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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Minnesota Lynx Make Their Western Conference Finals Debut Against Repeat-Champion Phoenix Mercury

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Photo Caption: Though both teams boast multiple scoring threats, Candice Dupree (left) has emerged as the star of this year’s playoffs for the Phoenix Mercury, averaging more than 20 points per game in the postseason, while a healthy Seimone Augustus (right) has been the key to success for the Minnesota Lynx all season. The two teams will tip off their battle for the 2011 WNBA Western Conference championship at the Target Center in Minneapolis on Thursday night at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, 8:00 p.m. Central.

Photo Credits: Dupree Image Courtesy NBA Photos/Barry Gossage; Augustus Image Courtesy Minnesota Lynx/Getty Images

By Sharon Crowson
& Lee Michaelson

The 2011 WNBA Western Conference Finals will make history the moment they tip off on Thursday, September 22, at 9:00 p.m. Eastern in the Target Center, home of the Minnesota Lynx. That’s because the Lynx, who won their first playoff series ever, will be appearing in the finals for the first time in the 13-year history of the franchise.

In fact, Minnesota hadn’t even made the postseason at all since 2003 and 2004, making early exits in the first round each year. But on Sunday, after spending a season earning home-court advantage, the Lynx used it to their best advantage, as they defeated the San Antonio Silver Stars, 85-67, before an enthusiastic crowd of home fans in Minneapolis to win their first-conference semifinal series, 2-1, to advance to the conference championships where they will make their debut tonight.

On the other end of the floor will be the Phoenix Mercury, a team with more recent WNBA titles to their credit than any team other than the Los Angeles Sparks and the Seattle Storm. True, the Houston Comets won four titles in their heydey, but that was more than a decade ago, and the Comets are now defunct. The Mercury, on the other hand, Phoenix won the WNBA championship in 2007 and again in 2009, and are no strangers to the Western Conference Finals, where they fell to Seattle just a year ago. Even more to the point, much of the nucleus of the Mercury championship rosters will be taking the floor on Thursday night, ready to school the postseason newcomers from the Midwest.

But can they do it? The Minnesota team they’ll be facing are the top seed in the West after finishing the season with the best record in the league—27-7—with six fewer losses than any team in the WNBA and eight games ahead of the third-seeded Mercury. Moreover, Minnesota took the regular-season head-to-head series with the Mercury, 3-2, though Phoenix is the only team in the league to hand the Lynx two defeats this season.

Anyway you slice it, expect great! Offense, that is. The series features two of the top scoring teams in the league—the top two when it comes to scoring margin—who put up more than 75 points per game on average, and upped the ante to a cumulative 187 points a game when playing each other. If you’re looking for defense, ahem, ...  you might want to stay tuned to the East.

Getting There: Minnesota

On a night when three Lynx stars—league assist leader Lindsay Whalen, 2011 WNBA Rookie of the Year Maya Moore, and Coach of the Year Cheryl Reeve (who brought home the hardware in just her second year at the helm of the team)—were honored for their accomplishments in pregame ceremonies, the Lynx showed some postseason jitters in Game One of its series with a San Antonio team that outperformed the expectations of many.

Despite the nerves, the Lynx got standout performances from Whalen, who put up 20 points, and Seimone Augustus, who added 20. Moreover, despite Minnesota’s reputation for offense, it was a late-game defensive play that brought home the 66-65 Game One win, as with four seconds left and San Antonio, down by just one, still with opportunity to tie the game or win outright, Whalen deflected Danielle Robinson’s in-bounds pass, tipping it to Moore who dribbled it out for the victory..

Game Two was a horse of a different color, however, as the series moved to San Antonio. Even 24 points from Augustus, 16 from Whalen, and 15 from a foul-saddled Moore would not be enough. Minnesota never led in the game, and at times trailed by as many as 16 points, as the Silver Stars simply out-hustled the Lynx. Moreover, the game telegraphed the importance of primacy of defense: While the Lynx controlled the boards (45-30) and the paint (32-28) and had their transition game in full gear (21 Minnesotafast-break points to just 13 for San Antonio), the Silver Stars won convincingly (84-75) by holding the high-flying to just 30 of 76 (39.4 percent) from the field and capitalizing on 17 Lynx turnovers.

Game Three began with the Lynx showing the same nerves that had resulted in poor performances in the first two games of the series.  With seven minutes gone, San Antonio led 10-2 (the two Lynx points coming at the charity stripe), and a visibly angry Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, who had told her team in the locker room to “just go out and have fun,” apparently wasn’t having any herself. Reeve called a timeout to express her sentiments to her team.  She might want to bottle that speech.

Forty-one year-old center Taj McWilliams-Franklin evidently heard Reeve loud and clear, and she has done many times over her career, stepped up to lead her team. McWilliams-Franklin launched her own personal 6-2 run over the next two over the next two minutes to put the Lynx back in the game. Inspired by her example, the rest of the team came to life, with Rebekkah Brunson, who had been missing in action earlier in the series, knocking down two buckets, and Augustus began to find her stroke. Over the first eight minutes after the timeout, Minnesota outscored the Stars 33-12 and were never seriously challenged after that.

After their loss in game two in which the Lynx got little contribution from their post players, Reeve obviously made a point of having her team work the ball inside.  After scoring only a cumulative 21 points in the first two games, Minnesota post players, McWilliams-Franklin (16), Rebekkah Brunson (15) and Jessica Adair (7), combined for 38 in the Game Three win, and seemed to score whenever their team needed it.  They also dominated on the boards and, unlike Game Two, in which the Lynx pulled down offensive rebounds but proved unable to put them back, in Game Three, Minnesota regularly scored off them.

Seimone Augustus led the Lynx with 22 points, eight rebounds and four assists, but her defense was vital.  Ultimately—and perhaps uncharacteristically for the Lynx—this win was a defensive one.  Augustus continually frustrated the Stars’ Becky Hammon.  Hammon, who together with Sophia Young is normally her team’s top offensive threat, scored 15 points, but was held to an unfortunate five-of-14 (35.7 percent) from the floor, knocking down only three of her 10 three-point attempts. 

With Hammon struggling, San Antonio needed someone else to step up. Young ,added 17 points but managed only eight field-goal attempts in 34 minutes, thanks to the swarming Lynx post defense. No one else answered the call for the Silver Stars, however, and there was very little success from the outside to ease some of the pressure on Young. After averaging 17 points in the first two games, Jia Perkins was held to just five points in Game Three. 

On offense, the Lynx were firing on all cylinders after the slow start and easily withstood a rare off night by point guard Lindsay Whalen.  However, Reeve had called upon Whalen to be more of a facilitator than a scorer in this outing, and though Whalen took only three shots, scoring four points, she ran the team effectively and distributed the ball well, staving off any prolonged droughts in scoring. Indeed, effective ball movement was another hallmark of this game, with every player in the starting line-up recording at least two assists. Whalen passed out three dishes, while Moore, Augustus and McWilliams-Franklin recorded four apiece, and even Brunson got into the act with two.

Ultimately, the key to the Lynx’s Game Three win was energy.  After playing lethargically in Game Two, the Lynx played with a ton of emotion and aggressiveness.  Some of the credit for that has to go to their hard-won home-court advantage.

Though the crowd of 8,700 was far from a sell-out in the cavernous Target Center, which can hold more than 24,000, it was a much more packed and enthusiastic audience than Minnesota has typically seen in years past. And it mattered.

“We didn’t want to let you down!’’ Moore yelled to the crowd exuberantly.

“Home-court advantage was huge for us,” Reeve acknowledged more matter-of-factly after the game.

It is an advantage the Lynx will continue to hold throughout the playoffs, beginning with tonight’s game against the Mercury.

Getting There: Phoenix

The Mercury roster may feature more veterans of the WNBA postseason, but the road to the Western Conference was no easier for Phoenix than it was for Minnesota. Largely because for Phoenix, that road led through the Seattle.

Some may have been penning the epitaph for the series after the reigning champs handed the Mercury an 80-61 beat-down in Game One in Seattle. Key to the Storm’s success: Defense. More specifically: Dialing in superstar Diana Taurasi. The Storm managed to hold the league’s five-time season scoring leader to just 11 points (four of them from the line) on just three-for-11 from the field and one-for-five from the arc. The Seattle defense held Phoenix as a team to just 29.7 percent from the field and 25 percent from long range.

At the same time, the Storm got balanced scoring from their own starting five (other than Sue Bird, who posted only eight), though not much from their bench. They also shot a sufficiently superior, albeit uninspiring, 39.1 percent from the floor as a team.

But Phoenix quieted the skeptics when the series moved to the desert for Game Two. The Mercury got off to a quick start, heading off to a nine-point lead in the first quarter, which they later extended to 15 by the final three minutes of the second.

“Slow start” doesn’t begin to capture it for the Storm, who missed five of their first six shots, and never led in the game. Always competitors, Seattle rallied late, rattling off 10 straight points late in the final period to pull within five, but it was too little, too late for the Storm, who fell to the Mercury, 83-92, to set up a decisive Game Three.

This time around, the Mercury got a much more balanced effort from its starters, four of whom breached the double-digit scoring mark, and a heroic effort from Candice Dupree, who recorded a season-high of 29 points. Accuracy picked up for the team as a whole, who shot 55.1 percent to the Storm’s 41.4). The Mercury also got more production from Taurasi, who had 26 points, though they continued to come on volume shooting (nine of 23, or 39 percent, from the floor).

Tellingly, it was Phoenix, not Seattle,  who controlled the paint, by an impressive 58-12 margin, as Mercury coach Corey Gaines turned to a larger line-up. Part of that advantage could be attributed to Lauren Jackson’s less-than-complete recovery from her recent hip surgery, but the rest can be chalked up to the Mercury’s aggressive assault on both the boards (37-24) and the hoop.

The win set up Game Three, back in Seattle. This time it was the Storm who got out in front early, leading by as many as 18 points. But unlike Seattle, whose rally fell short in Game Two, Phoenix battled back, turning it into a true slugfest by the final quarter.

In the end, when it looked like Sue Bird would play the hero after netting a game-tying jumper with just 14 seconds left, it was Dupree who stole the show, putting back a Penny Taylor miss for the go-ahead bucket with 1.9 seconds on the clock, to carry Phoenix to a 77-75 victory, and a 2-1 series win.

Dupree was definitely the MVP of the conference semifinals for Phoenix, leading her team with 20 points in Game Three. But despite playing through injury, Taylor also came up big in the clutch with 19 points and 17 rebounds. Taurasi also had 19 points before fouling out with more than six-and-a-half minutes left in the final quarter. But Taurasi has yet to find her usually deadly range in the 2011 postseason, shooting just six-for-16 (37.5 percent) from the floor in Game Three and one-of-six (16.6 percent) from downtown.

Keys to the Series

Plainly, as with the Phoenix-Seattle series, Minnesota must find away to take Taurasi out of the equation, or at the very least, render her inefficient. If Taurasi is forced to get her points through volume shooting—and continues to hoist up far more misses than makes—it takes much of the punch out of the Mercury’s run-and-gun offense.

The corollary to that lesson is that containing Taurasi will not, by itself, be enough. The beauty of both of these squads is their multiplicity of scoring threats. As Phoenix demonstrated in Game Three of its conference semifinals series, the Mercury have the firepower to win—even with Taurasi cheerleading from the bench—when a Taylor, a Dupree, or a DeWanna Bonner rise to the occasion.

For its part, Phoenix cannot count on postseason jitters lasting long for Minnesota’s Rookie of the Year. Moore, a veteran of annual pilgrimages to the Final Four in her college career, was already showing a steadier hand by Game Three of the Lynx-San Antonio series. And Minnesota, too, has Augustus, Whalen, McWilliams-Franklin and an emergent Brunson to fall back on if Moore has a cool hand.

Seattle stumbled when Phoenix turned to a zone defense, and that could be a problem for the Lynx as well. Minnesota and Phoenix were two of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league—at 28.1 percent and 21.2 percent, respectively, from the arc. The lack of a reliable three-point scoring threat makes both teams vulnerable to the zone, however, so the Mercury has to be cautious that Minnesota doesn’t turn the tables on them.

Ultimately, this series may come down to the post. The Mercury’s Nakia Sanford did not play at all in Game One, nursing a sore right knee. She was back in action for the next two games, but though her presence certainly helped, she was less than fully effective (five points, six boards in 25 minutes off the bench). And the rest of the Mercury post features quick, lithe players like Bonner, who rebound well enough, but aren’t really built to bang with the likes of Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin.

Moreover, of the two, Minnesota looks to be the better defensive team, holding opponents to 73.62 points per game, the lowest of any team remaining in the playoffs. Phoenix, by comparison, gave up 85.97 points per game, the highest of any of the teams still standing, and earned its place in the playoffs more by outscoring its adversaries (88.97 points per game, for a margin of plus-3) than by defending them. Correspondingly, Minnesota held opponents to 41.3 percent per game from the field, while Phoenix gave up 44-percent field-goal shooting to its adversaries.

Prediction: Minnesota in three games.


Originally published Wed, September 21, 2011

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Week: February 7, 2012
1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
2 Notre Dame 23-1 2 2 2 743
3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
4 Stanford 20-1 4 5 4 685
5 Duke 19-3 6 8 5 650
6 Miami (FL) 20-3 7 7 6 604
7 Kentucky 21-3 5 15 7 584
8 Maryland 20-3 10 10 8 534
9 Wisconsin-Green Bay 20-0 9 24 9 530
10 Ohio State 21-2 11 NR-RV
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11 Tennessee 17-6 8 3 11 476
12 Delaware 20-1 13 NR 12 434
13 Georgetown 18-5 15 11 14 379
14 Texas A&M 16-5 16 6 15 378
15 Nebraska 19-3 18 NR 13 309
16 Rutgers 17-4 14 12 17 372
17 Louisville 17-6 12 9 20 276
18 Gonzaga 21-3 19 NR-RV
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19 Purdue 19-5 17 21 16 222
20 Georgia 18-6 20 12 21 202
21 Penn State 18-5 21 14 18 176
22 DePaul 17-7 23 18 NR-RV
23 Georgia Tech 16-6 22 NR-RV
22 104
24 South Carolina 18-5 NR-RV
NR 24 46
25 Vanderbilt 18-5 NR-RV
NR 45
Dropped Out: No. 24 North Carolina, No. 25 Kansas.
First-place votes: Total first-place votes received (if any) are indicated in parentheses following school name.
Others receiving votes: St. Bonaventure (22-2) 34; North Carolina (17-6) 19; California (17-6) 18; Florida Gulf Coast (21-2) 16; Middle Tennessee (19-5) 15; Texas-El Paso (20-2) 8; Texas Tech (16-6) 5; Brigham Young (21-4) 4; Fresno State (19-4) 4; St. John's (15-8) 4; Princeton (15-4) 3; Oklahoma (15-7) 2; West Virginia (17-6) 2; Kansas State (15-7) 1.
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Credit: Courtesy Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). The weekly Division I Top 25 Coaches' Poll, sponsored by USA Today and ESPN, is based on voting by a Board of Coaches made up of 31 head coaches at Division I institutions all of whom are WBCA members.