ST. PAUL, Minn.—If anyone wonders why teams go through free throw drills in practice, Game 2 of the WNBA semifinals Friday night between the Minnesota Lynx and the Phoenix Mercury will serve a prime example.
In a game where 54 fouls were called, leading to a combined 68 free throw attempts, and a playoff record, Minnesota grinded out a 96-86 win at Xcel Energy Center to take a 2-0 series lead. One more win would send the Lynx to their fifth Finals appearance in the last six years, but the prevailing mood after the game was one of bewilderment.
“It says the game took two hours and fifteen minutes, but that’s got to be a typo. It felt like it was four hours,” said Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve. “I have to really watch to understand how there were 54 fouls called with two teams like this, at this juncture of the season.”
Tight officiating impacted the game from the start. Phoenix center Brittney Griner played for only 18 minutes; she picked up her first two fouls in the first 1:41 of the game. Minnesota center and Defensive Player of the Year Sylvia Fowles didn’t last much longer, seeing 23 minutes of floor time. Both teams hit more free throws than field goals, a rarity for a basketball game.
“We wanted to push tempo. That was our goal tonight. It’s hard when there’s a lot of stoppages and free throws,” said Phoenix head coach Sandy Brondello. “We just had poor discipline on fouling too many shooters.”
Believe it or not, there were plenty of developments beyond the frequency of fouls. The most influential twist came in the first quarter, where the Lynx executed a brilliant start. Hitting 11 of 18 shots in the period, they roared to a 35-24 lead. As it turned out, the initial burst was all Minnesota needed. They briefly led by 14 and would hover around a 10-point cushion for the rest of the game. Phoenix never got closer than six.
“You’re going to get tested. You have to expect anything at this point,” said Minnesota forward Maya Moore. “You just have to find a way to get it done and to stay true to your identity, and for us, it’s being the best defensive team and the best offensive team.”
Moore led the Lynx in scoring again with 26 points, 21 coming in the first half. When her production stalled, she had plenty of assistance. Rebekkah Brunson had a double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds. Jia Perkins scored 12 points off the bench, and Lindsay Whalen came up clutch in the fourth quarter, scoring 12 of her 16 points in that span.
Brunson’s effort was invaluable for a post unit that was still missing Janel McCarville due to back spasms and had to manage the foul situation. The highlight of her 34 minutes was blocking Phoenix wing DeWanna Bonner as she attempted a baseline drive.
“She is such an integral part of who we are, just her constancy, the way she’s there for us to cover up mistakes,” Moore said.
[More from Excelle: Takeaways from Lynx-Mercury Game 1]
Whalen provided an emphatic finish to excite the 11,923 fans who grew testy over the game’s pace. With 21.9 seconds in the fourth, Fowles grabbed an offensive rebound following a miss from Seimone Augustus at the free throw line. Phoenix conceded their foul-and-chase strategy, but Minnesota couldn’t run out the clock, so Whalen threw up a circus three-pointer that went in to beat the shot clock.
“Any time things can go our way through her, we all get so much energy from that,” Moore said.
Taurasi led Phoenix with a game-high 31 points. Unlike Game 1, she got a little more help on offense. Penny Taylor chipped in 16 points and Marta Xargay added 11, but they were still unable to keep up with the plethora of offensive options Minnesota owns. A player who could rewrite that narrative in the Mercury’s favor is Isabelle Harrison. With Kelsey Bone unable to play following an elbow injury in Game 1, Harrison was pressed into action. For a time, the rookie out of Tennessee gave the Mercury a rebounding presence that could contend with the vaunted Lynx board crashers. Harrison had six points and nine rebounds, with seven of them coming in the second quarter.
“That’s a positive thing for this team, not only for this series, but for the future,” Taurasi said.
By the numbers
20: The number of turnovers committed by Phoenix, leading to 19 Minnesota points. Some of them could be attested to the stingy Lynx defense, but several were the result of unforced errors. Whether it was poor passing or lack of control, losing the ball needlessly cost the Mercury crucial chances at staging a comeback.
“We lost our composure where we didn’t need to,” Brondello said.
2: Point and rebound total for Brittney Griner. This year, Griner has encountered trouble when dealing with Fowles, and she will need to be more active to help the Mercury’s odds of avoiding a sweep on Sunday.
“I’ve been around her for a while now. Today she just had one of those games where it was just tough all around. We’ve all been there,” Taurasi said. “The way she reacts to it is going to tell us a lot about her and I have the utmost confidence that she’ll come ready to play when we get home.”
Play of the game
Minnesota followers have documented Sylvia Fowles and her improvement in the transition game, and a microcosm of that development occurred at the 8:23 mark in the fourth quarter. Renee Montgomery, who had just rebounded the ball, saw a chance for a transition bucket with Fowles running the floor. Montgomery threw a perfect back-shoulder pass to prevent Griner from deflecting the ball, and Fowles caught it in stride en route to a layup.