Western Conf. Finals Preview
The journey certainly didn’t go quite as expected for the Mercury, but the destination is exactly where they want to be…for now.
Facing the juggernaut that is the Minnesota Lynx in the 2013 Western Conference Finals, this Phoenix team is vastly different than the one the Lynx played (and beat) five times before the 2013 WNBA All-Star break.
Related: Postgame Videos: Game 3 vs. LA | WCF Game 2 Tickets | Photos: Western Conference Semifinals
Indeed, the most notable difference is undoubtedly on the defensive end of the floor. Under Russ Pennell, the Mercury’s focus is more on protecting the paint and rebounding than the previous running-and-gunning philosophy.
More importantly, though, they’ve seen results with the new direction. Rather, there is a direct correlation with how well the Mercury defends and rebounds in regards to victories.
“That’s where this series will be won,” said Pennell. “Minnesota is a great team. Everyone knows that. They’re well-coached and know exactly what they’re roles are. I believe the team that comes out of this series will be the one who defends and rebounds better. But I like the heart and resilience that we’ve shown as a team in the last few weeks, especially in the LA series. I like where we’re at right now. We’ll make some adjustments, as we do before every game.
“We’ll be ready.”
One nice thing for the Mercury is the increased gap in time between games. In the Semifinals against the Sparks, Phoenix played three tough, intense games in a span of five days. And although they ended up winning both games on the road, the Mercury has essentially played in game or had a travel day for the past 10 days. The hectic schedule can certainly take a toll on the body, as it does for every WNBA team.
In the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, however, they’ll play two games in a span of six days (Thursday, Sept. 26 in Minnesota, Sunday Sept. 29 in Phoenix).
“It’s nice,” Diana Taurasi said. “But I think at this point you can’t think about rest. You just have to get out in play. The extra days will allow us to recuperate a bit more, but it doesn’t mean a thing if we don’t come out sharp.
“We know Minnesota will be ready for us, so we have to match their intensity regardless of how many rest days we have.”
Against the Sparks, each Phoenix Mercury player – at some point – came up with a big play at an opportune moment. In Game 1, Lynetta Kizer had 11 huge minutes. In Game 2, Penny Taylor nailed a couple key buckets. Then in Game 3, the rookies Brittney Griner and Jasmine James were clutch when it mattered most.
Needless to say, Phoenix will need the same type of production from everyone against the Lynx.
“The one thing about this team is that we trust each other,” Candice Dupree said. “We know that at any given time someone can make a big shot or defensive stop. Having that belief in one another can take us to another level, as we saw in round one.”
As mentioned above, this will be the first time a Russ Pennell-led Mercury team plays Minnesota. Most analysts will note the five times the Lynx has beat the Mercury in 2013, but there’s little denying the Lynx should see an improved Mercury team in terms of efficiency on both ends of the floor.
Pennell’s focus is always on continuous improvement. The Mercury played well against the Sparks, but there are definitely areas they’ll need to correct before facing the Lynx. Phoenix will need to shore up their offensive/defensive rebounding, pick-and-roll defense and ball movement on offense.
“There’s no question we are better prepared,” added DeWanna Bonner. “I mean in terms of having an identity on the defensive end and playing hard. At this point, it’s anyone’s series to win. We know how good the Lynx are. We just have to keep playing with heart and control the things we are able to.
“If we do that, I like our chances.”