The Minnesota Lynx appear to be a heavy favorite to advance to the WNBA Finals for a third straight year, especially considering their success against the Phoenix Mercury.
But they haven’t seen the Mercury since they brought in coach Russ Pennell, whose emphasis on defense has them within two wins of their first Finals appearance in four seasons.
Minnesota can claim its 13th consecutive victory in the series as it hosts Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Thursday night.
The Lynx, who have won 10 of 11 overall and are 16-2 at home this season, won all five regular-season meetings against the Lynx, with three victories in Minneapolis coming by an average of 21.3 points. They swept the Mercury in the 2011 Western Conference finals on the way to winning the league title.
Phoenix’s last victory in the series was an 85-80 final at home on Aug. 9, 2011.
The five meetings this year came before the calendar flipped to August.
The Mercury fired coach Corey Gaines and hired Pennell on Aug. 8, and Phoenix has since gone 11-5 while allowing 74.1 points per game. They were previously 10-11 while surrendering 84.7 points, including 86.6 in the regular-season series with Minnesota.
“Well, we haven’t seen them since July 24,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve told the team’s website. “We can go by what we see on video and statistically and if you go by the coaching change and what they do differently. They are more focused on defense. They are going to challenge you to score from the outside.”
Both teams used late go-ahead baskets to advance from the conference semifinals.
The Mercury secured a 78-77 win in Game 3 at second-seeded Los Angeles on Monday after Brittney Griner hit a turnaround jumper with 4.9 seconds left.
Griner’s six points tied a low from the regular season – two days after she scored 18 in an 82-73 loss in Game 2.
She averaged 11.3 points and 7.7 rebounds while playing three times against Minnesota this year.
“I’ve seen her make that shot all year,” said Diana Taurasi, whose 22.7 points per game against the Sparks were the league’s second-most in the first round. “For her to be up-and-down all series and take that shot just tells you a lot about Brittney and how mentally strong she is. She’s willing to do anything for this team to win.”
The Lynx marched on with a 58-55 victory at Seattle on Sunday, wrapping up their series in two games. Seimone Augustus’ jumper with 21.1 seconds left put Minnesota ahead for good.
Maya Moore – who finished runner-up in MVP voting to the Sparks’ Candace Parker – finished with 22 points. Moore and teammate Lindsay Whalen were named to the All-WNBA first team on Wednesday while Augustus was selected to the second team.
“She’s amazing,” Moore said of Augustus. “We always have confidence in Seimone. She kind of took over in that last moment of being isolated on the wing and made a move and rose up and it went in and I did a silent fist pump.”