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Phoenix vs San Antonio. Playoff Preview. Time for me to panic?

The Phoenix Mercury look to their 1st round playoff match up with the San Antonio Silver Stars. <em>Photo by Max Simbron</em>
The Phoenix Mercury look to their 1st round playoff match up with the San Antonio Silver Stars. Photo by Max Simbron

My friends that are Mercury fans are excited to face the San Antonio Silver Stars in the first round of the WNBA playoffs.

After a disappointing campaign last season, the Mercury faithful are first and foremost excited to be right back in contention. The team is good. Really good. And for the last 4 to 6 weeks there's been a growing desire to get to the post season so the real winning can begin. As for the Silver Stars? The Merc swept them in the 2007 conference finals so there's nothing but good memories there.

On the other hand, my friends that are Suns fans have nightmares at the thought of ever facing the Spurs again in an elimination game and we know all about over-confidence going into the playoffs. We know that the better team doesn't always win (except that by definition the better team won but lets not go down that road again).

The Suns suffered through the 2008 defeat at the hands of Tim Duncan's three point shot. We had our hearts ripped out by Robert Horry's hip check inducing bench clearing suspensions. We still grieve over Joe Johnson's broken face that robbed us of our chance in 2005. We don't worry too much about 2003 though, that Marbury-lead Suns team wasn't all that good anyway despite Rookie of the Year, Amare Stoudemire.

That leaves those of us that are fans of both teams in a state of manic depressive anxiety inducing euphoric confusion leading to a thrill seeking panic as we once again see the Purple and Orange vs Silver and Black in the first round of the playoffs.

So Mercury fans, you are just going to have to forgive me if you sense me waffling from paragraph to paragraph from confidence and excitement to despair and desperation. There's just too much recent history here to ignore but if nothing else that just amps up the intensity which is exactly what playoff basketball should be about.

I can't wait. Except I might not eat all day Thursday (but that's not a bad thing either).

The Phoenix Mercury - a Primer for Suns Fans

If you are just now jumping on the Mercury bandwagon don't worry. Bandwagoning isn't a bad thing. Everyone does it. Welcome aboard.

The Phoenix Mercury finished the regular season with the best record in the WNBA at 23-11 which is a .676 winning percentage that translates to a 55 win NBA 82 game season. While not a record breaking win/loss result, it got the job done giving the Mercury home court advantage against any possible opponent right up through the finals.

The Mercury will look very familiar to Suns fans on the court. The team adopted the Paul Westhead run and gun style in 2006 and have blown the doors off the league's scoring records ever since. The Mercury never scored 100 points in a game in their first 9 years and have done so 23 times in the last three seasons. The next closest teams (Sun and Monarchs) have done so only 6 times each. Ever.

Defensively, the Mercury give up the most points in the league (89.15 ppg) and are 10th in opponents field goal percentage (43.1%) and 11th in league in rebound differential (-2.79). The story on that end of the floor however, is a bit more complex.

Offensively There Are No Holes

The Mercury put points on the board through a combination of style, talent and execution. They are always looking to push the ball off rebounds, blocks or makes but at the same time the execution of set plays has become increasingly precise as the season has gone on. We've seen some things in the past few playoff tune up games that makes me think the best is yet to come for the Mercury's half court game.

There was a good stretch in the last home game against the Sparks where the ball movement was fantastic. Crisp passes leading to wide open cutters. Jerry Sloan would have been proud. Then the coaching staff seemed to pull back and reverted to more routine plays. I think there's a few tricks up Corey's sleeves.

This team is extremely deep with 7 players in double figures (with some slight rounding help) and easily eight players that could be starting for any team in this league. Despite that over abundance of offensive talent, Coach Gaines with the help of his locker room leaders has stressed teamwork and togetherness all season. Sharing the ball and spreading out the touches has been a constant theme. In fact, there's probably a few games the team lost by not having its stars be selfish enough. It will be very interesting to see how this plays out in the post season where stars often take over and yet the Mercury's depth and balance has been a strength all season long so they aren't likely to go away from that easily. A good problem to have.

The Mercury set the WNBA record of 92.82 ppg which blew away the previous record of 89 ppg held by the 2007 champion Phoenix Mercury. The scoring comes from anywhere on the court: 2nd in three point shooting at 38.6%; 1st in field goal percentage at 46%; 1st in free throw shooting at 85.5%; and most importantly first in point differential at +3.67.

On the break

In the fast break the Mercury usually look to get the ball up court quickly by using long "vertical" passing from point guard Temeka Johnson to shooting guard Cappie Pondexter who played point in Russia and is second in the league in assists. Both can can handle and pass the ball and both are fast.

Cappie will typically look to attack the rim if at all possible or find a team mate in the break to finish the play. If you think of the Suns advancing the ball with a long outlet pass to Nash at the half court this is similar but uses two guards and an extra pass.

The other type of break will come off an opponent's miss with a Mercury forward leaking out and getting wide open under the rim. Le'Coe Willingham and DeWanna Bonner both look to get easy buckets this way just like Shawn Marion used to do on the same floor.

Pick and roll

In the half court the team will run a variety of pick and rolls featuring any number of players handling the ball. Temeka, Cappie and Taurasi all run the play with either Willingham, Bonner or Ohlde capable of rolling and finishing. Tangela Smith generally will run more of a pick and pop using her great outside shooting. Lately, we've also seen forward Penny Taylor running the pick and roll which has surprised opponent's defenses.

The Mercury also use what they call a drag play which is essentially a pick and roll in transition. It is an ad hoc way to create a quick opportunity before the other team can set its defense.

In the post

The Mercury will try and go to the post at times, especially early in games to see if Willingham can get going and to see if she can pick up some fouls on the other team's bigs. Nicole Ohlde who has been coming off the bench and averaging 15 mpg is a creative post player who can force teams to double giving open looks to Mercury shooters. Both Willingham and Ohlde are averaging 53% shooting. But like most up-tempo teams, the Mercury don't like to feed the post too often as it slows down the pace.

Attack the rim

In the WNBA players often attack the rim from about the free throw line extended and the Mercury are no exception. Penny Taylor loves to put her head down and drive right where she can either draw contact, find an open teammate or finish at the rim. Cappie, the team's best finisher, will generally drive from a little further out and is virtually unguardable when her pull up game is working. We haven't seen as much of Taurasi driving this season but I suspect that's more to do with her trying to distribute the ball and perhaps save herself for the playoffs. I am curious to see how her aggressiveness steps up in the post season.

From range

The Mercury have three players (Taurasi, Taylor, and Johnson) averaging over 40% from three and center Tangela Smith leads the league with 45%. Pondexter "only" averages 36% but is one of those players who makes them when they count. The Mercury are only 4th in league in three point attempts though and generally are not a team that is going to rely too heavily on the long ball.

Most of the shots come after the defense has collapsed on a penetrating player or wide open in transition. Sound familiar, Suns fans?

Mid range money

Where the Mercury really make their money is in the mid-range game. Taurasi loves to curl off screens for a catch and shoot. She leads the league once again in scoring (20.4 ppg) so I think it is fair to say that she's effective at this range. Cappie can pull up and nail a jumper in anyone's face and Temeka Johnson has dramatically improved her shooting this season to 44% (from 34% last season) in large part due to the number of open looks her teammates create. The only Mercury player getting consistent minutes that isn't regularly hitting mid range shots is rookie DeWanna Bonner. Her 11.2 ppg come from put backs, leak outs and getting open under the rim for dump offs.

Early versions of the Suns run and gun relied too heavily on the fast break, the three point shot and in the half court were overly reliant on the Nash/Amare pick and roll. As good as those Suns teams were, the Spurs were able to contend with them because they were predictable which in a long series is death. This Mercury team has far more offensive weapons and player for player are more talented.

It is nearly impossible to slow down this team when they are focused and playing with energy. The Mercury averaged 93.1 points against the league's top three defensive teams (Seattle, LA, Indiana) and were 7-3 against them in the regular season.

Defense is for Suckers

This is where the Mercury start to lose me. Not so much because the can't or don't play defense but because they haven't played consistent defense all season long. And we all know what wins championships except that in 2007 the Mercury won by being the best offensive team in the league and will try and do it again over the next three weeks.

When you are trying to break paradigms you have to be successful more than once which is why this post season has a little bit of extra meaning for me. If the Mercury can be successful by being the best offensive team and a good enough just in time defensive team then it might change my entire outlook on basketball. No pressure, ladies.

Zone or not to Zone

The Mercury started the season playing a lot of man to man (and yes, they call it man to man when the girls are talking to each other) and would often aggressively trap the ball on the perimeter and rotate behind the trap to push the open shot to where they wanted it. That worked pretty well and so they started doing something different - going under screens and playing a little bit softer in order to deny penetration. And they got pretty good at that so then they tried something else - switching on just about anything.

Throw in their famous "rover" 2-3 zone used either in very short spurts or some times for entire quarters and more recently a strong side overload match up zone and you get a picture of a team that has used pretty much any defense you can imagine.

The best I can figure, the Mercury have gone all season long spending time and emphasis on perfecting a variety of defensive looks. You can argue that it is best to be really good at one thing or can you can argue that being able to do a lot of things pretty well is a better approach. But you can't argue which method Coach Gaines prefers.

I've watched this team all season long and have payed a lot of attention to the defense lately and I honestly have no idea how they will try and guard the Silver Stars. Perhaps a bit of everything is the plan. We'll find out soon enough.

Post play and Rebounding

All season long the weakest part of the Mercury defense has been in the post. Starters Tangela Smith (27 mpg) and LeCoe Willingham (21 mpg) are simply not a good match up defensively against most teams.

Tangela is not strong enough to bang with bigger players, like Silver Stars center Ann Wauters, and she's not quick enough to stay in front of players away from the paint. She's 3rd in lead the league in blocks per game (1.7) but I've yet to get a sense that she's using her size to control the paint.

Le'Coe is undersized at the 4 and her rebounding suffers for it. At times Coe can play without energy which she really can't afford to do at her size. At her best, she's using her strength and effort to battle for loose balls and at least create enough havoc in the paint to keep possessions alive and/or prevent the other team from getting easy put backs.

The numbers tell a clear story with the team's best rebounder being rookie guard DeWanna Bonner (who gets most of her minutes at power forward) leading the team with 5.8 rpg and guard Diana Taurasi (who gets her minutes at the small forward) second on the team with 5.7 rpg. Smith, the starting center, is third with 5.4 rpg and Willingham, the starting power forward is tied for fourth with guard Cappie Pondexter at 4.2 rpg. The team talks about gang rebounding which is what undersized teams typically fall back on. The problem is that it takes a lot more energy and it leaves your transition defense in a bad spot if your guards are crashing the boards.

The Mercury's best interior defense comes when true center Nicole Ohlde, who is only averaging 15 mpg, is on the floor with DeWanna Bonner. The two combine to provide more size, length and mobility and have on several occasions changed games with their ability to work in the paint and prevent the opponent from getting second chance points.

My theory is that the Mercury don't mind giving up some early points since it helps the game get into a faster rhythm which will ultimately benefit the better scoring team. It is certainly a non-traditional approach to the game of basketball to essential bait the other team into scoring but it is very familiar to Suns fans.


The Mercury can go eight deep in the playoffs and still not give any minutes to back up point guard Ketia Swanier (12 mpg) who has performed well in her role or to sharp shooter Kelly Mazzante (14 mpg) who has not. Over the past few weeks Gaines has used a lot of different line ups and rotations to the point that going into the playoffs it is impossible to predict who will get minutes and even at what position. How Gaines will rotate his front line in the playoffs is the team's biggest unsolved mystery.

The best I can figure is that he considers his best line up as Cappie and Taurasi in the back court with Taylor, Bonner and Ohlde up front. It's a line up he's used on occasion late in close game but not one that we've seen on the court many other times.

I would suspect that with Taurasi and Pondexter getting a few extra minutes that Swanier and perhaps even Johnson will see their minutes decrease. Taylor will almost surely play closer to 25 mpg and I have to think that Ohlde will be up to about 20 mpg as well. It really is hard to say until we see it on Thursday but one thing's for sure, don't focus too much on who starts the game.

What matter is where the minutes go and who's on the floor at the end when it matters the most.

Silver Stars Preview

Later this week we'll have more on the Silver Stars, hopefully with a guest expert analyst.

In the mean time, does a good job breaking down the basics including the 2-2 season series and I am sure SBN Spurs site Pounding the Rock will soon have it's own preview complete with taunts for paranoid Phoenix fans.