WNBA Western Conference Finals Preview: Defense Matters

2010 WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson's defensive versatility might play a huge role in the Seattle Storm defending versatile Phoenix Mercury players like Penny Taylor. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

It's certainly not unreasonable to assume that the Western Conference Finals will be a clash of styles.

"I think it's gonna be really entertaining, definitely great TV," said Seattle Storm center Ashley Robinson. "I think with us, definitely, when our defense is on, we're on. When their offense is on, they're on. So it's either we're gonna play good defense or they're going to play good offense -- it's whoever is going to be best at what you do. So it really is important to impose your will on them."

Nevertheless, there's a reason why they were down 18 points at halftime to the Mercury at KeyArena on July 27 -- the second quarter was an unmitigated disaster, easily among the Storm's worst quarters at home of the entire season at home. 

Although the Storm insist that the regular season is behind them and that it is irrelevant to the playoff series in front of them, the game late July game stands as as important not only because it shows that the Mercury are more than capable of playing with the Storm at KeyArena and perhaps even stealing a game. However, it also represents a pattern that has plagued the Storm this season in their darker moments.

When the Mercury were at their best against the Storm in July, they forced the Storm away from the things that normally make them effective, they rebounded well, got out in transition, and the Storm simply didn't catch up. The Mercury switched in and out of zone, and with 6'4" Mercury forward DeWanna Bonner guarding Storm point guard Sue Bird and mixing double with single coverage on center Lauren Jackson, the Mercury simply kept the Storm off balance.

For ten minutes.

The challenge is doing it for longer than 10 minutes. Yet after seeing the Mercury figure out defense for a brief period of time in July and then seeing them do it for longer periods of time against the San Antonio Silver Stars in the first round last week, it's reasonable to say that the Mercury are more capable of defense than people might assume.

What the Mercury need to do to win:

When the Storm struggle, it's because they turn the ball over. Against zone defenses, they are disciplined enough to hold up against pressure and execute in half court sets. But against rotating man defenses that are able to stay home on their shooters and make them work for 24 seconds on every possession the Storm struggle. However, against the Mercury there's another factor -- if the Mercury can forced missed shots and keep the Storm off the offensive boards when they can run and thus keeping the Storm from setting up their defense and setting up easy points in transition.

Mercury key player to watch: Penny Taylor

Independent of the fact that Cappie Pondexter just led the New York Liberty to the Eastern Conference Finals last night with an outstanding performance against the Indiana Fever, there are some people who still believe that the key to Mercury's two championships was Penny Taylor. Although this team is very different -- having exchanged Pondexter for Candice Dupree -- Taylor has taken over Pondexter's role as the team's most efficient distributor from the wing. Taylor's ability to handle the ball next to Taurasi -- who is unquestionably at her best when in scoring mode -- is a huge asset for the Mercury in that it allows them to go big with Bonner in the lineup and maintain fluidity on offense while causing the Storm some problems on defense. Taylor enables a lineup that is not only difficult for the Storm to defend, but also gives the Mercury an advantage defensively.

What the Storm need to do to win

Not to say that the Mercury are weak inside, but compared to the Storm they are a bit more of a finesse team in the frontcourt with the Storm's rugged frontcourt of Lauren Jackson, Camille Little, and Le'coe Willingham. If the Storm are not only able to execute efficiently on offense, but also focus on hitting the offensive boards hard and exploiting a rebounding advantage that could result in second chance points, they would be able to limit Mercury transition points and have an opportunity to get their defense set and force the Mercury to play in the half court. That would also require the Storm to cut down on turnovers, but if they can avoid getting caught up in the Mercury's tempo the turnovers will be far less of a problem.

Storm key player to watch: Swin Cash

As versatile as Taylor is, Cash isn't that far behind and her performance against the Sparks in the first round demonstrated that. In Game 1, it was Cash getting out in transition and helping the Storm build a double-digit first half league from which the Sparks were never able to recover. In Game 2, it was Cash going 4-for-4 from the three point line in the second quarter to swing the momentum of the game. That's not to mention her defense, free throw rate, or rebounding.

If the Mercury double off of a player like Cash to defend Jackson, she can beat them from downtown. In a straight-up man-to-man situation, Cash can get to the rim and get points from the free throw line. If it does turn into a transition game, having Sue Bird running a fast break with Cash is not exactly doing the defense any favors.

In keeping with the theme of this series as "post-positional", Cash and Taylor can't probably can't be broken down as a simple one-on-one matchup -- ultimately, they will both be all over the floor, along with Jackson, Dupree, Little, etc, etc. The bigger question might be how they and their teams are able to take advantage of opportunities presented to them by the personnel on the floor.

Ultimately, this will be just as fascinating a coaching chess match as a test of players' game awareness and it's difficult as a fan of the sport not to get excited about the various configurations and mismatches to exploit that might occur in this series.

The series itself should be as unpredictable as the moment-to-moment situations within the game. With that, Swish Appeal's undecided predictions:

Seth Pollack of SBN Arizona: Mercury in three games

Nate Parham of SBN Seattle: Storm in three games

...for all the reasons listed above.

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