by Stephen Litel / @stephenlitel
The defending WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx are back in town. After a remarkable run throughout both the regular season and the playoffs last summer that culminated in hoisting the championship trophy in the air, they have returned and are ready for more.
“It’s really refreshing when we step off that plane to get back to Minnesota to start our new season as the defending champs,” said Maya Moore. “Just to see the trophy again, it brings back so many good memories and feelings and it just re-motivates us to get back to work and do whatever we need to do to make sure we get another one.”
After a season that featured many firsts for the franchise, they still find themselves in the midst of even more firsts. The summer of 2012 will be the first time they take the court as the defending champions, yet believe they will be capable of handling the pressure because individual players on the roster have gone through this in the past.
“It’s my first time going through it,” said Lindsay Whalen. “I know some other people on the team have been on teams where they’ve won it the year before, so we’ll lean on them a lot for their knowledge and experience. If we just take it each day, one day at a time and not try to get too overwhelmed, I think you do those things and remember it’s fun. We had a lot of fun last year and that was a big key. Of course, you’re going to work hard and there’s going to be ups and downs, but if you kind of stay in the moment, stay together and have fun with it, good things can happen.”
While memories of last year are fun, in order to have the right mindset, the Minnesota Lynx are doing all they can to place their championship run last year where it belongs, which is in the past. The present may bring similar expectations, but they have a long journey ahead to fulfill their hopeful designs.
“I think everybody forgot about last year, as far as being so excited about it, at 11:59 on December 31 of 2011,” said Seimone Augustus. “Once January 1 hit, we were all focused. We kind of talked to each other about what we needed to do. We know that it’s going to be a lot harder with teams making moves—LA made great moves this off-season, Chicago made great moves—and this year, we start off with the bulls-eye on our back. We’re the defending champions and everyone wants a piece of us, so we understand that it’s going to be a lot harder.”
However, it will be difficult to keep the past in the rear-view mirror because of the team’s makeup. They may very well be a better team than last year, making fans and media alike unable to think of any but the possibility of becoming a repeat champion, something not done in the WNBA for a decade.
“I understand why people are bugging us,” said Candice Wiggins. “I mean, repeat, repeat, repeat…that’s on everybody’s mind. That’s on our mind. I think that it’s a day at a time, so sometimes it gets a little bit overwhelming because we’re thinking we want to repeat, but the road to repeat is not about talking about it. It’s actually in doing stuff. There’s actually a reason why we won the championship, so we’re really focused on that. I mean, it hasn’t been done in, like, ten years, so it’s a huge task ahead of us. Let’s not kid ourselves. I mean, I would talk about it every day too because it’s on my mind every day.”
Although there is not a slice of concern in this area, their head coach, Cheryl Reeve, along with assistant coaches Jim Petersen and Shelley Patterson will not allow this team to become complacent. The Minnesota Lynx had an amazing season in 2011, but they didn’t achieve perfection in both on-court play and in their record. There are always areas where teams can improve and create goals for themselves.
“This team can always get better,” said Augustus. “We weren’t the top offensive team last year. We were second in offensive production and defensively, I think we were the top team in defense and we want to continue to build on that. We talk about our bench a lot. We want to be able to play those bench players and play them a lot of minutes to try to give the starters a little bit of rest and, not just that, but to give them some experience on the court because we’re going to need them at tough times in the games, depending on situations.”
Minnesota’s bench players came into training camp with the confidence gained of being WNBA champions and, led by Candice Wiggins coined the term “Bench Mob.” As a sign of unity and desire to keep the level of play the same when they sub into the games, the Lynx expect that any lineup of players they can put on the court together will provide winning basketball.
“Last year, looking at our roster, we were really excited and people were really excited to see the talent that we have, but it takes more than that,” said Moore. “It takes coming together, being able to work well together and I think that’s something our second team does. I feel just as comfortable playing with them as I do our first five for the most part and it’s really exciting to know that when you go to practice, you’re competing against the other five, who are really going to push you, challenge you and really make you step up. Their mindset going into last season was really good and now that we were successful that way, I think it’s going to be even more dynamic.”
Opponents gave Minnesota their best shot collectively last season, giving everything they had to beat them, as the Lynx became the WNBA darlings early on with solid play. Of course, an already-talented team adding a rookie of the caliber of Maya Moore upped the ante there as well, but this team knows the quest to knock off the defending champs is going to be a running theme throughout the summer of 2012.
“I think that we have a huge target on our back,” said Wiggins. “I think everyone is so sick of the Lynx and I think the other teams are completely just like, ‘I’m so sick of hearing about Minnesota.’ I think they’re going to have that focus, but the good thing is that we have such great leadership, we have such a great sense of identity, we have such a great leader in our coach and our coaching staff, everyone knows their part and their roles on the team that we’re going to be really, really hard to beat…even for the people that are absolutely sick and want our heads cut off.”
Make no mistake about it though, the Minnesota Lynx are preparing for all comers. They are confident in themselves and truly believe no team in the WNBA can knock them off their championship throne because only the injury bug they avoided last year as a whole could do that.
“When you have a group as special as this one, I would hope people would get excited and we can just feel it in the room,” said Moore. “We can just feel the excitement as people have been coming in for training camp, we can feel it. Just driving back in the car from the airport, everybody is just really excited and even more invested into what we have because we know how good it can be and we want it to be even better.”
The Minnesota Lynx have served notice to the rest of the WNBA. They know you are coming and they will be ready after raising their championship banner to the rafters on May 20.
photo by Matthew Fleegel