#1 Minnesota Lynx vs. #3 Phoenix Mercury
Regular season series: Lynx 3-2
@ Min. 07/13: Mercury 112-105
@ Pho. 07/20: Lynx 106-98
@ Min. 08/02: Lynx 90-73
@ Pho. 08/09: Mercury 85-80
@ Pho. 09/11: Lynx 96-90
Pace is distinctly less likely to be an issue in this series than it is in the East. The Mercury love to run, and the Lynx rather enjoy running back at them. This could be a lot of fun for fans of offense.
As mentioned in the preview of the first round, the Lynx bore a remarkable statistical resemblance to the 2010 Seattle Storm this year. They show up next to that Storm team in an array of statistical lists, like points per possession (both offensive and defensive), scoring margin, rebounding margin and rebounding percentage. Both teams finished right among the leaders in WNBA history in several of those categories. And if you remember, the Mercury got swept at this very same stage in last year’s playoffs by that very same 2010 Seattle Storm. However, unlike Seattle last year, Minnesota looked vulnerable in the opening round. They salvaged their series in Game 3 with a blowout win, but a scrappy one-point victory in Game 1 and a fairly comfortable loss in Game 2 showed a lot of nerves and some fallibilities. But San Antonio are a very different team from Phoenix, and it’s questionable whether they can pick the same holes in the Lynx even if head coach Corey Gaines can pick them up on the tape.
The Mercury have always been a team based around offense. Led by Diana Taurasi, with Penny Taylor, Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner as more than able assistants, they run and gun, look for quick offense at every opportunity, and fire away at will. Defense has always been an afterthought. But they showed in the series against Seattle, especially the ultra-physical Game 3, that they can play some defense when necessary. They’re willing to put the work in, it’s just not something they’re used to. Against this Lynx team, they’re going to have to play both ends. It’s not quite like Seattle, who need points inside to be effective and can be neutralised at times if you force them into repeatedly firing jump shots. Minnesota have Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen and Candice Wiggins who’ll be more than happy to shoot from outside all day long and are far more likely to make Phoenix pay from out there than the Storm. The Lynx are a better team if they stay balanced between interior and perimeter offense, but if the Mercury drop inside and dare them to beat them from outside there’s a fair chance that that’s exactly what Minnesota will do.
It’ll be interesting to see exactly what kind of defense the Mercury force Minnesota to deal with. They’ve been playing mostly man-to-man all season, but they won the Storm series when they went big and switched back to their ‘Rover’ zone. It took Temeka Johnson off the floor and pushed Taurasi to pseudo-point guard alongside Taylor, with Nakia Sanford coming in at center to join Bonner and Dupree in the frontcourt. After its effectiveness in the previous game I expect Gaines to be more willing to switch to that lineup and defensive system if the standard setup isn’t working, but he’ll probably start out with the unit he’s been opening games with all season.
However, without any quirks to what Gaines runs, it’s hard to see too many matchups that work in the Mercury’s favour. Whalen is too big and too strong for Johnson at the point; Augustus had a heck of a comeback season before lighting up San Antonio, and Taurasi will have trouble guarding her without ending up in quick foul trouble; Taylor can handle Moore, but it’s an intriguing matchup of outstanding talents; Brunson is too quick off the ground and too active on the boards for Bonner or Dupree to deal with, so that’ll require a collective effort from the Mercury; and Taj McWilliams-Franklin is as smart and savvy as they come, and won’t fall for any of Sanford’s veteran tricks. The Mercury can score on anybody, but so can the Lynx, probably in a greater variety of ways. It’s going to take something special – like the Mercury discovering defense again, or Taurasi getting insanely hot – for Phoenix to bridge the clear gap that was between these teams during the course of the regular season.
Matchup to watch: Rebekkah Brunson vs. Candice Dupree
The meeting of star shooting guards would be the obvious pick, with Augustus and Taurasi both likely to take somewhere between 15 and 20 shots per game in this series. Even the struggle between underappreciated Taylor and glorified rookie Moore at the three, which Taylor could dominate if Moore plays as poorly as she did for much of the San Antonio series (although I expect Moore to be far more comfortable against the bigger, stronger Taylor than she was with pesky little Becky Hammon and Jia Perkins). But this is the clash that fascinates me. Dupree had a phenomenal series against Seattle, taking on the challenge inside (albeit against an understrength Lauren Jackson), and scoring with remarkable efficiency. But can she be as effective against Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin?
Brunson is a beast on the boards, which will make cleaning the glass far harder for Dupree (who tends to grab a lot of ‘cheap’ rebounds, but sometimes gets overpowered for the tough ones). The Lynx also did a far better job in Game 3 against the Silver Stars of moving Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin around the floor, rolling them off screens and creating better opportunities to score inside. While Dupree showed herself willing to join the physical battle with Jackson and Camille Little against the Storm, she’s still a barely mediocre defender most of the time. The Rover hides her a little, but whatever they’re playing she’ll need to stick with whichever Lynx post player she’s up against. At the other end, the Lynx do an excellent job of closing off the paint, and of getting back in transition – two elements that the Storm are supposed to be outstanding at, but were restricted by Jackson’s health, Little’s foul trouble and Swin Cash’s mood swings in the recent series. If they keep Dupree out of the paint, she has a tendency to disappear from the offense entirely, not even taking the midrange jumpshot that she can knock down when she’s in rhythm. If she’s AWOL in this series – or the Lynx force her to be – Taurasi, Taylor and Bonner are going to have a heck of a job on their hands winning it without her.
If you’ve read everything above, you’ve probably got a pretty decent idea of where I’m leaning by now. The Lynx are a better team. It’s why they finished eight games clear of the Mercury this season. They’re both impressive offensively – although with different styles – but the Lynx are a consistently better defensive team. The only way Phoenix close that gap is if a) they’ve discovered something different since the regular season (I don’t really think they have, even with the 20 minutes of the big lineup against Seattle); b) their collective playoff experience gives them a significant edge over the Lynx (I think Minnesota have had their scare in the first round, and already worked out most of the kinks); or c) the direct Lynx-Mercury matchup favours Phoenix over Minnesota, negating the clear edge the Lynx had against the overall league this year. I certainly wouldn’t entirely rule out c) – the Mercury might be able to simply outscore the Lynx if they can turn it into a track meet – but I don’t fancy their chances. I think Phoenix may have had their glorious victory already in the first round by finally getting over the hump against the Storm. Fortunately for Mercury fans, my predictions for the West this season have been consistently awful – they’re probably better off with me taking the Lynx.
Minnesota 2-0, and a fresh face makes the Finals.