Merc etch name among WNBA's best

ByMechelle Voepel via ESPN logo
Thursday, April 2, 2015

CHICAGO -- The Mercury certainly didn't grimace or shy away from the question, so you can tell the thought has at least crossed their minds. After they swept Chicago for the WNBA title, the new champions were asked where they might rank in league history.

"Maybe I'm a little biased," Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said, smiling. "But I think it is the best team in the WNBA. Everyone accepted their role, bought in, and played defense. We had a solid bench. I just think this is the best I've seen."

There's a good argument to be made for the 2014 Mercury, for sure. They finished 29-5 to set the record for most regular-season victories. (The league expanded to a 34-game schedule in 2003.) Phoenix lost one game at home all season, and that was in May.

In the Western Conference finals, the Mercury knocked off a powerful defending champion in Minnesota, which had been to the previous three WNBA Finals and won two of them. Then in the WNBA Finals, Phoenix clobbered Chicago in the first two games, when the Mercury were at full strength. And even when they were without first-team All-WNBA center Brittney Griner in Game 3 because of an eye injury, the Mercury still beat the Sky on the road 87-82 to close out the series sweep.

Diana Taurasi, the 2014 WNBA Finals MVP, gave her evaluation of why Phoenix was so good this season.

"I don't know if there's another team that defensively and offensively can hurt you as much," she said of comparing the 2014 Mercury to other WNBA winners, including her Phoenix champs of 2007 and '09. "Our past teams were all offense; we were going to outscore you. I don't know if there's been a mix of this type of versatility, and that's where the game is right now."

Whether this core group for the Mercury will be able to put together a string of consecutive WNBA Finals appearances -- let alone championships -- remains to be seen. No team has won consecutive WNBA titles since Los Angeles in 2001-02.

But what the Mercury did in 2014 is on the books, and it's very impressive.

Taurasi was a sophomore at UConn in 2002, when the Huskies completed a 39-0 season. That team -- for which the other starters were Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams -- is still considered by many as the best in women's college basketball history.

Taurasi said there are parallels between the Mercury this year and UConn in 2002.

"There is a way to do it, a certain blueprint that you need to be a great team," Taurasi said after her 24-point performance in Game 3 Friday. "It starts with great coaching and individuals that are willing to go outside themselves.

"It's hard to pull your game back when needed for the overall good of the team. I've been there where I didn't adjust as well in some seasons. But it's those seasons where everyone is willing to do that when you come out with something special."

Taurasi said constant commitment is vital for teams to have exceptional seasons.

"There was a behavioral pattern every single day in 2002," she said. "We came off a huge loss to Notre Dame in the Final Four the year before and there was no way we weren't winning in 2002.

"And [Friday] epitomized that, too: No BG [Griner], playing Chicago at home, they are finding their stride. But there was a point when we said, 'We are not losing this game.'"

Indeed, the fact that the Mercury could prevail even without their starting center might be as big a piece of evidence as there is about Phoenix's level of talent. During the regular season and the playoffs, all five of the Mercury starters averaged in double figures.

Taurasi's 21.9 points and 5.8 assists per game led them in the postseason. In the regular season, she had committed to focusing more on her playmaking skills at point guard, but still averaged a team-best 16.2 points and league-best 5.6 assists.

Phoenix shot 51.3 percent from the field in its eight playoff games, led by forward Candice Dupree (66.3 percent, 61 of 92). She also scored 24 points Friday. The Mercury held their postseason opponents to 41.5 percent shooting overall, and 27.3 from behind the arc.

In the 6-foot-8 Griner, who had a league-record 129 blocks during the regular season and 24 more in the playoffs, the Mercury had the best rim protector in the WNBA. And in 6-4 DeWanna Bonner, Phoenix had one of the top perimeter defenders in the league.

It's difficult to completely measure the impact of guard/forward PennyTaylor, who like Taurasi was a key player on the 2007 and '09 Phoenix title teams. Suffice to say, Taylor's contributions were enormous.

Taylor had struggled through knee issues in 2012 and '13, but she was her tough-as-nails self this year. It seemed fitting that Taurasi got the basket that put Phoenix ahead for good Friday, and then shortly after Taylor grabbed a rebound and made two free throws that sealed the deal.

Those two were joined on the Mercury's previous title teams by star guard Cappie Pondexter, who just completed her fifth season in New York. Phoenix has a different strategy now under Brondello than it had under coach Paul Westhead in 2007 and his protg Corey Gaines in 2009. This was a much better defensive team, but the Mercury didn't sacrifice offensive potency to do that.

"I'm more about defense first; every day we'd come to work on the defense," Brondello said. "It's a mentality. But I still wanted them to play offense, and I think we did that pretty well, too."

In the end, there wasn't much to find wrong with Phoenix. The bench didn't get a lot of playing time during the season, but the fact that reserves Ewelina Kobryn and Mistie Bass competed so well filling in for Griner in Game 3 shows how effective Phoenix was in preparing everyone in practice.

"No one is left out of anything," Taylor said. "Everyone has to listen and is involved, one through 11. And that paid off [Friday]."

As for the immediate future, the Mercury look to be just as formidable next year.

Taylor is the oldest of the starters; she'll be 34 next May. Taurasi will turn 33 next June. Last month, Dupree turned 30 and Bonner 27. And then there's the baby of the bunch in Griner, who'll be 24 in October.

"If we can keep that first five healthy and together, then we have a good chance," Brondello said of winning again in 2015. "But Minnesota's going to get better, Tulsa's going to get better -- a lot of teams will improve. And now we have the big 'X' on our back as the champion.

"But I think we had that a lot of this season as well. I think we embraced that because we have great chemistry and we believe in each other."

Taylor knows from experience how difficult it is to follow one championship with another. After winning in 2007, the Mercury missed the playoffs in 2008. Following their 2009 title, they lost to Seattle in the 2010 Western Conference finals.

"In this league, there's a reason it's hard to win," Taylor said. "It's grueling to play as much as we do. In a few weeks' time, all these players go off and play in other leagues. They start from scratch again.

"It's hard to come back and repeat the following year. This team is the most talented I've played on, but there's a lot that goes into it. I would definitely never assume anything."

But Taylor and the Mercury have closed the door on 2014 in a most emphatic way. Whether Phoenix is the best or in a small group as one of the best, the Mercury have set a standard for their franchise that the rest of the league now has to try to match.