Taurasi, Mercury go the distance to eliminate Lynx

PHOENIX — It turned out to be a dagger — a 50-foot long dagger.

It left the right hand of Diana Taurasi in the closing ticks of Tuesday’s third quarter, rose above the crowd, sliced through a second or two of anticipatory silence, splashed through the net directly in front of the soon-to-be-doomed Minnesota Lynx bench and generated enough mass delirium to raise the US Airways Center roof.

But just a little.

Considering Taurasi’s previous work, the moment seemed so reasonable, right?

"I never make ’em," Taurasi said when it was pointed out her success rate on practice shots from the mid-court vicinity is less than stellar. "I don’t think I’ve made one all year."

Basketball superstardom, of course, is all about timing.

And the 3-point wound from this dagger pushed the defending WNBA champion Lynx into a seemingly-workable hole that just kept getting deeper.

Brittney Griner is fouled as she drives to the basket Tuesday night at US Airways Center.

"There’s always plays in games that turn the tide," Taurasi said.

The subsequent momentum — accompanied by more stretch-run heroics from Taurasi and the incomparable Brittney Griner — became a 24-11, fourth-quarter blitz that pushed the Mercury past the Lynx, 96-78 in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals and into the championship series.

"For the most part, going into the last couple minutes of the third, they (Lynx) got the momentum," Taurasi said. "A couple plays turn that. It’s little things like that that get you over the hump."

Because they seized home-court advantage throughout the postseason by winning a league-record 29 regular-season games, the Mercury will open the Finals here Sunday against the winner of Wednesday’s Eastern Conference Game 3 tilt between the Indiana Fever and Chicago Sky.

We won’t anger the basketball gods by suggesting the next foe may present less obvious danger than the Lynx. But it should be noted that knocking off a Minnesota team with two WNBA championships in the last three years is pretty important stuff.

"It’s huge," Taurasi, who finished with 31 points, seven dimes and five rebounds, said of finally conquering the Lynx. "I think tonight was big for all of us."

OK, so Taurasi was predictably great.

"There’s no player that I’d rather have on my team," Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said.

A few minutes after being ejected (presumably for colorful commentary in the closing moments of an unexpected rout), Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve had this to say about the Phoenix guard: "I saw D before the game. I told my staff, ‘D’s got a bounce in her step.’ What else would you expect? She’s one of the best players in the world."

And so, now, is Griner.

While Taurasi was dead on in her "big" assessment that defeating Minnesota was big for everyone in the Mercury camp, the towering shadow cast by her second-year teammate was the difference between two outstanding teams.

Phoenix has Taurasi, Candice Dupree, Penny Taylor and defensive strangler DeWanna Bonner. Minnesota counters with MVP Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and plucky point guard Lindsay Whalen.

But, like everyone else in the WNBA, the Lynx have no satisfactory answer for the 6-foot-8 Mercury center. They certainly had no shot at containing her one-on-one, a let’s-try-it tactic that resulted in 8 points from Brittney in the first 10 minutes.

"We tried to establish her deep in the paint," Brondello said.

When we play like we did tonight, it’s going to be hard to beat us.

Brittney Griner

Once that was accomplished, the Lynx started sending a second defender her way … and the Mercury began sending cutters to the rim. By halftime, Phoenix had scored 50 points — 44 of those came via a combination of point-blank opportunities or free throws.

With the former Baylor star using upgraded footwork before throwing in baby hooks and turnaround jumpers, Minnesota had to pick another poison and hope for the best.

"The growth of Griner can’t not be mentioned," Reeve said when asked to explain the difference between the two teams over the past year.

Although Whalen kept the Lynx close in the first half and Augustus assumed that role in the third, they never did much to stall any facet of the Phoenix offense.

"We were tryin’," Reeve said. "We were tryin’ to stop ’em. I have a good team. But they’re hard to stop."

The task becomes even more difficult when a Phoenix team with offense in its history locks in for the final 10 minutes and becomes the best defensive team in the WNBA.

"In order to have a chance to beat ’em," Reeve said, "you have to score. Overall, Phoenix was the better team in this series and I wish them well."

Now that their nemesis in recent years has been dispatched, the Mercury will look to clean up a few minor details and work really hard to maintain current levels on most of the big stuff.

Taurasi, for example, was 2of 4 from slightly behind the 3-point line and 1 for 1 from 50, but missed 3-of-7 free throws.

But she and Griner were pretty dialed in everywhere else.

"When we play like we did tonight," Griner, who supplied 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting, said, "it’s going to be hard to beat us."

Please note a team that was great the entire summer may be improving.

Griner, it was reported, knocked in her first half-court heave during the Tuesday morning shoot-around.

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