WNBA rivalry rekindled for top two teams in Western Conference

Lynx-Mercury clash is rich in stars, story lines.

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Minnesota Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson (32) goes up to the basket against Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner (42) and forward Candice Dupree in the second half of a WNBA basketball game, Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Minneapolis. The Lynx won 75-67. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

Photo: Stacy Bengs, ASSOCIATED PRESS - AP

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A season later, Seimone Augustus still hears about it.

The Lynx were in the fourth quarter of a Western Conference finals opening-game victory over Phoenix at Target Center when, near midcourt. Mercury guard Diana Taurasi passed the ball, then gave Augustus a little shove. Augustus turned and glared. Taurasi then slammed her shoulder into Augustus. The two were face to face when Taurasi leaned over and gave Augustus a peck on the cheek.

“It was either throw a punch or get a kiss,” Augustus joked this week.

If you’re looking for a way to describe the intense and sometime tempestuous relationship between these two teams, that is the moment: Love. Hate.

When the two teams meet again in the Western Conference finals starting Friday in Phoenix, it will be the third time in four years that the Lynx and Mercury have faced one another at this point. Among the 10 starting players are six players who were named to this summer’s All-Star Game, four members of the 2012 gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team and two MVPs (Taurasi in 2009 and Maya Moore of the Lynx this year).

These teams have a lot of respect and admiration for one another. But there is no better rivalry in this league.

“I’m sure they’re good people,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “These guys know each other from playing overseas and stuff. But it’s on now.”

Before this season the Lynx, including playoffs, had won 14 straight games against Phoenix. But this year, one season after many tabbed the Mercury as the next big thing, things changed. With a stellar starting lineup and perfect health, the Mercury set a WNBA record with 29 regular-season wins, including three in four games against a Lynx team that battled health issues much of the year.

This is the series WNBA fans have been waiting for. The Lynx have won two of the past three WNBA titles, including last season, and this season won 25 games for a fourth straight season, another league record. Phoenix and Minnesota ranked 1-2 during the season in scoring, scoring differential, offensive efficiency and shooting percentage.

“This is probably the biggest matchup, that people have been expecting, since I’ve been in the league,” Augustus said. “It’s kind of been brewing like gumbo. It’s been cooking up, getting the flavors together. Now we’re at the point where we’re ready to taste it.”

Lynx finally healthy

The seeds of this rivalry go way back, to when Taurasi’s team beat Augustus’ in an AAU tourney. They’ve been both opponents and U.S. teammates since then.

Many of the other players have similar intertwined backgrounds in Europe and on national teams, in addition to the WNBA.

The Lynx have the reigning MVP in Moore, fellow All-Stars in Lindsay Whalen and Augustus and a coach who has two WNBA titles. The Mercury has Taurasi, defensive player of the year Brittney Griner, All-Star Candice Dupree and coach of the year Sandy Brondello, who, in her first year, turned the Mercury from an all-offense outfit into a group of the most efficient defenders in the league.

“It’s a challenge we feel ready for,” Reeve said. “The way we’re playing now, I think, is the best of the season, in terms of our ability to compete with a team that had a record-breaking season. … They established themselves as the best team in the league for the regular season. And now we’ll see what we can do.”

There are reasons for Minnesota’s optimism.

Augustus is feeling as good as she has all year after missing 10 games with knee soreness. Forward Rebekkah Brunson, the team’s best defender, missed the first 23 games after knee surgery. A middle-of-the-pack defensive team over the course of the season, the Lynx were the third-most-efficient team over the final half of the season.

“We feel we’re the team to beat,” Moore said. “Of course, Phoenix had an awesome season, setting records, playing well. Take nothing away from what they’ve done. I just think our team is always confident to feel we are in control of our destiny if we come and play together.”

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