Though many thought the Mercury would ride Brittney Griner and a healthy Penny Taylor to a WNBA title, Taylor wasn’t healthy, and Griner hurt her knee.
Those injuries and the Phoenix struggles got Corey Gaines fired, and Russ Pennell was brought in to get the Mercury to play defense and rediscover their mojo. He’s done both, but Taylor is still hurt and Griner, because of the injuries or the rookie wall or just because of the level of play, has been far from dominant.
And while folks were predicting glory for the Mercury, the Minnesota Lynx were processing an upset loss to Indiana in last year’s finals as well as wondering why they weren’t being given their proper respect for their accomplishments.
Cheryl Reeve and company responded with the best record in the league (26-8), and swept the gritty Seattle Storm in the first round. They are rested and motivated, and once again the favorites in a big series. If they’ve learned their lessons from last year, a lot of things are going to have to go right for Phoenix to get to the finals – but as Geno Auriemma almost said, the Mercury have Taurasi and the Lynx don’t.
With Diana Taurasi now the point guard for Phoenix, this is a tremendous matchup between two of the elite players in the league – and it’s also a very interesting contrast of styles and temperament. Taurasi, the technical foul queen of the WNBA, is a dynamic player whose ability to score and rack up assists (especially on long passes) is unquestioned. Lindsay Whalen is less fiery and can’t match Taurasi when it comes to scoring. Then again, Whalen doesn’t turn the ball over as much, and is more a classic point guard. Both are exceptional players, but even though Whalen is one of the best of her era, Taurasi is one of the best of all time. Edge to Phoenix.
Briana Gilbreath is a wonderful defender, long and intelligent, but has almost no offensive presence. Seimone Augustus is a tall scorer who rightfully belongs on the Olympic team. Gilbreath barely made a WNBA roster at the start of the year, and her emergence as a starter on a Western Conference finals’ team is a great story, especially considering her injury-ravaged career. But heartwarming narratives take a back seat to talent on the court, so big advantage Minnesota.
DeWanna Bonner is a solid WNBA starter; Maya Moore is one of the best players in the league. Maybe Bonner can bother Moore a little bit, and maybe Phoenix coach Russ Pennell will shift the matchups around to keep the Lynx off balance, but it really doesn’t matter. Moore is better than anyone the Mercury can put on her … a lot better. Big advantage Minnesota.
Candice Dupree eviscerated MVP Candace Parker in the deciding game of the L.A. series, but Rebekkah Brunson is going to be a much bigger challenge. Given that Pennell wasn’t coaching in any of the previous Phoenix-Minnesota games, those comparisons may or may not apply, but Brunson is a better athlete and a physical force. Dupree has great skill and is a better offensive player, but a motivated Brunson who doesn’t get into foul trouble should contain Dupree much more easily than Parker did. Edge to Minnesota.
Brittney Griner has struggled to adjust to the WNBA, in part because of a knee injury, and in part because it’s a really, really good league with lots of strong, intelligent centers – and speaking of strong, intelligent centers, meet Janel McCarville. But Griner is six inches taller than McCarville and much more athletic, and should be able to do more in this matchup than she did against Nneka Ogwumike. If McCarville can make some jumpers over Griner, it would open passing lanes for McCarville, who is a very good distributor, but making jumpers over Griner is easier said than done. And if Griner shoots well, there’s nothing McCarville can do. Advantage Phoenix.
Monica Wright is widely seen as a starter who happens to be stuck on a great team, but she’s an average shooter and not a particularly good ballhandler. She is a good defender, though her size doesn’t give her many favorable matchups against long and tall Phoenix. Still, she might be able to harass Taurasi for a while, which is probably more than the Mercury bench will be able to do to any of the Lynx. Of course, if Penny Taylor is available at all she’ll be able to contribute offensively, but she’s just a shadow of the great player she once was, and the rest of the Phoenix bench doesn’t bring much to the table. Assuming Taylor stays hobbled, another edge to Minnesota.
Russ Pennell has done a very nice job with Phoenix, and is obviously a quality coach – but Cheryl Reeve is also a quality coach, and she knows the Mercury, and the league, much better than Pennell knows Minnesota. Edge to Minnesota.
The Lynx are undoubtedly still smarting from that upset loss to Indiana in the WNBA Finals last year, and they are two wins away from getting within striking range of their second title in three years. Phoenix, on the other hand, has battled its way back after a tough season, and already achieved a major goal in knocking off L.A. For the Mercury, the season is already a success; for the Lynx, there’s lots of work still to be done. Advantage Minnesota.
Add it all up, and this should be a Lynx romp. And unless Penny Taylor has 20 minutes a night, at at least 85% of her peak, it most likely will be. The games might be close, but Minnesota sweeps.