Maybe it was fitting that what ultimately sent Phoenix into this week’s WNBA Western Conference finals against the Lynx was a defensive stand.
Many will focus on rookie center Brittney Griner’s baseline turnaround shot that gave Phoenix a one-point edge over Los Angeles in Game 3 of their first-round series Monday. But the game wasn’t won until, coming out of a timeout, Sparks star Candace Parker got the inbound pass in the right corner, was immediately double-teamed, and was unable to get anything close to a decent shot off by the buzzer.
When the Mercury and Lynx open their best-of-three series Thursday at Target Center, fans will see a Mercury team with the same familiar players. But, since the two teams last met in July, a lot of things have changed. First of all, the coach. Phoenix fired Corey Gaines in early August with the Mercury’s record at 10-11 and made Russ Pennell the interim head coach. Since then Phoenix has gone 11-5, including a 2-1 series victory over the Sparks in the conference semifinals.
“The biggest difference is the emphasis on defense,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said Tuesday, when her team returned to practice after taking Monday off.
Different as in Phoenix plays it these days.
The Mercury has always been able to score. Phoenix led the league in scoring for several years before injuries hurt them last season. This season it was third in the league in points. Scoring was never the problem.
But defense? From 2006 through 2011 the Mercury led the league in scoring but was last in scoring defense. It worked well sometimes — Phoenix won WNBA titles in 2007 and 2009 — but not always.
“At times they were easy to play against because of their defensive schemes,” Reeve said. “They were largely focused on offense. Under Corey Gaines they were one of the top offensive teams in the league every year. Very challenging to guard.’’
And now they’re more challenging to score against. Since Pennell took over, the Mercury has allowed 74.1 points per game, down from 84.7 when Gaines was replaced.
“They definitely play with a great sense of urgency,” Lynx forward Maya Moore said. “They’re trying to be active in the paint a little more than what we’re used to.’’
Said point guard Lindsay Whalen: “Everybody this time of year focuses on defense. That’s what this part of the season is all about.’’
And now the Mercury has joined the club. When healthy and able to stay out of foul trouble, the 6-8 Griner has been a great rim protector, averaging 3.0 blocks per game. But the Mercury is doing a better job defending the pick and roll and getting into passing lanes.
“Now you have the same good offensive players — Russ has run, probably 80 percent of [Gaines’] playbook. That’s the same as it’s been all year. But now there is an emphasis on defense as well.’’
And that will make this series a little different from what Lynx fans are used to.
Minnesota has won 10 consecutive regular-season games against Phoenix, winning by an average of 14 points a game. And the Lynx swept the Mercury in the 2011 conference finals en route to their first WNBA title.
This time it promises to be a little more difficult.
“I can guarantee they spend more time on [defense] in practice,” Reeve said. “Any time you do that, you’ll be better at it.”
• Note: Lynx guard Monica Wright finished second to Tulsa guard Riquna Williams for the Sixth Woman of the Year award. Williams received 17 of 39 possible votes, Wright 13.