September 8, 2020
What we learned from two Las Vegas losses to the Mercury
Using two regular season matchups to look ahead to the postseason
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PALMETTO, FL – SEPTEMBER 1: Kayla McBride #21 of the Las Vegas Aces handles the ball against the Phoenix Mercury on September 1, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via GettyImages)
Through 18 games, the Las Vegas Aces have lost just four games (two apiece) to two teams: the Chicago Sky and the Phoenix Mercury. Today, we’ll examine what we can take away from the two meetings against Phoenix and what it might mean if these two teams meet again in the 2020 playoffs.
The two Mercury-Aces tilts were a full 31 days apart. We’ll start with the most recent one, where the Mercury led for the entire second half en route to a 92-85 victory. Phoenix starting center Brittney Griner (personal), reserve wing Nia Coffey (hand), and Bria Hartley (ACL) did not play in the second game. Phoenix’s then-healthy roster of 10 players was available for the first contest. The Mercury have since signed Shey Peddy to give them more depth in the backcourt.
Griner’s absence in the second game is the first big difference. The multiple-time All-Star and All-Defense honoree is somebody you need to gameplan for on both ends. Griner raises the stakes for the defense on every possession. At, 6’9”, Griner is simply a much bigger target rolling to the basket. She converted three of six shot attempts as a pick and roll finisher in the first meeting. In the post with Carolyn Swords as the primary defender, Griner managed six points in five possessions. Against Dearica Hamby: two points in three possessions.
Phoenix now has backup center, Kia Vaughn, in the starting lineup next to Brianna Turner. Griner led the league in post-up possessions last season according to Synergy Sports by a comfortable margin with 334. All of those possessions must go somewhere else now. The Mercury have adjusted by leaning even more into the abilities of Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith as pick and roll creators and scorers.
Those two guards attempted half of Phoenix’s 74 field goal attempts in the September 1st matchup and shot a combined 10-of-21 on 3-pointers along with 14 assists. The Mercury also had just eight turnovers as a team. Phoenix’s two best players were able to control the game as the Aces didn’t do enough to make them uncomfortable and force others to beat them.
In the first quarter, Jackie Young did a nice job to completely avoid a screen by Vaughn but got knocked out of the play as Taurasi pulled up for a practice shot.
Taurasi drilled another pull-up 3-pointer in a similar situation as Danielle Robinson tried to fight over a screen late in the first half. Now, Taurasi also did make three pretty ridiculous 3-pointers in transition. It may seem unfair to cite those at all. But Taurasi hunting 3-point attempts, even way behind the line and early in the clock, is central to how the Mercury are playing.
Taurasi’s 3-point attempts through Sunday account for 71 percent of her total field goal attempts this season according to Basketball-Reference, up from 2018’s previous career-high of 61 percent.
In seven games without Griner, 3-point attempts account for 41.7 percent of the team’s total field goal attempts according to WNBA.com, just shy of New York’s league-leading mark of 42.3 in that same span. The Aces are polar opposites in that regard, with 3-pointers accounting for just 16.3 percent of their field goal attempts this season, nearly 10 full percentage points below the team currently ranking 11th.
On top of the 3-pointers in transition, the Aces also got caught overhelping as Shey Peddy fired a laser to Taurasi for a wide-open spot-up triple. Diggins-Smith drilled two open 3-pointers in the second half as the Aces miscommunicated on one and did not have a defender connected or ready to meet her coming off a ball screen from the top of the key.
With the Mercury taking so many 3-pointers while being led by two dynamic pick and roll ball-handlers, they’re still a difficult team to defend even without Griner. But the sense of urgency to take away the open looks for those two players must rise. They are capable scorers inside the arc, too, as we saw in that game, hitting pull-up jumpers or getting into the lane.
Phoenix opponents need to force other members of the Mercury to beat them to an extent. And with more defensive attention likely shifting toward Taurasi and Diggins-Smith, the defenders behind and away from the ball must also be on high alert. Taurasi found a cutter for a layup on three different occasions in the second matchup.
Hamby and Danielle Robinson started the second half in the second matchup. Aces head coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer simply inserting Hamby into the starting lineup is one potential adjustment to watch for in the playoffs. All teams need to ride their best players more in the postseason.
Not having Hamby on the floor to start playoff games may come back to bite them in the form of a slower start. Hamby didn’t check into the first matchup until the 4:27 mark of the first quarter with the Aces already trailing 17-9. Phoenix scored 30 points in that first quarter, building an early lead the Aces were never able to erase.
The Aces shot poorly inside the arc in the second meeting: 11-of-41 (26.8 percent) on 2-pointers outside the restricted area. They shot 3-of-10 on 3-pointers, nearing their season average of 11.2 3-point attempts per game and 18-of-21 at the foul line (compared to their league-leading season average of 22.9 attempts).
That number matches what you saw on film as the Aces generally settled or relied too much on tough two-point jumpers. Angel McCoughtry started the game with two driving scores but was stripped twice inside by Taurasi and stopped twice at the rim by Brianna Turner, who finished with five blocked shots. McBride also got stripped once inside by Taurasi and went 1-for-4 on two-point jumpers before tacking one on in the game’s final 90 seconds.
A’ja Wilson got good looks rolling to the basket playing in pick and roll with both players, extending for a nice finish on a feed from McBride, and making a heady read to slip a screen in transition.
Look for McCoughtry to dial it up more in spurts in the playoffs. She’ll be especially tough to keep out of the lane in any kind of two-man game with Wilson, where she can receive a handoff, cut backdoor, use a screen to get downhill, or reject that screen as she did here to blow by Taurasi.
Jackie Young’s scoring has been a key component of the team’s success this season. The second-year guard settled for a few jump shots in the first half and missed three looks around the basket in the second. Young can also give the Mercury a bunch of trouble coming off a Wilson screen by finding the right balance with her pull-up jumper and ability to turn the corner to get all the way to the rim.
Hamby-Wilson is the team’s most-utilized and most effective frontcourt combination. Hamby can rack up points in the paint in any matchup and is another effective screen and roll partner. But her ability to also space out to open up the lane around Wilson in particular forces defenses to make tougher decisions because of Hamby’s ability to drive from the perimeter or knock down open 3-pointers.
With or without Griner, Turner would likely be the player tasked with defending Wilson. Wilson scored the two times she attempted to drive on Turner in the second game. Look for even more of those moving forward, along with the Aces putting Wilson in more actions where she’s either open for a jumper on the catch or will get a chance to attack a defender scrambling to recover rather than relying too much on static post-ups or isolations.
The combination of Turner’s length and occasional Phoenix double teams made some of Wilson’s jump shots in isolation much more difficult. In the playoffs, the Aces have some low-hanging fruit to address to make life easier for their superstar forward on some of her catches. Having a non-shooter like Danielle Robinson one pass away is an open invitation to Phoenix (or any opponent) to dig down or immediately send a double team without penalty.
With McBride, McCoughtry, and Young as a big of a ‘big three’ on the perimeter, if you will, you also wonder what the Aces will get offensively from the rest of their guards. Starting point guard Lindsay Allen did not play in the first meeting due to an inconclusive COVID-19 test result. In the second meeting, Robinson and Allen went 0-for-4 from the field in 25 combined minutes with Allen playing a mere 3:46.
Minutes have fluctuated for Sugar Rodgers, the third guard off the bench, often between about 10 and 15 minutes but as high as 22 and 25 on two occasions. Rodgers has hit four 3-pointers in three games this season, including that first meeting at the end of July.
Though the Aces have managed to put together a top-four offense this season, opponents will likely make a more concerted effort to pack the paint in the postseason. Putting their best shooters around Wilson for longer periods is the natural counter. Rodgers may need to usurp some of the Robinson and Allen minutes to be on the floor for, say, 25 minutes as she was on July 31 rather than 11 or 12.
It’s entirely possible that Phoenix would need to get through two single-elimination contests just to possibly match up with the Aces, currently holding onto one of the envied double-byes that come with a top-two seed, if they even landed on the same side of the bracket. But the playoffs are all about matchups. Some elements from these games may apply against future opponents, who will certainly be interested to study the rare occasions in which the Aces were defeated this season.
“I warned them before the game that this is a great front-running team,” Laimbeer said postgame after the second meeting. “You let them get a comfort zone, and that’s what they do. They go around; they make shots. Taurasi obviously had a spectacular first half, but we weren’t in her space enough… we didn’t get to the free-throw line enough to offset their three-balls, and that was the story of the game.”
The free-throw line alone can’t be held up as the difference in the game. While you may hope to earn a few more attempts than your average in a future meeting, the Aces need to work for better shots and take more of what their opponent does best off the table. The combinations Laimbeer chooses to lean on can make that a bit easier. Meanwhile, Phoenix has rattled off six consecutive wins. As the Aces have seen first-hand, Taurasi and Diggins-Smith will make the Mercury, at minimum, a formidable opponent in rounds one and two.