Lineups: The starters were as expected. Phoenix inevitably went with the five that have been dominating for them for much of the season, while Chicago resisted any temptation to make immediate changes to try to match up with Phoenix’s size.
Story of the Game: It was ugly for Chicago right from the start. They were trying to feed Sylvia Fowles in the paint, and she actually managed to back her way into deep position on Brittney Griner a couple of times, but they either couldn’t make the entry pass or Fowles couldn’t finish under pressure from Griner. When the Sky brought Fowles out high to try to run pick-and-rolls, they quickly found that it was a much more difficult proposition than it had been against Indiana. Griner would show briefly on the ballhandler, then drop quickly back into the lane to cover the rolling Fowles, and Chicago couldn’t connect on the feed back to their center. Either Griner would snake a long arm into the way, or help defenders would come across in time. It took a long and painful 5 minutes and 10 seconds for the Sky to score their first points of the afternoon.
Meanwhile, Phoenix’s offense wasn’t actually running that smoothly, which prevented their immediate lead from growing too big. Diana Taurasi and Candice Dupree gave the Sky a couple of lessons in how to run the pick-and-roll to perfection, and Taurasi hit a couple of quick pullup jumpers, but most of their dominance was coming on the defensive end. They were so dominant defensively that they could hardly help but start to pull away.
Both teams began with fairly straightforward defensive matchups. Dupree took Elena Delle Donne, rather than trying to twist the Mercury defense to slide someone like DeWanna Bonner onto her. That left Bonner to cover Epiphanny Prince, Taurasi on Courtney Vandersloot, and Penny Taylor on Tamera Young. Chicago opened with the same matchups in reverse, which continues to make little sense to me. As I mentioned in the preview for this series, they had some success using a small point guard on Taurasi in their second regular season encounter with the Mercury, but it makes Young’s presence on the floor virtually redundant. She’s not a great offensive player at all – she’ll hustle, she’ll hit an occasional jump shot, but opponents will essentially let her shoot all she wants. She’s out there for her defense. For all her qualities, Penny Taylor will only occasionally make a significant impact on games these days – and while Taylor was relatively quiet, Young didn’t even do that great a defensive job on her. It was almost like Young subconsciously felt she was being wasted out there as well. Taurasi’s the one that makes Phoenix tick. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Chicago start Game 2 with Young on Taurasi, while trying to hide their guards on Bonner and Taylor.
Because in the second quarter Phoenix’s dominance on the floor finally started to show on the scoreboard. Delle Donne had been fairly quiet, and after being nudged in her already-injured back midway through the second quarter she went to the sidelines for rest and more treatment. She’d had far more trouble containing Dupree than the reverse matchup had caused problems for Phoenix. Everything started flowing for the Mercury. Dupree was hitting her mid-range jumper repeatedly off the pick-and-roll. Griner was converting inside when Phoenix went to her in the paint. Taurasi was knocking down jumpers whenever she was given an inch of space, and spraying passes around the floor. It was far too easy for them. Meanwhile Prince tried to step up and carry the offense for the Sky, but that didn’t last for long, and Fowles still rarely managed to finish inside. A gorgeous no-look 30-foot bullet pass from Taurasi to Dupree under the basket closed the scoring for the half, and Phoenix were up by 22 points at the break. It was a blowout, and there wasn’t even a hint of a comeback in sight for Chicago.
The scoreline tells you that the second half was essentially even, but Phoenix were completely comfortable throughout after their overwhelming dominance in the first half. Delle Donne sat it out entirely after her back had tightened up following that knock in the second quarter, but also because the game was out of reach so there was no need to push her to return. Fowles converted a little more effectively in the paint, but under pressure from Griner – or even other Mercury posts – she still missed too many attempts right around the rim. Chicago also got some decent looks through penetration and kick-outs, forcing Phoenix defenders to rotate and occasionally slide out of position. The Sky will need to create more of those, and knock them down, to have any chance in the upcoming games. But the entire second half was basically an exercise in playing out the string, even if Sandy Brondello left her starters in for a surprisingly long time.
Key Players: Offensively, Dupree and Taurasi led the way for Phoenix. Dupree hit her first ten shots, not missing until she blew a wide open layup early in the second half. That’s what she can do when you’re so worried about Griner in the paint and Taurasi on the perimeter – knock down open jumpers and slide to the rim for smooth finishes. It sounds simple, but she’s superb at executing it. Taurasi never really had to extend herself, and still finished 8-13 from the field for 19 points and 11 assists. Which is part of why Chicago have to shake up their defense. Taurasi was just far too comfortable. The Sky have to unsettle her, or piss her off, or at least make some effort to knock her off her rhythm and then hopefully knock the Mercury out of their rhythm as a result. Phoenix got everything they wanted in this game, while Chicago’s offense floundered.
Much of which was down to Griner, although Brondello has moulded Phoenix into a strong team defense around her as well. Griner ended the game with only 12 points and seven boards – versus Fowles’s 19 and 11 – but won their matchup at center handily. She set a new Finals record for blocks in a quarter with five in the opening period, setting the tone for Phoenix, and while Fowles went at her without fear she struggled to finish past Griner’s long arms. Even while picking up offensive rebounds, Fowles often couldn’t complete the putbacks under contest from Griner and the other Mercury defenders.
Somebody else is going to have to step up for Chicago – ideally more than one somebody. Obviously, Delle Donne would be the ideal option, but we have no idea how much she’ll be able to contribute just 48 hours after playing barely 10 minutes in Game 1. Her back is clearly causing her significant pain, and without her it becomes incredibly difficult for the Sky to produce points. The first thing they need is better ball movement, but we’ve been saying that for so long about Chicago that it seems unlikely to change in two days. It’d be nice to see a middle stage on the pick-and-rolls occasionally. The direct pass from the ballhandler to the rolling Fowles is rarely available. So there needs to be an immediate pass from the ballhandler to a different perimeter option, changing the angle and hopefully creating a lane to hit Fowles on the roll – or an open shot for that secondary perimeter player. They can’t just keep running the same rolls and post-ups for Fowles in the hope that it’ll produce a different result.
Chicago also need to attack. They fell into their old habits of becoming static and letting the shot clock dwindle down while they stood around waiting for something to happen. Again, ball movement would help, changing angles and shifting defenders, but they also need players like Prince, Vandersloot and Allie Quigley to turn the corner off screens or break down defenders off the dribble. Maybe they won’t get layups out of it – Griner’s still often going to be waiting at the rim – but you make defenders collapse or rotate, and open up shooters. Also, obviously, those shooters are going to have to be more accurate. The Sky went 2-14 from beyond the arc as a team, with Prince and Quigley a combined 7-26 from the field. Part of that’s because they were having to force up tough shots under pressure, and part of it’s simple bad shooting. That’s not going to cut it, even if they manage to step up their defense.
Notes of Interest: Chicago’s first bucket of the night, after more than five minutes of play, came on a Vandersloot jumper after Fowles kicked the ball back to her. It was notable because it was just the second assist Fowles has picked up in seven playoff games this season. She is not a good passer by any means, which allows Chicago to collapse traffic on her to make it even harder for her to convert inside, and leads to turnovers when help defenders reach in to slap the ball away.
Chicago played virtually no zone all afternoon, which is another option to shake up their defense and try to unsettle Phoenix. The Mercury used theirs very rarely as well, as they never really needed to change anything up.
Candace Parker, Tamika Catchings and Monica Wright have all pulled out of the USA Basketball camp that started today, building up to the World Championships in Turkey at the end of September. Parker and Wright both apparently need knee surgery, while Catchings requires more rest after battling injuries for much of the WNBA season. Team USA are hardly struggling for talent, but it makes the team selection for Worlds that little bit more interesting.
Chicago @ Phoenix, 9pm ET, Mercury lead best-of-five 1-0