SAN ANTONIO -- Sitting along one side of the West's locker room at the All-Star Game on Saturday was a line of Lynx. The fact that Minnesota took up about a third of the West roster spots is an indication of how the first half of the season went for a franchise that certainly isn't used to such signs of strength.
"For me, it's been a long time coming," said Seimone Augustus, the Lynx's leading scorer. "I'm just happy our team is as successful as it is. The fans are starting to come out in Minnesota and are buzzing about us."
The Lynx unfortunately have produced more "zzzzzzz" than buzz in their history. Augustus, the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft, has never been to the WNBA playoffs. The last time a Lynx team made it that far was in 2004, when Minnesota was defeated in the conference semifinals by eventual champ Seattle.
That same year, point guard Lindsay Whalen helped lead the Minnesota Gophers to the Women's Final Four, then was drafted by Connecticut and went to the WNBA Finals. It took until last season for Whalen to migrate back to the Twin Cities to play, as the Lynx traded the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft (Tina Charles) to get her.
Fortune shined again on the Lynx, though, as the draft lottery gave them the top selection in 2011, too. That sent Charles' former UConn teammate, Maya Moore, to Minnesota.
Meanwhile, the Sacramento Monarchs' dispersal draft in 2009 brought Rebekkah Brunson to the Lynx. Those four -- Augustus, Whalen, Moore and Brunson -- all came to San Antonio as part of the first-place team in the Western Conference, percentage points ahead of Phoenix.
So far, so good. But in the second half of the WNBA season, the Lynx, 10-4, will have to show the kind of consistency that they haven't displayed for much of their existence.
Washington (1998) and Minnesota (1999) both entered the league as expansion teams and have gone through their share of disappointments, frustrations and bad decisions. Neither the Mystics nor the Lynx have made it as far as the WNBA Finals, let alone won a championship.
While Washington is following up a good 2010 (finishing first in the regular season) with a dismal 2011, the Lynx appear poised to at least make a run at going further than they ever have before.
"At the start of training camp, we could really feel that everybody wanted to share the ball and play together," Whalen said. "Things have come together really nicely. We've had a couple of tough stretches, but for the most part we've working well together."
The reality of the WNBA's schedule is that most teams, even the best ones, will have those rough patches where losing two or three in a row is not cause for any panic. At the same time, teams can't afford too much of that, because in a 34-game season, there isn't all that much margin for error.
Realistically, the Western Conference playoff race is about eliminating one team -- 1-14 Tulsa is essentially already out of contention -- and order of finish. Provided they don't have a major collapse, the Lynx seem nearly certain to make the postseason.
But, see, just writing that seems a little dangerous. While the other established West teams have all reached pinnacles of sorts -- Phoenix, Seattle and Los Angeles are former league champions, while San Antonio went to the 2008 WNBA Finals -- Minnesota has too often been the bumbler of the West. The Lynx have made trades -- some of them very unwise -- that have not helped, suffered debilitating injuries and just been unlucky.
But in her second season as coach in Minnesota, coach Cheryl Reeve seems to have the right pieces in place. Moore, a rookie, plays more like a veteran. Brunson has become one of the top low-block players in the league. Augustus appears to finally feel comfortable now that she doesn't have the weight of the team on her shoulders. Whalen is in her peak years as a pro, both physically and with her strategic experience.
Add in the veteran leadership of Taj McWilliams-Franklin as the fifth starter and a bench with scoring/versatility, and you find the Lynx on the most solid ground they've occupied in a long time.
"It's exciting when we practice and play together," Moore said. "We're still growing, but everybody's got a good attitude, and I feel like it's a very unselfish team."
However, there is still a second half of the season to go. Injuries have played a big role in how teams have performed thus far. In the West, defending WNBA champion Seattle lost three-time league MVP Lauren Jackson to a hip injury in late June and awaits her return. Los Angeles saw star Candace Parker go down with a knee injury shortly thereafter. The Sparks also have changed head coaches -- Jennifer Gillom was let go and replaced by Joe Bryant -- and appear to have some playing-time issues among veterans.
San Antonio has had big contributions from its rookie class and, overall, the Silver Stars have exceeded expectations so far. Two-time league champion Phoenix, which was expected to be a contender for the title again, got off to a slow start but quickly turned it around. The Mercury have looked a lot like their old selves in recent weeks, which should scare the rest of the West.
In the East, the Mystics have struggled a lot with carrying two inactive players on their roster. They knew they'd be without Monique Currie because of an ACL injury, but Alana Beard also has been out all season because of the ankle woes that kept her sidelined throughout 2010. That, combined with the off-season turmoil of replacing their coach and general manager despite the success of last summer, has seemed to drain much of the life out of the 2011 Mystics, who are in last place and appear likely to stay there.
Atlanta, which advanced to the WNBA Finals last season, was slow out of the gate because of injuries and lineup adjustments, as Sancho Lyttle was out of action for awhile as she played for Spain in the European Championships.
"These types of things make you stronger in the long run," said Angel McCoughtry, the Dream's representative at the All-Star Game. "We're at a point now where we're playing much better together. We're getting our chemistry. We just won three in a row, so I felt great coming into the All-Star break."
Chicago -- seeking its first playoff berth since joining the league in 2006, and with a new coach in Pokey Chatman -- had three All-Stars in Sylvia Fowles, Epiphanny Prince and Courtney Vandersloot. Connecticut, which missed the playoffs last year for the second season in a row, had All-Stars in Charles and Renee Montgomery. New York, under a new coach in John Whisenant, also had two players in Saturday's game: Cappie Pondexter and Essence Carson.
"Right now, I'd give us a grade of C or C-plus," Pondexter said of the Liberty. "We've been average as a team. We haven't done anything too great or too bad. We're still in the hunt."
Leading the East is Indiana, which had perennial All-Stars Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas competing Saturday in San Antonio. Catchings had 11 points and played with her standard exuberance, while Douglas' 15 points included five in the last minute that sealed the East team's 118-113.
The Fever had won seven in a row before dropping three straight, then winning again, to come into the All-Star Break.
"That's how the WNBA is," Douglas said. "It's kind of a roller-coaster, and you've just got to hold on."
Which is what the Lynx will be trying to do as well. The Minnesota fans have been through plenty of "almost" and even more "it's not happening." But the hopes for this team have been building since the end of last season.
"It's about business this year," Moore said. "We're not making any excuses. The bar is really high. We want to take advantage of the special team we have this year."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.