Life On The Run

The heat’s one thing. But those 112-degree months don’t hold a blowtorch to the toughest thing about joining the Phoenix Mercury, which is the sudden feeling that your legs have turned to cactus.

“You’re sore, you’re pulling hamstrings, groins, quads,” said second-year Mercury forward Candice Dupree of her first year in Phoenix, after four in Chicago. “You have to stay in shape, otherwise you’ll die.”

This year, just like in the five years past, the Mercury again lead the WNBA in scoring. And running. Using the system of blistering transition and attrition that former coach Paul Westhead brought with him to Phoenix in 2006, the Mercury have gone from scoring 69.4 points a game in 2005 to just under 90 a game in 2011, down a little from last year’s high-water mark 93.9 ppg.

Under current coach Corey Gaines – a longtime protégé of Westhead – the system is widely regarded as the signature offense in the WNBA, the medium through which top-flight scorers like Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor and Dupree can practice their art.

Of course, with the Mercury once again giving up a WNBA-high 86.73 points per game, it’s also the most dangerous system in the league. Teams are going to score against them, and that’s for sure – Phoenix has held just two teams under 70 points all year. Phoenix just believes it’ll score more. The key is to just out-run everybody, and when the clock’s narrowing in on the final zero, to have a little more left in the tank.

And as the Mercury look for their third WNBA title in five years, the plan remains the same as it was five years ago: run. Opponents have caught on, game plans have gotten better and teams have found ways to slow them down. But no matter. Playing for the Phoenix Mercury means living and dying by a system that no one else can re-create.

“When we’re rebounding and being able to get out and run, there’s not a team that can keep up with us,” Dupree said. “They can maybe do it one quarter or two quarters, but at the end of the game, we can withstand that and wear teams down.”

And if it’s hard to keep up with the Mercury when you’re playing against them, it’s even tougher when you’re playing with them. Gaines has long said that it takes a player a year or so to acclimate to the pace and pressure of playing in Phoenix, but once they do, they soar.

“Once you get used to it, it’s a lot of fun,” said Dupree, who spent her first year in Phoenix putting in extra time doing sprint workouts on the treadmill and fighting injuries to her unaccustomed legs. “It’s a lot of work. People think you just get out and run and that’s it, but you have to be in the right kind of shape to run in this system. But I’d much rather get up and down the floor, it makes the game more enjoyable to watch. Half-court basketball, it works, but it’s slow, it’s boring to play.”

So, as you can imagine, the problems start when Phoenix stops.

In the half-court set, they’re frozen. Terribly miscast. They can operate if they need to, but who wants to see a Lamborghini make three-point turns?

“We have learned this year, more than any other, how to slow it down and play in the half court – but we’re not always great at it,” said Taylor, the Mercury’s All-Star forward. “We’re better when we’re running.”

“It is tough,” Dupree said. “When teams try to slow us down into half-court basketball, we do tend to struggle a little bit. We’re not terrible, but we’d much rather get out and run.”

When they’re doing that, they’re untouchable.

During an especially brisk 11-game wave from the middle of June through the middle of July, the Mercury won 10 games and scored more than 85 points in all but one of those games, broke 90 seven times and 100 four times. The league’s second-highest-scoring team, the Minnesota Lynx, have crossed 100 just twice all season.

During that stretch, Phoenix was scoring 94.36 points per game. For the sake of comparison, the Storm have scored more than 94 points in a game just once this year.

But on the other side, the Storm also haven’t allowed a team to break 94 points once this season, and in three games against the Merc, they’ve held Phoenix to 76.3 points per game. Phoenix, on the other hand, has given up 94 or more seven times.

So, just like high-performance cars, all the parts need to fire in unison to keep the machine going. If a screw comes loose, the whole thing starts to break down.

“We were fatigued mentally and physically,” Taylor said. “And in this league you can’t have phases like that. The season is so short and the games are so quick and fast that it can really hurt you.”

And when the Mercury lost five of their next six heading into August, giving up an average of 95.2 points per game and scoring just 87.5 per game themselves, a whole lot came loose.

They were fouling people. Not grabbing rebounds. And above all, they were turning the ball over. And over. And over. In each of those six games – including the lone win, over the Liberty – the Mercury lost the turnover battle, finishing that run with more than five turnovers a game (15.83) more than their opponents (10.67).

“The real problem was our turnovers,” Gaines said. “We were giving teams easy baskets, and that’s a double-whammy for us. You turn the ball over and that leads to a basket for the other team, it’s like a four-point switch.”

“There was a phase there where the more we tried not to throw it away the more we threw it away,” Taylor said. “We really turned it around, all of us have.”

Gaines had the team focus on just making one fewer turnover per person, per game. And when it finally clicked, so, again, did the system.

Not that turnovers are the only way of slowing down Phoenix, as evidenced by the 41-29 rebounding edge and pound-it-inside tactics the Sparks used in an upset win earlier this month. But they’re certainly helpful.

And as the Mercury look to finish in the top two spots in the West – and claim the home-court advantage that goes with that – they’re well aware that they can’t be the ones slowing themselves down.

“It’s going on five or six years we’ve been playing this style,” Taylor said. “Teams are recognizing the ways to stop us from scoring, and we’re finding that every game, we have to focus and not let other teams dictate the pace.”

“One of the things [Gaines] says is a shot’s better than a turnover,” she said, “and we never have a problem taking a shot.”