Lynx open playoffs in shadow of Mercury
MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Lynx are the defending WNBA champions and winners of the league title two of the past three seasons. But it’s the Phoenix Mercury wearing the bull’s-eye as playoffs begin this week.
Behind veteran guard Diana Taurasi and 6-foot-8, second-year center Brittney Griner, the Mercury dominated the regular season, winning a league-record 29 games. That was enough to make most people forget about the Lynx despite them playing well enough to set a WNBA record with their fourth straight 25-win season.
“When you look at the team that has been dominant from beginning to end, that would be Phoenix, and I think they are everyone’s favorite,” said WNBA pioneer Rebecca Lobo, an ESPN analyst, in a national conference call this week.
“I would agree that I think Phoenix is the team to beat,” echoed another ESPN analyst, Carolyn Peck.
Not so fast, says Taurasi, who knows the Mercury are likely to meet the Lynx in the Western Conference finals next week.
“They’re the defending champs,” she said. “They’re the best team in this league.”
We’ll see soon enough.
The Lynx, the No. 2 seed after a 25-9 regular season, play host to No. 3 San Antonio (16-18) in Game 1 of the best-of-three conference semifinals tonight at Target Center. Game 2 is Saturday in San Antonio.
Phoenix, the No. 1 seed after a 29-5 season, opens the playoffs at home Friday against No. 4 Los Angeles (16-18).
The Mercury won seven of their final eight regular-season games, including an 82-80 victory over the Lynx on Aug. 9 on a late shot by Taurasi. Minnesota lost three of its final four games.
Even worse: The Lynx are 1-3 against the Mercury this season. Minnesota’s lone win, 75-67 on July 31, stopped Phoenix’s 16-game winning streak.
“It took a team to have a history-making season to put us in second,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “There is no shame in what we’ve done.”
Minnesota swept Phoenix in two games in the Western Conference finals last season. But this year got off to a bad start with knee injuries that sidelined all-stars Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson and top reserves Monica Wright and Devereaux Peters.
Maya Moore, the WNBA’s scoring leader with a 23.9-point average, and veteran point guard Lindsay Whalen kept Minnesota chugging along until all those injured knees healed. The team goes into the playoffs at full strength.
“We still believe we’re the team everyone wants to beat,” Reeve said. “Even when we won regular-season championships (in the past), all it did was earn us home-court (advantage). There is no championship associated with being a regular-season first-place team. Our goal is still intact to be the best in the west.”
Said Lobo: “The only thing that would really surprise me in the WNBA playoffs is if Phoenix or Minnesota does not end up with the title.”
But before the Lynx can think about the Mercury, they’ve got to get past San Antonio, which beat Minnesota 92-76 last Friday to clinch a playoff spot. It was the only loss for the Lynx, who played without Augustus that game, in four meetings with the Stars.
“We don’t take anyone lightly,” Moore said. “San Antonio is a really solid team.”
The Stars are led by veteran guard Becky Hammon, who is retiring at the end of the season to join the San Antonio Spurs as the first full-time female assistant coach in the NBA.
The Stars lead the WNBA in three-point percentage and free-throw percentage but rank sixth in scoring at 77.6 points per game.
“People are paying attention to others, and that’s OK,” said Brunson, the Lynx’s veteran power forward. “If you don’t give us the respect we feel we deserve, then we’re going to go out and take it.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.