Familiar powerhouses ready to battle in Western Conference finals.
By ASSOCIATED PRESS FS Arizona
By VIN A. CHERWOO AP Sports Writer
Minnesota and Phoenix were both preseason favorites to be title contenders this year, and here they are facing off in the Western Conference finals.
With four All-Stars scoring in double digits, the Lynx had another strong regular season before sweeping Seattle in the first round and now seek their third straight trip to the WNBA Finals.
"They give you a lot of problems," Mercury coach Russ Pennell said. "They're multidimensional. They can hurt you inside, outside, they run well, they defend well. They're a complete team. ... We realize we're going to have to play pretty well in order to do well in the series."
Phoenix will have to at least play a lot better than it did while losing all five matchups against Lynx in the regular season. Other than a five-point margin on the Mercury's home court on July 21, Minnesota's other four wins were by double digits. All five of those games came before Pennell took over as coach on Aug. 8.
Here are five other things to know as the conference finals begin Thursday night:
1. THROW OUT THE REGULAR SEASON: Atlanta won three of five meetings against Indiana during the season, though they've only played once since Aug. 12. The defending champion Fever endured an injury-plagued start to the season and only three players appeared in more than 30 games. Though still missing Katie Douglas, they've settled into a rotation that got them back into the playoffs with the fourth seed in the East, and then beat conference champion Chicago in two games in the first round.
Atlanta star Angel McCoughtry didn't think her team, which has played without star forward Sancho Lyttle most of the season, could put too much emphasis on their regular season success against the Fever.
"You have to continue how you were playing, but it's a different ballgame now," McCoughtry said. "It doesn't really matter about that, because they're a different team and we're going to be a different team. We can take the positives from it and continue to do what we've been doing, but they're playing a lot, lot different now."
This is the third straight year the teams are meeting in the postseason. Atlanta won in the conference finals in 2011, and Indiana won in three games in the first round last year.
2. THE MERCURY HAVE STARS, TOO: Phoenix also has four double-digit scorers with five-time scoring champion Diana Taurasi, No. 1 overall draft pick Brittney Griner, Candice Dupree (15.2) and DeWanna Bonner (14.5). After struggling to find consistency for much of the season, Griner showed she can hit the big shot as she knocked down a turnaround jumper with 4.9 seconds left in Game 3 of the first round at Los Angeles to give the Mercury the series-clinching win.
"Phoenix is definitely a dangerous team offensively, and defense is always a part our mindset and our strategy going in," Minnesota's Maya Moore said. "Every game we play (against them) we have to bring our defense to give us a chance to win. ... The two-man game with (Taurasi) and Dupree is extremely dangerous and we have to be ready to just combat that with our versatility."
3. ZELLOUS TIME: For the fourth time in her five seasons in the league, Indiana's Shavonte Zellous has increased her scoring output from the regular season to the playoffs. Overall, she's averaging 9.0 points in 158 regular season games and 10.8 in 25 postseason contests. This season, Zellous averaged 14.7 points -- nearly double her career regular season average coming in -- to earn the league's most improved player award. She then averaged 15.0 points against Chicago.
"She wants the ball in her hands in crunch time," Fever coach Lin Dunn said. "She's ready to drive to the rim, she'll pull up and shoot a 15-footer and she'll also shoot a 3 now. And she plays with so much energy, so much intensity that it's contagious."
4. BACK TO THE FINALS: The four conference finalists have each appeared in the WNBA finals twice in the previous six years, and the winners will make it three in seven. Phoenix won championships in 2007 and 2009, beating Indiana for the latter. The defending champion Fever spoiled Minnesota's bid for two straight titles last year, and Atlanta lost in consecutive trips -- to Seattle in 2010 and the Lynx the following year. Minnesota will be looking to become the first team to make three straight trips to the title round since the Detroit Shock in 2006-08.
5. HOME-COURT DISADVANTAGE?: Road teams won seven of the 10 games played in the conference semifinals, with Indiana, Minnesota and Atlanta the only teams protecting their home court. The Dream lost the opener against Washington at home before winning the middle game on the road and then clinching the series in Game 3 at home. In the Mercury-Sparks series, the road team won each game as Phoenix won twice at Los Angeles after the Sparks had lost twice at Staples Center during the season.