The Phoenix Mercury have saved some of their best basketball this season for when they've needed it most. In fact, the only time this post season that they played complete 40 minute games were in the decisive third contests versus the Silver Stars and the Sparks.
In both series they were able to survive and advance despite having played one decent game in which they simply out-shot their opponent and one game in which they failed to show up with the focus needed and expected for a championship run.
In this series versus a Fever team that has far exceeded their regular season shooting levels, the Mercury followed a similar pattern. Only this time they weren't able to bounce back in Game 3 despite giving their most complete performance of the series. By letting down in Game 2 the Mercury left to themselves open to all the various vagaries that big game on the road can bring and now find themselves needing to beat a confident team. Twice.
If you are the kind of Mercury fan looking for positives, you would point out that Phoenix had their worst outside shooting night of the season; weren't able to get to the line to make up for that due to a game that wasn't called tightly; the Fever continued to shoot from outside well above their season averages; the Mercury did much better defensively and won the glass and points in the paint; DeWanner Bonner has yet to show up for the series; and despite all of that the Mercury were a "head butt" away from winning the game on the road.
If you are Fever fan you would rightly mention that your team has taken advantage of the opportunities that Phoenix has presented and that your team has risen to the occasion and delivered on the biggest stage; that your game plan was designed to deny Phoenix open outside looks and it's worked; that your consistent defensive effort is why your team is where it is; and that by going deeper into the bench you have negated your opponents strategy of wearing you down.
It goes without saying that either team is capable of winning this game tonight. Here's my keys for each team:
- Continue to do what you do which means running out on shooters and collapsing on penetration to force the extra pass
- Ebony Hoffman and Briann January are shooting a combined 38-59 (64.5%) in this series with 30% of those attempts coming from three. As good as the Fever defense has been, they've needed to score over 85 points in every game to win and that will be hard without these two hitting shots
- Run and then don't run. The Fever do a great job of running on the Mercury when appropriate but if Phoenix is back and set defensively they need to work the clock and get a good look. Fever assistant coach Jim Lewis had an interesting comment about this, "One is the point I just made about them playing a lot of zone actually that slows the pace to our advantage. We work it around more. We may get an earlier shot against their man-to-man."
- Continue to play like the under-dog. Indiana knows that tonight is their best chance of winning the championship and they cannot be thinking about the advantage they now hold in the series
- The Mercury played a much better game defensively in Game 3. Tangela Smith and Le'Coe Willingham were active and physical and controlled the paint better then had in the previous games. They are going to need to bring that same intensity again
- Starting strong will be vital for the Mercury. They have to make some shots early and get some stops. These teams are too close for them to be able to come back on the road and the slowed down pace of playoff basketball and the deeper Fever rotation has eliminated their ability to get a 4th quarter boost
- Early in Game 3, the Mercury were too quick in their half court sets and as a result the floor wasn't spaced well. After about five minutes they corrected that and were able to erase an early deficit. Tonight they need to start with that same spacing which will punish the Fever for over-rotating
- Make shots. Make stops. And play like a champion for the full 40 minutes because so far, they've not been able to sustain the effort which is extremely frustrating to watch