Mercury-Silver Stars Preview

The San Antonio Silver Stars have made strong bids to win their first WNBA title in each of the last two seasons only to get eliminated by the eventual champs both times.

Avoiding that fate for the third straight year could be tough with a first-round meeting against the league-best Phoenix Mercury looming.

The Mercury begin their quest for a second championship in three years as they open a best-of-three series by visiting the Silver Stars on Thursday night.

San Antonio was swept by Detroit in the finals last season, one year after Phoenix swept it from the Western Conference finals en route to its first title.

The Silver Stars finished both of those seasons with at least 20 wins, but they were inconsistent in 2009, never winning more than two consecutive games and finishing 15-19 - the worst record of any team that advanced to the postseason.

The Mercury are at the opposite end of that spectrum, having clinched home-court advantage throughout the playoffs with their franchise record-tying 23-11 finish. The other time they reached 23 wins was their championship season.

Phoenix had the best record in the league in large part because it was the strongest team on the road. It had the WNBA's best record away from home at 11-6, and no other team came within two games of .500.

While that's all encouraging for coach Corey Gaines, he knows his team won't be able to walk into the finals.

"They're a veteran team ... the Western champs last year," Gaines said of the Silver Stars. "You've got to go through them and take it away to get to the championship."

The Silver Stars have given Gaines and the Mercury plenty of reason to worry. San Antonio was one of only two teams to beat Phoenix twice in 2009, winning both meetings at home to earn a split of the season series.

"It's one of the teams that has probably given us the most trouble in the regular season," said Mercury forward Diana Taurasi, who captured her second consecutive scoring title with an average of 20.4 points. "In the games we did well, we obviously rebounded well and did a good job on their key players, which isn't easy."

Taurasi was likely referring to Becky Hammon and Sophia Young, who set career highs by averaging 19.5 and 18.2 points, respectively. Young averaged 24.3 points and 8.5 rebounds in four games against the Mercury.

Neither Hammon nor Young played in San Antonio's regular-season finale Saturday night.

"We decided we could take today and tomorrow and heal some things," coach Dan Hughes said. "Hopefully that will play dividends for us in the playoffs."

While Hammon and Young form one of the WNBA's top-scoring duos, the Mercury have plenty of firepower behind Taurasi. Cappie Pondexter finished fourth in the league with 19.1 points per game as Phoenix averaged a league-best 92.8. DeWanna Bonner had a sensational rookie season and Penny Taylor - a key cog in the team's title run two years ago - played a significant role off the bench over the final 14 games after missing last season.

Taurasi scored 24.3 points per game against the Silver Stars in 2009, and Pondexter averaged 29.5 points, 7.0 assists and 8.5 rebounds in the teams' 2007 playoff series.

Calendar Strip here