By the numbers (over entire regular season):
Los Angeles (24-10) vs Phoenix (19-15)
Points scored per 100 possessions: 102.73 (2nd in WNBA) – 99.6 (4th)
Points conceded per 100 possessions: 93.99 (2nd) – 100.4 (10th)
Rebound percentage: .494 (7th) – .486 (10th)
Season series between the teams: Tied 2-2
06/14 @Pho, Mercury won 97-81
07/14 @Pho, Sparks won 88-76
07/18 @LA, Mercury won 90-84
09/15 @LA, Sparks won 89-55
Since back in the preseason, the 2-3 matchup in the Western Conference’s first-round looked appetising. With three teams expected to be real powers in the West, whichever two were forced to play each other were going to have a real fight on their hands. Then the Phoenix Mercury went and changed the script, in a variety of ways. Initially it was by failing to live up to expectations, producing a mediocre team despite the return of several important players and the addition of Brittney Griner. Then a midseason coaching change led to a new outlook and a new philosophy, and ultimately kept them in that same top-three they were always supposed to be a part of. Meanwhile, all the Los Angeles Sparks have done is produce their second consecutive 24-10 season, while exhibiting a variety of strengths and frailties along the way. Eventually, we’ve been left with a first-round playoff series that looks just as intriguing as it did back at the start of the year.
Phoenix are a strange team to figure out. Since Russ Pennell took over, they’ve gone 9-4 and exhibited a much greater willingness to actually put some effort and concentration into playing defense. They’ve still had breakdowns at times, and that record doesn’t show the cupcake schedule they’ve faced since Pennell arrived, but there’ve definitely been noticeable improvements. Although at times under Pennell they’ve struggled on the offensive end. He’s left much of the offense alone, with a tweak here or there, but they’ve had games where turnovers have piled up and the players looked like they barely knew each other. Now they’re in the postseason, they don’t have any more games against weak opposition, and they’re unlikely to get away with performances like that.
In some ways, the Sparks have had similar inconsistencies. As their record suggests, and the numbers that place them as the second-best offense and second-best defense in the league reinforce, they’ve been very strong at times. When they’re rolling, running the floor and hitting shots, they can be an overwhelming team. Kristi Toliver can light you up from outside, with Lindsey Harding hitting her mid-range pullup and supporting players like Alana Beard and Marissa Coleman making a few shots as well. Then they have one of the most fearsome post pairings in the league in do-everything MVP candidate Candace Parker and hyper-athletic Nneka Ogwumike, plus the size and strength of Jantel Lavender coming off the bench. This is a very dangerous lineup. But they have a tendency to lose focus, or just not show up on occasion. Any (or occasionally all) of those players have been known to fade out of the action, allowing games to pass them by. That can’t happen when everything’s on the line in the postseason.
This series presents some fascinating matchups, which we essentially still haven’t seen in collective action, despite the franchises playing each other four times this season. Candice Dupree missed their first and last clashes, due to suspension and rest/injury respectively, while Griner missed the two in the middle. And only the final game, when the Sparks destroyed the Mercury on Sunday in a meaningless capper to the regular season, was with Pennell onboard. So we haven’t seen how LA are going to handle dealing with the size of Griner inside while Dupree presents her pick-and-roll threat and smooth finishing from the other side of the frontcourt. Ogwumike is likely to take Griner, and in their glimpses of the big rookie so far this season LA have done a solid job of keeping her quiet. They also have Lavender as a bigger option if they need it from the bench. But Pennell has been on Griner to step up her game since he arrived, and this is the time. The Mercury need her to be active and they need her to score – and if she can play well enough early in the series to force the Sparks to re-think their plan to defend her, all the better. Parker will probably start on Dupree, and she’ll have to concentrate. That’s Candace’s greatest deficiency as a defender – she’s fine in one-on-one isolation, but if you make her think and help she can run into trouble. Dupree will move around the floor, and drift into space, and the Taurasi-Dupree pick-and-roll will be a centerpiece of the Mercury’s offense until LA prove they can trap or rotate well enough to cover it.
Diana Taurasi, of course, is the key to everything for Phoenix. This season their leader has also been their primary ballhandler and distributor, along with being their most dangerous scoring threat if she happens to start lighting it up from the perimeter. And this is also where the return of Penny Taylor could be important. With Briana Gilbreath on the floor, the Sparks had a place to stash Kristi Toliver while Harding and Beard handled Taurasi and DeWanna Bonner. Toliver’s an improved defender, but she and Harding still make a diminutive backcourt, and they’re going up against a huge perimeter in Taurasi, Taylor and Bonner. The speed and agility of Harding and Toliver could well lead to a big advantage when LA have the ball, because Taurasi barely plays anything resembling actual defense, and Taylor’s mobility is still questionable after returning from injury (especially if you ask her to cover guards – they’ll probably start Taylor on Beard, and ask Bonner to chase Toliver around). But the raw size and strength of Phoenix’s perimeter options could be a problem for LA, and force substitutions and shifts to compensate. Of course, that could just be good preparation for Minnesota in the next round, considering the Lynx have presented similar issues all year for LA’s starting group.
The final regular season matchup between these teams didn’t really tell us much, because no one was giving anything away, Dupree didn’t play, and Phoenix quit pretty early after the game became an ugly blowout. But it was a reminder of how LA’s game can fluctuate. They hit shots. Sometimes it’s just that ludicrously, ridiculously simple. Perimeter options like Harding and Toliver were stroking it from outside, and even Parker and Ogwumike stepped out and made a few as well. It took the pressure off everyone, and from there the Sparks were in complete control. If that happens in this series, Phoenix are in deep trouble, which is why their newly discovered defensive effort is so important. They have to challenge perimeter shots hard without conceding the interior, which ought to be possible with Griner sat in the paint to help on penetration. If the Sparks’ shooters heat up, Phoenix are doomed. But we’ve also seen Griner over-help frequently, and the Mercury fail to rotate in behind her. When that happens, opponents are left with wide open offensive rebounds, and easy putback chances. LA haven’t been great on the offensive glass this year, but they’ve got the players to capitalise if Griner and the Mercury offer up the chances.
Key to Watch: Everyone wants to run; who gets it done?
While they haven’t always been their free-flowing selves under Pennell (or even under Gaines this year), Phoenix still want to push the ball. Taurasi’s been a distributor for much of this season – often to too great an extent – but she still likes the pullup three in transition, and she’ll look to hit players like Bonner if they leak out in space. Meanwhile LA are constantly looking to push the pace, and avoid having to set up in a halfcourt offense (where they’re sometimes too static, or settle for jumpers too easily). They have the athletes and finishers to get out on the break, and the more cheap points they can create by beating the opposition down the floor the better. This is where Phoenix’s lack of ballhandling could come back to haunt them. Taylor’s return helps a little, because she can pass and distribute, and she’s just such a smart player. But they’ve still basically just got Taurasi and backup point guard Jasmine James, plus a bunch of fill-ins to handle the ball. That makes them vulnerable to passing errors and turnovers, and makes them slower in transition (where both these teams are occasionally half-asleep defensively). Phoenix aren’t a good enough team in the halfcourt to allow LA too many easy baskets on the run, so they’re going to have to keep the turnovers down and work hard to get back on long rebounds. Or LA will simply run by them.
Pennell, along with the return of Taylor, has made the Mercury a much more interesting and threatening prospect. Rather like LA, they now have offensive threats at virtually every spot on the floor, which makes them tough to guard, and they at least try to play some defense. But it’s likely going to take something special from Phoenix to win this series, something we haven’t seen from them on a consistent basis this year. Taurasi’s going to have to explode beyond the facilitator role she’s stuffed the stat sheet from all season, and take over games offensively. Or Griner’s going to have to dominate Ogwumike to the extent that LA have to change their defense via new assignments or extra double-teams. Because the Sparks should have strength in too many areas for Phoenix to cope with. They can beat you inside or out, with Toliver shooting over the top or Parker dominating with her versatile and athletic scoring ability (Dupree’s going to need to step up from her typical turnstile-approach to defense). It’s not impossible to see the Mercury winning the series – they have the weapons to hurt anyone, and LA could always go cold outside and lose heart – but they’re going to have trouble stopping the Sparks all around the floor. Plug one hole, and another is likely to open up elsewhere on the court.
Los Angeles 2-1, with Taurasi dragging her team to a win, but unable to keep them afloat for the whole series.