The WNBA Finals get underway tonight on ESPN2 with the Phoenix Mercury hosting the Indiana Fever in Game 1 of this best of five series at the US Airways Center.
Both the Mercury and Fever finished with the best record in their respective conferences this season and will feature the Mercury’s offensive scoring power against the Fever’s tough defense. This handicapper feels that Game 1 will go to the home chalk as both teams get settled into battling for the championship.
Although the conference finals in the East and West each went to a deciding Game 3 this past weekend, it was clear all season which two teams had the best chance of making the WNBA Finals. Indiana went on an 11 game winning streak toward the start of the season and finished with a 22-12 record after dogging it a little down the stretch. Phoenix edged out Indiana by one game to finish with the league’s top overall performance at 23-11 and that one game difference is what gives them home court advantage against the Fever in this series for the league title.
Despite being the most consistent two teams in the league throughout the season, the Mercury and Fever each had to face resurging teams in the playoffs who had what it took to win a best of three series against either team. The Mercury went the distance in both the conference semifinals and finals outlasting the San Antonio Silver Stars and LA Sparks. Even with the Silver Stars finishing the season with a losing record, they took Game 1 against Phoenix in San Antonio but a blowout win by the Mercury in Game 2 and big fourth quarter in Game 3 made the Mercury advance to face LA.
The Sparks were unable to host Game 1 of the West finals in the Staples Center and dropped a battle in UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion to the Mercury there, but bounced back in Game 2 with an outstanding game in Phoenix leaving bettors wondering what would happen in the deciding Game 3 last Saturday. Phoenix rose to the occasion on their home floor coming out of the gate with a 19-7 lead at the end of the first quarter that night and never looked back. Despite being outrebounded by the Sparks 40-29, the Mercury made LA turn the ball over 15 times and allowed only 74 points which was among the lowest numbers on the scoreboard by an opponent of Phoenix this season.
Indiana swept the Washington Mystics to open the playoffs, but then had to face the defending WNBA champion Detroit Shock in the East finals. With the Shock coming up big down the stretch in the regular season, they were the team no opponent would have wanted to see in the playoffs and the Fever got all they could handle from them. With the Shock taking Game 1 in Detroit, it set up a must-win Game 2 for the Fever at the Conseco Fieldhouse last Friday night. The Fever came up with a 79-75 victory in a game that was tight the whole way through and set up a deciding Game 3 the next night. Indiana then survived Saturday’s showdown with another close 72-67 win and held the Shock’s Deanna Nolan to her playoff-low of only 16 points when she had put up at least 22 points in all four postseason games.
With the Fever and Mercury coming up with their best effort when each had their season on the line Saturday, many feel the best of five series between the two teams is a tough call. This includes the fact that both teams split the two regular season matchups against each other by surprisingly winning on the other’s home floor. It shows that despite the Mercury having home court in a potential fifth game of the series, the advantage of home court could go out the window if both teams continue bringing their “A game” as they have all season.
Due to several injuries this season, the Fever were actually not at full strength in both meetings this year with the Mercury and this shows that Phoenix will be tested by Indiana more in this series than those matchups. The most recent meeting between the teams was back on September 2 with the Fever hosting the Mercury with Indiana’s Katie Dogulas having to sit out in a 106-90 loss. Earlier this season in Phoenix, the first matchup between the teams resulted in the Fever stealing a 90-83 win without top defensive star Tamika Catchings and starting center Tammy Sutton-Brown.
Although the Mercury have not faced the fully-loaded lineup of the Fever yet this season, I feel that Phoenix’s lineup is more packed overall than Indiana’s and they will be tough to beat in this series. Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter of the Mercury have been the WNBA’s leading duo all season long and got through some challenging defense from both LA and San Antonio in the playoffs so far. Tangela Smith has also come up big in the playoffs up the middle for Phoenix and her 47% three point shooting alone makes her a big equalizer to any points that Douglas can put up from beyond the arch for the Fever.
Down the stretch of tonight’s Game 1, I feel the Mercury also have a solid edge with their bench over the Fever with Penny Taylor and DeWanna Bonner providing some real fire there against any opposition. Bonner put in double figures against San Antonio in all three games of the conference semifinal series and Taylor has scored a double for points in five out of six playoff games for Phoenix. Let's also not forget about Taylor's performance a couple of years ago in the WNBA Finals when the Mercury became champions against the Detroit Shock – having Taylor's presence has already paid off in the playoffs and will leap from there in the finals.
The Fever’s bench is clearly not stacked as much as the Mercury and Indiana’s starting five is what drives almost all they accomplish in terms of defense and shooting. Although their chemistry has been there all season, lacking the depth of Phoenix makes me feel this unit could have a tough time settling into the WNBA Finals with it being their first trip to the championship unlike the Mercury.
The line for tonight’s game opened at Bookmaker favoring the Mercury by 4½ points and has stayed there at press time. This is the same number the Phoenix was favored by in both home games against the Sparks on Friday and Saturday so it comes down to comparing the opposition and spot to see where an edge lies. Some bettors may feel that the Fever bring a better team to the court than LA would have and have already shown this season they can win in Phoenix. However, I feel the spot of this Game 1 is a tough one for the Fever after the emotional high of beating the Shock on Saturday who knocked them out of the playoffs for several years in a row.
In some ways, Indiana may already feel like the season is over after eliminating the Shock and could really mail it in tonight against a Mercury team who has been home for almost a full week now. My feeling is that Phoenix will take Game 1 tonight big, but that the Fever could pose a bigger threat in Game 2 once they are more focused on the Mercury as an opponent, the reality of being in the WNBA Finals sets in, and some adjustments get made.
Check back on Thursday for my Game 2 thoughts and if I think that matchup could end up being a closer one depending on tonight's result. Good luck until then.