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Mercury vs. Sparks series preview: Key statistics, predictions, schedule, TV times

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With home court advantage throughout the 2014 WNBA Playoffs, the #1 Phoenix Mercury enter the postseason as the favorite to win it all. Their first challenge is the #4 L.A. Sparks, who have struggled to find consistency during a disappointing season.

Diana Taurasi ran an efficient offense for the Mercury, which should give the Sparks problems.
Diana Taurasi ran an efficient offense for the Mercury, which should give the Sparks problems.
Christian Petersen

The #1 Phoenix Mercury open their series against the #4 L.A. Sparks tonight at 10 p.m. EST on NBA TV.

We didn't officially have a Swish Appeal preview for the Mercury because Kris Habbas and I spoke about them at length during a BS of the Sun podcast recorded on Wednesday night before the playoffs. But you can probably guess the gist of what was discussed: the winningest team in WNBA history is extremely talented and will be a very difficult matchup for the inconsistent L.A. Sparks.

What happened during the regular season might not matter all that much as the Sparks have changed some tendencies since replacing Carol Ross with Penny Toler as head coach, but their weaknesses will look familiar.

Key statistical battleground: Transition scoring/turnovers

Pat outlined this the other day, but it bears repeating: as much talent as the Sparks have on paper, the fact is that they don't have one immediately obvious dominant strength.

But there's a reason why they're rated as the second most efficient defense in the Western Conference: despite some major defensive problems throughout the rotation, the Sparks like to push the tempo and forced turnovers at the highest rate in the league (16.90%). On the strength of those turnovers, the Sparks led the league in points off turnovers (19.12 per game).

Along those lines, the chief problem for the Sparks against the Mercury is two-fold: first, the Mercury were one of the least turnover-prone teams in the league on the strength of an outstanding year from Diana Taurasi at point guard and the presence of a savvy playmaker like Penny Taylor. By not turning the ball over much, the Mercury allowed the least points off turnovers per game (12.82) this season.

Second, the Sparks shot just 31.6% from the 3-point line on 282 attempts - they're not a team that can slow the game down and just outshoot an opponent with threes. They don't have a lot of shooters and by starting a big lineup of Jantel Lavender, Nneka Ogwumike, and Candace Parker - along with a non-shooting guard - opposing defenses are often content to watch them shoot mid-range jumpers despite their post scoring power; the Sparks shot 24.3% of their shots from 6 to 15 feet this year, which is the highest percentage of any playoff team.

If the Mercury, who shot 35% from the 3-point line this year, are hitting threes and not turning the ball over much, it's just really hard to imagine the Sparks finding a way to keep up. The Sparks' only hope of winning is to try to find a way to get out in transition, when Griner won't be protecting the rim and the Sparks aren't victimized by their own poor spacing.

X-Factor: Kristi Toliver

That makes Kristi Toliver vital to making this series even remotely competitive: if Toliver is hitting threes, not turning the ball over, and finding a way to hold her own defensively against the Mercury's perimeter players, the Sparks have a shot to put themselves in position to win a game.

If Toliver has a bad first two games, it will be the Sparks' last two games of the season.

Predictions: Mercury def. Sparks

Name

Winner

Games

Albert

Phoenix

2

James

Phoenix

3

Kris H.

Phoenix

2

Kris W.

Phoenix

2

Nate

Phoenix

2

Pat

Phoenix

2

Swish Appeal/SB Nation staff predictions.

It's clear that for the most part we just don't foresee the Sparks overcoming their disadvantages to beat the Mercury in two out of three games.

James did offer comment on his pick of a three-game series: "I suspect that Phoenix is a bit overrated despite their gaudy record.  If they sweep LA, they're probably Finals-bound." One major weakness for the Mercury? They're not a great rebounding team. Unfortunately for L.A., neither are they.

Schedule/Broadcast info

Day

Date

Game

Away

Home

Time

National TV

Friday

08/22/14

1

#4 Los Angeles Sparks

#1 Phoenix Mercury

10 p.m.

NBA TV

Saturday

08/24/14

2

#1 Phoenix Mercury

#4 Los Angeles Sparks

9 p.m.

ESPN2

Tuesday

08/26/14

3 *

#4 Los Angeles Sparks

#1 Phoenix Mercury

10 p.m.

NBA TV

For more on this series, check out our Mercury vs. Sparks series storystream.