When the WNBA’s 20th season tips off, the main event on opening night will be a familiar sight. The Phoenix Mercury and the Minnesota Lynx have met in the Western Conference Finals three years in a row, and they’ll renew that rivalry on May 14 when the Mercury travel north to the Target Center.
It’s a meeting that will stir up plenty of memories, most recently Game 2 of last year’s Western Conference Finals. With the game tied at 71 in the closing seconds, Noelle Quinn turned the ball over and was subsequently whistled for a controversial foul on Maya Moore. The Lynx star hit one of the free throws and just like that the Mercury were eliminated from the playoffs and the Lynx went on to win a WNBA championship.
For Phoenix, it was a disappointing ending to what had been a season that surpassed most’s expectations. With Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor both set to miss the whole season due to commitments overseas, and Brittney Griner suspended for the first seven games, not many expected Phoenix to go on a deep playoff run. Yet there the Mercury were, back in the Western Conference Finals, thanks to impressive seasons from Griner, DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree.
In the time since that run ended, Phoenix has gotten its championship crew back together. Taurasi is gearing up for her 11th WNBA season, having resurfaced stateside at last month’s USA Basketball training camp. Taylor signed on for 2016, as well. Few teams in the league have the wealth of talent and experience that the Mercury have, led by a game-tested coach.
The last time all of the Mercury’s pieces were in place, they vanquished the Lynx in the 2014 West Finals and swept the Chicago Sky in the WNBA Finals. That gave the franchise its third title and first since 2009.
After sitting out the 2015 season, Taurasi — the centerpiece of all three championship teams — appears refreshed and ready to roll. “Basketball is one of those creative sports. If you’re not spiritually and totally focused, I don’t think you can really play at your peak. And right now I’m honeymooning again with basketball,” she said at Team USA camp.
And that’s good news for the Mercury.
Just listen to what Griner had to say when talking about what Taurasi brings to the squad:
“(Taurasi) back on the court, that helps us tremendously. She’s a leader, she’s a coach, she brings out the best in all of us. And she knows how to get everybody to respond in their own different ways. She’s awesome.”
She is awesome. And there’s no doubt, even at 33 years old, she’s still one of the best players in the world. Her scoring acumen, which has garnered her five WNBA scoring titles, will be a welcome addition to a Mercury offense that was in the middle of the pack last season, finishing the year averaging 75.2 points per game (sixth in the league).
While Taurasi’s return is the main headline — and for good reason — Taylor also has three rings to her name, standing alongside Taurasi as one of the best players in franchise history. She’s among the top five in franchise history in points, assists, rebounds, steals, and games played.
But Taylor is not just important for her on-court contributions. As Mercury general manager Jim Pitman put it when they re-signed her, “If Diana Taurasi is the heart of our franchise, Penny Taylor is the soul. Not only is she one of the greatest players in the history of the women’s game and one of the driving forces behind our three championships, she is a great teammate, a leader, a calming force on the floor and in the locker room.”
The Mercury showed last year that even without Taurasi and Taylor, they were one of the league’s best squads. Griner is the most dominant paint presence in the league, Bonner proved she can step up and be the focal point of the offense, and Dupree was as solid as ever. Now, with these two legends back on board, the Mercury have an elite collection of talent.
And according to Griner, they won’t have any trouble incorporating Taurasi and Taylor back into the fold.
“Everybody’s playing right now, so everyone will be in shape when we get back for training camp,” Griner said. “And we all know each other, we all know each other’s tendencies, so I think it will be easy for us to mesh back together and turn back on what we did a year ago.”
Consider that a warning shot to the rest of the league, even the defending champs.
The Mercury and the Lynx have been the class of the Western Conference in recent years, meeting in three straight Western Conference Finals and combining for seven of the past nine WNBA titles. But this year, the rivalry comes with a new twist.
Mercury-Lynx on Opening Night could be a preview of not the Conference Finals, but the WNBA Finals. That’s right: Bsed on the league’s new playoff format, these two Western Conference powers could potentially play for the title. There’s a lot of basketball to be played before truly considering this scenario, but the possibility does exist for the first time.
Here’s how it will work: Instead of the top four teams in each conference advancing to the postseason, the top eight teams in the league will make the playoffs, regardless of conference. So instead of conference playoffs, there will be one postseason bracket, much like the NCAA tournament.
Depending on how things shake out, we could be looking at a Mercury-Lynx championship matchup come October — a thought Taurasi, Moore and Griner acknowledged they each had after hearing about the new playoff format. And how cool would that be? Well, just take Brittney Griner’s word for it:
“With no East-West, you know, [it’s] possibly us in the Finals together. That would be dope.”