After record-setting regular season, Mercury’s mission starts anew
PHOENIX — A healthy roster can get you in the hunt for consistency.
Consistency — especially when that roster is extremely talented and focused — can help get you the WNBA’s top efficiency ratings at both ends of the floor.
Top efficiency ratings can get you a league-record 29 victories in a single season.
And that can get you noticed.
It also gets you a bull’s-eye beneath the name on your jersey.
Welcome to the 2014 playoffs, Phoenix Mercury. All you have to do now is attempt to equal — or even exceed — what you’ve accomplished during the regular season. It begins Friday at US Airways Center with the first game in a best-of-three series against the Los Angeles Sparks.
"That’s the plan," first-year Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said Wednesday after blowing out the candles on her birthday cake and directing her team through a defense-oriented, two-hour practice at U.S. Airways Center. "When you look at our team, we’re a veteran team, very experienced and I think that’s certainly to our advantage."
Being ultra-competitive also puts a large check in the plus column.
"Their will to win is off the chart," said Brondello, who turned 46.
En route to owning the aforementioned all-time WNBA victory total, Phoenix were 5-0 against the Sparks, outscoring the sensational Candace Parker and her cronies by a combined 58 points.
But winning two more games against the Sparks probably seems more certain to almost everyone else than the Mercury will allow themselves to believe.
"Look, L.A. and Phoenix have a great rivalry over the years," Brondello said. "L.A. hasn’t always been consistent, but it’s a team with good players, very talented players."
The roster roll call agrees, but aside from suiting up one of the world’s greatest players in Parker, the Sparks did nothing particularly spectacular this season.
They’re sixth among the league’s dozen teams in offensive efficiency and fifth in defense. The most seemingly definitive L.A. statistic is its reluctance to squeeze off 3-pointers. The Sparks are the most hesitant 3-point shooting team in the league, and their success rate (31.6 percent) ranks ninth.
The Sparks aren’t exactly attacking the basket with abandon, either, ranking just 10th in free-throw attempts.
Despite having all-stars in Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, the L.A. front line has struggled during this season’s showdowns with its rival from Phoenix.
The Mercury’s DeWanna Bonner (13.6 points per game over those five dates), Candice Dupree (13.8) and Britney Griner (15.8) didn’t post gaudy scoring averages against the Sparks, but all three were ruthlessly efficient. Bonner shot 55 percent against L.A., while Dupree (67 percent) and even Griner (62 percent) exceeded their usual accuracy while controlling the inside.
Diana Taurasi checked in as Phoenix’s top scorer against the Sparks, but her 18.8 average was accomplished while making just 43 of her shots from the floor.
Taurasi, who finished the season as the WNBA’s assist leader, believes having experienced success against the Sparks this season can’t hurt.
"It’s huge," she said. "Obviously, there’s no secrets when it gets to the playoffs. It’s just whichever team wants to execute best and is really dialed in and, hopefully, we can do that."
Despite having so much familiarity with the Sparks this season, Brondello spared no details Wednesday while her team rehearsed the techniques required to defend L.A.’s offensive sets.
"She’ prepared," Taurasi said of her coach. "She knows the tendencies of all the players, even the coaches."
But just knowing what the opposition plans to do isn’t enough.
"We have to make sure we don’t let everyone go off on the same night," Brondello said of the Sparks, "and just come ready to play. The best thing is we’ve played this team five times, but it’s more about what we want to do."
It’s also about having the confidence to play free and easy while wearing the yoke of expectation.