Mercury Stay In Playoff Race

By Stefan Swiat, PhoenixMercury.com
Posted: Sept. 4, 2008

As the playoff race continues to heat up, the Mercury are still mathematically in contention for the last spot in the Western Conference. After their 103-96 victory over the visiting Lynx, the Mercury have moved to within three games of Sacramento for fourth place in the West.

With five games left on the slate, Phoenix will need a little help from the Monarchs, although it can help its cause tremendously when it hosts Sacramento in one of its last two home games Friday. The loss puts the Lynx a full two games behind the Monarchs, tied with Houston for fifth place. The standings currently look like this:

1. San Antonio 19-10
2. Seattle 19-10
3. Los Angeles 18-12
4. Sacramento 16-13
5. Minnesota 14-15
6. Houston 14-15
7. Phoenix 13-16

If it came down to a tiebreaker, Phoenix would lose automatically to Sacramento, but would be tied with Houston and Minnesota (the season series were both knotted at 1-1).

Sacramento has five games remaining, with three of them coming against teams with a record greater than .500. However, only two of its games are at home. Minnesota also only has two home games left, but play three teams with records worse than .500. Houston is the only club with three home games remaining, although all of them will be against teams with a record better than .500.

As always, the best case scenario is for the Mercury to win out their remaining games. After hosting Sacramento and Houston at home, Phoenix travels to Detroit, Minnesota and Indiana before wrapping up the regular season. But Mercury fans shouldn’t despair, the club has a history of finishing the season strong. Phoenix won 12 of its last 14 games in 2007 as well as its final seven games in 2006 to conclude the season.

DEE FOR MVP

When Seimone Augustus and the Lynx strolled into town to do battle with the Mercury, she not only represented a major hurdle to Phoenix making the playoffs, but she also represented one of the greatest threats to Diana Taurasi winning MVP honors this season.

The third-year guard out of LSU is no stranger to Taurasi, with both of them collecting gold medals as teammates for the US Women’s National Team just a couple weeks ago. Augustus is fourth in the league in scoring with 19.3 points, while ranking sixth in the league in free throw percentage and 20th in field goal percentage.

However, her greatest case for MVP lies in Minnesota’s improvement as a team. Traditionally a team that hasn’t fared well in the standings, the Lynx are knocking on the door of making the playoffs after finishing with the league’s worst record last season. Augustus, who hasn’t been on a team that has mustered more than 10 wins in her two previous seasons, already has led her team to 14 wins, despite playing in an Olympic-shortened season.

But on the flipside, Taurasi is having a very impressive individual season, leading the league in scoring at 23.5 points a night. She is one of only two players in the league that rank in the top 25 in eight different statistical categories. Not only is she the top scorer in the league, but she ranks 14th in assists, 25th in steals, 13th in blocks, 25th in field goal percentage, 19th in 3-point field goal percentage, 10th in free throw percentage and 16th in minutes.

Taurasi has taken home Western Conference Player of the Week honors on three separate occasions this season, while also becoming the fastest player in WNBA history to reach 3,000 points. In only her fifth season in the league, she is already the Mercury’s all-time leading scorer and field-goal leader. If she finishes the season as the league’s leading scorer, she will become only the fourth player in WNBA history to lead the league in scoring more than once.

Although Taurasi seems to make the best case for MVP individually, much of her chances depend on the success of her team. If she is able to propel her club into the postseason, her likelihood for receiving the award only increases. So as other players like Seattle’s Lauren Jackson, Los Angeles’ Candace Parker and San Antonio’s Sophia Young continue to perform well individually on teams with great records, Taurasi’s best option for competing with them lies squarely in racking up Ws for her franchise.

After Wednesday, it appears as if Taurasi is well on her way. Despite 27 points from Augustus, Taurasi erupted for 32 points on 3-of-4 shooting from downtown, while collecting seven rebounds and five blocks. But more imporantly, the victory inched her team closer to the postseason and maybe one step closer to taking home that MVP tropy.

HOMECOMING

Up until June 18, she was the Mercury’s all-time leading scorer. Up until July 1, she held the franchise record for most field goals. But for Mercury fans, she will always be known as “Grandmama.”

Jennifer Gillom, a.k.a. “Grandmama,” returned to US Airways Center on Wednesday as the assistant coach for the Minnesota Lynx. It is her first season on the sidelines in the WNBA, after spending seven on the court as a player, six of which were with the Mercury.

“I’m really happy to be where I am,” Gillom said. “Especially with a young group that is still coachable and you're able to see the results of your coaching."

Gillom noted that she knew that she wanted to be a coach since she was 10 years old.

“I knew once I was done playing I wanted to coach, but I didn’t know it would be in the WNBA,” she said. “I thought it would be in college.”

After her WNBA career concluded, the former Olympic gold medalist received her start in coaching at Xavier College Prep, a high school in Phoenix. Although she had immediate offers to coach in college, Gillom had a systematic approach to how she wanted to develop as a coach and she followed it.

“I wanted to start at the high school level because I wanted to learn a little bit more about me and I knew I could do that there,” the former Mercury star said. “As an assistant somewhere you learn someone else’s ideas, but I wanted to learn who I was.”

After honing her style in the prep ranks, she felt it was time to move to the professional level, so she signed on as an assistant with the Lynx.

“I was able to teach at the high school level, but I’m able to learn more Xs and Os in the WNBA,” she stated. “It’s been great in both ways, especially if I want to become a head coach someday.”

Although the former All-Star is elated to be back in the WNBA, she still thinks back to her playing days in Phoenix. As she arrived for practice yesterday and noticed the lights were off in the arena, she began to think of who she was going to contact to let them know that her team was ready to practice. But when she looked up at the scoreboard, she saw “Welcome home Grandmama” on the screen.

“That brought tears to my eyes and it was an emotional moment,” she said. “But I had to tell myself, ‘I’m in Minnesota. I’m in Minnesota.’”

And while Gillom may be telling herself that she resides in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” for now, it appears that she’ll always have a place for her in the desert.

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