That the WNBA is down to this matchup in the Western Conference is hardly a surprise. This is the third straight season that the Lynx and the Mercury match up with a trip to the Finals on the line. And it is one of the most interesting because it features so many of the league's elite talents, including Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Sylvia Fowles, Brittney Griner, Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner -- not to mention perhaps the league's two most rabid fan bases and most raucous home courts.
No. 1 Minnesota (22-12 in the regular season) vs. No. 2 Phoenix (20-14)
Minnesota, on paper, has the advantage in this series because of its extraordinary postseason success at the Target Center and the fact that the Lynx have home-court advantage in this three-game series. The Lynx are 18-2 -- the best mark in WNBA history --- on their home floor in the playoffs.
Phoenix, meanwhile, has its own precedents. The Mercury are looking to be the first team in the WNBA to repeat as league champions since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001 and 2002. They are also looking to join the Houston Comets as the only franchises in WNBA history to win three league titles.
Phoenix is the team that has had the best success against Minnesota over the past two years. Including regular-season games and last year's 2-1 win in the Western Conference Finals, the Mercury have an 8-4 record against Minnesota.
Key matchup: Backcourt. This is where the Mercury will begin to find out how much they miss having Diana Taurasi on the floor. While Bonner (15.8 PPG) has picked up the scoring load, the Mercury have not had significant offensive contributions from the point guard spot; undersized Leilani Mitchell has taken most of the minutes but is averaging just 6.7 points per game. And that is not a good place to be against Minnesota, which will bring Lindsay Whalen, the speedy Anna Cruz, Augustus and superstar tweener Moore at you in waves.
X factor: Rebekkah Brunson. Brunson's work on the boards, and her defensive efforts on Candice Dupree and/or Monique Currie will likely be the key point in this series. If Brunson is successful at neutralizing either one of those players on any given night, that will put more pressure on Bonner and Griner to score. And Griner, who was so dominant in the Tulsa series because the Shock didn't have a good matchup for her, is already going to be facing a tougher matchup with Fowles inside.
Regular-season series: The Mercury lead 3-2.
Smith prediction: Lynx in three games. In a series with Taurasi on the floor, it would be tough to pick against the Mercury to make a return trip to the Finals. But Taurasi isn't there, and Phoenix isn't quite as good a team without her, despite the outstanding play of Griner, Bonner and Dupree in the first round. Minnesota showed itself on Tuesday to be a very complete team. That will win out here in a competitive and entertaining series in which home-court advantage will be huge.
Mechelle Voepel prediction: Lynx in three games. The Lynx aren't putting games away as decisively as they or coach Cheryl Reeve would like. But, ultimately, they should be able -- on both talent and persistence -- to make it back to the WNBA Finals for the fourth time in the last five years.