The Lynx woke up in Phoenix Wednesday morning a half-game out of a playoff spot.
It was there, right in front of them.
This was thanks to Atlanta's loss Tuesday, which further jumbled the bottom of the WNBA standings filled with teams fighting for the final two playoff spots. The Lynx entered their game with the Mercury knowing a win would mean a flight back home in seventh place, playoff position.
Down five early in the fourth quarter, driven by 17 fourth-quarter points from Sylvia Fowles (seven) and Aerial Powers (10), the Lynx won 86-77. That put Minnesota on top of a four-team group of 14-20 teams — Phoenix, Atlanta and New York are the others — thanks to season series victories over all of those teams.
A team that started the season 3-13 is in a playoff spot with two games to go. It won't be easy. The Lynx host Seattle Friday in Fowles' last home game and finish the season Sunday in Connecticut. But they control their fate, thanks in large part to two players playing on sore knees. Fowles' chronically sore knee was barking Wednesday, but she still played 30 minutes. Powers missed the last game with a sore knee and wasn't 100%.
"I understand that's what the standings say," coach Cheryl Reeve said. "But this changes by the day. We're not too locked in on that. We wanted to come down and win this game, because that's what we had to do."
But this win wasn't easy, either. The Mercury was without its starting backcourt of Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith. But they got 24 points from Sophie Cunningham and 21 from Shey Peddy.
The Lynx were down five with 2 ½ minutes gone in the fourth quarter.
But, out of a timeout, Kayla McBride was fouled on a three-point attempt and made all three free throws. That was the start of a 9-2 run that put the Lynx up 72-70 on Powers' jumper, a run aided by Reeve's decision to go to a zone defense.
Cunningham scored to tie the game.
But, at the other end, Fowles scored, was fouled and hit the free throw to put the Lynx up for good. Minnesota made nine of 14 shots — none of them threes — and hit nine of 10 free throws while scoring 27 fourth-quarter points.
The Mercury, which took 31 threes and made 13, got to within one on Cunningham's jumper with 3:28 left, but the Lynx finished the game on a 9-3 run.
"At the beginning of the season that was our goal," Jessica Shepard said of the playoffs. "That never changed, even with the rough patches we went through. To have that opportunity? For Syl we want to do that."
What a balanced night. McBride finished with 18 points. Shepard had a 15-point, 12-rebound double-double. Coming off the bench, Powers started slowly and finished strong.
Fowles had 16 points and nine rebounds. Point guard Moriah Jefferson scored just six points, but she had 12 assists and six boards. Napheesa Collier (11 points) was in double figures in her second game back.
After a slow start, Powers hit four of seven fourth-quarter shots. "We're happy we're in the seventh spot now," Powers said. "We're just looking to get another win, especially for Syl, playing in her last home game."
Of course nothing is set, not yet, not before what promises to be a wild finish to the regular season. But for a team that started 3-13 to get Fowles, in her final season, back in the postseason?
"It would be massive," Reeve said.
The Star Tribune did not travel for this event. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews before and/or after the event.