Mercury Rising

The best baller in Phoenix doesn't play for the Suns. Can Diana Taurasi take the Mercury all the way?

The Western and Eastern Conference playoffs found four teams facing each other in a best-of-three first-round series, with the two winners facing off in a second-round best-of-three to determine who heads to the WNBA finals, a best-of-five series.

The Mercury won the first two games of the opening series against Seattle, defeating the Storm 101-84 on its own turf in Game 1. Thanks to a three-point shot by Taurasi late in the fourth quarter, the Mercury sneaked past the fourth-seeded Storm 95-89 in Game 2 to take the series.

Now that the Mercury has weathered the Storm, it will face the San Antonio Silver Stars to determine who goes to the championship round.

Diana Taurasi
Tony Blei
Diana Taurasi
Taurasi landed on three Sports Illustrated covers before turning pro.
Taurasi landed on three Sports Illustrated covers before turning pro.

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The Phoenix Mercury plays the San Antonio Silver Stars in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals on Saturday, September 1. Tickets are on sale through Ticketmaster and at the U.S. Airways Center box office.
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The Mercury's on a roll, and the players know what they must do as the playoffs continue.

"In the past, [the challenge] has been our rebounding," Penny Taylor says. "We've had problems getting on the boards and things like that. But even when we don't rebound well, we've won games. I think the focus now is blocking and getting boards, because from that, we feed our running game. And getting out and running is what we need."

"We've fared really well against some good teams," Taurasi says, "and I think it's just a matter of . . . just playing with the confidence we've had for the last month."

When asked about his expectations for Taurasi as the playoffs proceed, Westhead says what any coach would say about his star player, "She's gonna be marvelous. My expectation for her is to be who she is — she'll make big plays and big shots. I think she'll have a great playoff season."

As for bringing a championship to Phoenix for the first time since the Arizona Diamondbacks won the 2001 World Series, there's an obstacle beyond the Western Conference — two-time defending champs, the Detroit Shock, coached by former NBA center and Pistons bad-boy Bill Laimbeer. At press time, the defense-minded Shock was tied 1-1 in its first-round series against the New York Liberty, but many expect the Shock to win in the East again this year. In the regular season, the Shock stomped its way to a 24-10 record, including a 111-82 win over Phoenix.

But the Mercury and its fans are confident. For the first time, the possibility that this team can go all the way seems real.

"I definitely really believe — and I wouldn't tell you this if I didn't," Turner Thorne says. "The Mercury have everything they need."

In addition to the All-Star trio of Taurasi, Taylor, and Pondexter, the Mercury has players like Kelly Mazzante, the all-time leading scorer (male or female) in Big 10 history; Tangela Smith, whose career rebounds rank among the top 10 in WNBA history; Kelly Schumacher, who reached a career high of 25 blocks in 21 games this season; and so-fast-she's-a-blur veteran Kelly Miller, who ranks third in the league this year in assists.

If the Mercury were to meet the Shock in the finals, Detroit's Katie Smith's not selling Taurasi & Company short. "They are an offensive juggernaut. They have a couple of guards who can flat-out score," she says. "They just come at you, but on the defensive end, they give up a good amount of points."

Going forward with Smith's statement about the Mercury's defense, Turner Thorne says, "There's an old cliché in basketball: 'Offense wins awards, defense wins games, and rebounding wins championships.' And rebounding [a major part of a team's defense] is not a strength of the Mercury's. If there's one thing I'm concerned about for them in the postseason, it's that. Taurasi, Pondexter — those guys that do so much for the team, they've got to have five or six rebounds per game. They can flat-out score. I think the defense has improved and they're doing a good job with that, so it's won and done if they can just hold teams.

"And," she stresses, "Taurasi has to keep her cool and not get in foul trouble."

Mental toughness counts more than ever in the face of postseason fatigue. "We've worked so hard all season, and now it's this moment in time, where you're reaching for this one thing," Pondexter says. "I think we've got to just focus, focus, focus. And I truly believe we have the pieces to win a championship."

And for an athlete who's almost always smiling off-court, Taurasi looked deadly serious during an on-court interview following the Mercury's final game of the regular season, an 87-73 victory over the visiting Monarchs.

Asked what title the team was looking for this season, Taurasi didn't hesitate:

"The championship. That's the only thing we're looking at right now — the championship."

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2 comments
CourtKilla
CourtKilla

Did you see the game last night against San Antonio? Way to sweep the playoffs, Mercury! The finals are going to be outstanding, but I doubt it will be Phoenix vs. Detroit. Look for the Indiana Fever to shut down the Shock today.

Fred
Fred

the sonics already hired a coach. i doubt westhead would rumored for a coaching position that's already been filled. p.j. carlesimo took the job earlier in the summer.

 
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