Lineups: The starting fives were as expected for Game 1 of this eagerly anticipated series. The only slight surprise among the available players was that Lynx post Damiris Dantas had recently returned from her personal issues back in Brazil, and was available again off the bench for Minnesota.
Story of the Game: The game started as much of it would go on – unfortunately for Minnesota. Buoyed by their noisy home crowd, the Mercury got out in transition early on and scored the first nine points of the game. They were challenging hard on all the jumpers the Lynx were tossing up, leaking out after making those challenges, and beating Minnesota down the floor at the other end. DeWanna Bonner also drilled a three in the opening 90 seconds of the game, which would be another bad sign for the rest of the night for the Lynx.
After an early Cheryl Reeve timeout to wake her team up, Minnesota came right back into it in the first period. Seimone Augustus was the primary driving force, making a couple of nice runners after early jump shots hadn’t fallen. But they’d needed to make some tough shots, and have Rebekkah Brunson come up with some offensive boards and hustle points, just to stay close. Phoenix were playing their natural game, moving the ball well and sharing it around the floor, and looked in control.
Diana Taurasi picked up her second personal foul for a push-off late in the opening period (right after being called for a carry, which itself was preceded by a defensive three-seconds call on Griner – referee Sue Blauch wasn’t doing the Mercury any favours). Then Brittney Griner was called for her second foul early in the second period on a Lindsay Whalen drive. But Minnesota weren’t able to take advantage. Taurasi came back in quickly, and played with the fouls without issue. Griner came back midway through the second quarter, and her team was still up by four. The Lynx have to be able to gain ground when those two are on the bench in this series, especially when they’ve forced them there with foul trouble.
Instead, Phoenix pressed home their advantage once their starters were reunited again. The Mercury’s team defense and energy level was winning the battle with the Lynx, with Bonner and help making Maya Moore a thoroughly peripheral part of Minnesota’s offense. Penny Taylor was offering lots of hustle work as well, tracking down loose balls and rebounds while always making the right pass to the next open teammate. With Griner always a target inside – and knocking down three mid-range jump shots just to make her even more scary – and the combination of Taurasi, Bonner and Candice Dupree producing elsewhere, Phoenix started to slide away late in the first half. Minnesota took a couple of bad shots, got beaten by Phoenix’s ball movement and basic work rate too often, and were down by 11 at the end of the half. The Mercury went on an 11-4 run after Griner came back in.
It only got worse for Minnesota in the third quarter. Moore still couldn’t get into the game with Bonner draped all over her and largely uninventive efforts to get her the ball. The Lynx had come out for the second half clearly looking to attack the rim more, rather than settle for jump shots, but all that did was lead them directly into the teeth of the defense. Mercury arms reached into passing lanes for steals, Griner came across for blocks, and the point production was never there. The slick ball movement and unselfishness that we’ve always seen from Minnesota at their best wasn’t remotely in evidence, with everything slowing down and players often trying to create for themselves rather than move the ball and bend the defense. Phoenix weren’t hitting shots as effectively or consistently as they had in the first half, but they were drawing plenty of fouls and continuing their work at the foul line. The lead stretched as high as 25 late in the third quarter, and the game felt done and dusted.
To Minnesota’s credit, they at least made the Mercury sweat a little. From late in the third quarter through much of the fourth, Phoenix started playing ‘not to lose’ rather than continuing the free-flowing and relaxed basketball they’d produced for much of the night. That meant everything slowed down, they started turning the ball over, and even mildly productive Minnesota offense eventually brought them close enough to concern Sandy Brondello and the home crowd. But the gap was too big. Bonner hit another three at a crucial stage when the lead had dwindled to 11, Griner slid inside for finishes a couple of times, Taurasi hit a jumper or two when necessary, and Phoenix had done enough to hold the Lynx off.
Key Players: As always when they’re at their best, Phoenix’s starting five all made significant contributions. Taylor made all the little plays, and eventually it added up to being three assists away from a triple-double; Griner was her typical unguardable self when the Mercury threw the ball high to her inside, and came up with 23 points without the offense needing to slow down to feed her; Bonner did her part covering Moore on the defensive end, and hit back-breaking threes on shots the Lynx scouting report would’ve said they should let her take; Taurasi forced a few shots over the course of the night, but hit enough and drew enough fouls to provide her regular role at the heart of the team; and Dupree scored in her regular smooth ways to keep the offense rolling in the first half. And as a collective group, their team-defense outworked Minnesota on the night. Griner may be at the center of their defensive transformation, but Brondello has gotten the whole squad to buy in, and it was the team effort that shut the Lynx down. Maya Moore hadn’t scored in single-digits since the preseason, and Augustus was kept quiet as well after the first quarter. Minnesota are going to have to come up with more creative ways to score or we won’t be back in Phoenix until the opening game of the WNBA Finals.
That’s part of what was disappointing from Minnesota. The effort and energy from the Mercury was better, which is always a problem. But the Lynx also didn’t seem to have many ideas on what to switch up when their initial offensive tactics weren’t working. The ball didn’t move, they rarely sliced through the defense – even if only to draw defenders before kicking it back out – and they ended up looking a little lost. Even the fourth quarter comeback largely happened because Phoenix slowed to a crawl, and the Lynx just started firing away from outside. It’s not like they unlocked any secrets for Game 2. The bright side is that Moore is unlikely to be that quiet again, regardless of the defense; Bonner is unlikely to shoot like that from outside again; and with the Minnesota crowd behind them they should be able to feed off the fans if they’re lacking energy again. But Whalen taking 23 shots is rarely going to be the answer. She only does that when she feels the need to take over due to limited production from her teammates. Even with Taurasi going way under every screen and giving Whalen all kinds of room, Minnesota need to keep the ball moving, drive and kick when it’s available, and generally force the action. Another game where they don’t match Phoenix’s pace and energy will be the final game of their season.
Notes of Interest: Minnesota tried their zone a couple of times – usually out of timeouts as is often the case – and invariably gave up wide open shots. Reeve really needs to junk it entirely against Phoenix, even for the one possession to open games that always amuses me. When the Lynx get a stop with it, it’s usually through luck more than anything else.
Chicago @ Indiana, 7pm ET, Game 1 of best-of-three