Phoenix Mercury (#1 seed, 29-5) vs Los Angeles Sparks (#4 seed, 16-18)
Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 106.21, 1st in WNBA
Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 93.89, 1st in WNBA
Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 97.19, 6th in WNBA
Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 97.24, 5th in WNBA
Season series: Mercury won 5-0
5/18 @LA: Mercury won 74-69
7/6 @LA: Mercury won 94-89
7/24 @LA: Mercury won 93-73
7/29 @Pho: Mercury won 90-69
8/16 @Pho: Mercury won 76-69
Upsets happen in sport. Especially in best-of-three series, and where the underdog is a team with as much talent as Los Angeles who could randomly pull themselves together on any given night. But you have to try incredibly hard to talk yourself into believing LA will win this series. Maybe they can win it, if everything went right for them, if the Mercury picked up an injury or two, if Kristi Toliver or Candace Parker explode and light up the scoreboard. If we could play this series 100 times in 100 parallel universes, the Sparks would undoubtedly win a few of them. But talking yourself into believing it’s in any way likely in the one universe we’re living in? Good luck with that.
Over the course of a dominant season, Phoenix eventually ended up as statistically both the best offensive team in the WNBA and the best defensive team. They don’t play at the same breakneck speed offensively that we’ve seen in the past, but they’re unselfish to a fault and have so many threats around the floor that they’re just as dangerous as they’ve always been. Diana Taurasi makes them tick, moving the ball around and finding the open scoring option but always capable of pulling up to fire or driving to the rim herself. Brittney Griner has increasingly become a solid option to run the offense through, capable of finishing over anyone in the paint, but also a skilled and smart passer when opponents send extra defenders to stop her. Candice Dupree plays off both Taurasi and Griner perfectly, sliding into space for her near-automatic mid-range jumper or occasional dives to the basket. Penny Taylor has shown flashes of her old self this year, scoring from outside or on tricky drives to the basket, and even DeWanna Bonner sometimes remembers that she’s capable of hitting shots or attacking the rim if teams forget about her. Opponents might be able to pick their poison, but most of the time they’re going to get killed one way or another.
And it’s just as tough at the other end. Under Sandy Brondello, the Mercury’s defense has finally come around, with Griner the obvious centerpiece at the core. Her length and athleticism in the middle deters drivers from entering the paint, makes it difficult for posts to finish, and generally changes the way other teams have to run their offense. She also allows her teammates to play differently on the perimeter, chasing over screens because they’re not afraid of being beaten on drives. She’s not quite the finished article – she can still jump off-balance on pick-and-roll coverage, not quite finding the middle-ground between showing on the ballhandler and being able to recover back to the big – but that just makes her scarier for the future. LA will try to drag her out of the paint, but Brondello’s schemes have done a good job of allowing her to hang around the basket this year regardless of the efforts of other teams. And while all of LA’s posts can hit the mid-range jumper, they won’t be nearly as effective if they can’t find ways to create layups.
The Sparks have plenty of talent, they just haven’t been able to put it all together consistently this season. They eventually settled on a triple-post setup as their base group, with Jantel Lavender and Nneka Ogwumike joining Parker in the starting lineup. It’s not always the perfect solution because it pushes Parker further away from the basket, but her size and willingness as a passer sometimes makes Lavender and Ogwumike more effective inside. The problem is that LA’s pet high-low play with their bigs is hard to pull off against Phoenix. The Mercury are so big and long with their starting group – even before you get to Griner at center – that those passes are difficult to complete. LA will run the same plays, but may quickly find that they need to go to a different option. They’ll also try to bring Lavender and Ogwumike up to the elbows (or even higher) to pull Griner out, but she’s been dealing with those tactics all season. She’ll take whoever’s nearest the rim, and still cause her usual havoc on help defense. LA are going to need their guards – primarily Toliver, but ideally also Alana Beard and occasionally some of the others – to hit some shots. Toliver had a couple of hot games late in the season, finally starting to look a little like her old self, and a night where she lights up the scoreboard could be LA’s best chance in this series.
On defense, the Sparks will do the best they can, but are likely to be picked apart by the Mercury’s movement, passing and overall skill. LA have the size around the floor to at least compete with Phoenix in theory, but they rarely manage to hold things together for a full 40 minutes. They’re beaten too easily off the dribble on the perimeter, and their help defense is often a step slow – or just doesn’t move at all – in the middle. Which is before you even consider the problems they’re going to have coping with Griner’s size and finishing ability in the post. They’ve lost five times to Phoenix this year. One was so early in the season that both sides were still figuring themselves out, one so late that neither team really cared. Of the three in the middle, two were blowout Mercury wins and one needed showpiece nights from both Parker and Toliver to keep LA close. It’s that kind of matchup.
Important Notes, and Aspects to Watch
Who’s defending whom? LA’s big lineup does present a few issues for Phoenix. Typically, Bonner is assigned to the primary perimeter threat, which is most likely to be Toliver. Bonner will try to upset both Toliver’s distribution and her shooting with her length. But Parker’s a de facto perimeter player in the current Sparks lineup, which would leave either Taurasi or Taylor to cover LA’s superstar – neither of whom are exactly known for their defense. It’s unlikely to be a major problem – players like Beard and Armintie Herrington, who’ll see plenty of minutes, are minimal offensive threats so help will come on Parker and Toliver where necessary – but at least it’s one area where LA may have an edge.
Rebounding. Both of these teams are poorer rebounding sides than they ought to be considering the size they put out on the floor. But if LA are going to make any inroads in this series, they need to attack the glass and take advantage of one of Phoenix’s few flaws. The Sparks are going to have to work their butts off to have a chance against the Mercury, which means winning the battle on the boards, and getting back in transition – two elements that are sometimes difficult to combine. Consistent effort has been something LA have struggled with all year, whether under Carol Ross or Penny Toler, but without it they have absolutely no chance in this series. Phoenix are likely to eschew offensive rebounding in favour of making sure they get back in transition themselves. LA’s best offense tends to come quickly, ideally on the break, so if the Mercury shut that down the Sparks will struggle to score.
Bench and health. Both of these teams are pretty thin, which makes the health of their starters even more important. LA have Herrington, who’ll see plenty of minutes to combine with Beard as the primary defenders trying to stop Taurasi, but after that there’s no one on their bench that Toler trusts. Lindsey Harding, Candice Wiggins and Sandrine Gruda will get spot minutes, but if they actually contribute anything it’ll be a surprise bonus. Phoenix’s bench is much better than it used to be, and between Erin Phillips, Shay Murphy and Mistie Bass they’ve got some decent options on the sidelines. But the drop-off in performance is usually visible when more than one reserve is on the floor, and Brondello’s rotation may well tighten up for the playoffs. With Phillips, Murphy and Anete Jekabsone-Zogota alongside the starters, they do at least have a lot more perimeter shooting this year to stretch the floor when they need to
If you’ve read everything above, you’re probably already pretty clear on what’s coming in this section. Phoenix should win this series, and it shouldn’t be all that close. The Mercury have been exceptional this season at both ends of the floor, and it’s going to take something unlikely for LA to challenge them. The Sparks are a dangerous team on their night – Parker’s one of the game’s best all-around offensive players, Toliver’s always a wildcard – but there’ve been no signs this season that they could unite well enough to beat a team like Phoenix twice in three games.
2-0 Phoenix. Maybe LA can steal one and force a nervous decider, but even that would be a surprise.