Paul Westhead and the Mercury must find a way to win Thursday night to keep their season alive.
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PHOENIX, Sept. 12, 2007 – The Phoenix Mercury find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Thursday night’s Game 4 of the WNBA Finals will be the first elimination game the Mercury have faced since August 23, 2000, when they lost in a first-round series against the Los Angeles Sparks.
So far this postseason, the Mercury have been tested by Seattle and San Antonio, but have never had their backs up against the wall in a "win or go home" situation. With the Detroit Shock winning Game 3 in Phoenix on Tuesday to take a 2-1 series advantage, the Mercury must win Game 4 to keep their season alive and send the series back to Detroit for a deciding Game 5.
“It’s a good feeling,” Diana Taurasi said about being in an elimination game. “Sometimes you have to play a little nervous, a little scared, knowing that if you don’t go out there and play really well, a team is going to kick your butt. For us, that’s good pressure. I think we’re going to feed off that and come ready tomorrow.”
While this Mercury squad has not faced elimination together, most of the players have faced this pressure in the past, whether it was with previous WNBA teams, during college or with their overseas teams.
“You can definitely draw on it because it definitely gives you more experience,” said Smith, who faced playoff elimination games during her days in Sacramento. “But when it comes down to it, it’s all about heart. You can’t really give that to a person, you have to have that on your own and I think everybody on this team has it.
“I think we’re going to respond really well,” she continued. “We’ve never been in this situation before, but everyone on this team really wants to win a championship and we’re not going to give it up that easily. We’re going to leave it all out on the floor come Thursday.”
The Shock expect nothing less from the Mercury, having been in their shoes before. The Shock faced elimination in each of their first two playoff series this season as well as in last year's WNBA Finals.
“Their backs are against the wall,” said Detroit’s Katie Smith. “We’ve been there. We were there last year. They have nothing to lose now. They’re going to have the crowd behind them, the effort, the energy … because that’s it. You either win or go home. I expect them to give us everything they have. I hope that we’re ready because it’s going to be mentally and physically a demanding game.”
Smith doesn’t believe Phoenix’s lack of elimination-game experience in the WNBA is going to play much part in Thursday’s game.
“Maybe if we’re in high school or college,” she said. “But these guys have been in NCAAs, the Olympics and overseas. They’ve been there, done that. I don’t think of this as anything different. To me, it doesn’t mean a whole lot.”
While the Mercury have not faced much adversity this season and playoffs prior to the Finals, Mercury head coach Paul Westhead believes his team will respond with the season on the line.
“I’m very confident,” he said. “I fully expect we’ll play a better game, a game well enough to win. The fact that it’s a win-or-out game, I think we’ll be fine.”
Another Sleepless Night for Taurasi
After Phoenix’s Game 1 loss in Detroit, Taurasi said she did not sleep well that night due to her frustration over the loss. The same held true after Tuesday’s Game 3 defeat. After going to dinner with friends, Taurasi headed home for a restless night.
“I didn’t sleep much at all,” she said. "A game like that you just replay it the whole night; different plays, different opportunities we had like that one possession where we got four offensive rebounds and missed four shots, but sometimes that’s the way the ball bounces.”
Game Plan Stays the Same
While Westhead and the Mercury plan on making some minor adjustments prior to Game 4, there will be no major changes to the game plan.
“We will play our normal offensive and defensive game,” Westhead said. “We did not shoot the ball very well. We didn't even shoot well from the free-throw line and we are the league-leading free-throw shooting team. Yet with seconds to go, it's a three-point game and we have the ball and we miss the shot. For me to go around making incredible defensive adjustments and offensive changes, it would seem like we lost by 30.”
Breaking the Shooting Slump
After shooting 34.7 percent from the field and 16.1 percent from 3-point range in Game 3, the Mercury have a simple idea on how break out of their shooting funk in Game 4.
“Keep shooting it,” Taurasi said. “You’re going to go at bat, you have to swing or you’re never going to hit it out of the ballpark. If you stop shooting you’re never going to make one. We have people on this team that can put the ball in the hoop.”
Taurasi would love nothing more than to get the same looks in Game 4 that they had in Game 3.
“Without a doubt we’d take those,” she said. “We were looking back and I mean we had time to make some tea and shoot the ball sometimes and they just weren’t going in. Take the same shots, Tangela. Take the shots, Cappie.
“The one thing coach did mention though was Penny (Taylor) didn’t get many looks in the second half, I think she shot the ball twice. Penny is a key for us because she does work the middle so well. We are perimeter orientated and she’s the one that kind of gets in the gut and makes things happen so we’ll have to concentrate on that in the fourth game a little bit more.”
Is Winning the Rebounding Battle Good for Phoenix?
For the first time in the WNBA Finals, the Mercury held an edge on the boards in Game 3. Phoenix outrebounded Detroit 47-42 overall and 29-28 offensively. While the numbers look good on paper, the Mercury would much rather have less offensive rebounding opportunities.
“It’s a little scary. If you miss enough, then you get some offensive rebounds,” Westhead said. “A lot of times we’re kind of sparse on the offensive rebounding because we make a lot of shots. So you have to watch that game. You can’t say ‘You guys did a great job on the offensive boards.’ It’s more like ‘Don’t do such a good job on the offensive boards, make shots.’ We’re more of a shot making team.”
“It’s funny, every time we out-rebound someone during the regular season, we’re like ‘That’s trouble,’” said Taurasi. “We’d rather be down 10 or 12 [rebounds]. I think that is when we’ve played our best.”
– By Brian Martin, WNBA.com
|Detroit's Deanna Nolan talks to the media prior to practice Wednesday.|
|Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images|
Shock Practice Notes
In baseball, momentum is said to only be as good as your next day’s starting pitcher. In the WNBA Finals, it doesn’t seem to exist at all lately, for teams or for players. After the Shock and Monarchs alternated wins and losses in the first four games of last year’s championship round, Detroit and Phoenix are back at that pattern this year.
But after taking a 2-1 edge over the Mercury, the Shock were asked at practice Wednesday at US Airways Center if they had captured that ever-elusive momentum in this series once and for all.
“I think every game is such a new game,” said Shock guard Katie Smith. “There are so many different adjustments. It’s like, ‘Oh, well who’s going to be open now? Now they’re going to guard the guards a little bit more, so maybe we have to go inside. So we have to make adjustments on the fly.’ I think this game is going to be as different as the other ones.”
Smith’s starting backcourt mate Deanna Nolan had a different perspective on the subject, arguing that their Game 3 win over the Mercury was too big to not have some effect.
“I think that momentum does carry over,” said Nolan. “Knowing that coming into a pivotal Game 3, away from your home court and winning the way that you did, that says something. It’s big knowing that we can do that all the time. They hadn’t lost at home since what, July? So that says a lot.”
The road has been quite a peculiar place for the Shock this season. The team posted the best road record of the regular season with a 12-5 mark, but lost its last three away games of the campaign before dropping its first two in the playoffs for a drought of five straight.
But after regaining their touch in Game 3, the Shock aren’t afraid to admit they actually benefit from playing away from the Palace.
“I definitely believe being on the road helps,” said Detroit head coach Bill Laimbeer. “There are less distractions. There’s more bonding by the players and coaches. You have more time to think about the game rather than all the family and people that are in town.”
Unfortunately, no precedent has been set for teams winning the WNBA title on the opponent’s floor. Detroit wouldn’t mind ending that trend Thursday night though.
“It would be fun,” said Smith. “Honestly, it would be fun to win anywhere. But it would be neat too because it’s just us and our family and friends, and whoever made the trip, the people who really put in the work all year and know what has really gone on whether it’s injuries, or battling through stuff, the good days and bad days.”
Built Ford Tough
Detroit forward Cheryl Ford played in her second straight Finals game on Tuesday and racked up 11 more minutes this time around on her injured left knee.
“It did (get worse) actually,” said Ford about the soreness in her knee. “It’s hurting pretty bad today. I’ve got 24 hours to try to get something together.”
Ford managed to haul in a team-best 13 rebounds on the knee in the Game 3 win, but struggled offensively on the low block, scoring just five points on 2-of-7 shooting. She also committed five fouls in the contest, once again showing she has very little lift and limited mobility as a result of the injury.
But there’s no indication that Ford plans to stop playing through the pain.
“We just have 40 more minutes, 40 more minutes… hopefully,” Ford said.
For the first time since their playoff opener against the New York Liberty, the Shock were outrebounded on Tuesday, 47-42.
But beyond the sheer numbers it was the way the Shock were outrebounded. The Mercury collected 18 offensive boards, including four on one play in the final quarter and a slew off their own missed free throws in the last couple minutes.
“That's something that we’re a little bit concerned about is the too many offensive rebounds that they had,” said Laimbeer. “That’s not normal for them or for us to give up that many. So that’s one of the areas of focus that we’ll be talking about.”
Ford, arguably the best rebounder in the entire WNBA, said she was stunned by the final margin on the glass.
“I was very upset about that,” said Ford. “I hate being outrebounded.”
Phoenix Just Missed Another Three
Sure, Phoenix missed a multitude of shots in Game 3 and that was the main reason why they’re not up 2-1 at this point. But teams having poor shooting nights is hardly a new phenomenon in basketball, especially in the slower pace of the playoffs.
“They are not the greatest shooting percentage team in the league,” said Laimbeer. “Everybody misses shots. That’s the nature of the game. Nobody shoots 50 percent or better. All we do is contest the shots and get rebounds.”
Smith conceded that Phoenix will likely shoot better in Game 4, but also pointed out that, on the flip side of that, there’s also an opportunity for the Shock to play better defense and force the Mercury into more bad shots.
“Yeah, they’re going to hit shots, but hopefully our defense is still there,” said Smith. “I hope our rebounding is better. I hope that we can convert a little more on our end when it comes to shots. I just hope that we make them take contested shots or tough shots, not put them to the free throw as much. But I think there are little things we can do to keep minimizing their shooting.”
One of the glaring stats that came out of the Tuesday’s win was that Detroit’s bench outscored Phoenix’s, 31-6.
It’s well known that Laimbeer uses his bench a lot more than Phoenix coach Paul Westhead, who typically plays eight people, and even shrunk that down to seven in Game 3. But in an environment like a playoff series where everything about the opponent gets put under a microscope, having the ability to go deeper has to be a huge advantage for Detroit.
“It’s an important factor for us,” said Laimbeer. “We have good players. We can play different combinations. We can throw different lineups at people. We can go to a hot hand, especially someone who comes off the bench and is playing well, like in Game 1 with Kara (Braxton) and Plenette (Pierson) and yesterday with Pee Wee (Shannon Johnson) in the first half. So you try to find the players that are contributing because the starters can’t do it every night.”
-- By Mark Bodenrader, WNBA.com