PHOENIX — The Phoenix Mercury have entered uncharted territory.
Every time they’ve brought home a WNBA championship in the past, the Mercury were the top-seeded team in the playoffs. This year, the eighth-seeded Mercury snuck into the playoffs during the final week of the season, despite a losing record (16-18).
And now, the Mercury hope to make history as the only WNBA team to win a championship after finishing below the .500 mark during the regular season. Only the Chicago Sky in 2014 even made it to the Finals with a losing record.
But first, the Mercury have a date with a longtime rival.
For the fourth straight year, the Mercury and Minnesota Lynx will square off with a berth in the WNBA Finals at stake. The Chicago Sky and the Los Angeles Sparks meet in the other semifinal.
The three previous meetings between the Lynx and Mercury were played in a best-of-three series under the old playoff format. This year, the semifinals have been expanded to a best-of-five set.
“I think everyone’s excited about this match up; we’ve met each other so many times,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “They’re the best team in the WNBA, so I’m excited. I’m glad it’s a best-of-five series.”
The two teams are deeply rooted in playoff history, combining to win six of the last nine WNBA championships.
In 2014, after the Mercury hung their third championship banner, Penny Taylor and Diana Taurasi decided to take time off from the WNBA. Taurasi sat out 2015 at the request of her Russian Premier League club while Taylor needed time to mourn the loss of her father.
Despite the return of the two stars at the beginning of the 2016 season, the Mercury struggled to find a groove. They’ve since found their rhythm, putting early season woes behind them.
“We’re tougher, we’re better. We’re more confident than we were a month and a half ago,” Taurasi said. “We rediscovered that identity that we’ve had this whole season, but we just couldn’t get it out for any reason.”
Heading into the month-long Olympic hiatus, the Mercury were four games under .500, while the Lynx had already secured a playoff spot. During that same time frame, Phoenix made acquisitions to boost their roster, adding guards Marta Xargay and Lindsey Harding and center Kelsey Bone.
“We have the potential to be great,” Brondello said. “After the Olympics, we knew that every game counted, and I think that momentum and that focus helps you play your best ball at the end of the season.
“It’s not how you start the season, it’s how you end the season.”
The No. 1 Lynx and No. 8 Mercury met three times during the regular season, all within the first five weeks. Minnesota swept the three games as part of their record-setting 13-0 season start.
But Mercury rookie Isabelle Harrison is confident her team is different than the one that took the court back then.
“We didn’t play our best, but we know that’s not Phoenix,” Harrison said. “I can’t say the seeding really reflects us. We’ve been a lot more focused lately and have just been ready to dominate teams as soon as we go on the floor.”
One of the most anticipated matchups of the series is that of centers Brittney Griner of the Mercury and Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles. Griner has won the last two WNBA Defensive Player of the Year awards. Fowles won it the year before while playing for Chicago.
“Fowles gives trouble to other teams because they don’t have another big body, but guess what? We have a big body,” Brondello said. “We just have to make sure we bring the fight to them.”
Griner has been up to the fight, lifting her game in the postseason. She has averaged 20 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.5 shot blocks in the first two playoff games after averaging 14.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.1 blocks during the regular season.
Her coach praised the center’s standout performance.
“She’s confident in her body, she’s confident in her moves, she’s assertive and she’s playing great,” Brondello said. “To me, since the Olympic break, she’s the (Most Valuable Player).”
Taurasi added that she’s looking forward to a matchup of the two centers she considers to be the best in the world.
“The way she’s playing right now is just out of this world,” Taurasi said. “It’s her time. We’re going to ride BG right now.”
As the top seed, the Lynx received a bye in each of the first two playoff rounds. Phoenix, meanwhile, had to survive back-to-back single elimination games on the road against the Indiana Fever and New York Liberty.
Coach Sandy Brondello and her team like being considered the underdogs in the playoffs.
“We’re battle ready,” Brondello said. “Our biggest strength is our team. That’s how we’ll win.”
As the Lynx try to defend their championship, the Mercury hope to complete their big turnaround after their dismal start by advancing to the Finals and bringing a fourth championship to the Valley.
“When you get to this point, you’ve got to take full advantage of it,” Taurasi said. “If you want to be the champs, you have to beat the champs.”