MINNEAPOLIS -- After the unfurling of the 2015 WNBA championship banner. After the laser light-infused ring ceremony. After the video tribute to Prince, host of a wee-hours celebration at Paisley Park last October when Minnesota won its third title in five years. After all that, the Lynx went out and sent a unmistakable message to the league general managers who tabbed the Diana Taurasi-led Mercury as the eventual WNBA champions.
Taurasi's return to the Mercury after a season off from the WNBA -- and to a lesser extent, Penny Taylor's return as well -- reunited the five starters from Phoenix's 2014 league champions, a team that won a record 29 games and routed the Lynx in the deciding Game 3 of the Western Conference finals. Before Saturday night's season opener against the Lynx at the Target Center, that lineup had gone 30-2 together in regular and postseason games, with the two losses to Minnesota.
Make it three. Minnesota, with Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen moving and shooting better than they finished last year, trounced the Mercury 95-76 before a sellout crowd of 9,221 at the Target Center.
Phoenix hit its first eight shots before Minnesota turned backup guard and chief pest Renee Montgomery loose on Taurasi, who struggled with her shot the final three quarters and finished 7-for-17 from the field for 18 points. The game was so out of hand in the fourth quarter that Minnesota's starters watched the final 2:28 from the bench. Brittney Griner (12 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks) committed two early fouls and wasn't a major factor.
"It's a good starting point for us in a really bad way," Taurasi said. "We know what we have to get better at. The season isn't made on 40 minutes, but the way we bounce back is going to say a lot about this team going forward."
Maya Moore (27 points, 10 assists) and Sylvia Fowles (17 points, 14 rebounds) each posted double-doubles for the Lynx. Moore became the first player in WNBA history with at least 20 points and 10 assists in a season opener, and Fowles posted her 100th career double-double. A spry Augustus scored 21 on 10-for-15 shooting, and Whalen made 6-of-7 for 14 points.
The Lynx might be the league's oldest team by average age (29.84) and experience (6.9 years). But with four U.S. Olympians starting and good health all around -- for now -- they remain as formidable as ever.
"Whatever message it sends is fine," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said while fiddling with the enormous championship ring on her right hand. "We're not out to send a message except we want to win our home games."
That was more subdued than Reeve's reaction to the WNBA's annual GM survey the day before, a preseason survey that picked the Lynx as champions the last four years. Chicago's Elena Delle Donne was picked to repeat as MVP, but Taurasi finished second in that category and was named the player GMs would want taking a shot with the game on the line. Taurasi was also voted the WNBA's best guard, toughest player, best player at creating her own shot and the best pure shooter.
"Boy, it's a loud message that we heard," Reeve said Friday.
Said Moore: "People have opinions. That's the name of sports or entertainment. Whether we had been No. 1 or No. 2, our motivation is bigger than the outside world. At the same time, why not use it? That's not going to win or lose a championship, a poll. We have to go out and be focused on what we can control, and that's what we did tonight."
"I'll go out on a limb and say this is the deepest team we've ever had here." Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve
The opener brought together two All-Star guards in their 30s, Taurasi and Whalen, who took different paths to the same end -- taking a few months off to try and extend their careers.
Taurasi never has confirmed how much her Russian Premier League team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, paid her to skip the 2015 WNBA season. She makes about $1.5 million overseas, roughly 15 times her WNBA salary.
"At the time it was a difficult decision, because when the summer rolled around, I did miss it," said Taurasi, 33. "I missed being with these guys in the locker room, the tough matches. Now being here, feeling better, refreshed mentally and physically, it was something that I kind of had to do for the last half of my career. Reality starts setting in no matter what."
While Taurasi grabbed headlines for snubbing the WNBA, Whalen quietly did the opposite, spending last winter home in Minnesota at significant financial sacrifice. Whalen felt she had no choice. She barely made it through last season, hobbled by a sore right ankle and Achilles tendon strain she aggravated in Game 5 of the finals against Indiana.
The most memorable part of that 69-52 victory came afterward, when Prince, who watched the game from a Target Center suite, invited the team to Paisley Park. Whalen's ankle was such a mess she spent most of the party sitting with an equally fatigued Moore, waving her arms to the music.
"Me and my husband, we were at the front of the bus and we were the first two in," Whalen said. "We walked right by Prince on the keyboard, singing, I want to say, Purple Rain. I was like, 'Damn, we just walked right by Prince!' ...
"My ankle was like a cantaloupe, so by 3:30 [a.m.] I was on the first group that left. I was in a boot, and it really starting to swell over that. I had to get off my feet. If I didn't have that, I would have stayed until 4 or 5."
By then, Whalen, closer to the end of her career than the beginning, knew what had to happen.
"I was kind of feeling it all summer that I should probably take a break," said Whalen, 34. "Just coming back from Turkey was tough. It was great, we made the finals there, but it ended up being three weeks longer than I thought it was going to be. June, July, I was going, I need to take a break. Then the injury kind of reinforced that. I need to rest, be home, not do basketball every day."
"It's a good starting point for us in a really bad way. We know what we have to get better at. The season isn't made on 40 minutes, but the way we bounce back is going to say a lot about this team ..." Phoenix's Diana Taurasi
By the time USA Basketball convened training camp in February, Whalen was healthy and ready to go. "Out of everyone at the camp who didn't go overseas, she looked the most refreshed," Taurasi said.
Moore noticed as well. "Now that she has more to give, watch out," Moore said. "It's going to be 2011-esque, I think."
The Lynx won their first WNBA title in 2011, with Whalen starting every game, averaging 13.6 points and leading the league in assists.
Whether Whalen -- or Augustus, for that matter -- can be as effective as Saturday depends on how well Reeve manages their minutes.
Whalen, Augustus (32) and Rebekkah Brunson (34) are all past 30, the latter two with histories of knee or ankle problems. Augustus had her post-surgical right knee drained last year during the playoffs, and needed a cortisone shot to get through the finals. Though Reeve set a goal of repeating as champions, last done by Los Angeles in 2001-02, she knew it couldn't happen without easing the wear and tear on her veterans.
Last year's deal for Sylvia Fowles cost the Lynx promising young forwards Damiris Dantas and Reshanda Gray. The Lynx retained Montgomery, who turned down a free-agent offer from New York; dealt Devereaux Peters to Indiana for Natasha Howard in an exchange of young power forwards; and acquired veteran guard Jia Perkins on draft day for second-round pick Jazmon Gwathmey. That, and bringing back center Janel McCarville, gives the Lynx quality backups at every position.
"I'll go out on a limb and say this is the deepest team we've ever had here," Reeve said.
It showed Saturday. Whalen played only 23 minutes as Montgomery (six points, five steals) logged 22 off the bench. Perkins filled in 12 minutes behind Augustus, who shot so well Reeve left her out there for 30. "Money Mone!" Montgomery called Augustus in the locker room.
"It feels great to finally have that bounce in your step and do the things I know I'm capable of doing," Augustus said.
Whalen could relate.
"It was fun," she said. "Running in the pregame warm-ups, it felt good to just be running and not feel anything. It was really nice. The last time I was on the floor in that situation, it wasn't that way."