For most of the season it seemed like a forgone conclusion that the Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury would face off in the 2009 WNBA Finals. After dropping its first two games of the season, Indiana, behind the MVP-caliber play of stars Katie Douglas and Tamika Catchings, ran off a franchise-record 11-game winning streak to take control of the East and from there its status as "team to beat" in the conference was never really threatened. Propelled by their talented tandem of Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter, the Mercury posted an 8-2 record in July to stake their claim as the top team in the West and held off all the challengers for the remainder of the regular season while securing home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
But as the regular season wound down and the playoffs commenced, there were concerns for both sides. For the Fever, they dropped seven of their final 10 games and saw Douglas and Tammy Sutton-Brown miss time due to nagging injuries. And after getting past the Washington Mystics in the Eastern Conference Semis of the postseason, Indiana received a scare in the conference finals when they dropped the opener to a white-hot Detroit team and faced the prospect of being eliminated by the Shock for the fourth straight season.
Meanwhile, the Mercury's issues were less about them and more about the teams chasing them. Seattle made a push for the top seed in the West in the last couple weeks of the regular season and may have come through if it weren't for an untimely injury to Lauren Jackson. Out in L.A., with Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker both healthy and in better playing shape, the Sparks got stronger as the season went along and won 10 of their last 13 games entering the playoffs.
But after falling behind 0-1 to the Shock, the Fever rallied at home in gutsy fashion, winning back-to-back tight games to get the monkey off their backs and reach their first WNBA Finals in franchise history. And after the Sparks forced a decisive third game with a Game 2 victory in Phoenix, the Mercury came out firing in Game 3 and cruised to an 11-point win to make it to the Finals for the second time in three seasons and third time overall.
So that's where we stand, as the Fever and Mercury get set to do battle in the WNBA's championship round, with Game 1 slated for Tuesday at US Airways Center in Phoenix.
Gm 1: at Phoenix, Tue., 9/29, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Gm 2: at Phoenix, Thu., 10/1, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Gm 3: at Indiana, Sun., 10/4, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Gm 4*: at Indiana, Wed., 10/7, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Gm 5*: at Phoenix, Fri., 10/9, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Unlike the conference finals in both the West and the East, the 2009 WNBA Finals pits two teams against each other with contrasting styles. The Mercury's trademark is their run-and-gun offense, in which defense and rebounding are less of a priority than putting up shots at high rate. While reliance on high-octane offense typically would draw skepticism, that's not the case with Phoenix, which has proved it can win with this style before by capturing the WNBA 2007 title. It also helps having two of the more prolific scorers in the entire league in Pondexter and Taurasi, not to mention reserves Penny Taylor and rookie DeWanna Bonner, who are plenty capable of filling it up as well.
The case could be made that Taurasi, following perhaps the best regular season of her career, is playing the best basketball of anyone right now, as she is averaging 23.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists through six playoff games, while shooting 52 percent from the floor, including 43 percent from three. The Fever will no doubt make sure Taurasi is checked by Defensive Player of the Year Catchings, who herself has been on a mission in 2009. Unlike Taurasi though, Catchings, who has tasted championship success with Tennessee in college and Team U.S.A. in the Olympics, has yet to capture a WNBA championship trophy.
While Catchings will have her hands full with Taurasi, Douglas will likely draw the assignment of guarding 2007 WNBA Finals MVP Pondexter. Unfortunately for the Fever, their success on offense is highly dependent on Catchings and Douglas, so the amount of energy they have to expend chasing Taurasi and Pondexter and how that affects their play on the other end of the court will likely be a huge factor in this series.
But the Fever's defense isn't all about Catchings and Douglas. Coach Lin Dunn has stressed defense with her entire team all year, and it's a commitment to that philosophy more than anything else that has the Fever still alive this time of year. Tully Bevilaqua is one of the better defensive points guards in the league, as evidenced by her inclusion in the All-Defensive First Team, while Sutton-Brown is a top-notch shot-blocker, currently posting an average of two rejections per game in the postseason.
These teams met two times during the regular season, with each team winning once on the road, and both meetings occurred during the second half of the season. It's questionable how much of a barometer those clashes can be entering the Finals, however, as the last meeting, which occured on September 2 and was won by Phoenix, took place when the Fever had virtually sewn up the top spot in the East and played without Douglas.
That loss though had major ramifications on this series because the Fever, who fell just three times at Conseco Fieldhouse during the regular season, would have had the home-court edge over Phoenix in the Finals had they come out victorious. Instead the Mercury, who owned a 12-5 mark at US Airways Center this season, will have the crucial home-court advantage. On top of that, Phoenix posted the best road record of any team in the regular season at 11-6.
2009 Regular Season: Phoenix 1 - Indiana 1 Some fast facts about the Finals matchup:
The road team won each game between the teams this season.
Katie Douglas missed the teams' last meeting on September 2 with an injured ankle.
Douglas and Le'coe Willingham were teammates on the Connecticut Sun teams that reached the WNBA Finals in 2004 and 2005, which both resulted in losses.
Bevliaqua was a member of the 2004 Seattle Storm team that defeated Douglas' Sun.
Fever guard Tamecka Dixon won two titles as a member of the Los Angeles Sparks (2001, 2002)
Sutton-Brown played in the WNBA Finals in 2001 as a member of the Charlotte Sting.
Indiana was the best home team in the WNBA this season (14-3), while Phoenix was the best road team (11-6).
Phoenix is one of only three teams to have won at Indiana this season.
Indiana is making its first-ever appearance in the WNBA Finals, while Phoenix is taking part in its third, losing to Houston in 1998 and defeating Detroit in 2007.
In the last two WNBA Finals and three of the past four the team without home-court advantage has won the series.