Phoenix Mercury 77 @ Minnesota Lynx 82
Lineups: Nothing changed. Neither of these teams was going to mess with something as basic as their starting lineup after the success they’ve had with their established groups. Phoenix did change their defensive matchups at halftime in Game 1, with Candice Dupree taking Janel McCarville and Brittney Griner switching to Rebekkah Brunson. They went with that from the start in Game 2, although essentially Griner’s guarded whichever opposing post hangs closer to the rim all season long.
Story of the Game: With their home crowd primed to explode and loving that Diana Taurasi was called for a push-off on the opening possession, Minnesota nonetheless got off to another awful start. They had no offensive rhythm, the ball was static once again, and they settled for – and missed – a lot of jump shots. They also saw Janel McCarville pick up two fouls in under three minutes, then Devereaux Peters sub in for her and do the same in less than two minutes of action. So not only were they falling behind, but two of their primary post defenders were already in foul trouble – and they hadn’t even picked the fouls up while defending Griner. The calls hadn’t gone Minnesota’s way, but it was still a horrible start and much of it self-inflicted.
The Lynx had at least managed to disrupt Phoenix’s flow a little with their defense. They’d extended out higher on the perimeter, making it harder for Phoenix to initiate their offense and get the ball moving. They were also mixing up the matchups, with Maya Moore often on Penny Taylor while Seimone Augustus (or Monica Wright, after an early sub) took DeWanna Bonner. The more straightforward matchup, which they stuck with for most of Game 1, was to have Moore guard Bonner. As Bonner was always guarding Moore, it made things easier to stay the same at the other end. But the Lynx cross-matched more in Game 2, and considering both Bonner and Taylor were much quieter than in Game 1, it ultimately had to be considered a success.
But in the opening period the Mercury were still racking up enough points to move into a double-digit lead. With a Lindsay Whalen driving layup the only Lynx success in their first 12 shots, the Mercury could hardly avoid it.
Minnesota finally started to pick things up in the second quarter. A few jumpers fell in for Whalen, Moore and Augustus early in the period to kick-start the offense, and there was a little more penetration and ball movement to create the space for those shots. McCarville’s minutes were once again limited by foul trouble, although the return of Damiris Dantas from overseas had at least given the Lynx another post that Cheryl Reeve was willing to use. The game got increasingly chippy in the second period as well, with Taurasi called for a technical after bitching a little too long and hard about the lack of a call on one of her missed shots, then Reeve adding her own tech after an argument with official Amy Bonner about staying in the coaching box. According to ESPN reports from the sideline, it was Taurasi who suggested to Bonner that she should keep an eye on Reeve’s movements, just to add an extra level to it all.
Phoenix responded to the Minnesota push late in the first half, with Taurasi nailing a pair of threes when left in too much space, and Dupree continuing to finish with her typical smoothness both at the rim and from mid-range. The Lynx forcing a few turnovers and hitting some jumpers in the second period was a good sign for the second half, but they still trailed by eight at the interval.
The Mercury went inside to Griner early in the second half, after she’d been relatively quiet in the opening 20 minutes, and had some success both on post-ups and pick-and-roll feeds. But the physical work of McCarville and additional defenders was starting to frustrate Griner. She lashed out with her off arm on a post move, caught McCarville in the face and picked up an offensive foul. Then Moore smartly drove right at her at the other end, drew another foul, and Griner added a technical for mouthing off after the play. It would’ve been too much to say the Lynx were in her head, but they’d gotten her thinking about something other than scoring, defending and dominating on the basketball court. On a basic level that could only be a positive for Minnesota.
The Lynx got a few decent minutes from Dantas in the third period when McCarville picked up her fourth foul, but continued to do most of their work from outside. But at least the ball was moving. They scored seven baskets and had seven assists in the third quarter, as the teamwork they’ve been known for in recent years – despite the stars that often carry the scoring load – made a pleasant reappearance. The typically placid Whalen even started waving and screaming at the crowd at one stage, desperate for that extra smidgen of inspiration.
But between Taurasi hitting a couple of shots (while missing several more), Griner’s early burst and some useful play from Erin Phillips off the bench, the Mercury clung on to most of their lead, and Phillips even extended it to nine with a triple to open the fourth quarter. Then the fireworks really began. Back-to-back threes from Moore answered that Phillips bucket, and if the Target Center crowd weren’t already blowing the roof off they certainly were after those fell in. They were almost equally happy that Phoenix were driving and not getting the calls they felt they deserved at the rim. Lovely Lynx ball movement (and a generous call) gave Tan White a pair of free throws, and then an Augustus finish at the basket gave Minnesota their first lead since going up 1-0 to begin the game. Moore rounded off a massively important 13-0 Lynx run with a trail three.
That entire push happened with Minnesota’s small lineup on the floor, where Moore plays power forward with an extra perimeter player on the court. Phoenix failed to take advantage inside or on drives, and Sandy Brondello didn’t call a timeout until the Lynx had taken the lead. Instead the extra speed worked in Minnesota’s favour, and they survived without a problem inside even with Dupree and Griner on the floor for Phoenix. The Lynx tried that lineup briefly in the first half, but it didn’t last long. If they’re lacking energy again in Game 3, Reeve may use it more often.
From that point, we had the tight, nip-and-tuck contest that this series had always promised to be. A running finish for Griner and a Taurasi drive tied the scores. Moore and Augustus missed a series of jumpers under challenge, but Phoenix were limited as well by energetic and active Lynx defense (the Minnesota starters were all back out for the closing minutes, after White forced and missed a pair of shots and was immediately benched). Taurasi blew a layup with two minutes left, bitched loudly about the lack of call yet again, and after Bonner fouled to stop the resulting break the other way – not such a great play when you’re in the penalty – Moore hit a pair of free throws to give the Lynx the lead.
After Bonner and McCarville exchanged misses, Taurasi finally drew a whistle and tied the game up again at the line. With a minute left, Moore hit a ludicrous fadeaway jumper over Griner from 20 feet, only for Dupree to blow past Brunson for a layup at the other end to tie it again. A Moore jumper finally failed to drop – just barely – only for McCarville to come up with her biggest play of the night when she grabbed the offensive board, allowing Minnesota to re-set and call timeout. They ran a play that we’ve seen many, many times before. Moore runs a deep cut along the baseline using an Augustus screen, then curls up to the foul line and runs through, while Augustus spins and follows the same path up right behind her (they also sometimes run it with those two the other way round). Whalen fed the pass to Augustus, who instantly rose up, drilled the jump shot, and got the added bonus of Bonner fouling her in the process. The crowd went nuts, Augustus added the free throw, and Phoenix had 23 seconds left to answer.
Dupree had been outstanding all night, and just destroyed Brunson on a post move, so it wasn’t a surprise that they went to her. But the complete clear-out they ran meant that when she spun into a fadeaway and missed, there were no Mercury rebounders anywhere remotely close to the rim to chase the ball. Augustus grabbed it, Phoenix had to start fouling, and that was the ballgame. Moore and Brunson made the free throws to ice it, and force a Game 3 for the Western Conference title on Tuesday night.
Key Players: It was the three-way combination of Moore, Augustus and Whalen that clawed Minnesota out of the mire. The Lynx only scored 20 points in the paint all night with Griner under the rim and the Mercury generally sagging into the paint, but Whalen started to hit her mid-ranger, and despite some cold stretches Moore and Augustus nailed enough to pull out the win. Between the three of them they took 51 of Minnesota’s 67 shots on the night. It took the Lynx a while to get going, and they might find it more difficult to dredge up that kind of energy and effort without the home crowd behind them in Game 2, but at least they didn’t allow their year to end with a whimper on their own court. The defensive level increased, they got under the Mercury’s skin a little, and made sure that their season extended for at least two more days.
Even though they still have a very good chance of winning this series, Phoenix will feel like they let this one slip away when they could’ve grabbed it. Dupree scored well, and when they got her the ball – all too infrequently – Griner was efficient inside as well. But Bonner disappeared offensively (not a huge surprise after the freakishly successful Game 1) and Taylor was quiet as well. Plus Taurasi continues to shoot poorly – and frequently.
Playing against Minnesota seems to make Taurasi want to take over more with her own offense, rather than distributing the ball around the floor to her teammates. Maybe the Lynx give her a sliver more space than some other opponents due to their insistence on protecting the paint, but it feels more like she wants to assert herself against the other dominant team in the WNBA. Given that she’s Diana Taurasi, it’s perfectly possible that she’ll come out for Game 3, light up the scoreboard, and fire the Mercury to the Finals. Plus she may well get more of the calls she wants on drives to the rim with the crowd roaring for them along with her. But she’s now shot 8-23, 5-15, 9-21 and 5-21 in her four games against the full Lynx squad this season. That’s an average of 20 attempts per game (which is very high, even for her), with under 7 makes per contest (34%). While you want her to shoot when she’s open, and she drives their offense, she’s forced up some quick shots against Minnesota when she’d have been better off slowing down and running a play. Phoenix will still be favourites for Game 3 – Minnesota are almost certainly going to have to hit a bunch of jumpers to beat them once again – but the Mercury may well be better off if their star and leading scorer takes fewer shots in the decider.
Indiana @ Chicago, 4pm ET, Fever lead best-of-three 1-0