MINNEAPOLIS — Some nights, it’s been Maya Moore. Others, Seimone Augustus. Lindsay Whalen claimed her fair share of the spotlight this season, too.
But when each member of the Minnesota Lynx’s top triumvirate has an equal hand in smacking an aspiring adversary in the mouth, it leaves a lasting, insurmountable mark.
What better time to do so than Thursday night in front of 9,013 ravenous fans at the Target Center?
With Phoenix riding a wave of confidence following their first-round upset over Los Angeles, the Lynx’s own “Three to See” — the WNBA’s marketing term for its three highly-touted rookies this year — put the Mercury firmly in their place. Whalen demolished the starting gates, Moore played the role of closer, and Augustus excelled in between.
These teams’ Western Conference finals opener was expected to be competitive. By halftime, it bore striking resemblance to the Lynx’s five-game regular-season series sweep over Phoenix.
By the end, Minnesota had completed one of its most lopsided triumphs in an already-historical season.
“It was the first time that me, Whalen and Maya were all kind of grooving at the same time,” Augustus said.
Moore attributed their collaboration to “the unselfish mindset that all of us have, to get that best shot for the player who’s hot.”
Said Whalen: “We always feed off each other. The whole team does.”
Whalen and Moore notched 20 points apiece. Augustus scored 18. Together, the three all-WNBA selections shot 25-for-42 from the floor, pulled down 16 rebounds and nearly outscored the Mercury all on their lonesome.
If they hadn’t spent most of the fourth quarter on the bench smiling and laughing together, they likely would have. Handily.
“I get to see it every day,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “They take turns. They understand.”
With the three 2012 Olympic gold medal winners leading the charge, Minnesota absolutely shut down the Mercury. Staunch matchup defense forged by a bevy of effective switches hounded Phoenix into a 34.3 percent (24-for-70) night shooting. The Lynx turned 19 turnovers into 24 points and outscored their opponent 20-2 in transition.
“When the other team plays like that, and you play terrible, we should’ve been down 50,” said Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, who led her team with 15 points but went 4-for-14 from the floor. “They just kicked our ass in every aspect.
“They had a checklist, and they probably did everything on it.”
Whalen struck first, connecting on her first five shots and boosting the Lynx to a 24-16 lead at the end of the first quarter. Her patented dribble-drive finishes were in full supply, including a blind, over-the-head, one-handed toss that banked home with 5:56 left in the period and gave Minnesota the lead for good.
Moore capped an absolutely dominant second quarter with a 3 from the right wing as 1.1 ticks remained in the first half. A Whalen lay-up had rolled off the rim, Monica Wright missed a put-back jump shot, and Moore — who scored seven points in the second frame on 3-of-4 shooting — deftly corralled a tipped ball from Rebekkah Brunson and nailed an off-balance shot from 27 feet out.
The bang-bang play gave Minnesota a 45-22 advantage. The Lynx outscored Phoenix 21-6 in the second quarter.
“We were pretty locked in,” Reeve said.
Augustus interspersed several big shots among Moore and Whalen’s key scoring plays. After scoring just 10 points in a Game 2, first-round clincher over Seattle on Sunday, she bounced back and went 7-for-13 from the field.
Her smooth jumper from the right elbow opened the second-half scoring, and she knifed through the lane for a pretty layup that made it 61-36 with 3:44 left in the third quarter. Moore’s putback of a missed Wright 3 handed Minnesota a 67-42 lead with 2.1 seconds remaining in the same stanza.
Augustus’ most formidable presence came at the other end of the floor. She often found herself matched up with Taurasi, the league’s second-leading scorer during the regular season, and kept her from getting many comfortable looks.
Augustus even coaxed some bizarre, mock affection from her old AAU teammate.
With 8 minutes, 18 seconds left in the game and the Lynx up big, Taurasi bumped Augustus, who stood her ground and got right back in Taurasi’s face. Officials jumped in between the two and called a double personal foul, but not before Taurasi snuck in a quick kiss on the corner of Augustus’ mouth.
When asked about the altercation during the postgame press conference, Taurasi snidely explained “we were just trying to make sweet love.”
Replied Augustus: “The tango dance that we had, I always say she just wanted some of my deliciousness.”
While the strange scuffle went viral on social media almost instantly, Moore took a frontcourt steal the other way for a three-point play. Augustus then jumped in front of an errant Brian Gilbreath pass and set up a driving Whalen layup that gave the Lynx a 75-44 lead — tied for their largest of the night.
It was Minnesota’s 13th straight win against Phoenix, which fired coach Corey Gaines midseason and replaced him with Russ Pennell. The Mercury won nine of their first 12 games with him as coach and looked like a completely different team in taking two games from the Sparks on the road last week.
But Thursday’s outcome was the sixth of its kind this year, even with Phoenix’s newfound energy.
Victory No. 7 at 4 p.m. Sunday in Arizona would send Minnesota to its third WNBA Finals in three years, against either Atlanta or defending champion Indiana. The Dream defeated the Fever 84-79 in Game 1 of their series Thursday night.