Reserves help Lynx sweep Mercury, book return trip to Finals

— -- PHOENIX -- Think about all the damage that the Minnesota Lynx can do with their big names. It almost seems like overkill, then, that one of their most productive players in Sunday's 82-67 WNBA semifinal series-clinching victory over Phoenix is someone they picked up in a trade in February without expecting she'd make this big an impact.

"Sometimes getting lucky is good," Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said. "We didn't necessarily know what we were getting in Natasha Howard."

But there's that saying that the harder you work, the luckier you get. The Lynx as an organization have worked very hard to build what has now stretched into six seasons of excellence, and they'll be going for their fourth WNBA title in that stretch.

The play of Howard -- who had 17 points on 8-of-11 shooting and eight rebounds Sunday -- is just one example of the culture the Lynx have built. Their incredibly strong core of key players -- Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson -- have been together since the franchise's first championship in 2011.

The personnel moves the Lynx have made since then all have been with the goal of making an already great team even a little harder to beat. Look at the players added to the Lynx this year and last year, which include the likes of Sylvia Fowles, Renee Montgomery, Anna Cruz, Jia Perkins and Howard. They've all contributed specific things to the Lynx without taking anything away.

UConn and USA Basketball coach Geno Auriemma always says that teams either get better or they get worse, but they don't just stay the same. The Lynx, who have become the WNBA's version of UConn in terms of sustained success, are an example of what he's talking about. They've continued to get better.

"It's all about being selfless, and that's the culture of our team," Reeve said. "And we want to make sure we add those pieces that subscribe to that mentality. All the credit should go to the core players that we have, because other players want to play with them. They're tremendous superstars, yet they're so humble and supportive.

"You watch them on the bench when they're not in the game, and they have a lot of fun over there rooting for other players. It's genuine, and that's how they are all the time."

The Lynx might be having a blast, but their opponents aren't. Minnesota had the best regular-season record in franchise history (28-6) this year. The Lynx won all three of the semifinal games against Phoenix by double digits. Minnesota was the No. 1 seed and Phoenix No. 8, so the Lynx obviously were a big favorite. But remember, a few months ago, a lot of people predicted Phoenix would be the top contender for the title this year.

Reeve complimented the Mercury on how much effort they put into these playoff games, but she also felt that the Lynx had enough high-quality depth that they could wear out Phoenix. And that happened. Led by Howard, the Lynx bench got 29 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.

Indiana took Howard, out of Florida State, with the No. 5 pick in the 2014 draft. She had a solid rookie season for the Fever, averaging 7.0 points and 3.1 rebounds. Her numbers dropped off a little last season, but the potential was still there.

The Lynx were expecting to bring back post player Devereaux Peters, who was their third pick in the 2012 draft, this season. She had been a Minnesota reserve for four seasons. But Reeve said Peters wanted to play elsewhere. Hence, a deal with Indiana for Howard earlier this year.

Howard has worked out well for Minnesota, as have the others, such as Fowles, who sat out until late July 2015 to force a trade to the Lynx from Chicago. She was the WNBA Finals MVP last year and recently was named the 2016 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year.

And guards such as Perkins and Montgomery are veterans who provide a different look, especially on defense, to help spell Augustus and Whalen.

"I'm excited, happy and thankful that we've created an environment here that people want to be a part of," said Augustus, the longest-tenured Lynx player going back to being chosen No. 1 in the 2006 WNBA draft. "Jia or Renee could have gone somewhere else and probably started. That's what we pride ourselves on: We have a great team of athletes, but also a great team of people."

For Moore, who has had another MVP-caliber season, the long-term chemistry the Lynx possess is a thing of wonderment.

"It's like being in unchartered waters," said Moore, who had 20 points and six rebounds Sunday. "If you have that kind of feeling in high school or college, those are four years. With the pros ... maybe two or three years would be good. But this is year six for us. It's like, 'Wow.' And there's no question that it's people from the top down, starting with our owner, that make that happen.

"At different times on this team, people might have a tired day, and someone's always there to pick them up. We're constantly looking out for each other."

Before the Olympic break this season, the Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks were neck-and-neck as the top teams in the WNBA. Since the break, Minnesota clearly has been the best.

The Sparks, who beat the Lynx at Minnesota in late June but lost two other times to them, still seem to have the best chance to derail the defending champions. But Los Angeles will have to get into the WNBA Finals first; they lost 70-66 in their Game 3 at Chicago on Sunday. The Sparks will try again to close out the series with the Sky on Tuesday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET).

Meanwhile the Lynx will take the opportunity to get some rest as they wait to see whom they will face in their fifth trip to the WNBA Finals in the past six years.

"This group has been a very special group. And the vibe ... I think it's because they all have a piece in this," Reeve said. "It's been very, very rewarding for me, watching them throughout the season."