Sometimes before auto races, a driver and a team will be certain they have the best car. They’ve figured out just the right set-up for the track, the driver loves the speedway, the engine is running top-notch, everything seems nearly perfect. They think the only thing that can keep them from winning is calamity: a wreck that can’t be avoided, someone else’s mistake ending up costing them.
Otherwise, the victory will be theirs.
The Phoenix Mercury should be feeling a lot like this now. The Merc just completed a five-game road trip Tuesday with a 101-90 overtime victory at Seattle.
It was Phoenix’s last contest of a gruelingly long time away from home, and the win came despite the fact that the Storm entered the overtime with the momentum. That was thanks to Sue Bird’s 3-pointer that tied the score 84-84 with 5.6 seconds left in regulation.
So there the Mercury players were on the road, bound to be tired, sensing the tide had just turned … and what happens? Penny Taylor, in her second game this season for Phoenix, stepped into the courtside phone booth and turned into Superwoman again. Just like old times.
Taylor scored seven of her 18 points in the overtime, during which the Merc outscored the Storm 17-6. Taylor had returned to play for Phoenix on Saturday, when she had two points in an 87-74 victory at Minnesota. Coming into Tuesday’s game at Key Arena, Taylor’s time on court supposedly needed to be very limited. That’s because she’s 12 weeks out from ankle surgery.
But Taylor told coach Corey Gaines she felt fine, and he so he went with that. She played just over 19 minutes, getting four assists and two rebounds.
“I didn’t mind at all. That’s more a doctor’s rule than mine,” Taylor said of the pre-game recommendation that she play no more than a couple of minutes. “I didn’t really keep an eye on the clock, but it’s feeling good. If I have a problem obviously I’ll let him (coach) know, but in the game it was feeling good.”
The doctor may not be happy that Taylor didn’t follow the orders, but her teammates were thrilled.
Consider this is a Mercury team that already had Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter playing as well as ever, Tangela Smith being her usual dependable self, Temeka Johnson fitting in well after a trade from Los Angeles, and the Auburn connection of Le’Coe Willingham and rookie DeWanna Bonner both putting up very similar numbers.
That group was solidly in first place in the Western Conference even before Taylor came back. Now with her in the lineup again – even if she continues to come off the bench – the Mercury is indeed like the car that seems sure to win the race. Not just the Western Conference race, but the WNBA title.
That’s not to dismiss the team that right now appears most likely to be the East champ, Indiana. But when you add Taylor to how much the Mercury already had, it’s hard to figure out how anyone would beat them in a best-of-five series.
Obviously, things can go wrong injury-wise between now and the playoffs. And when you consider the first two rounds are best-of-three, when it’s easier for an underdog to pull an upset in the series, there are still obstacles in the Mercury’s road to the finals.
Notably Seattle, which is the only other team in the West right now that seems in shouting distance of Phoenix. Still, look at Tuesday’s game: the Storm’s Tanisha Wright led all scorers with 25 points, Camille Little had 20 and Lauren Jackson 18. Bird scored 13 points, including that big 3-pointer, and Swin Cash 12.
Yet all that still wasn’t enough against the relentless Mercury.
Since the start of July, Phoenix is 10-2. Even on this hellish road trip the team just finished – which started the day after Taurasi and Pondexter played in the All-Star Game in Connecticut _ the Merc had just one bad outing. That was last Thursday’s “they didn’t really show up” 106-76 loss at Atlanta.
So after going 4-1 in this recent road stint, Phoenix now comes home for Saturday’s game against that potential Finals opponent, Indiana.
What kind of game we see then truly might indicate how hard it’s going to be to keep Phoenix from getting its second WNBA title.