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2009 WNBA Finals Preview

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Kevin Pelton, stormbasketball.com | September 29, 2009


Two aging powers showed their resiliency during the conference finals, pushing the favorites the distance in both conferences, but ultimately we got the WNBA Finals matchup we have expected since a little past midseason. The Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury quickly established themselves as the class of their respective conferences, bouncing back from disappointing 2007 campaigns. Indiana and Phoenix feature four of the league's brightest individual stars in the Fever's Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas and the Mercury's Cappie Pondexter and Diana Taurasi.

The matchup sets up well for an entertaining best-of-five WNBA Finals series. Here's an idea of what to expect from the two teams.

WHEN THE MERCURY HAS THE BALL

Pace: 83.4 (1st WNBA) Regular Season, 77.9 (3rd) Playoffs
Phoenix Offensive Rating: 109.6 (1st) Regular Season, 119.7 (1st) Playoffs
Indiana Defensive Rating: 95.0 (1st) Regular Season, 94.3 (2nd) Playoffs

This is a classic matchup of strength versus strength. These two teams are unquestionably the WNBA's best at their respective ends of the floor.

The Phoenix offense needs no introduction. When the Mercury is on from the perimeter, there has never been a more dangerous team in WNBA history. Phoenix not only led the league by a mile in Offensive Rating during the regular season but has actually improved upon that mark in the playoffs. During the first round against San Antonio, the Mercury posted an Offensive Rating over 130. The size of the Sparks defense gave Phoenix a few more issues during the Western Conference Finals, but the Mercury still scored at virtually exactly the same clip as the regular season - an impressive feat against a stout defensive squad.

Phoenix has done it during the postseason while largely playing a half-court style, especially in the matchup with the Silver Stars. That raises the question of whether slowing down the Mercury truly would benefit Indiana. With Cappie Pondexter, Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor all capable of creating off the dribble, Phoenix gets plenty of open looks in half-court sets. The Mercury's shooters are also no less valuable in this setting.

Defensively, the Fever does not rely on bothering shooters. In fact, the 46.6 percent effective field-goal percentage Indiana allowed opponents is only a hair better than league average. Instead, the Fever's defense is built around forcing turnovers - something Indiana does on 20.8 percent of opponent plays, far and away the WNBA's best mark. Again, that pits one strength against another - Phoenix committed turnovers on just 15.2 percent of its own plays, second in the league behind Connecticut. Here is where slowing down could help Indiana, as part of the Mercury's error-free play relies on shooting before the team can turn the ball over in transition.

There is the potential for some fascinating individual matchups as this series develops. Against Detroit's big backcourt, Lin Dunn had little choice but to play bigger with rookie Briann January at the point. In this series, Dunn's best bet might be pairing January and starter Tully Bevilaqua in the backcourt and going small. That would put January on Pondexter and allow Dunn to choose between Defensive Player of the Year Tamika Catchings and former All-Defensive First Teamer Katie Douglas to match up against Taurasi and Taylor.

The Fever is one of the few teams with the versatility to match up with Phoenix's athletes. In addition to playing Catchings, Indiana can also use mobile Jessica Moore at center in place of Tammy Sutton-Brown or Ebony Hoffman down the stretch to defend perimeter-minded Mercury counterpart Tangela Smith. Moore started in place of the injured Sutton-Brown when these teams met Aug. 8 in Phoenix and enjoyed the best game of her career, scoring 19 points and grabbing eight rebounds. The Fever won by holding the Mercury to 83 points in about 81 possessions. (Phoenix returned the favor in September in Indiana, but the Fever was without Douglas for that game.)

No matter how good the matchups for Indiana, completely taking the Mercury out of its game on offense is all but impossible. Phoenix simply has too many weapons. Taurasi, who as expected was named MVP today, has reminded observers why her UConn Head Coach Geno Auriemma once famously declared, "We have Diana, and you don't." Since a dismal Game 1 against San Antonio, Taurasi has scored 20-plus points in each of the last five games. She's shooting 52.1 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from beyond the arc, improving upon her already-efficient scoring during the regular season.

So far during the playoffs, Pondexter has been relatively quiet, averaging 16.0 points and 2.5 assists. That the Mercury's offense has done so well without Pondexter playing especially well is a testament to the variety of options the team has. Taylor has stepped up to carry a heavier load, averaging 13.2 points per game and 22.9 per 40 minutes off the bench.

WHEN THE FEVER HAS THE BALL

Pace: 75.9 (8th WNBA) Regular Season, 76.2 (6th) Playoffs
Indiana Offensive Rating: 99.5 (8th) Regular Season, 96.0 (5th) Playoffs
Phoenix Defensive Rating: 105.4 (13th) Regular Season, 110.8 (7th) Playoffs

While this end of the floor is not a strength for either team, it was Indiana's improvement on offense that took the team to the WNBA Finals. Remember, the Fever had the league's best defense a year ago, but was undermined by an inability to put the ball in the hoop. A healthy Catchings, better chemistry with Douglas and better play from the point guard spot meant Indiana was actually one of the league's best offenses most of the year. The Fever slipped down the stretch when Douglas was bothered by a sprained ankle. However, Indiana hasn't entirely rebounded during the postseason, struggling at times to score against Washington and Detroit.

Meanwhile, Phoenix is looking to win a championship despite being the league's worst defensive team. The Mercury has shown the ability to string together stops when needed, but over the course of games Phoenix has been torched - a trend which hasn't really changed during the playoffs. The Mercury outscored San Antonio in the first round and allowed the Sparks to improve upon their first-round and regular-season performance in the Western Conference Finals.

Phoenix's best defense might come out of the "rover" set which allows Taurasi to pick and choose her defensive matchup and double-team the post with impunity. How much the Mercury can utilize that look will depend in large part upon Bevilaqua's outside shooting. The former Storm guard shot 34.6 percent from beyond the arc during the regular season but has been caught in a dreadful shooting slump since the calendar turned to September. Bevilaqua shot 1-of-12 from beyond the arc during the final two weeks of the regular season and has hit just 28.1 percent from the field in the postseason. She was visibly reluctant to shoot during the Eastern Conference Finals. Expect Corey Gaines to try to make Bevilaqua beat Phoenix at first, with the opportunity of playing straight up should she have success beyond the arc.

Douglas is, along with Catchings, one of Indiana's two go-to options on offense. However, she has not had a strong playoff run. Douglas is shooting 35.3 percent from the field, though she has had some success from distance. That has put more pressure on Catchings, who has responded. The runner-up to Taurasi in MVP voting is averaging 18.2 points per game and shooting 46.4 percent from the field, both marks significantly above her season averages.

The matchup between Catchings and Taylor, should they defend each other down the stretch, will be a fascinating one. Taylor is an underrated defensive player with the ability to hold her own against bigger, more physical players. Defending Catchings will take something out of Taylor (and DeWanna Bonner and, when the starters are on the floor, presumably Taurasi) because she never takes a play off at either end of the floor.

When the starting lineups are on the court, Douglas will have extremely favorable matchups on offense. In all likelihood, the Mercury will have to defend her with 5-9 Cappie Pondexter, which gives Douglas a three-inch height advantage. That should make it easy for Douglas to get her shot off and may allow her to get going quickly.

Indiana will also benefit from getting some production in the post. Sutton-Brown has the ability to beat Smith one-on-one. She and Ebony Hoffman should also be able to pound the glass against the small Phoenix frontcourt. The Fever had a 15-3 advantage on the offensive glass during the head-to-head matchup won by Indiana.

PREDICTION

Douglas' sprained ankle may have gone a long way toward determining this outcome of the series. Without her, Indiana dropped consecutive games, including the loss to Phoenix that gave the Mercury home-court advantage in this series. These teams are both good enough that such a small factor could prove decisive. In a long series, Phoenix will also benefit from its depth. The Mercury's playoff rotation goes nine deep, including two players (Bonner and Taylor) who could easily be starters. Dunn isn't exactly afraid to go deep into her bench, but has basically relied on six players in the postseason, with Moore as the seventh member of the rotation. Depth may have helped carry Phoenix past Los Angeles because Games 2 and 3 were played back-to-back, and it could be the difference again in this series.

Phoenix in 5