Mercury Advance to Finals as Leslie Graduates to Greatness

LA Sparks Candace Parker and Lisa Leslie embrace after losing the Western Conference Championship to the Phoenix Mercury. September 26, 2009. Photo by Max Simbron

The Phoenix Mercury defeated the LA Sparks to win the WNBA Western Conference Championship by a score of 85-74. The Mercury advance to face the Indian Fever in the WNBA Finals.

That simple statement of fact might just be the most memorable thing about the game itself which unexpectedly was never in doubt after the first few minutes. The Mercury imposed their will on the tired Sparks who lacked the stamina to keep up with a younger and deeper opponent in a back to back situation on the road.

Some games have fascinating and complex story lines and some games don't. This one didn't, but for Mercury players and fans who are focused on winning another championship that's exactly what you wanted to see.  By the second quarter with a 22 point lead, Beat LA! chants from the home crowd quickly turned to thoughts of matching up with the Fever in the finals.

Playing with the type of energy and aggression that was lacking in Friday's game 2 loss, the Mercury came out from the start and crashed the boards, were active defensively and even though their offense wasn't in top form they pushed the ball and controlled tempo.

That early lead was the difference in this game just as it was in game 2 when the Sparks sealed the win in the first quarter.

Coach Cooper said this about the start, "I thought the Mercury established their game early on us and we just never recovered from it."

There are always a lot of meaningful statistics to reflect on after a basketball game but the one that stands out for me is the 6 to 2 rebounding advantage the Mercury had after 3 minutes of play. Coach Cooper was forced to call a time out with his team down 7-2 early. The Sparks would end the game with a 40-29 advantage on the glass but that early edge was exactly what Phoenix needed to set the tone as the aggressors.

Mercury head coach Corey Gaines talked about his offensive adjustment saying that instead of calling set plays to start the game he just urged his players to run and be creative. Even if the shots weren't falling, the Mercury understood that pace was to their advantage and both Gaines and the players executed the game plan perfectly.

As it turned out, the only thing able to slow down Phoenix were the officials who called a tight game which led to far more stoppages then the Mercury would prefer. Both teams combined for 58 free throw attempts and while fans of either team in a game like this will feel their side got the raw deal, the game was called consistently on both ends.

Even that was an advantage to the Mercury though, as the Sparks only shot 50% from the free throw line in the first half and the deeper Mercury bench was able to easily withstand any foul trouble.

The closest the game got was early in the fourth quarter when Leslie, sensing the end of her career, tried to will her team to a come back. The Sparks closed the lead to 11 before Temeka Johnson, who played a great overall game, hit a layup and a pull up jump shot to stem the tide.

Then Diana Taurasi returned to the game and, refusing to give the Sparks any hope, quickly drained a well contested three and then grabbed a defensive rebound and drove the length of the floor and hit yet another amazing shot while being knocked to the floor earning the and 1.

Those 6 quick points from DT ended any hope the Sparks might have had about making the game competitive. It was an MVP performance made all the more amazing when you consider how unsurprising it was. That's what Diana does.

On the other side of the fence, last year's MVP followed up her 24 points and 18 rebounds in game 2 with only 6 points and 9 rebounds in the elimination game. The Mercury did a good job denying the passing lanes and doubling Parker quickly but as ESPN's Mechelle Voepel tweeted after the game, Parker will use this experience to make her a better playoff performer in years to come.

As great as she is already, Candace Parker still has quite a lot of room for improvement as she matures and better understands the game.

Some credit for Parker's difficult night goes to Le'Coe Willingham who had a fantastic game. I, along with others close to the team more privately, have questioned Gaines' decision to keep Willingham in the starting line up with either Bonner or Taylor being better options in many ways. In this game, Le'Coe proved her coaches' trust was well-deserved.

Cappie Pondexter added this, "I thought Le'Coe Willingham played exceptionally tonight, on both sides of the court. She made it difficult for Candace [Parker] to get any good looks. She ran the floor really well and she was big for us tonight."

Lisa Leslie - Moving on to greatness

What I might remember most about this game wasn't what happened on the floor. The Sparks saved their best performances for the post game press conference with both Coach Cooper and Lisa "Legend" Leslie giving emotional, heartfelt and inspirational conclusions to their highly successful careers.

Cooper started off in his usual rapid fire monologue talking about aspects of the game but quickly got choked up when the AP's Al Bravo asked about his time coaching Lisa Leslie.

"It's been a joy coaching her and we wanted her to go out on top, but obviously that's not going to happen," said Cooper. "She had a heck of a career, I thought she did a wonderful job for us this entire series and now she has the rest of her life to look forward to. To see her mature and grow and to become the legendary player that she became -- that's the fun part about basketball."

Lisa Leslie was all class in congratulating the Mercury and calling Diana Taurasi the best player in the world. She then spoke eloquently and passionately about the place women's basketball holds in the eyes of the media and expressed her frustration with the lack of coverage.

She rightly pointed out how much the product on the court has improved over the years and how hard the women in this game work. They deserve better and they certainly deserve our respect and admiration.

Watching Leslie talk about this aspect of growing the WNBA I realized why she's retiring. I think Lisa understands that at this point even though she can obviously still play at the highest levels of the game she can do even more off the court by being a spokesperson and advocate for the sport she's given so much to already.

The WNBA will be better served with Lisa on the side lines using her credibility and charm to support the growth of the game.

The WNBA Finals begin Tuesday. I would hope to see far more Phoenix fans attend then the 7,226 that came on a Saturday night for a conference finals elimination game.

Date                                        Site                                         Time (MDT)              Telecast

Sept. 29                                   US Airways Center                6 p.m.                          ESPN2

Oct. 1                                      US Airways Center                6 p.m.                          ESPN2

Oct. 4                                      Conseco Fieldhouse               1 p.m.                          ESPN2

Oct. 7 (if necessary)               Conseco Fieldhouse               4:30 p.m.                     ESPN2

Oct. 9 (if necessary)               US Airways Center                6 p.m.                          ESPN2

 

Tickets to Games 1 and 2 of the Finals are on sale now and can be purchased by calling 602.252.WNBA or by visiting phoenixmercury.com.  Seats in the lower level start at $35.75 and upper level seats begin at just $10.

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