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Lynx Ready for Playoff Push

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The four Olympians for Minnesota returned with gold. Now they set their sights on another WNBA championship.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Hello Lynx fans.

Long time no see. The last time we were together, the team was coming off a six-game win streak heading into the Olympic break. Well, the break has come and gone and it's time to get back into action. First, let's take a look at how things went during the first half of the year.

The Lynx (21-4) started this season, the WNBA's 20th, with 13 straight wins. That was the most wins in a row by any team in history to start the year. The streak was capped with a thrilling victory over the L.A. Sparks (21-3), who were also unbeaten at the time of that matchup. In that game, Renee Montgomery hit a three with only seconds remaining to steal the win on the road. Unfortunately L.A. got a rematch right away and handily beat Minnesota to end the fun. The team ended up losing two more games before winning eight of their last nine going into the Olympic break.

The initial streak was especially sweet for Minnesota fans. Despite being the defending champs and winning three of the last five, all of the talk heading into the season was about how great the Phoenix Mercury were going to be. The majority of GMs picked them to win it all this year as they added Diana Taurasi back into the mix after her one-year hiatus. Head coach Cheryl Reeve would never admit those types of story lines matter to her or her team so us fans will have to enjoy it with a bit of smugness. The Mercury opened the year with a four-game losing streak, two of those to the Lynx, much to their chagrin. Things have been up and down since then and Phoenix currently sits at 10-14, good for seventh place in the league. Remember, this year there are eight playoff teams based on record, regardless of conference.

Meanwhile, the Lynx sit in second place, a half-game behind the Sparks for the top spot. One reason for the team's success is that they still employ Maya Moore. She is without a doubt the best player on the team and she is leading the way with 19.4 points per game, 5.2 rebounds per game and 4.4 assists per game. She is the only consistent contributor from behind the arc and she ranks fourth in the league in three-point makes.

While Maya is magnificent, the Lynx depth has also been a major factor to the winning atmosphere. The team returned all five starters from last year, including Sylvia Fowles who was acquired mid-season in 2015. Four of those starters were on the Olympic team that just returned back to the States with gold medals around their neck. If that wasn't enough, the team added Jia Perkins and Natasha Howard in the offseason who have been a boon coming off the bench.

Perkins was a full-time starter for the San Antonio Stars last year. This year, she's only started games when Seimone Augustus was out with a knee injury. That has not slowed her down as she has embraced her role; each time she comes out, she plays with a tenacity that is tough to match. She may be a veteran but she is still one of the fastest players in the league, which gives Minnesota much needed energy when the starters hit the bench.

Howard took a little bit of time to get going but she is now one of the most effective players for the Lynx. Her true shooting percentage is 63.4 percent, nearly 20 percentage points better than last year. She too is one of the faster players on the squad and plays as if she's still trying out for the team. The Lynx top eight players all score seven points a game or more. Add that to the fact that they lead the league in assists and you start to appreciate how much talent and chemistry the team has.

Oh yeah, the Lynx also just signed another Olympian, as if four wasn't enough. They picked up the familiar face in Anna Cruz. She only won Silver for her country Spain but I guess we'll take her. She helped lead Minnesota to their third title last year and is set to join the team for another run starting on September 3. When Bashaara Graves was waived and then resigned before the deadline for full-season guaranteed contracts, people started to wonder whom the Lynx were targeting. Reeve didn't reveal her hand when asked but there was speculation that they wanted Cruz and they did. It's the classic story of the rich getting richer that we all love (when we're the rich ones).

With five players on the team that did not get the benefit of a break this past month, it will be interesting to see how Reeve handles minutes. The U.S. team played 12 games in a little under a month, which isn't necessarily grueling. It certainly does not hurt to add Cruz to the backcourt rotation but she will only be available for the last six regular season games and any potential playoff games (Minnesota has clinched a berth). Also, the New York Liberty trail the Lynx by only three and a half games so the top-two spot isn't guaranteed at this point. The top-two teams receive byes until the semi-finals in the playoffs, which is a major advantage in this new format.

Because of that, I don't see Reeve changing how she manages playing time. One positive about the remaining schedule is that the team plays six of their last nine games against opponents with a .500 winning percentage or worse. This could allow her to rest players if they get big leads but she is not one to get ahead of herself like that. Make sure to leave September 6 open on your calendar. That is the rubber match between the Lynx and the Sparks. It's an away game for the good guys and could be a potential finals preview, one that may determine who gets home court advantage.

Talking MVP

I know I am biased, and some would argue no team with four Olympians should be able to win that award, but who cares about that. Maya Moore is definitely worth considering. She leads the team in points, assists, and steals. Impressive, no doubt, though you still really need to watch the games to see why she is so good. Moore is the engine of this team. Where she goes, the team goes. Her dominance can be astounding at times and she makes it all look effortless.

Now, if I am being more realistic, it's probably going to come down to Tina Charles of the Liberty or Nneka Ogwumike of the Sparks. Charles leads the league in points and rebounds per game and she is tenth overall in total assists. While that may make you think it has to be her, my money is Ogwumike. She leads her team in points and rebounds but she has been so effective. She is shooting 71 percent from the field, which is absolutely unheard of for someone with that many touches. All three of these candidates are from the top three teams in the league so you can bet it will be one of them that takes those honors by the end of the season.

Whatever may happen, the Lynx have set themselves up for success as we head into the final sprint towards the playoffs. Let's hope the four Olympians who came back to Minnesota this past Monday can add more to their trophy case in the end. The Lynx are away from home taking on the Connecticut Sun tonight at 6 PM central time.