Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Western Conference Finals: Rivalry rising?


In order to begin a rivalry, several ingredients are required, with a winning franchise starting the recipe.

The Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers hold one thanks to its NFL-leading longevity in games played. At the height of the clash between the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings, a physical Western Conference Finals in 1996 set up a March 1997 climax with the Brawl in Hockeytown. A similar scrum in the 2003 American League Championship Series renewed a long, bitter grudge between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. NBA fans will tell stories of the peaks and valleys between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, whose 33 combined championships account for more than half of the league's 65 titles.

The 12 teams currently participating in the WNBA does not foster a geographical rivalry, so series history is usually the first indicator. That does not bode well for the Minnesota Lynx, who have had few opportunities with only three playoff appearances in 13 years.

Send in the Phoenix Mercury, whose roster and demeanor can naturally breed angst and aggression for opposing fans. Candice Dupree spoke of the "hothead" perception to ESPN prior to their game three win over the Seattle Storm to earn a match with the Lynx for the right to play in the WNBA Finals. Diana Taurasi has critics with her penchant for earning technical fouls when she disagrees with a call. Of course, there will also be bets placed on how many games both teams will break the century mark in this series with their fluency in the up-tempo, transition game.

"(Phoenix) is always putting pressure on your defense. They're one of the fastest teams. We have to expect a game with a lot of possessions," said Seimone Augustus, following the series-clinching win over San Antonio.

The Mercury pride themselves on the plethora of scorers to keep heat on opposing teams. Highlighting the reserves is DeWanna Bonner. She scored what was a career-high 24 points off the bench in their 112-105 win at Minnesota on July 13, the first of five 20-point games in 2011.

On the other hand, Minnesota's bench was blanked in an 85-80 loss at Phoenix Aug. 9, the low point of their streaky nature. However, observers must also note the 42 points they added in extended roles to close out the season with a 96-90 win Sept. 11. Jessica Adair recorded her first career double-double with 10 points and 13 rebounds.

"Our bench play is going to be a serious test. We're going to need them, especially for me. That running up and down, I'm going to need some subs!" Taj McWilliams-Franklin joked, referring to her 40 years of age.

The catalyst for building the potential rivalry is Augustus, the longest-tenured Lynx player in her sixth season with the franchise. Shaking off any sign of drama with her comic behavior, Augustus will seek to add defensive holds to her show-stopping routine.

"I've been in the league a long time, and Seimone has always been considered an offensive mastermind," McWilliams-Franklin said during the press conference after game three. "This year, coach Reeve put the onus on Seimone, as a veteran, to pick up her defensive intensity."

Ironically, while Augustus has been touted for improving her defense, her regular season numbers in all major statistical categories roughly followed her career averages. Augustus' increased supporters accounts for her career-low 16.2 points per game in 2011, even though her free throw shooting increased from 66 percent in 2010 to 86 percent this year and her field goal shooting climbed from 43 percent a year ago to 50 percent.

However, Augustus' first-round performance could create candidacy among the league's clutch players. Augustus is averaging 4.7 rebounds after the first round, up from her regular season average of 3.5. Her 21.7 points per game is 5.5 points ahead of her regular season pace.

In Minnesota's game three victory to clinch the first-round series with San Antonio, Augustus finished with 22 points and eight rebounds, two boards away from what would have been her second career double-double. Her first came June 10, 2008, when she had 11 points and 10 assists in a 75-66 loss to the Connecticut Sun.

"When she puts her mind to it, she's a great defender. She crashes, she plays hard," said Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson.

While little expectation will be placed on Augustus to get double-figure rebounding with Brunson, McWilliams-Franklin and Adair for post options, she will exhibit ambition to defend the superstars to counter those who say she can only score.

"She makes them do something different. Contesting, rebounding and still has the ability to get smooth while she's guarding the best player. That's the evolution of Seimone. To see it on the court, it's awesome," McWilliams-Franklin said.

Phoenix holds the obvious edge in playoff experience. Taurasi and Penny Taylor remain stalwarts from the 2007 championship team, with Bonner and Ketia Swanier able to draw from their 2009 Finals run. Brunson, herself a champion from the 2005 Sacramento Monarchs, sees no need to lecture her title-less teammates about the playoff atmosphere after advancing past the first round.

"They know the tempo that we need to play, the intensity they need to have and the sense of urgency they need to play with. I'm just going to lead by example," she said.

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