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2013 WNBA playoffs preview: Los Angeles Sparks vs. Phoenix Mercury

The second-seeded Los Angeles Sparks will face the third-seeded Phoenix Mercury in the first round of the 2013 WNBA playoffs.

Christian Petersen

Whichever team loses this first round series almost has to see the 2013 WNBA season as a major disappointment.

The Los Angeles Sparks were hoping that the addition of point guard Lindsey Harding would put them over the top after falling to the Minnesota Lynx in the Western Conference Finals last year. Regardless of whether the signing has helped - or will help moving forward - they find themselves entering the postseason trailing the Lynx in second once again.

The Phoenix Mercury entered the season with all kinds of hype after adding top pick Brittney Griner, the 6-foot-8 center out of Baylor, to help bolster their defense and add to a roster that already featured a starting lineup full of talent. Unfortunately, an incoherent plan to strategy the season, significant injuries to both Griner and mainstay Penny Taylor, and characteristically poor defensive effort has them heading into the postseason as a third seed and beginning an uphill battle just to make back to the Western Conference Finals again (where they also last fell to the Lynx).

If you believed the hype - and I strongly recommend that you don't believe the hype - the season wasn't supposed to turn out this way for either team. The Mercury were supposed to be on their way to another title; the Sparks were supposed to take a step forward. Now they face each other at risk of falling dramatically short of the overblown expectations.

But there might be more hope for the Mercury.

Phoenix Mercury

MVP: Diana Taurasi, G (MVP rating: 11.57)

There are those who will tell you that Diana Taurasi playing point guard is a disadvantage for both her and the Mercury, taking her out of her natural scoring position. Yet in this series it might become a major advantage: someone from the Sparks backcourt is going to have to match up with her and neither has the size to fully contain her.

And the Mercury's advantages against the Sparks probably begin there.

The reason the critiques of Taurasi at point guard might be a bit overstated should be pretty easy to comprehend: when you have a player with the ball in her hands that scores with a true shooting percentage of 61.01% (a team-high among anyone who played more than 10 games) and distributes relatively efficiently with a 1.48 pure point rating, putting the ball in her hands isn't a terrible thing. Therein lies the MVP argument for Taurasi: a player that efficient with the ball in her hands, even if she's racking up technicals and putting up a ton of shots, is extremely valuable to any team.

Weaknesses: Offensive rebounding, turnovers, defense, depth

However, the problem with the Mercury is that their missed shots are really costly: they finished the season with the lowest offensive rebounding rate in the league (24.6%) and had the third-highest turnover rate in the league (17.1%). Exacerbating things is that they actually got worse in both categories in the second half of the season. In other words, when they expend a possession with an ill-advised shot they're neither recovering the ball well to extend the possession nor protecting the ball well on other possessions.

That's a problem when the play the way they have been over the past few years, which has also included a lack of defensive intensity. As talented they are, that inability to extend or protect possessions really puts a lot of pressure on them to score well.

Strengths: Shooting efficiency, getting to the free throw line

Of course, in their defense, they do score well.

The Mercury had the third-highest shooting efficiency in the league this season (50.2% effective field goal percentage). A large part of that is Taurasi's efficiency, DeWanna Bonner's increased efficiency this season with a lower usage rate, and finishing the season fourth in points in the paint (35.65 per game). And there's little question why they're rated so highly in points in the paint: Griner's high release and soft touch on her jumper are just hard to stop.

Griner might not quite be as good as expected, but she has the second-highest usage rate on the team (21.78%) and scores efficiently (59.14%), which makes her a solid complement on the interior with Taurasi. Would she be an even stronger complement if she hit the offensive boards harder? Sure. But the inside-outside threat makes the team extremely difficult to guard, especially when both Bonner (54.95% TS%) and Candice Dupree (55.95% TS%) are on their games as well.

When they are driving instead of settling for jumpers, their offense is hard to stop.

Team Pre-All-Star

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

Adj Synergy

PHX

49.04%

32.19%

25.25%

15.86%

0.37

Opp

46.83%

30.89%

29.12%

12.07%

0.48

Weighted

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

MEV diff

PHX

0.22

0.03

-0.16

-0.32

-5.71

Team Post-All-Star

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

Adj Synergy

PHX

48.93%

32.96%

23.74%

18.64%

0.33

Opp

42.75%

30.75%

25.33%

13.55%

0.31

Weighted

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

MEV diff

PHX

0.62

0.05

-0.07

-0.43

8.55

Four Factors statistics for the 2013 Phoenix Mercury.

X-Factor: Penny Taylor, F (MVP rating: 1.91)

The biggest problem for the Mercury though actually has less to do with who they are than where they play: they're still in an extremely talented Western Conference.

In those offensive categories they're strong in, they're also just third in the Western Conference behind the Lynx and Sparks. So for this offense to even advance a round, they're going to have to continue improving. And one thing for Mercury fans to be excited about is the return of Penny Taylor.

We can throw the stats from her 10 games this season out the window, but what Taylor brings is a little extra in every facet of the game: ball handling, defensive effort, rebounding, and scoring. For a team with as much talent as they have, the presence of the proverbial (glue player) might be more significant than the numbers end up showing. In addition, back to the matter of the Sparks matching up with them, it gives them an extremely big lineup for the Sparks to contend with.

Key to victory: Rebounding

This is not a good rebounding team, but neither are the Sparks. If the Mercury can win the backcourt battle and find second chance shots on their misses, they'll put a lot of pressure on the Sparks and have a good chance to win.

Why to root for them: They haven't yet reached their potential

Both Griner and Taylor have been in and out of the lineup this season and, even though they're not necessarily great defensively, they've improved; this unit hasn't faced the Sparks this season and they have enough advantages to move to the Western Conference Finals after a disappointing regular season. It could be a fun ride for them if things go their way.

Los Angeles Sparks

MVP: Candace Parker (MVP rating: 12.59)

I mean, duh: she did win the league's MVP award after all. And there's not much more to say: even if you don't think she's the best player in the league, it's hard to leave her out of the top five and she's a weapon that can't really be stopped when she's on her game.

Yet there's one thing to watch in this series: how many jump shots she takes. It has been beaten to death on this site so I won't belabor it any further, but when the dynamic 6-foot-4 player is shooting jumpers she's essentially bailing the defense out of having to guard a higher percentage shot. If the Sparks want to win, their MVP will have to get to the basket.

Strengths: Shooting efficiency, fast break points, post scoring, synergy

With Parker and Nneka Ogwumike - a solid contender for team MVP in her own right - in the post and Kristi Toliver on the perimeter, the Sparks have as potent an inside-outside threat as anyone in the league when everyone is clicking. But more interesting is that they led the league in fast break points (13.94 points per game) despite finishing only fifth in their rate of turnovers forced (16.7% turnover rate). In other words, turning the ball over is particularly lethal against the Sparks because they make you pay.

Weaknesses: Rebounding, balance

But the flipside of that scoring efficiency is that it's really their only significant strength: if for whatever reason the shots aren't falling, the Sparks don't have the obvious alternate strength that top contenders often possess. On top of that, and similar to the Mercury, they don't rebound well so when the shots aren't falling they're not giving themselves many second chances.

Yet to the Sparks' credit, that offensive rebounding has improved in the second half of the season: they're not rebounding above league average, which is a good thing. And that will be essential for this series against the Mercury.

Team Pre-All-Star

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

Adj Synergy

LAS

50.29%

31.52%

26.00%

15.39%

0.46

Opp

43.92%

27.90%

29.00%

17.07%

0.26

Weighted

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

MEV diff

LAS

0.64

0.08

-0.13

0.14

21.75

Team Post-All-Star

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

Adj Synergy

LAS

49.44%

27.09%

30.00%

15.95%

0.44

Opp

44.54%

28.80%

29.00%

16.19%

0.29

Weighted

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

MEV diff

LAS

0.49

-0.04

0.04

0.02

16.45

2013 Four Factors differentials for the Los Angeles Sparks regular season.

X-factor: Kristi Toliver, G (MVP: 8.16)

Toliver had a true shooting percentage of 55.48% this season, which is good but there's a bit more to that story as well.

In the Sparks' 10 losses, Toliver shot just 37% from the field and only 27.5% from the 3-point line, more than 10% beneath her mark for the season. So, we know she has to make shots. But she also has to defend someone bigger than her, which hasn't typically been her strength.

So there are a few questions: first, what happens to the Sparks if she gets taken out of the game due to foul trouble? Second, who does she guard when she's out there and how do the Mercury exploit the size advantage? And third, will the Sparks adjust their rotation to maximize Toliver's strengths?

There's been a lot made of how the acquisition of Harding has allowed Toliver to move to her more natural role of scoring guard. But the problem with that reasoning is that Toliver isn't necessarily better as a shooting guard but better a ball-dominant guard, which she was allowed to be last year. Putting her on the floor with Harding thus takes the ball out of her hands when she is quite good and leaves the Sparks in an awkward defensive position.

Key to victory: Turnovers

They have to not only win the turnover battle against the Mercury, a turnover prone team, but those transition opportunities will help put them in a position where they thrive. Getting those transition opportunities comes down to one simple thing: defensive intensity.

Why to root for the Sparks: Because Candace Parker

Full disclosure: I'm a Northern California native. You won't catch me supporting L.A. teams under any circumstance (unless the Clippers and Lakers are playing and my hand is forced, but I'd like pass on watching). But for the Sparks to win this series, Candace Parker will have to play well and Candace Parker playing well - attacking the basket, finding teammates - can be a beautiful thing.

Predictions

Key statistical battleground: Points in the paint

Both of these teams have established massive advantages over their opponents in that shooting efficiency category, which means someone will lose that battle in this series.

Moreso than simply saying making shots is a good thing, if the Mercury outshoot the Sparks they might struggle to establish advantages elsewhere. The nightmare scenario for the Sparks is the Mercury hitting their 3-point attempts, winning the boards, and not turning the ball over. And where that could happen is if the Mercury's bigger backcourt players crash the boards hard. Part of that is about Griner, but the value of guards driving can't be taken for granted either.

For the Sparks, if Parker is in the paint with Ogwumike cutting to play a two-woman game, there's not much most opponents can do. Again, Griner becomes a factor with her shot blocking ability, but putting the rookie in a position to move in react can take her out of the game.

Winner: Mercury, 2-1

The Sparks had just two losses at home this season. One was against a Mercury team without Brittney Griner. That was also on July 18, before the hiring of Russ Pennell. This Mercury team right now is potentially much better and has the tools to steal another at home from the Sparks this season.

For the Mercury though, it's all about defense: in that win in L.A., the Mercury held Parker and Toliver to a combined 12-for-37 shooting.