While the Minnesota Lynx did not get a double bye into the semifinals of the WNBA playoffs, the extra two days of rest getting the bye to the second round may have been enough for Sylvia Fowles to make her return Thursday night against the Phoenix Mercury.
Fowles, the WNBA's all-time leading rebounder, who averaged 14.6 points and 9.7 rebounds in just seven games in the "wubble," has been sidelined since aggravating a calf injury in the first quarter of Minnesota's loss to Las Vegas on Aug. 13. The fourth-seeded Lynx (14-8) went 8-6 without her counting the game she was sidelined, but four of the losses ' including an 83-79 setback to the Mercury on Aug. 30 ' came to teams still in the title hunt.
The 34-year-old forward returned to practice Tuesday, and coach Cheryl Reeve is hoping Fowler can get back into sync to form her usual potent tandem with second-year forward Napheesa Collier, who averaged 16.1 points and 9 rebounds.
"It's one of those things where we certainly want Syl back in the fold, but you also have to kind of recall what you were doing before," Reeve told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "I think defensively we're going to get a big boost if we have Syl out there. Offensively, we'll fine-tooth comb the areas that we were really good. ' We're going to do our best to marry the best of Syl and the best that we did without Syl."
The defense has been lacking at times without Fowler as the Lynx yielded 83.6 points per game in 14 contests compared to 75 per contest in the first eight when they went 6-2.
Minnesota adjusted offensively by becoming a more perimeter-oriented team and shot 41 percent from 3-point range in its final 14 games. The Lynx were also more efficient, averaging 110.4 points per 100 possessions in those game and averaged 87.5 points. Rookie Crystal Dangerfield led the team in scoring at 16.2 points per game, and seven players averaged at least 2.4 assists.
The fifth-seeded Mercury (14-9) entered the second round with a flourish as Shey Peddy's 3-pointer at the buzzer lifted them to an 85-84 victory over 2019 champion Washington. Peddy, who finished with a season-high 12 points, played 15 games on the Mystics title-winning team last year and nine this year before being cut and joining the Mercury on Aug. 19.
"It's an indescribable feeling," Peddy told azcentral. "To see how excited my teammates and coaches were. It's the best I've felt probably ever. For me to hit that shot against them is a fairy tale moment. I don't think you can write it up any better than that."
The euphoria of the win, though, has quickly given way to the challenge of trying to stop the Lynx's frontcourt. Britney Griner left the "wubble" for personal reasons last month, and while Phoenix won seven of nine down the stretch, Kia Vaughn and Brianna Turner will have their hands full.
Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith give Phoenix plenty of backcourt firepower. The duo combined for 47 points while helping the Mercury rally from 13 down in the second half, and even at 38, Taurasi ' the league's all-time leading scorer ' remains a force as she averaged a team-best 18.7 points while shooting 36.5 percent from beyond the arc.
"We want the ball in their hands, we want them being aggressive," Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello told ESPN regarding her backcourt.
Minnesota was able to beat Phoenix without Fowles, recording a 90-80 win Aug. 21 as Collier, had 20 points, nine rebounds, and six assists. Hartley had 24 points and Diggins-Smith 21 for the Mercury, who were playing their first game without Griner and had Taurasi finish with 14 points on 3-of-12 shooting.
The winner of this game will play either Seattle or Las Vegas in a best-of-5 semifinal series.