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Fever vs Mercury: The Trap is Set

Indian Fever star forward Temika Catchings answers questions from the media before practice. The Fever face the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA Finals. <em>Photo by Max Simbron</em>
Indian Fever star forward Temika Catchings answers questions from the media before practice. The Fever face the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA Finals. Photo by Max Simbron

In talking to the coaches and players of both the Indiana Fever and the Phoenix Mercury it is clear that they agree on a lot of things.

They all agree that the Fever are a "defense first" team that loves to pressure the ball and create turnovers.

They all agree that the Mercury are a deep and powerful offensive team that can score the ball from just about anywhere.

There was one very interesting difference in how both teams are approaching this series however, that could very well be the key to who comes out victorious. Before we get to that, lets dig into what both sides think about each other.

Fever Defensive Philosophy

Indiana Fever head coach Lin Dunn says her team's defensive objective is to be disruptive. Where the LA Sparks use their incredible size and length advantage to block and alter shots in the paint, the Fever are focused on keeping their opponents out of a comfort zone. They want to make every pass a difficult one and battle for position on every play.

They do that by constantly mixing up their defensive schemes. If they defend the pick and roll game one way for a couple of possessions they are likely to switch that up quickly so the offense is always on their heals and reacting to what Indiana is doing.

Mercury assistant coach Julie Hairgrove said this about the Fever, "They do a good job on their pick and roll defense. They can switch. They can trap. They can hedge. They kind of mix it up on you. That's what makes them dangerous because they throw a lot of different things at us."

Fever star Katie Douglas agreed and described it this way, "We do run a lot of different schemes and we try and keep teams guessing."

Douglas also talked her team's commitment to the defensive end and stressed how much trust they have in each other and how they hold each other accountable, "If I get beat somebody's going to have my back and vice a verse. I just feel like we take such pride in it and taking one play off is unacceptable for us."

Forcing turnovers and converting those to points is key for Indiana. Coach Gaines said that the Fever aren't a good half court offensive team and Coach Dunn seemed to agree when she talked about how important it was for her team to take advantage of the opportunities their defense creates. 

Both sides agree that the Fever can and will run in transition and with their solid guards and quick forwards are quite adept at finishing on the break.

To summarize the Fever's defense: Commitment, trust, and accountability in a system based on pressure, disruption and a variety of schemes to keep the opponent off-balance all leading to points off turnovers.

That's Fever ball.

Look for points off turnovers to be a key stat in this series.

The Mercury Love to Run and Score the Ball

The Mercury are the fastest pace team in the league by any standard. They look to get up the court in a hurry and use that pace to limit their turnovers and prevent defensive teams from getting set. Both Coach Gaines and GM Ann Meyers-Drysdale talk often about their defensive roots with Annie playing at UCLA and Gaines learning physical basketball under Coach Pat Riley with the Knicks.

Yet both Gaines and Meyers-Drysdale have bought into the "best defense is a good offense" mentality. That's not to say that the Mercury don't play defense and in fact, as Penny Taylor said you can tell when they are truly focused and energized by the number of deflections and loose balls they grab on the defensive end of the floor.

The Fever fully understand this about this about their opponent. Tamika Catchings, the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year said this, "Obviously we know they are a great running team. Very quick. Move the ball. Three point shooting. Between DT [Diana Taurasi], Penny [Taylor] and Cappie [Pondexter] and Tangela [Smith] shooting the ball really well we're going to have to step up our defensive intensity really well and try and knock more baskets down."

With the Mercury averaging 18.3 more points per game in the playoffs and shooting 48.8% (vs 39.5% for the Fever) it is understandable why Coach Gaines thinks this series will come down to one team imposing it's will and style of play on the other.

Here's Where it Gets Interesting

We've heard both teams agree on why the other is so good and what makes them dangerous opponents. When it comes down to game plans though there's a significant divergence in thinking.

Coach Dunn believes the key to stopping Phoenix is to chop off the head of the beast, "To be honest with you, so goes Pondexter and Taurasi -- I haven’t seen them have bad nights and Phoenix win against a top team. Have you?"

When Coach Dunn asked me this question I struggled to recall a game where both Cappie and Diana had bad games at the same time all season long. Having had a chance to check the numbers, I see now that Dunn has a point.

In 11 losses in the regular season Diana Taurasi averaged 16.7 points, 39.5% shooting and 35.8% from three. Those numbers would make a lot of players in this league very happy but they are dismal compared to what Taurasi did in her team's 23 wins - 20 points, 47.5% shooting and 39.5% from three.

So to execute her game plan, Coach Dunn plans on running the the Mercury shooters off the three point line and make them react to her team's help defense, "I would prefer them to be dribbling. Because I know if they're dribbling they are not shooting three's and as they are driving we can get some help. Make them give the ball up. Make them give it to somebody else."

The Mercury for their part fully expect to see this and stress the need to move the ball from strong side to weak. Coach Hairgrove, "You've got to know where the opening passes are because they are going to be so sucked in trying to take away Cappie and Dee. So they will really load up on them to try and make them pass it out. That's why it's so important, the swing swing..."

The extra pass to find the open shooter is something the Mercury have done well all season long. Teams have tried to stop Taurasi and Pondexter only to see Tangela Smith, Penny Taylor and Temeka Johnson knock down those open looks.

Even more important than the ability of the Mercury players to pass the ball and make good decisions is their desire to work together and their chemistry as a team.

I go back to what Diana Taurasi said before the season started at media day about the team in 2008 that failed to make the playoffs. She put the blame on not playing together and not having enough trust in each other. Her goal has always been for the offense to be more balanced this season leading up to exactly this situation.

Both the LA Sparks and the San Antonio Silver Stars tried to stop CP and DT from beating them and the result as huge scoring nights from a variety of different Mercury role players. Penny Taylor, Tangela Smith, Temeka Johnson and Le'Coe Willingham have all stepped up at some point in the playoffs to take advantage of those opportunities and all of them at one point or another have said that their open looks are the result of defenses paying too much attention to the Mercury stars.

As long as both Pondexter and Taurasi are getting assists, rebounds and playing solid defense they don't need to score more then 30 points combined for the Mercury to win any game in this series. Facing a front line of much more normal proportions I would look for Taylor and Bonner to once again be effective driving the lane and for Le'Coe to get open looks near the rim. Temeka Johnson has lived off making wide open baseline jumpers that her teammates are so adept at creating for her.

Overloading on those two star players is exactly what the Phoenix Mercury have prepared all for season and it is exactly what they want the Indiana Fever to do.



Other notes:

  • Katie Douglas when asked about her ankle which caused her to miss time towards the end of the season only would say that it, "Feels pretty good. It feels ok." Given her sub-par performance against the Shock one has to wonder how much it is impacting her game. Douglas is as fierce a competitor as exists in any sport and is certainly never going to admit to a problem or do anything but give her best effort and then some
  • Assistant Coach Julie Hairgrove said that DeWanna Bonner's less than stellar play (and that's being kind) in the first two games of the LA series were a case of rookie jitters as she realized how important the games were. In game three of that series she slowed down and calmed down and played much better
  • Julie commented on how well Bonner and Taylor are playing together and how comfortable they seem to be on the court together
  • Julie also talked about what a pleasure it is being with such an unselfish team that loves to pass and play good team basketball but at the same time how great it is to have a Cappie and Taurasi there to hit the big shots
  • Penny Taylor is glad to be starting the playoffs with two games at home but knows from 2007 that the road team can win a five game series
  • Taylor talked about how she can tell when her team is fully focused and has the proper energy just by the look in their eyes but admitted that at times that focus isn't there. She feels the team plays best when it's back is against the wall but also thinks that the finals series will bring out the best effort from her team
  • Taylor joked about helping Candace Parker pad her blocked shots stat line her failed faded away attempts. Against the Fever she will have a much easier time of getting her shot off in the lane
  • I think the Mercury at times can suffer from a bit of over confidence
  • Coach Lin Dunn talked about her team's collective playoff and finals experience and expects them to be ready for the situation and not feel any additional pressure
  • She plans on playing 8 players and expects the Mercury to play 9
  • All signs point to Diana Taurasi to be named the MVP tomorrow before game 1

Interview audio

WNBA Finals Media Day Photo Gallery


WNBA Finals Practice 092809 - Images by Max Simbron