenix was desperate for another win to extend its season, but just couldn't generate enough offense to get the job done, shooting 36.8 percent from the field and hitting just 2 of 21 3-point attempts.
Minnesota tried to clamp down on the pick-and-roll game and, despite finishing with 21 points, Diana Taurasi struggled to hit shots from the floor for most of the game.
"I didn't feel like they took us out of a ton of stuff," said Mercury interim head coach Russ Pennell, who likely will be involved in discussions in the coming week about whether he'll return to Phoenix's sideline. "I thought what we did was settle for the easy things. We didn't have any problem moving the ball and we didn't have a problem getting to our spots. We shot the ball incredibly poor, but I think a lot of that was that we took ill-advised shots."
While Reeve bristled a bit publicly at the beginning of the season because she felt her team was being overshadowed by Phoenix and even Los Angeles, the Lynx didn't bang that drum all season en route to the league's best record at 27-7. Now they have swept their way through two playoff series, winning four straight games -- but there isn't a lot of "I told you so" vibe here.
The players on this Minnesota team aren't really drum bangers by nature. The fact is, the Lynx likely are as driven by last year's failure to win a title against Indiana as anything anyone else has said.
"One of the best things to happen to us was that the attention turned away from us," Reeve said. "After winning a championship and being really, really hunted in 2012 … we came back in 2013 with a focus about us. On paper, I thought we'd still be pretty good. Other people thought that there might be other teams that would be better because of their acquisitions.
"I told our team, 'This is what it's like to be a San Antonio Spur. This is what they do to them all the time. All the attention goes to L.A. and Miami, and all San Antonio does is go through and be the best team through the regular season.' So we used that as our example."
And it took a lot of hard work.
"A lot of us sacrificed a lot to make things possible for this team," Augustus said. "I had to become a defensive player and guard the other team's best player in order for us to get better. Maya had to grow and mature into the player that she is right now for this team to get better. As well as Lindsay and [Rebekkah] Brunson and other players … it made it a blessing for us to get here three years in a row. Because it hasn't been easy."
As Moore moved into the media room, someone asked her if the team had been popping champagne in the locker room, celebrating the Western Conference title.
She shook her head and said, "This isn't our final destination."
After seeing a lot of preseason predictions pick Phoenix to win it all in 2013, Minnesota went to work to prove otherwise. Sunday, the Lynx swept the Mercury for a third consecutive trip to the WNBA Finals.