Last game of the regular season, sports fans and it's a match up that I predict we will see again in the Western Conference Finals in a few weeks. Unfortunately, for those hoping for late season drama this game is meaningless as both teams have finalized their playoff seedings.
The Mercury have locked up the home court advantage through the finals by finishing no worse then 23-11 which would earn Phoenix a tie for the best record with Indiana. The Mercury own the tie breaker by having the better record against the opposing conference.
Phoenix will face last year's Western Conference Champions, the San Antonio Silver Stars (15-18) in the first round. The three-game playoff series begins in San Antonio on Thursday the 17th. The Mercury will hold an official viewing party that night at Native New Yorker in Tempe. I am fairly sure I will be there. The next two games will be at home on Saturday the 19th and Monday the 21st.
We will have a much more detailed series preview early next week but in the mean time Coach Gaines sums it up best, "San Antonio, hey, they went to the championships last year so to get there you've got to beat them. It goes through them."
Phoenix fans, doesn't it always go through San Antonio and if not them LA? The stars seemed to be aligned for match ups with both (assuming the Sparks can beat the Storm who are still without Lauren Jackson).
LA comes to town for this Sunday noon game (which will be on ESPN) having secured the third seed. Coach Gaines thinks they might rest their aging stars (Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson) but feels like Candace Parker will likely want the extra playing time.
Lisa "the Legend" Leslie will be playing her final regular season game (and perhaps final game ever) in Phoenix. I would expect the Mercury crowd to provide her with a nice send off befitting her status as the face of the league for all these years. She's a class act and an amazing athlete and she will surely be missed on the court. And talk about going out on top...Leslie is averaging 16 ppg and 7 rebounds in her final season which is barely below her career averages. Odeen at the Republic has more on Leslie's final game.
The Mercury see this game as opportunity to keep in game shape and keep in game rhythm. Gaines said the Mercury will go out and do their same thing, attacking the basket, "We're going to try and win the game."
Gaines was little coy in his response when I asked him about resting his players. I wouldn't be surprised if we see more Brooke Smith and Kelly Mazzante in this game and I would guess Cappie and Dee will play 20 to 25 minutes each. But you never know once the juices start flowing and the crowd gets to cheering; if the game is close the instinct to win will be strong.
After the game, the entire Mercury team will be available for autographs starting about 30 minutes post game.
I've been putting off this decision for a few days now which indicates just how close my top two candidates are.
The case for Taurasi is certainly strong. Her numbers on both ends of the floor are amazing as she leads the league in scoring, leads her team on the defensive end and as Odeen pointed out is 9th in blocks in the league as the only guard in the top 33.
For those not so familiar with her game, Diana (a natural two guard) plays the small forward on the Mercury where she is an extremely efficient shooter. She can drive and is a great finisher on the break but most of her offense comes from pull up jump shots or shooting off curls. She is an aggressive rebounder and defender and anchors the team as the vocal floor leader. She is one of the most well rounded basketball players I can remember and is a fiery competitor who other team's fans hate. The only thing she hasn't done frequently enough is take the ball to the rack but there certainly have been games where she's done that and I have little doubt we will see more of it in the playoffs.
Here's her full line:
For me the most amazing part of her performance this season has been how she's still managed to put up her points while never taking away from her teammates. You don't see Taurasi dominate the ball on 4 or 5 possessions in row like you might see from a Kobe or LeBron. She said before the season started that her goal was to see the Mercury have a more balanced attack and with 7 players in double figures (rounding up from 9.5 for Temeka Johnson and Tangela Smith) she's certainly accomplished that goal.
Diana's off the court incident with the extreme DUI is the only dark mark on her season and it certainly does hang over her. She will mostly likely spend 20 to 30 days in jail after the season ends which is no small issue for a professional athlete. I haven't talked to her about it yet but I hope she finds a way to use her punishment to educate others. As Michelle Voepel pointed out, her arrest has not impacted her game and I've never seen a sign of it affecting the rest of the team. I don't think therefore that it should factor into an award the recognizes individual play.
Cappie Pondexter of course is also in the discussion at the national level and here in Phoenix. While Cappie isn't quite the defender that Diana is she brings something that might be even more valuable to the team - clutch shooting.
With the clock winding down you always (always) see the ball in Cappie's hands and that's because there is no one better in the league at breaking down her defender and getting to the rim. She leads the team in free throw attempts (where she is shooting 89%) as she is almost always drawing a help defender. If the defense does collapse quickly she can pull up and hit a mid-range shot in the defenders face or she can find an open teammate. She's second in the league with 5 assists per game despite not playing big minutes at the point. Think Dwayne Wade if you are looking for an NBA comparison.
The advantage Cappie has over Dee is that she is more irreplaceable on the team. Call this the Steve Nash MVP standard where the award goes to the player who's team would suffer the most without them. In this case, without Taurasi the Mercury would still have the great all around play of Penny Taylor and the defense and rebounding from DeWanna Bonner. There simply is no replacing Cappie Pondexter as your best late game situation player.
With the game on the line who do you want to have the ball? Cappie.
It's a tough call between them and I refuse to go with a co-MVP cop-out (although if there was ever a case for that, this is it). I am going to give Taurasi the edge, slight edge, over Cappie simply because I still value defense and she's the better player on that end of the floor.
The game I keep coming back to in my mind was against San Antonio where she was matched up against one of the best point guards in the league, Becky Hammon, and held her to 7 points on 2-12 shooting. DT won that game on the defensive end and still put up a team high 29 points of her own. It was single best performance I've seen all season long and is enough to give Diana the edge.