ST. PAUL, Minn. — It’s a Minnesota father-daughter tradition. Every March, if Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen is home instead of playing overseas, she and her dad, Neil, take in an early day of the state high school hockey tournament at the Xcel Energy Center.
A scheduling conflict at the Target Center forced the Lynx to shift the first two games of their WNBA semifinal series with Phoenix to Xcel, the NHL arena 10 miles east of Minneapolis, across the Mississippi River. So when Whalen took the court for Game 1 on Wednesday night, with Minnesota facing archrival Phoenix in this round for the fourth consecutive season, the surroundings were more familiar to her than her teammates.
It helped that the Lynx shipped their home court from Target Center rather than using Xcel’s. Whalen and Maya Moore quickly made themselves comfortable, standing out in a game featuring 11 Olympians from Rio and virtually no defense.
Whalen, one of Minnesota’s four U.S. Olympians (plus Anna Cruz of Spain), delivered the signature moment in a 14-0 second-quarter run that put the Lynx up 39-25. She finished a fast break with a behind-the-back dribble in the lane and a hesitation layup, wowing the boisterous crowd of 9,013. She waited for a late-arriving Taurasi — an Olympic teammate in Rio last month — to sail past before banking it in.
Phoenix never came closer than 12 points the rest of the way, and trailed by 25 in the third quarter.
“I was just trying to push the tempo,” Whalen said. “Coach [Cheryl Reeve] worked me a lot this year on getting in there, making a move, changing directions. I was able to get it done that time.
“I almost lost it. Another inch one way and it would have been a turnover and they would have been running the other way. I was a little bit good and a little bit lucky on that play.”
Said Taurasi: “I want to act surprised and I want to act like, ‘How did she do that?’ But I’m not. I’ve played with her and against her for so long. She has the ability to do things that no one else in the world can do, especially when she’s engaged like that.
“She’s one of the best players in the world. Sometimes, they’re better than you. Today she made a lot of those plays where she was just better than us.”
Lynx players wore purple sneakers to honor the memory of Prince, their highest-profile fan who hosted an impromptu victory party at Paisley Park last season after the Lynx won their third WNBA championship in five years. Designated fashionista Seimone Augustus generally picks the color for the Lynx playoff sneakers, but players said this was a team-wide call.
Minnesota’s home away from home
Relocating playoff games because of building conflicts is an unfortunate fact of life in the WNBA, something the Lynx managed to avoid until this season.
Several months ago, Target Center officials pushed back a five-day appearance by Cirque du Soliel, originally slated for the Olympic break, to install a new scoreboard as part of the building’s $130 million renovation. Rescheduling Cirque to Sept. 28-Oct. 2 forced the Lynx to find another venue for Games 1 and 2, abandoning an arena where the Lynx posted the league’s best home record since 2014 (43-8).
The Lynx already contracted to play next summer at Xcel, the home of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, during the final stage of renovations. Xcel officials agreed to host these playoff games as well, with the Wild shifting three days of training camp to another location.
Xcel general manager Jack Larson said the building hadn’t hosted a basketball game since the 2001 state high school boys’ tournament. So most Xcel workers had no practice experience assembling a basketball floor.
The Lynx shipped their court across town on three semi tractor-trailers. Target Center operations director Tom Renner supervised a crew of 20 that put it together in time for the Lynx to practice last Monday. They broke it down for a Wild preseason game Tuesday night, then restored it for Wednesday’s shootaround.
“We could take a second and bemoan it, but it really doesn’t do us any good,” Reeve said. “The mindset is, we are very fortunate we have a beautiful facility in St. Paul. And we said we don’t care where the game is played. It’s about us being together, and our fans. If we’re all there, that’s our home court.”
The Lynx, and Whalen, certainly made it feel like home Wednesday night.