The Minnesota Lynx finished the regular season with the best record in the WNBA. Thursday night against Phoenix they showed why. The Lynx started fast, finished strong and played solid basketball in between as they defeated the Phoenix Mercury 95-67 to take a 1-0 lead in the first round of the Western conference championship series.
The game was not quite as one-sided as the score would indicate but, after Minnesota jumped out to a 15-3 lead, Phoenix never got closer than six and Minnesota led by double digits for all but five minutes of the game.
If they are going to keep their own WNBA title-repeat hopes alive when Game Two of the series tips off Sunday in the U.S. Airways center in Phoenix, the Mercury -- a team known best for its offense -- are going to have to find some defensive weapons in their arsenal.
The Lynx won by playing aggressive basketball on both ends of the floor. Despite having an offense that scored the third most points in the league, Coach Cheryl Reeves defense allowed opponents a league low 41.3-percent field-goal percentage. In Game One on Thursday, they held an obviously frustrated Phoenix team to even less: 35.7-percent shooting from the field.
Phoenix normally plays defense by scoring so much their opponents cant keep up. On Thursday, they gave an even higher-flying Minnesota team easy shot after easy shot. The Mercurys identity is that of a running team, but the Lynx ran circles around them.
It seemed as if Minnesota was content to let Diana Taurasi get her points -- she finished with 22 -- knowing that she couldnt beat them by herself. And it worked, as Taurasi got very little help from her teammates. Penny Taylor and Candice Dupree, who normally are consistent scorers, were held to six and two points, respectively; the pair made four out of their 15 collective shots from the floor (26.6 percent). Phoenix will need much more out of them Sunday if they hope to force a Game Three back in Minneapolis.
The Lynx were led by Seimone Augustus, who is now elevating herself to the level of superstar. Augustus scored 21 points and handed out seven assists while also leading her team defensively. Maya Moore came out shooting and showed flashes of the player the Lynx hope she becomes. She added 15 points and seven rebounds. Candice Wiggins was key off the bench. She hit four of seven three-point attempts and played strong defense during her time on the floor.
There was another disparity that was notable for being unexpected. Phoenix is a veteran, playoff-tested team while Minnesota is a young team in only its third playoff appearance, a team who won their first playoff series in franchise history in the first round against San Antonio this year. Yet it was the Lynx who played with composure and poise. Led by the unflappable Lindsay Whalen at point guard, Minnesota handled the pressure of the situation and played with great emotion but also under control.
Phoenix, on the other hand, did neither. The team was obviously frustrated and spent way too much time and energy complaining to the officials. The chief offender was their star Diana Taurasi. Taurasi is known as an emotional player, but it seemed like, instead of feeding off her emotion, she was bogged down by it. There were several times when she could easily have picked up her third technical foul of the playoffs. If she should get four, she would have to sit out a game.
On Sunday (3 p.m. Eastern), the series moves to Phoenix for Game Two, with the Mercury facing the even greater pressure of sudden-death elimination. If Minnesota repeats its Game-One performance, the Lynx will win the second series in franchise history and move to the WNBA Championship round, while the Mercury watch the WNBA Finals on TV.
If Phoenix wants to force this series to a decisive Game Three, they have to play much better defense, while maintaining their composure. Neither will be easy. The Mercury were one of the worst defensive units in the league. They allowed 86 points a game and let their opponents to hit 44 percent of their shots.
The Mercury did find enough defense to contain the Seattle Storm, after dropping the opening game of their semifinal series. But this time will be much harder. It is not just a matter of shutting down one or two key players. The Mercury will have to find a way to contain Minnesotas very well-balanced offense.
Controlling their emotions may be even harder still. The Mercury will be playing at home in front of a loud, emotional crowd. They have to feed off that crowd and be energized by it but they must stay under control emotionally. The Mercury have to understand that its time to play basketball and not complain and whine at every adverse call.
Minnesota was the best road team in the league and their best players, Whalen and Augustus, are playing at their best. The biggest weakness they had coming into the postseason was a lack of playoff experience for the team as a whole. On Thursday, the Lynx showed they are on the fast track to making up for that deficit. Unless Phoenix Coach Corey Gaines has some magic in his bag of tricks, odds are the newcomers to the Western Conference Finals will be moving on.