Mercury see little to gain from midseason setbacks

Forgetful Phoenix Moves Forward

As the Phoenix Mercury prepare for Game 1 of the WNBA Finals Wednesday, head coach Paul Westhead won’t draw much insight from his team’s two meetings with the Detroit Shock in the regular season. As far as he and his players are concerned, the past is not a prologue to this best-of-five series. It’s just history.

“To be honest, it seems like a long time ago,” Westhead said Tuesday at The Palace, site of Games 1 and 2. “I think for both teams a lot has transpired with the evolution of our clubs. Neither game is going to count for much starting tomorrow night. Whether you’ve won them or lost them, it’s a whole new world now.”

The Shock won both games in what had to be frustrating fashion for Phoenix, though neither Westhead nor All-Star Diana Taurasi expressed such sentiment. The Shock won at Phoenix in June, 87-84, after the Mercury led by 16. In early July, the Shock scored 72 second-half points to blow out the league’s highest-scoring team, 111-82.

“We’re not much on ‘Oh, we played them two months ago,’” Taurasi said. “They’re a different team, we’re a different team, so we can’t concentrate on what they do. They’re world champions for a reason and we’re trying to get there. But we’re going to try to go about it a different way.”

The 29-point shellacking was the first of three losses in four games for the Mercury, sending them into a July 22 contest against Minnesota with a modest 12-10 record. Phoenix defeated the Lynx and has been a juggernaut ever since, winning 15 of their last 16 games to seize the best record in the Western Conference and sweep two playoff series.

“I don’t think we were half as good when we played them a month and a half ago,” said Taurasi, who mentioned a team meeting after the All-Star break that sparked their torrid run. “We’re nothing like that now. Our mindset, just getting used to each other, has changed tremendously.”

Mercury guard Cappie Pondexter – the leading scorer in the 2007 playoffs at 26.2 points per game – missed the first game due to injury. She said the team’s second-half success had a lot to do with getting new players acclimated to Westhead’s scattershot offense.

“I think the biggest adjustment has to be for the new players. His system may look like chaos, but it’s definitely something that’s hard to get. It takes a while to understand,” she said. “You know, me, [All-Star] Penny (Taylor), Kelly (Miller), we had a year in the system. Tan[gela Smith], Kelly Mazzante and the other players, it took them a while to adjust to it. Now we’re all on the same page. We all understand how we can score points and be effective in the offense.”

Westhead singled out Smith, his starting center. “It took a little longer to kind of figured out how she blended in, and she’s done a marvelous job since the All-Star break,” he said. Smith, whose 9.0 rebounds per game is fourth-highest in the playoffs, just behind Detroit’s Cheryl Ford (9.3 rpg), will be expected to keep the Shock, the league’s best rebounding team, from dominating the boards.

“It’s interesting; she’s always a pivotal player for us,” Westhead said. “She is our force inside, she helps us defensively. She has to be a rebounding presence and she has to be scoring to keep everybody else honest.”

The Mercury caused Detroit fits in 2006 with victories of 14 and 15 points. Come the end of the season, however, Phoenix failed to reach the playoffs and Detroit won the championship. It’s just another reason Taurasi is wary to concern herself with what happened in the regular season – against the Shock or any other team.

“The last month and a half, the best thing about this team is we haven’t worried about anyone else. There’s no point in it,” she said. “We can’t control what they’re going to do tomorrow. We have no control over it. We controlled the last two months of the season where we stuck to what we’re good at. As long as we can do that, we’ll be happy with whatever happens.”