Phoenix Mercury (West’s #1 seed, 29-5) vs Chicago Sky (East’s #4 seed, 15-19)
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): 97.00, 8th in WNBA
Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 99.51, 9th in WNBA
Season series: Mercury won 2-0
07/02 @Pho: Mercury won 87-69
07/11 @ Chi: Mercury won 72-66
(but Chicago were without both Vandersloot and Delle Donne for both regular season games, so don’t pay too much attention to those)
You’re going to notice a theme in this preview (and probably in most other previews you read for this series anywhere else). While there are certain areas where Chicago might be able to find a small edge, or where they can find hope for their prospects, you basically have to try to talk yourself into giving them a chance. Over the course of the 2014 WNBA season, the Phoenix Mercury were the best team in the league. They beat the second-best team in the last round, when they eliminated Minnesota in the Western Conference Finals. So you have to believe the Sky are coming together at exactly the right time, or that they create some specific issues for Phoenix, or that Pokey Chatman is going to wildly outcoach Sandy Brondello, to believe that Chicago can win three-out-of-five over the next 11 days.
Normally we’d talk about team offense and defense before delving into the minutiae of individual matchups, but it’s going to filter into every other topic, so we’ll start here. Chicago are one of the few teams in the WNBA who’ll largely defend Brittney Griner one-on-one. Most opponents double-team whenever she catches the ball remotely near the rim, but Chicago will trust Sylvia Fowles to defend her straight up. And she can do that. Phoenix will still look to go inside, and Griner will score at times, but Fowles is a strong and mobile enough defender to make it harder for Griner to score than it is against almost anyone else. That also puts a crimp in Phoenix’s offense elsewhere, because they often create open shots thanks to the ball going in to Griner, then rotating back out when extra defenders drop down on her, creating open looks. If Fowles can cope on her own, everyone else can stay home. It’ll be a similar story at the other end, where obviously Griner will defend Fowles, and her size and length will make it difficult for the Sky center to score inside. It’ll also be much harder for Chicago to feed Fowles than it was in the recent Indiana series, purely because of the size of all the other players around the floor. It’s hard to enter the ball with all those long limbs in the way.
After we get past the centers, it becomes much more complicated. Both teams have their designated defensive ‘stopper’, in Tamera Young for Chicago and DeWanna Bonner for Phoenix. Between them, they’ve covered Angel McCoughtry, Tamika Catchings, Candace Parker and Maya Moore in the last two rounds. But they both guard perimeter players (or at least players who spend the majority of their time on the perimeter – all of those opponents play at least a little power forward). So Bonner guarding Elena Delle Donne – if the Sky star stays at power forward, where she’s played almost all her basketball since returning midseason from her struggles with Lyme disease – would require some awkward shifting. Candice Dupree would have to slide over to guard Young. That’s possible, but what we may see instead is Dupree starting on Delle Donne, with Bonner guarding the biggest threat among the actual perimeter players. Especially if Delle Donne is still limited by the back issue that restricted her in the Eastern Finals, Dupree can probably cope on her. That would allow Bonner to cover Courtney Vandersloot, trying to upset the Chicago offense by unsettling their distribution at the point, or stay on top of Epiphanny Prince and Allie Quigley at shooting guard. Diana Taurasi will take whichever of those guards is left – and has done okay defensively this season with the security blanket of Griner behind her – while Penny Taylor hides on Young.