PHOENIX — The Western Conference finals will be a dream matchup: the WNBA’s top two teams, with the league MVP, defensive player of the year and coach of the year all on the floor at the same time.
Both teams had long winning streaks — and each stopped the other’s respective run.
The Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury also will be meeting for the third time in four years in the Western Conference finals in what’s become an intriguing rivalry.
“This game is perfect for that, it’s perfect for everyone to get excited for, for both teams to get excited for, it’s no doubt going to be fun,” Minnesota’s Maya Moore told reporters after practice on Wednesday before her team headed to Phoenix for Game 1 of the Western finals on Friday night.
About the only drawback is that it comes in the conference finals, the penultimate stage of the playoffs.
“The league is talking about it, meaning the league office,” Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said. “They’re excited about seeing their two best teams on display. Everybody’s hopeful about just an unbelievable series, you know? There’s a lot of great players out there.”
The Lynx swept the Mercury in the 2011 and 2013 conference finals on their way to winning WNBA titles. Minnesota has reached the final round for three straight years.
“It’s just great players all across the board, great matchups all across the board, and at some point it’s just pride,” said Minnesota’s Seimone Augustus. “Pride is on the line, and you have to be the one that’s basically deflating and dominating the other player in that aspect.”
But Phoenix, which won three of four from Minnesota during the regular season, is quick to point out that the 2014 version of the Mercury is not the same as 2013.
“We are a different team, they are a different team, they are probably better than they were last year,” said Diana Taurasi, who finished second to Moore in the MVP voting. “We have our hands full.”
Only four of the regulars on the 2014 squad played against Minnesota a year ago and one of those has had a breakout year — center Brittney Griner.
Griner, who was fifth in the MVP voting, earned defensive player of the year honors by securing the middle for Phoenix, blocking a league-record 129 shots and being the second-best shooter in the league.
“Anybody can put up points but keeping the other team from scoring, that’s what wins games,” Griner said. “This year we have been playing a lot of defense.”
The other major difference is the leadership of Coach of the Year Sandy Brondello — who is in her first year at the helm in Phoenix. Her emphasis on defense — and spreading the ball around on the offensive end — was embraced by the group of veterans and younger players this season.
“We have been going into every game with a clear-cut (defensive) scheme of what we want to do,” Taurasi said. “Do we do it every time? Probably not. But we do it enough times where we’ve made it difficult for opponents to score. That’s how you get to the end, by making other teams work really hard for their baskets.”
Brondello agreed, especially about Moore.
“No open looks, don’t have too many breakdowns,” Brondello said. “We strive to be perfect, we’re always going to be striving, so, if we don’t execute the schemes, do the most aggressive thing. We know what Maya’s tendencies are, so let’s try and limit them.”
The Lynx, 25-9 during the regular season, come to Phoenix off a sweep of San Antonio in the first round, albeit by a total of nine points.
The Mercury, who entered the postseason with a WNBA-record number of wins at 29-5, had a tough time with Los Angeles in the opener, needing some last-minute free throws to win by three. Then they blew out the Sparks on Sunday to eliminate Los Angeles for the second straight year.
In any other year, Minnesota would have been the class of the league. Moore won the MVP by scoring nearly 24 points a game and grabbing eight rebounds a game, hitting 48 percent of her shots.
Reeve said she was trying not to over-scheme.
“This time of the year it’s really about players making plays and coaches kind of just getting out of the way,” Reeve said. “Sometimes if coaches have too much time we’ll screw it up by overthinking things and getting players all twisted. It’s really going to be about whoever . is on their game.”