2009 MVP Diana Taurasi (3) needed help from her teammates in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals and got it as the Mercury won 120-116.
Christian Petersen/NBAE/Getty Images
PHOENIX, AZ, September 29, 2009 -- In the third quarter of Game 1 of the 2009 WNBA Finals, the Phoenix Mercury found themselves facing a few problems.
For one thing, the Indiana Fever, who were supposed to win games with their defense, were absolutely on fire on the offensive end. Indiana started the frame by hitting six of its first seven shots, a run that included back-to-back treys by Ebony Hoffman and Katie Douglas and was culminated by a three-point play from Hoffman. With 6:40 left in the third, Indiana had gained a 68-63 edge and, more important, momentum.
The Fever would go on to total 33 points in the third quarter – a Finals record – thanks mainly to the unconscious shooting of frontcourt players Hoffman and Tammy Sutton-Brown, to hold an 86-80 edge heading into the fourth quarter. A Douglas jumper to open the fourth quieted the US Airways Center crowd once again and put the Fever up eight, 88-80. And that’s without getting much offensively from Tamika Catchings, who had more fouls (four) than she did points (three) at that juncture.
Prior to Game 1, Indiana coach Lin Dunn had warned the media that the defensive-minded Fever were a better offensive team than they were being given credit for and that was playing out right before everyone’s eyes.
“(Indiana) wouldn't be here if they weren't able to score,” said Phoenix guard/forward Cappie Pondexter. “Indiana is a great team. Everybody talks about their defense but they have legitimate scorers who can get it done.”
“They were shooting the rock and they weren’t missing,” said Mercury guard Diana Taurasi. “But we always have a sense that we can get back into a game no matter what. That’s our greatest strength, and our greatest weakness sometimes.”
As Phoenix fell further behind it appeared that Taurasi and Pondexter weren’t going to be able to work their magic and rescue the Mercury, something they had done many times during the season as the deadliest 1-2 scoring punch in the league. The duo was hitting a rare slump at the worst possible time, failing to produce offensively and also getting into foul trouble, which made them less aggressive. Taurasi, just hours after being named MVP for the 2009 season, was being hounded by Catchings, the Defensive Player of the Year, and settling for contested jumpers. Through three quarters, Taurasi had just 12 points on 3-of-10 shooting, while Pondexter, who had trouble just getting into a position to get shots up, totaled only nine points.
“They’re big. They’re tough,” said Taurasi about Indiana’s defense. “They stick to their schemes really well. They help every chance they get.”
The only reason the Mercury hadn’t been in a deeper hole at that point, besides their ability to get to the line and hit their free throws, was the inspired play of Penny Taylor, who poured in 18 points off the Mercury bench in the first half. Of course, coming through on the Finals stage is nothing new to Taylor. During the 2007 series win against the Detroit Shock, the Aussie scored a game-high 30 points in the deciding game.
“We know Penny is one of the top players in the world. She can definitely score and she had 18 at half,” said Phoenix head coach Corey Gaines. “Penny came out and she was feeling it. That's a luxury. I could rest Cappie, who had foul trouble, and go with Penny. It's a different type of attack but it gets points on the board. We need Penny.”
“All I try to do is to try to come out and give the same energy that Cappie and Diana are giving and make sure that we’re staying true to our principals, getting up and down the floor and running fast,” said Taylor. “Tonight it opened up for me a lot and in transition I ended up with open threes and drives to the basket. That’s what I do every night and tonight just went well.”
Down eight early in the fourth quarter, it was getting late for the Mercury and the prospect of Indiana stealing Game 1 and the home-court advantage in the series was all too real. If the Mercury were to overcome a determined Indiana team, it would need its two stars to be bigger factors down the stretch or have more of their supporting cast step up like Taylor did in the first 20 minutes.
Oddly enough, the turning point for Phoenix occurred midway the fourth with Pondexter out of the game. Gaines opted for a bigger frontcourt and thus used a more unconventional lineup of Taurasi, Johnson, Taylor, DeWanna Bonner and Nicole Ohlde.
“They were trying to throw the ball inside, and Ohlde can bang with Sutton-Brown down low,” said Gaines. “And then Penny was scoring so well, I knew it would make the defense play honest with Diana.”
Gaines also put the lanky and long-armed rookie Bonner on the red-hot Hoffman, who after hitting a three-pointer early in the fourth quarter had racked up 25 points on 11-of-13 shooting.
“She’s a great shooter,” said Bonner. “I just had to use my length against her because she can also drive. She was hitting big shots and playing a great game so I just tried to focus on not giving her a three.”
Hoffman, also hampered by a twisted ankle suffered in the fourth, scored just two points the rest of the way. But defense wasn’t Bonner’s only contribution.
Trailing by seven with 5:55 left in the fourth, the Mercury went on a 13-2 run that was sparked by four points from Bonner and also included a three-pointer from Taurasi and another trey from the corner by Temeka Johnson – the player that had replaced Pondexter – that capped it. With 2:30 to go, Phoenix was suddenly up four at 102-98 and the crowd was back into it.
“I just tried to be aggressive,” said Bonner, who finished with 15 points in her first Finals game. “I know they’re going to key in on Dee [Diana Taurasi] and Penny and Cappie, so I just tried to be aggressive.”
But the gutsy Fever, who rallied from 0-1 down to defeat the Shock in the Eastern Conference Finals, weren’t about to quit on this night either. A three-point shot from Douglas with seven seconds left tied the score and the teams needed five extra minutes to decide Game 1.
That’s when Pondexter made up for her lack of effectiveness on offense early in the game.
Pondexter began OT by getting Phoenix on the board first with a driving layup, but her biggest basket didn’t occur until 1:27 remained. Just seconds after Douglas had put Indiana on top, 116-115, with a jumper, Pondexter penetrated the Indiana defense once again and converted another lay-in to give the Mercury a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Nearly a minute later it was Pondexter coming through one last time with the knockout blow – a jumper from the wing -- that finally put the Fever out for good.
“Sometimes that happens, you got to let the game come to you,” said Pondexter. “The second half I was more aggressive offensively but the first half I felt there wasn't a need to do that. I feel like I can be effective doing other things and I made the extra pass, and I rebounded.”
In the end, Pondexter may have been the most important player at the most crucial time for the Mercury. Her 23 points matched Taylor for the team-high. And Taurasi, who scored four pivotal points in OT herself, finished only one point behind both of them with 22, with nine of them coming from the free throw line.
But as vital as Pondexter and Taurasi were down the stretch, if it hadn’t been for Taylor’s contributions in the first half, Johnson’s three-pointer late in the fourth, Gaines’ decision to go big to slow down Indiana’s post players, Ohlde's defense on Sutton-Brown and Bonner’s offensive spark and shutdown of Hoffman late, the Mercury's terrific tandem wouldn't have had to the opportunity to take over and Phoenix would be down 0-1 instead of celebrating a 120-116 victory.