Continuing on with our preparation for the playoffs we look in depth at the Mercury's 1st round opponent, the San Antonio Silver Stars.
Does it matter how prepared we are for the playoffs? Maybe just a little bit less than how prepared the Phoenix Mercury are but I always enjoy watching games when I know more about what's going on which is pretty much how I got into this in the first place.
Who better to ask about the Silver Stars then Mercury assistant coach (and Queen of Pop) Bridget Pettis.
Just who are the Silver Stars?
The San Antonio Silver Stars finished the season with a less than impressive 15-19 record. That doesn't change the fact this is a playoff seasoned team coming off their Western Conference victory and finals appearance in 2008. These two teams met in the 2007 conference finals with Phoenix sweeping the series in two games.
Statistically, SASS is a middle of the pack team. They rank 6 of 13 in points scored (76.91) and 8 of 13 in points allowed (78.27) and are 7th in three point and free throw percentages (34.6% / 77.8%) and 8th in field goal shooting (42.7%).
The mediocrity continues when you look at individual scoring. The Stars have only three players in double figures (Hammon, Young and Wauters) and then no other player averaging over 7 ppg.
Of late, they have been playing better as they've fought for the final playoff spot. The Stars had their best month in September (3-2) where they shot 47% from the field and 50% from three. The late surge comes in large part to the improved play of 12 year pro Vicky Johnson who is the final year of her career. Over the final weeks of the season, she averaged 10 points per game and 60% shooting from both inside and outside the arc.
The Silver Stars are not a particularly big team which shows on the glass. They are the league's worst rebounding team with a -4.09 differential compared to the Mercury's -2.79. Against many teams the Mercury struggle on the glass but they should have the size advantage over the Silver Stars which will be a big plus for Phoenix who are 13-1 this season when winning the battle of the boards.
That's the numbers, here's what Coach Pettis has to say about the Mercury's first round opponent
"They are a scrappy team. They're fighters. They're not the fighter type like Detroit where it's more solid but they're kind of like all over the place and they're all out and that's dangerous when you have everybody all out, 'let's dive on the floor'. Those little things add up and make something productive. I can't pinpoint and say they are this dominate post team. They do a little bit of everything."
The Silver Stars lead the league in three point attempts (21.74) and yet they are only connecting on 34.6% of them with only one player, seldom used reserve Shannon Crossley, shooting better than 40%. All star point guard Becky Hammon leads the team with 206 three point attempts and is making 36.9% of them.
Pettis fells this is advantage for the Mercury who can test the outside shooting of the Stars and use the long rebounds to run out on the break. That leads to the the Mercury floor being spread which is tough for the Silver Stars to match up with.
Pettis explains, "If we're making them take tough shots and they're not feeling it we're going to run off those."
Sofia Young- 6'1" Forward
Without a doubt, Bridget fells that Young is the most important player for the Stars. Her game has improved from being a power / drive type player to being more versatile with the ability to face up and hit mid-range jumpers which allows the Stars to play her out on the wing at times. She leads her team with 6.5 rebounds per game.
Pettis believes that Mercury forward Le'Coe Willingham has the quickness to guard Young and is a stronger player. But the match up is tough because Sofia is such a smart player who can use pump fakes and "do the little things" to create space for herself.
I'm not so sure that Penny Taylor isn't the much better match up with Young but we'll see how those minutes get distributed come game 1 on Thursday.
"We just have to player her honest. Respect her shot but make everything a pressure where it's not comfortable," said Pettis about how to try and contain Sofia Young..
Ann Wauters - 6'4" Center
Wauters is a skilled big who has a nice set of post moves and can also face up and hit from out to 10 feet. Coach Pettis thinks that Mercury starting center Tangela Smith can use her length against Wauters but admits that Ann's "girth" is an advantage on the inside. Most importantly for the Silver Stars is how well Wauters and Young play off each other with either being able to find the other on dives and cuts.
Fortunately, the Mercury can also use the bigger and stronger Nicole Ohlde on Wauters to put more pressure on her in the post while Tangela can use her range to pull Ann out from the paint.
Pettis explained that in the past against this team, the Mercury have used their bigs to help trap Becky Hammon which has left the Silver Stars front line tandem open. Bridget suggests that might change, "I think you're going to see us body up, match up a little bit more. Let them shoot over you. It's going to be one on one. You've got to beat me."
Becky Hammon - 5'6" Point Guard
10 year pro Becky Hammon has long been one of the best point guards in women's basketball. Pettis compares her to one of the all time great point guards for her ability to improvise, "Her creativity is what her edge is. There's no set play. She can pretty much do a lot of anything and make something happen. She's a little Steve Nash."
Teams around the league have had some success using a bigger player on Hammon which can make Becky take bad shots which hurts the San Antonio team. In the Mercury's best game against the Silver Stars this season, Diana Tuarasi took the assignment and held Hammon to 7 points on 2 of 7 shooting. Neither Tuarasi, Pettis or Coach Gaines would say if Dee would start with this assignment but I would be shocked if we don't see that match up again in this series.
Bridget fells like Hammon has been up and down all season and often has waited 2 or 3 quarters before turning it on. She expects Becky to be more aggressive in the playoffs which is always a dangerous things with a player of that caliber.
Vicky Johnson - 5'9" Guard/Forward
Bridget desribes Johnson is a complete pro who comes in and gives her team stability by not turning the ball over. However, Pettis does see a potential down side for the Silver Stars, "It's to our advantage having her out there with her age and our tempo. If we just keep her quiet and not let her get bigger numbers like we know she can do then I think we're pretty good. We'll just try and tire her out."
San Antonio Bench
The Silver Stars "big three" are as talented as any group in the league. Where the team really struggles is off the bench. While the Mercury average 27.3 point per game from Penny Taylor, DeWanna Bonner and Nicole Ohlde off the bench the Silver Stars are getting only 17.3 points from their top four reserves.
Pettis fells the Stars have good young players but is most worried about former Mercury Belinda Snell. Snelly hasn't been consistent playing with them but the Mercury know what she can bring. "She's lit us up in the regular season," said Pettis.
Erin Perperoglou is a hustle and energy player that Pettis compares to rookie DeWanna Bonner. Somebody that comes in and gives an extra boost. The numbers aren't close though with Eric averaging 3 points and 2 rebounds in 17 minutes and DeWanna averaging 11 points and 6 rebounds in 21 minutes.
Bridget laughed a bit and hesitated to answer this question but went on to say, "I predict that we win. We worked hard to get this home court advantage. When we decide to go win a game we win it. Hopefully, our mindset it that. I think we have the better players right now. The better bench right now. We just need to capitalize on it."
There is no question that on paper this series shouldn't be close but no one on the Mercury is discounting the Silver Stars. They are experienced, play hard and are well coached.
It is hard to imagine the Mercury not being ready for this series but at the same time, anything can happen in a short series and as Phoenix fans know too well, if it's going to happen it will happen in San Antonio.
As for the three other series, Bridget predicted a win for the Sparks against a Storm team that will likely be without Lauren Jackson but she did say that the lack of consistent play from L.A leaves the door open for the Seattle.
In the east, Pettis has the more experienced Detroit Shock taking the Atlanta Dream (I have that one going the other way) and we both agree that the Indiana Fever who are desperate for post season success will defeat the Washington Mystics.