When the Fever lost Game 1 in overtime I was surprised by how happy their locker room was. They weren't upset with themselves. They were laughing and joking in fact and looking forward to Game 2.
That was not the case with the Phoenix Mercury today after losing Game 3 by the score of 86-85.
I've seen this Mercury team after a lot of losses this season and I've never seen the locker room as down as it was after this game. It was a quiet place with a lot of long faces.
The Mercury have played well with their backs against the wall all season or they wouldn't still be here but this is by far their biggest test. They certainly are capable of winning two games in a row, but to even get to a Game 5 in Phoenix they are going to have to find a way to put this game behind them.
Perhaps that healing process starts with finding an external "enemy" to blame.
In his post game press conference Coach Gaines focused his remarks on the technical foul call on Taurasi and what Gaines described as the inability to get to the free throw line. I think it is safe to say that he meant the lack of calls his team got because the Mercury outscored the Fever 52-28 in the paint which was a fair indication of their aggression going to the rim.
That might be what his team needs to hear right now, but the Mercury didn't lose this game due to missed shots or blown calls. The Indiana Fever won this game by playing solid defense for 40 minutes and by going on a 12-2 run in the final couple of minutes of the third quarter.
With 2:26 left in the 3rd period the Mercury led 65-58 only to see rookie Briann January hit two big three point shots and another 13ft jumper to help give the Fever a 3 point lead going into the 4th quarter. I have to think that if the Mercury were able to take that 7 point lead into the final period that they would have won this game regardless of what calls the officials made or didn't make and regardless of the Mercury's inability to shoot from range.
In the playoffs you don't get those calls and you just can't count on your shot falling every night.
Taurasi when asked about that key run said this, "I think for the most part we did a good job containing penetration, which had been hurting us, but in crucial moments we didn't get stops, which is something we need to do, something we're going to have to concentrate on."
The Mercury can talk about being hungry and they can talk about playing hard, but the bottom line is that by their own account they didn't play the full 40 minutes in Game 2 and in this game that mental let down at the end of the 3rd was enough to cost them the game.
Phoenix was keyed on stopping January going into tonight but she was still able to get 17 points while the Fever were keyed on stopping Penny Taylor and they were able to hold her to 10. What this game reminds us is that defense isn't something that you can turn on and off.
The Fever played fantastic team defense for most of this game. They made everything difficult for Phoenix and they let their stops fuel their confidence. When they needed big stops they got them. When they needed big shots, they got those too. They deserve to be leading this series and as much as I would love to see a Game 5 in Phoenix, Indiana doesn't strike me as the kind of team that's going to let that happen.
Tamika Catchings said it best, "A lot of times teams get content when they win Game 3, especially when they go up 2-1 and go into that next game a little bit down. But we have to stay on our toes. We have to keep them on their heels. Diana and Cappie had a great game tonight so next game we have to do a much better job."
The Fever won't be taking the day off tomorrow. They will be right back in the gym working on at what's made them such a great team. These are things that teams say, but in this case I tend to believe them. The Mercury might win Game 4 but it will take a huge effort and great shooting. It won't be because the Fever fail to show up.
Full credit goes to Ebony Hoffman. She has been the difference in this series so far while DeWanna Bonner has yet to play well on either end of the floor. Hoffman's jump shot with 57 seconds to go was huge and even more so given that just minutes before she had left the court with a dislocated shoulder, "My shoulder just popped out and went back in, I'm double-jointed. It's just going to hurt."
And yes, the refs blew some calls. The technical on Taurasi was a horrible call. It happened right in front of me and there was no way she saw Douglas standing there.
But the ref's also blew another big call when Catchings grabbed a rebound with 4 seconds and called timeout long before Willingham tied her up. That resulted in the Mercury winning possession on the jump ball and getting plenty of time to draw up a play and get a good look. If the Mercury hit the buzzer beater (which was designed to go to Taylor but ended up in Tangela Smith's hands) then the Fever fans are rightly upset.
As so often is the case in the playoffs, the more disciplined team is leading. The Mercury have not played up to their potential and there is no other way to describe that then a lack of mental toughness.
Before you Mercury fans string me up, listen to Cappie Pondexter talk about that, "Game 3 is probably the hardest we fought out of this whole series and it's tough when you lose like that. So I think now it's mental more than anything. Game 4, I think we have to be stronger mentally and I think the rest will take care of itself."
Pondexter knows that she has to look in the mirror as well. Her reckless and out of control lay up attempt with about 50 seconds left was a big play in this game. She was probably looking for a call and a trip to the line but that was not how this game was called all night. In that situation she has to make a better decision and trust her teammates more.
I believe that the culture of organizations matters and that the teams that win in these situations are teams that are mentally strong and disciplined all season long. The Mercury have the talent and they say they have the will but so far in this series they've not shown it.
The Mercury believe they can come back to win this series but it is going to take more than faith to beat a very good Indiana Fever basketball team.