Lineups: For the first time in their four meetings this season, the two best teams in the WNBA had their entire rotations fit and ready to play. There were no surprises in the starting lineups.
Story of the Game: The Lynx, led by Maya Moore, lit Phoenix up in the opening quarter. Apart from a couple of breakaways that Moore created with a block and a steal it was all on jump shots, but that didn’t seem to matter – everything was dropping. Moore was electric, hitting from everywhere, including a couple of threes. One of them was on the same sideline play – where she inbounds the ball, gets it back immediately and fires – that resulted in two vital buckets in the fourth quarter of the previous Lynx-Mercury game. Phoenix might want to actually prepare for that next time these teams meet. And while Moore was the leader, everyone else was making shots for Minnesota as well, including Janel McCarville nailing a three when the defense left her alone, and Monica Wright adding a pair of jumpers after coming off the bench.
It was all Phoenix could do to cling on, and they just about managed it. They went inside to Brittney Griner a few times, and while she came up with a couple of buckets McCarville was also doing a good job of pushing Griner off the block before the ball could arrive. When Griner did get open, it was usually thanks to a physical screen from Diana Taurasi, who was clearly up for this game from the very beginning. She whined about how physical the previous meeting with Minnesota was – despite never shying away from creating contact herself – and it was clear that she was determined to get the first hit in this time around. She was also much more aggressive in looking for her own shot than we’ve seen in most of Phoenix’s games this season, where she’s often been as much of a creator as a scorer. It was the same in the last game against the Lynx – for such a big game, she wants the scoring responsibility in her hands.
The Mercury were only down by eight after that explosive opening period for Minnesota, which felt like a victory for Phoenix. Then in the second quarter, they came right back into the game. The Lynx inevitably cooled off, and their efforts to get the ball inside and create some paint points resulted in more turnovers than baskets. Phoenix were the team getting into the lane, and they were still clearly the aggressors in the contest, making things happen. DeWanna Bonner was looking to attack and score, Penny Taylor was driving into the defense, and a spinning Taurasi baseline jumper for the final points of the first half gave Phoenix their first lead of the night. The fact that it came after an uncalled (yet blatant) push-off to shed the defense of Lindsay Whalen just helped sum up the first half.
The Lynx came out after the interval clearly intent on creating higher-percentage looks than they’d had in the first half, hopefully lowering their reliance on hitting jumpers. The very first possession involved a nice play with a back-screen from Whalen breaking Moore open to cut to the basket for a layup. Taurasi was continuing to try to drive the action for Phoenix – there was no element of ‘letting the game come to her’, it was all about trying to take control of it herself – which led to more physical plays and continued whining whenever she felt a call hadn’t gone her way. There was a very brief little flare-up between Taurasi and McCarville early in the third, which only made the officials more sensitive about calling touch-fouls to keep things under control.
Taurasi picked up her fourth foul late in the third quarter on a charge taken by Tan White, who produced some valuable minutes for the Lynx late in the third and early in the fourth. That sent Taurasi to the bench, but it was only a brief rest – you’d have needed an army to keep her out of this game for long. Big threes from Taylor and Bonner helped wipe out the small advantage that Minnesota had built in the third quarter, and we had a grandstand finish on our hands.
The Lynx tried to run their offense increasingly high, dragging Griner and the other Mercury defenders out of the paint to create space in behind them – a trick we’ve seen Minnesota pull in tight fourth quarters at other times during the season. But they still ended up taking a lot of jump shots. Moore did make an effort to attack the basket, and hit a couple of incredibly difficult finishes in traffic. The Lynx were sending some double-teams at Griner whenever she touched the ball down low, and rotating impressively behind the doubles to cover the rest of the Mercury scorers. But with under five minutes to play, Taurasi started taking over even more. She was coming down and pulling up for quick jumpers, and two makes in a row gave Phoenix the lead.
Minnesota countered by going small, replacing a post with Monica Wright so that she could guard Taurasi, sliding Moore to power forward. It worked, with Taurasi missing a few shots in a row, while Seimone Augustus hit a couple at the other end to take the lead back for the Lynx. It was thrust and counter-thrust. Phoenix tied the game on a Bonner free throw, after a possession kept alive three separate times by Mercury offensive rebounds – something they’ve been terrible at all season. It was Griner who came up with two of them, showing the desire they need from her more often on the glass.
Augustus missed a baseline jumper before a typical Mercury play followed, with Taurasi finding Candice Dupree in space after drawing extra defenders to herself and Griner. Dupree had been missing mid-range jumpers all night, so finally decided to attack instead, and came up with a strong lefty finish at the rim to put Phoenix in front with 25 seconds remaining. Minnesota answered with a play that looked designed to break Moore open for three, but Bonner and Griner closed out on her so she drove past them, before somehow managing to finish a runner in the lane while falling into Taylor. No call either way, basket counts, tied game with eight seconds left.
Phoenix kept things very, very simple on the play that followed. Taurasi came up high to collect the ball, Griner faked setting a screen for her but then just slipped to the basket to give Diana extra space, and Taurasi drove left and pulled up to drill a 17 foot jumper over Wright. The crowd went nuts, so did the Mercury players, and the Lynx had just 2.9 seconds to answer.
In the end, it was an appropriate way for Phoenix to win the game. Taurasi had come up with the huge offensive play, and she’s been making their offense tick all season long. Then it was Griner’s turn on the defensive end. Whalen drove the baseline, tried to come up on the opposite side of the rim for a reverse layup, and was emphatically rejected by Griner. The block sent the ball flying out to Augustus on the perimeter, but her shot would’ve been too late even if it had dropped. Phoenix had held on, and just about sealed home court advantage throughout the playoffs. More importantly, they’d made a statement about their ability to beat a full-strength Minnesota Lynx squad.
Key Players: Just as she did in the previous game against the Lynx, Taurasi took 21 shots – she’s only fired more than 17 on one other occasion this season, illustrating how determined she is to attack the Lynx offensively and impose herself on these games. There were plenty of misses mixed in with the makes, but she came up with a lot of big plays, including the clutch shot for the winning points. But Bonner, Taylor and Griner were all important to the offense as well, and even while suffering through an ugly shooting night Dupree came up with the big bucket in the final minute. Now that they’re healthy – and competently coached – the Mercury can compete with this Lynx team that’s been dominating for the last few years.
The Lynx won’t be too upset with how they played, despite the disappointment of the loss, the end of their 11-game winning streak, and the fact that they’ll likely have to win in Phoenix to make it through the Western Conference Finals. They answered the physicality that the Mercury came out determined to play with, Moore and Augustus shot well most of the night and attacked better as the game went on, and their defense was relatively effective for long stretches. This game just whetted everyone’s appetite for the likely playoff series between these teams, as long as neither falls victim to an upset in the first round. Much as I strive to maintain neutrality, the basketball fan in me can’t help hoping they both make it and we see three more games like this one.
Forgot to mention it yesterday, but Diana Taurasi signed a multi-year contract extension with the Mercury a couple of days ago. It’s not really news, because no one expects her to play anywhere else in the WNBA and there’ve been no indications that she’s anywhere near retirement, but it’s still nice for Phoenix to get her signed. You always want your stars under contract for as long as possible, especially in this league where having the core designation available to make sure you keep the secondary stars as well can always be useful.
Indiana @ New York, 3pm ET. A scheduling quirk means that these teams face each other three times over the final eight days of the regular season, and the results will go a long way towards deciding which side makes it to the playoffs – or if both can sneak in. Both have produced some scrappy, messy performances recently, so it’s hard to know what to expect. Erlana Larkins is mobile and physical enough to track Tina Charles, and the Fever will send plenty of help whenever Charles touches the ball down low, so as usual New York will need their supporting cast to make shots when the ball reverses. Brian January will be all over Cappie Pondexter – not that it’s necessarily needed much attention to keep Pondexter quiet in a lot of games this season – so the likes of Anna Cruz, Sugar Rodgers and Alex Montgomery need to produce. At the other end of the floor, once again the Fever need Tamika Catchings to lead them. New York have typically been rotating Charles away from the opposing center on the defensive end, but against Indiana that would leave her covering Catchings for much of the night. Catch needs to attack that, make Charles work defensively, and either score herself or draw the defense to open space for her teammates.
Washington @ Connecticut, 4pm ET. Despite losing 14 of their last 17 games, Connecticut are somehow still in the playoff hunt – if they get plenty of help. Meanwhile thanks to a strong run of form and Atlanta’s tailspin, Washington have moved within striking distance of the top seed in the East. We may find out whether Connecticut actually want to make the playoffs from their starting lineup – when we see whether Chiney Ogwumike is going to return from her dental issues after missing two games. They could certainly use her against the Mystics, who’ve been playing impressive team basketball lately, moving the ball well and hurting opponents all around the floor. It’s amazing the difference that actually hitting some outside shots can make to your performances all over the court.
Los Angeles @ San Antonio, 4.30pm ET. A couple of weeks ago, this game looked like it would only be important to decide which team finished third and which fourth in the West. After losing nine of their last eleven games, San Antonio now need the win just to help hold on to their postseason position. Los Angeles haven’t technically secured their playoff spot yet either, and look much safer at 1.5 games ahead of the Stars, but obviously a loss today would pull them back towards the chasers. It’s hard to know quite what to expect from either of these teams at this stage. LA will try to go inside to their posts, because that’s their strength, while San Antonio are likely to shoot significantly better, but both have defensive and mental breakdowns at unpredictable times. The Stars may have that slight extra level of urgency having dropped dangerously close to the teams behind them.
Atlanta@ Chicago, 6pm ET. Yet again, two teams in desperate need of a positive result. The Sky are fighting for their playoff lives, while Atlanta’s run of eight losses in ten games leaves them needing an emotional fillip as much as a boost in the standings. The Sky are likely to be reliant on Epiphanny Prince and Allie Quigley to create offense again, because their efforts to feed Sylvia Fowles in the paint have rarely been successful. The x-factor is what they get from Elena Delle Donne, who gave them important scoring and energy in her first few games after returning from illness but looked tired in their last game against Minnesota. Atlanta are just trying to find some rhythm. The performances haven’t all been terrible in this recent run, but there have certainly been some poor ones and they’ve lost their flow from earlier in the year.
Tulsa @ Seattle, 9pm ET. Both these teams are still clinging to playoff hopes, and by the time the game tips off they’ll know whether San Antonio have lost again to make them even more viable. Tulsa are sweating on the health of Odyssey Sims, who’s been fantastic recently but fell on her shoulder late in their game on Friday and is listed as day-to-day. Seattle produced their best game of the season in dismantling Atlanta on Thursday, but they haven’t been consistent this year and it’s hard to believe that they can reproduce that form for their remaining games. The speed and aggression of Sims and Skylar Diggins from the perimeter will give them problems in this game, and while they’ll find space for Crystal Langhorne and Camille Little in the paint, they’ll have trouble containing Tulsa going the other way. The Storm have to avoid turnovers, and put up more of a fight on the glass than we’ve seen in most of their games this season. A loss tonight and they’re worrying about ping-pong balls rather than playoff spots.