Team brimming with confidence

Mercury Ready to Turn Up Heat

By Mark Heller,
Aug. 30, 2007

She stammered her way through with muddled answers and intermittent laughs. Tangela Smith had a point, but it was easier to see than say.

This is old hat for Smith, who was a part of three Sacramento playoff runs earlier this decade.

Something is different this time, and it goes beyond homecourt advantage, a recordbreaking offense and, starting tonight in San Antonio, the Mercury’s first conference finals appearance since 1998.

“We had a great team (in Sacramento) but this team can win it all,” said Smith, who made playoff appearances in 2001, 2003 and 2004 with the Monarchs. “(In Sacramento) I felt we could win, but for some reason it was different. I don’t know why.”

Brought in during the offseason for just these kinds of playoff situations, Smith hasn’t needed to explain to, pry or relax teammates. Their championship aspirations since May are five victories away, but there are no worries, handwringing or butterflies to be found.

The Game 1 victory in Seattle last week took care of those worries, and Diana Taurasi’s late 3-pointer in Game 2 helped stop a hemorrhaging second half to complete the sweep.

The media swarm around Taurasi after Tuesday’s practice was reminiscent of her Final Four days at Connecticut, but she cracked jokes about the ankle she tweaked in practice, and Monday’s off day spent chowing on food from Chipotle.

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“Once the stakes are higher, the feeling is the same, where you can tell people are playing a little harder, a little more intense,” Taurasi said. “Every two-minute stretch is harder. Every time I got on the bench I was tired, whereas in the regular season you feel like you can play 40 minutes straight.

“People get nervous when they’re not prepared.”

Even in the midst of what the team views as the defining part of its season, the loosygoosy ways start at the top, with coach Paul Westhead’s calm demeanor, and the locker room rabble-rousing from Taurasi, Smith, Cappie Pondexter and Kelly Mazzante.

“We’re ready,” Mazzante said.

“The bench is ready to come in when called. The starters are ready to carry us. Everyone’s ready for the responsibility, whether it’s two minutes or 36 minutes.”

Privately, they talk of an excitement this team possesses, both in the way Westhead handles his squad and playoff atmosphere new to seven on the roster. But a team which has lost twice since mid-July can’t help itself. “Some games you just know you’re going to win, and others you’re not so sure about,” Smith said. “Right now all the games are feeling like they’re ours. “We’re at ease. It’s a great feeling.”

COPYRIGHT 2007, EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE. Used with permission.