Shark Week started Monday for the Phoenix Mercury. That's the kind of killer instinct that coach Corey Gaines thinks his team is playing with now that "money time" is here.
"They're veteran players and they've got the taste of the championship, they've got the taste of the playoffs and they know what has to be done. I think that helps them and they kind of thrive and they kind of feed off of it. It's like a bunch of sharks -- once they taste that blood they start going ... they're being very aggressive right now," Gaines said.
It's going to take another level of hunger and focus for the 15-19 Mercury to win one on the road against the Seattle Storm team who went undefeated on their floor this season.
The Mercury don't worry much about that stuff, though; they are a confident team right now and think that they are peaking at the right time. They defied odds by becoming the first team to win a WNBA championship on the road in 2007 and, as Economics major Corey Gaines points out, after losing all five games to the Storm this season, the percentages are in their favor now.
Here's a nice break down of the five games the teams played this season.
Of course, the Seattle Storm have plenty of championship experience on their team, as well, and are chomping at the bit to get back to the WNBA Finals. The combination of talent, desire, confidence and heart should make this a fantastic series. Diana Taurasi thinks so.
"For the fans, I think it's something that's going to be fun to watch and as a player, you always want to go against the best and right now they're the best team," Taurasi said. "This is one where you'd like it to go five games or seven games, but three it is. (Maybe) two, who knows."
Stopping the Storm
The Seattle Storm have a strong combination on the offensive end that will be difficult for the Mercury to stop, but it's a doable task for the improved Phoenix defense.
The Storm have one of, if not the, best
post basketball players in the world (Lauren Jackson). They have a top flight point guard in Sue Bird who controls the team and, like a Steve Nash, can both score and distribute and knows exactly when to do each. They have Swin Cash, a fantastic veteran perimeter player who shoots lights out, can attack off the dribble, runs the lane and gets clean-up points.
Off the bench, they bring a number of shooters and, with starters Camille Little and Tanisha Wright, they can nail the open look if you leave them alone to focus on Jackson. In fact, every one of their top-eight rotation players shot over 35 percent from three this year and that includes the 6-foot-5 Jackson.
Side note: A game we like to play sometimes is comparing WNBA players to NBA players. There is no comparison for Jackson and how she impacts the game. She defends the paint and rebounds like Dwight Howard. She has face-up and back-to-the-basket skill like Tim Duncan. She's mobile like a healthy Kevin Garnett and she can stretch the floor like Channing Frye. She might just be the perfect basketball player.
When you are facing a team with such a dominant post player as Jackson, you are faced with the option of keeping the ball out of her hands by double-teaming early or you can stay home on the shooters and live with the consequences.
The Mercury claim they will do both, but something Coach Gaines said gives us a little hint that he might be leaning more in one direction.
"It's funny -- if you watch that LA series with Seattle, they doubled Lauren Jackson and she still got her points," Gaines said.
The plan he laid out is to give her different looks and change up things so she can't get comfortable. The key is to make her think and also (perhaps more so) make her play defense.
Run her legs off
The Mercury feel that they can take Lauren's legs away by making her get out in transition and forcing her to work on the defensive side of the ball.
"When you make a team run back, that takes a lot out of you. It may not show up in the first quarter, but at the end of the game, it shows up on your legs," Gaines said.
Lauren played 36.5 minutes per game in Seattle's 2-0 first round series win over the LA Sparks. The fact that Jackson had to play so many minutes to beat a team that had no post presence of its own speaks volumes about the lack of depth up front.
Jackson is smart and knows how to avoid picking up fouls, but she needs to be on the court for the Storm to win and the Mercury will certainly try and take advantage of that in the series.
Banging with Brax
Kara Braxton gives the Mercury another option to throw at Jackson. Her size and strength will force Lauren out on the perimeter more, which takes away the Storm's biggest offensive weapon, along with their best rebounder.
Braxton is going to have to step up her game, however.
"We need her to be more aggressive defensively. We need her to do more and I told her that other day," Diana Taurasi said about her big new teammate. "She's too big, too good, too strong to let anyone get on the block on her."
Sue Bird is a special kind of defensive challenge. She can drive and finish, dish the ball, hit spot-up or pull-up shots and generally is the engine of the Seattle offense. Other than Sue and Swin Cash (and to a less degree, Tanisha Wright) the Storm won't put the ball on the deck too much which means the defensive game plan on the perimeter will focus on taking Sue out of her comfort zone.
Once again, that task will likely fall mainly on the narrow shoulders of DeWanna Bonner. Bonner proved all season and again in the playoffs against Becky Hammon, that her combination of size, speed and tenacity can and will bother shorter gaurds.
Assistant coach Julie Hairgrove explained that starting point guard Temeka Johnson will pressure Sue and be aggressive with her on-ball defense. You can't allow Bird space to get comfortable. The Mercury will use Bonner extensively and perhaps Taurasi as well to change things up.
"You have to mix it up on them. Sue's a very smart point guard, you can't always do the same thing on her. You've got to throw different schemes at her just so she doesn't feel comfortable the whole night," Hairgrove said.
Help the helpers
The Mercury defense (yes, they play defense despite Taurasi's on-camera sarcasm) has improved this season in large part to the increased focus on rotations and using different schemes in different situations.
Penny Taylor explained how that's developed.
"Corey's really mixed it up for us this year and it took us a little while to be focused enough to get those things down because it really takes focus," She said. "The game moves so fast that's not always easy to know who's setting the screen, who's coming off of it and we've done that well in the last few weeks."
Taylor specifically thinks the team has gotten better defending the second and third attack at the basket. The rotations are better because the team knows each other better and can react more quickly based on who needs more help on penetration, who's closing out to the ball, and with overall communication.
There's also a strong incentive to play good defense and because this is still the Phoenix Mercury and that carrot is still an open shot.
"When we get all those things done there's a prize at the end of it because once we get that rebound and run, and we've been running so hard, once you know you might get an open layup, we've been running hard with four or five of us down the court so it's a real incentive and we've got that really down well now," Taylor said.
Aggression is the name of the game for the Mercury. In the San Antonio series it impressed playoff newbie Candice Dupree.
"We came out physical from the beginning and it was a fast-paced game for almost the entire 40 minutes so as long as we do that and just be aggressive we should be OK," Dupree said.
That aggression means getting into the passing lanes to try and generate steals but only in some situations. The Mercury defenders don't ever want to leave Jackson or Bird (and probably Cash) and they need to be smart about taking chance so they don't lose containment.
The physicality will be part of this series for sure. The Mercury have been getting into foul trouble a bit by slapping at the ball but Candice Dupree sees no reason to change that.
"We're not going to let anybody take away from our aggressiveness. You've got six fouls, why not use them," Dupree said.
Rebound and run
The Storm finished this season +6.5 in rebounding differential while the Mercury were -1.9 so on paper this seems like a huge advantage for Seattle. But the Mercury went into the WBNA Finals last year with a similar deficit to the Indiana Fever but ended their five-game epic series slightly ahead in total rebounds.
The importance of rebounding the ball was stressed by Coach Gaines,
"For us, if we get the board and they're crashing it's going to be a fast break for us and if we don't foul them or they don't get that second shot we're gone and it really puts a lot of pressure on their defense."
What he's saying is that his team's ability to run the floor forces opponents to be less aggressive on the offensive glass. Teams either give up fast-break points or they dominate the second chance point category. It is very hard to do both.
The Mercury also have decent size at every position except their starting center and in certain lineup situations with Braxton and Smith on the floor together with Taurasi, Taylor and Bonner are much bigger over all.
It is next to impossible to keep Jackson off the defensive glass since she will stay near the rim on defense but offensively, at least when Braxton is in the game, Jackson will be out of position for put-backs.
In the end, the rebounding battle will come down to intensity and will and some lucky breaks.
Attacking to the Storm
The Seattle Storm are one of the top defensive teams in the league. They play solid team defense, mix up their schemes, and generally play as smart and hard on that end of the floor as any team out there. With Lauren Jackson patrolling the paint they can afford to be a bit more aggressive and rarely need to double the post.
The Mercury, however, are the best offensive team in the league by far and are markedly better than last year's championship team now that they emphasize more paint scoring with Dupree and Braxton and with Taurasi and Taylor also able to get more drives in the half-court.
Phoenix can still run as well (or better) than anyone but their offense this year is much less dependent on the long-ball and better suited to the slower, defensive struggles you see in the postseason.
Would you like some roll with that pick?
The Mercury will look to pick and roll extensively with Dupree attacking Lauren Jackson. By setting screens well away from the basket, they can pull Jackson out of the paint at times and most importantly force her to work hard on almost every defensive possession. There's no way that Dupree can attack Jackson in the post on her own but when she rolls or slips off screens she will force a smaller player to rotate over or make Jackson quickly retreat back.
The Storm also like to switch the pick and roll which again pulls Jackson out of paint and out of position to rebound and forces her to guard either Tuarasi or Taylor on the wing. Lauren is mobile enough to handle that assignment at times but the more the Mercury attack her the more energy she uses.
The switch also creates a mismatch in the paint for Dupree against one of the smaller Storm forwards like Cash or Abrasimova. I would put my money on Candice in those situations.
Kara Braxton should have a big role to play in this series and if she's able to be effective and stay on the floor for 20 to 25 minutes it will mean good things for the Mercury.
Braxton should certainly be in the game anytime Jackson is not and even if that's a few minutes here and there she can do damage against either Willingham or Ashley Robinson.
With Jackson on the floor, the Mercury will still use Braxton to attack her in the post.
"With her (Braxton) now they really do have to come and double because their four's (power forwards) are too small. If they put Lauren on her that means Lauren's going to take a couple of shots down low and it's not like Braxton's going to ease up. She's going to have to body her," Coach Hairgrove said.
The Mercury play Braxton with both Dupree and Smith. Dupree is a better rebounder but can't stretch the floor quite as well as Smith and the combination of Braxton, Smith and Bonner is significantly taller than any lineup the Storm will use.
We've touched on the Mercury big lineup of Taurasi at point with Bonner and Taylor on the wings and Dupree and Smith up front. This is the Mercury's best lineup on both ends of the floor and I would expect to see it more if the game is close.
Not only does this lineup give the Mercury more opportunity to switch ball-screens on the perimeter without creating a mismatch but it gives them a height advantage on the glass.
This might also be the team's best half-court offensive unit as well. With Taurasi running point teams are forced to respect her ability to shoot any time she comes off a screen and that opens the lane for Dupree. It also forces Sue Bird to be overmatched in any individual assignment.
"Sue's a good defender. She's an intelligent player, she plays the angles," Gaines said. "Maybe she's not great one-on-one but team defense - they're a great team defensive team. That's what they play anyway, they don't play one-on-one defense."
The Storm have been bothered this season by bigger guards and most recently the Minnesota combination of Whalen and Wright were effective. They repeatedly attacked Bird with whoever she was guarding.
Isolating the problem
The Mercury are known for their fantastic passing and ball movement. It's something Storm coach Brian Agler will certainly be prepared for and have his team ready to rotate and try and get steals.
To counter this, the Mercury could choose to use more isolation sets. Between Taurasi, Taylor and Bonner, they have three solid options for attacking from the wing with strong slashing moves.
This isn't a staple of the Mercury offense although we saw it quite frequently in the early weeks of the season. The ability is there is the situation warrants.
Everyone thinks this will be a great series and it absolutely should be. At the same time, there's really nothing that might happen that would surprise me. We could have three overtime games or we could see one team put the hammer down and win by double-digits.
These teams are both too good and the gap between a close game and a comfortable win isn't all that big. A couple bad breaks, some foul trouble to the wrong player and really anything can happen.
The keys for the Mercury to avoid being on the wrong end of that are:
- Tempo. Obviously, the Mercury will push the ball early in the clock and look for good open looks but they also will control tempo in the half court and make sure they are working the ball and forcing the Storm to defend for extended periods of time.
- Rebounding and turnovers. Both teams are too good to give the other side second and third looks at the basket or easy points off turnovers. These will be key stats in the series.
Go big or go home. The Mercury best lineup is it's big lineup and Gaines should go to it extensively. Last year in the Finals against Indiana, Johnson had her minutes cut to around 23 per game and there's no reason to think that won't happen again.
- Making shots. It always comes down to shot-making at some point. As Julie Hairgrove points out, those shots will likely have to come from the role players, "They may not leave Dee and Penny as much and leave Meek and Tan but they've been playing well for us. We didn't win two championships for nothing. They'll hit those shots."
In the end, the Storm have more holes in their roster, less playoff experience on their bench and of course, they don't have Diana Taurasi. Mercury in 3.
Conference Finals vs. Seattle
Thursday, September 2 7 p.m. (NBATV) Key Arena (Seattle)
Sunday, September 5 12 p.m. (ABC) US Airways Center
Wednesday, September 8* 7 p.m. (NBATV) Key Arena (Seattle)