The Sparks All-Star Forward Breaks Down the Phoenix-San Antonio Matchup
Taj’s Take on the Western Conference Finals

Taj McWilliams-Franklin, right, thinks Phoenix star Diana Taurasi could have a big series against San Antonio.
Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images
Los Angeles power forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin has seen almost everything in the WNBA, having just completed her ninth year in the league. She was traded to the Sparks last February after spending her first eight seasons with the Orlando-Connecticut franchise. The six-time All-Star has participated in the playoffs five times, but she has never earned that elusive WNBA title.

But she has played extensively this season against this season's Western Conference finalists, going 1-2 against the Mercury and dropping all three matchups with the Silver Stars. So who better to analyze this series? Here, Taj gives her own take on the position-by-position series breakdown.

Hey, WNBA fans! This is a classic contrast of old school versus new school. It's the fundamentally sound Silver Stars versus the run-and-gun, up-tempo, high-scoring Mercury. And I don't mean old and new in terms of age, because San Antonio forward Sophia Young is only in her second year… but she plays like an old school post. The Stars can run the fast break, but they're very deliberate, they like their half-court sets, they like to get the ball inside, work the clock down and get a good shot off. They also rebound and play tough defense.

The Mercury, on the other hand, are always on the move, always doing something with the ball. They'll try to push the pace and tire out their opponents. And they have people coming off the bench who will keep up the pace. They'll run for days.

San Antonio needs to run selectively with Phoenix to be successful. If they can stay with them and tire the Mercury out a little bit, it keeps Phoenix from setting up its zone defense. And this season, the teams that have had success against Phoenix have been able to both run with them and slow them down when necessary. Every team is going to run when it can, but when the Silver Stars have gotten into that constant frenetic pace with the Mercury, they've had trouble because they're playing into Coach Paul Westhead's hands. San Antonio has to figure out when it can run and when it should slow things down. But they can't get into a constant footrace, because as Seattle found out in the first round, they'll lose that race.

Kelly Miller
Phoenix Mercury
Point Guard

Helen Darling
San Antonio

Taj's take: Kelly definitely has the speed advantage, but Helen is more experienced in these playoff situations. She is always calm and controlled and she runs the team well, meaning that she is good at getting the ball to the players who need it.

But like I said, Kelly is better utilizing her speed and quickness, which fits perfectly with the offense Coach Westhead runs. It's hard to even call Kelly a real point guard, because they push the ball up so fast. It's often whoever gets the rebound that dribbles back up the court and distributes, which is why they have a couple of players near the top of the league's assists list.

Kelly also has that standing jumper and a one-dribble pull-up. Helen doesn't use those too much, but Helen doesn't really need it because she's more of a distributor.

But all in all, Miller has the advantage as far as the tools and talent are concerned. But Darling has the edge in terms of experience and leadership. She knows who to get the ball to when they're hot and how to carry out Coach Hughes' plan for the team.

Cappie Pondexter
Phoenix Mercury
Shooting Guard

Becky Hammon
San Antonio

Taj's take: I've been waiting for these guys to match up! This is going to be a great battle. Becky Hammon is an extraordinary scorer. She's not the quickest player out there, but she has an old-school quality to her game that I love. She has a bevy of moves that will just dazzle you and put you to sleep. She never goes straight to the basket unless it's an uncontested layup. She'll take you a few dribbles in, then step back for a little floater in the paint. If her mark gets caught underneath on a screen or is late, she has an NBA-range 3-point shot. She loves to dribble with her left hand and do the up-and-under move she learned over in Italy.

The amazing thing is that you might know the move she's going to make, but it's still really hard to stop it. I'm a master of that type of game, too (laughs)! She's a throwback sort of player.

And Cappie is the perfect contrast. She's young and athletic and loves Westhead's up-tempo style. She'll see an opening whether she's 1-on-2, 1-on-3, whatever, and she'll take it to the rim. With her strength, Cappie might take Becky into the paint and post up or try to slash to the hoop. She also has a terrific left-side pull-up and she's really quick off the dribble. Like Becky, she can handle the one and has some off-the-dribble pick and roll moves as well.

Cappie can also shoot the 3, but it's not her bread and butter. She's not as deadly from long distance as Becky. Cappie can also create chances for her teammates off the dribble and create opportunities for foul shots.

Diana Taurasi
Phoenix Mercury
Small Forward

Vickie Johnson
San Antonio

Taj's take: I have a great respect for Diana. I played with her in Russia this past offseason and she has all of the tools to be a great three. She has the prototypical body, the height, the strength, the range and the vision to see the court. She can play point if she needs to and she can play the two when she needs to. But she is the perfect three, and she's probably the best in the league. She's now the standard by which threes are judged: "Well, is she anything like Diana Taurasi?"

And with this matchup against VJ, Diana definitely has the height and size advantage. That means she'll be able to take her (or Helen or Becky… whoever's guarding her) down into the post. She creates a really tough matchup defensively for any of those three players.

But, backing people down is not the forte of Diana's game. She's better out in the open court, hitting pull-up jumpers and really being a floor general. That's why she and Penny Taylor are so great together. When she's open, Diana will shoot. When she's not open… well, she still might shoot it. But she's always aware of which of her teammates is in the best position to score, and she'll do her best to get the ball to her. That's what makes her so tough to guard. She's big enough to see over the players usually guarding her and she's great at distributing the ball. She's a great passer under pressure.

I was there to see Vickie's amazing Game 3 performance against the Monarchs, and she was awesome. But she'll have a tough time with Diana. Vickie will have to play tough defense, deny the ball, then really close her down if she does get it, maybe even luring Diana into a crowd of players where a teammate can help her out.

But on offense, Vickie might have a bit of freedom because Diana usually plays the rover in the Mercury's zone. So they may not be matched up a whole lot in man-to-man coverage. However they play her, Vickie has some weapons: a great head fake, a terrific pull-up jumper when you think she's going to drive. Then, just when you think she's pulling up, she'll make an unstoppable drive right by you to her left where the only way to stop her is to get help from a teammate. Even against a taller player like Nicole Powell of the Monarchs, Vickie was able to drive past her, hit some shots and get some and-ones. And she holds her own underneath the basket, too.

Penny Taylor
Phoenix Mercury
Power Forward

Sophia Young
San Antonio

Taj's take: Wow, these are some amazing matchups!

I think Penny Taylor is the key to this series. If San Antonio can keep her under wraps, I think they'll have the edge. But if they can't, I think Phoenix could run away with it. I don't think Penny was at her best against Seattle, but she didn't really need to be. I'm still looking for a breakout game in the postseason from her.

Sophia is an undersized post player, but she has a terrific upside. Sophia's control of Penny will be a huge part of this matchup. If she can clamp down on Penny, that will stem Phoenix's running game and could help the Silver Stars get out into the open floor a bit on their own. And I think San Antonio might mix it up on Penny. They'll use Sophia on her, they'll use Little and I think they'll even use Ruth Riley on her a couple of times, because Ruth is a smart, savvy defender who is a steadier matchup in the post. Sophia, then, might be put on Tangela Smith, who isn't as much of a post presence despite her size.

Penny also brings an ability to hit the 3's, which is something Sophia doesn't bring to the table. But Sophia is such a workhorse that she'll make Penny work for every touch she gets, whether it's inside or outside. If Sophia is able to really body her up and control her physically, that will go a long way toward the Silver Stars doing well in this series. But if Penny is allowed to roam freely without a body on her, her skills, spins, head fakes and up-and-unders around the basket are going to get San Antonio in major foul trouble and give the Mercury a big edge.

Tangela Smith
Phoenix Mercury

Ruth Riley
San Antonio

Taj's take: Tangela is more of a four than a five, but in Phoenix's system, she's perfect to play in the middle. She just has to keep doing what she's doing, playing her role in the transition game, hitting a trailing 3, hitting a midrange jumper. She has some post-up moves, too, but her bread and butter is the finesse game. She has to be available on the boards, though, or else San Antonio will kill them in rebounding. She might have to get her elbows greasy and her knees dirty and be willing to fight with Ruth and the other bigs in the paint.

And Ruth isn't exactly your prototypical post, either. She likes to get out of the paint and face up just as much as she'll post up. But to be successful in this matchup, Ruth is going to have to take Tangela down low and post up and force Diana to come down and double her, hopefully freeing up one of their great shooters -- like Becky or Vickie -- for a jumper. Ruth has a great back-to-the-basket game and she brings the experience of a Finals MVP, too. She's a great shot blocker and defender and she has to be confident enough in the paint to force a second defender to come at her, opening up the outside for someone else on the kick-outs in the corner. That's the Ruth that has to show up for the Silver Stars to make it to the Finals.


Taj's take: Yes, the Mercury have three of the best players in the world, but you really don't lose anything bringing in the players they have on the bench: Derevjanik, Lacy, Mazzante, Schumacher, Snell… Any coach in the league would kill for that: the ability to use 10 players in any situation against any opponent. Westhead has that. When you run an up-tempo offense, players get tired. So to have as much confidence in your subs as you do in your starters is an incredible thing for Phoenix.

And they all know their roles perfectly, so the team doesn't miss a step when their subs go in. Derevjanik and Lacy can keep the pace plenty fast when Kelly Miller comes out. And Mazzante and Snell probably have better range as shooters than Cappie. So opponents need to spread out even more when their subs come in, because if they don't, these reserves are going to be knocking down 3's.

San Antonio's bench is huge also. Marie Ferdinand-Harris was AWESOME against the Monarchs. She hasn't lost a thing! At the game, my husband told me, "Wow, Marie is just CUT!" I said, "WHAT?!?!" He said, "No, no, in a good way. After having a baby, she looks good. That's all I'm saying." I got over it, but he's right.

But the contrast in styles is obvious even on the benches. Marie, who is lightning-quick and a real slasher and will get in there, rebound and mix it up, is the one exception on their team. Other than her, they're loaded with solid, deliberate players who know their roles and do exactly what they're supposed to do. Chantelle Anderson is another back-to-the-basket post, who has great moves down low and is capable with either hand. Camille Little can come in and play the three or four, handles the ball well, rebounds with ferocity and defends really well. Like Phoenix, San Antonio's subs can come in and do almost the same thing the starters do. They don't have the scoring explosiveness, but they'll definitely come in and work and get the job done.


Taj's take: I love both teams, so I'm on the fence. But I feel like San Antonio will win in three games. I'm probably in the minority in not going with Phoenix, but I also picked all four of the winners in the first round. I think my streak will continue.