The Lynx aren't used to anyone else setting the pace.
Minnesota has often determined the bar for excellence in the WNBA for the past three seasons, and the fact that it is behind blistering Phoenix in the Western Conference standings changes nothing as far as the Lynx are concerned.
"[The Mercury] modeled their team after ours," said Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, whose team hosts Phoenix on Thursday in what should be a telling late-season battle between the two best teams in the WNBA. "We have been the measuring stick."
The Lynx have every reason to believe they still are now that their championship lineup is back with the return of power forward Rebekkah Brunson and guard Seimone Augustus.
Augustus missed nine games (and the WNBA All-Star Game) with a knee injury. Brunson missed the season's first 23 games, sidelined by a knee surgery to repair a damaged tendon. The injury had hampered Brunson for months, dating back to last season when the Lynx won their second title in three years. Physical therapy failed to help, and when doctors finally told Brunson she needed surgery that would keep her out eight to 10 weeks -- the bulk of the WNBA summer -- she wasn't happy.
"If it was something that I could have gotten taken care of earlier, I much rather would have done that," Brunson said. "Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way, but it worked out as best as it could."
In fact, it worked out pretty well for Minnesota. The Lynx's stalwart power forward, the pillar of the frontcourt and one of the league's most consistent rebounders, is back on the floor. She is healed and fresh, ready to embark on what looks to be another deep postseason run.
"When we have everybody out there, we get a glimpse of how we are supposed to play," Brunson said. "We haven't peaked yet."
It was only last week that the Lynx -- for the first time since the WNBA Finals last fall -- had all five of their starters on the floor for practice at the same time.
"We looked like the Lynx we've come to know," Reeve said. "We've had that formidable mindset."
With the Mercury boasting a gaudy 22-3 record (not to mention 16 straight wins), the Lynx are working to keep up. Minnesota has won seven in a row.
The defending champions have dealt with their share of adversity this summer. In addition to injuries to Brunson and Augustus, Devereaux Peters and Monica Wright missed early portions of the season with knee injuries. As a result, Minnesota was something less than the dominant force that it had been most of the last three years. After a 7-0 start driven by the prolific scoring of Maya Moore, the Lynx had a rough run, going 6-6 in a stretch from June 6 to July 6.
Reeve calls Brunson's return "a silver lining."
"We are making lemonade out of the lemons," the coach said. "She worked hard to get back when she did. We had a time target after the All-Star break, and if she hadn't done the work, she might not have been back at all."
Brunson is averaging 12 points and 8.3 rebounds in her three games back, but it's her tone-setting on the defensive end that's making the biggest difference.
"We had some funky defensive assignments when she was gone; we had to consider matchups and see what we could do," Reeve said. "But when Brunson is guarding someone, we don't have to worry. They aren't going to get what they usually get.
"She brings such intensity, and it's contagious. We have players who hadn't experienced that, and when they see her go hard, they go hard. She's all-in."
Brunson believes her team actually benefited from the adversity of her absence. Other players, such as Brazilian rookie Damiris Dantas, got the chance to step up and play.
"We had to depend on her, and now we have players who are really comfortable out there and are able to take advantage of the opportunities that they got," Brunson said. "I think we are more prepared, as a team, than if we didn't have those injuries, and I think that puts us in a great position."
Which is right where the Lynx need to be if they are to pose a serious challenge to Phoenix -- in Thursday's meeting and for the rest of the season. The Mercury have two wins over Minnesota already this season and have set a very high bar for perhaps the only team in the league this season that's capable of clearing it.
"Regardless of what Phoenix does, we have to be at the top of our game," Brunson said. "We are not measuring ourselves against them. We are not out there to compare ourselves to anyone else. We want to play our best Lynx basketball. If they are playing well, so be it, that's great for them. But that doesn't have anything to do with us."
That attitude comes directly from the top.
"This is the biggest game of the season because it's the next one," Reeve said. "I know people are talking about this and it's fun for the fans, but we want to win because we want to win all our home games. The only measuring stick we have is ourselves."