Mercury Focused on Closing Season Out Strong

By Brad G. Faye, PhoenixMercury.com
Posted: Aug. 13, 2009

To say the Phoenix Mercury have a recent history of finishing WNBA seasons out strong is a bit of an understatement.

Over the course of the past three seasons, the team has won a combination of 29 of their final 34 contests to close out campaigns, with no run more memorable than the 18-of-21 contests won which ended the 2007 season. The team was fighting for its playoff lives that year and would ultimately ride the momentum of that hot streak all the way to a WNBA Championship.

The situation for the Mercury is a bit different in 2009. The team sits atop the Western Conference standings, and is contesting the Indiana Fever for the league’s best record overall. They have two legitimate MVP candidates in Cappie Pondexter and Diana Taurasi, as well as a Rookie of the Year candidate in DeWanna Bonner.

But just because the team finds itself in a much more comfortable position than they have in the last three seasons, the Mercury insist the locker room is anything but complacent heading into these final few games of the season.

“Whenever you’re looking to make a push in the playoffs, you want to be sure to finish the season off strong,” Mercury Head Coach Corey Gaines said. “You want to tighten up everything you’ve been working on, improve the things you’ve been looking to improve and end the regular season on a positive note.”

The WNBA’s third-leading scorer, Diana Taurasi, agrees with her head coach and told PhoenixMercury.com that the team is looking to take advantage of a little home cooking at every opportunity from this point forward.

“We’ve got to continue playing good basketball,” Taurasi said. “We really want to close out the season strong – particularly at home – where we haven’t played as well as we’d have liked the past week. We’ve kind of had a weird schedule with all the days off in between games, but regardless, we’ve got to find a way to get it done.”

The schedule has appeared to have more of an “NFL-type” feel to it, as of late, with the Mercury heading into Thursday’s contest against San Antonio having played just three contests in its last 12 days.

Business will indeed pick up for the ballclub in these final weeks, not only in terms of playing more games but the quality of opponent, as well. Following their victory against the Silver Stars on Thursday, the Mercury will face six playoff teams in their last 10 contests. Those games include a rematch in San Antonio on Saturday against the Silver Stars – whom they would currently match up with if postseason play began today – and a rematch against the first-place Indiana Fever who recently beat them at home, 90-83.

But as Bonner points out, even as a rookie she has already learned the importance of giving the same effort on the hardwood regardless of that evening’s opponent.

“Everybody out there right now is either fighting to make the playoffs or to improve their positioning,” the rookie center said. “We need to keep doing what we’re doing and know that teams are going to come hard at us and with a purpose. The teams outside the playoffs aren’t going to give any less of an effort than the teams that are in the playoffs, so records at this point don’t mean much.”

That becomes even more apparent when looking at the upcoming adversaries who currently constitute as “non-playoff” opponents. Each team the Mercury will play the rest of the way is still at least mathematically alive to qualify for postseason play, with ballclubs like the Los Angeles Sparks – whom they’ll face twice – and the defending champion Detroit Shock in serious contention.

“We understand there are a lot of tough games left on the schedule,” Gaines said. “The records of playoff teams speak for themselves and even the teams that are outside the playoffs like the defending champions are capable of beating anybody in this league at any time.”

Taurasi agreed, “A 7-15 team is just as good as an 18-7 team in this league and everybody knows that. Some teams have had bad breaks early because of injuries or because of tough schedules so it’s important we play every team from this point forward as if they are a playoff team.”

As far as how the Mercury will approach these final 10 games of the 2009 campaign, the head coach said the team will concentrate on Saturday’s rematch against San Antonio before looking to Tuesday’s contest in the “Windy City.”

“I don’t look ahead of whichever game is next at all,” Gaines said. “I don’t worry about who we’re playing two games from now or three games from now. I just focus on who we’ve got next on the schedule and what we’ll need to do if we want a victory against them. We’ll look to our next opponent afterwards.”

Known for finishing the regular season off strong, the Mercury, as well as its fans are hoping history can again repeat itself. There is, however, one thing that can separate the close to the 2009 campaign from those previous three seasons – a chance for the ballclub to control its own destiny.

“Being No. 1, getting that home court advantage and knowing you’ll have the home crowd behind you is something we know from experience is important,” Pondexter said. “When we hosted that Game 4 in the 2007 Finals against the Shock, that home crowd gave us a huge lift in forcing a Game 5 back in Detroit. Home court could be a difference maker so we’re definitely looking to close the season out strong.”