The Daily W, 09/08/2014: Mercury dominate Sky for blowout win to open WNBA Finals

 

Chicago Sky 62 @ Phoenix Mercury 83

 

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.

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2014 WNBA Finals Preview: Phoenix Mercury vs Chicago Sky – Part Three: Areas to Watch, Overview and Prediction

 

Storylines and Key Areas

 

It was covered in the previous section, but health is obviously vital. Delle Donne’s back problem is the major concern, but Chicago also have Breland likely rushing back from her shoulder injury faster than normal because they needed her, and Vandersloot has struggled to stay in front of anyone defensively since returning from her knee problem. Phoenix’s core group have been remarkably healthy all season long, which has played an important role in their dominance. Look back through the WNBA champions, and you tend to find teams whose key players were fit and available all season long. That said, while the Mercury have a few decent contributors off their bench, an injury to Griner or Taurasi would change everything in an instant for them. Chicago can at least claim to be prepared for how they’d play with virtually any injury or absence – because they’ve been through them all at some point this season.

 

Rebounding. Oddly enough, over the entire regular season, these were two of the three-worst rebounding teams in the WNBA (Seattle were rock bottom, Phoenix 11th and Chicago 10th). Most of the Mercury’s negative numbers came on the offensive glass – they eschewed chasing offensive boards in favour of making sure they got back in transition and set their defense. Chicago were pretty bad on both ends, for a variety of reasons. Fowles missed time hurt, Delle Donne got sick and then played nominal power forward while mostly out on the perimeter, their defensive help schemes often rotate people out of rebounding position, and their perimeter players offer very little rebounding help to their posts. So where’s the edge going to be? When two teams are playing, the rebounding percentages have to add up to 100% one way or another. Chicago won’t want to give up any cheap points, so they’ll be looking to get back quickly in transition as well, but they need to attack the glass. They lost the hustle and energy battle to Indiana at several points in the Eastern Finals, and it almost cost them the series. They’re already likely to lose out in too many areas to Phoenix, so they need to outwork the Mercury for things like offensive boards, loose balls and deflections.

 

That links into the topic of fast breaks and transition points. Despite both of these teams having some outstanding athletes, neither of them actually runs all that much. And both defenses are based more around containment and contesting shots than forcing steals and getting out on the break. So it’s another area where you could look to surprise. Phoenix will use their length to press ballhandlers like Vandersloot and Quigley at times, while players like Prince and Young will look to poke their hands into passing lanes for steals on occasion. Again, Chicago need cheap points. They have to look for every little edge they can get.

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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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The Daily W, 09/03/2014: Taurasi and Mercury offense prove too much for Lynx, as Phoenix head to WNBA Finals

 

Minnesota Lynx 78 @ Phoenix Mercury 96

 

Lineups: As expected, once again.

 

Story of the Game: Minnesota got off to a much better start offensively in this game than they had in the previous two – but unfortunately for them Phoenix were scoring even more effectively. Sandy Brondello had clearly drummed into her team the need to attack the paint, either by feeding Brittney Griner inside or driving off the bounce. For the entire first half, Griner scored efficiently when they fed her inside, but she was almost more important as a decoy. She’d come out high to set screens, Minnesota’s perimeter defenders would shift themselves dramatically to try to prevent the ballhandler using the pick, and then the Mercury player would happily reject the screen and drive into the space to the rim instead. Just the threat of Griner rolling to the basket was bending the defense to such an extent that Phoenix were lighting up the scoreboard, almost entirely on layups.

 

Diana Taurasi in particular – after I had the temerity to point out how poorly she’d shot in her last four games against the Lynx – was still looking for her own offense, but taking much better shots. They weren’t quick-fire jumpers, but rather aggressive drives right to the basket, often after screening, rescreening, and maybe even rescreening again from her posts. Between her, Griner, a better attack mentality from DeWanna Bonner, and chip-in contribution from Candice Dupree and Penny Taylor, this was the best we’d seen Phoenix’s offense running for a while, and Minnesota couldn’t slow them down or keep them from getting to the basket.

 

But the Lynx stayed in it thanks to better offensive production than we’d seen from them for most of the series. Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore all hit their fair share of shots in the first half, as much of the Lynx offense continued to come on jumpers, but the motion and movement was noticeably better. Phoenix seemed to have loosened up their scheme a little, and were slightly more willing to switch defensive assignments than they’d been in Games 1 and 2, but much of that was forced by the pick-and-rolls and off-ball movement of the Lynx. Rebekkah Brunson’s mid-range jumper was cold, which hurt because it allowed Griner to sag off her and help more elsewhere, but Minnesota’s perimeter trio wasn’t allowing Phoenix’s offensive success to blow them off the court.

 

In fact, Minnesota never trailed by more than nine points under Phoenix’s opening barrage, and when Griner rested to start the second period they actually took advantage – something they hadn’t done enough in this series. They attacked the rim a little more, created some transition chances when Phoenix’s offense stuttered slightly, and got some production from Monica Wright off their bench – after she’d been virtually anonymous in the previous games.

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The Daily W, 09/01/2014: Star trio hit the shots for Lynx to force Game 3 against Mercury

 

Phoenix Mercury 77 @ Minnesota Lynx 82

 

Lineups: Nothing changed. Neither of these teams was going to mess with something as basic as their starting lineup after the success they’ve had with their established groups. Phoenix did change their defensive matchups at halftime in Game 1, with Candice Dupree taking Janel McCarville and Brittney Griner switching to Rebekkah Brunson. They went with that from the start in Game 2, although essentially Griner’s guarded whichever opposing post hangs closer to the rim all season long.

 

Story of the Game: With their home crowd primed to explode and loving that Diana Taurasi was called for a push-off on the opening possession, Minnesota nonetheless got off to another awful start. They had no offensive rhythm, the ball was static once again, and they settled for – and missed – a lot of jump shots. They also saw Janel McCarville pick up two fouls in under three minutes, then Devereaux Peters sub in for her and do the same in less than two minutes of action. So not only were they falling behind, but two of their primary post defenders were already in foul trouble – and they hadn’t even picked the fouls up while defending Griner. The calls hadn’t gone Minnesota’s way, but it was still a horrible start and much of it self-inflicted.

 

The Lynx had at least managed to disrupt Phoenix’s flow a little with their defense. They’d extended out higher on the perimeter, making it harder for Phoenix to initiate their offense and get the ball moving. They were also mixing up the matchups, with Maya Moore often on Penny Taylor while Seimone Augustus (or Monica Wright, after an early sub) took DeWanna Bonner. The more straightforward matchup, which they stuck with for most of Game 1, was to have Moore guard Bonner. As Bonner was always guarding Moore, it made things easier to stay the same at the other end. But the Lynx cross-matched more in Game 2, and considering both Bonner and Taylor were much quieter than in Game 1, it ultimately had to be considered a success.

 

But in the opening period the Mercury were still racking up enough points to move into a double-digit lead. With a Lindsay Whalen driving layup the only Lynx success in their first 12 shots, the Mercury could hardly avoid it.

 

Minnesota finally started to pick things up in the second quarter. A few jumpers fell in for Whalen, Moore and Augustus early in the period to kick-start the offense, and there was a little more penetration and ball movement to create the space for those shots. McCarville’s minutes were once again limited by foul trouble, although the return of Damiris Dantas from overseas had at least given the Lynx another post that Cheryl Reeve was willing to use. The game got increasingly chippy in the second period as well, with Taurasi called for a technical after bitching a little too long and hard about the lack of a call on one of her missed shots, then Reeve adding her own tech after an argument with official Amy Bonner about staying in the coaching box. According to ESPN reports from the sideline, it was Taurasi who suggested to Bonner that she should keep an eye on Reeve’s movements, just to add an extra level to it all.

 

Phoenix responded to the Minnesota push late in the first half, with Taurasi nailing a pair of threes when left in too much space, and Dupree continuing to finish with her typical smoothness both at the rim and from mid-range. The Lynx forcing a few turnovers and hitting some jumpers in the second period was a good sign for the second half, but they still trailed by eight at the interval.

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The Daily W, 08/30/2014: Mercury outwork, outhustle and outplay Lynx on way to Game 1 win

 

Minnesota Lynx 71 @ Phoenix Mercury 85

 

Lineups: The starting fives were as expected for Game 1 of this eagerly anticipated series. The only slight surprise among the available players was that Lynx post Damiris Dantas had recently returned from her personal issues back in Brazil, and was available again off the bench for Minnesota.

 

Story of the Game: The game started as much of it would go on – unfortunately for Minnesota. Buoyed by their noisy home crowd, the Mercury got out in transition early on and scored the first nine points of the game. They were challenging hard on all the jumpers the Lynx were tossing up, leaking out after making those challenges, and beating Minnesota down the floor at the other end. DeWanna Bonner also drilled a three in the opening 90 seconds of the game, which would be another bad sign for the rest of the night for the Lynx.

 

After an early Cheryl Reeve timeout to wake her team up, Minnesota came right back into it in the first period. Seimone Augustus was the primary driving force, making a couple of nice runners after early jump shots hadn’t fallen. But they’d needed to make some tough shots, and have Rebekkah Brunson come up with some offensive boards and hustle points, just to stay close. Phoenix were playing their natural game, moving the ball well and sharing it around the floor, and looked in control.

 

Diana Taurasi picked up her second personal foul for a push-off late in the opening period (right after being called for a carry, which itself was preceded by a defensive three-seconds call on Griner – referee Sue Blauch wasn’t doing the Mercury any favours). Then Brittney Griner was called for her second foul early in the second period on a Lindsay Whalen drive. But Minnesota weren’t able to take advantage. Taurasi came back in quickly, and played with the fouls without issue. Griner came back midway through the second quarter, and her team was still up by four. The Lynx have to be able to gain ground when those two are on the bench in this series, especially when they’ve forced them there with foul trouble.

 

Instead, Phoenix pressed home their advantage once their starters were reunited again. The Mercury’s team defense and energy level was winning the battle with the Lynx, with Bonner and help making Maya Moore a thoroughly peripheral part of Minnesota’s offense. Penny Taylor was offering lots of hustle work as well, tracking down loose balls and rebounds while always making the right pass to the next open teammate. With Griner always a target inside – and knocking down three mid-range jump shots just to make her even more scary – and the combination of Taurasi, Bonner and Candice Dupree producing elsewhere, Phoenix started to slide away late in the first half. Minnesota took a couple of bad shots, got beaten by Phoenix’s ball movement and basic work rate too often, and were down by 11 at the end of the half. The Mercury went on an 11-4 run after Griner came back in.

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