The Phoenix Mercury finished third in the WNBA's Western Conference with a 19-15 record. With that result they've earned the right to face their toughest opponent in the first round of the 2011 playoffs. The 2010 WNBA Champion Seattle Storm have absolutely owned the Mercury over the last two years having won 10 of their last 11 meetings including a two-game sweep in the Western Conference Finals last summer.
Needless to say, this isn't the match up the Mercury wanted but now that it's here, head coach Corey Gaines says that it's all good since you have to eventually beat the best teams to win the title.
Star Diana Taurasi (who once again is the WNBA's scoring leader) is also saying the right things about the challenge, "The road's never easy...It will make us see if it's worth it and if we're ready for it. No better place to go than Seattle where we haven't won in awhile."
What else are they going to say about a team that's owned them thanks to their physical and disciplined defense that has consistently held the high-flying Mercury offense in check?
In four games this season the Mercury averaged 75 points against Seattle and shot just under 40 percent from the field. That's a significant decline from their 89 points per game and 46 percent shooting average on the season. It's no fluke. Seattle's coach Brian Agler always has his team ready to slow down the transition game and will take advantage of any weakness in the Mercury offense.
One thing Seattle doesn't do often is double team Taurasi. She averaged 29 points per game against the Storm and shot almost 60 percent from three. It's the rest of the Mercury weapons that Seattle holds in check.
Coach Gaines has a plan for Seattle this time. He feels his team knows the Storm defense well enough to take advantage of what they do.
"Your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness. They're greatest strength is their defense," Gaines said. "If your defense is set and does the same thing every time then you know exactly where they're going to be and what they're going to do then you can get some easy shots out of it."
The Mercury will still try and push the pace and find easy points in transition, but they fully understand that the game will likely come down to half court execution.
"I always said, games are won in the last two or three minutes because of half court offense," Taurasi said. "We have to prove that we can be patient, get the right shot and make 'em."
Taurasi also feels that the Mercury can't rely on their run and gun system as much on the road, "...because for some reason there's a little bit more whistles going on, especially there."
Guard / forward Penny Taylor has missed several games late in the season with back spasms. She's ready to go for the playoffs, "(My back's) great. It's feeling really good. I've gone this week especially a lot of work in the pool. It's feeling strong and I've been able to get out and shoot and get a touch back on the ball."
Defending Bird and Jackson
Defending the Storms two primary players, point guard Sue Bird and center Lauren Jackson, is always a challenge for Phoenix...and the rest of the league.
Bird is always a scoring threat, but especially against starting Phoenix point guard Temeka Johnson who has struggled this season with her defensive mobility. Taurasi's former UConn teammate and one of the best point guards in the game has averaged more against the Mercury than she does against the rest of the league (17 ppg).
To counter Bird, Gaines said he will use the versatile DeWanna Bonner to defend her late in games. Bonner can either switch ball screens to limit penetration or she can fight over screens and use her length to prevent Bird from shooting. (It was Bird's shot that ended the Mercury season last year.)
Jackson missed over half the season with a hip injury but has been back and played in the last eight games of the season. She recorded double digit scoring with her combination of post play and outside shooting in each of those games except for her final contest of the season which, ironically, was against the Mercury.
We can expect the Mercury to throw a variety of looks at Jackson with Nakia Sanford getting primary responsibility. If the Mercury want to go to a smaller, faster, more offensively potent line up, it will take a variety of zone or double team options to prevent Jackson from taking advantage of smaller defenders (Candice Dupree or Bonner).
Familiarity and ego breed confidence
"We're not afraid of anybody," Gaines said. He has some surprises in store for his nemesis. He admitted to holding back some things from the regular season and said they worked on a few things in their last game they think they can exploit.
Holding back for the playoffs isn't a surprise for a veteran team like the Mercury that's been working all summer with the goal of simply making the postseason. Now that they are here, they feel like the focus and intensity will increase and we'll see a different team.
Taylor explains how this series will be different then the eleven other times they faced Seattle in the last two years.
"We've got some confident people. We feel like every game we can win. Sometimes, we're at a heightened focus level, we have a greater concentration and we play a lot better. The little mistakes, the turnovers, we limit them a lot more. So being playoffs, regardless of the team, we're feeling pretty confident."
The Mercury are fighting a lot of recent history here so while we appreciate their confidence, we're not going to believe it until we see it. Here's the Mercury's playoff schedule. The first game on Thursday will be key; it's hard to imagine the Mercury winning twice in Seattle:
- Thursday, Sept. 15th: Seattle (away), 7:00 p.m. Pacific Time on ESPN 2
- Saturday, Sept. 17th: Seattle (home), 7:00 p.m. Pacific Time on NBA TV
- Monday, Sept. 19th (if necessary): Seattle (away), 7:00 p.m. on ESPN 2