PHOENIX (AP) The Phoenix Mercury are all about offense, with All-Stars Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter leading a talented cast of scorers in search of the team's second WNBA title in three years.
The Indiana Fever built their identity on defense, a team that finally ended Detroit's dominance in the East and has the league's defensive player of the year, Tamika Catchings, geared up for a one-on-one showdown with Taurasi.
"Those are two amazing players,'' said Indiana rookie and ex-Arizona State standout Briann January. "Olympians going head-to-head, going hard. They are two of the hardest-working women in this game. They go at it. Their passion for the game is clear when you watch them play.''
The teams open their best-of-5 series Tuesday night at US Airways Center, where Indiana beat the Mercury earlier this season.
To help make certain Phoenix has a loud homecourt advantage, Suns general manager Steve Kerr bought all 7,000 upper-level tickets and planned to give them away. Kerr said he took a cue from Larry Bird, who bought 9,000 upper level seats for Indiana's deciding game of the Eastern Conference finals against defending WNBA champion Detroit.
"Both of us were part of championship teams and understand the importance of a packed house,'' Kerr said. "For anyone who doubts the WNBA level of play, this is an opportunity to see for yourself. I challenge any doubters to come see the talent, skill and intensity on the court.''
While the Mercury have been here before, this is all new for Catchings, who has spent all eight of her pro seasons with Indiana.
"Oh my gosh, it seems like forever,'' Catchings said before the Fever worked out on Monday. "... We've worked so hard and it's finally paying off.''
The Fever defensive standout says she always looks forward to facing Taurasi, who led the WNBA in scoring for the third time and is averaging 23.8 points per game in the playoffs.
"I love playing against the best offensive players,'' Catchings said. "Being a defensive player and priding myself in defense, I definitely love the challenge. We and 'D' go way back. Even when she makes a good move or gets a shot in my face, it's all in love.''
Mercury coach Corey Gaines uses the same ultra up-tempo style that his predecessor, Paul Westhead, installed in guiding Phoenix to the league championship two years ago. Five players remain from the squad that beat Detroit in five games two years ago.
"We take into this our experience from 2007, which is such a positive for us and knowing that we can get it done,'' Pondexter said, "and knowing what it took to get it done in 2007 is so important and gives me a lot of confidence in this team.''
Catchings calls Phoenix "a great running team.''
"They're very quick, move the ball, with 3-point shooters in Penny (Taylor), DT (Taurasi) and Cappie, and Tangela (Smith) has been shooting the ball very well,'' Catchings said. "We're going to have to step up our defensive intensity and try to knock more baskets down.''
Taurasi calls the Mercury's preferred style "chaos''
Phoenix led the WNBA in scoring at 92.8 points per game. The Mercury allowed a league-high 89.1 points per contest. That's for a 40-minute game.
"We're not getting enough shots up, really,'' Gaines said. "We're getting around 85. I want to get like 90 or 95. Really 100, that's my goal. I need 48 minutes. You give me 48 minutes, I'll get 100 shots.''
Indiana allowed 73.6 points per game, third-fewest in the league, but Fever coach Lin Dunn believes that it's more than her team's defense against the Mercury offense.
"I don't know that it's a clash in styles,'' she said. "They may emphasize offense a little bit more than we do, and we may emphasize defense a little bit more. But we both want to push the ball. The night we beat them here was a very up-tempo game.''
That 90-83 victory on Aug. 9 gives Indiana confidence it can win a playoff game in Phoenix, something the Fever has to do to claim the championship.
"You've got to steal one. When you get one on somebody's home court, you've stolen it,'' she said, "because you're supposed to protect serve. That's the way it is.''
Phoenix won at Indiana 106-90 on Sept. 2, one of only three Fever home losses. Indiana's No. 2 scorer, Katie Douglas, missed that game with an ankle injury.