By Patrick Ralph
Thursday night’s WNBA action will feature a rematch from last year’s playoffs when the fifth-seeded Phoenix Mercury and fourth-seeded Connecticut Sun get together at the Mohegan Sun Arena. In last year’s showdown, it was the Mercury who came out on top with an 88-83 road win to advance to the semifinals. This year, the Sun are looking to avenge that loss with a very different result.
For the Mercury, the one constant that is sure to travel with them across the country is their offense. This matchup features two of the highest-scoring and best offensive teams in the league. Therefore, expect both teams to try and get up and down the floor in transition from the opening tip. The pace and tempo should be fast and frenetic in Uncasville with these two run-and-gun teams that can put up points on the scoreboard in a heartbeat.
Offense is not a concern for Phoenix. Diana Taurasi, the Mercury’s leading scorer this year, lives for road elimination games like this, especially when the game is being played in the same state she played her collegiate ball. This team is going to make shots, move the ball, and hit threes.
Therefore, the key for Phoenix winning in Connecticut on Thursday will be its defense. The Mercury’s defense will determine whether or not they move onto the semifinals for a second straight year.
As alluded to above, this will not be an easy assignment. Connecticut finished the year first in the league in both points and made field goals, second in offensive rating, field goal percentage, and two-point field goals made, third in two-point field goal percentage, and top five in the league in pace. Simply put, the Sun are an efficient and effective offensive team.
The Sun finished the season with five players averaging 10 or more points per game this year, the most of any team in the WNBA. Therefore, Connecticut has a very balanced offensive attack.
In contrast, Phoenix’s defense held opponents to the second-lowest field goal percentage and lowest two-point field goal percentage in the league this year. The Mercury, who won the season series 2-1 against Connecticut, were able to slow down the Sun in their two wins this year.
Connecticut, who nearly shot 47 percent from the field for the season, was held to an average of just under 36 percent shooting from the field in its two losses to Phoenix this year. In their lone win over the Mercury, the Sun shot 51 percent from the field.
Furthermore, Connecticut’s starting lineup combined to score 83 points in its two losses to Phoenix. But when the Sun knocked off the Mercury at home, their starting lineup combined to score 80 points in just one game.
Connecticut averaged almost 88 points per game this season. However, Phoenix’s defense did not let the Sun reach the 80-point mark in both of its wins over Connecticut this year. In the lone game this year that the Sun won over the Mercury, it reached the 90-point threshold.
Another key to this game for the Mercury that goes hand-in-hand with defense is rebounding. Connecticut is the best rebounding team in the league this year and has two players, Chiney Ogwumike and Alyssa Thomas, who both rank in the top 10 in the league in rebounding.
However, Phoenix was able to win the rebounding battle in both of its victories against the Sun this season. Therefore, it will be imperative for Phoenix to control the glass and limit second-chance opportunities for Connecticut.
Defensively, the three players who Phoenix will count on most against Connecticut are Brittney Griner, DeWanna Bonner, and Briann January. Griner’s ability to block shots and dissuade opponents from attacking the rim to score because of her size will be crucial. Her play will be key to Phoenix controlling the paint and limiting open looks for Connecticut around the basket. It will also be imperative for Griner to play smart and not get pulled out of position by the Sun’s bigs, many of whom enjoy spreading the floor out and shooting threes.
Bonner, who is truly the jack-of-all-trades of this Phoenix team, can guard multiple positions and defend almost anyone on Connecticut because of her size, length, quickness, and athleticism. She’s the most dependable player on the Mercury who can do a little bit of everything at a high level for this team.
Meanwhile, January is one of Phoenix’s best on-ball perimeter defenders. She will be key to keeping Connecticut’s guards at bay from the three-point line and pressuring them in the backcourt in order to force turnovers. January will need to make the Sun’s guards feel uncomfortable and force them into taking bad shots or making bad passes.
In the rebounding department, both Griner and Bonner will be called upon to dominate the boards for Phoenix. As the Mercury’s top two rebounders this season, the two All-Stars each bring a different skillset to the glass.
But what could be the X-factor to Phoenix winning the rebounding battle on Thursday is the play of Stephanie Talbot. Filling in for the injured Sancho Lyttle, Talbot finished with an 11-point, 11-rebound double-double at home on Tuesday night in the first round of the playoffs against the Dallas Wings. If Talbot can continue to contribute at a high level, she can be the difference maker on this team.
There’s only one thing to guarantee for this game: It will be fun.