2014 WNBA Western Conference Semifinals Preview
08/21/2014 11:08 AM
08/21/2014 11:13 AM
Although Minnesota dealt with injuries to Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson and Monica Wright, Maya Moore's consistently exceptional performance drove the defending champions to the second best record in the WNBA. The Lynx were also terrific at home, defeating 15 of their 17 opponents at the Target Center. Moore broke a league-record during the process by scoring 30 points or more a dozen times, including a career-high 48-point outing versus Atlanta, and on Thursday was named the league's MVP.
The San Antonio Stars won their final three games to tie Los Angeles for third in the conference race. Due to the tiebreaker, San Antonio will be the No. 3 seed and square off with Minnesota in the opening round. Veteran guard Becky Hammon will be looking to end her storied career with the Stars on a high note before beginning her groundbreaking stint as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs.
The Sparks, who went 24-10 in both 2012 and 2013, parted ways with coach Carol Ross after a disappointing 10-12 start. Instead of finding an interim or long- term replacement, general manager Penny Toler elected to take the reins of the team and went 6-6 in her first 12 games as a head coach at any level.
1. Phoenix (29-5)
2. Minnesota (25-9)
3. San Antonio (16-18)
4. Los Angeles (16-18)
5. Tulsa (12-22)
6. Seattle (12-22)
PHOENIX MERCURY vs. LOS ANGELES SPARKS
When these teams met in the 2013 conference semifinals, Phoenix edged the Sparks, 78-77, in Game 3 to advance to the next stage. The Mercury then won all five of their meetings with the Sparks this season with an 11.6-point average margin of victory. The Mercury jumped out to a 20-point lead in the most recent meeting on Aug. 16, but after Brondello pulled out her starters, Los Angeles narrowed the gap to arrive at a seven-point margin.
Although she is coaching an overwhelming underdog, Toler has a few quality weapons at her disposal highlighted by 2013 MVP Candace Parker. While Los Angeles struggled as a whole, Parker was the only player in the WNBA to finish in the top five in scoring (19.4 ppg), assists (4.3 apg) and blocks (1.37 bpg). Nneka Ogwumike was also reliable in the low post, as she recorded 15.8 ppg to go along with 7.1 rpg. Jantel Lavender and Kristi Toliver contribute double-digit scoring averages for Los Angeles, which will need a huge lift from veteran guard Alana Beard against Phoenix.
Griner's defensive presence makes scoring in the paint against Phoenix extremely difficult. The second-year Baylor product made history with 11 blocks in a single game and averaged more blocks per game than eight teams. Griner also posted 15.6 ppg and 8.0 rpg, while Taurasi finished second in the MVP voting after averages of 16.2 ppg and 5.6 apg.
While Griner and Taurasi grabbed most of the recognition, Phoenix would not have reached such unprecedented heights without Candice Dupree (14.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg), Penny Taylor (10.5 ppg, 3.1 apg) and DeWanna Bonner (10.4 ppg). Dupree, who was named to her fourth All-Star team in 2014, became the 11th player in WNBA history to tally 4,000 points and 2,000 rebounds and ranks in the top-20 in both categories on the league's all-time lists. Phoenix has not reached the WNBA Finals since it claimed the 2009 championship.
MINNESOTA LYNX VS. SAN ANTONIO STARS
Minnesota's journey back to the Finals begins against San Antonio. The Lynx went 4-1 against the Stars during the regular season. However, San Antonio has to be confident after its 92-76 decision over the Lynx last week. The only previous postseason meeting between these franchises occurred in 2011, when the Lynx knocked the Stars out in the first round on the way to their first WNBA title.
Minnesota concluded the regular season ranked in the top three among all teams in scoring (81.7 ppg), rebounding (35.3 rpg), assists (20.3 apg) and field goal percentage (.467). Moore took home her first scoring title by pouring in just under 24 ppg, making her one of two players in the entire league with an average over 20 ppg. The former UConn star is tough to key on defensively due to the team's talented backcourt tandem of Augustus (16.5 ppg) and Lindsay Whalen (14.1 ppg, 5.5 apg). The Lynx also have a serviceable forward in Brunson, who pulled down a team-high 8.2 rpg.
When at full strength, Minnesota can be unstoppable. Coach Cheryl Reeve is the winningest coach in franchise history, both in terms of victories and winning percentage, and by percentage the winningest coach in WNBA history. She owns a 19-5 postseason record entering the 2014 playoffs.
Outside of Hammon, San Antonio does not have any marquee names on its roster. The Stars were one of the biggest surprises of the season after watching the 2013 playoffs from home. Coach Dan Hughes turned the team around despite the lack of a consistent go-to-player on the offensive end. With four different players producing over 10.0 ppg, San Antonio's unselfish system resembles that of the Spurs, who brought an NBA title to the Alamo City this past season.
San Antonio lacks the experience of its opposition. The starting backcourt of Kayla McBride and Danielle Robinson will be challenged by Augustus and Whalen. McBride paced the Stars this season as a rookie with 13.0 ppg, while Robinson netted 12.9 ppg and ranked third in the WNBA with 5.3 apg. Jia Perkins provided a spark off the bench with 12.5 ppg, which could result in a Sixth Woman of the Year honor in the near future.
Hammon has been selected to seven All-Star teams and four All-WNBA squads, ranks seventh in league history in scoring and fourth in assists. However, she has never accomplished the ultimate goal of bringing home a WNBA title.
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