It comes down to this: Did Phoenix have time to put the pieces of the puzzle together despite the injuries and the coaching change?
If so, the Mercury have lots of weapons, and enough firepower to give anyone trouble. The timetable, though, was a little rushed, and if the team hasn’t completely gelled, it could be a rough postseason ride -- as was indicated in the 89-55 pounding the Mercury took by the Sparks to close the season on Sunday.
Los Angeles, on the other hand, has been a solid team all summer, and the only question for the Sparks has been consistency. They tend to relax on occasion and allow weaker teams to either challenge them more than they should, or win outright. Presumably, the focus will be laser-sharp, as the cliché goes, now that postseason is here, and Candace Parker will lead the way as L.A. kicks it into high gear.
And speaking of high gear, look for this series to feature a lot more points than the Minnesota-Seattle slugfest, and to be the most entertaining of the four first-round matchups.
It’s strange to put Diana Taurasi in this spot, but despite Briana Gilbreath’s impressive assist/turnover ratio, Taurasi has had to initiate the offense as well as score 20 points a game to get Phoenix this far. And even if Penny Taylor returns at full strength, there’s really no other option for the Mercury at the top of the offense. On the other side, Lindsay Harding is and always has been a point guard, and her only weakness is three-point shooting. There have been rumblings that Harding isn’t as consistently aggressive as she needs to be, which would be a fatal flaw in this series. Phoenix really doesn’t have anyone who can stay in front of Harding, and if she gets into the paint with the ball in her hands, lots of options open up for the Sparks. Still, Taurasi is one of the best ever. Slight edge to Phoenix.
Aside from the fact that Briana Gilbreath doesn’t shoot that often, or that well, she’s done just fine as the Mercury shooting guard. There are plenty of shooters around her, so Gilbreath’s job is to defend and not make mistakes, and she’s more than OK at that. And speaking of defending, if she’s assigned to Kristi Toliver, that could be one of the most important tasks on the team, as Toliver is pretty much the only perimeter threat for Los Angeles. Carol Ross basically abandoned the three-pointer as a part of her offensive strategy, choosing to focus on Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and when she was going well, Jantel Lavender. But if Toliver heats up from the perimeter, that just opens more space in the paint – and we all know that Toliver can go from warm to blazing in a heartbeat. Edge Los Angeles.
Alana Beard isn’t what she once was, but at 31, she’s still pretty good. She’s shot well, which helps, and has defended well, and Ross can use her in a variety of ways – guarding Taurasi, say, or picking up Penny Taylor when she comes in, or shifting her to DeWanna Bonner if Harding is on Taurasi for a few possessions. And speaking of Bonner, she gets a lot of criticism for her many three-pointers, but she’s far from horrible from distance, and if Phoenix is going to upset L.A., then Bonner needs to score. Of course, she needs to rebound and defend as well, but she’s in her prime and could make a major statement in this postseason. Youth prevails. Slight edge to Phoenix.
Candice Dupree is really good. Maybe she’s not a demon defender, but she’s a great shooter, deadly in the pick-and-roll, and decent as a rebounder and ballhandler. But Dupree simply does not match up well with Nneka Ogwumike, who is taller, younger and more athletic. Yes, Dupree has more skill, but that advantage isn’t enough to make up for Ogwumike’s power, speed and leaping ability. But Ogwumike can get into foul trouble, so if Dupree can work that weakness, maybe Ogwumike will spend enough time on the bench that her advantages won’t make that much of a difference. That’s possible, but not likely. Edge to Los Angeles.
Yes, we all know Candace Parker isn’t really a center, but Brittney Griner can’t take advantage of her at either end of the floor at this point in her career. Parker is most vulnerable to power post play, and that’s not Griner, and at the other end, Parker should be able to get enough shots to get her points. Griner will be great, and is pretty good right now, but Parker has a very good chance to be this year’s MVP, and she’s in the prime of a wonderful career. Advantage Los Angeles.
The X factor, of course, is Penny Taylor, who is one of the best in the world when healthy. She hasn’t been healthy all year, but she’s been practicing and playing for a couple weeks now, so it’s possible she’ll be at 90 percent or better. If so, she’s going to be a difference-maker; if not, the best Phoenix has coming off the bench is rookie Jazmine James, who can’t shoot, or Charde Houston, who can’t really do anything. L.A. has Jantel Lavender, who had one brilliant stretch this summer, and a couple of tall wings who can shoot (Marissa Coleman and Jenna O’Hea). There’s a dropoff for both teams, but the Mercury’s is much greater. Advantage Los Angeles.
Russ Pennell remains an unknown, though he’s done reasonably well so far. Carol Ross is a veteran who’s been there and done that, and given her knowledge of the league and postseason reality, she should have more control over the situation than the newcomer. Edge Los Angeles.
This is the Phoenix mindset: We haven’t been at full strength all year, we’ve got a new coach we’re starting to get comfortable with, and now we’re ready to explode. We’re going to have Penny F. Taylor (opposing fans have given her a middle name we can’t print, but it’s in honor of her ability to break hearts in the clutch) and we’re going to prove to everyone just how good we are.
The L.A. mindset: We were better during the regular season, and we’re still better. If we do what we do, there’s nothing you can do about it. And you know, the Sparks are right. Los Angeles sweeps.
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