Not surprisingly, Sylvia Fowles loves games like this.
Tuesday at Target Center, for the third and final time in this WNBA regular season, the Lynx and Phoenix Mercury will play.
It is a matchup of the two teams many expected to be the best in the league, the only two teams in the league’s Western Conference that have appeared in the finals the past five years. When the game tips off there will be seven U.S. Olympians on the floor.
That includes both centers: the 6-6 Fowles and the Mercury’s 6-8 Brittney Griner.
“I look forward to games like this,” Fowles said. “I like anybody who will make me work.’’
So far, the Lynx have fulfilled expectations with a 7-0 start. Phoenix has struggled at 2-5, including two losses to the Lynx.
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve is loath to talk about specific matchups, preferring to talk about offensive execution and team defense.
But there is no question that acquiring Fowles after the All-Star break last season changed the way the Lynx can match up with the Mercury.
With guard Diana Taurasi at the top of her game and Phoenix’s starting five staying healthy, the Mercury raced to a 29-5 record in 2014, beat the Lynx in the Western Conference finals and won the league title. And while Griner wasn’t relied on to do a bunch of scoring, her presence in the post on defense was at times dominant; the Lynx always felt they played Griner well on the defensive end. But at the other end Griner clearly altered what Minnesota could do on offense.
In 2015, with Taurasi and teammate Penny Taylor taking the WNBA season off, the Mercury was still a contender and Griner was still a handful.
For the Lynx, the addition of Fowles changed the dynamic.
“Yeah, 6-8 vs. 6-6, that’s a thing we hadn’t had prior to acquiring Syl,” Reeve said. “So now we don’t have to worry about that matchup. We’re able to not give up too much size.’’
But it goes a little deeper than that. It took a while for the Lynx to adjust to Fowles once she came over last season; that could be seen in the team’s 6-6 record in August.
But Fowles’ impact grew as the season went on, culminating in her winning the WNBA Finals MVP award. In two conference semifinal victories over the Mercury, she averaged 10 points and 14 rebounds, compared with Griner’s averages of 12.0 and 6.0.
In two games between the teams this season Fowles has averaged 17.5 points and 11.0 rebounds, Griner 8.0 and 3.5.
Fowles’ biggest impact has come on the offensive end, where her presence in the paint has taken away some of Griner’s impact as a shot blocker. “It’s harder for her to help, go after someone else’s shot when she knows that Fowles is there,” Reeve said. “That’s been the biggest way [Fowles] has impacted playing against Phoenix offensively. … If Griner wants to come over and block a shot, there is Syl on the offensive glass.’’
Unless the teams meet in the playoffs, this will be the last time fans can watch the two Olympic centers go at it. And Fowles can’t wait.
“It pushes you,” she said. “Either you show up or you get showed up.’’