From the get go this was truly Minnesota's night.
Before the 95-76 demolition of the Phoenix Mercury came the ring ceremony and championship banner unveiling in front of a packed house of fervent Lynx fans. The players looked giddy checking out their rings, although the pillars of the team have been here before, aside from Sylvia Fowles getting her first. She's been chasing this for seven seasons.
The ceremony started with the sweet sound of Prince filling the arena. A tribute commemorating the Minneapolis icon was shown after the players received their rings for last season's glorious championship run. Various players, along with Cheryl Reeve, talked about what Prince meant to them.
Minnesota native Kat Perkins, who has appeared on The Voice, sang the national anthem following the opening celebration. The energy in the building was palpable. You could sense the enthusiasm, the desire to celebrate last season's title and the excitement of the new year about to begin. Everything about this game screamed Minnesota. It was a special night, and this team wasn't going to let Phoenix run to an easy victory, even if a majority of GMs recently voted them as favorites to win it all.
Reeve wanted the team to enjoy the celebration of last year's championship, but also knew they needed to switch gears quickly and be ready for this tough match-up against the WNBA's most elite competition.
"I didn't sleep very much last night because I worried about a ton of things," the head coach said in her first press conference of the year. "You wonder what's going to happen. I knew that Phoenix was going to be very good offensively and if we weren't able to match it, we were really going to have a big problem."
Minnesota looked a bit sloppy on the offensive end early on, missing some easy shots and making some ill-advised passes. However, they more than made up for it on the defensive end throughout the contest. They caused five turnovers in the first quarter and needed that as Phoenix only missed four field goal attempts, all of those from beyond the arc.
Diana Taurasi, who returned to the WNBA after a one year hiatus overseas, went 4-6 from the field in the first quarter with 10 early points. "[We] trapped her a little bit, got it out of her hands," Reeve commented. The Lynx were able to adjust to the hot streak by the Mercury superstar and put together a stifling defensive performance throughout the rest of the game. Taurasi finished 7-17 with 18 points on the night.
The Lynx defense only improved throughout the game as they collected 15 steals and shut down Phoenix for long stretches of play after the opening quarter. Nine of those swipes came from two bench players, Renee Montgomery and the newly acquired Jia Perkins.
"I thought [she] changed the complexion of the game," Reeve said about Montgomery's defense afterwards. The backup point guard brought serious energy on defense, which seemed to spark everyone else on offense. You could argue that Montgomery was the Lynx's MVP in the first half with four of her five steals, even with four starters getting to double digits in the scoring column early on. Montgomery was a nightmare for Phoenix with her intense on ball defense.
In the end, even as Reeve spoke glowingly about the performance of Seimone Augustus, it was probably Maya Moore who claimed those MVP honors with 27 points and a career-high 10 assists. Moore was electrifying. She hit tough shots and facilitated the offense by dishing the rock to her open teammates on a series of backdoor cuts. Moore was in total control.
It was somewhat surprising to see how this Lynx team played tonight, both offensively and defensively, even with their pedigree. The results weren't necessarily different, it was another win in the books, but the team seemed to play less ISO ball than they did on their way to last season's championship. In this game, the ball movement was fantastic and they ended with 24 assists and shot 54.1 percent from the field. They also shut down Phoenix at every turn, who did not have an answer for Minnesota's suffocating defense.
In the second half when the Mercury went to a zone defense, it slowed the Lynx down but they ultimately made the right adjustments on their way to their first win of the new season. This one turned into a blowout before a raucous home crowd.
Augustus looked healthy on her way to a 10-15 shooting night from the field (21 points) while Lindsay Whalen also looked good, scoring 14 points (6-7) in 23 minutes. The two appeared to have fresh legs, a stark contrast from last year.
"I'm thrilled that Seimone came out the way that she did," Reeve said. "I thought Seimone played fantastic. Renee was great defensively and changed the complexion, but Seimone was the player of the game for us."
Reeve talked about the grind of the past few weeks as the team was gearing up for another rigorous season, which includes the Olympic break, and she was asked what it means to send a message across the league that the champs are back.
"Whatever message it sends, it's fine," Reeve said. "But we weren't out to send a message other than we want to win our home games, and I thought it was a really good start for us."
Indeed, this was a good start for the Lynx.