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WNBA Western Conference Finals Preview: Minnesota Lynx vs. Phoenix Mercury

The WNBA Eastern Conference Finals are already underway, with the New York Liberty destroying the Indiana Fever in Game 1 on Wednesday night. The Western Conference Finals begins on Thursday night, and here’s a preview of the powerhouse matchup.

#1 Minnesota Lynx (22-12) vs #2 Phoenix Mercury (20-14)

Season series: Mercury win 3-2

2015’s WNBA Western Conference Finals is the rematch that a lot of fans were expecting and hoping for. The two rivals squared off in last year’s series to determine who would represent the West in the WNBA Finals, and the Mercury came out on top. Things this season look more than a little different for both sides, but first, let’s take a quick glance at how each team got here.

The first-round series between the Sparks and the Lynx was as advertised: an exciting, fast-paced trio of games in which a balanced Lynx attack bested the usual brilliance of Candace Parker and the LA Sparks. Both teams relied heavily on their starters, although Minnesota got some timely contributions from guard Anna Cruz and forward Devereaux Peters off the bench in the deciding Game 3. Though Parker had a monster game statistically (28 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and three steals while playing the entire 40 minutes), it wasn’t enough to overcome the five double-digit scorers on the Lynx, who ended the game on an 11-0 run to advance to the next round.

Meanwhile, the Mercury had an easier go of it, making short work of the Tulsa Shock. Phoenix won the first game of the series by 33 points and the second by 24, not once looking like a team unprepared to defend their championship title. At the center of it all was Brittney Griner, who was brilliant: the Phoenix star blocked an incredible 11 shots in just 24 minutes of play in the first game, and posted a healthy double-double of 23 points and 12 rebounds (with another five blocks for good measure) in the clincher. Griner’s defense was a key part of a larger Phoenix effort that held the potent Tulsa offense to sub-30 percent shooting in both games (including an astonishing eight percent from long distance in Game 2), so they’ll no doubt be looking to carry such dominance over to Minnesota on Thursday.

The Lynx will likely pose a greater challenge, however. They own homecourt advantage against Phoenix, and in a three-game series, this is massive. It’s more about the differences in their roster, though. Minnesota now has a center in Sylvia Fowles who can provide a tougher matchup for Griner on both ends of the court, while Cruz can play both guard positions while defending at an elite level.

Of course, their opponents are a tad short-handed now compared to last season. Superstars Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor (integral parts of the Mercury’s 2014 championship run) chose to sit out 2015, forcing Phoenix management to scramble and eventually field an almost entirely new set of guards. Those guards will be asked to compete against some of the league’s best in Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus, both of whom appeared to get stronger (and healthier) as their series against the Sparks progressed.

The series will still likely be won in the paint, though. Cheryl Reeve has always stressed the importance of defensive rebounding, and her team didn’t let her down in 2015. During the regular season, the Lynx posted the second-best defensive rebound percentage in the league at 76.8 percent. Meanwhile, the Mercury were the second-worst offensive rebounding team in the league (grabbing just 22.2 percent of available offensive rebounds), so they’ll need to execute their half-court offense to perfection, as second-shot opportunities will probably be hard to come by in this series.

Fortunately for the Mercury, they have Sandy Brondello at the helm, so she’ll have them ready to execute when the time comes. Interestingly, in the three victories recorded by Phoenix against the Lynx during the regular season, the Mercury scored over 100 points per 100 possessions. In each of their two losses, however, they failed to break 80. Minnesota was able to score more consistently in the season series, averaging an even 90 points scored per 100 possessions.

What this means is that the Lynx will likely have an easier time cracking the Phoenix defensive shell than the Shock did. The question will be whether or not the Mercury will be able to sustain long periods of offensive success against a Lynx team that’ll grind down its opponents with solid rebounding on one end and plenty of offensive firepower on the other. If they can, they’ll have a chance to repeat as WNBA champions (something that hasn’t been done since the Sparks won it all in 2001 and 2002). Otherwise, Maya Moore and the Lynx will advance to their fourth WNBA Finals in five seasons.

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