Mercury Run Out Of Playoffs By Lynx, 103-86

Minnesota was clearly the better team inside and in transition. They ran the ball down the throats of the Phoenix defense in the open court and pounded it inside in the half court. So ends the 2011 WNBA season in Arizona. Minnesota advances to their first WNBA Finals.

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Phoenix Mercury Can't Hang With Minnesota In Playoff Elimination Game, 103-86

The Mercury's 2011 WNBA season came down to this one game and facing elimination Phoenix just couldn't get it done against a superior team. It was pretty clear from the outset that the Minnesota was better in transition defense, better in the post, and had enough perimeter talent to match the Mercury shot for shot.

"We got beat by a good team," Mercury coach Corey Gaines said, "They were the No. 1 team all year. All five starters in double figures and Lindsay (Whalen) really took over the game when they needed shots. She hit some big ones down the stretch and in the first half to keep them close. She's a good point guard, maybe one of the best in the league."

The game was close first through first half but in the third quarter the Lynx pulled away behind the inside play of veteran Taj McWilliams-Franklin who took advantage of the small Mercury front court. Phoenix tried to go with their big lineup and zone defense late in the game but the Lynx hit their outside shots and put the game out of reach.

Phoenix was within three point early in the fourth quarter but the Lynx hit some tough shots and pulled away. 

The Lynx got 21 points from Maya Moore and McWilliams-Franklin and six players score in double figures. The Mercury got 22 points each from DeWanna Bonner and Diana Taurasi. The Lynx shot over 54 percent from the field for the game while their defense held Phoenix to 43 percent. 

"With our team you have to pick your poison. I think there was a lot of effort made on Simone and I thought Simone was very tested, very challenged. I think as a result of that we were able to get other people involved whether it was Taj or Maya," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeves said.

With the win the Lynx advance to their first-ever appearance in the WNBA Finals. They will face the winner of the Atlanta Dream vs. Indiana Fever.

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Phoenix Mercury Blown Out Again In Game 1, Lynx Win 95-67

The Phoenix Mercury were confident going into their Western Conference Finals series against the Minnesota Lynx. Instead of playing a defensive, physical team like they beat in Seattle in the first round they were facing a fast paced team that they felt better suited their style. Unfortunately for Phoenix, the Lynx are also a solid defensive team in addition to being able to put points on the board.

In Game 1, it was all Lynx from the opening tip. Minnesota jumped out to an early lead and held it to the end. Phoenix was also beat badly in Game 1 of the previous round by Seattle but were able to win the next to game to advance. It remains to be seen if they can repeat that feat.

Phoenix was able to make a run in the second and third quarter with the help of Marie Ferdinand-Harris' defensive energy off the bench. They cut the Lynx lead down to as low as six in the middle of the third quarter but when point guard Temeka Johnson sub'd in for Diana Taurasi with 2:30 left, the Lynx went on a 9-2 run and put the game out of reach. The fourth quarter was a 21-12 rout.

Candice Dupree, fresh off her 20-point show and game-winning shot in Seattle was completely taken out of her game. She finished with just two points on 1-6 shooting and sat with five fouls and a frustration technical. Taurasi led the Mercury with 22 points (7-15) but the team effort was clearly on the side of Minnesota.

The Lynx killed Phoenix on the glass (42-26) and in the paint (44-32) and outworked them in every aspect of the game. Seimone Augustus led Minnesota with 21 points and was one of five players in double digit scoring. 

The 28-point defeat is the largest margin in Mercury playoff history. 

Game 2 of the series is in Phoenix on Sunday at 2:00 p.m. with the final Game 3 (if needed) in Minnesota on Tuesday night.

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Mercury Vs. Lynx Preview: 'We'll See If We Can Match Their Style'

The Phoenix Mercury and Minnesota Lynx are set to meet in the 2011 WNBA Western Conference Finals starting Thursday at 7:00 p.m. on ESPN 2. The Lynx finished the season with the best record in the WNBA (27-7) and with that won the right to host the best-of-three series. The two teams met five times over the summer with the Lynx taking three, including the final game of the regular season.

Minnesota features all-purpose wing scoring machine Seimone Augustus, veteran point guard Lindsay Whalen and WNBA Rookie of the Year Maya Moore. Those three combined for over 60 percent of the team's playoff points in the first round. Up front, they have two veterans in Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Rebekkah Brunson who can defend, rebound and bang with the best of them.

Unlike the first round where both Phoenix and Minnesota faced defensively oriented teams, both the Mercury and Lynx like to get out and run although the Lynx did have one of the top defenses in the league which led to their WNBA-best +7.9 point differential (Mercury were +3).

Diana Taurasi explained with a grin, "It's their style of play. We'll see if we can match their style."

When Whalen isn't pushing the ball up the floor and finding either of her wing threats, they will run floppy sets which are designed to use screens to get shots for Augustus or Moore and then lead into ball screens if the shots aren't open. They will also feed the ball to Brunson in the post but she isn't likely to be the primary option.

Penny Taylor, who had 17 rebounds against Seattle in Game 3 in large part due to he position in the 2-3 zone, explains why rebounding is the key.

"They're trying to run as well (as we are) so I think it will be a really fasted paced game," Taylor said. "The danger with that is not having a focus on those rebounds because when Rebekkah gives them second chances that can kill you. As long as we have the focus on letting them have just the one shot and then running it down their throats we'll be OK."

A strength for the Lynx is their depth. They have talent up front in Jessica Adair and Charde Houston and on the wings with Monica Wright and Candice Wiggens. Coach Corey Gaines called the Lynx the deepest team in the league but as he learned from a former Phoenix Suns coach, "You only play five at a time."

The Mercury are very confident heading into this series and hope to build on the big win over rival Seattle. There's a chance of an emotional let down, especially in Game 1, but Taurasi isn't concerned:

"We were at a pretty good high when we beat Seattle because it was so hard to do. But this team is focused. We have a different mentality this year. We know what we have to do to win and we see what we do when we lose and we find a way to change it and adjust it which means a lot."

X Factors

Candice Dupree, Penny Taylor and Diana Taurasi are going to do what they do against the top three Lynx stars. Like most basketball playoff series, it will likely come down the other role players. 

DeWanna Bonner is nearing star status on her own and was used very effectively against the Storm. Despite being 1-13 in Game 3, she demonstrated again how she can take advantage of mismatches all over the court. If she does get going offensively, the Lynx will find her difficult to guard.

Defensively, though, is where Bonner will earn her living. She brings energy and length and has the proven ability to defend all five positions. Especially against the Lynx, she can switch screens and be effective either on the ball or with a big in the post. The Lynx might be tempted to attack her in the post, but that takes them out of their primary offensive attack and the Minnesota Lynx bigs can be effectively double-teamed.

Expect Bonner to spend crunch time defending Lindsay Whalen to negate her ability to penetrate and dish. She might also be used on either Moore or Augustus if either gets hot although Gaines likes to use her more as a weak side defender.

Nakia Sanford proved her worth in the Seattle series. Without her in Game 1, the Mercury got killed inside. With her on the floor, Phoenix won the rebounding and points in the paint battle and the last two games.

"She's just a great teammate," Taurasi said about Sanford. "There's something to be said for coming to the gym every single day, happy and ready to work, do whatever the team asks you to do and never ask for more. She's a person who gives more than she takes. There's not a lot of teammates like that."

Sanford reported that her knee is 75-80% but she expects to play and be 100% in a "few more days". She missed the first playoff game when her knee swelled to the point she couldn't run after she had a "1% fluke" reaction to an injection of a joint lubricant.

Experience

Depending on who you ask, experience either will or won't matter in this series. The Mercury clearly have the advantage over the Lynx who haven't been this far in the playoffs before.

"I think (experience) does play a big role into it," Gaines said. "I've got players who've been through it before, experienced this before a couple of times and have come through and won championships with it."

Meanwhile, Taurasi says the experience doesn't matter much, "You don't start the game 10-0. You start 0-0."

Other notes:

  • "Obviously, we have a focus on Seimone (Augustus). She's playing unbelievably well...We have to have a real focus on limiting her touches and Rebekkah Brunson is also a focus for me to keep her off the boards." -- Taylor
  • The Mercury went to their big line up in the second quarter against the Storm to help defensively. The size worked in combination with a 2-3 zone they hadn't used before. The 2-3 instead of the typical Rover zone helped keep bigs low for rebounding. 
  • Phoenix might use the zone against the Lynx but they are wary of giving Augustus and Moore too much space.
  • Taylor and Taurasi both said beating Seattle at their style of "grind it out" basketball gave the Mercury confidence they can build on.
  • Taurasi said the mentality of team changed after the Braxton trade. Sanford brought more aggressive defense. 
  • "(Bonner) didn't have a great game shooting the basketball (1-13), she played 39 minutes but her and Nakia (Sanford) probably had the biggest impacts on the game as far as keeping us in it physically and DB basically played all five positions, guarding everyone." -- Taurasi

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Phoenix Mercury Beat Seattle Storm With Defense And Health; WCF Schedule Set

The Phoenix Mercury shocked the sporting world on Monday night with a come from behind win over the Seattle Storm. The Mercury turned the ball over nine times in the first quarter which put them in an 18-point hole early in the second period.

But head coach Corey Gaines had a few tricks up his coat sleeve and while he might have preferred to save them for later in the game, he knew that facing elimination from the playoffs he couldn't wait any longer. Gaines went with his big line up that also put his five best players on the floor with Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor in the back court and DeWanna Bonner, Candice Dupree and Nakia Sanford up front. 

Instead of just going for an offensive punch and bringing in an extra shooter, Gaines went for defense and employed the zone defense. Unlike years past, however, he went with a traditional 2-3 zone instead of the rover zone with Taurasi playing free safety.

The Mercury didn't use flashy offense to go on an offensive burst to get back in the game quickly. In fact they only shot 3-18 from three and had just 12 fast break points. They got back in the game with defense.

In the second and third quarters the Mercury held the Storm to 13-35 shooting (37%) and outscored Seattle 45 to 37 and the game was within five points headed into the fourth quarter. It was the kind of grind it out comeback we're not used to seeing from the run-and-gun Mercury.

In the fourth quarter it came down to health. Gaines explained:

"The first time we played Seattle up here I think they were waiting for us for six days. And then we knew they had to fly down and play us, and we both flew back at the same time so it was to our advantage. The game alone would wear them down and we kept on pushing, kept on pushing. They were kind of tired at the end."

Proving Gaines point, the Storm went 1-6 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter while the Mercury went 6-6. 

Offensively, the Mercury seemed to go away from their fast break sets that the Storm defend so well and didn't try and run the complex ball movement or pick and roll plays either. Instead it was a lot of isolation with players taking quick shots as soon as they could get any kind of clean look.

DeWanna Bonner typified that mentality with an unusual aggressiveness creating her own shot from the perimeter. She only went 1-13 for seven points but she got to the line (4-4) and helped set the fearless tone. 

The offensive efficiency came from smooth Candice Dupree who mostly scored in isolation and went 10-15 for 20 points. Taylor added 19 points (6-11) and an incredible 17 rebounds while Taurasi also dropped 19 (6-16) before fouling out with six-plus minutes left in a tie game. 

From there, Gaines told Taylor to take over and shoot as often as possible. Nate from Swish Appeal explained just how great Taylor was in this game:

Shock and Awe - Swish Appeal
I am in awe of Penny Taylor's basketball ability. I think I've made that point clear before and reiterated it after the Mercury's win in Game 2, but last night's performance was an almost perfect example of why I think Taylor is among the most underappreciated players in the league.

Health matters

In the 2010 WNBA Western Conference Finals the Mercury got swept by the Storm. They admitted later they were worn down and Taylor could barely lift her arm due to a shoulder injury. 

This time around it was the Storm who had to rely heavily on veteran guards Sue Bird and Katie Smith to carry the load while Lauren Jackson was out for a good chunk of the season after hip surgery to repair a torn labrum. Gaines also likely sacrificed some regular season games to make sure he didn't overuse his star players.

Taurasi ranked 19th in the WNBA in total minutes (and still lead the league in scoring) while Taylor was held out of several games late in the year to make sure she was ready for the post season.

Jackson had been back eight games but clearly wasn't up to MVP form. Her shot was still true but her mobility was limited, especially on the defensive end of the floor. The Mercury attacked her with Dupree and in the screen and roll game and the former defensive stalwart simply couldn't respond.

Having center Nakia Sanford back for Games 2 and 3 of this series after missing Game 1 with a knee injury was huge. Sanford provided toughness and inside defense against Jackson. Here return to the court was key to Phoenix winning the series.

__________________________________________________________________________

If you missed this game (I did), you can catch it online at ESPN 3. At least treat yourself to the fourth quarter. It's worth it.

Western Conference Finals Schedule

The Mercury will face the Minnesota Lynx who has home court advantage for the series. Game 1 will be Thursday at 7:00 p.m. in Minnesota; Game 2, Sunday at 2:00 p.m in Phoenix (at USAC) and Game 3 back in Minnesota, time TBD.

The Mercury's toughest possible opponent in the playoffs based on two years of history and the match ups was Seattle. Phoenix matches up much better with the less-talented Silver Spurs or the young, fast Minnesota Lynx led by rookie Maya Moore.

More links and photo gallery from Game 3 win over Seattle:

  • Mercury Vs. Storm: Post Game Quotes - Swish Appeal I called Penny (Taylor) over and said, "Penny, take as many shots as you can possible get right now." I told her that. And I said I didn't care if they were "threes, twos, let the ball go. I need you to take as many shots as possible." And she did. She did. And she also got 17 rebounds which was pretty big.
  • Seattle Storm Vs. Phoenix Mercury Final Score: Storm Eliminated From WNBA Playoffs In a 77-75 Heartbreaker - SB Nation Seattle All that focus on getting homecourt advantage was about games like tonight. With the game tied in Game Three of a best-of-three playoff series, the odds would normally favor the Seattle Storm at KeyArena where they'd only lost three times in 40 previous games. But ultimately the final minute was won by exactly what won the series: rebounding and tenacity in the paint. Mercury forward Penny Taylor was able to get a hand on her own missed layup and tap it to Candice Dupree who hit a short jumper with 1.9 seconds left to lift the Mercury to a 77-75 win and a trip to the Western Conference Finals.
  • Shock and Awe - Swish Appeal I am in awe of Penny Taylor's basketball ability. I think I've made that point clear before and reiterated it after the Mercury's win in Game 2, but last night's performance was an almost perfect example of why I think Taylor is among the most underappreciated players in the league.
  • Storm v. Mercury (Game 3-2011 Round 1) - jlindstr's Photos via Kailas Images.

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(Penny Taylor does it all -- 19 points and 17 rebounds in Game 3. Photo by Kailas Images)

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Phoenix Mercury Overcome Long Odds To Beat Seattle And Advance To Conference Finals

I'm not going to lie, I didn't give the Phoenix Mercury much hope of beating the Seattle Storm on the road in a decisive Game 3 playoff contest. The Mercury were just 2-11 against the Storm over the last two years and hadn't won in Seattle since who knows when. More importantly, Seattle was a team that matched up very well against Phoenix and had advantages all over the floor but especially with Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson.

While covering the Diamondbacks game, I kept an eye on the score and noticed the Mercury were down 18 points in the second quarter and assumed it was over. The Storm had already run Phoenix out of their building in Game 1 and this game looked to be heading in the same direction.

Instead, Phoenix somehow battled back and despite Diana Taurasi fouling out halfway through the fourth quarter they hung on to win the game. Reports are Candice Dupree got an offensive rebound for a put back with 1.9 seconds to win the game.

The box score tells us that Penny Taylor, who has suffered with back problems late in the season, recorded 19 points and an incredible 17 rebounds. Dupree had 20 points and Taurasi 19 in under 30 minutes of play.

With the win, the Mercury advance to the Western Conference Finals to face either the Minnesota Lynx or San Antonio Silver Stars who's series is tied 1-1 with Game 3 on Tuesday. The conference finals begin on Thursday in Phoenix if San Antonio wins and Thursday in Minnesota if the Lynx do.

Check out this recap from SB Nation Seattle. 

Seattle Storm Vs. Phoenix Mercury Final Score: Storm Eliminated From WNBA Playoffs In a 77-75 Heartbreaker - SB Nation Seattle
All that focus on getting homecourt advantage was about games like tonight. With the game tied in Game Three of a best-of-three playoff series, the odds would normally favor the Seattle Storm at KeyArena where they'd only lost three times in 40 previous games.

But ultimately the final minute was won by exactly what won the series: rebounding and tenacity in the paint. Mercury forward Penny Taylor was able to get a hand on her own missed layup and tap it to Candice Dupree who hit a short jumper with 1.9 seconds left to lift the Mercury to a 77-75 win and a trip to the Western Conference Finals.

For full postgame quotes, visit Swish Appeal.  Here's Coach Corey Gaines on what he said to Penny Taylor after Taurasi fouled out:

Mercury Vs. Storm: Post Game Quotes - Swish Appeal
I called Penny (Taylor) over and said, "Penny, take as many shots as you can possible get right now." I told her that. And I said I didn't care if they were "threes, twos, let the ball go. I need you to take as many shots as possible." And she did. She did. And she also got 17 rebounds which was pretty big.

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Phoenix Mercury Force Decisive Game 3 Beat Seattle Storm, 92-83

The Phoenix Mercury came out with the kind of playoff intensity and focus you would expect to see from a team facing elimination. They took an 11-2 lead in the early minutes and never trailed in the game. The Seattle Storm shot the ball extremely well from long range but the energy and desire advantage went to the home team. Phoenix out-rebounded Seattle 37-24.

"Phoenix played a great game tonight. They were the aggressors from start to finish. I think the points in the paint (58-12, Phx) tells you that right from the observation of the stat sheet. They played like their backs were against the wall and they responded very well," Storm coach Brian Agler said after the game.

The Storm shot 13-22 from three but only had four offensive rebounds on the night. The Mercury ended up shooting 55 percent from the field. Phoenix benefited from the return of center Nakia Sanford who played 19 minutes and provided a physical inside presence that was missing when she was forced to miss Game 1 with a knee injury. 

Mercury coach Corey Gaines called Sanford a "soldier" in his postgame press conference. "If you would have seen her up in Seattle, how much it hurt her. She just couldn't, she couldn't move. At shootaround (this morning) she still couldn't move so it was kind of questionable if she was going to be able to play but she's a veteran. Somehow, she figured it out."

The Mercury led by as much as 15 in the fourth quarter before Seattle made a run and cut it to within six. Phoenix was able to hold on thanks to a key bucket from DeWanna Bonner who was named the WNBA Sixth Women of the Year for the third-straight time before the game.

The Mercury were led by a strong performance from forward Candice Dupree who 29 points and seven rebounds. Diana Taurasi added 26 points. For Seattle, Sue Bird had 17 points while Tanisha Wright added 18 of her own.

"It's no secret we've had a lot of struggles against Seattle but we've always taken the good things that we've done. I think we came back to Phoenix not defeated one bit," Taurasi said. "They took care of home court. We took care of home court. We've seen how we can be in Seattle...and we have to make a concerted effort to make sure we don't look like that again and it takes all of us."

Gaines said Game 1 in Seattle was the worst his team has played in the playoffs. Going into Game 2 he didn't give them a big pep talk, instead relying on their experience and pride to generate the needed energy and effort. It will be interesting to see which Mercury team shows up on Monday for Game 3.

The series is now tied 1-1 with the final and deciding game coming Monday back in Seattle where the Storm are 16-2 on the season. Game 3 is at 7:00 p.m. on ESPN 2. Phoenix will have to play with the same or even more energy and desperation they showed Saturday night if they hope to beat Seattle and advance to the Western Conference Finals.

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Phoenix Mercury Embarrassed In Playoff Opener By Tough Seattle Storm, 80-61

It's not a surprise the Phoenix Mercury lost the Game 1 of their first round playoff series to the Seattle Storm. The Storm have now won 11 out of 12 games against the Mercury in the last two years and were the healthier and better team. 

It was disappointing however, to see the Mercury get out-worked and out-played so thoroughly. They consistently were slow on defense and got killed on the boards as they watched too many balls fall into their opponent's hands without even trying to contest the outcome.

The veteran Mercury team were frustrated and played without poise which translated to an embarrassing butt-kicking at the hands of a very good Seattle team.

The two teams traded punches in the first quarter and were tied at 19 after one. From there the Storm clamped down on the defense and held the Mercury to season-low 61 points which is 28 less than their season average.

The Mercury were without starting center Nakia Sanford who reportedly was experiencing knee soreness. The loss of Sanford forced DeWanna Bonner into the starting line up and Candice Dupree had to play out of position at the five. This created too many mismatches for the unenergetic Mercury defense to handle.

The Storm were led by 21 points from Tanisha Wright while Sue Bird chipped in eight and Lauren Jackson was able to rest. She only played 19 minutes but 13 points. Swin Cash and Camille Little each had 11 rebounds as Seattle beat Phoenix 49-35 on the glass.

Phoenix got 13 points from Penny Taylor and 11 points from Diana Taurasi to lead a Mercury team that never played like they thought they could win.

"We couldn't get her open shots," said Mercury coach Corey Gaines about Taurasi's performance. "She's coming off of picks, and we couldn't get our run game going. They switched, swung the ball around, and the people who were open couldn't hit the shots."

Game 2 of the best of three series is Saturday in Phoenix at 7:00 p.m.

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Phoenix Mercury Playoff Scenarios Don't Bode Well, Storm Looming

The Phoenix Mercury have three games left in the regular season. They've already clinched a spot in the playoffs so the focus now is on seeding. The Minnesota Lynx has a lock on the top spot but Phoenix does have chance at landing the second seed and at least getting home court advantage in a first-round, best of three series.

Here's the playoff scenarios as provided by the team:

PHOENIX WILL FINISH SECOND IF...

Phoenix finishes 3-0 in its last three games OR Phoenix finishes 2-1 in its last three games and Seattle finishes 0-2 in its last two games.

(If Seattle finishes 2-0 in its last two games, Phoenix can NOT finish second.)

(If Seattle defeats Phoenix Friday, Phoenix can NOT finish second.)

If Phoenix wins ONE of its final three games OR San Antonio loses ONE of its final two games the worst Phoenix can finish is third.

PHOENIX WILL FINISH THIRD IF...

Phoenix finishes tied with SeattlePhoenix finishes 1-2 AND Seattle finishes 0-2Phoenix finishes 2-1 AND Seattle finishes 1-1 OR If San Antonio loses one game or Phoenix wins one game AND Phoenix does not catch Seattle

PHOENIX WILL FINISH FOURTH IF...

Phoenix finishes 0-3 in its last three games AND San Antonio finishes 2-0 in its final two games

As you can see, the most likely outcome is a second or third seed with a pairing against Seattle and that's unfortunate. The Mercury are 1-9 against Seattle in their last 10 meetings and that's no accident.

The Storm are the best coached team in the WNBA and their defense has always managed to give Phoenix problems. On the other end, their two best players are at the Mercury's weakest defensive positions with point guard Sue Bird and center Lauren Jackson.

The two teams meet for the final time this season on Friday in Seattle. It would be realistic to expect both teams to hold back some key players and make sure they are rested for the playoffs. With another postseason battle looming, neither of these veteran teams will worry that much about having home court advantage if it costs them a chance to be a little bit fresher.

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