clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Lynx vs. Mercury preview: Made-for-television WNBA basketball

New, 6 comments

The Phoenix Mercury will face the Minnesota Lynx in Minneapolis on NBA TV tonight (8 p.m. EST) in a game that could be the best of an otherwise lackluster 2014 WNBA season thus far. And as if their records weren't already an indication, they're both scorching hot entering this game.

Photo by Getty Images.

Tonight's game between the Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury is the perfect matchup for a nationally televised WNBA game.

It's the defending champion against the 2014 championship favorite as of now.

It's a game that features two of the league's best scorers, whether you look at Maya Moore's league-leading scoring average (24.3 points per game) or Diana Taurasi's league-high scoring efficiency among those who have played more than 15 games (TS% 64.4%).

And of course, it's a game that features the two hottest teams in the league by just about any standard.

The Mercury are chasing history with their 16-game winning streak - just two away from tying the league's all-time mark. The Lynx are riding a seven-game streak of their own, having lost just one game in July and a nine-game home winning streak. Although their last home loss came at the hands of the Mercury on June 15, that was a game played without Lynx starting power forward Rebekkah Brunson - in other words, this will be the first meeting between the league's two best teams at full strength.

And as much as women's basketball fans love to complain about everything wrong with the game, the league has to be commended for their role in switching this one to NBA TV - the Lynx are just getting warmed up to begin their post-season title defense in earnest while the Mercury are playing at an unbelievably high level.

This really could be the best game of the regular season and the last hope of the Lynx having real hope in the postseason.

The narrative shaped by a look at the current standings does most of the work in setting this one up - you don't really need any statistics to know just how good these teams are. But the numbers do help to tell you just how hot these teams are.

WNBA statistics since mid-season

You can go look at the current league statistics at Basketball-Reference and see pretty much the same story we've seen all season: the Lynx, Mercury and Atlanta Dream form a three-team elite with everyone else trailing.

But if you look at what the elites have been doing just since the true mid-point of the season (July 3), the Lynx and Mercury are in a class of their own with the latter somewhere in the stratosphere.

TEAM

O-Rtg

D-Rtg

Efficiency Differential

Phoenix Mercury

113.35

92.37

20.99

Minnesota Lynx

110.30

100.37

9.93

Atlanta Dream

101.74

97.03

4.70

Washington Mystics

104.29

100.22

4.07

Los Angeles Sparks

101.84

102.21

-0.36

Indiana Fever

105.07

105.71

-0.64

Tulsa Shock

107.53

110.69

-3.16

New York Liberty

93.08

96.95

-3.87

San Antonio Silver Stars

107.16

112.80

-5.65

Chicago Sky

92.29

101.24

-8.95

Connecticut Sun

99.29

109.19

-9.90

Seattle Storm

97.61

107.93

-10.32

WNBA offensive and defensive rating statistics since July 3, 2014.

First, the Mystics deserve a shout out for being a fourth team to move above average in the efficiency differential battle for the season - Albert already detailed why they're surging so I won't belabor the point. But you can really see how well they're playing compared to other teams lately here - they're currently playing about even with the Dream. Part of the Dream's recent struggles could certainly be linked to the absence of coach Michael Cooper, but that doesn't at all take away from what the Mystics are doing lately.

But the main point here is that the Mercury have been off the charts good - you'll recall that an efficiency differential of +6 generally puts teams in championship contender range. By that standard, both the Lynx and Mercury are playing at a high level right now but the Mercury have just been dominating everyone.

That begins with defense - they're allowing just 71 points per game over the last 10 and that's reflected in their insanely low defensive rating.

Defensive statistics

TEAM

Opp eFG%

Opp TOV%

Opp Oreb%

Opp FTA/FGA

Phoenix Mercury

45.28%

18.20%

25.87%

17.59%

Minnesota Lynx

44.40%

13.91%

26.96%

21.40%

Atlanta Dream

46.24%

20.86%

30.28%

29.76%

Washington Mystics

44.05%

16.05%

33.53%

24.42%

Los Angeles Sparks

49.93%

18.43%

24.86%

25.39%

Indiana Fever

46.87%

18.35%

32.50%

33.70%

Tulsa Shock

50.91%

15.47%

28.57%

30.71%

New York Liberty

47.10%

14.49%

20.00%

19.02%

San Antonio Silver Stars

51.57%

15.58%

28.88%

30.72%

Chicago Sky

45.61%

17.21%

30.50%

31.51%

Connecticut Sun

51.02%

15.94%

27.44%

30.17%

Seattle Storm

50.79%

15.39%

26.74%

28.87%

Defensive statistics since July 3, 2014.

Again, shout out to the Mystics first - they're holding opponents to a league-low effective field goal percentage of 44.05%.

But as much as that Mercury defensive rating might look like mathematical error, the top defensive team in the league has been outstanding in the second half of the season. Part of that is the obvious Brittney Griner effect, which probably doesn't get the full credit it deserves given the season Taurasi is having - they're allowing a league-low 17.59% free throw rate, reflecting how much Griner keeps teams out of the lane.

Yet they're also among the best in the league in every other category, falling no less than second in the Western Conference in any category. There just isn't any team anywhere near as strong all-around defensively as the Mercury right now.

Offensively, they're obviously the best in the league as well. But if there's room for the Lynx to "catch up" the offensive end of the floor is where that opportunity lies.

Offensive statistics

TEAM

eFG%

TOV%

OReb%

FTA/FGA

Phoenix Mercury

56.13%

15.38%

21.24%

27.57%

Minnesota Lynx

52.68%

15.41%

25.31%

29.34%

Atlanta Dream

46.78%

17.24%

31.66%

27.25%

Washington Mystics

49.49%

18.13%

28.06%

30.43%

Los Angeles Sparks

47.03%

16.66%

28.18%

26.42%

Indiana Fever

47.70%

17.93%

34.38%

28.27%

Tulsa Shock

46.34%

14.94%

29.43%

37.37%

New York Liberty

42.17%

18.20%

30.87%

21.65%

San Antonio Silver Stars

50.34%

14.79%

24.65%

21.32%

Chicago Sky

41.36%

20.10%

29.41%

32.11%

Connecticut Sun

45.40%

16.42%

32.83%

18.38%

Seattle Storm

47.91%

16.22%

18.47%

20.94%

Offensive Four Factors statistics since July 3, 2014.

The numbers aren't the typically dominant numbers from the Lynx, but you must find it in your heart to forgive them: they've played just two games all season at full strength with Brunson making her first appearance on July 22 and Augustus returning to action on the 25th. There is absolutely no reason to believe that they can't be better on both ends of the ball, but that offensive rebounding number would seem to be the most obvious area for improvement.

With Brunson back, they get one of the best rebounders in recent history back in their frontcourt. In Augustus, they get back one of the league's all-time great pure scorers. With rookie Damiris Dantas, veteran Tan White, and Monica Wright all coming off the bench now, they're arguably as talented as they've ever been during their contending years - they just haven't been together at the same time very long. And they're still the league's second most efficient offensive team.

And that only adds to the intrigue.

If the Lynx win, they not only halt the juggernaut but cast even more doubt over the inevitability of a Mercury championship. But if the Lynx lose this game, we can probably just sit and wait for the Western Conference Finals where - barring something statistically miraculous - these two teams will meet again with the Lynx having more time to find improve their rhythm. The final meeting in Phoenix is certainly not irrelevant, but a Lynx win today would tell us they're closer to the Mercury than the numbers or winning streak suggests.

It's the sum total of all of this that makes this particular game so exciting. Although there's room for debate about whether this season should be defined by mediocrity or parity, the numbers point pretty strongly to the former - independent of the standings, the majority of the league just isn't particularly performing well this season. This season needs some drama and the Lynx have a real chance to give it a jolt with a win tonight at home as a preview of what could happen in Western Conference Finals.