A contrast in philosophies at the 2007 WNBA Finals
East and West Meet Somewhere In Between

DETROIT, September 5 -- Back in high school, I was one of a handful of students who signed up for an interesting (and ultimately short-lived) class given by the social studies department called "East-West Philosophy." The course served as a basic introduction to the various interpretations and understandings of our lives and the world in which we live.

Our teacher, Mr. Marrett, was the sagacious, scholarly type whose Socratic methods might have been a better fit in the liberal, independent atmosphere of a college campus rather than the uptight, PTA-controlled public secondary school system. Yet everyone knew and loved him (except my mom, who was initally confused by his unorthodox antics when she first met him on "Back to School Night"), and he was one of the best teachers I ever had.

Penny Taylor and Mercury have quite the contrasting style as compared the the physical, tough Detroit Shock.
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As the class required more reading than the average elective, the number of students in the class was much smaller (we considered ourselves a cadre of intellectual elite), which made for lively discussion and debate. But those of us who stuck with it were exposed to the writings of the great Eastern and Western philosophers and thinkers of the last two millenia: names like Aristotle, John Locke, Emmanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Aquinas, Siddhartha Gautama, Mohandas Gandhi and Jeremy Bentham. The overarching theme throughout all of the teachings and readings during our semester in East-West Philosophy was that there is not just one path to experience the good life, but many ways to achieve greatness (that's deep).

As the very best of the East and West prepare to meet in the 2007 WNBA Finals (tipping off tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2), the contrasting styles of the Detroit Shock and Phoenix Mercury reinforce the very notion that there is more than one way to accomplish goals (win games) and achieve greatness (win championships). The Phoenix Mercury like to run and shoot while the Detroit Shock like to bang and board. That, at its very core, is the difference between these East and West philosophies.

"I'm not so sure how it's going to play out, but I am sure how we're going to play," Mercury coach Paul Westhead said. "We're going to play as fast as we can with no real attempt to dictate anything. That's how we play. How Detroit responds... it takes two to tango. They have the option to do what they like."

But that's really just the beginning of it as these two teams have very different approaches.

A look at scores in the Conference Semifinals and Conference Finals plainly demonstrates these differences. (If anything, these styles have been even further exaggerated in the first two rounds.) Western Conference games had scores in the 90s and 100s while Eastern Conference series had scores in the 60s and 70s. The Mercury averaged 99.0 points per game in their first four postseason games (up from 89.0 ppg during the regular season) while the Shock are slightly lower with 71.8 ppg in their six games (down from 79.3 ppg in the regular season). Over the past two seasons, the Mercury have shattered the league scoring record for most points in a season.

The Shock had five players average in double figures in the regular season with Deanna Nolan's 16.3 ppg leading the way. Yet in the postseason, only Nolan is scoring on a consistent basis (though 20.2 ppg isn't too shabby). Phoenix only had four players average in double figures, but the trio of Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor and Cappie Pondexter outscored every other team's best three players by a sizeable margin (they combined for 54.2 ppg in the regular season and are up to 66.6 in the postseason). In their four games in the playoffs, all five Mercury starters are scoring in double figures.

"I don't think there's anything we're going to do to try and slow them down," Shock coach Bill Laimbeer said. "You just have to get back and take away easy layups and make them shoot perimeter shots."

The Shock are one the most dominant rebounding teams in the history of the WNBA. They averaged nearly 39 total rebounds per game compared to the Mercury's 33. Detroit's Cheryl Ford is the prototypical power forward in the traditional basketball sense. Her work is done in the paint, scoring in the low block and rebounding the basketball. Her 11.2 rebounds per game would have led the WNBA had she played more games (knee trouble limited her to only 15 regular season games). The Shock's two centers, 6-5 Kara Braxton and 6-8 Katie Feenstra, also make their living in the paint (and aren't exactly known for their footspeed or ability to get up and down the court).

"It will come down to one team imposing its will on the other," Shock forward Swin Cash said. "They run the most in the league, but we can control the tempo by controlling the glass. We like to run like Phoenix, but we want to stop them from running as much as they would like."

On the flip side, the Mercury frontcourt isn't going to push anyone around or win any wrestling matches (something that pacifist philosophers like Aquinas and Gandhi would not advocate). Starting "power forward" Penny Taylor is a 6-1 Australian who is really a small forward playing out of position. She frequently roams the perimeter and shoots from distance. Even Mercury center Tangela Smith takes defenders away from the post and is not afraid to shoot the 3. (She is shooting .667 from beyond the arc in the playoffs.)

"The first five minutes of the games will determine the outcome of the game," Smith said after arriving in Detroit on Tuesday. "We have different styles of play, but this is The Finals. It's about who wants it more. We've seen them play and have been watching the games throughout the playoffs, but we cannot worry about them. We just have to play our style of basketball."

But despite the contrasting styles, these two teams are also capable of adapting their play to match the other team (when needed).

Who knows what Gandhi would have thought about Cheryl Ford's physical presence?
Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty Images

"We can play both ways," Laimbeer said. "We can play a fast-paced game but I just want to win the game. We will do whatever it takes to win the game. Sometimes the game turns out totally different than you thought it was going to. It's just a matter of how the game flows and how successful you are at what you're doing."

The Shock have also learned a great deal from their comeback wins and overtime battles. (And as Nietzsche said, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.")

Defensively, the Mercury are also capable of playing tough and shutting down a high-powered offense (just ask Lauren Jackson).

"Everyone knows we play our rover defense and we'll focus on taking one player out and then focus on boxing out everyone else, but Coach (Westhead) will also change things up a lot," Smith admitted. "If he doesn't see the zone working, he's going to change it up to what he wants, whether it's a man defense or another zone.

Deanna Nolan isn't so sure.

"It's rare that we or anyone has seen (the Mercury) play a man-to-man defense this season," Nolan said after Tuesday's practice. "Maybe once or twice this year? So if we can hit shots, we'll knock them out of that zone, their rover defense. We're going to play man on defense where Katie has Taurasi, Swin has Miller, Cheryl has Penny, Feenstra has Smith and I've got Cappie. Really, no one in the West was able to play defense against their team. We play team defense."

But the Shock are also capable of running and scoring against the Mercury, as they proved in their two regular season games. Detroit even scored 111 points in one of their two wins over the Mercury (what Nolan called one "hot quarter"). And even though the apparent rebounding advantage would favor the taller, more physical Shock, Penny Taylor is pulling in 8.0 rebounds per game so far in the postseason while Tangela Smith is grabbing 9.0 boards a night.

"Rebounding is a great strength of theirs," Westhead said. "If teams figured out how to limit their effectiveness rebounding the ball, the Shock might not be in the Finals. We don't have a magic formula. We're just going to be as attentive to getting missed shots as we can and hopefully limit their second efforts."

One way to avoid getting outrebounded is to not miss shots. The Mercury are shooting .433 from the field while the Shock are connecting at .376 (only .328 from 3-point range). That's the difference between the Mercury's system, what is affectionately called "Paul Ball," and the Shock's system (but don't you dare call it "Bill Ball").

"We just call it regular basketball," Laimbeer said. "East Coast basketball is rebounding, playing defense and grinding out wins."

Of course, that's just his philosophy.