Scouting the Sparks with the Brains of the Operation

The LA Sparks and Phoenix Mercury will battle it out in the WNBA 2009 Western Conference Finals

The Phoenix Mercury have two assistant coaches. There's the famous one who's name is one of only four to hang from the rafters of the home arena. The one who does the half-time court side interviews and the one who's boisterous personality keeps the team loose. That's Bridget Pettis.

Then there's the other one. She's a bit more laid back in her demeanor and provides a calming influence to the team. That's Julie Hairgrove.

If Bridget is the heart of the team's coaching staff, Julie is the brains. A former four-year starting point guard at the University of Arizona and the grand daughter of one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time, Julie is the one with the clip board in her hands during shoot around when its time to game plan against an opponent.

We spoke with Bridget before the San Antonio series to get her scouting report. This time for the Sparks we turn to Julie.

What the Sparks want to do

Julie stared by talking about what is commonly known about the LA Sparks. They are a team with four Olympians who rely on their size advantage. The Sparks will start all five players over 6 foot and have one of the greatest front court tandems ever in Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker.

Tim Duncan and David Robinson played together for six years. WNBA teams around the league can be thankful that Leslie and Parker won't have that kind of opportunity to work together.

The match up between the Sparks and Mercury is filled with contrasts.

Hairgrove said this about what the Sparks like to do, "What they are looking to do is try and post us up. Whether it's posting up Meek [Temeka Johnson] with Noelle Quinn or Tina Thompson with Dee [Diana Taurasi]. They are just looking for mismatches. They like doing the high-lo. They know our defense is more of our weakness in the post so they are going to try and go to the post with Lisa and Candace Parker and they are just going to look to crash the boards on us."

The Mercury meanwhile have a much different approach to the game. Coach Gaines talks about doing what you do best and not getting caught up in trying to adjust to certain situations. In game 3 against San Antonio, Sophia Young had five fouls but Gaines did not want to change what he was doing just to try and attack Young. He feels when you do that you can risk taking yourself out of rhythm. The same goes with player mismatches.

Gaines is coach who is "all in" to his system and he's not going to change that just because he feels one of his players has a specific advantage over who's guarding them. The Sparks will do the opposite and look to post up Delisha Milton-Jones because she's being guarded by the much smaller Cappie Pondexter. Gaines sees that as an advantage for the Mercury because it is keeping the ball out of the hands of Leslie and Parker.

Dealing with the Sparks in the post

What Leslie and Parker can do in the post is well known. The Mercury will look to defend that by doubling often from the wings. The Sparks are not a great three point shooting team, shooting just 29% in the regular season although they did connect for 15 of 35 (40%) against the Storm in the first round.

Julie added this about the Sparks, "They don't move real well on offense so if you go and double they are very stagnant on their offensive end so that helps us. If we're aggressive and active it really takes LA out of their sets."

The individual match-up that concerns me the most is Le'Coe Willingham on Candace Parker. Parker can get her shot off on anyone but against a much shorter Willingham she's going to have an easy time of it if she gets into the paint. The Mercury will look to have Le'Coe meet Parker on the perimeter and work hard to deny her good position. That's going to require a tremendous active effort from Willingham. 

I would expect to see Penny Taylor use her activity and savvy and DeWanna Bonner to bring her energy and length to try and give Parker a variety of looks.

The plan against Parker is to try and get her to take jump shots and if she does get into the post to bring help from a guard either digging down to disrupt her movement or trapping hard to force the pass. Julie explained that Parker does a great job immediately going after her own shot so all the Mercury post players will need to focus on boxing her out to prevent those second chance points.

Betty Lennox - Wild Card

Watching the Sparks - Storm series it seemed that any time Betty Lennox came into the game, the Sparks immediately looked like a different team.

Julie agreed, "I think when Lennox comes in that's when they look to push the ball a little bit more. Lennox wants to push it. And Lennox is so good at coming off screens and just creating her own shot. She's like a Cappie in a way where she can just come in and looks for her shot and gets a lot of shots off in her time. So you got to know when Betty comes in you've got to really lock in on her and not let her start scoring and start feeling good about herself."

Lennox averaged 11 points in 18 minutes on 48% shooting against the Storm. What she's not going to do is pass the ball. Betty comes in to score and the Mercury guards either Temeka, Ketia or Cappie are going to have to be prepared for that change of pace.

Sparks physical play

The San Antonio Silver Stars play hard and certainly were the "scrappy" team that Bridget Pettis described. They were not a physical team however who used used elbows and knees and hard fouls to get into the heads of the Mercury players and disrupt the game flow.

The Sparks are another story. Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson and Candace Parker are all aggressive and physical players. Coach Gaines said the best defense against that is to get into the open court where it is hard for them to get away with those types of moves.

Julie Hairgrove said this, "They're very physical. They really want to win it all this year. With this being Lisa Leslie's last season you know she's going to come out throwing elbows, whatever you want to say, being very aggressive because she doesn't want to go out. She wants to win it all. So we know that going in."

Pace is the key

The Silver Stars at times tried to keep pace with the Mercury and like many teams do, felt they needed to try and match Phoenix's scoring. That of course plays right into the hands of the Mercury who feel they can beat any team in a high scoring game.

Julie looks for Coach Copper to play it different, "Yeah, I really see them slowing it down just because they're not very deep and if we do go three games he really has to keep it slowed down. They've been playing a lot of zone lately to try and slow us down. They play a lot of 2-3 zone and then they also mix it up with a 3-2 zone. For us to make it a running game we really have to get stops on the defensive end so then we can get out and run. That's what triggers our run game is getting stops on the defensive end."

The Mercury have a few plays to attack the zone and also have the advantage of practicing against it in their own team scrimmages because Phoenix uses it so much. Another way that Phoenix will look to attack the zone is not letting them get set in it by pushing it down the floor.

Keys to the Series

Julie listed three keys to the series for Phoenix:

  • Rebounding
  • Defending the Sparks post players
  • Keeping the score above 80 so the Sparks will wear down as the game goes on

Mercury adjustments from the regular season

Before the last series I did a fairly comprehensive break down of the Mercury. I am going to just throw out a couple of observations from the first round to add to that:

  • The Mercury's rotations have solidified after several weeks of constant changes at the end of the season with two of the Mercury's big three players on the floor at all times (Cappie, Taurasi or Taylor)
  • Willingham is still starting but it only getting 15 minutes per game which is down from 23 in the regular season. The Mercury look to get her going early in the game but if she's not bringing the energy on the defensive end (and she still isn't) then she's getting a quick hook
  • Ohlde and Smith are still splitting time at the five. With Nicole getting about 17 minutes and Tangela 22 although those numbers a skewed by the game 2 blow out. With Smith playing so well and the Silver Stars not being a very big team, that made sense. I would not be surprised to see more of Smith and Ohlde on the floor together against the Sparks which was a combination we did see at times during the season. That would allow Smith to pull one of the Sparks rebounders away from the boards and spread the floor while Ohlde could still handle the paint
  • The rookie Bonner had no post season jitters. She's played great, averaging 14 points and 8 rebounds. She was a game changer in the second period in game 1 and her energy and activity continues to give the team a lift
  • Penny Taylor showed again what a great player she is. She took over the fourth quarter of game 1 with her scoring and helped win game 3 with key hustle plays late in the game
  • Diana and Cappie do what they do although Cappie still hasn't found a great shooting rhythm. She can get hot and go off at any time
  • Coach Gaines proved that he's an instinct coach who's going to go with his gut as he says and throw the "book" out the window. He's "all in" with the Mercury style of play and he's not going to let the playoffs change that

Here's the schedule for the series. It should be another great one.

Western Conference Finals Schedule

  • Game 1 - Wed. Sept. 23 Phoenix at Los Angeles 7 p.m. 10 p.m. ESPN2
  • Game 2 - Fri. Sept. 25 Los Angeles at Phoenix 7 p.m. 10 p.m. NBA TV
  • Game 3 * Sat. Sept. 26 Los Angeles at Phoenix 7 p.m. 10 p.m. NBA TV
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