'Never underestimate the heart of a champion': Lynx begin title defense
MINNEAPOLIS — Former Lynx assistant coach Jim Petersen used to send Lindsay Whalen the same message almost daily when things would get difficult.
"Never underestimate the heart of a champion," the texts read.
"Really, that helped me get through a lot of times," Whalen said last week, "Because it's true. Once you've won and you know what it takes, you never count a group out that's done it and done it so well like we have."
For the first time in a long time, the Lynx enter the playoffs as massive underdogs. After a regular season Seimone Augustus admitted was "a little rough," Minnesota (18-16) steps into the postseason as the No. 7 seed in an eight-team field, facing the task of winning two straight single-elimination games on the road just to earn a trip to a five-game semifinals — the round where the Lynx started each of their previous two postseason ventures.
Minnesota has not looked anything like its championship-winning self this season, as injuries and inconsistencies have plagued the 2018 campaign. After years of fending off fierce challengers, it looks like the Lynx have been passed up by some of the WNBA's up-and-coming squads.
But nothing of that nature is official until the postseason, and the Lynx don't seem interested in passing any torches at the moment, not without a fight, anyway. This is still a team that's been to the WNBA Finals in six of the past seven seasons, winning four titles, including last season. The Lynx, still in search of their first successful title defense, sound like a group with designs on defending their throne to the finish.
"We're going to do what Whalen would do: give everything," Augustus said. "We're gonna throw the kitchen sink at everybody we're going to play."
Sunday's win over Washington was celebrated as Whalen's final regular-season game at Target Center, though many assume it was the future hall of famer's last home game, period. The Lynx are hoping that's not the case.
"I think we would all like to give her another chance to come back here," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said, "but we'll just take it one day at a time."
In order to return to Target Center, Minnesota has to win two do-or-die road games. The first of those, fittingly, will be in Los Angeles — the Lynx's opponent in each of the past two WNBA Finals. This marks the fourth straight playoffs in which two of the league's most celebrated franchises will face off.
"Who'd have thunk it?" Reeve said. "We just can't avoid each other."
The Sparks' season was just as surprising as Minnesota's, if not more so. There was no sign or reason to assume Los Angeles was going to fall out of the league's top three or four teams, yet the Sparks finished sixth in the standings. Still, the Sparks (19-15) have one of the league's most talented teams and bested Minnesota in two of three regular-season games in 2018.
Coming off a pair of thrilling five-game Finals series the past two years — with each team winning one — Tuesday's game should be a scintillating showdown. You likely won't find a team that wants to end the Lynx's dynasty more than Los Angeles.
But despite their regular-season struggles, the Lynx seem confident that they just may have one more run in them. Throughout the past couple of months, Augustus has repeated a mantra to her teammates: "What is for us will not pass us."
"If it's meant for us to do great things this year, we will," Augustus told Fox Sports North last week. "But we're going to make sure we're doing what we need to do to make that happen."
As Whalen reminded everyone, you can never underestimate the heart of a champion.
"There's just something about this team, so we're going in and absolutely leaving it all out there, for sure," Whalen told Fox Sports North. "We're going to go in there and see what happens, but I wouldn't want to play us if I was another team in this situation, so we'll be ready to go."