Mercury Entertaining Matchup for Storm
After the Seattle Storm beat his Phoenix Mercury at KeyArena on Aug. 4, Phoenix Head Coach Paul Westhead was asked about a potential playoff matchup between the two teams.
"First to 100 wins," answered Westhead with a laugh.
Now that the matchup is reality, that Westhead could make such a comment with a hint of seriousness - after all, his team had just scored 101 points and lost - demonstrates why the Storm-Phoenix series is the most entertaining first-round clash in the WNBA.
The Mercury and Storm finished 1-2 in the WNBA in that order in points per game, as well as Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions). Meanwhile, they were also the two worst playoff teams on defense. Add it up, and offensive fireworks look likely.
Storm Head Coach Anne Donovan, who usually sticks to a defense-first script, was willing to concede that this series is about scoring - with the caveat that transition defense will be the Storm's primary mantra against the up-tempo Mercury.
"I'm happy to try to outscore them, but not in transition - not giving them points in transition," Donovan said Monday after the Storm's first practice since closing the regular season with a win over Los Angeles on Friday. "We balance it because we don't want to go away from what we do, which is we have to have defense first. If our offense isn't going, we want to be able to get stops.
"When you're playing Phoenix, your focus has to be defensive transition. If you can get them in half-court sets, they're still dangerous, but we have to take away the layups. They outscored us in the paint and the reason for that is transition layups."
In the Mercury's victory over the Storm on July 17 in Phoenix, they had 28 fast-break points, the most against the Storm this season. In the two Storm wins, the Mercury averaged 16.5 fast-break points in no small part because the Storm did a better job of taking care of the basketball.
Phoenix averaged a WNBA-record 89.0 points per game (beating the previous mark set in 2006, Westhead's first year as coach, at 87.1 ppg), nearly nine points more per game than the second-place Storm. That's partially a product of the fast pace Westhead encourages, but also because the Mercury has so many weapons. All-Stars Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor and Cappie Pondexter were all in the WNBA's top 10 in scoring, averaging a combined 54.2 points per game.
"They're very tough to slow down," said Storm guard Sue Bird. "You can only hope to contain them. They're too good for one of them not to score a lot of points. You just don't want all three or all four [center Tangela Smith also ranked in the WNBA's top 20 with 12.6 ppg] scoring a lot of points."
While the Storm worries about slowing Phoenix's talented trio, Westhead and company must also try to figure out how to defend Seattle. Storm All-Star Lauren Jackson dominated the Mercury, averaging 29.0 points on 56.8% shooting in the three matchups and adding 10 rebounds per game. Betty Lennox was almost equally effective, shooting 54.3% and averaging 23.0 points. Bird provided a third threat with 15.5 points per game, missing the Storm's loss in Phoenix after midseason knee surgery.
The Mercury primarily defended the Storm using a hybrid 3-2 zone with Taurasi acting as something of a rover to double-team the post before popping back out to the perimeter. The zone left openings from beyond the three-point line and the Storm cashed in, hitting 34 three-pointers at a 48.6% clip. Jackson and Lennox shot a combined 15-for-23 (65.2%) from downtown.
"We've got to shoot the ball well against it, but you don't want to be impatient or take quick shots against it," Donovan said of playing the zone after a practice spent working against it. "It leads to their transition again. I think we've had a good balance of getting the ball inside, good inside-out action. As long as we keep with that some focus and tweak a little bit offensively, as we've done, aggressive but patient is a little bit of an oxymoron, but that's what we're looking at against the zone."
"If that's the way that they want to play - they want to annoy me and get under my skin - it's a pretty good tactic," Jackson said. "It gets under my skin because I laugh (at Taurasi) the whole time. It seems to work. It's tough to get shots because then they double-team as well when I get the ball."
Jackson had some success against the box-and-one defense by getting to the free-throw line in the second half on Aug. 4. Bird also suggests running more pick-and-rolls - usually a staple against a man-to-man defense, not a zone - as an effective counterattack, while pointing out that Taurasi's size disadvantage can ultimately get the best of her.
"Once (Jackson) gets it down low, they really just don't have the size to stop her down there," Bird explained. D (Taurasi) does a good job of not letting her touch the ball, but once we do get it to her, Lauren can shoot right over her."
The strategy will make for an interesting week for coaches on both sides. Add in the scoring punch and there are the ingredients for a very good playoff matchup.
"It's an interesting game," concluded Bird. "The matchup with our two teams - there's a lot of similarities, a lot of differences, so it makes for an interesting series, I think."