Mercury too much in Dream matchup

Diana Taurasi could use her size down low against Atlanta if the teams meet again in the WNBA Finals.

Stacy Bengs/AP

PHOENIX — To appease the karmic sensitivities of the basketball gods, let’s begin by paying tribute to the Minnesota Lynx.

Everyone understands that the Western Conference road to the WNBA Finals goes through the defending champs.

But should the seriously mighty Mercury survive such a journey in a couple of months, we’ll recall that a little notice-serving occurred Tuesday night at U.S. Airways Center. That’s where the team with the league’s best record outlasted the Atlanta Dream, 75-68, in a respectfully considered preview of the 2014 WNBA championship series.

"We scraped it out," first-year Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said after the Mercury established a franchise record for victories in a season (24, against only four losses) and won their 13th consecutive home game, another record.

The scraping included a 28-16 fourth-quarter blitz — coaxed into being through a nine-point surge from Diana Taurasi — which overcame a 22-6 crush by the Dream in the third.

"We had to dig deep in the fourth," Brondello said before saluting the defending Eastern Conference champs. "This is a good team. They put a lot of pressure on you."

Despite the absence of coach Michael Cooper (recovering from surgery for tongue cancer), Atlanta continued to scrap like its coach did during his days as an elite defender with the "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers.

All-Star Gallery

That reference nudges us toward a variable known to Native Americans as "Sho-time," a tag often attached to talented Dream rookie guard Shoni Schimmel.

Despite doing her work off the Atlanta bench this season, the former Louisville star and subject of the documentary "Off The Rez" became an All-Star starter for the Eastern Conference based on the coast-to-coast dedication of her fans. She knocked in 29 points in that Shoni showcase.

Schimmel, who is averaging 6.7 points and converting just 34.5 percent of her field-goal attempts this season, needed 15 shots to score 13 points in her first game against the Mercury. But thanks to overwhelming encouragement from her fans, those 13 points sounded like 30.

We’ll have more on Shoni in a jiffy.

Anyway, if Minnesota can be repelled, this Phoenix-Atlanta thing really could happen. With that on the table, let’s look at how the season-long tendencies of each team manifested themselves Tuesday:

Mercury defense vs. Dream offense: Atlanta checked in with the fifth-best offense — in terms of efficiency — in the league. With easy baskets converted after strong defense, this enables the Dream to rank third in points per game.

These solid numbers have been accomplished through tempo (the Dream lead the league in possessions per minute) and paint-area scoring.

Against Phoenix, which is ranked second in the league for defensive efficiency, Atlanta shot an icy 34.2 percent, but did manage 34 paint points.

It also should be noted that Atlanta is the WNBA’s worst in 3-point and free-throw percentage and turnovers.

On Tuesday, the Dream was 3 of 18 from 3, 10 of 15 at the free-throw line and committed a relatively clean 11 turnovers.

Atlanta’s 6-for-20 effort in the final quarter was invited to happen by the efforts of a match-up zone from Phoenix. With the Dream’s high ball screen nullified by a switch built in to this particular defensive alignment, Schimmel had difficulty using her tricky dribble moves to reach the paint.

Mercury offense vs. Dream defense: This was a matchup of the WNBA’s most-efficient point producers and its stingiest defense — in terms of efficiency.

Phoenix leads the league in field-goal percentage and fewest turnovers while making 3-pointers at the second-highest accuracy rate in the WNBA.

Against the Dream, the Mercury’s mix of down screens, turnouts and on-the-move post-ups for center Brittney Griner generated 20 assists and 47 percent shooting.

But the Dream defenders, who fight through screens and throw in a trap now and then vs. the pick and roll, are legit.

"This is a real good team because of their defensive prowess and how the push the ball," said Brondello, whose team was forced into 16 turnovers.

Erika DeSouza vs. Griner: In the 6-foot-5 DeSouza, Atlanta has a veteran post presence capable of battling Griner without much double-team assistance. Unfortunately, DeSouza was ill and missed Tuesday’s game, leaving the Griner chores to third-year pro Aneika Henry.

Henry’s no slouch, either.

Assisted by timely aggressive help against Griner, Henry and the Dream required Brittney to need 11 shots to give Phoenix 14 points (she also had nine rebounds and three blocks). On two occasions, Henry swatted post-entry passes into Mercury turnovers when Griner’s nonchalant arm bar failed to hold off her defender and the pass went wide of Brittney’s target hand.

Angel McCoughtry vs. Penny Taylor: Frequently shadowed by Taylor, the Dream scoring machine scored 19 points but needed 16 shots to get there.

Due to a couple of interesting offensive-foul calls in the first period, McCoughtry was limited to 26-plus minutes.

Taylor made half of her eight shots en route to 14 points, and also gave Phoenix eight assists.

Over the course of a championship series, this would be a great battle between two long-time standouts.

Diana Taurasi vs. the Dream guards: This might seem like an opportunity for the 6-foot Taurasi to use her considerable moxie and skill in post-up opportunities against her altitude-challenged Atlanta counterparts.

But if Taurasi is working the block, Griner isn’t. So Phoenix didn’t go out of its way to force the ball to its superstar guard down low … well, not until "D" took over in the fourth. Although she twice turned and posted up after basket cuts, Taurasi spent the first few minutes of the fourth using her strength to go at 5-9 Schimmel off the dribble.

That matchup didn’t last long.

"She went into the zone," Griner, speaking in a basketball-variety spiritual sense, said of Taurasi. "And when she goes into that zone, there’s no stopping her. You can try whatever you want, but I mean ya’ll see it every time … you can’t."

X-Factor vs. S-Factor: The former references the formidable Phoenix crowd. The latter is what we’re calling Schimmel’s backers.

With a strong Native-American presence in Arizona, a Mercury home game does not offer the fan imbalance you’d see against another team.

"It felt great," Schimmel said, "to be on the road, but at the same time feel like a home game. It was great to have all of the fans come out all over again and show us such great support."

We only can imagine how loud an X-Factor vs. S-Factor would be in the championship series.

But if taking on the Dream (or any Eastern survivor) is to become a reality, the Mercury — or some other fortunate Western Conference team — probably will have to deal with the Lynx.

Follow Randy Hill on Twitter