PHOENIX — A key third quarter stretch and tough defense on the league MVP has the Phoenix Mercury a win away from the WNBA Finals.
Brittney Griner had 23 points and 11 rebounds and the Mercury held off a late rally to beat the Minnesota Lynx 85-71 on Friday night in Game 1 of the best-of-3 Western Conference finals.
“Defensively we were just the team unit, so locked in, we have been so consistently good on the defensive end all season long and that was the key for us,” Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said.
In particular, defense on league scoring leader and MVP Maya Moore, who was held to nine points on 3-of-9 shooting.
“Obviously, DeWanna Bonner, she is a great defender,” Brondello said. “She probably doesn’t get that kind of recognition, as she should, but she is, and she is always locking down the best player. Maya Moore is a great player but I thought we executed quite well against her.”
Penny Taylor added 16 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and a pair of steals for the Mercury, who built a 25-point lead in the third quarter before Minnesota got within 10 in the final period.
“It’s been tonight what I have been trying to do all season, is just fill the gaps, do what I can to lift the team when we need to,” the 12th-year veteran Taylor said. “Tonight it was a lot of assists in the first half and then in the second, I tried to be more aggressive on the boards and that sort of thing.”
Taylor missed her first three shots and then made 3 of 4 in the third when Phoenix pulled away.
Game 2 is Sunday in Minneapolis.
Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve credited Phoenix for keeping her big scorer quiet on Friday.
“Early in the game I thought that Maya didn’t have an understanding of what was available,” Reeve said. “I thought that Phoenix, in typical fashion, their team defense was really good. So maybe where Maya had openings, they closed quickly and her recognition of what happens next was not very good.”
Diana Taurasi added 17 points, six rebounds and five assists on an off-shooting night (5 for 15) while Bonner had 16 points and seven rebounds for Phoenix, which won three of four meetings with Minnesota during the regular season.
The Mercury held Minnesota to 40 percent shooting (29-of-73) and outrebounded the Lynx 45-31.
“Everyone kind of took turns on making sure the boards were sound and when we do that it gives us a little more freedom on offense to go,” Taurasi said.
Lindsay Whalen had 25 points to lead the Lynx. Rebekkah Brunson had 10 points and eight rebounds.
“We have some things to fix,” Brunson said. “We didn’t approach this game the way we should have but we know that we can play a lot better.”
Whalen hit a 3-pointer, had a steal and easy layup in a 17-8 run that got Minnesota to 75-64 with 5:16 left but Taylor drew a fifth foul on Moore and sank the free throws to give Phoenix a little breathing room. Taylor and Taurasi hit free throws in the final minute after the Lynx pulled to 81-71 with 1:30 left.
Taylor had eight points and a key alley-oop pass to Griner during a decisive 14-0 run midway through the third quarter that gave Phoenix a 63-39 lead over the defending WNBA champions.
The Lynx were 4 for 15 at one point in the third quarter, after trailing by just nine early in the period.
“That was probably the best stretch we’ve had on both sides of the ball this year,” Taurasi said. “In a game where we obviously have to play at that level to beat them. That’s just how good they are.”
It is the third meeting in four years in the conference finals for the Lynx and Mercury.
Both teams swept their respective first-round playoff series, setting up the much-hyped conference final matchup.
Phoenix jumped out to a 9-0 lead after hitting its first four shots but Minnesota bounced back with eight straight points itself and trailed 23-20 after the first quarter.
But Moore made only 1 of 6 from the field, scoring two points, as the Lynx trailed 42-31 at the break.
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.
Moore earned league MVP honors, averaging nearly 24 points and eight rebounds a game. She shot 48 percent from the field during the season.