I love covering the Western Conference during the WNBA playoffs. The games are great, the star power is off the charts, and the redeye flights get me home earlier than early-morning East Coast trips. (The little things matter, too.)
The Lynx-Storm first-round series was ugly but entertaining. Game 2 was a slugfest (Minnesota won 58-55) but showed that the prettiest offense in the league (Minnesota) can still win when it has to play ugly.
The Sparks-Mercury first-round matchup was pretty and exciting. Both offenses were clicking and Brittney Griner won the series with a baseline turnaround with 4.9 seconds remaining.
Here is what I'm eager to watch in the Western Conference finals:
1. Mercury defense: Phoenix lost the season series 5-0 to Minnesota, but the Mercury are not even close to being the same team that played those games. All five contests were played before the All-Star break and before Russ Pennell became coach. The Mercury have a completely different look on the defensive end now (which means they actually play some) and will challenge Minnesota more on that end of the floor. Before Pennell took over, Mercury opponents were shooting 44 percent from the field and 35 percent on 3-pointers. Since Pennell brought his defensive emphasis, opponents are shooting 39 percent from the field and 29 percent from downtown.
2. Personnel change: Brittney Griner did not play in the fourth or fifth games against Minnesota this season (injury). Diana Taurasi did not play in the fifth meeting (suspended for her seventh technical foul -- a flail that happened in the fourth meeting with Minnesota). Phoenix's starting lineup in the most recent regular-season game with Minnesota on July 24? DeWanna Bonner, Candice Dupree, Krystal Thomas, Briana Gilbreath and Alexis Hornbuckle. Different coach, too. The outcome of the playoff games might ultimately be the same, but the look will be much different.
3. Fantastic 4: Candice Dupree was outstanding for Phoenix in the series against L.A. -- especially in Game 3 (22 points on 11-of-19 shooting). Minnesota's Rebekkah Brunson was a beast against Seattle (16.5 PPG, 11 RPG). These forwards are both great defenders -- Brunson was named to the all-WNBA defensive second team -- and solid scorers. Dupree is the best pick-and-roll big woman in the league and is part of the best two-player game (with Taurasi) in the WNBA. Brunson is the most exciting rebounder in the league -- she's impossible to keep off the boards with just one player. Watching the two women square off will be a highlight for me.
4. Challenging of the guards: Minnesota's starting backcourt averaged 31.4 points per game this season -- tops in the WNBA. How will Taurasi, Bonner and Gilbreath fare in their attempts to slow them down? (Phoenix's size seemed to affect the smaller L.A. guards for stretches, but Minnesota is a lot bigger and stronger in the backcourt than the Sparks.) Lindsay Whalen was the best point guard in the league this season and Taurasi had a pretty amazing run as Phoenix's "lead guard" (she ranked second in the league in both scoring and assists). Watching those two go head-to-head will be intriguing.
5. Coach speak: Cheryl Reeve has proved that she is one of the best coaches in the league. Year after year her teams play strong defense and run the prettiest, most unselfish offense in the league. Minnesota led the WNBA with most assists (20.5) and fewest turnovers (12) per game this season. Pennell brought a new defensive mindset (see above) and resurrected the swagger of the Mercury. Players for both Minnesota and Phoenix clearly believe in what their coach is doing and saying. You can't win a championship if there is any doubt in the huddles. Neither of these teams seems to have a shred of it.
This series could be great, and I'm thrilled to be on the call for each game. And if Reeve will angrily remove and throw her jacket after a tough call by a referee, as she did in the Finals last year, this series has a chance to be perfect.