Nneka Ogwumike is the league MVP.
Four years ago, she was the No. 1 draft pick and back then, some people might have considered her a consolation prize. The No. 1 pick in 2011 was Maya Moore, and she immediately turned Minnesota into a playoff team and then a championship contender. The No. 1 pick in 2013 would be Brittney Griner. She would win a WNBA title in her second season.
Ogwumike was sandwiched in between two of the most highly anticipated rookies in league history, players that were pre-destined to be franchise-changers.
And then there was Nneka. The Stanford All-American was athletic, smart and all-hustle. She was headed to Los Angeles where the resident superstar on the roster was Candace Parker. She would be a supporting player, a second option.
Until she wasn’t.
Sparks general manager Penny Toler always knew different. She knew what she was getting and it didn’t bother her a bit that others didn’t.
Brian Agler knows what he has. A go-to player in the paint who will score, rebound, run the floor and set an example. Her teammates know who she is, a positive, dependable leader who brings her best effort every night.
Now the entire league knows what those of us who have seen her since she was a spectacular college talent have known all along.
Ogwumike said that she’s now accomplished a dream that she wrote in her journal many years ago. She did more than dream about it. She worked for it. She also set a new standard. For offensive efficiency, for effort and for excellence.
The only thing that would be better than this is a WNBA title and that quest begins Wednesday in the semifinal series against Chicago. Anything less will be a consolation prize.
Cheryl Reeve admits she doesn’t know everything her players talk about when she’s not around.
For example, she has no idea if, as the Minnesota Lynx begin their portion of the WNBA Playoffs Wednesday against the Phoenix Mercury in the semifinals, they are talking about the legacy they would cement with another championship.
A legacy that would put the Lynx in rare air. A fourth title would match the Houston Comets for the most titles in WNBA history. A repeat would make Minnesota the first team since Los Angeles in 2001-02 to win back-to-back titles.
“We don’t talk about it,” Reeve said Saturday. “When the season started, we did talk about the idea of another championship. We said it was a goal, and then we didn’t talk about it again.
“The media like storylines. That’s your job. And maybe when our players are in the cold tub or having dinner in the airport they talk about it. I know they are competitive. And winning a championship is one of the goals we have set.”
“When the season started, we did talk about the idea of another championship. We said it was a goal, and then we didn’t talk about it again.” – Reeve
Who would know better how to achieve that goal than the coach who has won five WNBA titles from the bench, three with Minnesota as a head coach and two with Detroit under Bill Laimbeer as an assistant?
The Lynx also know, Reeve said, how hard a thing it is to win a WNBA Championship, even when they make it look easy.
And they will be reminded of that again as they begin their semifinal series against the Phoenix Mercury, the playoffs’ No. 8 seed in name only. The Mercury had a lackluster regular season – finishing 16-18. They couldn’t find their defense, chemistry, or consistency.
But this team – with stars like Diana Taurasi, Griner, Penny Taylor, DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree – knows how to turn it on when it counts. And the Mercury did just that in a pair of back-to-back wins on the road in the knockout rounds of this newly formatted WNBA postseason.
And now it sets up a matchup between two teams with 11 Olympians between them.
Phoenix will come into the series with the momentum of their wins at Indiana and New York. And the Lynx will come in rested, having last played in the regular-season finale on Sept. 17.
Is that too much time? Does it dull the sharpness that the Lynx showed in the stretch run, winning eight of their final 10 games before the playoffs?
“Rest has always been a really positive thing for us,” Reeve said. “I gave our players three days off entirely. It was good for them. It energized them. We just finished our fourth day of practice and you can tell what time of year it is, but the energy you feel from them when you walk in the gym.
“You know it’s playoff time. Our players embrace and understand the pressure that comes with that. I don’t have to go through long diatribes about what it means to be in the playoffs.”
In fact, Reeve has to say precious little to motivate this experienced squad of players, whose core spent part of their summer in Rio helping the U.S. team win a sixth-straight gold medal.
Reeve was with them as an assistant coach under Geno Auriemma.
It was a quick turnaround for all to return to the WNBA season, just a few days between the gold medal game in Rio and the resumption of the schedule, which saw the Lynx hit the road to play in Connecticut and Seattle.
“They would never have said, ‘Coach, we are tired’,” Reeve said. “But after the fact, people admitted they didn’t have any legs. But we have our legs back under us now.”
The Lynx are healthy heading into these playoffs, unlike last season when Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus played through injuries on the way to a championship.
“I have always said the key to a successful season in this league is good health,” Reeve said.
Reeve said the Lynx have been practicing hard, shoring up because “we know we are not good at a lot of things.”
Not that she’s going to tell you what those things are.
“We are just trying to win the next game,” Reeve said.
Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the 2016 season.
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