Mercury must regroup quickly for nemesis Lynx

BY foxsports • September 24, 2013

For the record, the Mercury did accept airplane assistance for Tuesday morning’s flight home to Phoenix.

We’re not really sure if that was necessary.

But any sky-high emotion left over from knocking off the Sparks in L.A. on Monday night might be grounded by the reality of their next opponent.

And here’s the root of this dilemma: “They’re dangerous, because they have so many good players.”

That’s how it works in pro hoops, right? By the way, the assessment of the mighty Minnesota Lynx was registered by Phoenix coach Russ Pennell, whose tactical powers will be required to help mitigate the performances of those good players.

With a roll call that includes Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus, the Lynx check in as the next obstacle confronting the resurrected Mercury. At 26-8, the Lynx have been the league’s most impressive team this season. Since the Mercury was unable to live up to advance billing, the road to the 2013 title quickly took a detour through Minnesota.

This WNBA Western Conference finals series will begin in Minneapolis on Thursday, three nights removed from Monday’s 78-77 triumph over the Sparks.

After the Mercury seemingly wasted a road win in Game 1 by losing at home in Game 2, their resiliency has been impressive.

And thanks to a Pennell-designed set that created the opportunity for a game-winning turnaround jumper by rookie Brittney Griner, Phoenix has gone from expectation-challenged disappointment to plucky threat.

But the aforementioned reality-grounding is supplied by an 0-5 mark against the Lynx this season that arrived at an average point differential of about 16 per game.

It should be noted that all five of those showdowns happened before Pennell replaced Corey Gaines and mandated a commitment to defense.

“They haven’t seen us the way we’re playing now,” Pennell said. “And we never had our full complement of players in any one game.”

The Lynx also must deal with a Mercury offensive scheme that relies heavily upon Pennell’s circle-motion concept. Pro teams of both genders rarely see this level of cutting and other forms of off-ball activity.

This style of offense usually preys upon the first defensive mistake. The unfamiliarity of these maneuvers to the opposition has given Pennell an edge, but the 24-second clock adds a degree of difficulty in using a continuity offense.

Regardless of how Mercury superstar Diana Taurasi and her pals attack Minnesota, winning and losing will come down to making plays when put in position to do so.

It’s their success in making Moore, Augustus and company uncomfortable on offense that will give Phoenix any opportunity to reach the finals.

Although the sea change to defense has enabled Phoenix to reach this point, a related variable must improve for the Mercury to survive a best-of-three that hits town for Game 2 on Sunday afternoon.

“We’ve got to rebound the ball better,” Pennell said. “We’re just not a good rebounding team.”

As he noted, the Mercury did break even on the glass during Game 3 in L.A., but not finishing defensive stands with rebounds will be bad news against the Lynx.

Now that Griner has taken her first turn as a postseason star (even though her game-winning jumper put her scoring total at a modest six for Monday night's decisive game), Pennell will need more from 6-foot-8 rookie in the conference finals.

Her impact was compromised by early foul issues in Game 3 on Monday, but Griner has to provide more than the four rebounds and zero blocks she gave Phoenix.

The way she calmly knocked in the game-winner may be reason for next-series optimism.

“What’s interesting,” Pennell said of Griner’s shot, “was that she went over her left shoulder, which she rarely does.”

As those who heard the Phoenix coach -- via TV microphone -- during the preceding timeout huddle already know, the first option for the Mercury was Taurasi coming to the corner off of a cross-screen from Griner.

If L.A. didn’t switch or double, Taurasi would have been open. The Sparks doubled, so in-bounder DeWanna Bonner made the anticipated pass to Griner.

“That,” Pennell said, “was option two.”

With 4.9 seconds remaining after Griner gave Phoenix a one-point lead, the Mercury came out of another timeout planning to over-help (if necessary) against Sparks superstar (and league MVP) Candace Parker.

“We told them to hard overplay everybody,” Pennell said. “She (Parker) had to come closer to the sideline to get the ball.”

So instead of Parker working from the middle of the floor with more space and passing options (although there was a small chance of her giving up the ball), the overplay forced her toward the corner, enabling Bonner to ditch in-ball-defender duty for the role of rover/double-teamer.

“The instincts of DeWanna were really good,” Pennell said.

Good enough that the L.A. season evaporated without a clean look.

“Now we’ll see how much we have left in the tank for Game 1,” Pennell said.

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