The Mercury made WNBA history last summer when it became the first team to miss the playoffs the season after winning the championship. This didn't sit well with players, particularly guard Diana Taurasi, a four-time All-Star. "We came into training camp angry and embarrassed," she says. "Sometimes all you need is a little extra motivation to bring a group together."
That extra motivation, along with new personnel, has revitalized Phoenix this year. Despite losing to the Sparks 81--78 in Sunday's season finale to finish with the league's best record (23--11), the Mercury enters the postseason as the title favorite. (It opens a best-of-three, first-round series on Thursday in San Antonio.) Phoenix has executed former coach Paul Westhead's fast-paced, hair-trigger offense—now directed by second-year coach Corey Gaines, who played and assisted under Westhead—so brilliantly that it piled up points at a faster rate (92.8 per 40 minutes) than its US Airways Center co-tenants, the Suns, the NBA's top-scoring outfit last season (109.4 per 48). The Mercury led the league in field goal percentage (46.0), free throw percentage (85.5), assists (18.4) and, lest anyone assume such an offensively potent team blows off defense, blocks (5.3). Suns coach Alvin Gentry told brightsideofthesun.com on Sept. 8 that the Mercury is better than his squad, in part, because of "how they try and play."
The Phoenix attack starts with the 27-year-old Taurasi, who brought a trainer with her to Russia last off-season and worked on "things I wasn't good at"—like footwork—while playing for Spartak Moscow. As a result Taurasi is in the best shape of her pro career. Despite a DUI arrest in early July that resulted in a two-game suspension, she is having an MVP-worthy season, leading the league in scoring (20.4 points per game) while reaching career highs in rebounds (5.7), blocks (1.4) and shooting percentage (46.1).
Backcourtmate Cappie Pondexter played for her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, at point guard, which she hadn't done for a full season since her days at Rutgers. "That really opened my eyes to seeing two or three passes ahead," she says. Though she hasn't handled the point for Phoenix—newcomer Temeka Johnson assumed that role—Pondexter dished a career-best 5.0 assists to go with her 19.1 points a game.
Rookie DeWanna Bonner, a versatile 6'4" guard, and two-time All-Star forward Penny Taylor have been key off the bench. "The additions have made us deeper than the year we won it," says Taurasi, "which is a scary thought."
Can the Mercury win it again? Taurasi likes her team's chances. "We're really nice people with a killer instinct," she says. "I don't think there's another group I'd feel more confident with."
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With less than a month left in the season, the Shock's playoff prospects looked bleak. Picked to repeat as champion, Detroit had suffered a season-ending right-shoulder injury to forward Plenette Pierson in the opener, the abrupt resignation of coach Bill Laimbeer two games later and a three-game skid that dropped its record to 9--14. Since then the Shock has surged, winning nine of its final 11 games under new coach Rick Mahorn to earn a seventh straight postseason berth. "It was like, We either turn it up [now], or we'll be at home watching everyone else in the playoffs," says guard-forward Deanna Nolan, who has averaged 22.7 points since Aug. 25. "I don't think we're a championship-level team yet, but we're getting closer every game."