2009 WNBA Finals MVP Diana Taurasi celebrates the Mercury's second WNBA title in three years.
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PHOENIX, AZ, October 9, 2009 -- It was only fitting that in a WNBA Finals many regarded as the finest in the league’s 13-year history, a championship round so entertaining and well-played that it garnered new-found attention and respect for the WNBA, Diana Taurasi would shine brightest in the end.
Since she arrived at the UConn campus and into our consciousness in 2000 as Geno Auriemma’s prized recruit, Taurasi has been one of if not the most celebrated players in women’s basketball. It’s a popularity she has earned by not only being exciting to watch and one of the biggest personalities to ever represent the game. She’s validated her reputation as one of the best time and time again by winning at all levels – NCAA, Olympics, WNBA -- and collecting a slew of individual honors along the way, including her first league MVP this season.
Entering Game 5 of the 2009 WNBA Finals Friday night, the feisty Indiana Fever had given the Phoenix Mercury all they could handle in four of the most hard-fought battles the league has ever experienced. But the Fever’s mistake was not putting away the Mercury when they had the chance, up 2-1 with Game 4 on their home court. More specifically, what led to Indiana’s demise was giving Taurasi an opportunity to beat them in a winner-take-all affair.
But that's not to say there weren't doubts that Taurasi and the Mercury could win their second WNBA title in three seasons.
Leading up to Game 5, Phoenix, which posted the best record in the regular season, had faced adversity throughout the series and Taurasi, who struggled to find her shot, wasn’t immune. In fact, she took the most heat as the Mercury fell behind in the Finals 2-1 and faced elimination in Game 4. Stymied by the suffocating defense of the Fever’s Tamika Catchings, who herself gained confidence as the series wore on, Taurasi shot just 33 percent through the first three games. More important, outside of a brief burst late in Game 1, she wasn’t coming through offensively down the stretch, a time when Phoenix typically relied on her and needed her most.
“You know, it had been a tough series,” said Taurasi. “But you can't get frustrated. You can't always play as well as you want. You can't always make every shot. But the one thing I told myself is there is no reason to get frustrated. You've just got to go out there and put in the effort and play hard and things eventually turn for you.”
Phoenix coach Corey Gaines, always one to take the blame when things don’t go well for his team, said it was his fault for taking so long to get Taurasi in better positions to shoot.
“Indiana's defense, the first couple of games was predicated on stopping us from using our pick-and-rolls,” said Gaines. “And it took me a while to figure out trying to be stubborn rather than fight through the situation with my offensive scheme. I took a step back and said use what they are doing against them, use their strength against them. So I took the pick-and-roll to the middle of the floor, and we eliminated their defense. And it helped Diana tremendously.”
Even though Taurasi wasn’t able to consistently shoot at a high percentage for most of the Finals, she didn’t see it as her overall game being ineffective. She was always contributing in some way.
“I don’t feel like I was struggling because I don’t base my game on shooting,” said Taurasi. “I felt like I was doing a lot of good things on the court. The shots, you want them to all go in but at the end of the day it’s how hard you play and the other things you did. So I was fine with it.”
Taurasi helped out in two key areas outside of scoring – on the boards and on defense. She averaged 6.8 rebounds over the five games, up from her 5.7 rpg clip in the regular season. Her value on defense was manifested in her keen ability to help and recover against an Indiana team that spreads things out on offense to utilize its mix of post players and perimeter shooters.
“She does it all,” said Gaines of Taurasi. “She rebounds... She doesn’t get credit for all that stuff but she does it all.”
Even when getting into early foul trouble, which seemed to occur frequently this series because she mainly had to check Catchings, Taurasi’s aggressiveness never waned. Sometimes Taurasi had trouble channeling that intensity, like the instance in Game 3 in which she pick up a questionable technical foul in what turned out to be a one-point loss. But Taurasi's ferocity was essential in getting her teammates to believe they could win, especially in Game 4 – the contest that turned the tide in Phoenix’s favor.
“Diana would have been my MVP if she wouldn’t have made a shot,” said Phoenix guard Temeka Johnson. “That’s just the type of person that she is. That’s just the type of player that she is. So much stuff goes unnoticed about Diana.”
By the time the big moment had arrived in Game 5 on Friday, Taurasi was in position to embrace it yet again. She went out and burned the Fever by scoring a game-high 26 points on 7-of-15 shooting, including six straight makes at one point. Taurasi finally found her touch from deep, hitting 4-of-7 three-pointers. And each trey seemed to come at a crucial juncture to stave off a charging Indiana team and make the sold-out US Airways Center crowd erupt. Taurasi also hit all eight of her free throws, blocked three shots, grabbed six rebounds and dished out four assists.
It was Taurasi’s best performance of the Finals and it helped the Mercury claim the 2009 WNBA championship with a 94-86 Game 5 win. It also helped Taurasi seal 2009 WNBA Finals MVP honors and perhaps a new legion of admirers.
“Diana is Diana,” said Phoenix guard Cappie Pondexter. “She’ll come through no matter what because she’s a winner. I never doubted her. I never doubted anybody on this team. We stuck together and made sure she kept her head up.”
“She’s the MVP of this league for a reason,” said Phoenix forward Penny Taylor. “She’s an amazing player. When you have her on your team you know you have every chance of winning every game. She plays with the team, she plays for the team but at the end of the day she’s the person that we go to and she pulled through for us tonight.”