First Round Team Preview: Phoenix Mercury

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On August 22nd, it was reported that Brittney Griner was leaving the Wubble. On August 23rd, the Phoenix Mercury edged the Washington Mystics, 88-87. That was the same day Jacob Blake was shot by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The league suspended play for two days thanks to action spurred by the WNBA Players Association before returning on Friday, August 28th. The Mercury faced the Mystics for the second time in six days that evening. Bria Hartley suffered a torn ACL in the game’s first quarter.

Phoenix pulled away in the second half against Washington, winning, 94-72. Then the Mercury peeled off another four straight victories including wins over Las Vegas and Minnesota. They flirted with the four seed and a first round bye before falling back to fifth in the regular season’s final week. Where many thought the absence of Griner and Hartley would sink Phoenix’s season, the Mercury instead sunk their teeth into the schedule’s homestretch and played their best basketball of the season. Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi went scorched earth on opponents. Perhaps Griner’s departure, through absolutely no fault of her own play, helped free Phoenix to showcase a style more suited to the strengths of its backcourt. Who’s to say?

Now the Mercury have the Mystics back on their mind as they prepare for a single-elimination first round matchup tonight at 9 PM. Here are four questions that will determine whether or not Phoenix advances to the second round: 

  • Who will win the Myisha Hines-Allen – Brianna Turner matchup?

It’s fun when a team’s best defender matches up with the opponent’s best scorer. Such is the case here. Hines-Allen shot 9-for-28 from the field in Washington’s two games against Phoenix this season. She was effective in other areas, but Turner essentially canceled her out as a scoring threat. This became especially apparent in Washington’s pick-and-roll actions. 

 

Here, Turner leaves Hines-Allen at the elbow to show on a Leilani Mitchell drive. Unwilling to try her luck against one of the league’s only two players to average 2 blocks per game (A’ja Wilson was the other), Mitchell dishes to her screener: Hines-Allen. Turner recovers brilliantly, then sticks with Hines-Allen as she fakes a spin-move and turns back around into a fadeaway jumper. 

Hines-Allen is devastating when teams allow her to gain steam as she rolls to the rim. She becomes nearly impossible to stop. Her ability to dot a jumper in the defender’s eye poses a serious conflict for opposing defenses. Turner has such a great feel for knowing exactly when to sag and exactly when to press that she erases many of the problems Hines-Allen presents. Her length disrupts Hines-Allen’s confidence as a shooter, and her lateral quickness forces Hines-Allen into tough, contested leaners rather than easy layups. 

Turner is so good on defense she’ll take away two different looks on the same possession. Above, Turner notices Kiara Leslie gain a step on Taurasi entering the lane, so she lunges into Leslie’s path and forces a kick-out to Hines-Allen. We know how adept Turner is at helping, recovering, and closing out. She does that here and again stays step-for-step with Hines-Allen, eventually denying the shot attempt. 

Perhaps Mystics head coach Mike Thibault will have something up his sleeve to create easier chances for Hines-Allen with the ball in her hands. But if Washington can’t find a way to pry Turner from Hines-Allen’s hip, Phoenix has to feel good about its chances. 

  • How successful will Phoenix be in seeking out high percentage looks for Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi?

The Mercury love to do things like this. Take a glance. 

The Mystics often switch screening actions. Phoenix leveraged this in the regular season by having Taurasi wander into the area occupied by Diggins-Smith and letting Diggins-Smith set a nonchalant pick on Taurasi’s defender. Once Taurasi sees that Mitchell has switched onto her, she doesn’t even feign interest in a three-pointer, instead simply posting the smaller Mitchell up and shooting over her. 

Phoenix understands the gravity Diggins-Smith and Taurasi wield as shooting threats. It also understands how little airspace the dynamic duo needs to get off good looks. Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello put Leslie in an impossible situation in the clip above, as if being a rookie and attempting to track Taurasi wasn’t hard enough. Phoenix will send you in one direction, get you off-balance, then hit you with a second screen as the ball-handler – Taurasi or Diggins-Smith – jolts back in the opposite direction. This is nearly impossible to defend. 

The above action started in a HORNS set, which Phoenix goes to often (as do most teams). What sets the Mercury apart is the plethora of different actions they run out of HORNS. They have so many different ways of setting up open shooters that it’s extremely difficult for their opponents to guess what’s coming. 

Then there’s the kicker: Phoenix scores a greater percentage of its three-pointers off unassisted shots than anyone else in the league by a country mile. In the playoffs, this is huge. Leslie saw a bunch of time on Taurasi in their regular season meetings. Ariel Atkins, likely Washington’s best perimeter defender, saw time, too. Mitchell guards Diggins-Smith. But considering how often Washington switches and how complex Phoenix’s screening actions are, the matchups will become bungled with regularity. What will matter, then, as time wanes and the stakes force nerves to contract, is who can create their own offense in a pinch. The answer? Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi. 

  • Can Phoenix stop Washington from scoring second-chance points?

Making this one of my four questions almost feels like cheating. Clichéd between-quarter coach-speak often sounds something like this: “We just have to limit our turnovers and limit their second-chance opportunities.”

Here’s the thing though – the way these teams match up places rebounding at the forefront. It will be a huge determinant in who advances to Thursday night’s second round. Phoenix has the advantage in many different areas against Washington, but one factor where the Mystics decisively outplay the Mercury is on the glass. Neither team grabs a ton of offensive boards. However, Washington ranks second in the WNBA in defensive rebounding percentage. Phoenix is last, allowing more second-chance points than any other team. 

With the aforementioned stat in mind, consider now how quickly each of these teams like to get down the floor. The Mercury rank third in the league in Pace. The Mystics are last – the slowest team in the league. 

When Phoenix is humming, it grabs enough defensive boards to get out in transition and outsprint its competition. This allows the Mercury to seek out mismatches without having to work for them, as discussed earlier. Taurasi is an outstanding outlet passer. Diggins-Smith is incredibly dynamic with the ball in her hands and a defender on her hip, mid-stride. 

If Phoenix isn’t able to control the defensive glass, it could be incredibly deflating for those rocking purple and orange. One way Hines-Allen may get involved without beating Turner one-on-one is to poach a few extra possessions for herself and toss in a few easy putbacks. 

We haven’t discussed Emma Meesseman at all yet, partly because she had a subpar season by her lofty standards as Hines-Allen soared. Meesseman didn’t play the first time Washington faced Phoenix and she was quite ineffective in their second meeting, shooting 1-for-10 from the field. If the Mystics can steal extra possessions, however, it may allow Meesseman to attack a scrambled defense, either through her canny passing abilities or with her shot. The last thing Phoenix needs is to allow Washington’s frontcourt comfortability and rhythm. That would spell trouble. 

  • What member of the Mercury bench will step up and make a difference? 

My hunch? Alanna Smith. It worries me slightly that Smith missed the final three games of the regular season nursing an ankle injury. But she’s no longer on the injury report and will be active tonight. Her presence could shift the needle in Phoenix’s favor. 

Smith may not “wow” folks in any one area but she opens up a lot for the Mercury when playing the 5. Though her 23 percent mark from deep leaves much to be desired, the fact that she even shoots threes at all stretches the defense and opens up driving lanes for others. She adds value on the offensive glass, an area in which Phoenix struggles. 

Here’s where Smith truly shines. She starts this possession defending Tianna Hawkins. When Hawkins runs a pick-and-roll with Sug Sutton, Smith switches, maintaining that perfect balance of lagging back far enough to take away Sutton’s drive while staying connected enough to take away Sutton’s shot. So Sutton tosses the rock to Leslie and again, Smith executes an easy switch. Next, it’s Alaina Coates screening for Washington. Smith switches onto her, only Coates immediately re-screens for Leslie because the initial screen didn’t create anything tasty. Smith executes her fourth seamless switch of the possession and closes out on Leslie so smoothly, she either forces an airball or gets a tiny little piece of the rock. Flawless. 

Kia Vaughn will play a big role, but I’ll be intrigued to see how much run (if any) Smith, Turner, Taurasi, Diggins-Smith, and one of Shatori Walker-Kimbrough / Sophie Cunningham get together. That’s a pretty switchy five. Who knows? Diggins-Smith, Taurasi, and Turner would figure to be the catalysts should Phoenix advance. But we may see some unlikely heroes forge their own compelling paths along the way.

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