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With Taurasi gone, Lynx look to reclaim top spot in West

FILE - In this Aug. 31, 2014, file photo, Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore (23), guard Seimone Augustus (33) and guard Lindsay Whalen (13) celebrate during the second half of Game 2 of the WNBA basketball Western Conference finals against the Phoenix Mercury in Minneapolis. Last year the Lynx went 25-9 in the regular season while battling various injuries, but fell to the Mercury 2-1 in the conference finals. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs, File)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Seimone Augustus’s face fell and her eyes grew sharp as the Minnesota Lynx star was asked about the door opening for them in the Western Conference now that Diana Taurasi will not be playing in Phoenix this year.

“The door was open even if she did play this year,” Augustus said. “It just makes it a little bit tougher for them to be able to beat us as opposed to us being able to beat them. We still feel like we had a great chance of beating them if she was here or not.”

One of the biggest headlines of the WNBA offseason was Taurasi’s decision not to play for the Mercury this season. Taurasi and the Mercury beat the Lynx in the Western Conference finals last season en route to winning the championship. Not only is Taurasi gone this year, but Brittney Griner will miss the first seven games while serving a suspension for domestic violence.

And here are the Lynx, with the same core that had won two championships and been to the finals three straight years before last season’s early exit. MVP Maya Moore is back as the centerpiece of a team playing with a sense of urgency with Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson all in their 30s.

“Any time you end your season on a loss, you want to carry that with you,” Moore said. “That’s a natural motivation to bring into the next season.”

Last year the Lynx went 25-9 in the regular season while battling various injuries, but fell to the Mercury 2-1 in the conference finals. Veteran center Jane McCarville made a last-minute decision not to play this season, but all the main parts are back for a run at a third championship in five years.

The 31-year-old Augustus isn’t ready to think about retirement yet, but she did acknowledge that the end of her career is closer than the start. So in a way, the time is now for the Lynx.

“We just don’t know how long. It could be three, five years, who knows,” Augustus said. “It depends on your mental and physical state. Of course we have that sense of urgency. We have goals we want to accomplish before we take our shoes off and hang them up on our trophy cases. Within the next three to five years hopefully we have obtained those goals.”

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Other Western Conference tidbits:

ANOTHER MISSING PIECE

Taurasi isn’t the only high profile player who is sitting out this season.

Candace Parker, the former MVP and one of the league’s most popular players, will not play at the start of the season for the Los Angeles Sparks while resting her body. Parker, like many others, has been playing year-round for years, with the WNBA during the summers and overseas in the offseason, most recently in Russia.

“She intends on playing,” Sparks general manager Penny Toler said in April. “At what point we don’t know. She has been playing year-round and needed a break.”

WELCOME, YOUNGSTERS

The top two picks in the draft this year — No. 1 pick Jewell Loyd in Seattle and No. 2 pick Amanda Zahui B. in Tulsa — left college early to turn pro. It’s a common occurrence in the NBA and NFL, but a rarity for the WNBA, which doesn’t offer the same financial benefits that lure high-profile men’s players to make the jump early.

“I just felt it was my time to play at the next level and face the next challenge,” she said after the draft.

Zahui B. left Minnesota as a red-shirt sophomore. She was the Big Ten player of the year and was able to leave because she turned 22 in the same calendar year as the draft.

“I like to be unique,” Zahui said in April. “I like to do my own thing.”

TULSA’S YEAR?

The Shock haven’t made the playoffs since moving from Detroit in 2010. They hope to end that dubious streak this season.

With Skylar Diggins coming off a season in which she averaged 20.1 points per game and the additions of the rookie Zahui and veterans Karima Christmas and Plenette Pierson, the Shock are positioned to make a run in a conference that is missing some of the star players that made it tough on them over the past five years.

The Shock won just nine games combined in their first two seasons in Tulsa and went 12-22 last year.

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