With Their Backs Against The Wall, Mercury Band Together
By Mark Bodenrader, WNBA.com

Five Mercury players scored in double figures in their Game 4 victory over the Indiana Fever.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS, IN, October 7, 2009 -- The tone for Game 4 of the 2009 WNBA Finals was set by the Phoenix Mercury in the first six minutes.

The Mercury, facing elimination on the road in front of a rowdy Conseco Fieldhouse crowd, raced out to a 23-12 advantage over the Indiana Fever, and it wasn’t so much about the size of the lead as it was how they built it. Contributions came from everyone and everywhere on the court. Temeka Johnson scored five of the team’s first eight points, Tangela Smith hit a pair of three-pointers, Le’coe Willingham gave Indiana’s bigs all they could handle on the boards, Cappie Pondexter scored six points on perfect shooting from the field and Diana Taurasi made three of her first four shots for six points of her own.

“The plan was to keep our spacing,” said Smith. “We looked at the film (of Game 3) and we didn’t have great spacing. We wanted to keep everybody spaced out and it worked.”

“We definitely got off to a great start,” said Taurasi. “That was huge. It’s been huge for us all year, to come out and set the tone early. We’re a team that feeds off of that.”

The Mercury, who had been outscored in the first quarter of each of their two Finals losses, were efficient and balanced out of the gate and Indiana, eager to win its first WNBA title on its home court, had to be hoping it wasn’t a sign of things to come.

It was.

The Mercury rolled to a 90-77 victory Wednesday to put Indiana’s championship plans on hold and set up a decisive Game 5 Friday back in Phoenix, the team’s second winner-take-all contest in three years.

“This is the game where we got back to what we do well,” said Taurasi. “That is a lot of people touching the ball, a lot of people creating, a lot of people getting stops and turning them into something. So it was kind of nice to see us do that again.”

According to Phoenix coach Corey Gaines, the Mercury got back to what they do best by simplifying things. When asked just how much he simplified his game plan, Gaines said he had reduced it to one play.

“Learned a valuable lesson tonight,” said Gaines. “Sometimes less is more.”

Gaines also shrunk his rotation. While he used eight players in total, only six played significant minutes, with Penny Taylor being the main weapon Gaines used off the bench.

Game 4 wasn’t supposed to play out this way. Coming in, it was billed as the contest in which Taurasi – the league MVP -- needed to redeem herself in order for Phoenix to have a chance to overcome the red-hot Fever and extend the series. Hounded by Defensive Player of the Year Tamika Catchings all Finals, Taurasi had shot just 33 percent from the floor over the first three games and the Mercury found themselves in a precarious position down 2-1.

Taurasi fared much better shooting the ball on this night, hitting 7-of-16 field goals for the game, but actually turned in her lowest scoring output of the series with 16 points and failed to score in the fourth quarter. Part of it had to do with her early foul trouble (three in the first half), part of it had to with her continued struggles from three (2-of-8) and part of it had to do with her inability to get to the free throw line (zero attempts).

But because of the way the rest of her team played, Taurasi didn’t need to score a lot of points and be the savior in Game 4. And actually Taurasi might have been most effective as the leader in the Mercury’s rover defense, which held the Fever to a series-low 77 points on 41 percent shooting from the field, including just 12 points in the fourth quarter. Even after picking up her third foul with 1:47 left in the first half, Taurasi never relented on D. Midway through the fourth quarter she made the signature defensive play of the night -- an emphatic block on Indiana’s Katie Douglas in the paint before throwing the ball off her and out of bounds to get possession.

On the offensive side, Taurasi had help from Pondexter, the other half of Phoenix’s dynamic duo, who finished with team-highs of 22 points and seven assists along with five rebounds. Perhaps more important, after failing to reach the charity stripe in Game 3, Pondexter made eight free-throw attempts Wednesday, hitting seven.

“When we are attacking and aggressive like that, honestly I don’t think any team can beat us,” said Pondexter. “I think we showed that tonight. We came out fighting. We knew nothing else but to win.”

Pondexter’s biggest shot was arguably the most crucial bucket in all of Game 4. With 22.1 seconds remaining in the third, Pondexter received the ball on the wing off a drive-and-kick from Johnson and drained a three-pointer. Just prior to that Indiana had seemingly gained momentum with four straight points that cut the Phoenix lead to 69-65. But Pondexter’s trey gave the Mercury a 72-65 edge and breathing room heading into the final quarter.

Pondexter would only score three points the rest of the way, and one might assume that with such a lack of point production from Taurasi and Pondexter in the final 12 minutes that Phoenix would have had a tough time closing it out. But Taylor took over in the fourth, scoring eights points in the frame to help the Mercury seal the victory. The dagger came with the Mercury up 11 with 2:36 remaining when Taylor nailed a three-pointer in transition that pushed the lead to 14. Indiana never recovered.

Taylor finished with 17 points to raise her average in the series to 16.0 ppg. With the way she’s been able to pose so many problems for the Fever, one has to wonder if this series would have been over by now if Taylor hadn’t been forced to exit Game 2 early with a freak injury.

And Taylor was just one of five Mercury players to score in double figures. Smith ended with a series-high 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting, including a blistering 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, and Johnson chipped in 10 to go along with five assists.

“It was great for Penny to come off the bench and do what she does,” said Johnson. “Tangela stepped up tonight. Le'coe came up with some big rebounds. I could go on and on, it was a total team effort. I'm glad to be a part of it.”

When all was said and done, Phoenix had showed Indiana just how dangerous it can be when it plays to its full potential, something it wasn’t able to do in the first three games of this series.

“We were playing with confidence and attacking every single time down the floor and that's hard to defend for 40 minutes,” said Taylor.

If the Mercury can keep it up for 40 more minutes, they’ll be celebrating their second WNBA title in three seasons Friday night in Phoenix.