Like Slovenia did in its final game of EuroBasket’s first round, Goran Dragic and company had done enough to take a cautious approach in the final game of the second. As such, Dragic played...

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Record: 19-15 (9-4 under Russ Pennell)

Place In Standings: Third (facing Los Angeles Sparks in first round of playoffs)

Points Per Game: 80.46 (76.07)

Points Against: 80.0 (73.15)

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The final game of the season was looked at as a glorified scrimmage from all angles, but the coaches put on a song and dance that this game was to be taken serious. That game skewed the numbers and made this look like a lopsided match-up although that is not necessarily the case.

This season the Mercury turned things around and made strides as a complete team. Under interim head coach Russ Pennell they became one of the better teams in the WNBA.

Looking strictly at the numbers the Mercury became the best Mercury Defense in the franchises history shaving nearly seven total points off of their defense under Pennell. The team is rotating better, rebounding better, and unlike any other Mercury team in the past, making an effort on the defensive end.

The addition of Brittney Griner and her 6.3 rebounds per game, 3.0 blocks per game, and more important, about 12 altered shots per game the defense has become formidable.

Add in the likes of Briana Gilbreath, Alexis Hornbuckle, and quality of depth this team has produced on both ends of the floor. It is those glue players that allow the talents of Diana Taurasi (20.3 points per game), Penny Taylor (8.4), DeWanna Bonner (14.5), and Candice Dupree (15.2) to shine through. This has become a team. Have they become a team with enough time to compete for a Championship? That is still to be determined, but one thing is for certain and that is that this team saw a flaw, made an effort to correct it, and in turn have a fighting chance to win games that matter.

First on the slate are the Los Angeles Sparks.

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Sparks v. Mercury This Season...

One game skewed the numbers, but ironically if the Mercury could hand pick their opponent this playoffs out of the group of the Minnesota Lynx, Sparks, and Seattle Storm then it would have been the Sparks. Not that the team would publicly admit that, but looking at the season numbers this is the most favorable match-up that would allow the season to continue.

The Mercury combined to go 0-9 against the Lynx and Storm this season struggling against those teams. Against the Sparks the numbers were slightly better, but that final game of the season moved them in the Sparks favor a little more.

Stat

Mercury

Sparks

Wins
2
2
Points
79.5
85.5
Rebounds
33.25
39.0
Turnovers
16.0
12.0
FG%
42.7%
44.1%
3PT%
27.4%
30.4%
Free-Throws
70
68

This season each team won on the others floor and each has won at home. They were about as even, split down the middle as possible, and that is what makes this an intriguing match-up.

Earlier in the season the Mercury ended an emotional losing streak against the Sparks with an impressive win. Each team is absolutely loaded with talent. Each team has a No. 1 Overall Pick from the past two years in Nneka Ogwumike and Brittney Griner. Each team has an embarrassment of riches from Candace Parker (No. 1 in 2008), Lindsey Harding (No. 1 in 2007), Alana Beard (No. 2 in 2004), Kristi Tolliver (No. 3 in 2009), Jantel Lavender (No. 5 in 2011) making up a team with talent and balance.

Then you look at the Mercury and they have Taurasi (No. 1 in 2004), Alexis Hornbuckle (No. 4 in 2008), Bonner (No. 5 in 2009), and Dupree (No. 6 in 2006) giving them a similar amount of talent.

Talent is not the question or the issue in this game. Balance and team play will determine who heads on to the Western Conference Finals.

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...A Look At The Numbers...

Under Coach Pennell the team has been tremendously different in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. Before Pennell the Mercury were one of the worst defensive teams and lacked direction offensively. In the last ten games the Mercury have been a Top 3 defense and a Top 5 rebounding team and trending in the right direction.

Stat
Mercury
Sparks
Points
80.46
81.94
Rebounds
35.09
34.56
Turnovers
15.15
14.00
FG%
45.3%
47.5%
3PT%
30.3%
34.6%
Free-Throws
81.1%
77.8%
Wins-Losses
19-15
24-10

Both teams have four players that average double figures being led by an All-World player. Both teams share the ball considerably well with the edge going to the Sparks with 18.8 assists per game to the Mercury's 16.9 assists per game.

What the Sparks do very well is get every player involved on the offensive end before Parker takes over the game with her ability to score.

Parker lies in wait as the offense gains a rhythm, then closes out opponents like a superstar does. The Mercury have experimented with that as well with Taurasi playing the role of distributor and scoring within the offense as the game progressed, as the team needs it. Then she closes out games like only a superstar can do.

Across the board the numbers are pretty even for each team. This is a game that will come down to execution and which team's cast will best support their star.

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...Mercury Playoff History.

In the 16 year history of the Mercury they are 5-2 in the first round of the playoffs. They do not lose there often. As a matter of fact since the team drafted Taurasi No. 1 Overall in 2004 the team is 4-0 in the first round with a near spotless record at 8-2 in those series.

Under the watchful eye of Taurasi the team has made the playoffs five out of the ten years and won three two Championships.

This first round match-up against the Sparks serves as a series rubber match of sorts. in 2000 the Sparks swept the Mercury, before being swept by Houston, as they did to everyone on their way to the Championship. Then, in 2009, Taurasi led the Mercury past the Sparks in a three game series on their way to the WNBA Championship.

Before Taurasi this team saw little success in the playoffs getting in for short, uneventful runs, but with her they have been nearly unbeatable in the post-season. Will that translate 10 years into her career and four years since the last Championship run?

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Key Match-Up

Candice Dupree v. Nneka Ogwumike

Statistically these two are about a rebound per game in the favor of Ogwumike away from being a wash across the board. They both play the same role as the glue between the star in the paint and the play-maker on the perimeter. Their role is to be consistent, rebound the ball, and score as efficiently as possible. Ogwumike is the younger, more talented player from a long-term perspective, but Dupree has been on a role as of late scoring 15+ points per game in 15 of the last 18 games.

That is not a slight on Ogwumike as she has scored in double-figures in 14 of her last 16 games.

Each player has a similar role and when they are rolling, scoring, and being the efficient all-around game changer that they have been all season, their teams look like championship contenders respectively. Who will get the best out of this front-court head to head match-up?

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Prediction?

If the Mercury are fully healthy through three games then I see them winning this series in Los Angeles after three hard fought games. After that, check back with me if what I just said comes to fruition.

******************************

Playoff Schedule:

Thursday @ Los Angeles Sparks at 7 p.m. AZ Time (ESPN2)

Saturday vs. Los Angeles Sparks at 7 p.m. AZ Time (NBATV)

Monday @ Los Angeles Sparks at 7 p.m. AZ Time (ESPN2)

Channing Frye was a young player on a young team before, first in New York and then in Portland.

"I think the average age of our team is 23," Frye said on a recent podcast with Kris Habbas, of this year's Suns. "I've been on a young team before. The best thing for a young team is a stable line. Not emotionally too high, not emotionally too low."

Frye would know. He's seen both the good and the bad of being on a young team.

The Big, Rotten Apple

In New York, Frye was part of the hellish whirlwind called the Isaiah Thomas tenure. In Frye's rookie season, 2005-06, which turned out to be his best until joining the Suns years later, the Knicks went 23-59 under Larry Brown. That Knicks team was gawdawful, a mishmash that spiraled out of control. Sounds like the Suns of 2012-13 right?

That team's veteran leaders were Stephon Marbury (28), Steve Francis (28) and Jalen Rose (33). Marbury and Francis spent a lot of time on the floor together that season, with shooters Rose and Jamal Crawford joining them on the wing.

Channing's second year was no more fun, and hardly better. The Knicks went 33-49 (a ten game improvement) with Thomas at the controls to coach his own team. Marbury, Francis and Crawford were back, along with Eddy Curry and former Sun Quentin Richardson. The best part of the season was the bench, headlined by David Lee, Nate Robinson, Renaldo Balkman, and Frye.

Portlandia

Frye was traded that summer when Portland swapped Steve Francis' contract for Zach Randolph's. Portland's sun began to shine that day, while New York's got even murkier.

In Portland, Channing had a new lease on life with a truly young team.

"Back in Portland," Frye said. "We had Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. We were really young, and I asked the fans to support us while we're young and bring their kids because we were going to be together for a while. It's good to have that support through our progress as we get better throughout the year."

Frye loved Portland and still keeps a home their today, despite only playing two seasons where he barely started any games.

Only five active players from that 2007-08 Blazers playing rotation had more than three years' experience in the NBA, and only two of those (Joel Przybilla, Raef Lafrentz) had more than four. Buoyed by young players Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster, the Trailblazers fought to 41-41 finish, finishing just short of the playoffs. And that was with rookie #1 overall pick Greg Oden recovering from a knee injury. The future was bright in Portland.

As a backup center, Channing Frye produced 6.8 points, 4.5 rebounds in 17.2 minutes per game. The next season, Portland got a LOT better, finishing 54-28 even without the services of Greg Oden. Frye's role diminished after he was moved to backup PF behind Aldridge.

The Desert Calm

This Suns team doesn't offer the high end prospects that Blazers team promised. Young Brandon Roy ain't walking through that door. Neither is LaMarcus Aldridge. Or even the dream of a healthy Greg Oden.

But at least these Suns aren't like the 2012-13 version any more, or the 2005-06 Knicks he first experienced. The Suns aren't trying to straddle the fence between youth and experience. Too many veterans get frustrated when they can't win games at a regular clip. They get angry, quiet and closed off.

On the other hand, a young team can keep up the hope of the future without living too much in the past.

These Suns are a year or two behind the Portland squad, before Channing's time with them. This Suns team is just now trying to draft the next stars, and in the meantime is trying to keep fans interested. Last year, with too many veterans, was a total flop.

What can Channing bring to this team that Jared Dudley and Luis Scola could not?

"What I can bring to the table is I've been in every situation," Frye told Kris Habbas for Bright Side. "I've started, I've won, I've lost, I haven't started, I haven't played, had DNPs. I've been in every position you can imagine on a team. For me, just to be able to talk to guys on the side, I'm not gonna be the hoo-rah guy, that's just not me, I can't do that every night. I'm more quiet, let me talk to you on the plane ride back."

Frye plans to be more like Steve Nash and Grant Hill, his mentors once he came to the valley and discovered his three-point shooting stroke that saved his career.

"The thing that those two did the best by far was not to overtalk," Frye said of their leadership style. "Grant was always the first one in there. If Grant was in there, I should be in there. If Steve's shooting, then I should be shooting."

Last year, Dudley, Scola and even Gortat tried the "not overtalking" part because they aren't rowdy guys either. They tried to practice hard, play hard and give a good example. For whatever reason, that didn't work.

No limits

"I don't know how coach Hornacek wants to play," Frye said. "The biggest thing we can do is not [worry about] wins and losses, it's progress. Are we progressively getting better? Are we making the same mistakes that we made in the first game that we made in the thirtieth game?"

That was a lament all last season. Players and coaches openly lamented that they were making the same mistakes in February that they made on day one of training camp. There was no progress. When Alvin Gentry was fired, the main requirement of new coach Lindsey Hunter was to "show progress". Hunter failed to get the team to show any progress, and he was canned too.

Now Jeff Hornacek has to show progress, yet his rotation is younger this season and less educated about what it takes to close out and win basketball games.

As far as Frye is concerned, that's no excuse.

"I know [Marcin] Gortat, Goran [Dragic], Markieff [Morris], Marcus [Morris], P.J. [Tucker], Shannon Brown," he said of the veterans. "I know those guys personally. I know that they want to win and that they hate losing. We're going to hold the younger guys accountable."

Whether the kids listen this time or not, that's the key between a "successful" losing season and a "winning" losing season. That's the difference between a place everyone wants to leave and a place everyone wants to go.

The Suns tried the former, unwittingly, last season. Maybe this year can be the latter.

"We can change all that," Frye said in a fit of optimism that stretches as far as the veteran forward's eyes can see.

"If we continue to grow, I see guys in there working hard, I don't want to put limits on us."

Dionte Christmas is the newest Phoenix Sun after the Suns announced the signing today. The Suns got an extended look at the talented scorer this year at the Las Vegas Summer League and he apparently impressed Ryan McDonough and Jeff Hornacek enough to earn him a contract.

McDonough sung the Temple product's praises in the press release announcing the signing:

"We’re excited to add Dionte to our roster," said Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough. "He was a key contributor for our Las Vegas Summer League team and his scoring ability, leadership and toughness will help us this season."

Here are his numbers and my analysis of his performance in Vegas:

PPG FG% 3FG% FT% RPG APG TPG MPG +/-
10.1 46.3 32.1 75.0 2.7 2.0 1.0 20.9 +3

Dionte Christmas is a Summer League vet who just finished up his fourth appearance in Las Vegas/Orlando. He's been right on the cusp of making it in the NBA the last couple years since going undrafted after a standout career at Temple. He's a versatile offensive player who knows how to get buckets, and he showed that with the Suns this year averaging double-figures. He played both on and off the ball, getting to the basket, knocking down perimeter shots and even making some nice passes from time to time.

However, Christmas also showed the flaws in his game that have kept him off the NBA court. Spotty shot-selection, defensive lapses and average athleticism were all evident in his performance.

However, Christmas cannot relax just yet. He is now the 17th player under contract for the Suns and faces an uphill roster to stick around for the season. Most teams offer unguaranteed contracts to players like Christmas in order to have plenty of bodies for training camp and the preseason. However, Christmas' contract is partially guaranteed which means he could very well make this roster.

Christmas is pretty familiar with being in this position as he has been signed by teams multiple times but was cut each time before he had a chance to play in a game. Most recently, he was one of the Boston Celtics' final cuts before the season started a year ago.

Christmas does bring shooting and a knack for scoring, two things this Suns roster is a bit short on.

Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Archie Goodwin, Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown and Gerald Green all have guaranteed contracts in the backcourt. Christmas will compete for a spot with Malcolm Lee and Ish Smith.

This could also mean the Suns are looking to unload some of their players (perhaps Kendall Marshall?) before the season starts. If that's the case, then Christmas' case for making the regular season roster becomes a bit stronger.

So is Christmas' singing just to bring another body in for camp? Or could it be foreshadowing of further moves soon to come? We'll have to wait and see.

More from Bright Side Of The Sun:

The Phoenix Suns added to a bloated backcourt on Friday by agreeing to a contract with guard Dionte Christmas. Paul Coro reports that Christmas will have a small guaranteed portion on the first year...

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