PHOENIX – Just like that, they’re halfway there.
The Lynx are three victories away from their second consecutive WNBA championship after their third consecutive dismantling of the Phoenix Mercury, this time 82-67 on Sunday.
By sweeping the best-of-five semifinal playoff series, the top-seeded Lynx are headed to their fifth WNBA Finals in the past six years. Their three titles are one short of the league record. Not since the Los Angeles Sparks (2001-02) has a WNBA team won back-to-back titles.
They now await the winner of the Los Angeles-Chicago series. After a 10-day break at the end of the regular season, the Lynx now will have six days to prepare before the finals begin Sunday at Target Center.
Maya Moore led four Lynx players in double figures with 20 points after dropping a total of 57 on the Mercury in the first two games. She also had six rebounds, three assists and three steals. The X-factor was reserve Natasha Howard, who had playoff career highs in points (17), rebounds (eight) and assists (three).
Howard got extended minutes after Moore, Rebekkah Brunson and Sylvia Fowles all got into foul trouble. She has been wildly efficient in the past two postseasons. She shot 11-for-12 from the field for the Indiana Fever last year. In Games 1 and 2 against Phoenix, she was 8-for-8, and on Sunday she was 8-for-11.
“If you’re around T [Howard], she never changes her expression, she never changes her way, you never know if she is having fun or not, and she was just steady and relentless. It was huge for our team,” coach Cheryl Reeve said.
Speaking of efficient, the Lynx were a plus-26 with Lindsay Whalen on the floor. Whalen, who set a WNBA record with her 68th postseason start, finished with 11 points — all in the first half — on 4-for-5 shooting and had five assists.
The Lynx led only 39-38 at halftime, but after a 16-4 run in the second half, the rout was on. They outscored Phoenix 26-15 in the third quarter, when Howard had eight of her points.
The Lynx beat eighth-seeded Phoenix by double digits in all three games. They turned up the defense on Sunday, holding the Mercury to 29 second-half points and 41 percent shooting from the field (26.3 from three-point range). After averaging 26.5 points in her team’s first four playoff games, Diana Taurasi scored only 12 in Game 3 and only one in the second half, when she was on the bench for a large chunk of the third quarter.
“Defensively, we felt like we got better from the first game to the third game, but it was still a hard game, it was a tough game,” Seimone Augustus said.
Phoenix, playing at home for the first time in the playoffs after four road games, got center Brittney Griner involved early. After scoring only two points in Game 2, she had seven alone in the first quarter. But she scored only one more basket after that.
“Looking back at the last 35 days, I think we’ve been on the road 28, and that really does catch up to you,” Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said.
Penny Taylor, playing in her final WNBA game, scored her only four points from the free-throw line. The three-time All-Star was 0-for-7 from the field.
“I’ll try not to get emotional because Penny and I go way back actually,” Brondello said. “I think she was about 19 when I first met her, and we actually played four years together with the Australian team.”
The Lynx have won nine consecutive games against the Mercury, including the regular season. They are 10-2 all-time against Phoenix in the playoffs.