Mercury’s Speed Meets Shock’s Muscle in Finals

By Mark Heller
East Valley Tribune
Sept. 5, 2007

The comment was made in jest, a half-humorous, half-empty line as a reminder the Mercury wouldn’t cave into the plodding prevalent in these playoffs.

Before these playoffs began, coach Paul Westhead said his team would “go even faster,” and true to his words, the Mercury have found another gear beyond “blur.”

Faster and faster they’ve gone this postseason. After breaking their own scoring record by averaging 89 points per game in the regular season, the Mercury managed to rev themselves up to 99 points per game through their previous two series.

The third and final series starts today at defending-champion Detroit, and the bruising, brash Shock have allowed 69 points per game.

History suggests a team must withstand a snail’s pace boxing match to win a championship, but we already know Westhead isn’t interested in being another sheep, and he isn’t about to herd his team into a death march because of bigger bruisers.

Asked if his team was resigned to having to play the Eastern Conference way, Westhead said: “I hope not. I hope it wouldn’t be because they got that message from me. They’d never get that from me.”

It’s helped playing Western foes in Seattle and San Antonio, teams which feature a more wide-open style of play than the beasts in the East, but their numbers across the board have increased.

In this case, the numbers don’t lie. Elevated play by the team’s starting five — especially Cappie Pondexter and Kelly Miller— have made the league’s most potent offense, extra potent.

The Mercury shot 44 percent in the regular season. They’ve made 46 percent in the playoffs.

The Mercury shot 35 percent from behind the arc through 34 games. They’ve shot 44 percent (46 of 105) in the postseason (4 games).

“There’s no ‘but,’ ” Westhead said. “In our approach, it’s just get out and play.

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Miller has increased her scoring in the playoffs from 9 points per game to 13 points per game in the postseason.

Pondexter has arguably been the MVP of the postseason, averaging 26 points, seven rebounds and six assists per game.

She played point guard for four years at Rutgers and sees a couple minutes per game at point guard, mostly because she’s the team’s best creator of shots for herself and teammates.

“I love it,” she said. “It allows us to work the ball around and be more flexible.”

Which is exactly what Detroit detests, and why the bigger Shock have been one of the top defensive teams for the past couple years.

“We can’t feed into what they want to do,” guard Diana Taurasi said.

The Shock want be equally efficient on offense, especially on the offensive glass. The key is to retreat fast enough on defense to force Phoenix into a slowdown, half-court, push-and-shove style.

“Everybody talks about slowing Phoenix down, but it comes down to what you shoot percentage-wise,” Shock coach Bill Laimbeer said. ”We’re going to get the same number of possessions as they are, if not more if we rebound the basketball on the offensive end. If we hold them to a reasonable shooting percentage and we shoot the same percentage, our second chances should win out.”

Of course, that’s been every team’s game plan against Phoenix, which wants to find a gear between visible and vapor.

“That’s the way we’ve played, it’s been nothing unusual,” Miller said. “We know this is what we need to do to win.”

BONUS SHOTS: Detroit All-Star forward Cheryl Ford continues to play through pain after knee surgery forced her out of the second half of the regular season. Ford returned for the playoffs, but has been less than 100 percent.

“This is probably the worst that she’s been,” Laimbeer said Tuesday. “It’s still a game-time decision. It always has been in the entire playoffs.”

Detroit scored five more points per game than they allowed, best in the league. Phoenix (+1.5) is second.

Laimbeer, on his team’s comparison to the Mercury’s “Paul Ball”: “It’s called regular, East Coast basketball — rebound, play defense and grind out wins.”

COPYRIGHT 2007, EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE. Used with permission.