Cappie Pondexter managed just three shot attempts and four points in the first half of the Mercury's Game 2 loss to the Fever.
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PHOENIX, AZ, October 1, 2009 -- To Phoenix, the game is simple. Just outscore your opponent in the 40 minutes allotted. It’s a system with the philosophy that the opposing team will get its points, but the Mercury will rack up more because their firepower on offense, led by Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter, is unmatched. Phoenix can climb its way out an early hole, even a sizable one. The Mercury have done it many times before. They did it in their opening-round series against San Antonio. They won a title doing it in 2007.
But as Taurasi said prior to Game 2, in what now seems like an ominous foreshadowing, that reliance in their ability to rack up points in a short amount of time can occasionally be their greatest weakness. Sometimes that on-off switch doesn’t work, or it gets fixed a little too late.
Two games have now been played in the 2009 WNBA Finals and in each Phoenix has seen its star duo of Taurasi and Pondexter stumble out of the gate. And those slow starts would be even more damaging if it weren’t for the spectacular play of Penny Taylor, who had 18 points in the first half of Game 1 and 14 in the opening 20 minutes of Game 2.
The Mercury were able to get it done in opener, barely, with Pondexter scoring 14 of her 23 points after the third quarter, including seven in overtime, and Taurasi totaling 10 of her 22 in the fourth quarter and the extra session.
But the tandem couldn’t finish the job Wednesday in Game 2, which the Fever won, 93-84, to even the series at 1-1 and steal the ever-important home-court advantage.
“Well, the reason we lost the game is they scored more points than us,” said Taurasi. “Which is as simple and as plain as I can put it.”
For Taurasi, you could make the case that she had some good looks at the basket and her shots just weren’t falling, although in a couple of instances they missed completely. Once again, however, she got going late, and this time it was too late. Taurasi made only one of her five tries from the field in the opening quarter and had five points entering the second quarter. In the next frame she fared even worse, collecting just two points on 1-of-4 shooting.
“Sometimes they go in and sometimes they don't,” said Taurasi. “And that's the way it goes sometimes. We just have to stay to what we've been doing the whole season. There is no panic. There is no second guessing of any sorts.”
Taurasi ended with a team-high 20 points, but six came in the game’s last 1:56 when the outcome was pretty much decided. When all was said and done, Taurasi shot only 7-of-22 from the field, including a dismal 2-of-10 from beyond the arc. And that’s after shooting 5-of-17 from the floor with a 3-of-8 success rate from three in the opener.
Pondexter’s continued early struggles are a little more difficult to figure out. For the second straight contest, Pondexter did not look for her shot in the game’s initial stages. She has made it a point before to say that she’s not just out there to score, but to also get other players involved and help her team out in other ways. However, after 20 minutes of action Thursday, Pondexter had put up just three shots and totaled only four points, two assists, one rebound and one steal.
Pondexter finished with a mere 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting, with six of those points coming in the final 5:35 of the game after Indiana had opened up a 14-point advantage. The 2007 Finals MVP also made just two trips to the free throw line and Taurasi made only five, which just further emphasizes the lack of urgency and aggression Phoenix had on offense.
“We didn’t fight until the last five minutes,” said Pondexter. “We can’t afford to do that, especially against Indiana whose back was against the wall tonight and came out fighting.”
Even with the shooting woes Taurasi and Pondexter were running into in the first half, Phoenix only trailed by three at the break, 48-45. But Indiana implemented a savvy game plan in the second half, slowing the tempo down and feeding the ball down low to its bigs, who were getting position in the paint without much resistance. Their success forced Phoenix to collapse a bit and that opened things up for the perimeter players. Overall, Indiana outscored the Mercury 29-18 in the third quarter and built its lead to as much as 17 late in the stanza.
"We had lapses where they ran us instead of us running them," said Phoenix head coach Corey Gaines. "They got easy buckets."
To make matters worse, the Mercury had to play the fourth quarter without Taylor, who left the game with 3:33 left in the third with a lip laceration suffered while defending against a fast-break lay-up by Indiana’s Briann January.
“It affected us a lot, especially our rotation,” said Pondexter about the loss of Taylor. “It wasn’t as deep as it normally is, but some things happen like that.”
And it’s worth noting that Indiana’s Tamika Catchings had an outstanding Game 2 on both ends of the floor after disappointing in Game 1, coming just one rebound shy of a triple-double. Because, after all, it’s Catchings who Taurasi is matched up with in this series.
“My job is to play defense on D.T.,” said Catchings, the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year. “I give her props; it's a hard job. It's not easy by any means. But for me it’s about making sure I'm right there and when she catches the ball, being right there.”
“Diana's able to read how people play her,” continued Catchings. “If you shoot the gap, she knows how to fade. If you trail her, she curls. She’s always looking to do something different. For me, it’s about just trying to switch it up so she doesn't get comfortable with me doing one thing the whole game or one scheme, and pushing her into my teammates and letting them help so that all of us really play Diana. It's not just me individually. It's the whole team that focuses on Diana.”
Of course, the other side of it is that Taurasi is responsible for Catchings on the defensive end, although things are a little more ambiguous in Gaines' rover defense. Still, Taurasi is normally the one who does the roving when she’s on the court, which means she needs to expend a lot of energy making sure a lethal player like Catchings is checked.
And after a pair of awful shooting nights for Taurasi one has to wonder if chasing around Catchings (and Katie Douglas and others) is wearing her down and affecting how she performs on the offensive end, where the Mercury need her most.
But Taurasi insists that’s not the case.
“It doesn't affect me on the other end,” said Taurasi. “It affects the result of the game. We knew she was going to have a great game after Game 1. That's just the kind of player she is. We all knew that. I think we did a better job in the second half of containing her.”
To the Mercury’s credit, they seem to have a good sense of where they went wrong in Games 1 and 2 and what they have to do to rectify it and win this series. The Finals now shifts to Indiana for the next two games though, with Conseco Fieldhouse expected to be rocking for the teams’ Game 3 clash on Sunday.
“Just bring the energy,” said Pondexter. “That’s the basic point. Bring the energy for 40 minutes.”
“We have not lost two games in a row (all season),” said Gaines. “And if I know Diana and Cappie, when they do have sub-par shooting nights they usually come back vicious.”