September 23, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Tempers have flared. Trash has been talked. Glares have been exchanged.

The Phoenix Mercury and Minnesota Lynx have met in the playoffs so often over the years that it's only natural that a rivalry has developed. Round 4 begins Thursday night, when the Lynx host the Mercury in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, the third the straight season and fourth in the last five that the two teams have met with a trip to the WNBA Finals on the line.

''It's a rivalry no matter what with Minnesota. If it was a preseason game, a regular season game, a playoff game. It doesn't matter,'' Mercury star Brittney Griner said. ''If we're on the blacktop, it's always a rivalry with Minnesota. That's why I always love playing Minnesota. It's one of those games that kind of remind you of college.''

The defending champion Mercury ended Minnesota's run of three straight trips to the finals last year with a tense 2-1 win in the three-game series. But Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen downplayed the significance of that defeat.

With so much on the line, motivation doesn't need to be manufactured.

''Our group is always hungry,'' Whalen said after the Lynx beat the Los Angeles Sparks in Game 3 of the Western semifinals on Tuesday night. ''No matter what.''

The Lynx swept the Mercury in 2011 en route to the franchise's first championship and did it again two years later on the way to title No. 2.

Last year Diana Taurasi and Griner teamed to knock the Lynx off of the Western Conference podium, with Taurasi bringing an extra edge to the proceedings. But Taurasi won't be there this year after accepting a lucrative offer from her Russian team to skip the WNBA season.

''We've met so many times over the years in different high pressure situations ... a lot of important games,'' Whalen said on Wednesday. ''They've had a great season, we've had a great season. It'll be a really fun series.''

The Mercury have done just fine without their star guard. They pounded the Tulsa Shock 91-67 in Game 2 of their semifinals and enter the series against the West's top seed brimming with confidence. The Mercury won the season series 3-2.

Thanks to injuries and trades, the Lynx starting five entered the playoffs having played a grand total of 50 minutes together for the season. They had to slug it out with the Sparks, but feel like they started to find the chemistry they need just in time.

''It was a familiar feeling and it felt really good to actually do it as opposed to a few games we had this year,'' Lynx star Maya Moore said. ''We learned how it feels not to do it and it's paid off in moments like this when we remember; when we stick to our identity.''

There will hardly be a need for scouting reports in this series. The two teams know each other as well as opponents can.

And that familiarity can often breed contempt.

''I think there's a definite rivalry,'' Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. ''We're after the same thing. ... Rivalries are great for the sport. I think it's great. I know both teams will be up for the game.''

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