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Lynx square off with Phoenix in next playoff round

The only thing left between the Minnesota Lynx and a third straight WNBA Finals berth is an opponent it beat five times this season.


But the Phoenix Mercury, as their 78-77 clincher over Los Angeles on Monday exhibited, are a different group than the one that fell by an average margin of 16 points against the Western Conference regular-season champs from the North.


Rookie Brittney Griner hit the game-winning jumper over league MVP Candace Parker with 4.9 seconds to go in Game 3 of the other Western Conference semifinal, sending the Mercury back to Minneapolis for a second-round opener Thursday night. The Lynx earned some extra rest and time to observe their next opponent with a first-round sweep of Seattle over the weekend.


They handled Griner, Diana Taurasi and Phoenix with relative ease in five matchups that all occurred before the All-Star break, the only exception being an 82-77 grinder in Arizona on July 21. But Minnesota came back three days later and edged the West's eventual No. 3 seed by 12 at the Target Center.


Still gelling at that point, Phoenix was a pedestrian 9-8 entering the halfway respite. But gradual improvement and a less taxing schedule during the second half saw the Mercury steadily climb.


They even have a new coach this time around. Russ Pennell took over for fired Corey Gaines, and Phoenix went 9-3 during Pennell's first 12 games -- the best start to a head-coaching tenure in team history.

If they play anything like they did Monday in a game where the lead changed hands 14 times, the Lynx are in for a much tougher test than any Phoenix dealt them previously.

Over in the East, the Atlanta Dream will square off with fourth-seeded Indiana -- which beat Minnesota in last year's finals -- for the right to take on either the Lynx or the Mercury.


ESPN2 and local radio station BOB 106.1 FM will carry each Minnesota contest. Here's the full Western Conference finals schedule:


Game 1: 8 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 26 at Minneapolis


Game 2: 4 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 29 at Phoenix


Game 3 (if necessary): TBD,  Tuesday, Oct. 1 at  Minneapolis


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