Coaches, players size up the Western Conference Final

September 26, 2013 - 5:05am
Phoenix interim coach Russ Pennell has guided the Mercury to the Western Conference Finals (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

Phoenix interim coach Russ Pennell has guided the Mercury to the Western Conference Finals (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

Editor's Note: Russ Pennell, the new coach of the Phoenix Mercury, and Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore, recently named to the All-WNBA First Team,  took time out from practice Wednesday for a media teleconference to share their thoughts on their upcoming Western Conference Finals series, which tips off today in Minneapolis's Target Center at 9 p.m. EDT, 8 p.m. local, airing on ESPN2. (Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve and the Mercury's Brittney Griner were unable to participate.) ESPN analysts Carolyn Peck and LaChina Robinson also weighed in. Here are some highlights from what they had to say. And click here for Full Court's detailed preview of the Lynx-Mercury Western Conference Final.

Q: Can you talk about how [the Phoenix Mercury] now are healthier, playing better defense? It seems that they're a different team. Can you talk about the Mercury matching up now against Minnesota?

CAROLYN PECK: It's really interesting. Rebecca Lobo tweeted today that she was watching the early matchups between those two teams and Phoenix looks like a totally different team. Back in the regular season, I think first when Corey Gaines was coaching Phoenix, they were trying to figure out how to use Brittney Griner. Then you make the switch back to trying to play a normal style from what Phoenix basketball tends to be known as. Then you think you're going to have Penny Taylor back, then you don't have her, then do you. But in the process, other players have stepped up. DeWanna Bonner has really settled into the starting role and Jasmine James doesn't play like a rookie. -- she's grown up fast, and having her available to play the point position  frees up Diana Taurasi to find her spots and pick her poison of how she's going to hurt you.

Phoenix is playing some of its best basketball right now. Griner, during the game Monday, I guess her knee brace broke. She went back in, played without it, hit the game-winning shot, so that's got to give the rookie a lot of confidence.

But Minnesota knows how to win championships. Lindsay Whalen had a phenomenal year and should've been a candidate for MVP to go along with the play of Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus. The key will be rebounding and that is something Minnesota does really well with Brunson and McCarville, and having Devereaux Peters come in.

LaCHINA ROBINSON: You said it, defense is the biggest thing. Phoenix held L.A. on (its) homecourt under 40 percent shooting. And I think that is the biggest chance when you're facing the Lynx is how to slow their offense. In the (regular-season) series, which at this point means nothing because those five games were so long ago, I believe Minnesota averaged 87 points a game and shot 44 percent from the field. This is a different Phoenix Mercury team. I think, unfortunately, we don't know how much Taylor will be able to play. But Briana Gilbreath I think sets the tone for them defensively. Really gets after it and brings some defensive intensity to that lineup.

Candice Dupree is hungry. You think about the big players for Phoenix, whether it's Diana [Taurasi] or Penny [Taylor] or DeWanna [Bonner], they've all got that championship ring, and that is something Candice is really hungry for. She's really led the way and obviously played well. So, a very different team.  

The number I think we'll have to keep an eye on is field-goal percentage defense for Phoenix. Can they continue this intensity against Minnesota? I think the fact that Phoenix is so long -- I believe they're the tallest starting lineup of the teams still playing -- and that length really makes it difficult to score on them. That's going to be a challenge for Minnesota.

Q: Can you talk about Brittney Griner's adjustments recently, especially in the playoffs? How much has she improved as the season has gone on?

LaCHINA ROBINSON: I think she's improved tremendously, but I think a lot of it has to do with her overall health. When you think about the mental focus it takes to hit a game-winning shot, you have to have everything right between your ears. And she's shown a lot of poise in that situation, so she's had some mental growth, but also just physically feeling better.

When you look at the matchups between Phoenix and Minnesota, for the most part, rosters have not been in their entirety. I know Brittney missed a game or two in there; she makes a big difference. Now she's getting to where she can focus on what's important. It's funny ... as [game three against L.A.] was going, on I was just saying to myself, "Wow, Brittney's really having a quiet night," then she hits the biggest shot of the game.

So I think more than anything she's learning from the example of Diana Taurasi that competitive, never-die, never-quit attitude.

Q:  [Could you] mention a player or two that you see on each of the teams that you consider X-factors. or are going to be surprises?

CAROLYN PECK:  For Minnesota, I believe that would be Monica Wright who can continue to be that impact player to come in off the bench and continue and sustain the scoring that Minnesota gets from their big three. I'd also have to say Rebekkah Brunson. She is an animal reboundingwise for the Minnesota Lynx. 

Then for Phoenix, I think that it's going to be a combination of the bench and what they're going to get. When you don't have Penny Taylor available, will it be a Lynetta Kizer, will it be a Jasmine James? 

LaCHINA ROBINSON: For Phoenix, I think it's going to be Charde Houston. She's had a rather quiet series against L.A. and Monica Wright comes off the bench and gives Minnesota a lot. I see Charde Houston as that experienced person who has been in these situations. When you try to match Minnesota's scoring, you're looking at a player like Charde, depending on how much Penny Taylor can go, to provide some extra points.

For Minnesota, I would have to say Janel McCarville. She is looking at pairing with Rebekkah Brunson and having to go against Candice Dupree and Brittney Griner. Then when they go to the bench, they also have Lynetta Kizer, Krystal Thomas, so I think McCarville defensively will have to to play well. They have Dev Peters, but in that starting lineup, I think she is going to have her work cut out for her in the post the way Dupree is playing and with the new confidence Brittney Griner may have coming off of the last series.

Q: This question is for Carolyn. Putting yourself in the coaching seat, having taken over a team midseason [as Mercury coach Russ Pennell has done], what would you say is the biggest challenge of that and the way the WNBA season played out?

CAROLYN PECK:  I think the biggest challenge is you've got to win over your stars and your leaders on your team to believe in what you're bringing in is going to help them to be successful. I think they've done a terrific job of that. And number one, emphasizing the defense -- you might not necessarily get a player to score more points because the players have to develop confidence, but what you can get a player to do is improve their defensive intensity because a lot of times that's heart and motivation.

And I think [Russ Pennell] has done a terrific job of selling the importance of playing defense, and when the team started experiencing success from that defensive intensity, then that carried over for the turnaround of their season.

Q: To Coach Pennell, with respect to your series against Minnesota, can you name the three key elements that will prove decisive in this series?

RUSS PENNELL:  Minnesota gives you a lot of problems because they're so multi-dimensional. They can hurt you inside, outside ... they compete well, run well. They're a complete team.  Prior to me being here, I had not seen Minnesota personally. I'd seen them on film, of course. But teams didn't have real good luck with Minnesota this year.  We realize we're going to have to play pretty well in order to do well in this series. I think it starts with us on the defensive end ... and certainly with us rebounding. We just haven't rebounded the ball well in the last week or so. If we don't defend and rebound this series, it's going to be a tough go for us.

Q:  Going to into this season, [the Mercury] were favorites to not only go to the WNBA Finals but to win the championship. Along the way there were setbacks. Can you talk about how you've been able to keep your team motivated and make it to the Conference Finals?

RUSS PENNELL: I think for us, obviously, with the coaching change, just about 14, 15 games ago, it was maybe a fresh start. You know, Corey Gaines was a wonderful coach and part of two championships in Phoenix. And I think sometimes I've been in these situations myself where sometimes maybe the voice gets old. I don't know. Corey and I talked a little bit right after I took the job, and I think that hopefully what we've done is just come in and bought maybe a little fresh air and tried to defend a little bit more. I think that's kind of where I started from : the past is the past, let's move on with the future. Our ladies did a great job of embracing that and they have taken it and ran with it so far.

Q: Can you talk about Brittney [Griner's] adjustments this season and why she's played better down the stretch, and what that game-winning shot [in game three against the L.A. Sparks] has done for her confidence?

RUSS PENNELL:  Someone like Brittney Griner, the pressure of the world is on their shoulders, but I don't think she minds that. But we forget that she's just fresh out of college and this is her first go-round of playing basically year-round. I know the women of the WNBA, they play year-round. They're going to be leaving in the next two weeks to head over to Europe to play a whole other season. I think just playing at Baylor, that whole season and coming to Phoenix, you're on your own for the first time. You're quote-unquote the face of the league. They've got you before every media outlet possible. I think a lot of that took its toll on Brittney.

I know with me, I've told her to relax, have fun and play. I don't think she's as polished as she will be. She certainly needs a year in the weight room. She's not strong enough yet to play in this league on a consistent basis and hold her positioning. What I've really tried to do is take pressure off of her instead of putting more on her. I think she's maybe found a little bit of a niche.

I know hitting that shot the other night meant as much to her as anything to be one of our two options. We were trying to get the ball to Diana [Taurasi], and if we couldn't, we were going to Brittney. So hopefully that will give her some confidence as we move into this series with Minnesota.

Q:  As the No. 1 pick and one of the most hyped players ever to enter the league, is that demand reasonable and do you expect her to pretty soon, maybe next season, be able to take over and dominate the post every night the way you said she hasn't been able to this year?

RUSS PENNELL:  Well, I think first of all to say she's going to dominate the post would be disrespectful to the other centers in this league. The centers in the WNBA are very, very good. I think this is something that Brittney needs to grow into. Most of the time players will live up to the expectations you put on them, and I think she's learned a lot. Just talking with her, she understands what it takes to get better.

Her skill level is really, really good. Her skill level is better than her physical strength right now which is sometimes unusual. Sometimes your skill level comes a little bit later. You've kind of relied on just your physical presence, and certainly her size has been good, but she's got great touch around the goal and all that. But I think she has the total package to be that player. Whether that happens next year or not, I think, will be determined a lot by what she can do in between when she plays in China and plays in the WNBA next year. Can she get three, four good months in the weight room and add some strength to her frame?

Q:  Maya, can you talk about the expectations for you when you came in as a very hyped No. 1 pick, and how you would compare that to what Brittney Griner has faced?

MAYA MOORE: Coming out of college, both of us were very talked about and celebrated players because of the successful college careers we were blessed to have. I think we have similar experiences as far as coming onto teams that had a lot of injuries the year before. So coming in, we both were, I think, fortunate to have great leaders around us that we could learn from and carry a lot of the load that we wouldn't have to.

Every year that goes on, the college women's game is more popular, and that's created more popular players coming out of the college game. And I think that popularity carries over to the WNBA. I think our situations were awesome for the game. The expectations, like I said, we were both fortunate to have great leaders around us, and the expectations were very high, Brittney's probably higher than mine because it's a year more, a year more of popularity. She's a bigger player with great physical ability. So as far as the expectations, personally I can't speak for her. But I know I came in wanting my team to win a championship, and I know she does too, and working hard and figuring out a way to make sure I can help my team do that.

Q: Maya, in terms of how Phoenix has changed, with the coaching change, what do you think is different about them now?

MAYA MOORE: I think they're definitely playing really well right now. I think the biggest thing, you know, just watching them play, is I think they've improved their defense and are making it tougher for teams to score in the paint. Trying to force [opponents to] knock down jumpers, and that's a strategy that we'll go into the game trying to attack. They've been through a lot this season, whether it's injuries and starting off maybe not as strongly as they wanted to, coaching changes, and just the ups and downs of their season. I feel like they've built a pretty good bond, and that's probably (made them) tougher than anything. We're just playing against a tough team right now that really believes in each other and have overcome a lot. It's going to be a tall order.

Q: Can you talk about Monica Wright as well?  Just in terms of what you think her value is as a bench player?  How you would describe that as a teammate?

MAYA MOORE: Monica is extremely important to this team. She's definitely, I think, when it comes to being a teammate, she's one of the best ... she has such a great attitude and is extremely talented and embraced her role for this team and has done nothing but amplified our potential. Without her, we're definitely not as strong and as tough as we could be. She's so aggressive on the offensive end, can get to the hole and knock down an open shot. Really a scrappy, physical defender for us and gets in there and rebounds. She does a little bit of everything for us. She's so fast, an extremely athletic guard and poised this season compared to last season. She's just really been awesome for us. She gives us a huge lift. She always comes in with a positive attitude and has the ability to be a huge spark for us.

Q:  Maya, can you give us basically your scout on what you think you as a team need to do in order to win the series? We know Phoenix and Minnesota are loaded with options, making it difficult to double on any one player; it's sort of pick your poison. What do you see that as a team you have to do to win the series, and what do you see as your personal assignment?

MAYA MOORE:  Phoenix is definitely a dangerous team offensively, and defense is always a part of our mindset and our strategy going into every game we play. We have to bring our defense to give us a chance to win. We know that starts with Diana [Taurasi]. We've just got to make it as uncomfortable as possible for her in the entire game with the defensive pressure that we apply. The two-man game between her and [Candice] Dupree is extremely dangerous, and we have to be ready to just combat that with our versatility. They're a team that can get out in transition and score on the fast break. They're really big with [DeWanna] Bonner and Dupree and Brittney, so just making sure we get the rebound. On the offensive end, we have to attack. That's where we've been all year. That's not going to be any different, just really valuing the ball to get out in transition and taking care of the ball. They've been more aggressive toward the end of the season. Their defense, they're really long, and they've been clogging the paint pretty well. Just making sure we take care of the ball. If we're open, [if] they give us jump shots, just knock them down with confidence.

Then, personally, I'm just going to continue to be aggressive and do the same thing I've been doing all season. Starting on defense, just making sure that I'm being solid and disciplined on the defensive end with my matchups, getting offensive rebounds, attacking on the offensive end. My game plan doesn't change.

Q:  Maya, you've talked differently about what you've seen from Phoenix, because it's been quite a while since you've played them, but they also have a new coach since you've played them who seems that he's put more emphasis on defense. I wonder if you've seen a change specifically? Have you seen some differences in their defensive game?

MAYA MOORE:  I think the main thing is trying to protect the paint more. In the last series, they were going to force L.A. to beat them with jumpers. We have to be able to hit the open shot. They're really trying to keep their post players inside the post and protecting the paint. That is probably the main thing.  Just using our length even more. Being aggressive, trying to apply pressure on the players with the ball which are probably two of the biggest differences. I mean, you can't completely transform too much within the time they've been together, but I definitely noticed from the last year those two things.

Q:  [It] was an extremely difficult MVP vote this year. All three of you [the Indiana Fever's Tamika Catchings and the Atlanta Dream's Angel McCoughtry also participated in the call] could have been MVP of this league. And the player who ended up winning it [Candace Parker] isn't playing anymore. She's out of the postseason. Diana Taurasi was another strong candidate.  I know this is a team game, but individually how good is it for the league that basically we have so many different choices of players who could have been tabbed the Most Valuable Player in this league?

MAYA MOORE: This is a tough league. A window of opportunity in the playoffs is so small. One game can make the difference because the series is so small. The race being as tough as it was I think speaks to the depth of our league which is awesome.

And that's the beauty of championships versus individual awards. Championships, it's anybody's game, it's up in the air. That's why it's so compelling to watch the playoffs. I love the fact that it's not always a shoo-in for the team that's got the MVP that it's going to win the championship. I think that just speaks to the level of the WNBA and the talent that we have and the great quality of teams that we have and the fight of some of the teams and the big plays that people make to try to propel their team to a championship.

But also knowing the dedication, the work, the time that goes into performing well enough to be in the MVP race and win MVP is an awesome honor. I'm sure, obviously, Candace [Parker] wants the championship, but to win that award again speaks to how great of a talent and how dominant Candace is.

I think any player's goal is a championship. If you get the MVP, that's awesome, but the championship is definitely the most coveted thing at this point for all of us.