PHOENIX — The Mercury are marching into the WNBA playoffs with the same orders that propelled a 9-4 finish and put them in this upgraded situation.
“On the defensive end,” Coach Russ Pennell said when asked for the most important variable in knocking off the second-seeded Los Angeles Sparks during a best-of-three series that opens Thursday in L.A. “You just can’t let them (Sparks) do what they want to do.”
Led by superstar Candace Parker, the Sparks are second in the league in scoring and have used their collective firepower and solid defense to also rank second in point differential.
“You’ve got to disrupt their timing,” Pennell said, “you’ve got to get them out of their score zones and you’ve got to turn them into a one-on-one team.
“When they’re moving the basketball, they’re really good.”
In case you haven’t been paying attention to the Mercury since Pennell replaced Corey Gaines with 13 games remaining (and the team sitting on a disappointing 10-11 record), Phoenix actually seems capable of doing what their coach believes is required.
Well, first let’s set aside last weekend’s regular-season-ending rout administered by the Sparks in L.A. Although Pennell intended for his team to take its best shot in that one, a busy schedule and early thigh contusion for superstar Diana Taurasi shifted the game (an 89-55 loss) to mail-in status.
But including that drubbing, Phoenix has limited opponents to 38.1 percent shooting from the field (tops in the league over that stretch) in its last 13 games. With Pennell simply shifting the emphasis to that end of the floor — and his players buying in immediately — the Mercury now can be registered as a tough out.
“That’s kind of been the message from the beginning since I’ve been here,” Pennell said. “When we defend, we’re good. And when we don’t, we’re average.”
Committed to defense and led by the playoff pluck of Taurasi, the Mercury certainly has sufficient scoring punch to drop any WNBA foe. And — with Penny Taylor returning to a reasonable percentage of her prior fitness — they’re healthier. Phoenix’s Big 5 (Taurasi, Taylor, rookie Brittney Griner, DeWanna Bonner and Candace Dupree) has been on the floor together in only eight games (they’re 6-2 in those contests).
So, with Pennell identifying the Spark’s reliance on attacking the basket and having limited activity beyond the 3-point arc, the Mercury’s defensive preparation is aimed at shrinking the strong side of the floor.
Not so ironically, the presence of Griner has L.A. primed to do the same thing defensively. With that in mind, Phoenix is tweaking its circle-motion offense to help get Griner into the post and put potential weak-side helpers on the move in other directions. And when help does arrive after Griner catches a post feed, the Mercury has kick-outs to Taurasi and Bonner as counters from 3-point range.
“We’re just trying to refine some things and put in a couple wrinkles that everyone’s doing this time of year in the playoffs,” Pennell said. “We have the stuff we’ve done and put in a couple of counters to make the other team work a little bit.”
During a break in Tuesday’s practice, Taurasi gathered the other Mercury starters and pointed out that their own commitment to ball movement vs. one-on-one play is necessary to defeat the Sparks. After reminding her teammates that Phoenix doesn’t enjoy an overwhelming edge on most one-on-one situations, Taurasi said, “We have to use each other to create shots.”
It’s that type of leadership Pennell welcomes on the cusp of his first playoff series as a professional coach.
“You’ve got someone who’s been there, done that and lives for these moments,” he said of Taurasi. “I thought she practiced at a different level. She’s locked in. I hope that’s contagious with the rest of the team.”
Aside from the strategic preparations and anticipated adjustments, Pennell is looking forward to a different type of postseason than he experienced as a long-time college coach.
“It’s exciting,” he said, “because most of the postseasons I’ve been in it’s been one and done.”
But a WNBA best-of-three (Game 2, is Saturday night at U.S. Airways Center) can come close.
Now that they’re defending at a high level, however, the Mercury habr more than a puncher’s chance.