Lineups: As expected, once again.
Story of the Game: Minnesota got off to a much better start offensively in this game than they had in the previous two – but unfortunately for them Phoenix were scoring even more effectively. Sandy Brondello had clearly drummed into her team the need to attack the paint, either by feeding Brittney Griner inside or driving off the bounce. For the entire first half, Griner scored efficiently when they fed her inside, but she was almost more important as a decoy. She’d come out high to set screens, Minnesota’s perimeter defenders would shift themselves dramatically to try to prevent the ballhandler using the pick, and then the Mercury player would happily reject the screen and drive into the space to the rim instead. Just the threat of Griner rolling to the basket was bending the defense to such an extent that Phoenix were lighting up the scoreboard, almost entirely on layups.
Diana Taurasi in particular – after I had the temerity to point out how poorly she’d shot in her last four games against the Lynx – was still looking for her own offense, but taking much better shots. They weren’t quick-fire jumpers, but rather aggressive drives right to the basket, often after screening, rescreening, and maybe even rescreening again from her posts. Between her, Griner, a better attack mentality from DeWanna Bonner, and chip-in contribution from Candice Dupree and Penny Taylor, this was the best we’d seen Phoenix’s offense running for a while, and Minnesota couldn’t slow them down or keep them from getting to the basket.
But the Lynx stayed in it thanks to better offensive production than we’d seen from them for most of the series. Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore all hit their fair share of shots in the first half, as much of the Lynx offense continued to come on jumpers, but the motion and movement was noticeably better. Phoenix seemed to have loosened up their scheme a little, and were slightly more willing to switch defensive assignments than they’d been in Games 1 and 2, but much of that was forced by the pick-and-rolls and off-ball movement of the Lynx. Rebekkah Brunson’s mid-range jumper was cold, which hurt because it allowed Griner to sag off her and help more elsewhere, but Minnesota’s perimeter trio wasn’t allowing Phoenix’s offensive success to blow them off the court.
In fact, Minnesota never trailed by more than nine points under Phoenix’s opening barrage, and when Griner rested to start the second period they actually took advantage – something they hadn’t done enough in this series. They attacked the rim a little more, created some transition chances when Phoenix’s offense stuttered slightly, and got some production from Monica Wright off their bench – after she’d been virtually anonymous in the previous games.
It was looking like a solid half of basketball for the Lynx. They’d withstood Phoenix’s offensive charge and were only down by a couple of points, which felt like a victory for them. But Minnesota closed out the half with a run of missed jumpers, and with their starting lineup back on the floor Phoenix took advantage. They were still the aggressor, getting to the rim and drawing whistles, plus Taurasi hit her first jump shot after building rhythm with all of those layups. The Mercury led by eight at the interval, and 18 of their 20 baskets in the first half had been scored in the paint. All those interior buckets were a central part of how they shot 59% from the field in the opening 20 minutes.
But Minnesota weren’t going to give away their title without a fight, and the contest only got more competitive in the third quarter. Minnesota went small early, in part to speed up their team and make them more active, but also just to shift Bonner off Moore and try to make the WNBA MVP a more central part of their offense. When Moore slid to power forward, Phoenix shifted their defensive matchup on her and she was usually guarded by Dupree instead, a player she could take off the dribble or shoot over. Although it ended up being Augustus who carried most of the offense for the Lynx in the third. She was aggressive from the start, but attacked the rim more in the third, either on dribble-drives or on smart cuts through the lane. Moore was relegated to a little bit of a sidekick role, but was more than happy to play it as her team evened up the scoreline.
In fact it was a hustle play by Moore late in the third – latching on to a loose ball after Devereaux Peters had smacked it out of Bonner’s hands, then turning to try to finish immediately – that drew Griner’s fourth foul and sent her to the bench. Layups for Augustus and Moore followed on Minnesota’s ensuing possessions, and the game was tied for the first time since midway through the opening quarter.
After that first half full of layups, Phoenix had settled for too many jumpers in the third period. In fairness, they’d hit a lot of them, but the attacking mentality and dominant style it gave them had dissipated. But ironically, long distance shots swung the momentum decisively back in their favour. Taurasi drilled a jumper to take back the lead – exactly the kind of long pullup she’d been missing repeatedly in previous games – and then took the roof off the building with a play to end the period. Minnesota had the chance to take the final shot, but pressure on Whalen from Taylor led to a travelling violation rather than a shot. It was a tough call that could easily have been given as a jump ball between Whalen and Taylor instead, but didn’t seem a big deal as Minnesota would’ve been forcing up a likely miss as time expired anyway. But it left two seconds on the clock for Phoenix. The ball was inbounded to Taurasi, who stepped into a 50-foot heave and swished it for a five-point lead heading to the fourth quarter. Considering the Lynx had gone into those closing seconds with a chance to tie or take the lead, it was a huge momentum swing.
It turned out to be the beginning of the run that decided the game, and the Western Conference title. After those five points to close the third quarter from a combined 70+ feet, Taurasi went back to aggressive drives to open the fourth, drawing fouls and converting layups. Then she capped a personal 13-0 run with a three when Minnesota’s defense failed to rotate and left her unconscionably open at the top of the arc. As she’s done at several points in her stellar career, Taurasi had stepped up exactly when her team needed her to essentially win the game.
During that stretch, Whalen, Augustus and Moore fired and missed a run of jump shots, becoming increasingly desperate as the game visibly slipped away from them. Even when a short Moore three fell right into Peters’s hands, she blew the layup. Whalen did the same when she attacked the rim after Cheryl Reeve called her second timeout during the run. After fighting tooth and nail to cling on to the Mercury all night, the Lynx had finally run out of gas, or just couldn’t keep hitting quite enough shots to keep pace. Griner added a 5-0 run of her own on top of Taurasi’s just to push the gap to 18 and kill the game off for good. Reeve whined her way into consecutive technicals a couple of minutes later, forcing her to leave the court before the final buzzer, but by then the game was long over as a contest. Once again, the Lynx would not be repeating as WNBA Champions, and Phoenix will be hosting Game 1 of the Finals on Sunday afternoon.
Key Players: While the entire Mercury starting lineup scored in double-digits, it was Taurasi who led the way. She finished the game 12-17 from the floor for 31 points, leading the offense in a way she hadn’t against a full-strength Lynx team all season. She took more outside shots in the second half – and hit several of them – but it was the constant attack in the first half that set the tone. We knew coming into this series that the questionable element was whether Minnesota’s defense could be effective enough in slowing down the Mercury, and ultimately they couldn’t hold up in the best-of-three. They made it the fight that had been anticipated, but between the firepower of Taurasi and Griner, the team defense, and the home-court advantage they worked all season for, Phoenix had just a little too much.
The Lynx put up a heck of a battle. Augustus, Whalen and Moore were inevitably their leading scorers again. They’ll wonder what might’ve been if they’d been healthy all year, rather than having to piece their team together for much of the season and rebuild their chemistry on the fly. But this certainly isn’t a squad that needs a complete overhaul. They’re still exceptional, but just ran into another juggernaut this year. They’ll probably be looking for some more size to help handle Griner, or maybe just some more depth that Reeve trusts so that they can keep their energy high and maybe balance out the offense a little more beyond their star perimeter trio. Last time they lost their title, they came back and regained it the following year. It’s certainly a possibility that they could do that again in 2015.
Chicago @ Indiana, 7pm ET, best-of-three series tied 1-1