Everybody talks about how the WNBA Playoffs bring a new season with new challenges and nothing that happened before even matters.
That's probably more true than usual for the 2013 Western Conference Finals.
There's really only one number you need to keep in mind for this series: the Minnesota Lynx are 0-0 against the Russ Pennell-led Phoenix Mercury. And as much as the Mercury were a bit of a wild card against the Los Angeles Sparks in the first round, the fact that these two teams haven't even played since Corey Gaines was fired certainly adds a measure of uncertainty despite the Lynx being the clear favorite.
With the Mercury playing better on both ends - though still not to be mistaken for a defensive juggernaut - the first thing we have to do for this series is throw out the results of their regular season series which ended in a 5-0 Lynx sweep.
"Corey and I talked a little bit right after I took the job, and I think that hopefully what we've done is just come in and bought maybe a little fresh air and tried to defend a little bit more," Pennell said in yesterday's media teleconference. "I think that's kind of where I started from is the past is the past. Let's move on with the future."
Indeed the future looked bright in their three game first round series in which the Mercury beat the Sparks twice on the road to advance: Diana Taurasi and Candice Dupree worked the pick & roll to perfection against a tepid Sparks defense; Brittney Griner made a statement with hitting a series-clinching game-winner. And after a season of adversity, those glimmers of excellence have to give them confidence as they move on.
Yet in the present, facing Minnesota, the Mercury are going to have to defend.
"We realize we're going to have to play pretty well in order to do well in this series," Pennell said. "I think it starts with us on the defensive end, as we stated a second ago and certainly with us rebounding. We just haven't rebounded the ball well in the last week or so. If we don't defend and rebound this series, it's going to be a tough go for us."
Key statistical battleground: Shooting efficiency
If there's one thing that the Mercury can learn from the Seattle Storm, it's that it's possible to beat the Lynx without winning the rebounding battle - you just have to outshoot them, control the ball better, and get to the free throw line more often. Of course, the Storm lost anyway, but they were in position to win because of their ability to keep the Lynx's scoring efficiency down.
And just being in position to win is a pretty good plan when facing the Lynx.
"The number I think we'll have to keep an eye on is field goal percentage defense for Phoenix," LaChina Robinson said during the conference call, after noting that Phoenix held L.A. under 40% shooting in Game 3. "Can they continue this intensity against Minnesota? I think the fact that Phoenix is so long - I believe they're the tallest starting lineup of the teams still playing - that length really makes it difficult to score on them. That's going to be a challenge for Minnesota."
The fact is that the Mercury were a worse rebounding team than the Storm this season and, if you want to stick with the theme of throwing the regular season out, their first round series with the Sparks helps put that in perspective: the Mercury were badly outrebounded by a Sparks team that had some rebounding issues of its own. So the chances of competing with the Lynx on the boards are slim.
Instead, the Mercury should focus on shooting efficiency and they have a clear advantage over the Storm in accomplishing the task: defensively, they have Brittney Griner to clog up the lane. The Lynx are already a team that will settle for jumpers - if the Mercury can make it a jump shooting game and just contain the Lynx on the boards, they'll have a shot (if the Lynx have an off shooting night).
"I think the biggest thing, you know, just watching them play, is I think they've improved their defense and are making it tougher for teams to score in the paint," Lynx forward Maya Moore said during the teleconference. "Trying to force (opponents to) knock down jumpers, and that's a strategy that we'll go into the game trying to attack."
Offensively, the Mercury have one of the best scorers in the history of the game on their side in All-WNBA First Team selection Diana Taurasi. But they also have scoring versatility: Dupree and Taurasi are known quantities as scorers in the league; Griner gives them a presence in the paint that they haven't had in a few years.
But the key to that strategy of out-shooting the Lynx - and make no mistake, they'd have to establish a huge efficiency advantage to win - is the play of DeWanna Bonner.
X-Factor: DeWanna Bonner's scoring efficiency
Bonner had a sort of up and down performance in the Mercury's first round series against the Sparks: she was 2-for-9 from the field in their Game 2 loss and 4-for-18 from 3-point land over the course of the series. Put simply, she'll need to be better against the Lynx for the Mercury to win.
And "better" could be accomplished in two ways: either making more shots or simply taking less, which would re-distribute the scoring opportunities to someone else who can be more efficient. But, especially with Penny Taylor out, the Mercury need better than 22% shooting from Bonner to win this one.
Prediction: Lynx, 2-1
The challenge for the Mercury is not necessarily just executing but executing well-enough to beat the Lynx twice in a three-game span - that's not exactly an easy task, especially for a team that doesn't have the personnel to negate the rebounding advantage the Lynx have.
Griner's growth - and the team's increased comfort in getting her the ball in positions where she's able to score -over the course of the season is certainly a potential game-changer, but the Mercury would have to play near-perfect basketball to beat a team like the Lynx given how the strengths and weaknesses match up.
It's always hard to count out any team with Diana Taurasi leading the way so I'd expect - and as a fan, even hope - that this one will go three games, but it wouldn't be at all surprising to see a fired-up Lynx team take care of business in two games. They still have something to prove after losing last year's WNBA Finals to the Indiana Fever and it would be surprising to see them fall short again.
For more on the series, check out our Western Conference Finals storystream.