They’re all that’s left of the shrinking chasm between the Minnesota Lynx franchise and the penultimate objective it was built to attain. They’re also the team’s mark against the next roadblock in that endeavor.
But this is not the same obstacle Minnesota swept out of its path five separate times during the first half of the season.
This is a Phoenix Mercury team operating under new leadership, different emphases and renewed passion. All three were evident in a first-round upset of the Los Angeles Sparks, and Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve expects a similar challenge starting at 8 p.m. Thursday inside the Target Center.
“They’re saying, ‘Hell, why not?'” Reeve said this week. “We were supposed to win the damn thing anyway. We just got here in a different way.'”
Phoenix was indeed the media and women’s basketball world darling at the season’s outset, sporting fierce point guard Diana Taurasi and No. 1 overall pick Brittney Griner. The Mercury were picked to contend for and possibly run away with the Western Conference regular-season crown.
They came nowhere close.
While the Lynx were putting together the league’s best record and locking up home-court advantage for the third postseason in a row, a divided, porous and often-injured Phoenix team was floundering. Griner missed seven games with a left-knee sprain, and the Mercury continually coughed up more points than any other team.
“I think at times they were easy to play against because of their defensive schemes,” Reeve said, “because they were largely focused on offense.”
In a quintet of meetings from June 6-July 24, Minnesota went undefeated against Phoenix with an average victory margin of 16 points. An 82-77 win in Arizona on July 21 was the Lynx’s closest call, but they came back and beat the Mercury by 12 in their last outing before the All-Star break.
Minnesota held a furious Taurasi — the league’s second-leading scorer at 20.3 points per game — to a season-low four points in a 91-59 drubbing July 7 in Minneapolis.
“That’s just not gonna happen in the playoffs,” Reeve mused.
By Aug. 8, with Phoenix sitting at 10-11 having lost seven of its 10 previous contests, team president Amber Cox had had enough. Corey Gaines was fired after five years as head coach that included a championship in 2009, and Cox brought on longtime men’s college coach Russ Pennell to replace Gaines on an interim basis.
With the regime change came an increased focus on defending. Under Gaines, the Mercury gave up 84.7 points per game. In 13 regular-season contests overseen by Pennell, opponents scored an average of 73.2 — and that 11-point difference is deflated by a blowout loss to Los Angeles in which most of Phoenix starters rested.That helped get Pennell off to the best 12-game start in franchise history, as Phoenix went 9-3.
“They’ve never really been known for their defensive presence; they would rather outscore you than focus on that end,” Lynx guard Seimone Augustus said. “But now, you can see them kind of lock down and guard certain players in certain ways. The defensive scheme has changed up a lot.”
Or at least the philosophy.
“I think it’s real simple,” said Pennell, who led Arizona’s men’s team to the Sweet 16 as interim coach in 2008-09 and spent the past four seasons at Division II Grand Canyon University. “I think what you have to do is you have to make the other team uncomfortable.”
So more practice time was spent on closing out against shooters, disrupting ball movement and jumping in front of passing lanes once Pennell entered the fold.
Taurasi, Griner and the gang didn’t take much convincing, he said.
“When you’re 10-11 and you were picked to win the WNBA championship,” Pennell said, “you’re looking for some answers.”
Some finally came last week out west.
Third-seeded Phoenix went into the Staples Center and twice knocked off a Sparks team that had been vanquished there only twice beforehand. Griner hit an iconic-looking game-winning shot in Game 3 over MVP Candace Parker, sending the Mercury onto the conference finals after their season once sat in shambles.
Not even the Lynx, who finished two games ahead of Los Angeles in the standings, could beat the Sparks on their home floor this season.
“I don’t know how much momentum that we bring in,” Pennell said. “I do believe, though, that we feel good about where we’re at.”
Yet for all the dramatics of such a stark turnaround, one simple fact remains, Minnesota superstar Maya Moore noted.
Phoenix’s roster hasn’t changed at all.
“We still know who they are,” said Moore, who finished second in MVP voting and scored 22 points in the Lynx’s first-round clincher over Seattle on Sunday. “They’re still Phoenix. You can’t really change yourselves too much within a course of a season. They are who they are, and they’re really good right now.”
So while they’ll be wary of the new defensive looks they’ve seen on film this week, the Lynx remain primarily concerned with their own performance and execution. Stopping — er, limiting — Taurasi and providing help against Griner will be key, as will creating open looks for Moore and Augustus while relying upon Janel McCarville and Rebekkah Brunson to gut things out down low.
Avoiding emotional overload during what even stoic point guard Lindsay Whalen adamantly calls a “fun time of year” is also crucial, regardless of opponent.
But that becomes easier with each passing year of excellence.”The mindset and the strategy hasn’t changed,” said Moore, whose two full WNBA seasons have both culminated in the finals.
“We have to maybe fight a little bit harder to keep that mindset the same, just because as we go on, everyone is more excited about the playoffs and the progress of the teams — who’s in, who’s out.”
But that doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy the moments that come with being five victories away from a second championship in three seasons.
“We try to keep it even-keel at times, but you’ve got to let it all out,” Augustus said. “This is it.”