The Phoenix Mercury had every reason to be happy after winning the second game of their season 91-84 against the New York Liberty. The team is 2-0 for only the third time in franchise history and the first time since 2000 and the wins were against quality opponents who were a combined 5-0 against last season's Phoenix squad.
Both wins featured the team's high pace, high scoring offense with the new addition of late game defense. Phoenix has now outscored their opponents 50 - 31 in the final period of their opening two wins of the season.
Perhaps even more encouraging for Mercury fans than victories over last season's Western Conference champs and Eastern Conference runner-ups is the pervasive attitude that the team can get better.
The first comment from Coach Gaines in his post-game presser was indicative of how the team is feeling about its performance which scored over 90 points in consecutive games, a feat that was only accomplished once all last season, "We're not playing well. Basically what we are doing is wearing teams down, keeping the same pace and the same pressure on them. They hit some big shots, they've got some good players but what happened was as you saw in the other game..they started to get tired and just couldn't keep the push."
The Mercury's dynamic duo had similar thoughts.
Diana Taurasi who finished a sub-par shooting night (for her) with 21 points on 6 for 15 started her locker room chat with this, "We won the game which is the good part but there are some things we've got to clean up a little bit, we've got to watch some film and do that." DT was specifically concerned about missed assignments defensively which allowed the Liberty to cut into leads and keep the game closer then it needed to be. It should be noted that Taursi chipped in 2 steals, 2 blocks, 5 assists and 5 rebounds along with her usual floor leadership.
Continuing the theme, Cappie Pondexter added from her spot across the room, "Hopefully we can keep working hard and keep getting better defensively because when our offense isn't going like it hasn't been in the last two games, defensively we have to be able to pull it together. We've just got to keep working." Cappie finished with a game high 26 points on 50% shooting. She was aggressive and got to the line for 10 free throw attempts and she was hitting her mid-range pull up J's like her idol from a Chicago childhood, Michael Jordan.
Defensive improvement will be the key for the Mercury this season and again tonight the signs point in the right direction despite a few miscues.
For the second game in a row, the Mercury came out trapping hard which lead to open looks for the other team's bigs, in this case Janel McCarville who had 8 of her 14 points in the 1st quarter. Once again the Mercury adjusted and started going under screens to deny dribble penetration and prevent wide open looks for the screener off the trap.
The result tonight was a 62% shooting first quarter for the Liberty followed by 39% for the remainder of the game. Combine good shooting percentage defense with another high turnover game for the opponent (21 for the Liberty) and you have the makings of a solid defensive team. It's very early yet and the team understands it has room to improve but so far there's reason to be pleased with the aggressive defense and the results its produced.
Stepping up to help the Big Two, were solid play from the front line tandem of Tangela Smith and Le'Coe Willingham.
Tangela was the beneficiary of open outside looks as the Liberty defense collapsed on Diana, Cappie or the speedy hard dribbling Tameka Johnson. Tange had 18 points on 57% FG along with 5 rebounds. After the game Tangela said this about her role, "I think that if I'm shooting well it helps this team a lot. It helps Cappie and D get their shots because they also have to play me too. I just concentrated more tonight and knocked 'em down." Smith's ability to spread the floor and open the lane is an important part of the Mercury's half court offense.
The unsung hero of this game though was Le'Coe Willingham. Le'Coe is a solid player and the team's only true inside physical presence. She battled hard in the paint and was one of five Mercury players to record five rebounds.
Le'Coe is a starter on this team but had only 19 minutes compared to rookie DeWanna Bonners 28 minutes off the bench. She earned an early hook in the first quarter for some lax individual defense on Janel McCarville, giving the skilled Liberty Center too much space to work. After that initial stretch Willingham's defense picked up and she became more aggressive bodying up and using her strength to counter some of the bigs off the Liberty bench in the 3rd period.
For their part, the Liberty looked good expect for the high turn over total. They played tonight without leading scorer Shameka Christon who suffered a sprained right ankle in their last game. Despite her loss, the Liberty proved to a be a very deep team with solid bench players like the big point guard Loree Moore (13 points) and rookie center Kia Vaughn (8 points).
Understandably, the Liberty were focused on their mistakes with Janel McCarville saying, "We didn't make shots and we had some turnovers. I think Phoenix did a a great job of capitalizing on our turnovers and exploited us in that area of the game. I think that was really on us. I think we forced a lot of things and we didn't let the game come to us at that point. I think we were the reason for all the turnovers." The Mercury had 23 points of turnovers which Coach Pat Coyle felt was the difference in the game.
Mercury Coach Corey Gaines doesn't see this as just mistakes by the other team. He feels that the pace his team plays forces opponents into things they are not comfortable or used to doing like using more bench players and playing faster then normal.
The final score was closer then the game really was at the end. The Mercury were up 11 with one minute to go but a few rookie mistakes by Bonner in the face of a full court press along with some questionable no-calls allowed the Liberty to cut the lead to 5 before Cappie drained two free throws to complete the win.
The Mercury next face the Sacramento Monarchs on the road Friday and then again back in Phoenix Saturday night.