A little more than two weeks after Full Court Press named the Phoenix Mercury's Diana Taurasi as this year's Most Valuable WNBA Player, the league has followed suit with the announcement of its 2009 MVP award in a ceremony preceding the tip-off of the first game of the WNBA Finals series. It was the first time the six-year Mercury veteran won the award.
Taurasi led the league in scoring in 2009 for the third time in four seasons (2009, 2008, 2006), averaging 20.4 points per game during the 2009 regular season. She also posted career highs in rebounding (5.7 rebounds per game), blocks (1.39 blocks per game), field-goal percentage (46.1 percent) and three-point percentage (40.7 percent).
Taurasi credited her teammates and thanked those "who have had my back" during a summer filled with "ups and downs," alluding to her arrest in early July on DUI charges. A court date on those charges, to which she has pleaded not guilty, awaits her after the end of the playoffs, on October 30.
Taurasi ran away in the voting by a national panel of sportswriters and broadcaster, taking 323 total points and 27 first-place votes. The Indiana Fever's Tamika Catchings came in second with 163 points and three first-place votes, while her teammate Katie Douglas finished third with 128 points and five first-place votes. Taurasi's teammate, Cappie Pondexter, finished fourth with 99 points and one first-place vote.
But asked whether the wide margin by which she had won the award meant anything to her, Taurasi replied, "I didn't know what the tally was and I don't think it matters. Anyone who was up for the award -- Tamika [Catchings], Katie Douglas, Cappie [Pondexter -- everyone was deserving, they had amazing seasons. It was fun to watch. I followed them. The award, you know, should say, "Phoenix Mercury" on it, that's the way I feel. Everyone contributed to what it is. It's pretty special."
"Well, if you didn't like women's basketball, I think you do now!" said Coach Corey Gaines after his Phoenix Mercury prevailed in overtime to take the first game of the WNBA Finals series, 120-116, over the Indiana Fever in the highest scoring game ever played in WNBA history. The tightly matched, fast-paced, high-scoring game was all you could have wished for in a championship contest.
In what will likely be an Instant Classic, a crowd of 11,617 watched as the Phoenix Mercury used their superior firepower to outlast the Indiana Fever in overtime in a game marked by 19 lead changes and 13 ties. Not surprisingly, the game set all kinds of scoring records, not just for a Finals game but for a WNBA game of any kind, not the least of which was the total 236 points scored. Both teams surpassed the previous WNBA record (115) for points in a game -- playoffs or regular season -- that had been set earlier this year by the Mercury in their June 13, 2009 overtime win over the Sacramento Monarchs.
While Phoenix has by now become accustomed to exceeding the century mark, having done so in eight playoff games alone and a total of 23 times over the last three-plus seasons. The Fever, on the other hand, had never before scored 100 points in a playoff game; indeed, they had scored 100 points only once previously in franchise history (scoring 103 against Phoenix on September 14, 2008).
Most had expected the Fever, known more its defense than its offensive prowess, to try to slow the Mercury's up-tempo, run-and-gun style. Instead, its was Indiana pushing the ball from start to finish. That's the same approach the Fever used to capture a 90-83 victory when they visited Phoenix in August; this time, they simply upped the ante.
"We beat them here, we played up-tempo, we ran and we won," said Fever Coach Lin Dunn, explaining her strategy after the game. "We are a running team, we like to run, so I knew we could run with them. I wasn't concerned about that. I thought that we would be able to push the ball up and down the floor and get some good early shots, early post-ups, just like they did so that didn't surprise me at all that we could play their tempo."
In mid-May, with the 2009 WNBA season set to commence, a poll of the league's general managers predicted that the Los Angeles Sparks would win it all. By a wide majority, they thought the Sparks would get there by overcoming the Detroit Shock, who were forecast to once again with the Eastern Conference Championship.
Though both those teams made a run of it, neither will be on hand when the WNBA finals kick off Tuesday night at 6:00 p.m. Eastern at the U.S Airways Arena in Phoenix, Arizona.
Instead, when the opening buzzer sounds for tomorrow's Game One, it will be the Eastern Conference Champion Indiana Fever, a team that prides on its defensive intensity, facing off against the Western Conference Champion Phoenix Mercury, the league's best offensive team, one that equates scoring 100 points as its best defense against defeat. Only 25 percent of the league's GMs gave the Fever their vote of confidence for being there before the season began. Still fewer, just 17 percent, thought the Mercury would win the Western Conference and make their way to the Finals.
But that's why they play the game of basketball of basketball on the hardwood, not on a statistician's computer. Few who watched the Mercury burn up the league this season and put away the vaunted Sparks post legends could deny they're the team that deserves to be duking it out for this year's WNBA title. And though the Fever dropped seven of their 10 final regular-season games, Indiana more than earned its right to contend by dominating the Eastern Conference throughout the regular season and dethroning the reigning WNBA Champs, the Detroit Shocks, in three close second round playoff games.
It will be Indiana's first trip to the WNBA Finals, and the third for Phoenix, who finished last in the West last season and taking it all in 2007. The two teams have never before met in the playoffs, and for those who try to predict the outcome by dredging through the history of past meetings of importance between clubs on the verge of a monumental series, there is little here to hang one's hat on here.
The Indiana Fever rode the wave of emotion from a sellout crowd of 18,165 at Conseco Fieldhouse to become the Eastern Conference champions and advance to the WNBA Final (starting Tuesday in Phoenix) for the first time. In the closest game of the series, that saw 18 lead changes and 16 ties, the Fever defeated the Detroit Shock, 72-67, after being eliminated from the playoffs by them for the past three years.
Conseco Fieldhouse was packed to the rafters after Hoosier and Celtics great Larry Bird, now president of the Indiana Pacers, bought up all of the seats in the balcony and distributed them for free on a first-come, first-served basis. In case anyone is in doubt that there is a market for women's basketball (at some price point), hundreds of fans started lining up outside Conseco Fieldhouse at 7:00 a.m., less than 12 hours after Bird's offer had been announced to the public and all 9,000 tickets had been given away within two hours after the box office opened its doors.
"I am so proud of the Fever, who are now one game away from the WNBA Finals," said Bird in announcing his offer. "I want all the fans to come to the game and get behind this team for the biggest game in Fever history. So, bring the whole family and the balcony tickets are on me."
Bird has got to be even prouder now that the Fever have shaken off the playoff jinx that seems to have hung, year after year, like a cloud over their heads, by defeating the reigning WNBA Champion Detroit.
As is so often the case in basketball, the final score doesn't tell the true story of the game. It was a rout. A massacre. A bloodbath.
And a sad way for one of the legends of the game to end her career as she sat on the bench, watching her team's championship hopes go down in smoke, after fouling out in the final minutes.
"It comes down to just wanting the game sometimes," said the Phoenix Mercury's Diana Taurasi, who finished with 21 points, seven boards and three assists to lead her team to an 85-74 defeat of the Los Angeles Sparks and the Western Conference Championship. "Not necessarily defensive schemes, plays, just wanting the game. And unlike [Game Two, in which the Sparks pounded their way to an 87-76 victory over Phoenix], tonight we wanted the game. We didn't necessarily play great basketball on either end, but we took the game."
No doubt, Lisa Leslie wanted the game as well. At the very least, she didn't want her storied career to end on a frustrating night, marked by dreadful shooting, before a hostile crowd that booed her introduction before the game began and her every move thereafter. Her teammates, it seemed, didn't want it nearly as much.
On Wednesday night in Los Angeles, it seemed at times that the Phoenix Mercury couldn't miss a shot, as Diana Taurasi and company rode a hail of three-balls to a 103-94 win in the Game One of the Western Conference Finals.
Oh, what a difference a day makes! On Friday night, on their home floor in the U.S. Airways Center, it seemed at times that the Mercury couldn't make a shot, as the Los Angeles Sparks, facing elimination, thundered out of the gates to a 16-point first quarter lead, then held on for three quarters to take Game Two of the best-of-three series, 87-76.
The Mercury, the highest scoring team in the WNBA, shot just 39.7 percent from the field and 35 percent from long distance, and fared even worse in the game's opening minutes, going 40 percent from the field but just 20 (1-5) percent from beyond the arc.
Meanwhile, the Sparks, who too often this season have seemed content to settle for jump shots, kept pounding the ball inside to their future Hall of Fame front court. Los Angeles shot the ball well in the opening period, going 12-for-25 from the field (48 percent); they attempted only two shots from downtown, but made one of them.
Though their shooting would cool off considerably as the game progressed, it didn't matter much. L.A. dominated the boards so completely 43-28 (15-7 on the offensive glass), that the statisticians should have created a new category -- for third and fourth-chance points, not just the second-chance points in which the Sparks led by a 23-17 margin.
As befitted a night on which the Indiana Fever's Tamika Catchings earned her third WNBA Defensive Player of the Year award, the Fever snatched 18 steals to help force 24 Detroit Shock turnovers on the way to a 79-75 win over the Detroit Shock in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Fever were buoyed by a crowd of 9,210 that was very much into the game and helped their team survive a 41-27 (17-5 offensive) Shock edge on the boards which Detroit parlayed into 22 second-chance points.
The victory, a must-win for the Fever who trailed the Shock 0-1 in the best-of-three series after dropping Game One on the road Wednesday, sets the stage for a decisive Game Three to the Eastern Conference Championships to be played on the Fever's home court this Saturday night.
Post-game, Fever Coach Lin Dunn started and ended her press conference praising the Indiana fans, expressing hope that even more will show up for the deciding Game Three. When asked by a member of the local media if the team felt any pressure to win in order to ensure that the franchise would continue, she politely refused to address the issue. Concerns over the future of the franchise were exacerbated by the delay of the front office in sending out applications for 2010 season ticket renewals; those forms finally went out in the last week. Hopefully, given tonights outstanding attendance, dissolution of the club will be taken off the table.
Unlike Game One, this contest had drama into the last minute with nine lead changes and nine ties. Shock Coach Rick Mahorn summed up his teams problems in the post-game press conference. We turned the ball over. Indiana held serve. They got to the basket and got to the free throw line.
Super-sub Shavonte Zellous scored 16 of her game-high 23 points in the first half to help whittle an 11-point first-half Indiana lead to two. Deanna Nolan completed the turnaround with 14 of her 22 points in the second half as the home-standing Detroit Shock pulled away in the fourth quarter to a 16-point win over the Indiana Fever in Game One of the Eastern Conference Championships.
When you have a horse, why shouldnt you ride it? In the glory days of the Houston Comets, Hall-of-Fame Coach Van Chancellor used to play superstars Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes in big playoff games until they dropped. With Indianas lead cut to 37-30 and 1:02 left in the second quarter, Indianas MVP candidate Tamika Catchings went to the bench to rest for the last minute of the half. Over the next 62 seconds, the Shock scored five unanswered points on a Nolan jumper and a Zellous three-ball, completing a 7-0 Detroit run which saw a lead only recently at 11 (35-24 with 3:08 left in the half) fall to 37-35.
Catchings, the hot Indiana player coming into this series, did play all 10 minutes of the first quarter but only 5:46 of the second. With the Tennessee product off the court for those last 62 seconds, Fever intensity slipped a gear and the Shock gained critical momentum going into halftime.
Los Angeles had its job cut out for it in taking on the team with the best record in the WNBA, led by two of the league's best shooters. They didn't "get 'er done," as the Sparks dropped their "home game," 103-94, (held at UCLA's Pauley Pavillion due to a Brittney Spears concert appearing at Staples Center). The series now heads to Phoenix for the next game (the next two if necessary).
The Mercury are 12-5 on their home court, but the last game they lost their was to the Sparks, 78-81, in the regular-season finale of both teams. Of course, Diana Taurasi didn't play in that game.
She most definitely played in this one, netting 28 points (including four of her 10 three-point attempts) and dishing out six assists just two days after dropping 30 on San Antonio to lead her team to victory in Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals. Who knows what mark Taurasi would have hit had she not spent much of the game in foul trouble, ultimate fouling out of the game in its final minutes.
If the Sparks had no answer for Taurasi, neither did they have a solution for the hailstorm of three-balls rattling into the rim from the rest of the Mercury squad -- 14 in total -- many of them wide open, as the Mercury shot 49.3 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from beyond the arc.
The WNBA Western Conference final series that tips off tonight at UCLA's Pauley Pavillion will feature the hottest young team in the league against the greatest front court ever to be assembled at one place and one time. "Legends of the court," is not just a bit of media hype to describe the Los Angeles Sparks' roster; it is the term Phoenix Mercury captain Diana Taurasi used to characterize the team that stands between her and a second trip to the WNBA Finals in a span of three years.
Five Olympians take the floor on behalf of Los Angeles in Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson, DeLisha Milton-Jones, Candace Parker, and Australian silver medalist Kristi Harrower. And quite beyond Leslie's four Olympic gold medals, three WNBA MVP awards, and the other honors that come along with being the face of women's basketball for 13 years, there are countless other accolades richly distributed among her teammates -- Thompson's four WNBA Championship rings from her days in Houston, and Parker's combo MVP-Rookie of the Year awards last season, to cite just two.
The problem is, only one of member of the Sparks' starting line-up is on the north side of 24 years of age. And Phoenix, a team which is not without plenty of hardware for its own players to dust -- including Olympic gold medals belonging to Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter, and an Olympic silver for Penny Taylor who was also MVP of, and a member of the Australian gold-medal team at, the most recent Women's World Basketball Championships -- is the team best positioned to exploit the downsides of that much, shall we say, experience on the part of the Sparks.
Phoenix is a team that loves to run and gun, and is at its most dangerous when doing so, as can be evidenced by their their wins in their two 100-point-plus games in their recent Round One playoff series against the San Antonio Silver Stars. And Los Angeles, to put it bluntly, cannot run with them. Instead, they must concentrate on denying Phoenix the ball and preventing them from ever establishing their running game.
Can they do it? We'll know shortly. If Phoenix plays as they did on Friday night, it is doubtful that there is a team in the league who can match-up with them. But San Antonio nearly found an answer in slowing the game down. There's a lot of on-the-court savviness and just-plain will-to-win that comes in the Sparks' package.