2014 WNBA Finals Preview: Phoenix Mercury vs Chicago Sky – Part Two: Offense vs Defense

 

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.

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2014 WNBA Finals Preview: Phoenix Mercury vs Chicago Sky – Part One: Matchups

 

Phoenix Mercury (West’s #1 seed, 29-5) vs Chicago Sky (East’s #4 seed, 15-19)

 

Phoenix

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 106.21, 1st in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 93.89, 1st in WNBA

 

Chicago

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.

 

Matchups

 

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.

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WNBA 2014 Playoff Previews – Eastern Conference Finals: Indiana Fever vs. Chicago Sky

 

Indiana Fever (#2 seed, 16-18) vs. Chicago Sky (#4 seed, 15-19)

 

Indiana

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 97.64, 5th in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 98.76, 7th in WNBA

 

Chicago

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: Fever won 3-2

05/16 @Chi: Sky won 74-71

06/20 @Chi: Fever won 83-75

07/17 @Ind: Fever won 82-64

07/22 @Chi: Sky won 82-64

08/16 @Ind: Fever won 71-67

 

—–

 

While the Western Conference Finals matchup has looked inevitable for quite some time, the East has been an entirely different story. A whole morass of teams have been playing at similar levels all season, Atlanta deteriorated back to the pack, and ultimately two sub-.500 teams have arrived in the Eastern Finals. But none of that matters now. The Indiana Fever have been here many times before, and know exactly what it takes to battle it out in the latter stages of the playoffs. The Chicago Sky just completed their first ever playoff series win, with a morale-boosting and shocking comeback to finish off the victory. There’s a little history between these two as well, after Chicago’s strong regular season last year was brought to a crashing halt in the first round of the playoffs when the experienced Fever stomped all over them in a two-game sweep. So can Chicago gain a little revenge and make their first ever visit to the WNBA Finals, or will it be Indiana returning for the second time in three years?

 

As with yesterday’s Western preview, this piece will focus on the direct matchups between the two squads (more detail on their inherent strengths and weaknesses in the first-round previews here and here). Both these teams had rocky regular seasons. Indiana were without their leader and driving force Tamika Catchings for the first half of the year with a back problem, and have still been up and down even since her return. Chicago have had a variety of health issues all year, with Elena Delle Donne, Sylvia Fowles, Epiphanny Prince and Courtney Vandersloot all missing significant time, before Jessica Breland suffered a shoulder injury in the first round of the playoffs to leave them shorthanded again. So cohesion and depth have been inevitable problems for both teams all season. The core of Indiana’s team has been together long enough that they’re reasonably smooth in working together at either end of the floor. Chicago are relatively healthy now, apart from the problem with Breland (which we’ll get to later). Part of the reason both sides have made it this far is that they came together at the right time.

 

Chicago’s offense is rarely the smoothest-running machine you’ll ever see. They try to use Sylvia Fowles in the low post, but their lack of ball rotation and Fowles’s own lack of range often makes it difficult to feed her. Indiana will have Erlana Larkins battling with Fowles inside and fighting for position, plus double-teams will come whenever Chicago do manage to get the ball into their big center. Then Fowles’s passing comes into focus, and she’s essentially terrible at it. Unlike someone like Brittney Griner in Phoenix, who draws double-teams and then shifts the ball away to open teammates, the play is usually over when Fowles touches it inside. She’s either going to score or turn the ball over.

 

That leaves Chicago heavily reliant on their perimeter scorers. Elena Delle Donne just illustrated in the charging finish to their win over Atlanta that she’s in solid health again and capable of carrying this team. She can score inside and out, is an expert at drawing fouls, and her size makes her a difficult cover for any opponent. Indiana have Catchings, a five-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, directly opposite her at power forward, but she’s unlikely to be the first option to guard Delle Donne. The Fever like to put Catchings on weaker offensive players so that she can maraud around the floor a little. If Indiana start what’s become their regular lineup, Marissa Coleman will probably open up trying to cover Delle Donne, with Karima Christmas seeing a lot of minutes as the alternative (just starting Christmas instead is also an option). Just as we saw Angel McCoughtry slide onto Delle Donne in the previous series, Catchings will probably take her turns when necessary, but it’ll be up to the Fever role players to do the best job they can on her most of the time.

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WNBA 2014 Playoff Previews – Western Conference Finals: Phoenix Mercury vs. Minnesota Lynx

 

Phoenix Mercury (#1 seed, 29-5) vs Minnesota Lynx (#2 seed, 25-9)

 

Phoenix

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 106.21, 1st in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 93.89, 1st in WNBA

 

Minnesota

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 104.17, 2nd in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 98.68, 6th in WNBA

 

Season series: Mercury won 3-1

06/15 @Min: Mercury won 80-72

06/18 @Pho: Mercury won 92-79

07/31 @Min: Lynx won 75-67

08/09 @Pho: Mercury won 82-80

 

—–

 

Since the early weeks of the season, when the WNBA began to shake itself out for 2014, it’s felt like these two teams were on a collision course. In their three-year reign at the top of the Western Conference (and mostly at the top of the League), the Minnesota Lynx have had challengers. They’ve had occasional poor runs, or losses here and there throughout each season, along with the upset defeat to Indiana in the Finals in 2012. But with Sandy Brondello taking over in Phoenix, the 2014 Mercury have come together as a true WNBA powerhouse, and even took over Minnesota’s regular spot at the top of the Western standings. So here we finally are, about to begin a best-of-three for all the marbles in the West, between two superstar-laden squads who barely know how to lose.

 

We’ve been through the respective qualities of these teams in the past – there was plenty of detail on that in the previews for the first round here and here, if you fancy a refresher – so here we’re going to concentrate on the direct matchup between the two teams. Offensively, they share several characteristics. Both teams are fantastically unselfish, moving the ball smoothly around the floor to whoever’s open and taking the right shot. Superstars willing to take a back seat when it aids winning basketball, or give up a good shot for a great one, have made that easier in both cities.

 

Minnesota are a little more focussed on specific scorers. The majority of their points tend to come from Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen, with Moore usually leading the way. Their posts will chip in here and there, usually on mid-range jumpers, and they might get an occasional burst from Monica Wright or Tan White off the bench, but Phoenix’s focus will be to stop those three. Phoenix have two key cogs in Diana Taurasi outside and Brittney Griner in, but with Candice Dupree, Penny Taylor and DeWanna Bonner the scoring is typically a little more spread out. Minnesota will try to stop Taurasi and Griner first and foremost, with Dupree a close third, and make someone else beat them.

 

Defense is where, over the course of the season, there was the biggest gap between these teams. They were the top two offenses in the league, and scoring points was rarely a problem. But with Griner constantly lurking around the rim, the Mercury developed a successful defense for the first time in years (and years, and years). On a surface level, it seems like Minnesota should have the perfect arsenal to nullify Griner, or at least minimise her impact. They have posts who can all play up high, acting as passers and fulcrums for the offense, rather than low-post threats. And they all at least have to be respected a little from 15 feet, so the likes of Janel McCarville and Rebekkah Brunson will try to drag Griner out of the paint as often and as far as possible. Also, in Moore and Augustus, the Lynx have two of the greatest jumpshooters the women’s game has ever seen, so they should be able to score fairly consistently from the perimeter without going anywhere near Griner under the basket. We’ll certainly see plenty of wide curls, pin-down screens and back-picks just to create a little space for those two scorers to fire away.

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WNBA 2014 Playoff Previews – First Round: Phoenix Mercury vs. Los Angeles Sparks

 

Phoenix Mercury (#1 seed, 29-5) vs Los Angeles Sparks (#4 seed, 16-18)

 

Phoenix

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 106.21, 1st in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 93.89, 1st in WNBA

 

Los Angeles

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 97.19, 6th in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 97.24, 5th in WNBA

 

Season series: Mercury won 5-0

5/18 @LA: Mercury won 74-69

7/6 @LA: Mercury won 94-89

7/24 @LA: Mercury won 93-73

7/29 @Pho: Mercury won 90-69

8/16 @Pho: Mercury won 76-69

 

—–

 

Upsets happen in sport. Especially in best-of-three series, and where the underdog is a team with as much talent as Los Angeles who could randomly pull themselves together on any given night. But you have to try incredibly hard to talk yourself into believing LA will win this series. Maybe they can win it, if everything went right for them, if the Mercury picked up an injury or two, if Kristi Toliver or Candace Parker explode and light up the scoreboard. If we could play this series 100 times in 100 parallel universes, the Sparks would undoubtedly win a few of them. But talking yourself into believing it’s in any way likely in the one universe we’re living in? Good luck with that.

 

Over the course of a dominant season, Phoenix eventually ended up as statistically both the best offensive team in the WNBA and the best defensive team. They don’t play at the same breakneck speed offensively that we’ve seen in the past, but they’re unselfish to a fault and have so many threats around the floor that they’re just as dangerous as they’ve always been. Diana Taurasi makes them tick, moving the ball around and finding the open scoring option but always capable of pulling up to fire or driving to the rim herself. Brittney Griner has increasingly become a solid option to run the offense through, capable of finishing over anyone in the paint, but also a skilled and smart passer when opponents send extra defenders to stop her. Candice Dupree plays off both Taurasi and Griner perfectly, sliding into space for her near-automatic mid-range jumper or occasional dives to the basket. Penny Taylor has shown flashes of her old self this year, scoring from outside or on tricky drives to the basket, and even DeWanna Bonner sometimes remembers that she’s capable of hitting shots or attacking the rim if teams forget about her. Opponents might be able to pick their poison, but most of the time they’re going to get killed one way or another.

 

And it’s just as tough at the other end. Under Sandy Brondello, the Mercury’s defense has finally come around, with Griner the obvious centerpiece at the core. Her length and athleticism in the middle deters drivers from entering the paint, makes it difficult for posts to finish, and generally changes the way other teams have to run their offense. She also allows her teammates to play differently on the perimeter, chasing over screens because they’re not afraid of being beaten on drives. She’s not quite the finished article – she can still jump off-balance on pick-and-roll coverage, not quite finding the middle-ground between showing on the ballhandler and being able to recover back to the big – but that just makes her scarier for the future. LA will try to drag her out of the paint, but Brondello’s schemes have done a good job of allowing her to hang around the basket this year regardless of the efforts of other teams. And while all of LA’s posts can hit the mid-range jumper, they won’t be nearly as effective if they can’t find ways to create layups.

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WNBA 2014 Playoff Previews – First Round: Atlanta Dream vs. Chicago Sky

 

Atlanta Dream (19-15, #1 seed) vs. Chicago Sky (15-19, #4 seed)

 

Atlanta

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 97.06, 7th in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 95.05, 2nd in WNBA

 

Chicago

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: Sky won 3-2:

5/24 @Chi: Sky won 87-73

6/7 @Atl: Dream won 97-59

7/13 @Atl: Dream won 81-79

7/25 @Atl: Sky won 79-75

8/10 @Chi: Sky won 80-69

 

—–

 

This is one of the more intriguing 1-4 matchups in recent memory in the WNBA playoffs. Taking the regular season as a whole, Atlanta were comfortably the best team in the Eastern Conference. They were dominant in the first half of the year, broke out to a huge lead, and finished as the only team in the conference above .500. But their second-half swoon was scary, losing 10 of their final 14 games of the season. While head coach Michael Cooper was absent for a little while dealing with surgery for tongue cancer, and the urgency for wins was removed by the big gap over their Eastern rivals, the drop-off in performance and energy was definitely worrying. Meanwhile Chicago spent the year scraping out just enough wins, and trying to get everyone healthy. Heading into the playoffs, it’d be a stretch to say they’re 100% again, but they do have all their key players back and available to play. For a team that won 24 games in 2013 when they were in one piece, that makes them a dangerous underdog going into the postseason.

 

Atlanta were once again the fastest-paced team in the WNBA this year, extending their lead in that category over the rest of the league from previous years. They love to run, and they love to attack. Angel McCoughtry and Tiffany Hayes are at their best in the open court, flying to the rim, although both can also drive and attack the basket within halfcourt sets. Erika de Souza is outstanding at running hard from basket-to-basket, contorting her body to take any kind of pass and finish at the rim. And with Sancho Lyttle’s consistency from mid-range along with more three-point shooting threats than they’ve had in the franchise’s history, they can still score when teams manage to get back in transition and slow them down. Turnovers have been a big problem, and the uncertainty at the point guard spot hasn’t helped that, but this is a team that can score in a variety of different ways. Sometimes McCoughtry or Shoni Schimmel get a little too focussed on just one or two of those ways – their own gunning – but when they move the ball and take what defenses are giving them, they’re a smooth and talented offensive team.

 

Which is only burying the lede to a certain extent. Atlanta do a lot of their best work on the defensive end of the floor. They’re quick and very aggressive, striving for steals, but also managing to stay solid and secure behind the gambling with de Souza, Lyttle and Aneika Henry in the paint. Chicago do try to feed Sylvia Fowles in the low post at times – they’re often not very good at it, but they do try – and her physical tussle with de Souza in the paint is going to be one of the main attractions in this series. Even beyond feeding the post, simply taking care of the ball is going to be vital for Chicago, because defense is where much of Atlanta’s best offense begins. Steals feed their running game, and just as importantly create momentum and get the Dream offense flowing. While Chicago would love to get some cheap points themselves on the break, slowing the games down will largely be in their favour in this series.

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WNBA 2014 Playoff Previews – First Round: Minnesota Lynx vs. San Antonio Stars

 

Minnesota Lynx (25-9, #2 seed) vs San Antonio Stars (16-18, #3 seed)

 

Minnesota

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 104.17, 2nd in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 98.68, 6th in WNBA

 

San Antonio

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 100.72, 4th in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 102.77, 11th in WNBA

 

Season series: Lynx won 4-1

5/30 @Min: Lynx won 88-72

6/1 @SA: Lynx won 87-79

7/3 @Min: Lynx won 91-84

7/25 @Min: Lynx won 88-78

8/15 @SA: Stars won 92-76

 

—–

 

Virtually every measurable metric and stat says that Minnesota should win this series, and it shouldn’t even be all that close. Even ignoring their overall success over the last few years, including two championships, the Lynx had won their last eight games against San Antonio before losing a game that was meaningless to Minnesota in the final days of the regular season. Their offense tends to pick San Antonio apart – not that it’s been particularly hard for any opponent to find gaps in the Stars’ defense this season – and while San Antonio can out-shoot some teams, Minnesota will put their jumpshooters up against anyone’s. So to see the Stars winning this series, you either have to search hard for reasons, or really believe that cracks were showing in the Lynx during their late-season games.

 

By now, everyone knows what Minnesota can do offensively. Between the all-court scoring of Maya Moore, the jump shooting of Moore and Seimone Augustus, the driving and finishing of Lindsay Whalen, and the willingness and ability of their posts to knock down mid-range jumpers, this team is hard to stop. They also love to get out on the break, and with Rebekkah Brunson back their rebounding has improved, which leads to more outlets and more running. San Antonio have rebounded much better this year, after many awful seasons on the glass, but the Lynx will test them in that area. We’ll also see plenty of the dive-in-from-the-corner post-ups that Minnesota like to run for their wings, because with a starting perimeter of Danielle Robinson, Becky Hammon and Kayla McBride, San Antonio are dangerously undersized against Moore and Augustus. Hammon will cover Whalen to try to stay away from those plays, and both Robinson and McBride are stronger than you think, but the Lynx are likely to find some success through those avenues.

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