Mercury Again Finals Bound

By Brad G. Faye, PhoenixMercury.com
Posted: Sept. 26, 2009

While it won’t be a rematch of the 2007 Finals that saw the Mercury matched up with the Shock, Phoenix will take it. Following the team’s 85-74 victory over Los Angeles on Saturday night, the Mercury are heading to their second WNBA Finals appearance in three seasons.

In the championship round, Phoenix will not find itself pitted against Detroit like they did in 2007, but the Indiana Fever who were also victorious in Saturday’s decisive Game 3, 72-67, over the defending champions.

The Mercury split their regular season series against the Fever this year, with each team emerging triumphant on their opponent’s home floor. In August, the Mercury dropped a rare contest at home, 90-83, due in large part to Indiana’s Katie Douglas and her 28 points. In September’s rematch, the Mercury rode Cappie Pondexter’s 25 points to a 106-90 win at Conseco Fieldhouse. The Fever were without Douglas in that affair, but did receive a strong effort from Tamika Catchings who pitched in 27 points in the losing effort.

The one-two punch of Catchings and Douglas is one Mercury Head Coach Corey Gaines said is one of the best in the league and are a pair or players his team is certainly aware of.

“They are tough,” Gaines said. “Catchings is a great defensive player and Douglas is a great scorer. The two are obviously one of the better guard tandems you’ll find in this league.”

Diana Taurasi agreed, “They’re great. Two amazing basketball players who are so good at what they do. With what she can do on offense and what she can do on defense, if you were to draw up a perfect basketball player, Tameka Catchings could be it.”

With a season average of 20.3 points per contest, Catchings is not only a force to be reckoned with on the offensive end of the court, but on defense, as well. Catchings, who averaged 2.5 steals per game in her team’s opening round series against Washington and 4.5 in the Conference Finals against Detroit, was named during these playoffs as the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year.

“I think she’s a great player who is probably one of the hardest working players I’ve seen in this league on both ends of the floor,” Pondexter said. “She’s big which can create a lot of problems defensively and offensively can shoot the three or take you off the dribble. She really is a complete player.”

Having a one-two punch is something the Mercury know a little something about themselves. Pondexter and Taurasi were both named to this year’s All-WNBA First Team and will be sure to keep the hands of Fever players full throughout the championship round.

But boasting a dynamic duo like the Mercury and Fever do isn’t the only similarity the two Conference Champions share. Each ballclub also possess one of the league’s top reserves. Phoenix’s DeWanna Bonner – the 2009 Sixth Woman of the Year – and Indiana’s Briann January will also be ones to watch in this series.

Like Bonner, January is also a rookie, and after attending college locally at Arizona State University finished her first regular season with averages of 6.9 points, 2.3 assists and 1.9 rebounds per contest. With an increased role in the postseason, those averages climbed to 9.5 points, 2.5 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game and are why while January may not start games for the Fever, she will often finish them.

“January is a great player who can handle the ball and take it to the basket so we’ll have to be ready to defend her,” Bonner said. “You really can’t ask for much more as a rookie than playing in the WNBA Finals in your first season and we’ll both be ready for this experience.”

Ironically, as much as these two teams appear to have in common, their philosophies on how to win ballgames couldn’t be much farther apart.

“It’s going to be a contrast of styles with them being a defensive team and us being an offensive team,” Gaines said. “I’ve said that our offense is our best defense so it should be interesting to watch. I remember the first time we played them, their help defense gave us some trouble. They’re a good team and it’s going to be about who could enforce their will on the other team.”

Perhaps the wildcard to winning the series for Phoenix is center Nicole Ohlde who missed the first of the two contests against Indiana this season. In that loss, the Mercury were badly outrebounded, 43-26. When the two teams met again following Ohlde’s return, the offseason acquisition pulled down seven boards and helped the “Mighty Mercury” win the edge on the boards, 30-29.

“Along with limiting turnovers, rebounding is one of the keys to winning ballgames in this league,” Gaines said. “Nicole has been big for us since returning and getting us a lot of those rebounds we’ve needed to win ballgames.”

“I thought our bigs have really been doing a good job all season long,” Mercury General Manager Ann Meyers Drysdale said. “Nicole Ohdle has had to fight through some injuries this year which has hurt her timing and conditioning, but I will tell you she’s been a huge difference down the stretch. Her numbers may not show it, but she’s been huge for us on both defense and offense.”

Another factor which could be key is the Mercury’s fan base, the “X-Factor.” Phoenix will open the 2009 WNBA Finals at home on Tuesday thanks to a one-game difference in the win column, but as veteran Tangela Smith told PhoenixMercury.com, both these teams have already proven themselves capable of winning on their opponent’s home floor.

“They’re a great team and there’s a reason they were in first place for most of the season,” the center said. “You have to remain aggressive against them the entire game and with Indiana, we have to remember that this is a team who has beaten us at home and we’ll have to play hard to prevent that from happening again.”