Mercury Running-and-Gunning to the Postseason
Updated: August 8, 2007, 1:30 a.m.
Paul Westhead has led Phoenix to its first playoff berth since 2000.
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Coach Paul Westhead and his fast-break offense have landed the Phoenix Mercury in the postseason for the first time in six years.
Westhead, dubbed the “Guru of Go,” was hired in 2006 and vowed to bring his speed game to the WNBA. He did not disappoint. In his first season, the Mercury led the WNBA in scoring at 87.1 points per game, nearly seven points more than the closest team, the Washington Mystics at 80.8, and 14.8 points higher than the league average of 72.3.
The 2006 squad featured the dynamic scoring duo of All-Stars Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter. Taurasi set two WNBA single-season scoring records with 860 total points and a 25.3 average, while the rookie Pondexter added 19.5 points a contest.
While the Mercury racked up the points, they did not rack up the wins as easily, especially early in the season. The team struggled out of the gate, losing its first four games, and six of its first nine.
Part of the reason for the team’s slow start was adjusting the Westhead’s style of play in his first season at the helm. As Pondexter explains, Westhead’s offense may look like chaos, but it is actually quite structured and complicated at times and it took the team time to learn the system. Westhead laughed when he heard the word "chaos" mentioned.
"We run a numbered fast break, so everyone knows exactly where they should be, then once they receive the ball they’re free to then shoot or create opportunities for themselves or others," Westhead said describing his offense. "So I don’t know if I would translate that into chaos. Maybe 'organized freedom' is a better definition. They know they are free to shoot and we stress that. We allow them to create shots on the move."
The Mercury made a run at the 2006 playoffs, closing the regular season with seven straight wins, and finishing tied with Houston and Seattle with an 18-16 record. However, the Comets and Storm each owned tiebreakers over the Mercury, forcing Phoenix to watch the playoffs.
Phoenix vowed to get off to a better start in 2007 and did just that, breaking out to a 4-1 start to the campaign. The Mercury went through a couple of hot and cold spells throughout the middle of the season, but they turned it after the All-Star break, posting an 8-2 record with just four games remaining in the regular season. During that stretch the Mercury rose from third to first place in the Western Conference and clinched the playoff berth that had so narrowly escaped them a year ago.
“Without a doubt it was the fact that we got off to a good start,” Taurasi told PhoenixMercury.com when asked how the team was able to break through to the playoffs this year. “The last couple of seasons we played well after the (All-Star) break, so definitely getting off to a good start helped us this year.”
Westhead believes the team got off to a better start in 2007 because of the foundation that was laid in 2006.
“We won our last seven games last year, we were playing as well as we could, so I would say reflecting back to last year it took us half a season or more to get in groove, which also coincides with Penny Taylor’s arrival," he said. "This year we were kind of more in sync from the beginning."
“With anything it takes a little bit of getting used to,” Taurasi added. “Now we’re in our second year. He’s comfortable with us; we’re comfortable with him so things are going along a little easier and quicker in picking up things.”
Mercury All-Stars Penny Taylor, Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter combine to average 52.6 points per game, tops in the WNBA for a trio. All three players also rank among the top 10 in scoring individually.
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"We’ve had a more productive season from Penny Taylor," Westhead said. "Last year she came halfway through the season and it took her a couple of weeks to kind of get in the groove and get into shape with how we play. I guess you could say we had half of Penny Taylor last season and now we have all of Penny Taylor and that’s a significant difference."
Taylor had to pick up Westhead’s system on the fly a year ago after joining the Mercury 14 games into the season. After coming off the bench for two weeks, Taylor was inserted into the starting lineup and posted solid numbers – 13.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. The Aussie has been with the team since day one in 2007 and has emerged as not only a leader on the Mercury, but a league MVP candidate, posting career highs of 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 0.496 percent shooting.
“She’s been great,” Smith said of Taylor. “She has stepped up her game and I think that’s what has led our team to do so well because (opposing teams) can’t just focus on Diana and Cappie anymore, they have to focus on her as well, so it’s tough to defend us.”
Smith, a 2006 All-Star with the Charlotte Sting, was acquired in a draft-day deal with Minnesota for the rights to No. 1 overall pick Lindsey Harding. Smith had her learning curve with “Paul Ball,” but has picked up the system and is contributing 12.7 points and 6.5 rebounds a night.
“I’ve enjoyed playing in his system,” she said. “At first it was overwhelming, when I first came here, because there were a lot of things I had to get down and learn. But as time went by I adjusted fine and I love it. I fit in perfectly here.”
Smith said she sees a connection between her picking up the system and the team getting on the same page and hitting its stride in the second half of the season.
“I think that has a lot to do with it,” she said. “We’re on a roll right now and this is the perfect time for us to gel as a team. We’re all getting it and we know exactly what our roles are and what he wants us to do and our individual roles as well. Everything is coming together at the right time.”
The emergence of Taylor and Smith has led to a decrease in scoring for Taurasi and Pondexter. Taurasi’s scoring average has dropped from 25.3 a year ago to a team-high 19.0, while Pondexter’s has dipped from 19.5 to 16.6.
"I think Dee and Cappie were scoring at such a high pitch last year that it almost would be hard to repeat," Westhead said. "In the last four, five or six games they have picked up their scoring, so I think we have more of that from them now. We probably have a little bit more balance this year."
Pondexter welcomes the help.
“It definitely makes things easier,” she said. “It takes the pressure off of me and Diana so we don’t to score 20-something points a game.”
While the Mercury players have said they enjoy playing in Westhead’s run-and-gun system, Westhead isn’t quick to call his style “player-friendly.”
“I don’t know if there is any universal truth to that,” he said. “I think that players enjoy winning, I think they enjoy fast pace if it’s working, but fast is hard, so you have enjoy working. Our group has taken to it pretty good.”
While the Mercury have found success in Westhead’s system during the regular season, the true test of “Paul Ball” still awaits as the postseason gets underway later this month. In the meantime, Phoenix, 19-11, is in a tight battle for home-court advantage in the West with San Antonio and Sacramento just one game behind with less than two weeks to play.
"We want to play well and finish strong and playing close to our very best as the season ends," Westhead said. "Whether that gets us a home-court spot or not, I’d be more happy if we finish up playing very strong."