Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals Sunday afternoon was a testament to the talent of the Minnesota Lynx.
Their free throw shooting was wildly inaccurate (15-27). Point guard Lindsay Whalen made just one of 12 shots, frustrating a player who lit up the first game with 20. Minnesota had a rare deficit in rebounds (43-35), but none of that could cripple them enough to prevent a sweep at US Airways Center, earning a third straight appearance in the WNBA Finals with a 72-65 win.
“Every year is its own journey. Personally, I am two years older and more experienced,” said Minnesota forward Maya Moore. “It is really fun, but it’s still not the ultimate prize.”
Whalen’s dud was compensated with clutch performances from Moore and Seimone Augustus. Moore scored a game-high 27 points, breaking her previous playoff career high of 23. Augustus nailed 8 of 13 shots and finished with 22 points. No other Lynx player hit double-digits, but there was no need with a defense that made clutch plays to mitigate multiple Mercury attacks.
“To be able to hold this group on their floor to 36.8% and have them score 65 in a close-out game is something we should be very proud of,” said Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve.
Shooting woes had plagued Phoenix throughout the playoffs, especially from the perimeter. Even against a Lynx defense that concedes long-distance looks, the Mercury hit just 2 of 21 shots from three-point range. Hampering their efforts further was committing 13 turnovers.
“I just didn’t think we played real smart all the time,” said Phoenix head coach Russ Pennell. “We settled for the easy things. When they helped, we just didn’t find the open player.”
The game was much tighter than the first meeting. Phoenix got a quick start, taking a 17-11 lead late in the first quarter, but Minnesota answered with a 17-4 run that began on a three-point play from Monica Wright.
Phoenix would tie the score twice after that point, with the latest instance coming in the third, when a pair of DeWanna Bonner free throws evened the tally at 41.
Minnesota would build a seemingly insurmountable 69-56 lead with 3:01 remaining in regulation, but Phoenix scored the next nine points, including seven from Taurasi, to pull the margin within four with 42.8 seconds left.
However, the Mercury missed shots on key possessions from Taurasi and Alexis Hornbuckle, allowing the Lynx to slowly ice the game with free throws.
“Everything was a challenge, as you thought it would be in a close out game,” Reeve said.
Taurasi led the Mercury with 21 points, but only hit 6 of 21 shots. Candice Dupree was more accurate, hitting 8 of 17 shots to reach 17 points. Few expected them to reach this point in the playoffs, but the two-game sweep exposed a major weakness of navigating without a true point guard; Samantha Prahalis was waived early in the season when Corey Gaines was still head coach, and adjusted by slotting Taurasi to that position.
“The story didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but I’m proud of everyone in that locker room, they fought hard,” Taurasi said.
Their elimination is a notable reminder to media and fans who hurriedly anointed them as title favorites after drafting Brittney Griner, but signs can be found suggesting the Mercury could be a perennial contender. Phoenix “cleansed” their controversy of last year, when accusations of throwing the season were rampant, by replacing Gaines with Pennell, who brought in a new coaching staff. In their short window, there was a flavor of chemistry Gaines could not produce.
“When they made the coaching change, it could have easily just been a foregone season, but we stood with it and I’m happy with the way we fought throughout the season,” Taurasi said.
For Minnesota, the next chapter of their story is a virtual flashback to their title year of 2011. The Lynx defeated the Atlanta Dream in that Finals series, and the two teams will meet again starting next Sunday at Target Center. Atlanta swept Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals for their third championship qualification in the last four years.