Lynx outlast Sparks to win fourth WNBA championship

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Thursday, October 5, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS -- All the building blocks line up like blue-and-green dominoes when you look back at what has led to this tremendous run of success for the Minnesota Lynx, who celebrated their fourth championship after a 85-76 victory over Los Angeles in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals on Wednesday at Williams Arena.

Last year, the Lynx and their fans were crushed to lose Game 5 of the Finals on a last-second shot by the Sparks.

This year, when they fell behind 2-1 in the series -- and the Sparks had another chance to clinch the title in Los Angeles -- things seemed bleak for the Lynx, at least to outsiders. However, they were confident they could win Game 4 and send the series back to Minnesota, just as they did in 2016.

And this time, Game 5 didn't get away from them, and the Lynx tied the Houston Comets' record of four WNBA titles.

All five Minnesota starters scored in double figures. Sylvia Fowles had 17 points and 20 rebounds, Maya Moore added 18 points and 10 rebounds, and Lindsay Whalen 17 points and eight assists.

Fowles became the first player since Seattle's Lauren Jackson in 2010 to win both the regular-season MVP and WNBA Finals MVP.

In a twist of fate, the victory came on the college home court of Whalen, Minnesota's point guard. The Lynx hosted their playoff games at Williams because their usual home, Target Center, is being renovated. They'll be back at Target next season, but this year they got to celebrate in the nearly 90-year-old arena called "The Barn."

Whalen led the University of Minnesota to the Women's Final Four her senior year in 2004, and then was the No. 4 pick in the WNBA draft, by Connecticut. She played in the WNBA Finals twice with the Sun (2004, '05) and then was traded back home in 2010.

Whalen is from Hutchinson, Minnesota, about an hour west of Minneapolis. The Lynx have become a model franchise, and it has happened in her backyard.

"That's something to really be proud of -- that our team has had this big of an impact on our community, our league, and the sport," Whalen said. "To have it be here in Minnesota where I grew up and played in college -- it's really cool.

"When you're young, it's not like you could predict any of this stuff. But knowing the way people are here, you feel that this can happen. Anytime you get some wins and have a team that plays the right way, and does the right things on and off the court, Minnesotans are really ready to support you and show up. Not just as fans, but as a real part of it."

A lot of hard work has elevated this franchise, but a little good fortune helped along the way.

"When you go through a period of time when you're successful, some of it is luck, and some is timing," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. "As they say, you have to go through some failure before you go through success."

The Lynx won just one playoff game in their first 12 seasons. In the seven seasons since, they've won 41 playoff games. From 2011-17, they are 182-56 in the regular season. Minnesota is the standard-bearer, a franchise that players want to join.

Such was the case with Fowles, who sat out the first half of the 2015 season with Chicago to force a trade to Minnesota.

"They do things differently here, and that starts from the top down," Fowles said. "Everybody holds each other accountable, and that's something that I like. Everybody has a role and knows that."

Obtaining Fowles, the double MVP, was a major move for the Lynx. But go back to the winter of 2009-10 to see how the stars really began to align. Under coach Jennifer Gillom, the Lynx were 14-20 and missed the playoffs in 2009. Seimone Augustus -- the 2006 No. 1 draft pick -- was the team's primary asset. Then, in just over a month's time, three huge acquisitions changed the course of WNBA and Lynx history.

On Dec. 8, 2009, Lynx general manager Roger Griffith hired Reeve, who'd previously been an assistant with Cleveland, Charlotte and Detroit.

Six days later, the Lynx chose Rebekkah Brunson -- who won her fifth title Wednesday, more than any WNBA player -- with the second pick in the dispersal draft of the Sacramento Monarchs, who had ceased operations.

"You could start to see the pieces coming together," Brunson said of her assessment of the Lynx back then. "I had played with [Augustus] overseas, so I was familiar with her. If I could have picked anywhere, I would have picked here."

On Jan. 12, 2010, the Lynx finally were able to make the deal with the Sun that they'd long been working on to get Whalen.

"The funny thing is, there were some fans locally who were saying, 'Oh, it's too late now, she's washed up,' " Reeve said, chuckling about the unwarranted pessimism in regard to Whalen, who was almost 28 at the time. "They thought she was at the end of her career then."

Then the Lynx hit the lottery jackpot with the No. 1 draft pick in 2011: future league MVP Maya Moore of UConn. Luck had its hand in that, too. The 2010 season was challenging for the Lynx, as Augustus was not 100 percent because of her recovery from a knee injury and abdominal surgery.

Still, the Lynx had made a playoff push, but missed the last spot because they lost the tiebreaker to Los Angeles, as both teams finished 13-21. Reeve still recalls a blown defensive assignment in an August loss to the Sparks that could have flipped the script and sent the Lynx to the 2010 postseason and the Sparks to the 2011 draft lottery.

Also, Tulsa had the league's worst record in 2010 and could have gotten the top pick if it had won the lottery. But instead, Moore ended up in Minnesota.

"I had no control over where I was drafted, but I went to a team that was on the cusp of greatness," Moore said. "I've been the beneficiary of having experienced, competitive, smart, poised coaches -- going from Geno [Auriemma] to Cheryl -- for the last 11 years now.

"There are so many factors that go into dynasties and success over time. Some of it is being blessed to have the right people at the right time in the right place. But there's no question it's the people that are at the top. Leaders are the ones who push for things to be great."

But what if Reeve herself had not ended up in Minnesota? The Shock left Detroit after the 2009 season for Tulsa, and the new owners could have offered the head coach/general manager job to Reeve, who'd been with that franchise for three trips to the WNBA Finals and two championships. She acknowledges if they had, she would have at least considered it.

"The team was relocating, and I was pretty attached to that group," Reeve said. "I would have felt probably a strong responsibility to be there for them though that difficult time, leaving Detroit.

"I can name three-four things from my playing career and coaching career that -- had they gone differently -- I might not be where I am now. Things have a tendency to work out."

The Comets won their four titles in consecutive years, as opposed to four in seven years for the Lynx. The WNBA's first season was 1997, and Houston won titles from 1997-2000. The first two years of the WNBA, a lot of the sport's professional talent was with the would-be rival American Basketball League before it folded.

This is not meant to lessen anything about the dominance of the Comets. But what the Lynx have done is add a rich, long chapter to women's basketball lore. One that they aren't finished writing yet.

"Chemistry is really important, and the management and coaching staff understands that," Brunson said. "It isn't just about your talent, but how you function together."

And as Augustus, the longest-tenured Lynx player, puts it, "We cherish every opportunity we have to step on the floor and compete for championships.

"It's heartwarming for me because I got to experience the good, the bad, and the ugly here. To see us where we are, with people actually saying we're a dynasty? I can remember the days when we were a laughingstock. Seeing the crowds here, talking to little kids who say, 'You are my role model!' I had the patience to wait to see if it would unfold here."

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