By the numbers (over entire regular season):
Minnesota Lynx (26-8) vs Phoenix Mercury (19-15)
Points scored per 100 possessions: 106.46 (1st in WNBA) – 99.46 (4th)
Points conceded per 100 possessions: 94.55 (3rd) – 100.4 (10th)
Rebound percentage: .522 (2nd) – .486 (10th)
Season series between the teams: Minnesota won 5-0
06/06 @Min, Lynx win 99-79
06/19 @Pho, Lynx win 80-69
07/07 @Min, Lynx win 91-59
07/21 @Pho, Lynx win 82-77
07/24 @Min, Lynx win 81-69
For all the talents of the Los Angeles Sparks, in many ways this was the matchup that everyone wanted to see. In one corner we have the dominant Minnesota Lynx. They were a powerhouse for the third year in a row, once again finishing with the best record in the WNBA. They’ve got three years of chemistry, the smoothest offense and one of the most cohesive defenses in the league. They’ve even got a little bit of extra incentive this season, trying to regain their crown after slipping up against Indiana in the Finals last year when heavily favoured. They’re the ones who were always meant to be here. In the opposite corner, the team who were practically crowned before they set foot on a basketball floor, then had to re-shape themselves after things didn’t go to plan. This isn’t the old Phoenix Mercury, the team that lost the last 12 games they’ve played against the Lynx. Russ Pennell made some changes after he took over in midseason, and now ESPN gets the leader of their ‘Three to See’ in the conference finals after all. We’ve got the reigning champs who were almost forgotten, against the team everyone rushed to anoint as their successors. The Sparks might be out, but Hollywood easily could’ve written this script.
Let’s start with what we know. The Lynx are very, very good. They had some occasional struggles getting past Seattle in the first-round, but that was a veteran team with exceptional discipline who know how to make a game messy. And Minnesota still held on to beat them for the sixth straight time this year. With Lindsay Whalen at the point, and Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore on the wings, the Lynx have arguably the most dangerous perimeter trio that the WNBA has ever seen. They can fill it up from outside, they can drive past you, Augustus and Moore have both worked on their post game, and in transition they’re even scarier than the LA team Phoenix just snuck past. This has been one of the central problems for the Mercury in the past in dealing with Minnesota – even if they managed to get their own offense rolling, they couldn’t stop the Lynx to save their lives. It was a team that could play at both ends of the floor against a team that only showed up at one.
But while Minnesota have those 12 consecutive wins over Phoenix stretching back to 2011, they’re yet to face the Russ Pennell Mercury. Since taking over he’s gotten the team to engage on the defensive end, and at least expend the energy required to put up a fight when they don’t have the ball. It’s not always been perfect – it takes a while to remember how to follow defensive concepts, and some players on the roster are just basic bad defenders – but they’ve been competitive ever since he took over. Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve will have her team prepared for the changes in the Mercury, but you can never entirely understand what you’re going to face until you see them on the floor. In the end, maybe it was a positive for Phoenix that they played all five regular season games against Minnesota before the All-Star break. It helped get Corey Gaines fired, and the Lynx never got a taste of the new Mercury.
Phoenix are one of the few teams with the size to potentially handle the Lynx on the perimeter. Usually a pair of six-foot athletes like Augustus and Moore are hard to even match up with, never mind actually guard, but with Briana Gilbreath and DeWanna Bonner they have the wing size to throw at Minnesota. Penny Taylor apparently isn’t expected to play in the series, which is a disappointment and will limit Phoenix’s offense, but it does make the defensive matchups more straightforward. Taurasi will be left trying to guard Whalen as well as she can. Phoenix’s help will need to be quick and effective because while Whalen always looks to run the offense and feed her teammates, she’ll attack Taurasi when the option is there. We’ll see the elbow-handoff play from Janel McCarville and simple high picks, and someone will have to cut Whalen off because getting around screens isn’t exactly Taurasi’s primary talent.
The Gilbreath/Taylor switch might be most important when Phoenix have the ball, because it reduces their threat. Whalen will probably take Gilbreath most of the time, so that Augustus can use her length and athleticism to trouble Taurasi as much as possible. The Lynx will also use Monica Wright on Taurasi as a quicker, peskier option. As we invariably see, stopping Diana isn’t exactly likely, but containing her is possible. Alana Beard did a decent job in the last series, and while Taurasi controlled the offense and created a lot of plays, she didn’t shoot well. If Augustus and Moore outshoot Taurasi in this series, Phoenix are likely to have big problems. Then they’ll need Bonner to either randomly hit some of her bombs from deep, or remember that she’s allowed to drive (and actually find a way through Minnesota’s team defense). Or they’ll need dominance from their frontcourt.
The matchups in the paint are almost as fascinating as around the perimeter. Rebekkah Brunson and Candice Dupree know each other well, and Dupree won’t be afforded the same kind of room that she found on the pick-and-roll against LA. Minnesota’s rotations are too good, and Brunson’s too quick and active. Phoenix need a supreme series from Dupree, because they’ll need both her scoring and a serious challenge against Brunson on the glass. Brunson is a phenomenal rebounder, who’ll leap and chase after everything. Phoenix, for such a tall, long team, are pretty poor on the boards (although somewhat improved since Pennell arrived). Minnesota are too good already be allowed extra possessions, either through turnovers or by letting them dominate the offensive boards. It’s all part of the same concept. Take care of the ball, and value possession. Minnesota are an aggressive, active team, but Phoenix need to outwork them in this series. It won’t be easy.
Then there’s Brittney. It’s a weird matchup between Griner and McCarville. Obviously, the Mercury’s prized rookie has a huge height advantage. Phoenix will try to take advantage of that inside whenever they can. But the Lynx will pressure the ballhandlers to make entry passes difficult, and McCarville actually prefers defending bruisers in the paint to having to cover shifty, mobile posts. She’ll fight Griner for position, use her body to make it as difficult as possible to finish, and then probably hack her if necessary. Double-teams will also collapse down, trusting the movement and rotation of Minnesota’s defense to recover when necessary. We’ll also probably see Devereaux Peters on Griner if the Lynx need a more athletic defender to put on her, or Brunson sliding over if absolutely necessary. Griner needs to force Minnesota into difficulties and reactionary changes inside, because her pure size is one of the few raw advantages that the Mercury have in this series. She can shake things up if she can get the ball often enough. At the other end, it’ll be equally interesting, because McCarville will drag Griner away from the hoop. They’ll use McCarville to set screens, forcing Griner into decisions and movements that she’s still not entirely comfortable with. Even McCarville just standing out around the three-point line complicates matters for Phoenix, because it takes Griner out of help position and opens up the lane. She already tends to over-help, which hurts her rebounding and leaves opportunities for offensive boards for their opponents, and starting from well outside the paint makes it even tougher.
Key to Watch: Rebounding
I’ve touched on it already. Minnesota were the second-best rebounding team in the league this year, whereas despite their size Phoenix were well down the list. If the Lynx get extra chances and every Mercury possession is one-and-done, Phoenix are cooked. They don’t need to win the fight on the boards, but they need to keep it reasonably close. Similarly, they can’t afford to be careless with the ball. Minnesota in full flow are practically impossible to stop in transition, especially with the Mercury’s dubious transition defense. So you avoid that by not giving up the ball in the first place, if at all possible.
It’s probably become pretty clear over the course of this piece that I feel Phoenix are still the heavy underdogs. Pennell has instilled more spirit and tenacity, and has them playing some reasonable defense, but the Lynx are still better at both ends of the floor. Phoenix might be able to learn enough lessons from Storm game-tape to force some misses from the Lynx, but then they’ll probably get broken down off the dribble or on the offensive glass. And unless Taurasi absolutely explodes, or that big shot over LA was really the start of Griner’s emergence as a pro, it’s hard to see how Phoenix score enough points at the other end of the floor to counter.
Minnesota 2-1, but Lynx 2-0 was a close second choice. I can see Phoenix stealing one to end their barren run against Minnesota, but it’ll take something very special to pull the series upset.