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

 

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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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The Daily W, 08/25/2014: Dream streak past Sky to extend series, while Mercury blow Sparks away

 

Atlanta Dream 92 @ Chicago Sky 83

 

Lineups: Atlanta were forced into a switch, after point guard Celine Dumerc banged knees with Courtney Vandersloot in Game 1 and didn’t feel it was strong enough to support her in Game 2. So Jasmine Thomas took back the starting spot that was hers for over half the season, after only playing three minutes in the first game of the series. Chicago’s starting lineup was the same, but power forward Jessica Breland was unavailable due to the shoulder injury she picked up two nights earlier. That left the Sky looking very thin on the front line, and Elena Delle Donne likely to have to play heavy minutes due to a lack of viable alternatives.

 

Story of the Game: For the first few minutes, Atlanta looked awful. Michael Cooper had made some tweaks to the defensive scheme, in terms of where and when they were switching or rotating, and his team looked confused. Chicago were also hitting a lot of tough shots, led by Delle Donne, which always makes things look worse whether you’re playing bad defense or not. The Sky were looking to get the ball inside to Sylvia Fowles, but when they couldn’t find room or create the right angle, hitting the shots that were left around the perimeter anyway.

 

But it didn’t take long for the momentum to turn in the Dream’s favour. Tamera Young picked up two fouls in the opening four minutes of the game, both while trying to stay tight to Angel McCoughtry, and that was a big problem for Chicago. She’s their only natural option to defend McCoughtry, and with Breland out she’s also Pokey Chatman’s preference as their backup power forward (although very undersized, especially against a team like Atlanta). Young went to the bench, Allie Quigley came in, and the Dream had even more opportunity to attack. And attack is exactly what they did well in this game. They played with speed and aggression, constantly pushing the ball in transition, and they drove to the rim. McCoughtry did her best to either post-up inside or attack off the dribble even when Young was in the game, and when options like Quigley were in front of her, she just ghosted right by and took the easy layup. Despite their messy start, Atlanta were up by two at the end of the first quarter and McCoughtry already had 11.

 

There was more of the coaching chess match that we saw play out in Game 1 as we went into the second quarter. Chatman was trying some unusual lineups due to Young’s foul trouble and the need to find Delle Donne at least a little rest, which meant minutes for players like Courtney Clements and Sasha Goodlett. Cooper had come up with a flimsy-looking 1-2-2 zone to cover Chicago’s base horns set, and the absence of Dumerc left him going deeper down his bench than usual as well, with even Matee Ajavon seeing some time (which was a bad idea, and didn’t last long). It all led to some pretty scrappy basketball, with too many turnovers at either end, but being played at Atlanta’s favoured frantic pace. They were only up by a point at halftime, but they’d made it their kind of game.

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The Daily W, 08/23/2014: Sky steal one on the road while Sparks rue missed opportunity in Phoenix

 

Chicago Sky 80 @ Atlanta Dream 77

 

Lineups: Atlanta stuck with the same starting five that’s been their regular group since midseason, but Chicago made some changes for the playoffs. Elena Delle Donne came in for her first start since returning from her Lyme disease flare-up, which sent Jessica Breland to the bench (after starting in all 32 of her regular season appearances this year). Courtney Vandersloot also started after appearing in just two games before the end of the regular season since returning from her knee injury. The presence of Angel McCoughtry at small forward for Atlanta would’ve made it difficult for Pokey Chatman to start both Delle Donne and Breland, because neither is particularly suited to guarding McCoughtry. That was Tamera Young’s job for most of the night.

 

Story of the Game: Chatman and Michael Cooper were battling with each other to find any possible edge throughout the game. Chicago dropped into a 2-3 zone on their second defensive possession, just to set the tone from early on and hopefully begin confusing the Dream. Both Vandersloot and Erika de Souza picked up two early fouls, which also led to more lineup complications, although Cooper took the risk of sending Erika back into the game late in the first quarter, and got away with it.

 

It was Atlanta who were in front for the majority of the first half, with the game largely being played at their prefered frantic pace. Even with McCoughtry and Sancho Lyttle missing a lot of makable shots, they led by as many as 12 points in the second quarter. They’d been helped by an injury to Chicago’s Jessica Breland, who fell heavily on her hands late in the opening period, and appeared to injure her shoulder, possibly dislocating it. She’d played less than three minutes, and never returned. That forced Delle Donne into playing more minutes than was probably intended, but the Sky had few other viable alternatives. They’ve got three backup posts on the bench that Chatman doesn’t want to use, making Young the de facto reserve power forward with Breland out – except that they were trying to match Young up with McCoughtry as often as possible. Atlanta went big early in the second quarter with McCoughtry at shooting guard, Lyttle at small forward and Aneika Henry joining de Souza in the post. Chicago looked unprepared for it and were lost for several possessions, with Epiphanny Prince forced to try to guard McCoughtry – which didn’t go well for the Sky.

 

But importantly, Chicago ended the first half on a strong note. After some shambolic offensive possessions, largely featuring either dreadful attempts at entry passes to Sylvia Fowles or Prince bricks from the perimeter, everything improved with Vandersloot back on the floor. Finally they had someone who knew where to look and how to make a pass, which led to consecutive buckets for Delle Donne. She added another ridiculous jumper, McCoughtry played some awful defense on the final possession of the half to leave Prince wide open to drill a three, and somehow Chicago were back within a point at the break.

 

There was a little less playing around with lineups in the second half, as Chatman in particular realised how few usable options she had. Delle Donne got a grand total of 1 minute and 36 seconds of rest in the third quarter, because Atlanta were so quick to recognise that the Sky had gone small with Vandersloot, Prince and Allie Quigley on the perimeter, and Young trying to survive at the 4. The Dream scored consecutive post buckets, and Delle Donne was back in at the next stoppage.

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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

 

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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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The Daily W, 08/18/2014

 

Atlanta Dream 55 @ Connecticut Sun 84

 

Lineups: Atlanta were back to their regular starting lineup, after going big for a few games while Angel McCoughtry was suffering with tendonitis in her feet. Katie Douglas sat out again for Connecticut due to her back issues, and Allison Hightower never did make it back from midseason knee surgery that was only meant to keep her out for two-to-three weeks.

 

Story of the Game: With nothing on the line besides lottery percentages for Connecticut, there was an inevitable lack of energy and intensity in the game. Or more succinctly, it was dull. Michael Cooper will still be a little disappointed with how his team performed. He made heavier use of his bench than usual, but his rotation players still played significant minutes in the first half, and they were a mess. The Dream had a ludicrous 16 turnovers in the first half, and Connecticut inevitably slid into the lead.

Alex Bentley was lighting up her old team, and only went to the bench due to some foul trouble in the first half. Chiney Ogwumike played the complementary role in the paint, and Connecticut killed the game off for good in the third quarter with Atlanta losing interest to an even greater extent.

The one slightly worrying and potentially meaningful moment in the second half was Tiffany Hayes taking a heavy fall, and sitting out the rest of the game with her left (shooting) hand wrapped in ice. Hayes hits the deck and requires treatment at least once per game, but she throws her body around so much that there’s always a danger that she’ll get more seriously hurt. Hopefully the ice was just precautionary – she usually carries on and plays right through all the knocks and bruises.

 

Key Players: Bentley and Ogwumike did most of the work for the Sun, with a few buckets from UConn product Kelly Faris exciting the crowd. No one for Atlanta did anything worth talking about, and they’ll be hoping to flip the switch to a vastly better performance for the meaningful games that begin next week.

 

Notes of Interest: The Sun actually hurt their lottery chances with this win, decreasing their odds of getting the #1 pick in the 2015 draft (where they’d be expected to take yet another UConn grad, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis). Sometimes playing for pride has minor negative repercussions.

 

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San Antonio Stars 84 @ Chicago Sky 72

 

Lineups: This was the game that had a chance to decide playoff seeding in both conferences (it wasn’t actually quite as clear-cut as I described in yesterday’s column – apologies for the inaccuracy). A win for San Antonio would earn them the third seed in the West and a matchup with Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs, rather than a clash with Phoenix. A win for Chicago would’ve potentially seen them finish third in the East (although not necessarily, as a loss for Indiana would’ve created a three-way tie even if Chicago won, and forced the Sky down to fourth). But Pokey Chatman made her feelings on that #3 seed clear with her lineup choices. Star trio Epiphanny Prince, Elena Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles all began the afternoon on the bench and stayed there throughout. Courtney Vandersloot started for the first time since returning from her knee injury, with Courtney Clements and Markeisha Gatling filling the spots opened up by Prince and Fowles. San Antonio had left point guard Danielle Robinson back home to rest a turned ankle – so maybe they weren’t that worried about #3 or #4 either – but that was nothing compared to the talent Chicago left on the sidelines.

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The Daily W, 08/17/2014

 

New York Liberty 73 @ Washington Mystics 61

 

Lineups: After going smaller to try to combat Tamika Catchings in their previous game, New York switched back to a more regular lineup for this one, with Avery Warley-Talbert coming back in to start in the post. Swin Cash continued at small forward, with Alex Montgomery dropping to the bench. Washington, who needed a win to give themselves a chance at the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, started their usual five. Kara Lawson was still out due to her ankle issue.

 

Story of the Game: In many ways, this was a pretty depressing contest for fans of both teams. Mystics supporters saw their team produce a desperately flat performance, fall behind by double-digits in the second quarter, and then let the game drift away. Liberty fans saw their bench actually step up and produce, and their team win a game without Tina Charles or Cappie Pondexter needing to carry them. Which considering how poorly they’ve played for most of the season, can only have been frustrating to witness.

Plenette Pierson did a lot of good work for the Liberty, especially in the first half, and Washington couldn’t contain her, especially on the pick-and-roll. New York made some nice pocket passes to create points for her on the way to the hoop, but Washington’s defense was unusually slow in rotating and contesting to prevent the easy looks. With the Liberty also shooting well from the perimeter, they ran away with the game. They also had an extraordinary zero turnovers in the first half, which probably said even more about the lack of defensive energy from the Mystics than it did about New York’s own play.

Washington tried to shoot their way back into the game in the second half, and Mike Thibault tried some gimmicky lineups to shake things up, but they never came particularly close. If they play like this in the postseason, it’ll be a short-lived trip to the playoffs.

 

Key Players: Pierson finished with 20 on 7-8 shooting, with Swin Cash the only other Liberty player in double-figures. They went deep into their bench, shared out all the minutes, and Washington still never came close. Unfortunately for New York, their playoff hopes had been extinguished the day before, and this performance with the pressure off meant nothing.

Washington were really poor. After finally clinching their postseason berth in Connecticut the day before, maybe they relaxed too much when only seeding was on the line and weren’t mentally ready to play. But this is also the kind of game they’re vulnerable to without any real stars to just toss the ball to when they need a bucket. They’re a collective group that needs to become more than the sum of its parts, and when they all lack energy like this the results can be pretty awful.

 

Notes of Interest: This result meant the winner of the Chicago-Indiana game below would be confirmed as the #2 seed. Whether Washington were the #3 or #4 would then depend on Sunday’s game for the loser between the Sky and Fever.

 

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Chicago Sky 67 @ Indiana Fever 71

 

Lineups: Both teams started as they had in recent games, with Elena Delle Donne continuing to come off the bench for Chicago. Layshia Clarendon was still out for Indiana, making Sydney Carter the backup point guard instead. The Sky had a point guard returning, with Courtney Vandersloot in uniform and taking part for the first time in over seven weeks after her knee injury. That was a welcome boost for the Sky heading into the playoffs.

 

Story of the Game: Indiana started the game just as they had in recent big wins over New York – lots of energy, running the floor hard for transition points, and with Tamika Catchings hitting every shot she threw up. Briann January, Shavonte Zellous and Marissa Coleman joined in, Natasha Howard was a solid replacement when Catchings went to rest on the bench, and the Fever were utterly dominant in the opening stages. They ran away to a 16-point lead at the end of the opening quarter.

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The Daily W, 08/14/2014

 

Chicago Sky 72 @ Washington Mystics 69

 

Lineups: Same starters for Chicago that they’ve used in recent games, with Elena Delle Donne continuing to combine with Allie Quigley as a dangerous pair of scorers off the bench. For the first time since the end of June, Courtney Vandersloot was in uniform for the Sky – although she never actually made it off the bench. Still, a positive sign that she might be available for the playoffs. Washington were short a couple of players, with regular starting center Kia Vaughn suspended for the elbow she threw at Chiney Ogwumike in their last game, and Kara Lawson out for a week after spraining her ankle the same night. Stefanie Dolson started in place of Vaughn, while Kalana Greene and Tayler Hill both saw playing time on the perimeter that wouldn’t have been on offer with a full squad.

 

Story of the Game: Chicago led for virtually the entire first half, pushing their advantage as high as 11 points on a couple of occasions. The Mystics missed a lot of shots, both inside and out, but managed to keep hanging around. Dolson was doing a reasonable job battling for position with Sylvia Fowles, but struggling to convert anything when Washington tried to use her offensively. Chicago didn’t succeed in forcing the ball inside that consistently either, but with Quigley and Delle Donne making a couple of shots, they managed to build a lead. But Washington closed the half strong, with Bria Hartley nailing a three and throwing a pretty pass to lead Dolson in for a layup as part of the push, and the Mystics were within two points at the interval.

In many ways, the second half was very similar. Chicago were in front almost throughout – an Ivory Latta three put the Mystics ahead for a grand total of 21 seconds in the third quarter, before a Fowles layup took it back – but Washington wouldn’t go away. The absences hurt the Mystics. Fowles dominated the boards without Vaughn available to battle her, and both Hill and Greene looked like passengers. Greene’s barely been used by Mike Thibault this season, so will offer her usual effort but has no game rhythm whatsoever. Hill was basically terrible in her rookie season last year, so adding the fact that she gave birth less than eight weeks ago on top of that, she’s not really ready to contribute. She tried a three in the first half that was cleanly blocked by Epiphanny Prince, who’s about the size of your average garden gnome. They’ll really be hoping that Lawson’s ready to go for the playoffs – assuming they make it in.

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