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.
The obvious threat for Young to take would be Taurasi, but Chicago actually went away from that in their regular season matchups with the Mercury. It’s hard to know how much to take from those games, because Vandersloot and Delle Donne missed them due to injury and illness respectively, but the Sky had some success putting the quickness of little Jamierra Faulkner on Taurasi, Prince on Taylor, and leaving Young on Bonner. Jessica Breland had the natural matchup with Candice Dupree at power forward. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to go that way in the Finals. While she made some important shots in the first couple of playoff rounds, Young’s primary value comes from her defensive ability. Having her on Bonner – the most limited threat among Phoenix’s dangerous starting five – makes it barely worth having Young on the floor. So we’ll see. Young on Taurasi, while Prince and Vandersloot slide over to hide as much as they can on Taylor and Bonner, seems to make the most sense. Taylor will punish them inside occasionally, but Prince and Quigley just got a lesson in how to battle for post position while fighting with Shavonte Zellous in the Indiana series. That should’ve prepared them for Taylor. Bonner rarely goes inside, and rarely uses her size to punish teams when they put smaller defenders on her.
Neither team has an awful lot of depth, but the benches could mix things up. Erin Phillips is usually Phoenix’s sixth woman, and the matchups likely become a lot more ‘natural’ when she comes in to play in the backcourt. Chicago could shift things by going big, or occasionally by risking going small. Breland suffered a shoulder injury early in the playoffs, but came back for the Indiana series and looked ready to fight, even if she didn’t do much scoring. That gives the Sky the option of playing Fowles, Breland and Delle Donne together, even though we’ve seen very little of that frontcourt this season. It would allow Phoenix to defend them with fewer contortions – Bonner takes Delle Donne, Dupree takes Breland, and the Mercury are happy. But the extra size would give Phoenix something else to think about, at least. We’ll likely also see Vandersloot, Prince and Quigley all on the floor together at certain points, even though that’ll make Chicago looks like a bunch of munchkins running around against the Mercury’s giants. The extra quickness and shooting could be important for Chicago, considering they’re likely to have to hit a lot of shots from outside to win this series. If they’re comfortable with someone other than Young defending Taurasi, it’s a group that they might be able to get away with against the Mercury – although it makes entry passes to Griner even easier when the Phoenix perimeter players can see right over their defenders.
Chatman’s spent two series engaging her counterpart in coaching chess, trying to find the right lineup and searching for the right moment to steal rest for her key starters. Heading into Game 1, she’ll know all the options, but even she won’t know which ones are going to work and which will be a complete disaster. While they may end up trying different defenders on Delle Donne, Phoenix will largely back themselves to play their own game as they have all season, defend in their base scheme and matchups, and win without too much messing around. It’ll probably be the Sky who need to play chess, while hoping the Mercury don’t just hop all over them without ever needing to step beyond checkers.