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Mercury vs. Lynx game preview: Minnesota, Phoenix have first meeting at full strength

As we head into the stretch run, the Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury have separated themselves from the rest of the pack. The Mercury won the first two games but Minnesota was without the services of their starting power forward. Tonight marks matchup number 3 of the four-game series.

Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sport

It seems almost cruel and unusual punishment that these teams potentially would be in only the Western Conference finals as they've been the best teams in the league for a long time now. The Mercury won the first two games of the season by an average of 10.5 points but the Lynx were without starting power forward Rebekkah Brunson for both of those games.

Brunson has since returned and has shown little to no rust: averaging 12 points and 8.3 boards while shooting 52% in 28.5 minutes per night in her three games. The Lynx have also seen their scoring jump 9 points per night since Brunson has returned. This has been a great boost for the Lynx as rookie Damiris Dantas, who started the Lynx's first 23 games, has continued to be solid off the bench in conjunction with the return and improvement of second-year forward Devereaux Peters.

The Lynx have found their groove after some struggles in the month of June, having won their last 7 game games.
Meanwhile, Phoenix is looking to continue the second-longest winning streak in WNBA history, currently at 16. The Mercury have the luxury of a full roster again as well. The backup guard/post combo of Shay Murphy and Ewelina Kobryn missed time playing in the qualifiers for Eurobasket Women 2015 for Montenegro and Poland, respectively. Murphy has played extremely well of late, scoring 36 points in the last five games after only scoring 35 in her first 13 games and providing defensive energy off the bench.

This game also features a matchup of the top MVP candidates in Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore. It's highly unlikely the two will be guarding each other for the duration of the game - though there may be some stretches where they do - but at this point in the season it'll be interested to see how the players produce head-to-head with a full roster. There will be no love lost between these two teams and although both coaches have mentioned that championships aren't won in July, they'll both want to close the month with a win.

The battle in the paint could play a pivotal role in this game. In their second meeting on June 18th, the Mercury imposed their will, out-rebounding Minny 41-22 and blocked 5 shots. This game also featured a heavy dosage of Brittney Griner as she finished with 27 points, 18 rebounds and 2 blocks. In the first game, the rebounding was even but in similar fashion, Candice Dupree was able to have her way to the tune of 18 and 10.

Phoenix will also want to keep Minnesota guards Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus from penetrating into the paint. Neither player has shot particularly well from three this season which has led to them consistently beating teams off the dribble. This is especially dangerous with Brunson back in the lineup as Moore's catch and shoot jumper is lethal and McCarville has already made as many threes as she made in a full season last year (career-high 6.) Combine that with Brunson's mid-range jumper and offensive rebounding instincts and you have a team that can hurt you from all five positions. Before Minnesota got healthy, Phoenix had truly been the only team that could say that.

The teams will play twice in a matter of ten days, beginning with tonight's game which has been added to the NBATV slate (Thank you basketball gods!) so we should have some idea of who the "real" favorite is heading into the postseason. So....who ya got? Phoenix or Minnesota?