Lynx dictate tempo, take down Mercury
PHOENIX -- The trophy presentation was a requisite affair, except maybe for the location. The Minnesota Lynx poured into an empty practice gym at the US Airways Center, hooting, hollering and hugging after they clinched the WNBA's Western Conference title with a 103-86 win over the Phoenix Mercury.
No accepting trophies on the opponent's home floor, you know.
The players grabbed their T-shirts and hats and headed to the podium that held the trophy, which they earned with a convincing, dominant performance against one of the league's most experienced teams when it comes to winning big games.
Experience. On paper, it was supposed to be the edge that belonged to the Mercury, with their two titles and yearly trips to the playoffs.
Minnesota hadn't been to the playoffs since 2004 and had never won a playoff series. A 27-7 regular season was impressive, but this was the postseason and the Lynx might not have what it takes to finish the job.
But the "experience" argument -- even perpetuated by this writer in making the dreaded preseries prediction -- turned out to be just plain wrong.
Taj McWilliams-Franklin has been in this league 12 years. The 40-year-old post, the league's oldest player, won a title in Detroit in 2008.
Lindsay Whalen played in Finals series in Connecticut in 2004 and 2005.
Rebekkah Brunson won a title in Sacramento in 2005.
Maya Moore won three NCAA titles in Connecticut.
How much more experience did we all want from this veteran, collected group of players, who merely managed to continue what they have done all season?
Turned out that the team dancing around the glass engraved trophy, chanting "Los Lynx" and stomping their feet, was the team that was supposed to be here all along.
"We've got leaders and they were prepared at every moment," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. "They mentally were in the right place. I mean, Taj, there aren't too many things she hasn't seen. She's such a voice for us. Lindsay has been in the Finals before, Brunson has. We have experience. And we knew exactly what [the Mercury] were going to do when, in terms of making a run. And we were able to withstand it."
McWiliams-Franklin said she felt like the Lynx weren't getting the respect they deserved after their stellar regular season. That they were being dismissed.
"It's been challenging," McWilliams-Franklin said. "This team just has an incredible amount of courage. If you listen to anybody talking about it, everybody's talking about other people. It's never been about the Minnesota Lynx. The best record in the league and we still weren't getting anything from anybody.
"For us, this is what we do. We just do what we do."
It was indeed another "typical" Minnesota performance. Balanced and impressive.
Five players scored in double figures -- led by McWilliams-Franklin and Moore with 21 each. There was strong defense, particularly in the second half when the Lynx outscored Phoenix 60-41 and held down Penny Taylor yet again. There were big shots -- Whalen driving the lane, McWilliams-Franklin inside and Moore hitting a pair of back-breaking 3-pointers in the final four minutes as Phoenix tried to scramble back into the game.
Phoenix led 45-43 at the half, but the Lynx clamped down, got big rebounds and kept the Mercury out of their transition game by putting the ball in the net.
The Lynx dictated the tone and tempo of the game and they did it on the Mercury's home floor.
"We did it the way we wanted to do it," Moore said.
"We had to keep our composure," said guard Seimone Augustus, who rebounded from a tough first half to finish with 12 of her 16 points in the second. "We knew they were going to be aggressive and have a lot of energy and we couldn't get caught up in exerting that much energy. Just sticking to the game plan."
Of Phoenix's five postseason games, three of them were elimination games. The team that played better with its back up against the wall simply ran into a team that played better.
"They get all the credit," said Mercury star Diana Taurasi. "They came out in the second half and they set the tempo. They made a couple of plays and it got away from us."
Taurasi finished her season, in which she won a fourth straight league scoring title, with 22 points. DeWanna Bonner got the start and matched Taurasi's total.
But Taylor closed with eight points.
While the Lynx celebrated this moment, there may yet be more down the road.
"This is everything I hoped it would be," Augustus said, because this is actually her first playoff experience. "But we aren't finished yet."