Mercury Keeping Their Cool

By Mark Heller
East Valley Tribune
May 31, 2007

Having endured one of the ugliest 20 minutes of basketball under coach Paul Westhead, the Mercury gathered inside their locker room at halftime Tuesday night.

Their franchise player had been tossed. They couldn’t stop Sacramento. And, incredibly, they weren’t scoring. The deficit was 10 points, a gap not insurmountable but daunting against a team as solid defensively as Sacramento.

Westhead, however, is never one to panic. He barely raised his voice.

Down 10 and figuring things couldn’t get worse, the Mercury made a couple of defensive adjustments, namely going exclusively to their zone defense. There was no yelling or fingerpointing, only a few calmly stated schematic changes.

Westhead left the rest up to his players.

“He has a calm approach to everything,” veteran forward Kelly Schumacher said Wednesday before the team left for a three-game road trip beginning tonight in San Antonio. “He doesn’t get everyone out of whack.”

Much like the Mercury’s previous home game against Houston, a strong third quarter gave Phoenix (3-1) a lead. Aided by a couple of clutch shots and a few defensive stands late, the Mercury pulled out an improbable victory against the two-time Western Conference champions.

A day later, having reviewed and recounted Tuesday night’s flaws, the team had found itself a boost of confidence and toughness.

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“It definitely couldn’t get worse,” point guard Kelly Miller said. “We said we had to get this done, and we found a way. It wasn’t the prettiest game, but we’re happy. We feel good about ourselves.”

With Diana Taurasi ejected and forced to watch and eat doughnuts in the locker room, players raved about the team’s ability to make subtle-but-effective changes (especially defensively) and sustain energy and toughness through a mostly off-kilter night.

Not often have the Mercury won a game in which they were forced to play like a half-court team, let alone when they were dominated statistically.

A year ago, Westhead was unhappy with his team’s play during a 5-11 start but never expressed panic. Today, Westhead is happy but cautious given Phoenix is only approaching June.

But the progress is evident, which is why the Mercury have the makings of a playoff team, even if they are still under construction.

“I like how we’re becoming a team, but it hasn’t happened yet,” Westhead said.

“A three-game road trip will help ID yourself and your evolution as a quality team.”

Mercury at Silver Stars
When: 5 p.m. today
Where: AT&T Center, San Antonio
Radio: KMVP (860 AM)
Records: Mercury 3-1, Silver Stars 3-1

Outlook: Silver Stars: San Antonio’s lone loss to date was to the Mercury on opening night at US Airways Center. Since then, the revamped Silver Stars have been on a roll. They overcame a 13-point deficit against Houston on Tuesday night. After a shaky first game, new point guard Becky Hammon has been a boon since being acquired from New York. She’s averaging 20 points, three rebounds and six assists.

Mercury: Tonight begins the first extended road trip of the season, with stops in San Antonio, New York and Connecticut in the next four days, then a cross-country flight home before their next home game on Tuesday. While the offense generates most discussions, so far the defense has been the difference. Opponents are shooting 38 percent against Phoenix thus far while coughing up nearly 20 turnovers per game. Olympia Scott (leg) and Penny Taylor (ankle) have been hampered in the early going and missed most of practice this week, but both are expected to play.

COPYRIGHT 2007, EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE. Used with permission.