Practice Report: Phoenix Mercury
By Mark Bodenrader, WNBA.com

The Phoenix Mercury feel like they didn't play up to their standards in Game 1, even though they came away with the win.
Christian Petersen/NBAE/Getty Images

PHOENIX, AZ, September 30, 2009 -- Victories like the one the Phoenix Mercury had over the Indiana Fever in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Tuesday can go a long way in defining a team. The Mercury overcame torrid shooting by the Fever, withstood early adversity to some of their star players, rallied late after trailing for much of the second half and held on when things got tense in overtime.

But they can also be dangerous.

Just ask the Phoenix Mercury, who were on the other end of a similar Game 1 against the Detroit Shock in the 2007 WNBA Finals, albeit a less dramatic Game 1. At the time, Detroit was the former champion aiming to hold firm on its home court, and did so in large part by getting contributions from unlikely sources. Meanwhile, Phoenix was the up-start hoping to steal home-court advantage, only to come up just short.

What happened in Game 2 of that series? Phoenix rolled, posting a 98-70 victory. Of course, they went on to win the series in five games.

In fact, four of the past six WNBA champions fell in the series opener.

The question is, are the Fever capable of pulling off the feat in 2009? Following the Mercury’s practice session on Wednesday, head coach Corey Gaines pointed out that you really can’t compare this Mercury team to the Shock team they beat in 2007 because they are a much different squad than Detroit was style-wise.

History may not be as much of a concern as complacency. You can never get too happy with yourself in the WNBA Finals, especially after only one game. The Mercury, however, are adamant that it won’t happen to them for the simple reason that they feel they didn’t play up to their standards in the opener.

“We really didn’t play that well the first game, so our best is yet to come,” said Gaines. “And we still scored 120 points. I know it was overtime, but we didn’t play that well.”

“We go back and look at film and we had a lot of things we didn’t do well,” said guard Diana Taurasi. “As individuals we know we probably could have played a little better and been a little bit more focused on what we wanted to get done. So we have a lot of room for improvement in Game 2.”

Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter, Phoenix’s brightest stars, are two players who failed to meet those lofty expectations in Game 1, at least until the late stages of the game. And despite their early struggles in the opener, which were exacerbated by foul trouble, they will no doubt be the focal point of the Indiana defense once again in Game 2.

“You definitely have to make some adjustments,” said Pondexter. “It’s not going to be easy. Indiana is going to make some adjustments as well. So we just have to continue to be aggressive and do what we do.”

“You see what they were doing defensively, the different angles and different spots on the floor that they want to force you into,” said Taurasi. “You want to find a way to get better shots and to get other people better shots.”

Another player likely to receive varied looks from the Fever defense is Penny Taylor, who, despite her pedigree as one of the top players in world, surprised some with her offensive outburst in the first half of Game 1.

“They gave me different looks in the second half,” said Taylor, referring to the adjustments Indy made in Game 1. “They were forcing me away from the screens and picking me up a little earlier in transition.”

And what about rookie DeWanna Bonner, who played like a seasoned veteran in her first-ever Finals game, totaling 15 points and five rebounds off the bench?

So that’s Taurasi, Pondexter, Taylor and Bonner Indiana needs to account for, and we haven’t even gotten to Temeka Johnson and Tangela Smith, who also had strong Game 1s for Phoenix.

And that’s exactly the point. The Mercury have so many weapons they can go to and that’s what makes them so hard to defend and ultimately defeat.

“We’ve got extreme offensive threats at every position,” said Taylor. “If they can guard everyone of us throughout 40 minutes then it’s a credit to them. But the fact that you’ve got Tangela, you’ve got Lecoe (Willingham), you’ve got Diana and Cappie, it’s hard to guard all of us 100 percent of the time.”

Despite all the aforementioned talent at his disposal, Gaines claims that Phoenix has had to prove itself all season and that has continued in the Finals, which only provides the Mercury with more of an incentive to not get complacent for Game 2.

“All along we’ve been the underdog,” said Gaines. “Everyone probably picked L.A. to beat us. At the beginning of the year they said L.A. would not lose a game. I think some polls picked us last. What more do you need to be motivated?”

Gaines’ “nobody believes in us” approach might be a hard sell to the media and the rest of the WNBA when you consider the Mercury posted the best record in the regular season and is loaded with proven talent, including the league MVP. But it’s tough to argue with what has worked for Gaines and his players, who sit just two victories away from their second WNBA title in three years.

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