A rivalry requires both teams to take successful shots. Shots have been fired for both teams for two years now and a potentially epic battle is on the horizon...
Lisa Leslie, Tamecka Dixon, and DeLisha Milton-Jones all popped the champagne this week as their historic 18 game winning streak from the 2001 Championship season remained in tact. However, the 2014 Phoenix Mercury slid in right behind them.
Losing is never ideal, but in this regard the Mercury can look back historically at what they accomplished.
"We learn from every game regardless of whether we win or lose," Penny Taylor said the other day. The streak was not in their minds publicly, but had to weigh on them as it got closer. These things do that.
For 46 days the Mercury were nearly untouchable. They dominated the schedule laid in front of them defeating everyone that stood in their way winning 11 games by 10+ points or more. Along the way they strung together 16 straight wins that fits them under the 2001 Sparks (18 wins), but above the 1998 Comets (15 wins) for the second longest winning streak in WNBA history.
Who the team they lost to, and how, is more important than the loss itself. Eventually the Mercury were going to lose another game. They had a target on their backs with a grueling schedule heading into the playoffs.
If the Minnesota Lynx had not done it the next four games after would have really tested the Mercury against the 2012 WNBA Champion Indiana Fever, best team in the East Atlanta Dream, the San Antonio Silver Stars, and those same Lynx coming back to town a week later. There are no cupcakes on the Mercury's remaining schedule.They put in the work to earn home court in the playoffs in general, now the goal has to shift to the Lynx for the No. 1 Overall seed in the Western Conference.
Right now the Lynx are just 1.5 games behind the Mercury with a much softer schedule down the stretch. A team can only play the games on their schedule so the Mercury have the advantage with the lead in the standings and control of their own fate, but it will be earned.
"That's playoff basketball," said head coach Sandy Brondello after the loss. "Like two competitive teams going at each other and you know obviously not everyone is happy with all the calls that are out there, but that's just playoff basketball. Sometimes you just have to be able to execute in those situations. I didn't think we executed as well as we could, and play with a little bit more poise."
Staying healthy is a key. At full strength the Mercury are one of the toughest teams in the league without question.
Health has been the theme with the Mercury-Lynx mini-rivalry that has developed over the past few years. On paper both teams are stacked with great players, former No. 1 Overall Picks, All-Stars, youth, veterans, and a blend that can win a championship. On paper, however, there has been a lot of "DNP's" next to key names.
Last season the Lynx owned the Mercury to a tune of seven straight wins, two in the Western Conference Finals, and a total annihilation of a team with championship aspirations.
This year the Mercury took down the Lynx two straight times (the first two wins of the streak) exacting some measure of revenge. Then came this loss. In the seven losses last season the Mercury were without Penny Taylor six times, Brittney Griner twice, and Diana Taurasi for one. They were short-handed and then at full strength, they won. Health is a theme here and for both of those loses the Lynx were without Rebekah Brunson, minus Simone Augustus for one.
These dynamic and talented teams cannot get all their titans on the court at the same time to clash.
"The Mercury are consistently holding teams down," Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve. "We'll have to look at the video and see what we can do better for next time..."
When the Mercury traveled north to face the Lynx the focus and goal was not to extent a potential record breaking streak. It was to measure themselves against a team, the defending WNBA Champions, who have been the measuring stick in the league for past three to four years. They did not do that, which is more of the point of the game than the streak ending.
While this is one loss and at the same time a more important loss than most, which implies it is two things; not important and important at the same time.
On the court there are areas the Mercury can improve on, but the proof is in the pudding that when they are healthy they are a great team. The improvements are isolated to the dynamic and dominant Minnesota Lynx. Coach Brondello does not need to throw everything off her desk, wipe the walls clear of strategy, and reinvent the wheel. Her system works tremendously with a fully healthy roster against 10 other teams. Every team in the NBA improved to beat the Miami Heat. Every team in the NFL once improved to defeat the New England Patriots. Every movie production improves to defeat the box office.
The system is fully engrained into the team as tattooed clues on Lenonard Shelby. They are just jumbled, like they are tattooed for Leonard, when the Lynx are the opposition.
Every year for the past three years the Lynx have been in the WNBA Finals winning two and losing once. They have an MVP Candidate. They have as much (if not more) talent than the Mercury. They have a coach that has maximized the talent on hand.
The Mercury do not need to reevaluate themselves to win a random Tuesday night game against the New York Liberty... Their improvements are exclusively for that team to the north. in the playoffs.