The Daily W, 09/14/2014: Even without Griner, Mercury sweep Sky away to take WNBA title

 

Phoenix Mercury 87 @ Chicago Sky 82

 

Lineups: The big news before tip-off was that Brittney Griner was out after an outpatient procedure on her right eye the day before. Missing the game was a precautionary measure advised by her doctors, and she would’ve likely been available for future games in the series. If Phoenix hadn’t been up 2-0 and utterly dominant so far in the series, they might’ve pushed the medical staff a little harder to clear her. Ewelina Kobryn came into the starting lineup to fill her spot, as the slightly bigger and more physical option ahead of Mistie Bass. Importantly, Kobryn is also a better defender than Bass, although obviously either was going to be a significant drop-off from Griner.

 

Story of the Game: In the previous two games, the teams had been closely matched during the minutes that Griner spent on the bench. So it was no surprise that we ended up with a tight contest while she watched from the sidelines. As you’d expect, the Sky looked to feed Sylvia Fowles in the paint early on. Kobryn did a decent job battling with her and playing the Griner-role guarding the pass on the pick-and-roll, but the basic gaps in size and athleticism between her and Griner made the passes and finishes easier for Chicago. That said, Fowles still missed some straightforward layups around the rim, and Kobryn was getting most of the points back at the other end with finishes over and around Fowles. Unfortunately for Phoenix, Kobryn picked up a cheap early foul, and then a desperately soft call added her second. She was back on the bench after barely five minutes of play.

 

The problem for Chicago was that while the absence of Griner had opened up some room for their offense, they still couldn’t stop the Mercury. A couple of early fouls for Tamera Young didn’t help, sending one of the Sky’s key defenders back to the bench, and Phoenix continued to score just as smoothly and easily as they had in the previous games. Kobryn and Bass had too much room to finish inside as Fowles continued to show hard on high screens without decent rotation help behind her. Diana Taurasi continued to shoot and score over Courtney Vandersloot whenever she felt like it. And as they’d done throughout the series, Phoenix attacked Elena Delle Donne with whoever she happened to be guarding. Delle Donne looked relatively mobile and healthy in this game on offense, joining Fowles as Chicago’s primary threats in the early stages. But her defense isn’t great to begin with, and with her back problems limiting her physically the Mercury have been exploiting her since Game 1. She started the game on DeWanna Bonner, slid over to Candice Dupree when Young sat down, and both scored with relative ease. The Sky were right in the contest, but they were doing no better defensively than in previous games.

 

Behind jump shots from Delle Donne and Allie Quigley, Chicago actually led midway through the second quarter, a rare occurrence in this series. But Phoenix responded through Candice Dupree, who carried most of their offense in the second period. Her regular display of smooth finishes inside and mid-range jump shots that dropped like layups kept the points rolling for Phoenix (and considering Young only had two fouls and had done a solid job defending Dupree whenever given the chance in this series, you’d have to ask Pokey Chatman to find out why Young never came back in during the second quarter to try to cool Dupree off). Fowles and Kobryn both came back in to resume their battle in the paint (and Kobryn picked up another foul when Fowles backed her under the rim), while Taurasi got a little too aggressive with her jumper and started forcing – and missing – a few. She scored consistently and often easily when defended by Vandersloot in this series, but when Chicago slid someone else over to cover her – even similarly small or weak defenders like Quigley or Epiphanny Prince – she wasn’t quite as successful. The Sky were only down by two at the break, which was a lot better than where they’d been at halftime in the previous games.

 

The second half began with Fowles missing layups yet again – it really was disappointing how many times she blew chances right around the rim in this series, even when Griner wasn’t on the floor. But she did draw yet another foul on Kobryn midway through the third quarter, and with her out of the way Chicago closed the third strongly. The absence of Griner didn’t just make it easier for Fowles in the paint, but opened up space for Vandersloot to probe the defense, or players like Delle Donne and Quigley to find driving lanes or shooting space that wasn’t there in the previous games. A 13-4 run thanks to extra space for Fowles around Bass’s weak defense, and some shot-making from Delle Donne and Quigley, gave Chicago their biggest lead at any stage in the Finals – four whole points. Dupree drilled yet another jumper to cut the gap to two going to the fourth.

 

The tenor of the game changed in the fourth quarter, as Chicago tried to keep their season alive and Phoenix tried to clinch their first championship since 2009. Fowles faded out of the action entirely, her name barely mentioned by the commentators. Instead it was Delle Donne, Quigley and Vandersloot who tried to keep the Sky’s offense afloat in a game that had slowed down significantly. For Phoenix, it was Taurasi time. Since that passage in the second quarter where she started jacking a little too aggressively, she’d barely hit a shot. But with the game on the line, she came alive. Some typically gorgeous Mercury ball movement found her open for a three to break her drought early in the fourth, and battle commenced.

 

Taurasi got a little lucky to bank in a three off the glass with five minutes to play; Delle Donne answered with a finish through contact under the basket. Vandersloot and Young both hit jumpers to pull Chicago within a point; Taurasi came back with a pullup over Vandersloot for a three-point play. Vandersloot and Delle Donne again made jumpers – shots they hadn’t converted often enough in this series, although there was less space to take them in the first two games – while Dupree hit yet another pullup in the lane. Phoenix were clinging on, always ahead by at least a couple of points.

 

But with 90 seconds left in regulation, Dupree missed a baseline jumper under challenge from Young, and didn’t get the call Phoenix wanted from the officials. Bonner couldn’t tip in the rebound, and Chicago had the ball back, down two, with just over a minute left. Whatever Chatman drew up in the timeout either fell apart or wasn’t executed properly. It certainly looked like a mess on the floor. The broken play ended with Delle Donne forcing a shot up from 20 feet, which missed. Phoenix tried to post up Dupree on Young again, and once again she missed and the officials stayed silent. Quigley pushed the other way, and Chicago got a much better shot this time without stopping for Chatman to design something. Quigley kept going all the way into the lane, went by Taurasi like she wasn’t there, found herself in a surprising amount of space, and dropped in a floater over Kobryn. Tied ballgame with 30 seconds to play.

 

Sandy Brondello had the sense not to overcomplicate things for such a crucial play. There were a couple of misdirection actions, the last being a slip-screen from Dupree, but essentially they gave the ball to Taurasi and let her make a play. She drove right, and hit a tough leaner over Vandersloot on the baseline, drawing a whistle for minimal contact as well. She added the free throw, and Phoenix had a three-point advantage with only 14 seconds to play.

 

Rather than taking the quick two and hoping Phoenix missed a free throw or two, Chicago tried to tie it immediately. Their ensuing inbounds play was designed to pop Delle Donne open off a Fowles screen at the top of the arc, and she ended up with a decent look. But the effort was well off, hitting nothing but backboard, and when Penny Taylor grabbed the rebound the writing was on the wall. She was fouled, hit the free throws to ice it, and the Mercury players could begin their celebrations. Even without Griner they’d closed out the series in a sweep and clinched the 2014 WNBA championship.

 

Key Players: Taurasi and Dupree were the offensive stars for Phoenix. Oddly enough, Young did a decent job on Dupree when she was actually in the game, even though the Mercury tried to attack Young in the low-post by feeding Dupree inside. But it was one of those classic Dupree games where she found her rhythm early and everything seemed to drop, finishing 11-16 from the field for 24 points. But it was Taurasi who was given the Finals MVP trophy, and she was the one who hit most of the big shots down the stretch to close out the win. She went cold in the middle of the game, but as usual stepped up when it was required. Credit also to Kobryn, who was a solid fill-in for Griner.

 

Fowles ended the game 8-13 for 20 points, but was just 2-5 in the second half as she tired and her team stopped looking for her quite so much. Phoenix also began to adapt better to cover her rolls to the rim, something which can often be a problem for Chicago – they run the same sets over and over again, with little variation, so opponents know exactly what’s coming after a while and can blow the plays up. Delle Donne and Quigley were the other big scorers, with Vandersloot doing a nice job probing the gaps in the defense and finding it easier to feed her teammates with Griner out of the picture. Prince was a no-show once again, after waking up a little in Game 2, and finished a disappointing season on a low note.

 

This Sky team still has plenty of room for growth and a lot of promise for the future. They were injury-ravaged this year, came together at the right time, and finally produced the kind of playoff run they’ve been crying out for since the franchise was formed. If they can keep the pieces together, maybe add a little more depth, and actually stay moderately healthy next year, they’ll be a threat to come again in the Eastern Conference.

 

But this was Phoenix’s year. Brondello’s done an outstanding job of putting the pieces together and getting everyone pulling in the same direction, on both ends of the floor. The Mercury could always score, but they’ve integrated Griner nicely, play team-oriented unselfish basketball, and attack from all around the floor. Obviously they’re helped by having scoring threats at every spot in the lineup, but everyone’s bought in to the plan and it worked like a charm. Defensively is where the entire franchise has swung 180 degrees. Having Griner in the middle is where it all starts, but Brondello designed the right kind of scheme to maximise her talents and get everyone playing as a unit on that end of the floor as well. They were helped by the fact that their key players stayed healthy virtually all year – even pieces like Taylor who we’d almost given up on – but every successful team needs a little luck somewhere along the line.

 

It’s disappointing that we finished with yet another sweep in the Finals – as many anticipated, the real championship decider was probably the Western Conference Finals matchup between Phoenix and Minnesota. But ultimately the best team in 2014 came away with the title, which seems only fair. The Mercury looked dominant this season, losing only six games all year, but we’ve seen before that dominance doesn’t always hold up for long. Players get older, or hurt. Pieces move on due to free agency or retirement. So Phoenix will likely begin next season as the favourites to repeat, but 2015 will be a different year, with different storylines. For now, the Mercury can sit back and enjoy their championship.

 

—–

 

That’s the end of another season for WNBAlien as well, obviously, but don’t despair. I’ll probably be producing a few pieces in the offseason, maybe some coverage of the World Championships and/or WNBA free agency. So check back now and then, or follow me on Twitter at @RichardCohen1, or click the Follow button on the right to receive notifications of any new updates when they appear.

 

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