ST. PAUL, Minn. — She should have been happy, but that’s not the way newly named WNBA Coach of the Year Cheryl Reeve operates. Scanning a stat sheet on the way to the postgame news conference Friday, Reeve appeared puzzled, as if the numbers didn’t add up. But she couldn’t figure out why.
In a physical, long, brutal game that featured 54 fouls and 68 free throws, Reeve’s Lynx outlasted the Mercury 96-86 to take a 2-0 lead in their best-of-five semifinal. The series shifts to Phoenix for Game 3 on Sunday (ESPN, 5 p.m. ET), a contest the Mercury seem ill-equipped to win after again failing to make defensive stops at critical junctures.
Yet it was Reeve who criticized her own team’s defense, glossing over the 20 turnovers forced and 19 points generated off them. Two years ago, the Mercury blew the Lynx off the floor in the decisive Game 3 of the semifinals, denying the Lynx a shot at becoming the first team to win back-to-back titles since Los Angeles in 2001-02. That remains the only milestone to elude the Lynx in this run of three championships in five years.
With the Lynx rolling, the fouls piling up and Phoenix going more than five minutes without a basket, Brondello gambled by putting Griner back in with 3:23 left in the quarter. Griner picked up her third foul defending a Moore drive in the quarter’s final minute. She didn’t return until the second half, when she picked up a fourth foul quickly.
Griner finished with no baskets, two points, and two rebounds in 18:19. This after she grabbed only two rebounds in Game 1, a total she called “ridiculous” and “unacceptable” in a playoff game.
“She never really got back into the game,” Brondello said. “She shouldn’t put her head down, because she got us this far.”
Fowles, named the WNBA’s Defensive Player of the Year earlier in the day, attacked the basket with Griner on the bench but soon committed her third foul. So did backup forward Natasha Howard.
With backup center Janel McCarville unavailable because of back spasms, the rugged work fell to veteran power forward Rebekkah Brunson, who responded with her 12th career playoff double-double (13 points and 11 rebounds) in 35 minutes. Fowles nearly had a double-double herself (14 points, 9 rebounds) in only 23 minutes.
“I don’t think I did anything exceptional,” Brunson said. “I don’t think I did more than I do usually.”
“It’s a tough time for your post players to be sitting next to you for so many minutes,” she said. “We needed every bit of Rebekkah Brunson tonight. For Natasha and Syl, anything Rebekkah wants for the next couple of days, those two need to do for her.”
Reeve describes herself as a worrier, and that was apparent looking ahead to Game 3. She knows Phoenix owns the league’s second-best home record since 2014 (40-11, just behind Minnesota’s 44-8).
She expects greatness from Diana Taurasi, who scored 12 of her 31 points in the fourth quarter. She can’t presume Phoenix will shoot 2-for-12 from beyond the arc again, as it did Friday. Moore didn’t score in the fourth quarter Friday, and Reeve said the former league MVP needs to be better.
“I hope we’re really smart and kind of adjust and be way more disciplined in our efforts on the defensive end,” Reeve said. “Offense is not going to be easy. So the mindset is, if we don’t score, they don’t score.”
Brunson conceded her coach had a point.
“I think we know how we want to play defensively, and I don’t think we’ve quite gotten that done,” she said.
“Give Phoenix a lot of credit. They’re a great team and they’re really testing us. There are some things we can do a little bit better, some things we can fine-tune just to keep this thing rolling. We know what it is, and we’re going do whatever we can to get back to playing the way we want to play defense.”