PHOENIX — The Mercury are walking the self-awareness walk at a level never before witnessed in the WNBA.
But swagger of this caliber requires talking the talk as part of a defensive commitment that helped generate the best record in league history.
"The communication plays a part in it," first-year Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said after Wednesday’s practice at U.S. Airways Center in preparation for Friday’s Game 1 of the Western Conference finals series against Maya Moore and the defending champion Minnesota Lynx. "Them discussing with each other on the court the stuff they can do better. Not just me spoon-feeding them.
"They’re an intelligent team and they, obviously, can coach themselves at different times."
With Brondello as the architect, the Mercury performed enough extended fits of defense to become the league’s best in point-refusing frequency.
Grab on to that one for a moment. That’s right . . . a professional basketball team in this town was the best in an entire league at playing defense.
OK, back to Brondello.
"Our strength is our team defense," she said, "their understanding, their trust and their ability to, collectively, guard the ball."
We’re not going to stop her from scoring, but it’s about making every shot a hard, contested one.
Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello, on Minnesota's Maya Moore
Suiting up Brittney Griner — the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year and top shot-blocker in league history — certainly is a fine place to launch a few upgraded defensive concepts. But without the blessing of superb individual defenders all over the place, items such as awareness, communication and scheme can be more important.
Starting Friday at USAC, they might have to be.
With league MVP Maya Moore and the Lynx coming to town, the Mercury will be engaged in one of the most anticipated series in league history. Having used stellar defense to win three of four regular-season dates with the Lynx this summer, Phoenix seems ready.
"The bigger the game, the better," said Brondello, who readily admits to loving every bit of these challenges. "The Lynx are a great team. They’re well-coached. It’s more like a chess piece and whoever executes best, I think, will win the games."
Defensive execution begins with making life as uncomfortable as possible for the gifted and versatile Moore, who led the WNBA in scoring (23.9 points per game).
During Wednesday’s workout, Phoenix defenders went through a detailed refresher course on how the Lynx attempt to free Moore and her talented cronies for open shots.
In the four 2014 collisions with the Mercury, Moore provided Minnesota with 100 points (14, 36, 20 and 30, in that order) and made 46 percent of her attempts from the field. But she only managed a combined 13 free-throw attempts (she made ’em all), including none in an 80-72 Mercury triumph on June 15.
Look for Moore to be ultra-aggressive when the Lynx show up here.
But with all-star Lindsay Whalen (the playmaker) and Seimone Augustus (the shot-maker) also lurking on the perimeter, loading up the defense on Moore like Brondello did against Los Angeles superstar Candace Parker in Game 2 of the conference semifinals is a bit more risky. In that close-out game, the Mercury doubled Parker as soon as an entry pass was in the air. With not-exactly-deadeye shooters around Parker, the Sparks were unable to take advantage of the Mercury in defensive rotation.
But despite having keen awareness of Moore’s whereabouts, keeping her in relative check is a chore.
"She just moves without the ball so well, and that’s what makes her hard to guard," Brondello said. "She’s a key matchup for us . . . we can’t let her get open looks and get comfortable creating for other people.
"We have to be locked in. I think we will be, but she’s a great player. We’re not going to stop her from scoring, but it’s about making every shot a hard, contested one."
DeWanna Bonner, at 6-foot-4, has the length and quickness to be a defensive pest and will have most of the individual responsibility of guarding the 6-foot Moore. But teammate Penny Taylor will have her moments vs. Moore, as will any Mercury defender matched against the former UConn great in transition or an aggressive switch.
"We’re locked in with how we want to defend certain things," Brondello said.
Despite her confidence in the Mercury players to provide their own marching orders at times, the strength of the Phoenix defense comes from the diligence of its coach.
"As I’ve said, she’s the most prepared coach I’ve ever played for," said Diana Taurasi, who’s been around some great bench thinkers.
The detail-oriented approach to each game, each moment was reflected in a defensive-efficiency rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 97.0 that was a whopping six points stingier than the Mercury posted last season. Phoenix also led the league in field-goal percentage defense, a number that, paired with the WNBA’s most-efficient offense, resulted in a 29-5 record.
"We’ve been going into every game with a scheme . . . a clear-cut scheme of what we want to do," Taurasi said. "Do we do it every time? Probably not, but we do it enough times to where we’ve made it difficult for opponents to score, and that’s how you get to the end — by making other teams work really hard for their baskets."
A short series against the Lynx and Moore represents the ultimate challenge for this concept.
"Maya’s a great player," Taurasi said. "She’s a scorer at heart and she’s going to get her buckets; we just gotta make sure that at the end of the game, we’ve got more points as a team.