Phoenix Mercury (#1 seed, 29-5) vs Minnesota Lynx (#2 seed, 25-9)
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): 104.17, 2nd in WNBA
Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 98.68, 6th in WNBA
Season series: Mercury won 3-1
06/15 @Min: Mercury won 80-72
06/18 @Pho: Mercury won 92-79
07/31 @Min: Lynx won 75-67
08/09 @Pho: Mercury won 82-80
Since the early weeks of the season, when the WNBA began to shake itself out for 2014, it’s felt like these two teams were on a collision course. In their three-year reign at the top of the Western Conference (and mostly at the top of the League), the Minnesota Lynx have had challengers. They’ve had occasional poor runs, or losses here and there throughout each season, along with the upset defeat to Indiana in the Finals in 2012. But with Sandy Brondello taking over in Phoenix, the 2014 Mercury have come together as a true WNBA powerhouse, and even took over Minnesota’s regular spot at the top of the Western standings. So here we finally are, about to begin a best-of-three for all the marbles in the West, between two superstar-laden squads who barely know how to lose.
We’ve been through the respective qualities of these teams in the past – there was plenty of detail on that in the previews for the first round here and here, if you fancy a refresher – so here we’re going to concentrate on the direct matchup between the two teams. Offensively, they share several characteristics. Both teams are fantastically unselfish, moving the ball smoothly around the floor to whoever’s open and taking the right shot. Superstars willing to take a back seat when it aids winning basketball, or give up a good shot for a great one, have made that easier in both cities.
Minnesota are a little more focussed on specific scorers. The majority of their points tend to come from Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen, with Moore usually leading the way. Their posts will chip in here and there, usually on mid-range jumpers, and they might get an occasional burst from Monica Wright or Tan White off the bench, but Phoenix’s focus will be to stop those three. Phoenix have two key cogs in Diana Taurasi outside and Brittney Griner in, but with Candice Dupree, Penny Taylor and DeWanna Bonner the scoring is typically a little more spread out. Minnesota will try to stop Taurasi and Griner first and foremost, with Dupree a close third, and make someone else beat them.
Defense is where, over the course of the season, there was the biggest gap between these teams. They were the top two offenses in the league, and scoring points was rarely a problem. But with Griner constantly lurking around the rim, the Mercury developed a successful defense for the first time in years (and years, and years). On a surface level, it seems like Minnesota should have the perfect arsenal to nullify Griner, or at least minimise her impact. They have posts who can all play up high, acting as passers and fulcrums for the offense, rather than low-post threats. And they all at least have to be respected a little from 15 feet, so the likes of Janel McCarville and Rebekkah Brunson will try to drag Griner out of the paint as often and as far as possible. Also, in Moore and Augustus, the Lynx have two of the greatest jumpshooters the women’s game has ever seen, so they should be able to score fairly consistently from the perimeter without going anywhere near Griner under the basket. We’ll certainly see plenty of wide curls, pin-down screens and back-picks just to create a little space for those two scorers to fire away.
But Phoenix have been pretty good at dealing with that all season. The presence of Griner in the paint allows the remaining defenders to chase hard around screens, not fearing the drive, and stay close to opposing shooters – at least putting a challenge in from behind or the side when they rise up to shoot. And even a great shooting team is far better if they can get to the rim for higher-percentage attempts as often as possible. We’ll see Minnesota trying to get out in transition, so that they can score inside quickly before Griner can even make it back down the floor. And we’re also likely to see Phoenix eschew offensive-rebounding in favour of making sure they get back defensively as fast as possible, to shut down the Lynx transition game.
The other end of the floor might be the more interesting clash in this series. We pretty much know how Minnesota like to score after all these years, and between Griner and their big lineup we largely know how Phoenix will defend them. But when the Mercury get the ball, things get a little more complicated. Minnesota basically can’t guard Griner inside. She shot 31-47 (66%) in four games against them this season (admittedly without Brunson in the first two). McCarville will try to use her physicality to bump Griner out of position and make her catch the ball as far away from the basket as possible. Brunson and Devereaux Peters (and Damiris Dantas, if she ever returns from her personal reasons in Brazil) will try to use their athleticism to challenge a little more after the catch. But she’s too big for all of them – as she is for virtually every team in the world. We’ll see double-teams come across to stop her when she catches the ball anywhere remotely deep, and then Minnesota will hope they can rotate and cover quickly enough when she passes away from the defenders. Phoenix have a lot more perimeter shooters this year, which makes that a much bigger threat. Griner’s a very good passer for a post, and the Mercury’s ball movement tends to result in a lot of open shots away from those double-teams.
Minnesota will try to stop the ball ever reaching Griner. It’s a tough task – she’s so big that entry passes to her are usually pretty straightforward just by throwing the ball high – but ball-pressure on the passers and fighting for position inside will be vital to limit her touches. Shooting 66% isn’t that big a deal if she only takes eight or nine shots a night.
The Diana Taurasi that we saw against Minnesota in the last couple of regular season games between these teams (the ones where the Lynx had their full roster back together) wasn’t quite the same as the Taurasi we saw for much of the season. She was noticeably more aggressive offensively, firing shots quickly and trying to take over with her scoring rather than shifting the ball around to her teammates and happily playing a subdued role. It’ll be interesting to see what version of her is in play in this series. Against Los Angeles in the first round she shot the lights out in Game 1, then let her teammates take over in Game 2 – but that was because the path the action took defined the roles she needed to play. In those regular season games against the Lynx, she seemed to have made the decision beforehand, and was determined to fire away. Minnesota will use a variety of different defenders on her to try to keep her as quiet as possible. Augustus is probably the option in the starting lineup, with Whalen sliding over to a less dangerous threat in Taylor or Bonner (although they sometimes start with Whalen on Taurasi, and only shift if Diana starts to attack). But Wright and White will both spend time trying to harass Taurasi when they come off the bench as well. Griner’s the player they can’t match up with; the scorers and shooters around the floor need to be covered as well as possible; but Taurasi’s the one who makes the Mercury offense tick and can take over a game.
Important Notes, and Aspects to Watch
The individual matchup decisions could be interesting around the floor, although there aren’t likely to be too many surprises unless someone starts lighting up the scoreboard and forces a change. Phoenix will switch when they need to – that’s one of the positives of playing several big players of similar sizes – but Bonner has been getting the key assignment all year. Often that means the point guard, trying to unsettle the opposing offense with her length, but against Minnesota she’s likely to take Moore. Bonner will chase her around the floor over a variety of screens, and will actually try to avoid switching as much as possible. That’s where Bonner tends to get into trouble defensively – when she has to think too much – so sticking to one assignment as closely as possible is the smart way to use her. Taurasi will probably cover Whalen, as the next-best option on Phoenix’s perimeter, but there’s nowhere to hide against Minnesota’s perimeter players. Taylor usually stays out of the way as much as possible defensively – the knee issues mean she can’t move like she used to – but she’ll have to cover Augustus as well as she can. That’s a matchup Minnesota need to attack.
Health obviously has the potential to be a major factor. Both teams have a few bench players that their coaches trust to some extent, but neither is exactly deep. Augustus has had knee issues for much of the season, Brunson still isn’t quite her old self since returning from her own knee problem, and both teams have a tendency to drop-off badly when their stars are off the floor. We can only hope they stay as healthy as possible on both sides.
Similarly, we can only hope that officiating won’t be a major topic during this series – but it is going to be important. Taurasi moaned about how physical Minnesota were after the Lynx beat them in late July, then led the way when the Mercury were determined to get the first hit in when the teams met again in August. Both sides will test the limits early in games, see what the referees are calling, and then continue beating each other up all night if they’re allowed to get away with it. Foul trouble for Griner has been less common this year, but the Mercury are a completely different team if she’s forced to the bench, so expect the Lynx to try to get her reaching in the opening minutes. The defensive three-seconds rule will also be tested in this series, with Minnesota constantly playing their posts high and Griner always trying to lurk in the paint. Phoenix have rarely been called for it this year, but the Lynx will be pointing out infractions on a regular basis if they need to in order to make the officials pay attention.
The coaching chess-match could get interesting. Cheryl Reeve and Sandy Brondello have known for months that their teams were likely to be facing each other at this crucial stage in the season, and may well have saved up an idea or two to spring on their opponents in the Western Finals. Reeve might have a specific defender in mind for Griner, or an angle or technique for doubling her that we didn’t see in previous games between these teams. You also wonder if she’ll risk going small for any extended stretches with Moore at power forward. It hurts their interior help defense, but spreads the floor with an extra shooter and increases their team speed. Running past the Mercury could be a good option if they can survive defensively with those lineups. Phoenix will mostly rely on what’s been successful for them all year, but look out for how much Brondello uses their zone. It hasn’t always looked the most coherent or organised system for Phoenix, but keeping Minnesota’s offense off-balance is always a good idea, and San Antonio had a little success playing zone against them in the last round.
As with most spectators, I’m looking forward to this series immensely. Two exceptional teams going head-to-head is exactly what we all want to see. Minnesota have a slight edge in terms of having been at this stage and experienced the accompanying pressure and tension in recent times. Phoenix have many experienced players, but they’ve been swept their last three visits to the conference finals, and have never been at this stage with this group as the favourites. But it’s hard to escape the fact that over the course of the season Phoenix were the league’s dominant squad. Minnesota have never faced a challenger this strong since becoming a top-class team in 2011. And the Mercury have that home-court advantage that they essentially clinched with a win over the Lynx on the penultimate weekend of the regular season. So…
2-1 Mercury, in an absolute dogfight. But whoever wins, let’s just sit back and enjoy.