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."
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.
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."
- "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