The last time the Phoenix Mercury saw Lisa Leslie she was being helped off the floor in the 1st quarter with a severely sprained knee. Leslie is now back from injury and averaging 15 points and 7 rebounds in the final year of her great career.
Must win games in the regular season are one of those cliches invented by sports writers looking to hype something that often doesn't need to be hyped. When the 1st place Mercury (18-9) face the 3rd place Sparks (14-13) there won't be a playoff spot on the line. The Mercury have already clinched and the Sparks - who are a smoking hot with 6 wins in a row - are well on their way to beating out San Antonio or Minnesota for a post season birth.
What makes this game a must win for the Mercury goes beyond the first round of the playoffs. This is a game that very well could determine who comes out of the West to play for a ring.
A win Thursday in LA against the hottest team in the league will send a clear message that Phoenix is still the team to beat. Coming off a disappointing 4 and 4 stretch in which the team has lacked rhythm and struggled on both ends of the floor, the Mercury need to prove to themselves that they are as good as they think they are. It's a message that can only be sent with a win in LA.
Not surprisingly Coach Gaines doesn't see it this way, "Every game is a big game now because you're trying to get ready for the playoffs. You're trying to get yourself into the habit of winning. Every game now is our money game for the rest of the year."
That's what coaches do, right? They don't want to put too much emphasis on a game like this in case it doesn't go their way. I get that.
How about one of the team's stars? Diana Taurasi said this about this potentially being a statement game, "We've got to concentrate on ourselves right now. The last week and a half it's been kind of up and down as far as our play as a squad."
And that's really the key. The Mercury haven't been playing very well which is why this game is all that much more important. If the Mercury were on a roll a loss here wouldn't mean all that much. But with the Sparks coming on strong it makes getting the W key to the Mercury's chances of coming out of the West. This my friends is a huge game.
The Mercury won the two previous meetings but you can throw those out the window. These are two are very different teams. In the first match up in Phoenix in June, Lisa Leslie went down early with a knee injury which lead to her extended absence. Candace Parker didn't play at all. The next game just two weeks later was Parker's first game back and she clearly wasn't in game shape. Leslie didn't play at all. Without Parker and Leslie too much pressure fell on Tina Thompson and the Sparks were merely average in league where mediocrity results in losing record.
Now with Parker and Leslie back the Sparks are rounding into shape. The fearsome front line of the two WNBA legends - Tina Thompson and Lisa Leslie - partnered with Parker who is as amazing as anyone playing basketball anywhere in the world and look out. Even without starting guard Kristi Harrower who will miss the next three games due to a death in her family, the Sparks are deep and efficient.
Michael Cooper has them playing a slow down, control the tempo game emphasizing their great post players. They are last in the league in scoring but 1st in opponents field goal percentage. If they are able to keep this a half court game and pound the ball inside against the weakest point of the Mercury defense then the outcome won't even be in question.
The Mercury are going to need to pick up the pace and run the ball constantly to the point that might even seem absurd. Defensively, they will need to double Parker and Leslie hard and fast and recover quickly. Rotations will need to be picture perfect and even then they will need to hope that Parker doesn't have another 10-12 shooting night like she did against Chicago Tuesday. She was absolutely unguardable.
Phoenix has been slumping but Taurasi feels like the team is poised to turn that around, "The last two days have been really good I think for everyone. We just kind of got back to things we want to do and concentrate on doing them right."
Coach Gaines who played on the 93-94 New York Knicks team that made it to the NBA finals talked about how this type of slump happens to all teams and that he's glad it came now and not during the playoffs, "It's a normal thing during the course of the season. If you went zero for eight during that time, ok that's not normal."
He certainly feels like the team is still working to incorporate both Taylor and Ohlde into the rotations and players haven't yet adapted to each other which has lead to some standing around as shots that normally would have been taken are passed up.
Mercury fans will find out Thursday night if Gaines is right. The team's had plenty of time to practice since dropping its last game at home to the sub .500 Washington Mystics. If they come out Thursday and beat LA on the road then there will be no question that the Mercury have turned things around and are ready to head into the playoffs and compete for a title.
A loss, and the carry over might be too much to overcome as the team could lose confidence in itself as a potential champion.
Tonight's game is on NBATV at 7:30pm PST