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Lynx have no answer for Taurasi

PHOENIX -- Diana Taurasi doesn't do butterflies. When you've played in so many big games for so many years in so many places around the globe, nerves are not part of the equation.

Or at least they usually aren't. Yet Tuesday, as the clock ticked closer to the tipoff of Game 3 of the Western Conference finals between the Minnesota Lynx and her Phoenix Mercury, Taurasi really had a few jitters.

"I always say I don't get nervous before games, but this was honestly the first time I've been nervous in a lot of years," Taurasi said. "There was just so much riding on this game for this franchise, and for the group of us players who've been together so long.

"That feeling that this is our house, the connection with the people around us -- that drives me as much as basketball itself."

And a driven Taurasi is a very, very dangerous Taurasi. Actually, though, is there any other kind?

Phoenix will be playing in the WNBA Finals starting Sunday, thanks to a 96-78 victory in which several superstars did some amazing things. But one superstar was the most amazing. Taurasi had 31 points, seven assists and five rebounds. She also hit a shot just before the third-quarter buzzer from behind half-court that was ridiculous even by Taurasi highlight-reel standards.

"I have played with a lot of great players, and against a lot of them," Mercury teammate Penny Taylor said. "There's no one that wants it more. I don't think she ever stops and says, 'Yeah, I'm good enough,' or 'I've won enough.' She works at it every single day.

"And more than anything, it's her ability to take everyone on the ride with her."

Indeed, her team and the 9,749 fans at US Airways Center on Tuesday were able to hop aboard the Taurasi train, which eventually ran over the gutsy defending champions.

For three quarters, this matchup of the two teams with the best records in the league was the proverbial heavyweight fight. But then Taurasi delivered what in retrospect proved to be the knockout blow with her half-court heave.

Just before that, Minnesota's Lindsay Whalen -- who had herself a heck of a postseason, including 20 points, eight rebounds and six assists Tuesday -- lost the ball on a questionable traveling call. Still, the Lynx were down by just two points with 2 seconds left in the third quarter. And in the previous two games, Minnesota had been the stronger team in the fourth quarter.

But those 2 seconds turned out to be too much time to give Taurasi. She swished the 50-footer, turning the Mercury's lead to five points and permanently shifting the momentum.

"It's a punch," Minnesota's Maya Moore acknowledged of Taurasi's tape-measure 3-pointer. "We've overcome so much this season, and we always believe we have it in us to overcome runs. But we just didn't have enough this time."

Minnesota beat Phoenix in the West finals in 2011 and 2013 on the way to the Lynx's two WNBA championships. Everyone expected the two powerhouse teams would cross paths in a mega-showdown this year, too. This time, it was the Mercury who had more answers.

Center Brittney Griner had 22 points, making 9 of 12 shots. DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree each scored 14 points, and Taylor had 10.

"It's been a while since we've gotten this far," Taurasi said of the Mercury's most recent trip to the WNBA Finals, in 2009. "But when we've lost in the playoffs, I didn't go home sad. I went home feeling like our group of 11 players made it as far as we could. Championships are hard to win, especially when you have to play a great team like Minnesota."

A testament to the Mercury's might is how they were able to make the Lynx look not-so-great in the fourth quarter Tuesday. Phoenix outscored the Lynx 24-11 in the last 10 minutes, and Taurasi had eight of those points.

Other than Whalen, who had two points, the Lynx starters were held scoreless in the final period. It was the exact opposite of the fourth-quarter surge by the Lynx in Game 2 that had tied the series in Minneapolis on Sunday.

"They worked for it; they did what they needed to do," Moore said of the Mercury. "When you're playing that fast-pace style like we both do, you're going to get tired. And both teams were really tired in the fourth quarter. But you still have to be able to try to get those stops. We were able to get a few, but not converting on the other end, it kind of sucks the life out of you."

In that regard, Taurasi was the chief vampire among the Mercury players Tuesday. It's something she has been doing at the highest levels of women's basketball for the past 14 years, with championships at UConn, in the WNBA, in Euro League and internationally.

But as Taylor said, it's Taurasi's talent for getting everyone else around her to play even better than they think they can that is as much her signature as her own prodigious butt-kicking ability.

"She's a champion," Dupree said. "She wills us to win, she gets other people involved, and she hits huge shots."

Taurasi made 12-of-17 from the field Tuesday, but it's the "bomb" that will be most talked about. Like many teams, the Mercury will toss up half-court shots typically at the end of practice. It's mostly for fun, and when someone sinks one, she's supposed to get, like, $50 from her teammates.

"For a few years, Diana used to make those a lot," Taylor said. "Then it seemed like she stopped trying; I think she wanted to give someone else a chance to win the money. But on the day she wants to make one, she'll make it."

Unfortunately for the Lynx, Tuesday was that kind of day for Taurasi. Then again, there have been a whole lot of those days in her career.