In perhaps the biggest statement game of the season, the Minnesota Lynx smoked the Phoenix Mercury 85-62 Thursday night at Target Center to open the Western Conference Finals.
If any conclusion could be reached, it likely would have been the underrated cohesiveness of the Lynx.
“It was the first time that me, (Lindsay) Whalen and Maya (Moore) were all moving at the same time. It made for great execution,” said Minnesota guard Seimone Augustus.
The Lynx triple threat led the pack. Whalen and Moore had 20 points each with Augustus adding 18. Minnesota hit 53 percent of their field goals while Phoenix mustered just 34 percent. Transition opportunities were effortless for the Lynx, who posted a 20-2 edge in fast break points.
“They kicked our ass in every aspect. They had a checklist and they probably did everything on it,” said Mercury guard Diana Taurasi.
Nitpicking was the only method to find anything “wrong” with the Lynx, who recorded only 13 assists on 34 made field goals.
“The players didn’t quite know what to expect because of all the hoopla, so we talked about focusing on ourselves. We have the viewpoint if you defend and rebound, you have a chance to be successful,” said Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve.
Both teams started tentatively, perhaps due to nerves with Minnesota facing a coach they did not see in the regular season, but Russ Pennell’s Phoenix squad would suffer a fate no different than Gaines. With 5:56 left in the first quarter, Whalen made a blind layup as she lost her balance in the lane, the first of five straight makes for the revered point guard.
The play broke a 4-4 tie in Minnesota’s favor, and the team would stay in front for the remainder of the game.
“One of my big jobs is to get in the lane and find people. We all feed off each other and we all wanted to have an aggressive mindset,” Whalen said.
The emotional exclamation point came at the end of the second quarter, when Moore turned a messy scramble into a 27-foot three-pointer, giving the Lynx a 45-22 halftime lead.
“That whole possession was an example of what the playoffs are about,” she said. “We got two offensive rebounds and a scramble that led to that shot.”
In the second period alone, Minnesota outscored Phoenix 21-6.
“We took a lot of long jump shots which leads to fast break points. It was a combination of them guarding us well and us taking some quick shots,” Pennell said.
Taurasi led the Mercury with 15 points, and Brittney Griner had 13, but the offensive fluency on display in their series with the Los Angeles Sparks was quelled by the stingy Lynx defense. Just two of 18 shots from three-point range found the basket, and DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree were neutralized.
Despite the blowout, fans were treated to a viral moment when things turned chippy between Taurasi and Augustus. Taurasi then kissed Augustus on the cheek to settle that dispute, although both were tagged with offsetting personal fouls.
“We were just trying to make sweet love,” Taurasi quipped.
“I always say she just wanted some of my deliciousness,” Augustus said.
Game 2 of the series will be Sunday at Phoenix. If Minnesota wins, they would sweep the series and earn their third straight trip to the WNBA Finals.
Such a scenario for the Mercury was virtually inconceivable following the draft. Phoenix was quickly anointed as favorites to win the championship after acquiring Brittney Griner. They replaced Corey Gaines with Pennell after a troubling start, and their weaknesses on defense slowly faded. A dramatic win to dispatch Los Angeles suggested Phoenix was ready to match their preseason hype. Now, Minnesota has them one game away from elimination.