One year ago today...
...after the dust settled and the buzzer sounded another team was celebrating on their floor.
The Phoenix Mercury saw their up-and-down season end in a heap as the Minnesota Lynx marched past them and into their third consecutive WNBA Finals appearance. Coming into that season they were built up as a juggernaut primed to win it all and ended the year with bite after bite of humble pie.
In those two games the Lynx dominated the Mercury by 23 and 7 points in a sweep.
Some similarities were there from that series to the 2012-2013 NBA Finals where the Spurs fell short to the Heat in six games. It was not the Finals, but the Mercury felt that deep down they missed an opportunity. From that point on they went on a mission for redemption not unlike the Spurs did last season.
With a Band-Aid head coach (Russ Pennell) and injury issues the Mercury won 19 games and made it to the Conference Finals. They learned how to play defense and adopted some traits that carried over to this year.
After that the organization went to work hiring a new head coach, tweaking the roster, and most important of all, building the needed chemistry to be a competitive team. Those moves as well as sustained health (which cannot be mentioned enough) translated to 10 more wins and home court advantage in the Western Conference Finals this year.
Last year the Mercury were a mess against the Lynx in the playoffs. They shot just 35.5% from the field, 4/39 from three, and only took 28 total free-throws in the series. They were out-rebounded in each game and were a net -11 in rebounding margin. Brittney Griner was spotty, clearly still a rookie, and Diana Taurasi was woeful from the field. The Lynx were the home team and Penny Taylor was with the team, but did not play a single minute in the series as she watched her team fall short of a third trip to the WNBA Finals.
Those last two things change this season.
Home court advantage is typically an overstated advantage in the playoffs because "Championship teams win on the road," but the Mercury were historically good at home this season. Including the playoffs the Mercury went 17-1 at home (14-4 on the road) showing that the "X-Factor" is a true x-factor in their favor.
The Lynx were no slouches at home either going 16-2 in their arena (11-7 on the road). Both teams are very good at home shifting the paradigm of the series in the favor of the Mercury if each team finds a way to hold serve on their turf.
There is never a "key" to a series rather a janitor style key ring that unlocks a lot of doors and variables for one team to come out on top. Year-over-year results show the Mercury have, to an extent, resolved some of their woes from last years playoff series. They exercised their demons going 3-1 against the Lynx this season exacting some revenge from that dreadful 0-7 record against them last year.
One of those keys is shot selection.
When the Mercury have a balance of three-pointers and free-throws they are the toughest team in the WNBA. On the season they generally average 32.0 points per game from behind those two lines, but against the Lynx, this year, those numbers shrink to 28.75 points per game leaving little room for error in other areas. Sure that is 3-4 points a night fluctuating, but considering the Lynx can score at will on most teams points are a premium in this series. A positive outlook on those numbers are how they are dramatically better than what they were last year against the Lynx in the playoffs where the Mercury scored 18.5 points per game from behind those two lines.
Second, is rebounding. Both offensive and overall rebounding margin have been the Achilles Heel for them this year.
For as bad as it may get for the Mercury on a game-by-game basis they only had a rebounding margin of -0.8 on the season. Against the Lynx the Mercury had a surprising +3.5 advantage on the glass this year per game, but were out-rebounded on the offensive glass by a little under one per game. The blame gets laid at the feet of Griner as a 6'8" beast that "should" dominate the glass every night. Typically teams pull her out onto the perimeter to negate her shot-blocking taking her out of rebounding position on most plays. The burden lays on her, but the blame falls on the team rebounding as a whole. Candice Dupree is consistent and Penny Taylor has been a welcome addition on the glass.
Lastly, the addition of Penny Taylor to the rotation has been invaluable to this teams success.
It can be difficult at times to explain why a stat-line of 7 points 7 assists 6 rebounds and 3 steals was more of an MVP performance than 34 points, but in Game One of the Conference Semi-Finals the Mercury would have lost the game even if Taurasi scored 50 points. She was the benefactor of the all-around performance of Tayor. Having her toughness, experience, and ability to do so many different things on the court is a major reason why this team won 29 games and is still playing today.
Taylor is not the player she was, say, 4-5 years ago as an All-Star second option to Taurasi winning championships, but she has evolved into the consummate role player. She found her role as a secondary play-maker, sometimes forgotten option on offense, and gap filler for whatever the team needs on a game-by-game basis.
For the Mercury to win this series against a Lynx team that has won nine straight playoff games (21-5 in the past three post-seasons overall) they need to exhaust the key ring and more.
Sure, the Mercury are the team of history and the marked ones, but the Lynx are a juggernaut, the three time defending Western Conference Champions, and the defending WNBA Champions. If there was ever a battle of the giants it is here. Last year the Mercury fell short and then started their mission to get right back here. Against the Lynx. Healthy. With home-court advantage.
All that is left now is to win.
Alex Len's short NBA career has been marred by one injury after another. But Len, who will be just 21 this season, has the potential to become a force in this league if he can stay on the court.
When Seth Pollack saw Phoenix Suns second year center Alex Len, who just turned 21 this summer, the day after he broke his right pinkie finger at Summer League and offered some encouraging words, the Ukrainian just grunted in frustrated response.
Len played one SL game, scoring six points, grabbing six rebounds and blocking two shots. Len's presence defensively was evident, using his length and agility to defend the rim multiple times on single possessions. In short, he was a force.
But now Len is pissed, for lack of a better word.
*sorry about the blur, folks. But this pic does show he's bigger this year.
He was so ready for this summer to be about getting better, not rehabbing. Between the last game of the 2013-14 season and the start of Summer League, he had really buffed up. His upper body was chiseled, and he confirmed that by saying he'd gained more than 10 pounds.
"Every day, five times a week," Len said before SL of working out in Phoenix during the offseason. "I didn't go anywhere. I just stayed here in Phoenix. And after the summer league I'm just going to come back and just keep working here."
The Suns brass had been wanting this to be the summer of Len.
"I told Alex this summer league is very big for him," Summer League coach Mike Longabardi said before they headed to Vegas. "We all know that. I want him to be available so he's got to be durable so he can play. We want to keep him injury-free as best as possible."
Unfortunately, Len didn't get that chance to keep working. Len caught his pinkie finger in the jersey of an opponent and felt it pop out of place. He hoped it was just a dislocation and popped it back into line for the rest of the game. But later, they discovered the fracture and his big summer was over. He would be in a cast on his hand for four weeks.
"The cast is off," GM Ryan McDonough confirmed to Bright Side yesterday. "He has been able to do some running and lifting over the past few weeks. He looks good physically - he's getting stronger."
It's like the exact opposite of last summer. At least this summer he was able to work on his lower body and overall conditioning, but he couldn't do basketball drills or work on his offense.
Where Len needs durability is in the ankles and feet. He's a tall young man - at least 7'1" and 260 pounds - and still in those gangly years, just turning 21 this summer.
"The most important thing is conditioning for him," Longabardi said at SL. "If he's in great shape, he's got to play and push through so he's not tired and make some silly mistakes whether its a foul or a turnover."
Of course, nothing really you in NBA basketball shape besides actual basketball. And that doesn't start again for him until at least next week.
"He is not fully cleared to play yet," McDonough said. "But we anticipate he will be cleared next week or shortly thereafter."
If Len can recover and play the whole month of pickup games at full speed, the broken finger will be an afterthought when training camp starts. You can't plan to avoid broken fingers. You have to stay aggressive and hope it doesn't happen again.
He has been gift-wrapped the backup center position this year, behind third-year center Miles Plumlee. Which of them ends up being the long-term starter depends on development. Both have a lot of room for improvement.
Len has the skill set and upside to be a two-way player who can defend the rim, the pick-and-roll, and rebound on defense while providing solid offense that includes putbacks and finishing at the rim while stretching the floor with a perfect-form, high-release midrange jumper. Longabardi even planned to play Len and Plumlee together a lot during SL, with Len being the "mini-stretch" power forward.
Here's what Longabardi said they wanted from Len this summer, which still holds true in training camp, preseason and the regular season:
Of course, the coaches and Training Staff Mafia are talking about Len's legs needing to be durable. Not his little finger. Now, Len has had another summer to rehab and completely clear up any lingering soreness and loss of flexibility. He did say at SL that he was fully healthy.
"Good, yes, definitely," Len said of his recovered ankles. "I worked hard with the training staff and they got me healthy."
He did stay in the Valley all summer, and I'm sure his legs and conditioning were a big focus over the past several weeks.
I can't wait to see Len in training camp. I really feel that, if he can string together some continued health, he can be a force in this league. He doesn't have the personality to demand the ball, but he can be better than most centers the league has to offer if he can just stay on the court. He's got a meanness to his game. He's a bit like Dragic in that he won't take any crap from an opponent, and isn't afraid to lay a hard foul on them when necessary.
Due to his injuries, few people are talking about Alex Len these days. It's like he dropped off the face of the earth. But we're talking about a kid who is easily 7'1" with about a 7'4" wingspan who is still growing into his lean body. Even so, his 260 pounds are the most of anyone on the team. He is agile and athletic. Not a roadrunner, but not a stiff either.
We could be watching one of the better young big men in the game next season, easing his way into the NBA without the pressure of an entire franchise on his shoulders.
Go to Costco and stock up on your popcorn. The Suns have a lot of storylines this year, not the least of which is how Alex Len will progress in his second season.
Shut up and buy.
Bobbleheads are played out. MLB has popularized players depicted as gnomes for giveaways, but the Suns have always remained a step ahead. This stadium freebie depicts Phoenix favorite Shawn Marion as a duck. Why? It's best not to ask too many questions when the Matrix is involved. Conversation piece for sure. It's sitting on top of your mantle for just $13, buy it now, after shipping.
The picture above is a picture of the jersey allegedly for sale. The eBay posting does not include a picture of the actual jersey you will be receiving, rather a couple of action photos of The Dragon. Word of advice: allow a little time to pass following that Dragic vs. Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose matchup before donning this jersey. You should be good to go by the time the NBA season tips off though. Made by Spalding, all sizes available, and it's on your back for a buy it now price of $119 after shipping.
Start your daughter off on the right track by gifting her this Barbie Doll clad in Phoenix Suns gear. I'll let you do your own research, but it's widely known that Barbie Dolls are highly collectible, with some fetching six figures. Now it's unlikely that this offering will ever reach those figures. In fact it can be had for less than a twenty dollar bill after shipping, but for the Suns fan that feels like they already own every Suns related item that's out there, this could be an interesting addition to your collection.
The seller writes that this is a tough book to find. I've no reason to doubt him, there are currently only four copies available for sale on Amazon. Still, this seller is looking to get over $80 for his copy, while three copies are available on Amazon for less than $12, another one is around $50. The Little Team That Could...And Darn Near Did, tells the story of the meteoric rise of your favorite NBA team, certainly a must have the library of any Suns fan.
Further proof that they will put an NBA logo on anything, is this cutting board up for sale on eBay. I have to say, it looks like a nice piece, unlike a lot of items they'll slap a team name on. Included is 1 wooden base, 1 tempered glass tray, and 1 cheese knife. It's described as "elegant." I'm a Suns fan and everything, but that's debatable. Maybe not best for the formal event you'll never have anyway, but it could make for an interesting piece at the tailgate. It's yours for about $60 after shipping.