Western Conference Finals Game 3 Preview: Minnesota, Phoenix battle for spot in WNBA Finals

Christian Petersen

As many expected, the 2014 WNBA Western Conference Finals will come down to a third game. What factors will play the biggest role in determining which team will represent the West in the Finals? Here's my take below.

The Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury have been the best two teams in the league all season long and it's fitting that this series goes to a final game.

I'd been waiting for that inevitable run that the Lynx tend to make, especially against the Mercury, and while it didn't really come in any of the other games, it showed in Game 2. The fourth quarter has been key in this series: Minnesota played a strong fourth in the first game and carried that confidence into Game 2 where they pulled away in the fourth. So with this game tonight being for all the marbles, what can each team do to ensure that it's them moving on?

PHOENIX MERCURY

  • Somewhere between Games 1 and 2, the Phoenix Mercury let the fine line that they were walking disappear. In Game 1, this team did a fantastic job of gang rebounding (allowed only 2 offensive boards in the second half) and ensured that the Lynx were not able to create extra opportunities while forcing both Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore into shots they didn't want to take. Moore became a distributor, team-high 3 assists, and it favored the Mercury while making just two jump shots, one from three point range.. In Game 2? It seemed like the team was looking to pack the paint against this Lynx team. Not a good idea.

    For all the praise she receives, and a lot of it is warranted, Moore's game is based on her beautiful jump shot. Augustus also has a beautiful jump shot and has one of the best mid-range games in the world. Combine that with Lindsay Whalen's jumper falling in Game 2, Phoenix put themselves in a tough spot by allowing these players to gain that confidence. It will be crucial for this team to get back to walking that line of controlling the defensive boards while not packing it in too much and allowing easy jumpers in  the third game or they could find themselves watching the rest of the playoffs. The focus should be on great defensive rotation and forcing the ball out of the hands of the MVP like they did in Game 1.
  • Against the Minnesota Lynx, Diana Taurasi usually comes out to try and prove a point. This is usually exacerbated when the Mercury travel to Minneapolis as the fans don't like her and they're rooting for her demise, so they're public enemy number 2 in her mind. On Sunday? She became a gunner and took shots that she's certainly capable of making but ones that Minnesota will certainly live with when you consider that a lot of these shots were contested. Now, Penny Taylor was in foul trouble and a lot of the opportunities she normally creates ended up in the hands of Taurasi as a result but she's got to do a better job of using the players on the floor to punish the Lynx as a team - she doesn't have to do it by herself anymore. That was the beauty of this team in the regular season and they need to get back to it.
  • If the Mercury want to win this game, Brittney Griner has to be dominant from start to finish. This is the one advantage that never has a chance to swing in the favor of the Lynx and Sandy Brondello needs to make use of that. I don't care whether that dominance is 20 shots, 13 blocks or catching an alley-oop dunk in traffic, but it needs to happen. Griner had a "down game" in Game 2 and still only missed two shots on the way to 14 points and 3 blocks. Those numbers may be fine for a player like Janel McCarville or Dev Peters but for Griner that's not enough of an impact. Those numbers are extremely similar to the numbers she posted across the course of a struggle that was her rookie season. There's no reason to revert to that.

    If Griner's path is going to continue the meteoric rise that we've seen so far, tonight's game has to have her stamp all over it.  A portion of this could be tied to the perimeter shooting of the Mercury. So far in the playoffs, the Mercury have come back to Earth from long range hitting just 29% of their 3-point shots. During the regular season, Griner was able to have her way in the paint as Brondello's squad shot 35% from beyond the arc, second best in the league. Knocking down a few threes early could go a long way in terms of putting the Lynx on their heels.

MINNESOTA LYNX

  • Captain Whalen to the rescue! Lindsay Whalen has been spectacular for Cheryl Reeve during this conference final series. Whalen has averaged 21 points and 4.5 assists so far against the Mercury. She's been the one constant when this team has looked mediocre and they probably should thank her for them even having a chance in Game 2. Whalen is a fantastic finisher in the paint and her jump shot has been falling which makes her one tough cover.

    Reeve mentioned in Game 2 that the law of averages would eventually allow their jumpers to start falling. Well, those same averages should bring Whalen back to the real world in terms of that knuckle-ball jump shot that she's been hitting. If that does happen, Whalen will need to find other ways to be effective, and it will likely be her putting her head down and bullying her way to the basket, racking up free throw attempts along the way.
  • Minnesota will want to continue what they were able to accomplish in Game 2. "The others" for Phoenix were extremely quiet. Penny Taylor was in foul trouble and DeWanna Bonner didn't score a field goal. The MVP runner-up, the 6-foot-8 second-year Defensive Player of the Year, and the smooth operator were able to impact the game on Sunday but Minnesota did a fantastic job of ensuring that they didn't have a repeat of Game 1. In that game, the Lynx were scrambling and looked out of sorts defensively as the Mercury were getting scoring from everywhere on the court. The Lynx will be happy with allowing Erin Phillips to be that next person up in terms of offensive production because if she's on the floor that means one of Taurasi/Taylor/Bonner isn't -- in Game 2 it was Taylor that wasn't -- which means they have effectively eliminated the intangibles those players bring to the table as well.
  • When you primarily have your scoring revolve around three players, it usually spells doom --just ask the NBA's Miami Heat. But that gets this Minnesota team going. Whalen is the heartbeat ofthis team. She's the hometown kid and the fans love seeing her fired up. And when Augustus and Moore get into a rhythm making shots it can either be poetry-in-motion or make you sick to your stomach. As these three go, this team goes. Once they're able to put their stamp on the game, the other players have to match that intensity. All of a sudden Monica Wright and Tan White are hitting shots, Rebekkah Brunson is flying through the air. Getting their big guns going and allowing them to carry them is what Minnesota is built on.

X-FACTOR

The referees got involved extremely early in Game 2, calling a phantom charge on Taurasi seven seconds into the game. Now I've been a Taurasi fan an extremely long time so I'm used to the foul or two, per game, that Dee will pick up just because of who she is. The key is going to be how the Mercury respond to the way the game is whistled.

Maya Moore got a lot of credit this season for improving as a defender, but if she got called for the fouls she'd get called for if she wasn't Maya Moore, she wouldn't even be on the floor or in foul trouble as she was in Game 1. So however the game is called, the Mercury will need to keep their composure and focus on what they can control. As bad as the refereeing has been the last few years, as a coach, none of my players are allowed to talk to referees because your job is to play basketball. Hopefully Sandy Brondello is saying these same things to the team as they prepare to go into battle this evening.

Prediction: Home court played a huge role in both games and I think that continues in this game. The house will be packed and the X-Factor fans will be tuned in from the tip. Phoenix should be able to close this game out pretty comfortably. I haven't seen anything to prove me otherwise. Everything that won the game for the Lynx are things the Mercury can fix. Mercury win 2-1

For more on this series, check out our Mercury vs. Lynx storystream.

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