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Semifinal Preview: (1) Minnesota Lynx vs. (8) Phoenix Mercury

The playoff format may have changed, but some things apparently never will. For the fourth straight year and fifth time in six years, the Phoenix Mercury and Minnesota Lynx will square off with the winner advancing to the WNBA Finals.

While the previous editions of this rivalry came in the Western Conference Finals and were a best-of-three series, this year’s Semifinals will be a best-of-five, tipping off in Minnesota on Wednesday, Sept. 28 at 8:00 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

Series Schedule

Game Date Location Time Broadcast
1 Wednesday, Sept. 28 Phoenix at Minnesota 8 PM ET ESPN2
2 Friday, Sept. 30 Phoenix at Minnesota 8 PM ET ESPNews
3 Sunday, Oct. 2 Minnesota at Phoenix 5 PM ET ESPN
4* Tuesday, Oct. 4 Minnesota at Phoenix TBD ESPN2
5* Thursday, Oct. 6 Phoenix at Minnesota TBD ESPN2
*If Necessary

 

How They Got Here

This will be the playoff debut for the 2016 Lynx, who received a double-bye to the Semifinals as the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. Meanwhile, No. 8 seed Phoenix comes in having won two straight single-elimination games on the road against Indiana and New York.

Entering the playoffs, three of the WNBA’s all-time greats — Tamika Catchings, Swin Cash and Penny Taylor — announced that they would retire at the end of the season. In the first two rounds of the playoffs, Phoenix delivered the AARP cards to Catchings and Cash and postponed Taylor’s retirement for at least one more round.

“She’s a legend,” said Taurasi after Taylor’s 20-point, five-rebound effort against New York. “She’s 35 out here playing like a 21-year-old. I mean, she’s just a monster. She just plays with so much grit. She means so much to our team, to our franchise [and] we want to get another one for her.”

Championship Pedigree

In order to get a shot at another title, the Mercury will have to knock off the defending champion Lynx, who are looking to become the first repeat WNBA champions since the L.A. Sparks in 2001 and 2002. And adding a championship for either team would put their franchise in the elite company of the Houston Comets with four WNBA championships.

One of these two teams has won the WNBA title in each of the last three years, in five of the last seven years and six of the past nine seasons, dating back to the Mercury’s first title run in 2007. Phoenix also won the title in 2009 and 2014, while the Lynx have won the title every other year since capturing their first one in 2011.

Setting The Stage

Under the new playoff format, which seeds teams regardless of conference, these two Western Conference teams could have met in the WNBA Finals for the first time. But no one expected the Mercury to struggle as much as they did during the regular season, finishing the year at 16-18 and claiming the final playoff spot in the field.

In fact, the Mercury were tabbed the preseason title favorites, getting Taurasi and Taylor back on the roster after both missed last season. The Mercury were a playoff team a year ago without Diana and Penny, so just imagine how good they would be with them back. It would be like 2014 all over again, and with young center Brittney Griner having even more experience.

While that sounded good on paper, it didn’t translate so easily on the court, as Phoenix struggled from the start back in May. They would show flashes of their incredible potential, but didn’t have the consistency to keep up with the Western Conference juggernauts in Minnesota and Los Angeles.

Lynx (95), Mercury (76)

“That’s going to be the challenge, especially against the best team in the league,” said Taurasi. “They’re the defending champs, but to be the best you have to beat the best and that’s what they are.

“They do so many things well. When you have Maya, ‘Mone, Syl, Brunson, Whay, Renee, they just have so much talent and beyond the talent they play hard every possession, so we’re going to have to be able to match that if we want to compete with them.”

Although the Mercury didn’t compete for a top seed with the Lynx and Sparks during the regular season, here they are alongside the top two seeds in the final four of the new playoff tournament. This is a dangerous eighth seed that has the talent and ability to knock off any team in this field.

“We’ve had a long year, so many ups and downs, but we’ve got a lot of people on this team that have been through it so we’re a confident group,” said Taurasi.”

Regular Season Series

The Lynx swept the season series, 3-0, with all three games coming in the first quarter of the regular season. The highly anticipated matchup of the last two WNBA champions was tabbed for the season opener in Minnesota on ESPN, with the Lynx winning handily, 95-76, behind a brilliant 27-point, 10-assist performance from Maya Moore.

When the teams met 11 days later in Phoenix, the game was much tighter, but the Lynx still came out on top, 85-78, thanks to another big game from Moore (34 points). The final meeting came back in Minnesota on June 7 and was another single-digit win for the Lynx.

All three of these games came during Minnesota’s record-setting undefeated run to open the season; they were 13-0 before suffering their first loss on June 24 to the L.A. Sparks. And as hot as Minnesota was to open the season, Phoenix was just as cold, with the Mercury dropping their first four games and going just 5-9 by the time the Lynx lost their first game.

The fact that these two teams haven’t seen each other in over three months adds more intrigue to this series. Sure, the Lynx swept the season series and were the better team throughout the regular season, but the Mercury played some of their best basketball down the stretch and have survived two win-or-go-home games just to make it to the semifinals. Meanwhile, the Lynx will enter Game 1 of the series having not played in 11 days. The Mercury will have to steal a game on the road to win this series, and the opener on Wednesday may be their best opportunity if the Lynx are a bit rusty and out of rhythm.

Playoff History

This is the fourth straight year – and fifth time in the last six years – that these two teams are meeting with a Finals berth on the line. And in each of those five meetings, the winner of this series went on to claim the WNBA championship.

  • 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

Matchup To Watch: Griner vs. Fowles

Not only has this series produced the three most recent WNBA champions, it also features the winners of the last three WNBA Defensive Player of the Year awards with Sylvia Fowles claiming her second honor in 2013 and Brittney Griner winning the past two in 2014 and 2015.

And while Griner once again leads the league in blocks at 3.1 per game (Fowles is fourth at 1.8), the Mercury did not possess a top-tier team defense this season as they did in each of the past two seasons. In fact, the Mercury’s 103.7 defensive rating ranked ninth in the league during regular season, while Minnesota led the league by holding teams to 96.4 points per 100 possessions.

But Griner and Fowles are not just defensive anchors, they are also the second-leading scorers on their teams at 14.5 and 13.9 points per game, respectively. Griner’s role in the Mercury offense continues to grow as she upped her scoring considerably following the Olympic break and once again during Phoenix’s first two playoff games.

Brittney Griner’s Statistical Splits

Time Period GP PTS REB AST STL BLK FG% FT%
Pre-Break 24 13.5 6.1 1.0 0.3 3.0 52.7% 80.7%
Post-Break 10 17.0 7.6 1.2 0.6 3.4 59.0% 88.5%
Playoffs 2 20.0 9.5 3.0 1.0 3.5 64.0% 88.9%

 

“I don’t know what’s gotten into her but she’s playing like the best post player in the world and that’s what we need from her,” said Taurasi. “She’s in her prime right now. We need that every night. There’s no excuse for her and that’s what we tell her, we’re going to give you all the tools to be the best in the world, go do it. And [Saturday] was another example of how well she can play and how much she means to our team.”

Watching the 6-8 Griner and the 6-6 Fowles clash in the paint over the next five games should be fun, and whichever big can impose their will on the other will give her team an edge in what should be a tight series.

Matchup To Watch: Taurasi vs. Moore

Moore and Taurasi won’t find themselves matched up against each other very often, but both are the catalyst for their team’s offense, with Moore finishing the season as the fifth-ranked scorer in the WNBA (19.3 points per game) and Taurasi just below her in seventh (17.8).

Moore And Taurasi Duel

Taurasi is coming off a 30-point effort in leading the Mercury past the Liberty in the second-round single-elimination game on Saturday. During that game she passed Lisa Leslie to climb to second on the WNBA’s all-time playoff scoring list and did so in eight fewer games than the Hall of Famer.

All-Time Playoff Scoring Leaders

Rank Player Games Points
1 Tamika Catchings 68 1,141
2 Diana Taurasi 44 927
3 Lisa Leslie 52 908

 

Taurasi is among the all-time leaders in playoff scoring average, trailing only Cynthia Cooper and Angel McCoughtry, with Moore not too far behind.

All-Time Playoff Scoring Average (min. 5 games played)

Rank Player Games Points/Game
1 Cynthia Cooper 19 23.3
2 Angel McCoughtry 32 22.6
3 Diana Taurasi 44 21.1
4 Candace Parker 24 20.9
5 Cappie Pondexter 33 19.8
6 Maya Moore 39 18.9

 

And there is Moore, just 2.2 points behind Taurasi’s average and just five games behind Taurasi in terms of playoff experience. Moore is exactly seven years younger than Taurasi (they share the same birth date on June 11) and has only half of Taurasi’s 12 seasons of WNBA experience, but has been a playoff mainstay since joining the Lynx as the top overall pick in 2011.

They’ve both won three WNBA titles and multiple NCAA titles at UConn, with Taurasi holding a 3-2 edge at the college level. Which one of these two trophy collectors will add a fourth WNBA title to her resume first?