Back before the Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury faced each other at full health the first time just about a month ago, I wrote that the game obviously wouldn't determine the champion but a Lynx win could very well illuminate just how close these two teams are.
Sure enough, that's exactly what happened: the Mercury did come back and beat the Lynx in the final regular season meeting between the two teams on August 9, but we got some insight into a potential determining factor for this series and it was a totally predictable aspect of the game based on the numbers.
Key statistical battleground: Rebounding
As detailed after the Sparks' series, the Mercury's one weakness is that they haven't been a very good rebounding team this season.
...the Mercury's one significant weakness this season was their rebounding: they were second-to-last in rebounding percentage (47.4%), offensive rebounding percentage (22.3%), and second chance points (8.09 per game), according to the data provided by the Lynx (and poor Seattle Storm for being last in every one of those categories...and a couple of others). The reason for that isn't just that they're a good shooting team that doesn't need offensive rebounding but that neither of their starting frontcourt players - Candice Dupree nor Brittney Griner - are great rebounders.
They're so good at everything else that the rebounding numbers generally don't matter, but against a Lynx team with Brunson it really does.
Of course, these numbers speak to another point from those games: if the officials allow a physical series
that some might interpret as football in which neither team shoots well and the Mercury are tempted to drift outside and take mid-range jumpers, the Lynx will clearly benefit. If it's more of a finesse series where the Mercury are able to cleanly run their offense, they'll be much better off.
Either way, Brittney Griner's role in that will loom large.
Key matchup: Brittney Griner vs. the Lynx frontcourt on the boards
One of the biggest questions about Griner entering the WNBA was whether she was ready for the physicality of the league, particularly after that infamous loss to Louisville in the Sweet 16 of the 2013 NCAA Tournament - regardless of whether Baylor coach Kim Mulkey appreciated the way the officials called the game that day, Griner was rendered ineffective. Similarly, she struggled to establish post position for most of her rookie season. Things have been much better this season as 2014 WNBA Coach of the Year Sandy Brondello has made establishing low post position a point of emphasis, but it was a bit of a problem in that loss in Minnesota on July 31.
Griner had just six points on 2-for-2 shooting and two rebounds - none offensive - in the second half of that July game; just one of those two shots came within five feet. Part of that was shot selection in a game that was physical throughout: the Mercury took nearly half of their shots in the second half from mid-range, underscored by Diana Taurasi's 4-for-11 shooting. But Griner still became a non-factor in that game and that can't happen if the Mercury want to dethrone the Lynx now.
In the somewhat insular and sometimes over-protective sphere of women's basketball, Griner doesn't draw the type of vitriolic talking head criticism that a NBA player in a similar position might get (LeBron James, for example, could probably win six titles straight and some national media critic would still be openly hating). Nevertheless, this series against the Lynx will be test for Griner: most of the principal players in this series have already had their defining moment, whether it be the byproduct of longevity or seizing the spotlight on the league's biggest stage.
Griner now has a chance to overcome the one nagging thing about her still-evolving legacy: can she step up when things get physical in the postseason? And as described earlier, this is the time when legacies are built: when the chance at winning a title is on the line and the eyes of the (women's basketball) world are on you.
Who will be the series MVP?
Ultimately, this is a series filled with stars, from the "big names" with a mainstream footprint (Griner and Taurasi for the Mercury; Maya Moore for the Lynx) to the names that mainstream sports fans tend to miss out on (Candice Dupree and Penny Taylor for the Mercury; Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson and Lindsay Whalen for the Lynx). And it's going to come down to which one comes up big.
Part of what makes this series so exciting is that it's entirely unpredictable, especially if the first round is any indication.
Maya Moore was outstanding in the Lynx's sweep of the San Antonio Stars, recording 26 points on 9-for-18 shooting in Game 1 and a near-triple-double in Game 2. But Lindsay Whalen was arguably the catalyst in both wins, with a playoff career-high 31 points in Game 2 and 11 assists with no turnovers in Game 1. And, oh by the way, Seimone Augustus can still get shots pretty much whenever she wants if Moore and Whalen aren't taking over.
Similarly, the Mercury got contributions from everyone on the roster in their first round embarrassment of the L.A. Sparks. Diana Taurasi kicked things off with a spectacular 34-point performance in Game 1; Griner scored 21 points on 9-for-9 shooting from the field, including a vicious two-handed fast break dunk off a steal (her best yet, in this blogger's opinion).
That leaves the role players in position to make a major impact: How much of an impact will DeWanna Bonner have defensively? Which bench will be more productive? How will the Lynx guard Diana Taurasi if the refs call a tight game? How will the Mercury guard Maya Moore? All of those questions are just tough to answer until we see what moves each side makes in the chess match and, sorry to belabor the point, how physical things get.
But the bigger factor in this series might simply be where the games are played.
X-Factor: How much will home court advantage matter?
While there are specific reasons we can point to that the Lynx and Mercury split those last two games, it's also no coincidence that the home team won at full health. And in predicting this one, it's hard to ignore that: the Mercury have lost just one game at home all season and that was way back on May 23 against the Stars before they moved Penny Taylor into the starting lineup. At the same time, that two-point win against the Lynx at home on August 9 isn't exactly overwhelming evidence that the Mercury are the clear favorite here - the Lynx have a very clear advantage on the boards and rebounding is something that could travel well.
We'll have our predictions tomorrow, but for now we'd love to have your predictions in the poll below.