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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: Consistency and Camaraderie Make Lynx a Contender

It is an interesting place, in that Minnesota Lynx locker room. A place where victory doesn’t always satisfy, where winning championships don’t satiate, and where losing one sticks in the craw so deep it lasts for months.

It’s also a place of familiarity and family. A place with inside jokes, long memories and shared goals and expectations.

“We are lucky,” said Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson Tuesday, heading into Thursday’s matchup against the New York Liberty. “We come back for a new season and it’s seamless.”

The Lynx are the current standard for success in the WNBA with arguably the longest sustained run of success in league history. And the high standards are as internal as they are external.

Say, for example, after the Lynx lost last fall’s WNBA Finals series in a last-second shot on the homecourt in Game 5 after an extraordinary series with the Los Angeles Sparks.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure not a lot of us slept for a while after that,” Brunson said.

Having three championship trophies doesn’t erase the sting of not having a fourth in Minneapolis.

“It’s a fine line when you don’t achieve one of your goals, whether you dwell on it or not,” said Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, whose team heads into the early stretch of the 21st WNBA season still looking as powerful, and potentially dominant as ever.

“One way or the other, win or lose, you have to turn the page. Only one team feels good heading into the offseason. So every other team comes into a new season with some kind of motivation. In our case, it’s tough being so close, so that made it particularly hard. But we have the motivation, for sure, to bounce back.”

It is that bounce-back, that Reeve believes, defines her teams.

It’s hard to buy the winningest team in the league over the past seven years trying to pull the underdog card, talk about “doubters” or play with the proverbial chip-on-the-shoulder.

The motivation, the coach says, lies in the rebound.

“This is a group that’s always done that,” Reeve said. “Lose a big game in a series and bounce back. Lose four games in a row in the middle of the season, bounce back. That is always what I’m looking for.”

The reality is, the Lynx are not a young up-and-coming team looking to experience their first taste of success. This team knows how to handle both winning and losing. The core veteran group of Brunson, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and MVP candidate Maya Moore is joined for a third season by Sylvia Fowles. And Minnesota has deepened its bench with longtime WNBA players Jia Perkins and Plenette Pierson along with reserve guard Renee Montgomery. To see the team in action, click here for tickets.

This group of players know how to compartmentalize the disappointment many of them felt seven months ago, coming off the best regular-season in franchise history with 28 wins.

“Last season didn’t end the way we wanted it to go, but there is absolutely nothing we can do about that right now,” Brunson said. “We know that last season wasn’t a bust or anything. It wasn’t a bad year. We just didn’t get to where we wanted to go.”

Reeve said she won’t really see the evidence of her team’s disappointment in last year’s Finals until the postseason starts this year.

“Maybe then it will surface a little more,” Reeve said. “It’s such a long process, the season. It’s 34 games. It’s not going to be something we will be dwelling on in all 34 of those games.”

The Lynx, as individuals and as a group, have a remarkable way of accessing their hunger year after year to keep winning.

“That is something innate to this group,” Reeve said. “It’s something they bring to the game as individuals – they all have a drive that’s second-to-none – and it’s something they share collectively.”

Reeve believes that they want success not only for themselves, but for one another.

“They feel such a connection to one another and seeing the joy in watching one of their teammates succeed. I think they truly enjoy that. But make no mistake, they each have an individual burn to reach their goals.”

It has been something of a luxury in a league often marked by change and transition, that the Lynx’s core group of Brunson, Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus and Reeve – remain together, on the same floor every summer.

The Lynx have won three championships since 2011. Reached the Finals five times over that span, missing out only in 2014 when Phoenix won the title.

Minnesota banks on its experience. That experience is getting to be a double-edge sword.

Brunson is 35, Whalen is 35, Augustus is 33. Fair to say that this dynasty is closer to the end of its run that the beginning. Yet Moore is in the prime of her career as the league’s best all-round player. Brunson, Whalen, Augustus and Moore all skipped playing overseas this winter to rest body and mind. They spent time together, training, working out, laying the groundwork for 2017. And then, as they have done for the past seven years as a group, they came together to execute the plan.

“It’s unique, year over year over year, to come back to this same group,” Reeve said.

Reeve said the team could have taken a different path after their first title back in 2011, players looking for more individual glory, attention or emphasis.

“People could have wanted a bigger piece of the pie,” Reeve said. “But this group wants something different. They want something more and they’ve never lost sight of that. I think it’s a trait of our team that’s unmatched. Nobody is bellyaching that they aren’t getting enough. They are doing this for each other and for the team.

“Their commitment to being here has given us such stability. They check in with each other and they said ‘I’m doing it as long as you are’. They are people who will not only be teammates, but friends forever. You can count on it. And in pro sports, that’s hard to achieve.”

Brunson knows its special. And she knows it’s fleeting.

“It won’t last forever, that’s for sure,” Brunson said. “Being an athlete, you know nothing is guaranteed, that you never know what’s going to happen. As this team continues to grow and get older, we just have to keep doing a great job taking care of ourselves and preserving what we have together. We have to just get as much out of this as we can.”

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on throughout the 2017 season.

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