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Lynx’s chances in conference finals come down to containing Griner

Sylvia Fowles vs. Brittney Griner is the marquee matchup in WNBA Western Conference Finals. 

Sylvia Fowles vs. Brittney Griner, above, is the key matchup in this best-of-three series.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Sylvia Fowles and Dev Peters use adjacent lockers in the Lynx locker room at the Target Center, and both were on their smartphones when the room opened to reporters Tuesday night. They didn’t have much time for congratulatory texts.

Twenty-five minutes after the Lynx eliminated Los Angeles in the deciding Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals, the players turned their attention to Thursday night’s conference final Game 1 against defending WNBA champion Phoenix on the same floor. Assistant coach Shelley Patterson already distributed Mercury scouting packets to the players, so Fowles and Peters had little time to savor what just happened.

Fowles, acquired in a blockbuster trade July 27, had been a non-factor the first two games of the series and the first three quarters of this one before arising in the fourth quarter to score nine of her 13 points. Coach Cheryl Reeve benched Fowles the entire second quarter and most of the third while Peters turned in the best game of her career — 12 points, five rebounds, three steals and three blocks in 19 minutes off the bench.

“Devereaux just came in and was fierce,” said Seimone Augustus, who finished with 16 points.

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The Lynx waited the entire series for Fowles to do something, and Fowles finally delivered when the Lynx needed her most. “I felt like the fourth quarter was just energizing for me,” Fowles said. “The players that were in there were doing a good job, and I just wanted to go in there and continue that flow.”

Said Reeve: “I’m sure it didn’t feel very good for her to be sitting and watching for as long as she did. But Dev held the fort down for her and played so well. Syl had a chance to watch and say, ‘Screw this, I’m not trying to be on the bench.’ Obviously it came at a good time for us.”

The Lynx pursued the 6-foot-6 Fowles, a two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, for seven months because Brittney Griner altered the balance of power in the Western Conference. Last year’s conference finals loss to the Mercury told Reeve that the Lynx needed a bigger and more mobile presence in the middle than Janel McCarville to deal with Griner, a 6-foot-8 shot blocker and scorer with a ridiculous wingspan. Griner blocked a WNBA playoff record 11 shots in Game 1 of the Mercury’s two-game sweep of Tulsa in their West semifinal, both routs. 

Fowles vs. Griner is the key matchup in this best-of-three series. Phoenix may be less formidable without star guard Diana Taurasi, who is sitting out the season, but they still have dangerous scorers in DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree. Fowles needs to be strong in the low post to occupy Griner and free the lane for Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and even Anna Cruz to drive. 

“One of the key reasons we made this trade is to be able to handle ourselves inside in a way that’s more challenging for Griner,” Reeve said. “She’s got to pay more attention to Syl. It keeps her a little more occupied, which is great for the rest of the players who are trying to score.

“I think it’s just going to come down to a test of wills. They each want to do certain things at both ends of the floor. They’re both going to work really hard to make sure they don’t get the position that they’re after. I think that’s going to be a really fun matchup.”

So getting Fowles on track against the Sparks was critical. In Game 1 she disappeared after the opening minutes, taking only five shots and scoring four points, though grabbing nine rebounds. Fowles was equally unassertive in Game 2 (10 points, seven rebounds).

Tuesday night Fowles committed two fouls in the first quarter, and Peters played so well in her place that Reeve sat Fowles the rest of the half. When Fowles began the third quarter by missing a layup, committing her third foul and then mishandling the ball for a turnover — all in the first 86 seconds — Reeve yanked her for Peters, who quickly sank a jumper and a layup. 

“I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t tentative,” Fowles said. “Things, it so happened, just didn’t work my way. I’m not really stressing about it because we’ve got good players around us who can get it done, and hopefully I can do better next series.”

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Not until the fourth quarter did Fowles take the floor again, with much more effective results. Fowles blocked two shots, sank two buckets inside and hit 5 of 6 from the line.

“She stuck with it,” said Augustus, Fowles’s teammate at Louisiana State and with the U.S. Olympic Team. “That’s part of our leadership here. We kept encouraging her: At some point it’s going to be your time. And when you get in, do what you do — fill the lane, get easy baskets, get (offensive boards). And it came down to that. She was able to get in there and get her hands on the ball a couple times and get to the free throw line, and that really helped us expand the lead and pull out this victory.”

Said Reeve: “She needed that. When she got here, everything was new. She was trying to figure things out. You go into your first playoff series for your new team, I’m sure there was a little bit, maybe not feeling things out, but trying to get the vibe of what’s going on. It took awhile. She came through in a really big way in the fourth quarter.” 

The Lynx need much more of that, beginning tonight. Game 2 will be Sunday in Phoenix, with a possible Game 3 on Tuesday night at the Target Center. 

“The longer this team plays together, the better it’s going to get,” Reeve said. “I’m really thrilled we get the chance to play this week.”