Mercury Offense vs Sky Defense
Phoenix played some really pretty offensive basketball this season, on their way to producing the best offense in the WNBA. While Taurasi outside and Griner inside are their most obvious threats, they move the ball unselfishly around the floor to the best option, and the fact that everyone on the floor is a scoring threat at any given moment makes them especially hard to defend. Taurasi’s one of the greatest scorers the women’s game has ever seen, capable of firing from anywhere, drawing lots of fouls, and finding her way to the rim when necessary – as she finally illustrated in the deciding game against Minnesota, after shooting poorly from the perimeter in previous games against the Lynx. Griner has developed as an interior threat, finishing at an efficient rate inside on post moves and short turnarounds, and moving better without the ball to find space for herself on the way to the rim. Fowles’s size will make it more difficult to just toss lobs up high to Griner, but she’s still got a couple of inches on the Sky center. The option will still be there. She’s also a much, much better passer than Fowles, so her teammates can score off her by waiting in space or cutting through it.
Dupree’s been the next option for Phoenix, almost automatic from mid-range when she pops into the space created by defenses leaning towards Taurasi and Griner. If Delle Donne’s hurting, covering Dupree’s movement is going to be tough, because she can slide to the rim and finish smoothly as well. Having something approaching the old Penny Taylor back has also been important for Phoenix this year. She’s a little slower than before, but she’s still got the all-court game that allows her to score inside and out, constantly makes the right pass to the right teammate, and generally makes plays all over the floor. Bonner has helped herself and her team simply by taking fewer shots this year, recognising that there’s often a better option than just firing away. But it helps Phoenix when she’s aggressive. Attacking the basket off the dribble when it’s on, driving into the space afforded her by teams who help away from her, and occasionally hitting a wide open jumper so opponents don’t just ignore her entirely.
The fact that the Mercury can space the floor now also makes them much more dangerous offensively this year than they were last. Taurasi was the primary ballhandler last year as well, but also the only player opponents really had to worry about from deep. Now they’ve got Taylor, Phillips off the bench (plus Shay Murphy and Anete Jekabsone-Zogota if Brondello goes that deep into her rotation), and Bonner if you leave her completely alone. With Griner, Dupree and Mistie Bass all comfortable to at least 15 feet as well, that’s a big problem for Chicago and one of the key differences between what the Sky faced in their series against Indiana and what they’ll be up against in the Finals.
Chicago mostly did a solid job of playing a kind of ‘shell’ defense against Indiana. They kept the Fever out of the paint, forcing them to take perimeter jump shots, and in the end Indiana couldn’t hit enough of them to win two-out-of-three. But Phoenix have bigger threats in the paint. Phoenix move the ball quickly, fluently, and with precision. And Phoenix can shoot. Chicago are going to have to protect the paint, and challenge all those perimeter jumpers as fiercely as possible to force misses. Fowles slides over to help a lot defensively. It’s part of why Chicago kept giving up offensive rebounds to Indiana, because she was constantly out of rebounding position after rotating to challenge a penetrator or simple ballhandler coming off a screen. But the Sky won’t want her leaving Griner too much, and if she does Phoenix are good enough to rotate the ball to the open player and finish in the space left behind.
In their series with Minnesota, eventually Phoenix’s ball movement was too good for the Lynx’s defensive rotations. They just beat the defense, and scored in the space. It’s going to be hard for Chicago’s defense to cope with the Mercury offense. Delle Donne’s weak-side help defense is pretty poor most of the time anyway, and if she’s below 100% health it becomes even dicier. The whole team needs to play ‘on-a-string’ defense, and even then Phoenix have a size advantage all around the floor. The Mercury can pass over and shoot over their defenders at almost every spot.
We’ll see Chatman try some things. She likes to have Fowles hedge hard on high ball screens, but they might back off that in favour of her sliding back into the paint to cover the lob to Griner. We’ll see the Sky big and small lineups to give Phoenix different looks. We’ll definitely see the Sky try some zone. Under Chatman that usually means a fairly vanilla 2-3, and they’re often not particularly effective. But Phoenix have been unsettled by zones occasionally this season, and it would at least force the Mercury to attack in slightly different ways. The problem is that the ball movement from one side of the floor to the other will still beat most of the rotations, and Phoenix have the players to knock down shots over the zone if that’s what’s left open. Maybe the Mercury hit cold streaks, and Chicago find some success with it, but it’ll be a gamble. The Sky are going to have to gamble at various points in this series, because playing straight up is unlikely to result in them coming out on top.
Sky Offense vs Mercury Defense
This end of the floor is a little more up in the air. Chicago’s offense can be a hit-or-miss affair, fluctuating in style and effectiveness from one quarter to the next, never mind from game to game. Piecing together enough points against Phoenix could prove to be pretty tricky.
They’ll try to go inside to Fowles. They actually discovered a little rhythm doing that against the Fever, using Vandersloot to set screens for Fowles to roll deep into the paint (somewhat reminiscent of Phoenix, actually, who often use Taurasi as a post screener to help Griner gain separation). But that was against a regular-sized point guard in Briann January, and an undersized center in Erlana Larkins. Running that set against Griner and probably either Bonner or Taurasi is a completely different proposition. The entry pass over the top often just won’t be there, and even if they managed to force a switch, Phoenix have the size to be able to do that and cope.
Chicago will also bring Fowles high to set screens, which also follows the pattern that many opponents try against Phoenix of dragging Griner outside to cover the pick-and-roll. It’ll be interesting to see how Phoenix deal with that. While they can switch almost anything, the Mercury always want Griner near the rim and don’t really want someone like Taurasi or Taylor on Fowles if they can avoid it. So Griner’s unlikely to hedge too hard, and is more likely to fade backwards while her teammate gets around the screen as quickly as possible. That likelihood means Chicago may try to run those plays with Prince or Quigley, rather than Vandersloot, because then the ballhandler becomes a bigger threat to just pull up in the space immediately created by the screen and hit the jump shot. Vandersloot can hit an open jumper, but isn’t really a scorer coming off picks – and the threat of the drive is lessened by Griner waiting under the rim.
As a general rule, Chicago are going to have to hit perimeter shots to win this series. They have bigger players who can score inside than Minnesota, with Fowles and even Delle Donne posing bigger interior threats than any of the Lynx posts. But while Minnesota were at their best in the Western Finals when they moved the ball and attacked, even then they often had to move the ball back outside and knock down shots from mid-range. The Sky aren’t likely to get many layups in this series, either. Fowles has shown in previous encounters that she’s not afraid of Griner. She’s one of the few opponents who’ll go directly at the Defensive Player of the Year, resulting in an occasional finish at the basket and usually a ball or two being sent into the third row by a Griner block. But otherwise it’s going to be tough for Chicago to get good looks in the paint. Prince, Quigley, Vandersloot and even Young are going to have to hit enough shots to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
Plus, of course, there’s Chicago’s primary x-factor. Elena Delle Donne is a superstar at her best, who can change games on her own. She scored 17 points in the fourth quarter of their Game 3 decider against Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs. But we don’t know how much of the real Delle Donne we’re going to see in this series. She missed a long stretch of the season due to a flare up of her problems with Lyme disease, played restricted minutes for the remainder of the regular season while she worked to regain her stamina, and then started struggling with a back injury against Indiana. She barely played in the second half of the decider in that series while her teammates closed it out. They’ll need her against Phoenix. She stretches the floor and bends the defense in ways that few other players can, because she can fire from anywhere, shoot over most defenders, and she’s one of the best in the game at drawing fouls (and 93% from the stripe when she gets there). She was a decoy for much of the series against the Fever, but that only lasts for so long, and won’t be as effective against a Phoenix team more willing to defend her one-on-one. If she’s mostly healthy, she’d give Chicago a puncher’s chance in any given game. If she’s walking wounded from the start, the Sky are really in trouble.