This wasn’t supposed to happen again. Not yet, at least.
With the new playoff format eliminating conference seeding and instead just taking the top eight teams to the postseason, the inevitable Minnesota vs. Phoenix matchup could finally take place on the biggest stage — the WNBA Finals.
Going back to 2011, these teams met in the Western Conference Finals in four out of five years, with the winner of this series going on to win the WNBA championship. It is part of a league history dominated by Western Conference teams, with only four of the league’s first 19 champions hailing from the East (Detroit in 2003, 2006 and 2008; Indiana in 2012).
- 2011 West Finals: Minnesota 2, Phoenix 0
- 2013 West Finals: Minnesota 2, Phoenix 0
- 2014 West Finals: Phoenix 2, Minnesota 1
- 2015 West Finals: Minnesota 2, Phoenix 0
- 2016 Semifinals: Best-of-five tips on Wednesday
The Lynx hold a 7-2 overall record in the matchups and were a thorn in the Mercury’s side until Phoenix broke through in 2014. But Minnesota didn’t go quietly during the epic show of the 2014 West Finals, as Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus combined for 55 points in Game 2 to force a winner-take-all Game 3; Diana Taurasi (31 points) and Brittney Griner (22 points) eventually lifted the Mercury over the hump.
Last year’s series produced yet another Lynx sweep, with Moore pouring in a career playoff high 40 in the Game 2 clincher. Of course, the Mercury played the series without Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor, who both sat out the 2015 season.
With that dynamic duo back in the Arizona desert this summer, the Mercury were touted as the team to beat heading into the season. Seven of the league’s 12 general managers (58%) picked Phoenix as the favorite to win the 2016 WNBA Finals compared to just two votes for the Lynx.
You can imagine how that must have sat with the Lynx, a team coming off its third championship in five years and in the midst of one of the most successful runs in WNBA history.
From 2011 to 2016, the Lynx have compiled a 155-49 record for a winning percentage of 0.760. They have won at least 22 games each season, advanced to the Finals in four of the last five years, and are the top seed in this year’s tournament.
The only other WNBA to win at least 20 games for six straight seasons was the Lisa Leslie-led Los Angeles Sparks teams from 1999 to 2004. During that stretch, the Sparks went 150-46, a 0.765 win percentage that narrowly edges this current run by the Lynx. However, the Sparks only translated that regular season success to two championships, winning back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002. No team has won consecutive championships since, with the Lynx now chasing that feat (their titles have come every other year since 2011).
The most successful six-year run in WNBA history belongs to the Houston Comets in the first six seasons of the WNBA. From 1997 to 2002, the Comets went 141-45 (0.758), and while their winning percentage is slightly below the turn-of-the-century Sparks and the currently active Lynx, the Comets won four straight championships to set a standard no one has been able to match. These Lynx can put themselves on par with that Comets squad if they can win the next two best-of-five series and claim their fourth title in six years.
The first of those series comes against their familiar playoff foe from Phoenix, a team with a No. 8 seed next to its name, but not resembling a No. 8 seed on the court during the first two single-elimination rounds of the playoffs. The Mercury have already dispatched the No. 5 seed Fever and the No. 3 seed Liberty, with both wins coming on the road. As the lowest seed in the field, the Mercury will have to win at least one game in Minnesota in the 2-2-1 format of the semifinals. During the regular season, the Mercury were just 5-12 outside of Phoenix, but have won two straight in the playoffs and have a player in Taurasi who is undefeated on the road in playoff elimination games (6-0).
Taurasi is just part of the constellation of star power that will be on display in this series. Both Taurasi (2009) and Maya Moore (2014) have won WNBA Most Valuable Player honors; both Brittney Griner (2014, 2015) and Sylvia Fowles (2011, 2013) have won two Defensive Player of the Year awards; Phoenix’s DeWanna Bonner is the only three-time winner of the Sixth Woman of the Year award; Taurasi (2004), Augustus (2006) and Moore (2011) all won Rookie of the Year honors, with each being selected No. 1 overall; this series features the top overall draft picks from 2004-07 (Taurasi, Janel McCarville, Augustus and Lindsey Harding), along with the top overall picks in 2011 (Moore) and 2013 (Griner).
Not only are there six former No. 1 picks in this series, there are also six members of the gold medal winning 2016 U.S. Olympic team — that’s half of the entire roster! And that doesn’t even count the four Olympians in this series that represented other countries during the Rio Games.
- Brittney Griner (Phoenix)
- Diana Taurasi (Phoenix)
- Seimone Augustus (Minnesota)
- Sylvia Fowles (Minnesota)
- Maya Moore (Minnesota)
- Lindsay Whalen (Minnesota)
- Penny Taylor (Australia)
- Lindsey Harding (Belarus)
- Sonja Petrovic (Serbia)
- Marta Xargay (Spain)
- Anna Cruz (Spain)
With the star power on each roster, the championship pedigree of both franchises and the experience of playing against each other with their season on the line year after year, this series looks nothing like a typical No. 1 vs. No. 8 matchup. At this point, the seeds can be thrown out and the regular season records are meaningless, including the three-game sweep of the regular season series by the Lynx.
All three of those meetings came in the first month of the season while the Lynx were off to a historic start and the Mercury were struggling to find their rhythm coming out of the gates. With Taurasi and Taylor out last year, the Mercury still made it to the West Finals with Bonner, Griner and Candice Dupree taking on larger roles than in year’s past. Adding two stars back into the mix sounds easy — it should only make the team better — but there was an adjustment period as the team found its way and built its chemistry on the court after a year apart.
No one expected the Mercury to struggle for much of the season as they did, finishing with a 16-18 record and securing their playoff spot in the final week of the regular season, after Minnesota had already wrapped up the No. 1 seed. With hopes of a high playoff seed and first and/or second round byes out the window by midseason, the Mercury just had to sneak into the playoff field and then try to get hot at the right time.
The Mercury appear to have flipped the switch as they won their first two playoff games by an average of nine points and enter the semifinals with a league-leading 65.6% true shooting percentage in the playoffs. Taurasi leads all active players in scoring (25.0 points per game), Griner is averaging close to a 20-10 through two games (20.0 points, 9.5 rebounds) and Taylor looks like she should postpone her retirement after averaging 16.0 points and 5.0 boards while shooting 56.3 percent from the field and 55.6 percent from three (5-9).
But while the Mercury were fending off elimination over the past week, the Lynx have been waiting, resting and preparing for whatever test would come their way in the semifinals. Of course, it would be the Mercury once again. How could it not be?
If the Lynx want to win their fourth title in six years, they will have to go through the Mercury once again to get there. This series has been a right of passage to the championship round for the past five years. Even a new playoff format couldn’t change that.