It’s Down to One for Mercury, Shock

By Mark Heller,
Sept. 16, 2007

AUBURN HILLS, MICH. - Forty minutes remain. Whether with anguish or ecstasy, today concludes a 42-game, four-month WNBA season not experienced by Phoenix or its fans for a decade. If ever.

Yet, through the bumps, bruises, ice baths and piles of ankle tape, the smaller, thinner and shallower Mercury (in numbers) are one victory away from the franchise’s first, and Valley’s first pro sports championship since the Diamondbacks in 2001.

There are no silver linings allowed for today’s deciding Game 5 of this Finals series against Detroit. The Mercury won here before (Game 2), and won playing Detroit’s way (Game 4). So before a relaxed practice Saturday, the Mercury saw no need to worry about today’s 12,000 expected screamers in the Palace of Auburn Hills seats. Or the fact that no WNBA championship team has won on the road.

Or the Shock’s interest in playing bully ball. Been through it. Done that. Shock guard Katie Smith has a shiner under her right eye to prove it, the result of a Diana Taurasi whack across the face in Game 4. “It’s nothing,” Smith said. “It just looks bad in the mirror.” It’s just as well. Aesthetics haven’t yet worked out to the Mercury’s advantage the way they hoped. Two consecutive subpar shooting nights — at home — prevented the Mercury from finding their m.o. of sprinting and swishing.

Phoenix led the league in scoring, shooting percentage and assists this season. All three facets took a nosedive last week.

Once may be a fluke. But Thursday was twice in a row. So, on what’s now the worst possible time, what about three times?

“I never get nervous,” coach Paul Westhead said. “If I have an instinct, it’s that if it happens twice, it can’t happen three times. I feel more resolve because our shooting has struggled in the last couple games.

“When we get the ball — make or miss — we’ll get out and run that break and take shots. We’re going to win or lose doing it.”

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A deciding game to end their season sounds like a good time to bring out the complicated game plan full of trick plays. To empty the alltime playbook of the coach’s 35 years of coaching experience. Or not.

“Run,” Westhead said. “Faster. Speed ball.”

That’s always the goal, but other than the Game 2 blowout, the Mercury haven’t been able to pick up the pace with any longevity.

To wit: Phoenix shot 38 percent, missed more than a half-dozen layups and only had 14 fast-break points in Game 4.

“Skilled means soft?” was Taurasi’s rhetorical question.

They’re short on experience compared to Detroit. On the Phoenix roster, only Olympia Scott has won a title. The Shock have seven regulars from last year’s team.

“I mean everybody’s going to be geeked up tomorrow and jittery anyway, but we’ve experienced it, we know how to deal with it and we know the things to do to win,” Shock forward Kara Braxton said.

But the Mercury’s ability to push and shove back may be how they’ve gotten to this point.

Ever the calm, collected presence, Westhead didn’t back down from his team’s style or plans, pointing out after 42 games this season, No. 43 shouldn’t be different.

But players acknowledged it will be, if only briefly.

“You feel it,” Taylor said. “I’ll have nerves. It’s important to feel that way. Otherwise why play?”

Soon enough, the jitters will subside and today will be another game.

The final game.

“How can you not be confident?” guard Kelly Mazzante said. “It’s Game 5 for the whole championship.”

COPYRIGHT 2007, EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE. Used with permission.