The WNBA’s first playoff game of 2016 will feature the defending Eastern Conference champion Indiana Fever hosting the 2014 WNBA champions, the Phoenix Mercury. It will be played on Wednesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and be shown on ESPNews at 6pm EST.
On an individual basis, it’s hard to look at a matchup between these two teams without their franchise players, Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings, both of whom will be up for “greatest ever” consideration once their careers are over.
That point is drawing near for Catchings, who played her final regular season game this past Sunday in front of a sellout crowd. She’ll get to see them again on Wednesday, but with much higher stakes.
Of course, it goes well beyond the two surefire Hall of Famers, perhaps now more than ever. While the Fever are still Catchings’ team, it’s been their MO for a few seasons now to prepare for the inevitable “life after Tamika” and get a more balanced scoring attack so she won’t have to carry the load. Taurasi, too, has been reigned in somewhat: a player who was once guaranteed to take at least 16-17 shots per game (fully warranted, though; who wouldn’t want such a talented scorer shooting the ball?), she now has a fourth-year Brittney Griner in the post and a prime DeWanna Bonner eating up usage on the perimeter.
If anything, it’s made the Mercury a little less predictable, though their success this season has been an entirely different story. Picked by many to be the best team in the league and the 2016 WNBA champs, the Mercury crawled out of the gate to an 0-4 start, and didn’t record a month in which they played above .500 except August (3-0). It was a shock to those who expected Phoenix to return to their 2014 form, with Taurasi and Penny Taylor returning to the league and reuniting the core that ate through the WNBA with a 29-5 record.
Anyone who was watched the Mercury play this season should easily be able to identify the difference between this team and the 2014 championship squad: defense, or lack thereof. In 2014, the Mercury allowed just 97 points per 100 possessions, best in the WNBA that season. This year, that number jumped all the way up to 105.8 points allowed per 100 possessions. The Mercury finished around the middle of the pack in that defensive metric thanks to a late-season focus on defensive improvement, but it was easily their biggest weakness for the majority of 2016.
It’s a weakness that the Fever will be looking to exploit on Wednesday. Second-year head coach Steph White has routinely preached two things: pace and balance on offense. It’s a formula that helped them nearly upset Minnesota in last year’s Finals, and one that White hopes will take them all the way this year. With Briann January, Erica Wheeler, Shenise Johnson and Marissa Coleman on the perimeter, the Fever have plenty of players who can score 15 points on any given night, reducing the load on Catchings and making the team as a whole more difficult to guard.
The consistency of those role players has been missing this year, though. Coleman, in particular, had a disappointing season, shooting just 26.8 percent from distance and 34.6 percent overall, which is a tough pill to swallow considering half of her field goals come from beyond the arc. Johnson, too, has had an up-and-down season: though her scoring efficiency didn’t take as large of a drop as Coleman’s, she hasn’t been nearly the factor she was in 2015, when she was the Fever’s most reliable perimeter scorer and finished 2nd in WNBA Most Improved Player voting.
Such variance will need to be on Indiana’s side if they want a victory; in the WNBA’s new playoff format, the first round of games is played in sudden-death, single-game fashion. In other words, it’s win or go home. Given the unpredictable nature of both of these teams, it’s a game that can truly go either way, and as such will be a game WNBA fans won’t want to miss.