First Round Team Preview: Phoenix Mercury

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Amid a somewhat disappointing season, the Phoenix Mercury still got into the playoffs as the eight-seed. They will travel to Chicago to take on the fifth-seeded Chicago Sky. While the Mercury have won in the first round in each of the last three years, they head into their single-game elimination matchup with the Chicago Sky on a four-game losing streak.

Diana Taurasi Doubtful

This game will likely be played without Diana Taurasi as she remains sidelined due to a hamstring injury. The Mercury will need to find a way to defeat the Sky without her to keep their hopes of a lengthy playoff run alive.

“At this stage, I don’t envision Diana playing,” Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello told The Athletic’s Alexis Mansanarez. “We can’t really force her when she’s not ready, and we know that she’s not 100% ready.”

If the Mercury does manage to defeat the Sky, there is a chance that Taurasi could return in the second round. That should only provide an additional reason for motivation to compete hard.

Phoenix has achieved historically great success in single-elimination games. However, their perfect 6-0 record in these situations is going to be tested. They will likely be without DT and have experienced struggles all this season. But, Brittney Griner does not seemed worried about overcoming the obstacles.

“I think we’ll be fine in Chicago,” Griner told AZcentral.com. “Our track record is pretty good in single-elimination games. It’s bittersweet. Sweet because we always win them, but bitter because damn we’re in that same situation again. We’ve got to break it one of these years.”

Playing Through Griner in the Post Should Be the Foundation

Chicago is a great matchup for Brittney Griner in the post. While the Mercury needs her to play like a superstar, some potential adjustments in the opposition’s defensive strategy could require help from teammates.

Griner averaged a truly impressive 25.3 points per game during her three performances against the Sky in the regular season. A key factor to that success is the Sky’s post defense. Chicago allowed the most points possession in the WNBA against post-ups.

There is not an individual on the Sky that can slow Griner down on her own. The Sky will likely need to use double-teams on her. If the Sky double, the Mercury’s perimeter players will need to be effective as off-ball offensive threats.

A problem for Phoenix could be their ineffective three-point shooting team this season. They shot just 32.5% 3P (11th) overall and 30.1% 3P (12th) on the road. If shots aren’t falling, the Sky can focus most of their attention on Griner. The Mercury need to hit threes to allow Griner some space in the post.

It is also important that the perimeter players that are spacing the floor on the weak-side are ready to make cuts to the basket. This could be a simple way to get a player like DeWanna Bonner going by allowing her to score an easy basket or two as a play finisher.

It would be advantageous for the Mercury’s perimeter players to be aggressive in their pursuit of drives from pass-outs by Griner. This would especially be the case if they were to be unable to execute at a sufficient clip from deep.

The layers that can stem from Griner’s post-ups will need to be the foundation for the Mercury’s half-court offense. There needs to be execution from both Griner directly as a scorer and passer coupled with perimeter players taking advantage of open opportunities.

Bonner & Mitchell Must Shoulder a High-Volume Scoring Load

The Mercury can’t rely on Griner having a scoring explosion to be enough to defeat the Sky. They will need effective playmaking execution from their perimeter players. That has not been a strength of theirs lately.

The scoring hierarchy of the Mercury around Griner has been clear with DeWanna Bonner (17.2 PPG) and Leilani Mitchell (12.8 PPG) making up the secondary and third options. There is a massive gap between the team’s fourth-leading scorer as nobody else averaged even 7 points per game.

A real concern for the Mercury is that they will likely need a high level of scoring from Bonner and Mitchell but both players have struggled lately. Coming away with a win will be a daunting task to accomplish if that continues.

Bonner has averaged only 9.2 points (28.3% FG, 18.8% 3P) since scoring 18 points against the Sky on Aug. 25. For a player that ranked 5th in the league in points per game, a greater scoring volume is a necessity if the Mercury wish to have a chance.

Mitchell has averaged only 7.4 points (32.4% FG, 28.6% 3P, 70% FT) since scoring 29 points against the New York Liberty on Aug. 27. She may not be an All-Star but her scoring is a vital supplement to their dynamic duo with Taurasi sidelined.

The Mercury needs to take advantage of pick-and-roll ball-handling plays. They trailed only the Washington Mystics in points per possession on these sequences while the Sky ranked 11th in points per possession allowed. Mitchell and Bonner can exploit this weakness.

With the Sky’s tendency to use drop coverages, it will be important that Bonner and Mitchell can consistently knock down pull-up jump shots. There will often be no shortage of space in mid-range to exploit while the perimeter is also an option.

Winning Most of the Four Factors is Vital

It is crucial that the Mercury make it a conscious effort for their players to value the possession battle. They don’t have great matchups to slow down some of the Sky’s top offensive threats and vice versa.

The Mercury has struggled significantly with rebounding throughout the season. Both teams were at the bottom of the league in offensive rebounding percentage but Phoenix still trailed the Sky by 4.5% despite that.

There was a whole 13.8% positive differential for the Sky in offensive rebounding percentage during head-to-head matchups with the Mercury. They also held an average advantage of 4.3 in 2nd chance scoring in those particular performances as well.

Neither team is effective in the turnover portion of the possession battle considering how both teams failed to achieve a positive scoring differential off turnovers. For whatever it’s worth, the Sky outscored the Mercury in points off turnovers by an average of 1.6 points in the regular season.

The Sky held an average advantage of 5.9 points when looking at points off turnovers and 2nd chance scoring. The Mercury will need to change that because they would have to win by outperforming the opposition with scoring efficiency. That would be difficult in a single-elimination game.

The Mercury is the least scoring fast-break team in the WNBA with an average of 5.8 points. That’s why it seems advantageous for them to try to slow the game down. As a result, that would force a methodical half-court game that requires a an edge in scoring efficiency over the opponent.

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About Author

Grant Afseth is an Indiana Pacers columnist for the Kokomo Tribune and a Phoenix Mercury writer for WNBAInsidr.

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