2007 Conference Finals Preview
Following a wild set of Game 3s that produced what Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird called the best First Round she's seen since entering the WNBA in 2002 - and probably of all time - the league prepares to set its WNBA Finals matchup as the Conference Finals open tonight with Phoenix and San Antonio squaring off on ESPN Classic. Storm.wnba.com breaks down the two matchups.
Phoenix vs. San Antonio
After celebrating their 80-78 Game 3 victory over the Sacramento Monarchs that sent them to the Western Conference Finals, the San Antonio Silver Stars needed to dig through their lockers. After a grind-it-out series between two defensive-minded teams, the Silver Stars will need their track shoes against the Phoenix Mercury.
During the regular season, it almost goes without saying, no one played at a faster pace than the Mercury, which averaged 84.0 possessions per game. San Antonio averaged just 75.2 possessions, playing at the league's slowest pace. So, as we head into the Western Conference Finals, there is a clear style mismatch.
Anyone who thought the Mercury's fast-paced style would be a problem in the postseason was quieted as Phoenix dispatched the Storm in two games. The Mercury slowed its pace slightly from the regular season, averaging 80 possessions in the two games, but put plenty of points on the board - a total of 196.
More impressive was that Phoenix held a dramatic advantage in getting to the free-throw line against the more powerful Storm, attempting 44 free throws to 23 for the Storm. The Mercury even managed to play the Storm nearly to a draw on the glass. If Phoenix played as it did in the opening round, a championship could easily be attainable.
Meanwhile, San Antonio was slogging its way through a series with like-minded Sacramento. After the teams swapped blowouts on their homecourts in Games 1 and 2, the Silver Stars just were able to hold off a fourth-quarter Monarchs comeback in Game 3.
Phoenix Head Coach Paul Westhead might not want to throw out the box-and-one defense he occasionally deployed against Lauren Jackson just yet. MVP candidate Becky Hammon has carried an average San Antonio offense, averaging 19.3 points and shooting 55% from downtown against Sacramento. However, the Silver Stars won the series when the Monarchs brought too much defensive help against a driving Hammon, who found teammate Vickie Johnson under the basket for the game-winning layup. Hammon had plenty of scoring help in Game 3 from forward Sophia Young, who scored a game-high 26 points on 10-for-15 shooting.
During the regular season, the Mercury won the season series with San Antonio 3-1, including sweeping both matchups at the AT&T Center. Now, I understand if you're wary of head-to-head results after the Storm's 2-1 victory over Phoenix in the regular season ended up meaning little, but that outcome was part of a larger trend. 80 was the magic number for the Silver Stars. When their opponents went over 80 points, they are a dismal 1-8 including the playoffs (that lone, anomalous victory: 92-88 at KeyArena against the Storm). San Antonio was a dominant 21-7.
Lo and behold, the Mercury won all three teams it reached 80 and lost when limited to 77 in the fourth matchup. Phoenix has scored at least 80 in each of its last nine games and was held under that mark just seven times all season.
Verdict: This matchup is all wrong for San Antonio. If the Silver Stars can somehow turn it into a half-court game, they have a chance to make things interesting, but Phoenix is more likely to continue the running and gunning that has produced 13 wins in the last 14 games. The Mercury sweeps back into the WNBA Finals for the first time since 1998.
Detroit vs. Indiana
It was very nearly the greatest upset in WNBA Playoff history. Instead, it became the greatest wriggle off the hook in WNBA Playoff history. Nearly beaten in Game 2, down double-digits in Game 3 and down five in overtime of the deciding game, the Detroit Shock somehow still emerged for an Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Fever.
The Shock entered the Playoffs as heavy favorites, but the near-upset at the hands of the lightly-regarded New York Liberty has forced people to reevaluate that position. Was the series a fluke? Well, looking at Detroit's stats, there are definitely some fluky numbers. The Shock shot 19.5% on threes and 59.6% from the free-throw line, stunningly low numbers.
If Detroit's players had hit their shots at their regular-season rate, the Shock would have hit seven more threes and six more free throws for a total of 27 extra points. Still, even adding those into Detroit's stats would have only left the Shock +9 over New York for the three-game series - hardly the expected domination.
Before surviving their scare, Detroit had to be rooting hard for the Connecticut Sun to upend the Indiana Fever in the other semifinal in the East. Including last year's Eastern Conference Finals upset, the Shock has owned the Sun, sweeping the season series 4-0 this year.
Indiana has proven a more challenging foe; the teams split the season series 2-2, including a win at The Palace of Auburn Hills in one of the two matchups where both teams had their All-Star forwards (Detroit's Cheryl Ford and the Fever's Tamika Catchings) in the lineup. The Shock returned that favor at the Conseco Fieldhouse in the game in which both Ford and Catchings were injured; Catchings did not play in the fourth quarter, but the Shock had already built a six-point lead before she left.
Before the injury to Catchings, Detroit and Indiana were running even in the battle for home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference and the Fever had the league's best point differential. Catchings did not shoot the ball well against Connecticut, but willed her way to a huge series nonetheless. She averaged 19.7 points, 15.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists in the three games, looking plenty healthy. Indiana also got huge series from Anna DeForge (25.0 ppg on 57.1% shooting) and Tamika Whitmore (20.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg) to offset the invisible woman play of Tammy Sutton-Brown, who totaled just nine points and seven rebounds and shot 3-for-17 from the field against 7-2 nemesis Margo Dydek.
Verdict: I'm ultimately not reading too much into the Detroit-New York series, writing it off as a combination of a bad matchup for the Shock and a little looking ahead against a weaker opponent. Detroit will be ready for this series, but so too will Indiana. Despite the injury to Catchings, we got the matchup we had anticipated since the Fever signed Sutton-Brown in the spring. All along, I've expected Detroit to have the slight upper hand. With home-court advantage on the Shock's side, I'm sticking with that pick. Detroit wins a series for the ages in three games.