What's made this WNBA Final series great is obvious. Fantastic play. Big stars. Big shots. Big games. All the things needed to make for compelling sport have been present and now fittingly it comes down to one game. Winner take all, as it should be.
There are people that believe you can ignore a basketball game until the final quarter and there are also people that think you can ignore a series until a decisive game. I couldn't disagree more on both fronts.
Game 4 was won by the Mercury in the first quarter when the adjustment they made on the offensive end set the tone for the game. Even though the Fever were able to make a come back in the 2nd quarter and tie the game in 3rd, they were on their heals from the jump and so when they collapsed in the 4th it really wasn't a surprise.
The same thing happened to the Mercury in Game 2 when the Fever did a better job on the defensive end and went deeper on their bench. While the Mercury were able to close that game to within 5 points in the fourth quarter the Fever were in control from the tip and deserved to win.
Sometimes of course, both teams come out firing and neither team can take any kind of advantage going into the final minutes. Those games are rare and when they happen you get an epic contest like Game 1.
Game 3 was a bit of both with the Fever seizing the initiative early only to have the Mercury come back. Then Briann January went super nova at the end of the 3rd quarter which was enough momentum to carry the Fever through. As close as that game was, if the Mercury had managed to win it on a last second shot it truly would have been a "stolen game".
Just like games have these internal plot lines, so do playoff series.
So, in preparation for the Final Showdown we should recap what's happened so far and try and figure out which if any team has the advantage going into Friday's Game 5.
Mercury Out-Gun Fever to Open Series with a Bang
Going into the WNBA Finals the story line was the top offensive team vs the best defensive team and then a funny thing happened. Game 1.
Both teams broke a slew of scoring records with the Fever who were last in the league in field goal percentage surpassing the all time WNBA scoring record for points in a game and that was with Tamika Catchings only scoring 8 points. Indiana came out and demonstrated that they could run with Phoenix and that they knew how to put the ball in the hole.
They were very upbeat and extremely loose before Game 2 and did not look anything like a team that had blown an opportunity to steal the first game on the road. Instead of focusing on what they didn't get done, they were determined to clean up what they considered a few defensive mistakes and continued to believe they could run with Phoenix.
So it was the Fever that went into the second game with momentum. They found confidence in their loss and made one crucial adjustment that negated the Mercury's big advantage all season long.
Since the first game of the season, Mercury Coach Gaines insisted that his game plan was to run teams to the point of exhaustion and use his team's depth and conditioning to pull away late in close games. It was a winning strategy and it helped his team in Game 1 when in overtime only Katie Douglas was able to sustain the effort.
Fever Gain Momentum from their Loss
That left Fever Coach Dunn with a tough choice. She could try and change her style of play and slow the game to a crawl or she could go deeper on her bench so her bigs would be fresher at the end of game. I asked Dunn this very question before Game 2 and she bristled at the notion saying that she thought her team held the pace just fine. She agreed that the Mercury had a deeper bench but she didn't signal any intention of trying to slow things down.
The choice was made and in came Jessica Moore and Jessica Davenport who combined for only 14:41 in the overtime game. In Games 2 to 4 they averaged 18:44 with those four extra minutes being used to help the Fever withstand late game runs by the Mercury in both of their wins.
Fever Role Players Step up Big
With his primary game strategy negated by the Fever (with help from the longer ESPN time outs), Coach Gaines didn't adjust for Game 3. His team surprisingly for a Finals contest were over confident and under focused for Game 2 which might have lead Gaines to feel that his team would bounce back strong as they had all season long.
But that didn't happen and neither did Ebony Hoffman or Briann January come back to their statistical earth. Both players have far out-performed their season averages combing for 16 more points per game in the finals then they did in the regular season. The Fever as a team are scoring 19 more points per game in the Finals than their season average and Hoffman and January are the reason why.
Mercury Adjustments Win Game 4
Going into Game 4, Corey Gaines with his back against the wall made a crucial adjustment to his team's spacing and continued to emphasize the zone defense. The plan was to surprise the Fever with a different look and to negate their ability to provide active help defense. The spacing got the Mercury open looks and his team delivered while on the other end the zone was able to deny good post position to the Fever bigs and forced Indiana to win "over the top". Shooting 2-18 from beyond the arc the Fever picked a bad time to start missing those open looks as they failed to win their first championship on their home court.
Game 5 Predictions
Just like after their loss in Game 1, Fever Coach Dunn understood that holding the Mercury to 90 points was about all she could ask from her team's vaunted defense. No coach can make their team hit open shots but they can find other ways to get to the rim and one has to think that she will be working on ways to break open the Phoenix zone.
If she is able to pry the Mercury out of their post denial formation, the Fever will be right back in this series and her team has proven that they can shake off a loss and come out swinging.
The Mercury meanwhile are confident that they will continue hitting open shots and perhaps are hoping that their super rookie will recover from her illness and be able to provide the spark off the bench that the Mercury have counted on all season long.
I predicted before Game 3 that the winner of that contest would win the ring. That was the game in which the mental toughness and better adjustments would show themselves and while that game was close it was won by the team that played better.
Both teams have dropped a game and both teams have won a close game. The margin of difference in this series is only 7 points and with the game in Phoenix many people will feel the Mercury have the edge.
But the home court has meant little to these teams with each club winning 2 of 3 on the other team's court and the Fever will not be intimated by the crowd. Katie Douglas who had a dismal 2-14 effort at home in Game 4 is averaging 24 points over three games in Phoenix. They are a team that has every reason to believe they can win and have shown no signs that they will fold in the clutch.
Phoenix did beat both the Silver Stars and the Sparks in final games at home this post season but neither team was as talented, disciplined or tough as Indiana. What is most concerning for Phoenix fans is their team's propensity to let down and come out flat. They did that in the first three games and lost two of them. You wouldn't think they would be over confident at this point in the season but you wouldn't think they would have had let mental let downs in the Finals at all.
Over 825 minutes of play the Mercury have 10 more rebounds than the Fever which is why Tangela Smith and Le'Coe Willingham will deserve much of the credit if the Mercury win the championship.
Phoenix averaged 34 rebounds per game in the regular season and were consistently beat on the glass by their opponents. In this series the run and gun offensive-oriented Mercury are out boarding the Fever 41 to 34 rpg. They are doing it without DeWanna Bonner who lead her team with 5.8 rpg off the bench this season but in this series either due to illness or rookie nerves has taken a back seat to the team's front court vets.
For the Fever their MVP will have to be Ebony Hoffman who shot 39% in the season and is hitting on 70% of her shots in the Finals. There is no one that could have predicted that Ebony would be able to deliver 10 more points per game on the biggest stage. Of course, it would be hard to take the top honor from Tamika Catchings who's stat line is other-worldly: 16.3 ppg, 9.8 repg, 6.8 apg, 2.8 spg, 1.5 bpg.
Whatever happens tomorrow, there is no question that the team that wins will deserve to win and the team that loses will have deserved to win as well.
The real winner is the WNBA who can't help but benefit from the excitement and performance generated by their two best teams. We fans owe both teams and the league a great big 'thank you' for providing such fine sporting entertainment.