Before the playoffs began, Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve admitted to Full Court that she's a bit superstitious. After heading into last year's championships as the odds-on favorite to bring home the hardware, her Lynx fell short, falling to the underdog Indiana Fever in four games. So this year, said Reeves, she resolved not to do anything, including interviews and previews, that she did in the lead-up to last year's Finals.
Nonetheless, with this year's championship series just around the corner, Reeve put aside her fears and rituals earlier this week, for long enough to field questions from the media about the series in a national teleconference. Reeve brought along the Lynx's All-Star wing Seimone Augustus to join in the discussion, and today, Reeve, Augustus, and Lynx All-Stars Rebekkah Brunson, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen shared some more of their thoughts on how this year's race to repeat as league champions appears to be shaping up.
Q: Cheryl, can you talk a little bit about the mindset of this team this whole season, getting back to the Finals and trying to get that second title in three years. Seimone, the same question.
COACH REEVE: I think we had a pretty focused group since the very beginning of the season, led by Seimone [Augustus], Lindsay [Whalen], and Rebekkah [Brunson]. I think that the experience we had in our first championship run and then having a tremendous season to follow that up and not quite finishing the job, it allowed us to kind of come in with a great focus of what needed to be done and had another great regular season, played pretty well through the playoffs to this point. I think they're hungry. I think they're hungry to get that hardware back.
Q: Seimone, how hungry you guys are to get that title again?
SEIMONE AUGUSTUS: How hungry are we? I think we're very hungry. We're a determined group of women that all year long we've been talking about holding our destiny and our goals in our hands, and now we have a chance at another title, which is where we wanted to be, especially after last year and not ending the season the way we wanted to. To be back here is a privilege, and an honor. We're going to do our best to take advantage of it.
Q: [Rebekkah}, you are a two-time WNBA champion. Do the championships ever get old?
REBEKKAH BRUNSON: It never gets old. I’m just blessed to be able to be here. This is my fifth Finals and I’m going to try and take advantage of it.
Q: Talk about season leading up to now and what it took to get here.
LINDSAY WHALEN: It took a lot of hard work. It took focus. Taking things one day at a time. It took a great group people, great group of coaches, and always putting in a positive game plan. And everyone coming together and working hard.
Q: Any highs or lows from the season to learn from to get you to this point?
MAYA MOORE: Yeah, we had a little stretch in the second half of the season where we lost four out of five, which is unchartered waters for us, since I’ve been here. We really have to look within ourselves and remember the things that got us to where we were, and just tighten up, every person taking on a little area, tweaking it a little bit to make it better. It really brought us together. We were communicating more and all those little things that we improved at that point in the season will be very, very critical to this championship series.
Q: What can you bring that will help you take it to the next level?
LINDSAY WHALEN: Understanding that there will be ups and downs. Having the ability to bounce back when things aren’t going well. Knowing it is a game of runs. I think those are big keys for us. Sticking together. Having the mindset that it be a tough battle each game.
Q: Could [you] talk about the difficulties that Angel McCoughtry presents, what she does offensively and defensively that make[s] her such an effective player.
COACH REEVE: I can speak from a coach's perspective, having watched a lot of video, that she has amazing athletic gifts that make it very challenging. Despite knowing what you need to do to defend her, it's a challenge to get it done because she is so gifted. She's an incredibly determined player, has a strong will, and I think the word 'relentless' is what comes to mind for me the most when watching her. Whatever she's doing, she has a relentless approach about her. That makes it very, very challenging, and I think her team feeds off of that.
Seimone can speak to actually having to guard her. I don't get that challenge. Seimone will tell you those challenges.
SEIMONE AUGUSTUS: Angel is a tough guard. Everything that Coach said about being a determined player and also an extremely athletic player…. Angel is going to do things that we don't know ... Angel is going to do, and Angel doesn't know at times what Angel is going to do. So it makes it a lot more difficult at times to guard her.
I think the coaching staff there has done a great job of putting her in spots to be effective…running her on the perimeter, running her up the floor a little bit, trying to open up the defense and open up the floor a little bit.
It's going to be a great game. Two great teams going against each other with two or three of the best players in this league just going head-to-head, playing great basketball.
Q: How do you prepare for defending Angel McCoughtry?
SEIMONE AUGUSTUS: You really can’t gauge what she’s going to do. Angel McCoughtry is a player that can score in any way she can. She can post up, shoot the three, make easy offense by creating steals and creating her own offense. The best thing for us is to try to stay between her and the basket and make it as tough for her as we can.
Q: Coach, forgive me, I'm going to ask you three things. First, if you could expand a little on Angel. I know she's a great scorer, but they're I think they're also able to use her as a decoy and do some different things. There's different things she does out there other than just scoring. I'm wondering if you could talk about her development in being more of a team player. And if you could talk about Maya and just the different things that she's developed in her game in her short time in the league.
COACH REEVE: Thank you. I'm getting old. That's a little tough for me. And I'm a LaSalle grad, so you know I'm getting slower.
The first part about Angel, I think the hardest thing for us, us being in the West and them being in the East, you don't follow the teams as closely. I can go on what we read. I don't know Angel personally. I'm not well connected to that group. So I'm just speaking from, I guess, kind of hearsay. People like yourself that write about it or on ESPN, and they talk about it. I can also look at it statistically and see that Angel had one of her best all‑around seasons, not only scoring the ball to get the scoring title, but to average over four assists. She gets to the foul line the most of any player. She's her team's best defensive player, creates a lot of opportunities there on the offensive glass. There are just so many ways that she impacts the game.
I think that probably the number one thing I've heard is a little more maturity. I don't know where that comes from. Maybe some of the roster changes that came about that led to this year's team maybe put Angel in a more peaceful place. I'm speculating. I don't know where Angel has kind of gotten her maybe newfound view of playing the game. It's been impressive. I think Fred gets a lot of credit for that.
And the question on Maya, Maya's maturity is probably the biggest thing. Even from training camp until now, she's really evolved. Her connection with the group -- Maya has a tendency, some of the stuff that she does is a little ‑‑ not that it's individual in a selfish way, but there's things that she can just kind of do on her own.
So finding a way to remain a part of the group, to kind of really become a part of the fabric as opposed to being a little bit on the outside, I think she's really immersed herself into that, especially with the absence of Taj McWilliams-Franklin. I think Taj was somebody that [last season] really kept her close to the starting five, really helped her. With Taj out of there, I think that was a challenge for her when she first got back to training camp.
So she's matured. I think she's developed into a young leader. Her game -- it's well‑documented she's become much more efficient on the offensive side. She has made progress defensively although we didn't see it in the Phoenix series. I think the overall growth of Maya, no question, makes it easier for Lindsay, Seimone, Rebekkah. It makes our team a little more challenging because we've got some pretty darn good players.
Q: Is Angel McCoughtry playing the best basketball of her career?
REBEKKAH BRUNSON: She’s always played well. I think she played amazing in our last series against them. I think some of the greatest moments from playing with the Lynx came from that series in 2011, watching her and Seimone scoring back and forth. She played well then and I think she’ll play well now.
Q: For Coach Reeve -- you've watched ‑‑ and I know she's in the other conference, but Erika de Souza's been in the league a long time -- she came in as a really young player. It seems like she's really developed into one of the premier centers when she's on her game. She's incredibly tough to stop. Can you maybe talk a little about that development as you've seen it and where she is now in her game?
COACH REEVE: We just talked about Erika in our staff meeting. I've been watching a ton of video. It actually brought me back to the days when she was in L.A. as a young player and just came into this league. I was in Charlotte back in 2001, 2002, and this young player wasn't playing very much because you had a center by the name of Lisa Leslie that things were centered around, you know. And then I don't remember exactly how things went down. I know she was in Connecticut, and however she got to Atlanta, all I can tell you is this is a player who's awfully imposing physically. She has so many gifts, to be so big and so strong and yet so agile, to run the floor the way she runs the floor.
Now, I am going to petition the league for when she throws those fist pumps. If she connects one of us in the face, she's got to be suspended for a game for fighting, right? Isn't that what it's going to be? I can't have that in the finals, right ...? Don't print that. I'll get fined. [Laughter]
Q: Can you talk about the similarities or differences between the two teams now that you're going to face [Atlanta] in the Finals again?
COACH REEVE: The similarities are that both teams can score the ball and both teams like to defend. I think the similarities probably stop there.
The way that Atlanta does it is very, very different than the way that we do it. I think that's kind of the fun of the series as we prepare for it. I know that they pose tremendous challenges at every position. They're extremely athletic, and they'll challenge our defensive team in the same way I know that our players, our skill level, will challenge their team. We're similar probably only in statistical categories, but not in the way that we do it.
Q: What’s different from this team compared to the previous Lynx teams that made the finals?
SEIMONE AUGUSTUS: Just the focus that we have. We’ve won it. We’ve lost it. Now it’s an opportunity to gain it back. I guess you can say we have tunnel vision. We’re focused in on the task at hand and not overlooking any game. Right now it’s the first 40 minutes, the first game and then we’ll move on to game two and so on and so forth.
Q: What is the key to playing against Atlanta?
SEIMONE AUGUSTUS: We just have to be disciplined, patient and persistent on both ends of the floor. Atlanta is known for their defense as far as causing chaos on the floor. They like to change their defensive schemes. It could be trapping, it could be hedging out, it could be switching. You just have to play through it depending on what offensive set we are in at the time. We just have to make great screens, make great cuts, make the right passes, and be aggressive at all times. Offensive rebounding is their thing, so we have to make sure we block out and win the rebounding battle as well.
Q: Coach, there's been a lot of talk this season about the growth in Maya Moore's game and Lindsay [Whalen]'s game for a lot of reasons. Often overlooked is the growth in Rebekkah Brunson's game. Can you talk a little bit about how she's grown as a player this season and how you think she'll be effective against the Dream?
COACH REEVE: I think Rebekkah has grown in the area of leadership. And it's well‑documented how hard she works. She only knows one way to approach the game. That hasn't changed for Rebekkah. She has put a lot of time into her ability to shoot the basketball and that's been extremely helpful to us. She continues to be just a fierce rebounder, our best defender. She's really embraced all that. Through her leadership, I think she's become a little more outspoken, and that's been nice. We've needed that. That's probably the biggest thing.
She is over 30, so there's not a whole lot that they add at this point; taking care of their bodies and just trying to continue to grow and show the young ones the way, and I think she's done that really well for us this season.
Q: This [year] is your third Finals appearance. ... When you look at teams like the Houston Comets and the Detroit Shock that you were very much a part of, is there a sense of the Lynx possibly being the league's next great dynasty? Do you think you guys have that potential down the road?
COACH REEVE: That is premature. I'm not going to comment about that. That's way premature. That's not where our minds are.
Q: If you can just talk about what single thing, if there is a surprise, that you didn't expect in your run in the playoffs thus far.
COACH REEVE: Seimone will take this.
SEIMONE AUGUSTUS: I don't think nothing was surprising. Oh, yeah, Coach Reeve hasn't gotten a technical foul. [Laughter] So that's pretty good.
I think every team that we've faced we've expected the way they’d play. Like Seattle, we expected a grind-it-out series with them. We expected to go out to Tacoma and have a tough time trying to pull off that Game Two win.
After watching Phoenix play as well as they did against L.A., we expected to play against one of the top players in the league, Diana Taurasi, and have her try to will her team to a victory. I really don't think anything was unexpected for us.
And it's the same way with Atlanta. Like Coach said, we kind of know each other. We all kind of are the same in statistical areas. It's a matter of who wants it more. Obviously, Atlanta's going to come out and try to do whatever they can, at least steal a game on our home court to kind of turn the tables as far as [our] having the home-court advantage.
Q: [Maya], general thoughts on the series?
MAYA MOORE: We are much older and wiser. I think we have a very good understanding of what we need to do. There shouldn’t be any surprises at this point. All we have to do is go out and execute and do the things that have gotten us to this point.
Q: If both teams are off or have been off since Sunday and you play this coming Sunday, is there any advantage or disadvantage to either one of you, other than the obvious ones, you having the home court, having such a time ‑‑ this much time off before the game?
SEIMONE AUGUSTUS: The only advantage is having home court. Other than that, everybody is probably happy to get a little bit of rest before we have to face a five‑game series. I don't think it's any advantage or disadvantage when it comes to getting prepped for the biggest games of our careers.
Q: Is this going to be the most difficult series or the one in which the post game becomes most important for you? I know there was a question asked about Rebekkah [Brunson] and her performance, but she's been sort of quietly powerful there in the post the last two [rounds], with not so much of an offensive as a defensive contribution.... How important is it going to be to have a really strong game out of Brunson and [Janel] McCarvelle in this series as opposed to the last two?
COACH REEVE: There's no question that, without Rebecca's effort in [the post], that we wouldn't be sitting where we are today. It has become extremely, extremely important in some of our matchups. It will be no different in this series. We count on Rebekkah to guard the guards ... , we count on her to guard the 6-8 Griners and all the bigs, and just whatever we need. Whether she's guarding Elena Delle Donne or Catchings or Erika de Souza or Brittney Griner, she just embraces it, and it's something she hangs her hat on. It's what she's known for, and she takes great pride in it.
Q.: This question is for Coach Reeve. Monica Wright was the major factor here [in Minneapolis] in the July 9th win against the Dream. I was just wondering how you would describe her value in this series coming off the bench and just generally, in the context of her role, her value as the sixth woman generally, but also just in terms of playing against a team with so much perimeter speed.
COACH REEVE: I think in my experience in the playoffs, especially when you get this far, that it really does become about your X‑factor players, and I would put Monica at the top of that for us. What she's been giving us in versatility -- whether it's, as you mentioned, whether it's a high pressure situation from an athletic standpoint that I need her to be able to break through with her speed and quickness, or whether it's size, defending a Diana Taurasi, size and strength -- she's been really, really important on both sides of the ball for us. And there is no question that, if you look at our team, kind of like Tiffany Hayes for Atlanta when she was coming off the bench, that when those types of players off the bench are productive, it makes it that much better for the starters, takes a little bit of pressure off of them, and that's going to be huge in the series.
Q: What kinds of experience can you and your players bring to this series?
COACH REEVE: Having the core group, the Olympians that have gone through this ride together, four of the five starters have been together for all three years, I think each year gave us something different that we’re taking that has shaped this journey here in 2013. In 2011, it was just about the climb, nobody really believed in us. Everybody thought the Minnesota Lynx would collapse. And then getting back in 2012, the challenge of being a defending champion. And now here in 2013, it’s kind of new again in that we are not in a repeat mode. I think when you see the players it’s refreshing how they’re feeling about it .This group is embracing it as this is our first time here together with this group. This isn’t our third time, this is our first time. We embraced that mentality of the newness of it. It keeps you hungry.
Q: [Maya], four out of your starting five have been to the Finals together. What will the experience be like for the rest of the group?
MAYA MOORE: We have to definitely set the tone and make sure that we play with a lot of poise and discipline. Just continue to do the things that they have done all season. It’s nothing new. It’s just the last games of the season. I’m really confident in our bench and role players. They have worked really hard and been really consistent, so I am really looking forward to bringing all 11 on the floor.
Q: Is there a change in mindset from a three-game series to a five-game series?
COACH REEVE: You go from a 120-minute series to a 200-minute series. I don’t know if the mindset changes. I think on both sides of it, both Atlanta and the Lynx, we understand that it’s one game at a time. You bite off the first 40 minutes and then you have to fold it up, put it away, and move on to the next 40 minutes. It just makes it a little bit longer. The emotion that’s involved is so different when you win a game in a playoff series versus when you lose a game. So in a five-game series, there is more time for that -- there is more time for emotions. By the time you get to the end, you are absolutely spent.
Q: How important is having the home-court advantage in this five-game series?
COACH REEVE: We like the position that we put ourselves in. We worked really hard to have home-court advantage. It seems to be something that could be really favorable at times. In the 2011 Finals without our home court in those first two home games, it might have been really tough for us. But it guarantees you nothing as we saw in Game One of last year’s series with Indiana. We know that Atlanta is going to come in here and you’ve got two cracks at winning one game. That’s your mindset. When you go on someone else’s court and you win a game, you shift the home-court advantage. I think we’re equipped mentally to process that and know what we have to do to get the job done.
SEIMONE AUGUSTUS: In a longer series you just try to focus in on one game at a time. If you slip up in one, you do have time to make up for it as opposed to a three-game series where you might put yourself in a tough situation. We are going to try and pull out the first 40 minutes and then just take it from there.
REBEKKAH BRUNSON: You try to win them all. You can’t approach it like you have extra games because then you’ll put yourself in a position to lose when you open yourself up to get beat. We approach it like we approach any other series.
MAYA MOORE: Nothing is different as far as how we treat each game. Each game we play like our last. I’ve never had to play the five games all the way to five, but it’s definitely a grind. You have got to be able to make adjustments, potentially more games to tweak things, have to combat different strategies or different challenges the other team is facing. So, it’s definitely more of a mental grind more so than it is with playing one game in the NCAA tournament.
LINDSAY WHALEN: You have to be focused each game. There are a lot of possessions. You have to be prepared for every game and every situation. There will be adjustments made on both sides. We had a very good week at practice. We are excited to be here and happy to be playing against Atlanta.
Q: How important is the first game, especially at home?
REBEKKAH BRUNSON: Game One is just as important as all the rest. We worked all year to get home-court advantage and we want to maintain that. We can’t give away those home games. Those are the ones that we feel like we have to win.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Game One of the 2013 WNBA Finals between the Minnesota Lynx and the Atlanta Dream tips off Sunday, October 6, at the Target Center in Minneapolis at 8:30 p.m. EDT, 7:30 p.m. local time. The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.