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.