Mercury Set to Meet Sparks in Conference Finals

By Brad G. Faye, PhoenixMercury.com
Posted: Sept. 21, 2009

One could make the argument that while the Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks may have met four times during the regular season, there aren’t two teams in the WNBA’s Western Conference who know any less about each other.

While the Mercury finished with a 3-1 record against Lisa Leslie and the Sparks, all three of those victories came without All-Star Candace Parker in the starting lineup. The Sparks meanwhile, grabbing a win in the season finale between the two teams, struggled to get by a Mercury team that was playing without Diana Taurasi.

But while neither team met one another at full strength during the 2009 campaign, there is plenty one can take away from the numbers nonetheless.

For starters, Temeka Johnson really enjoys going up against her former ballclub. The point guard who joined Phoenix during the offseason, averaged 9.6 points per contest during the regular season put up a 14.5 point-per-game average when facing the Sparks.

"I think a lot will be made of Temeka playing against her former team but they’ve met four times now and she’s played well and I think gotten used to it," Mercury General Manager Ann Meyers Drysdale said. "To me, having Temeka is an advantage because she’s been there with Los Angeles in the Western Conference Finals and understands their mindset."

While the Mercury can expect solid play in their backcourt from both Johnson and Diana Taurasi, the Sparks will rely heavily on their frontcourt which includes Leslie and Parker. In her start against Phoenix this season, Parker scored 24 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked three shots. Leslie meanwhile enjoyer her most successful game against Phoenix this season back on August 27 when she contributed 23 points albeit in a loss.

The remaining contests have not been as kind to the WNBA legend, who in her first meeting this season against Phoenix, left the game with a hip bruise in the first quarter and never returned. On July 5, Leslie missed the contest between the two altogether with a severe right knee sprain she had suffered on June 19 against – you guessed it – the Mercury. Ironically, that contest also marked the season debut of Parker who came off the bench having been out on maternity leave.

But regardless of how much or how little of Leslie that Mercury center Tangela Smith has seen this season, the veteran says she knows just how much of an effort it will be matching up with her in these Conference Finals.

"Everybody knows about Lisa Leslie and what a great player she is," Smith said. "This is her last year and she feels she has something to prove. I’m going to just go out and be aggressive right from the start because that’s exactly what she’s going to do."

Leslie announced prior to this season that the 2009 campaign would be her last which should provide extra motivation for her teammates. After dispatching of another great player in Silver Stars guard-forward Vickie Johnson - who has also proclaimed this her final WNBA season - in the first round, the Mercury understand just how hard the Sparks will be playing to prevent an early retirement for their All-Star center Leslie.

But while the Sparks have the motivation of playing for Leslie, the Mercury may have momentum on their side. After dropping Game One of their Opening Round series against the Silver Stars on the road, the Mercury have now played back-to-back do-or-die games and know what it’s like playing under pressure.

"This series was a great way to prepare for L.A.," Penny Taylor said. "The Sparks are a different team in the sense that they’re bigger and have other threats, but they’re another team that loves to play basketball, don’t like resting and like us, want to play more games."

Rookie DeWanna Bonner agreed with her teammate that the series against San Antonio has the potential to be a great springboard heading into the next series.

"I think this win tonight gives us some great momentum," the center said. "We played some great basketball in that fourth quarter led by Diana (Taurasi). We need to go on the road and be ready for a big Game One."

But while we know the Mercury backcourt should be big for Phoenix and the Los Angeles frontcourt big for Los Angeles, and we know that the Sparks will be playing for Lisa Leslie but the Mercury are rolling following two-straight wins, Meyers Drysdale understands that the bottom line is, nobody really knows anything.

"With the way everything has gone between these two ballclubs this season, you can quickly throw out our 3-1 record against them by the wayside," the General Manager said. "I’m expecting this to be a very difficult series and there is a reason many people picked Los Angeles at the beginning of the season to come out of the Western Conference. They’re a long, strong team physically and a very tough and a very experienced team mentally. We’ve got a day to prepare tomorrow and will have to find a way to bring this team together to win this series."