Predicting the sweep
The San Antonio Silver Stars are a very different team this season than when they lost to the Mercury in the first round of the playoffs last year. Unfortunately for the Texans, they've declined since last year.
The Silver Stars no longer have Ann Wauters in the middle to get easy post points; they lost veteran leader and another ball-handler when Vickie Johnson retired; and of course Chamique Holdsclaw recently went down with a season-ending torn Achilles tendon.
They added Michelle Snow and rookie Jayne Appel to help up-front but on balance this Silver Stars team backed their way into the playoffs when the Lynx imploded and the Shock .. . well the six-win Tulsa "expansion" team is barely worth a mention this year.
San Antonio lacks size in their guard and wing positions and outside of the fantastic Sofia Young and the dynamic and deadly Becky Hammon have no consistent offensive punch.
They don't rebound the ball well (-3.03 reb dif), they don't shoot the ball well (.332 3P%) and unlike in year's past they don't defend well either. The Mercury recorded their highest average field goal percentage this season (.523) against San Antonio.
Coach Gaines and his players are saying all the right things about being focused and not overlooking the Silver Stars, but that doesn't stop us from calling this series what it is - a serious mismatch in talent.
"Very different but I think we match up very well against them," Mercury assistant coach Julie Hairgrove said.
If the Mercury don't win this series it will be a huge upset. If Phoenix doesn't sweep San Antonio (as the Suns did to the Spurs back in May) it will be a big disappointment.
Season series (2-2)
The tied season series is misleading, as most Mercury stats are this year.
Game 1, June 18: SASS 108 - PHX 105
This game was still early in the season when the Mercury were struggling to find their legs and adjust to their new team mates. Phoenix held a 15-point third quarter lead in this game before the Silver Stars tightened up their defense and defended the three-point line better.
Phoenix still out-rebounded San Antonio 42-32 and it took an above average three-point shooting night for the visitors to barely win this game.
Game 2, August 3: PHX 103 - SASS 92
By this point in the season the Mercury were finding their stride. The Silver Stars again shot the ball well above their season average from three, shot 52.2% from the field, and stayed almost even on the glass and yet they still lost by 11 at home. They were simply unable to slow down the Mercury.
Game 3, August 6: PHX 103 - SASS 87
Similar to the previous game, San Antonio shot the ball well but couldn't do anything to stop Phoenix. The Mercury shot 60.3% from the field.
Game 4, August 22: SASS - 83 - PHX 82
In the final game of the regular season the Mercury benched Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor and the other three starters played less than 13 minutes each. It still took a last-second bucket from Sofia Young for the Silver Stars to get the win at home.
Stopping the Silver Stars
Without their third-leading scorer, Chamique Holdsclaw, stopping the Silver Stars becomes a very simple game plan according to Jule Hairgrove.
"I think Becky (Hammon) always causes problems for all teams just how creative she is coming off (screens) as well as Sofia Young. She's got that fade-away jumper that's very tough to defend but we've really got to focus on those two. Only giving them one shot, get the board and go. So that's basically very simple - defend, rebound and run," she said.
Julie isn't saying the execution of the game plan is simple, just that the plan itself isn't overly complex. To get it done, the Mercury will have to actually try and stop the great point guard, Becky Hammon.
"We're going to through different looks at (Becky). We'll start with Meek (Temeka Johnson) on her and later on in the game we'll put a taller defender on her like a DB (DeWanna Bonner)," Hairgrove added.
In the August 6 game between these two teams, that defensive strategy worked well.
Silver Stars coach Sandy Brondello commented at the time, "They put Bonner on (Hammon), they're switching pick and rolls, this is a long team. It's not that she's got (Temeka) Johnson on her, but she's always got a lot of pressure on her so she's not getting many open looks as she usually did in the past. I suppose we're missing a player like Vickie Johnson who took a little pressure off her."
And by work well, of course we mean that Becky "only" scored 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting.
Look for the Mercury to trap Becky on the pick and roll and make her get rid of the ball. This is an effective strategy we've seen teams use against Steve Nash and the Suns but the Silver Stars lack additional creative options and don't have enough quality shooters to mitigate this scheme.
For Sofia Young the game plan is all about team defense.
"That's another key one we've got to focus on," Julie said. "She does a great job posting up, she does a great job catching at the three-point line or free throw line and being able to take us off the dribble so we really have to play good defense and also have help defense."
The Mercury might use their zone defense a bit more against the Silver Stars if Snow and Young get going inside. San Antonio only shoots around 33 percent from three as a team so the zone should be effective if done right.
"If we do go zone you really have to know where the shooters are," Hairgrove explained. "You always have to know where Becky Hammon is, you can't just leave her wide open. She'll hit shots. (Roneeka) Hodges will hit shots. Lawson-Wade will hit shots. You've got to really know the scouting report. If Ashley Battle is in, maybe you can help off more and get out a little bit later, close out her out a little bit harder."
Overall, the Mercury will follow their standard game plan and mix up coverages through out the series. They've become much better at adjusting on the fly and with limited big-game options the Silver Stars might score some points but in crunch time the Mercury should be able to get the key stops.
Attacking the San Antonio defense
I will come as no surprise that the Mercury game plan is to run the ball and Hairgrove thinks they should be able to do that.
"When we've played them we've been able to run them. They don't get back on defense very well," the assistant coach said.
In the June 18 game that the Mercury lost to San Antonio this sort of worked. Until it didn't.
"The first half we were great, it was an up and down pace. It was our pace," Julie said. "The second half it turned into their pace, more free throws, more half-court sets, and I think that's what bothers us ... We can't make it a half-court game. We've got to keep the tempo up, we've got to just kick it ahead and run our style game and then we feel very confident about our chances."
Penny Taylor talked more about how to attack the Silver Stars.
"They're strong inside with Sofia and Michelle Snow so we really have to attack their guards," Penny said. "They've got a lot of smaller guards. We can post them up and get set position so that's an advantage to us and we've got Brax (Kara Braxton) now, we've got a big advantage there on the inside as well."
Big advantage on the wings. Big advantage in the post. Big advantage in this series.
Avoiding over confidence
The fun part of my job is I don't have to pretend that thing are obviously one way, when really they aren't. All the nice talk aside, the Mercury are the clear favorites in this series.
But the Mercury can't think like that.
Last year, they admitted to a bit of over confidence going into the playoffs as the one seed. This year, they need to stay focused and hungry and a little bit desperate if they want to avoid an extremely embarrassing defeat in the first round of the playoffs.
Asked if the team was aware of their significant advantages going into the series, Penny explained the pitfall.
"If you go into it thinking like that, that's a big mistake. When you're playing against quality players, and they all are regardless of who they've lost this season, I think that could be a big mistake," she said.
That's not to say Taylor isn't confident about her team's chances, "If we just run our offense and we play our style and do what we need to do then we don't have to focus on San Antonio as much. Yeah, we've got to know where Becky is, where Sofia is, what their tendencies are, but if we just stick to what we do then I don't see them being a problem."
They may not want the pressure of being the favorite but they showed last year they can deal with it.
The Mercury lost the first game of a three-game series to both the Silver Stars and LA Sparks last season only to close out both teams and advance to the finals. Then after losing the second and third games to a great Indiana Fever team in a hotly contested five-game Finals series, the Mercury were able to both win on the road and in the decisive game.
This is pretty much the same team only more experienced. Of all the contributors on the roster, only Dupree lacks championship pedigree but she does have plenty of championship hunger.
A decisive two-game sweep of the Silver Stars would send a clear message that this up-and-down regular season team is ready and able to defend their title. That's the goal for next week. Anything less is tempting fate in a season when destiny appears to be on the side of the Seattle Storm.
Here is the full series schedule. Tickets available at Phoenix Mercury.com:
Conference Semifinals vs. San Antonio
Thursday, August 26 6 p.m. PT (ESPN2) US Airways Center
Saturday, August 28 10 a.m. PT (ESPN2) AT&T Center (San Antonio)
Monday, August 30 7 p.m. PT (NBATV)* US Airways Center