The Minnesota Lynx will face a familiar playoff foe in the second round of the 2020 WNBA playoffs Thursday night.
During the Lynx’s title-contending run from 2011-2017, the Phoenix Mercury were their near-perennial Western Conference Finals (or WNBA Semifinals) opponent. In every season other than 2016 that the Lynx and Mercury played each other in the playoffs, the team that won the series went on to win the WNBA championship. The Lynx hold a 10-2 all-time record against the Mercury in the playoffs and are 5-0 against the Mercury in the postseason since acquiring Sylvia Fowles.
Minnesota and Phoenix have not met in the playoffs since 2016 and both of these teams are, of course, very different than they were during those years. Sylvia Fowles is the only current Lynx player that played for any of those Minnesota teams. With Brittney Griner leaving the bubble mid-season for personal reasons, Diana Taurasi will likewise be the only player for the Mercury that played in those matchups. While there is a lot of history to this rivalry, both the matchups and the stakes have changed, as Minnesota and Phoenix will be playing for a berth in the Semifinals, rather than facing each other in them.
The Regular Season Matchups
The Lynx and the Mercury split their season series 1-1.
In Minnesota’s win against Phoenix this year, the Lynx swept the four factors of winning—effective field goal percentage, free throw attempt rate, offensive rebound rate, and turnover percentage. The teams shot a combined 64 free throws in a game where 47 fouls were called and Taurasi told an official that she would “see them in the lobby later.” While Bria Hartley (who will not be with the Mercury for the playoffs after tearing her ACL in a game against the Washington Mystics earlier this season) and Skylar Diggins-Smith had solid shooting nights, the Lynx were able to hold Taurasi to 14 points on 3-12 shooting overall and 2-9 on three-pointers.
In their loss to the Mercury, the Lynx did not adequately contain Taurasi. She started out hot from beyond the arc and Phoenix buried Minnesota early with a 33-18 first quarter. While the Lynx surged back late in the fourth quarter, they were unable to complete the comeback, ultimately losing by four points. The Mercury out-rebounded the Lynx by double digits and Taurasi alone had 12 rebounds.
Fowles’ Impact on Minnesota’s Defense and Rebounding will be Key
Sylvia Fowles did not play in either of these games, as she was sidelined after re-aggravating a calf injury in an early season game against the Las Vegas Aces.
In a stroke of good fortune, per the Star Tribune, the Lynx are expecting to have Sylvia Fowles available for Thursday’s game against the Mercury, though she is officially listed as “questionable” at the moment. Minnesota won five out of the six games in which Fowles played more than a minute and a half this season. They were 9-7 without Fowles.
Having Fowles back on the court should give the Lynx an advantage against the Griner-less Mercury. She especially should be able to help boost Minnesota’s defense and rebounding. The Lynx’s defensive rating was 91.9 in 168 minutes with Fowles on the floor this season and just 103.1 in the 712 minutes without her. The first figure is better than the Seattle Storm’s league-leading 93.3 defensive rating, the latter ranks just above the defensive ratings of this year’s lottery teams. On the defensive rebounding front, with Fowles on the court the Lynx secured 73.3 percent of potential defensive rebounds, which would have ranked third in the league. Without her, Minnesota’s defensive rebounding percentage was just 68.2 percent, which would rank second to last in the WNBA.
Team Offense Humming without Fowles
While the team’s defense suffered with Fowles sidelined, the Lynx were able to find an offensive groove to sustain themselves without her.
Part of this was due to major contributions from Napheesa Collier, Crystal Dangerfield, and Damiris Dantas. Dangerfield scored 18.5 points and 3.9 assists per game while Collier averaged 18.1 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.9 steals, and 1.6 blocks per game during the last 14 games of the season. Dantas added 14.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 45.9 percent on 4.4 three-point attempts per game during the same timespan.
The rest of the Lynx’s burgeoning offense was fueled by outside shooting. In the last 13 games of the season (after Fowles re-aggravated her calf injury), Minnesota led the league in three-point percentage with 41.6 percent shooting and were second in three-point makes per game over that span. For the full season, the Lynx were third in three-point percentage (38.5 percent) and fifth in three-point makes.
Comparing Minnesota and Phoenix
The Mercury also made a living this season from the perimeter. Phoenix had the third most three-point attempts per game in the WNBA and the second most three-point makes overall. Both teams scored an almost identical percentage of their points on three-pointers (29.4 percent of Minnesota’s points, 29.3 percent of Phoenix’s points). Minnesota and Phoenix also had very similar effective field goal percentages this season, with the Lynx ranking fourth at 51.8 eFG% and the Mercury ranking fifth at 51.3 eFG%.
The Mercury’s greatest offensive advantage in this matchup may be at the free throw line. Phoenix ranked second in both attempts and makes from the charity stripe as well as first in free throw percentage at 82.5. Minnesota was eighth in free throw attempts and makes.
Both teams were fairly turnover prone with the Mercury ranking eighth in turnover percentage (18.4 percent) and the Lynx ranking ninth (18.8 percent). On the other end of the floor, Minnesota and Phoenix were in the middle of the pack in terms of forcing turnovers, ranking fifth and seventh in the league in opponent turnover rate, respectively.
The Lynx and Mercury had almost identical defensive ratings (101.7 for Minnesota and 101.8 for Phoenix) this season. While the Mercury held the league’s best mark in opponent effective field goal percentage (47.7 percent to the Lynx’s seventh ranked 50.5), the Lynx did a better job of defending without fouling. The Mercury were ninth in opponent free throw attempt rate and led the league in fouls per game (19.7 per contest). The Lynx were sixth in opponent free throw attempt rate and recorded the third fewest fouls per game.
The Mercury were the worst rebounding team in the WNBA this year, ranking last in total rebound percentage and defensive rebound percentage as well as second to last in offensive rebound percentage. In terms of defensive rebounding, the Lynx were not much better, ranking tenth in the league in a major departure from prior Cheryl Reeve teams. However, the Lynx were the best offensive rebounding team in the league this year, rebounding 33.1 percent of their own misses.
What the Lynx Need to do to Win
If there are no pre-game setbacks and Fowles is able to play against the Mercury, the Lynx should be able to shore up their defense and hold a major advantage on the boards. Furthermore, without Griner, Phoenix doesn’t have a player who should be able to guard Fowles one-on-one in the post. Combining Fowles’ production with Collier and Dangerfield (who together averaged 36.0 points per game against the Mercury this season), and with the team shooting the way it has been, the Lynx should be in good shape to move on to the Semifinals.
Still, Phoenix can be a very dangerous team. In their first round win against the Washington Mystics, after entering the fourth quarter down by 11 the Mercury went on a 17-0 run and ultimately won the game on an incredible buzzer-beating three by Shey Peddy. Minnesota cannot underestimate Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith’s scoring and playmaking, Brianna Turner’s phenomenal defensive play, or timely scoring from the rest of the Mercury.
In order to secure the victory, the Lynx will have to make sure to keep the Mercury off the free throw line, press their advantage on the offensive glass, and limit open looks for Taurasi and Diggins-Smith (and while we’re at it, Peddy).
Anything can happen in a single-elimination game. The only thing that is certain in the Lynx-Mercury matchup is that WNBA viewers will be made keenly aware of Taurasi’s record in winner-take-all playoff games.