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Western Conference Finals Preview: Phoenix Mercury vs. Minnesota Lynx

Brian Kotloff

September 23, 2015

It’s the Valley of the Sun vs. the City of Lakes. #TogetherWeWILL vs. #RoarWithUs. Brittney Griner vs. Maya Moore.

For the fourth time in five years, it’s the Phoenix Mercury vs. the Minnesota Lynx in the Western Conference Finals. And each of the previous three times, the winner of this series has gone on to capture the WNBA championship.

Needless to say, the stakes will be high when the two teams meet again beginning on Thursday night (8 PM ET, ESPN & WatchESPN).

Here’s what you need to know about this year’s showdown:

Rivalry Renewed

Mercury vs. Lynx in the Western Conference Finals
Year Series Result WNBA Finals Result
2014 Mercury, 2-1 Def. Chicago Sky, 3-0
2013 Lynx, 2-0 Def. Atlanta Dream, 3-0
2011 Lynx, 2-0 Def. Atlanta Dream, 3-0

This marks another chapter in what has become the WNBA’s marquee rivalry since Moore entered the league in 2011, joining forces with All-Stars Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen.

The Lynx have a 151-50 record (playoffs included) over that span, owning the Western Conference until the Mercury landed a young star of their own in Griner in 2013. That resulted in last season’s turnaround, when Phoenix finally got over the hump to complete one of the league’s all-time greatest seasons.

Minnesota had dominated this rivalry to that point, beating Phoenix 14 straight times in the regular season/playoffs. The Mercury have since won five of their seven meetings last season and three of five so far this season.

How Did They Get Here?

After early competition from Tulsa, the Lynx cruised to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. They started 15-4 until finally losing back-to-back games for the first time in the beginning of August. With Augustus and Whalen battling injuries, and Moore taking a slight step back from her 2014 MVP season, Minnesota went just 7-8 in its last 15 regular-season games. They overcame a loaded Sparks team in a dramatic, 91-80, Game 3 win in Tuesday night’s do-or-die first-round matchup.

The Mercury, meanwhile, have righted the ship after a tumultuous start to 2015. With superstar Diana Taurasi sitting out the season and Griner suspended for the first seven games, steady vets DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree stepped into leading roles. Phoenix went 3-4 in Griner’s absence and 17-10 after her return. The 6-foot-9 center’s historic season — her 4.04 blocks per game were a regular-season record, and her 11 blocks in Game 1 against the Shock tied her own single-game record — lifted the Mercury to their fifth 20+-win season and then back into the Conference Finals.

Players to Watch

Phoenix: Brittney Griner. Who else? The magnetic center is at the heart of everything the Mercury do. She’s the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year and may already be the most dominant defensive force the WNBA has ever seen. And the scary part for the rest of the league is that her offense is catching up — she was unstoppable in the first round, scoring a combined 41 points in 52 minutes on 12-of-18 from the floor and 17-of-19 from the foul line.

Minnesota: Maya Moore. All Moore does is win — she’s won, in fact, 404 of 455 games between high school, college and the WNBA over the past nine seasons. And during a first round in which she scored 80 points in three games, you could already see her kicking into playoff gear. The bigger the game, the better Moore tends to play. This series could be decided by whether Moore gets going against a tough Phoenix defense.

3 Keys to the Series

1. Homecourt advantage. For all the X-and-O chess matches and star power in this series, it may come down to each team protecting its house. The math is simple: The Lynx are 90-13 at home since drafting Moore in 2011; the Mercury are 39-14  at home since drafting Griner in 2013. With Games 1 and 3 being played at the Target Center, Minnesota’s homecourt advantage could be its trump card.

2. Centers of attention. No player in the league can match Griner’s combination of size, athleticism and skill. But 6-foot-6 Sylvia Fowles is perhaps the closest to doing so — a fact the Lynx surely had in mind when they acquired the three-time All-Star in a blockbuster July trade. The centers in this series have combined to win four of the last five Defensive Player of the Year Awards. If Fowles can neutralize the Mercury’s one distinct advantage, Phoenix will be fighting an uphill battle.

3. Depth. The Lynx run deep with talent, trotting out a lineup of five All-Stars, while the Mercury feature the deeper rotation. Backups Mistie Bass, Cayla Francis, Leilani Mitchell and Noelle Quinn give Phoenix the versatility to adapt to different styles of play. In a short series, though, Minnesota’s loaded seven-player rotation may be enough.