Coming into Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, the main storyline was how the Phoenix Mercury were a completely different defensive team under Russ Pennell. The numbers supported that; opponents shot 44 percent from the field pre-Pennell and 39 percent with him.
But prior to the game, Cheryl Reeve talked to her Minnesota Lynx about "changing the narrative." She felt her team's defense was being overlooked, even though it was third in points per game allowed and second in field goal percentage defense in the regular season. She reminded the Lynx that playing strong defense was "part of our DNA."
The Lynx responded, holding Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner to four points each and Diana Taurasi to 4-of-14 shooting, and went on to win 85-62. Minnesota also forced Phoenix into 19 turnovers and scored 24 points off them. Simply speaking, the Lynx were the far superior defensive team.
Minnesota's execution of its pick-and-roll defense was intense, crisp and locked-in while Phoenix's was slow, sloppy and confused. The Lynx know how potent Taurasi and Dupree are in the pick-and-roll. (During the regular season, Dupree led the league at 56 percent shooting when involved in the pick-and-roll.)
So every time Taurasi or Dupree was in a pick-and-roll, Minnesota switched defensively, meaning the player guarding Dupree or Taurasi would switch onto the player setting the screen or handling the ball and the defender's teammate would take Dupree or Taurasi. Because Rebekkah Brunson (Dupree's defender) has the athletic and defensive ability to guard on the perimeter, Phoenix couldn't create a mismatch when the switch happened. It rendered the Mercury's pick-and-roll ineffective.
On the other end of the floor, Phoenix was playing Lindsay Whalen to pass when she was the ball handler in the pick-and-roll. The player guarding Whalen -- often Taurasi -- went behind the screen and often got caught on the back of her own teammate. The result? Whalen looked for her own shot from the get-go and finished with 20 points on 10-of-15 shooting.
Phoenix has always been a team that embodies a certain swagger. Led by Taurasi, the Mercury played like they knew something you didn't, and regardless of the score, they could erupt offensively at any minute. It was almost as if they could toy with you until they decided it was time to put on the beatdown.
So it surprised me a bit after Game 1 to read this from Pennell: "Sometimes you kind of get something in your head that isn't true, but if you think about it long enough, you will think it's true," he said. "I want to make sure they understand that Minnesota is beatable, but we are going to have to get out of our own way."
To me, if the Mercury have any doubts, so much of who they are is gone.
So how can the Mercury beat the Lynx?
For starters, they have to be an outstanding defensive team. They have to change their pick-and-roll scheme and play better overall defense. They have to take better care of the basketball.
The Lynx simply have too many offensive weapons in the backcourt, and all three were on fire in Game 1. Whalen, Maya Moore (20 points in the opener) and Seimone Augustus (18) were the highest-scoring backcourt in the league this season. When they are "on" the same night, Minnesota can't be beaten. Add the contribution from the bench (Monica Wright with 11 points) and it's no surprise Minnesota won by 23.
The Mercury also have to hit tough shots. They have to hope Minnesota has an off night shooting. Furthermore, the Mercury have to limit the Lynx's possessions. (Seattle did this effectively in Game 2 of the semifinals and still lost.)
Are those things possible? Yes. Probable? We'll have to wait and see.