Identity Crisis Puts Mercury on the Brink
By Mark Bodenrader,

Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi pleads her case after being called for a technical foul in the fourth quarter of Game 3.
Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS, IN, October 4, 2009 -- Three games have been played so far in the 2009 WNBA Finals and three different Phoenix Mercury teams have shown up.

In the opener of the series, it was essentially the Mercury that we’re used to, the team that scores a lot of points, gives up a lot of points and hits crucial buckets late when it needs to. In Game 2, it was the Phoenix squad that failed to climb out of a hole because of breakdowns on defense and an inability to make outside shots, which is a team that we get a glimpse of from time to time.

But in Game 3, we got a Mercury team that was aggressive on offense, held its own against Indiana on the boards, made some critical stops, was physical down low, yet still lost to the Fever, 86-85, mainly because of its failure to stay focused and make shots in crunch time.

“It’s a hard game to lose,” said Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi. “You play hard the whole game and had opportunities down the stretch. They made the most of them and we didn’t.”

Suffice it to say, this Mercury team did not look very familiar Sunday. Phoenix, known for its cavalcade of veteran shooters and deficiencies in the post, actually outrebounded Indiana (36-31) and nearly doubled up the Fever in terms of points in the paint (52-28), with Le’coe Willingham chipping in a strong 17. On the flip side, the Mercury attempted and made less three-pointers (3-of-17) than Indiana (10-of-21) and didn’t get as much point production from their bench (25-18). Penny Taylor led the way for the Mercury reserves with 10 points, while normally reliable rookie DeWanna Bonner was hardly a factor, scoring two in nine minutes.

Granted, in a series teams can appear different from game to game for the simple reason that when you are matched up against the same competitor for a string of games in a row every detail is constantly being scouted, scrutinized and dissected. Teams basically have to change in order to keep the opponent guessing and maintain an edge. It’s a chess match that is being played out of the court, in which the players and coaches attempt to think one move ahead of the opposing side. And as a result, each contest feels more like a season than just one game.

But if the Mercury, now down 2-1 in the best-of-five series, don't impose their brand of basketball and play up to their full potential soon, these Finals could be over Wednesday.

Following the deflating 93-84 loss to the Fever in Game 2, the Mercury knew they needed to attack more on offense from the get-go. More specifically, Cappie Pondexter and Taurasi knew they had to utilize their superior talents on offense and put the pressure on the Fever to stop them.

It was evident early on that Pondexter not only wanted to look for her offense, but to penetrate the Indiana defense and attack the basket. As the first half came to a close, it was working. After scoring just four points in the opening half of the Game 2 defeat on three shot attempts, Pondexter had a game-high 13 points on 6-of-10 shooting at the break, as well as a team-high five assists.

Her approach was contagious. Phoenix had bounced back from an early burst by the Fever for a three-point lead at half, 47-44.

“That was working, so when something’s working you stick with it,” said Taylor. “We were attacking with penetration really well and I think they were having problems defending it.”

With 3:19 remaining in the game, Pondexter had upped her total to 23 points on 11-of-18 shooting and the Mercury held a one-point lead, 81-80. However, Pondexter, who has made a habit of taking over games late for Phoenix through her top-notch ability to create her own shot, would not score again. She missed her final four shots, including one on the break in which she seemed more concerned about drawing a foul and another in which she appeared to hesitate in mid-air. But the shot from the left wing that didn't fall with 6.9 seconds remaining and the Mercury down one will likely be the one that sticks with her.

“I got a couple good looks toward the end of the game,” said Pondxeter. “You know, sometimes I hit, sometimes I don't. It happens. But we had a lot of chances to make the shot, but it didn't happen.”

Despite Pondexter’s misses late, the Mercury kept things close as Willingham and Taylor hit a pair of shots and Phoenix made some big stops on D.

And with 3.4 seconds left, the Mercury, down one, had the ball and one final chance to pull out the win.

“The play was for Penny Taylor to get a down pick from Tangela (Smith),” said Phoenix head coach Corey Gaines. “Cappie takes the ball out of bounds, Kelly Mazzante is in the corner, (Diana Taurasi) is in the corner to draw the defense. As Penny is coming up to get the ball she is mysteriously bumped off her line to get the ball. She goes up to get the ball, she can't get it. The ball by the grace of God falls into Tangela's hands, and the play was set for Penny to get the ball, turn and face and go to the basket.”

For most of the night, Gaines had drawn up well-designed plays out of timeouts that had gotten the job done, but as he outlined, things didn’t go as well as he had hoped at the most crucial moment. As the last play broke down, Smith's shot right before the buzzer was blocked by Ebony Hoffman. Gaines didn’t elaborate further on the “mysteriously bumped” comment, only adding that he has to see the tape.

Another controversial situation which Gaines declined comment on for now was the incident midway through the fourth quarter when Taurasi, making her way back down court after hitting a layup, collided with Indiana’s Katie Douglas and received a technical foul.

“I was laying on the floor, I got up to run down the court, and my head, as I was coming up, she was coming this way, and, you know, we collided,” said Taurasi. “(The official) said I elbowed her, which if you clearly watched the replay, I don't think there was an elbow thrown.”

Indiana’s Tamika Catchings shot the technical free throw and sank it. Five minutes later the Mercury had lost the game by a point.

“Lose by a head butt, check that out,” said Taurasi.

All one-liners aside, Taurasi did say after the game that the Fever deserved to the win game and what really hurt the Mercury was their failure to execute down the stretch.

Following the technical, which occurred with 5:10 left in the game, Taurasi didn’t score again, perhaps signaling that she let the disputed play affect her, although Taurasi has played in big game after big game throughout her career, so it's hard to believe something like that would get to her.

While the technical may garner the most attention when looking back on Game 3, Taurasi's most pivotal missed opportunity actually came with 1:15 remaining when she failed to convert on a rare open three-pointer from the corner that would have put Phoenix up four. Instead, it bounced off the rim and at the other end Hoffman was able to drain a wide-open jumper of her own to give the Fever a lead that would hold up.

Taurasi, shooting 31 percent for the series entering the contest, actually made five of her first 12 field-goal attempts through three quarters, but went cold in the fourth, connecting on just 1-of-4 with the only make being the infamous layup. She finished with 18 points – her lowest scoring output of the series and third straight game in which she failed to shoot over 40 percent.

Suddenly, the league MVP is not playing like the league MVP, a trend that no doubt has to disturb Phoenix, along with the fact that with Sunday's loss, the Mercury have dropped consecutive games for only the second time all year.

With all of the uncharacteristic things going on with the Mercury, one has to wonder if they have been successfully rattled by Indiana, which is now just one victory away from their first-ever WNBA title.

“Game 3 is probably the hardest we fought out of this whole series and it's tough when you lose like that,” said Pondexter. “So I think now it's mental more than anything. Game 4, I think we have to be stronger mentally. And I think the rest will take care of itself.”