I've been going to and covering Phoenix Suns games since 1977 and I've seen some great games but the Phoenix Mercury's 120-116 victory over the Indiana Fever in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals last night takes the cake.
I am not one for hyperbole, but I can not imagine how this could have been a more entertaining and competitive basketball game.
This game had it all.
Huge shots. Big stops. Stars stepping up. Unexpected role players coming out of nowhere. All within the context of a Finals Series. It is nearly impossible to do this "instant classic" justice with words on the
It is one of those games where no matter who you root for you have to show respect to both teams and recognize and appreciate how hard and how great these two teams plays. If there was any doubt about the best teams making it to the finals, this game erased that. These are the two best teams in the league.
Players and coaches from both sides expressed how important this game is for the growth of the league. Mercury GM Ann Meyers-Drysdale, as big of a name in women's basketball anywhere, put it this way, "It doesn't matter what gender it is, or what age. You're not a basketball fan if you don't enjoy a game like this."
Ann did express a little frustration as well, which in some ways mirrored Lisa Leslie's final post game press conference the other night. These great women have worked so hard for their sport and they see such a great product on the floor. Clearly there's frustration that its appeal isn't as widely shared, "Was it important for the league? Absolutely. But we've had a lot of games like this throughout our 13 years. When are we going to quit saying 'keep coming back, keep coming back'. This is a great game to watch."
I couldn't agree more.
WNBA basketball is a great game to watch and while tonight might be the exemplar, it shouldn't be taken out of context of a great season played by the entire league. And yet sometimes it takes a catalyst to shake things up enough for a massive change to occur. Maybe it's the after glow of having just witnessed such a great contest, but I am hopeful we will look back in a few years to this very game as a turning point for the WNBA.
There were just under 12,000 fans in attendance tonight which leaves about 7,000 empty seats that should have been filled. Perhaps some day they will be.
As for the game itself, there were a lot of in-game story lines to follow. Certainly too many to do full justice in this one article. Here's a few big ones that stand out:
- The Fever were successful in slowing down Taurasi and Pondexter early and yet the Mercury still broke a WNBA Finals record for points in the first half (56). The dynamic duo combined for only 10 points but the Mercury was able to get 30 points from the bench including 20 from Penny Taylor who Mercury coach Corey Gaines called, "one of the best players in the world." In the second half Cappie and Taurasi turned it on putting up 35 points and doing what stars do when it matters most.
- The Fever went into this game hoping to keep the Mercury from shooting three's and yet they were 12 for 22 (54.5%) from down town. As great of a defensive team as the Fever have been, and they certainly were able to take the Mercury out of their offense on numerous occasions, they saw tonight just how powerful and deep this Phoenix roster is.
- The Mercury are used to pulling away late in games when their depth gives them fresher legs. They are not used to having teams claw back. Credit the Fever and especially Katie Douglas who had 8 of her 30 points in overtime and hit a clutch three at the end of regulation to force the extra period. She was amazing
- Most intriguing though was listening to the Fever players and coach talk about their offensive performance. They seemed to bristle at the notion that they aren't a good offensive team and perhaps in some ways let themselves be baited into playing the game that the Mercury want to play.
- Katie Douglas talked about this, "Before the game everybody's talking about offense vs defense. Again we showed we're capable, we have a nice arsenal of offensive weapons and Phoenix is capable of playing defense. I don't think we want to get into a run and gun contest..We need to know when to run and when to pull back."
- It is not that the Fever can't score points but the disadvantage they face playing this style of ball was expressed by Ebony Hoffman who mentioned how the Mercury played better down the stretch and yet seemed surprised when I asked her about the disproportionate minutes played by her team's starters, "That's a good observation. There was an imbalance but maybe we could get our bench players in there a little more."
- The Fever starters combined for 35 more minutes of floor time than the Mercury.
- This is nothing new for Phoenix. This what they do. They want to wear teams down and they don't make any secret about it. Mercury assistant coach Bridget Pettis explained why the tempo is to her team's advantage, "It will be interesting to see what they come out condition-wise, if they can run with us again in the second game."
- Both teams were fantastic shooting ball with the Fever connecting on 45 of 81 field goals (55.6%) and Phoenix going 38 of 76 (50%). Looking at those numbers and the total combined 236 points these teams scored it is easy to say that neither team played good defense but I didn't see it that way.
- Neither team was able to get into a great offensive rhythm and do what they wanted to do and both teams saw their stars struggle for extended periods. Both teams had periods in this game where they were able to lock down their opponent
- For the Mercury that stretch came at the end of regulation when they went on 13-2 run to turn a 7 point deficit with 5:55 to play into a 4 point lead with 2:30 to go. The Fever then called a time out and stopped the Mercury on a few possessions and were able to force the over time.
- The Mercury were able to take the Fever's leading scorer out of the offensive game. Tamika Catchings was averaging about 17 ppg and leading her team in scoring and yet was held to only 8 pts. She was of course the defensive stopper for her team but Indiana's challenge is that the Mercury have 3 star players that all need to be "stopped" at the same time
- The biggest defensive adjustment for the Mercury was Coach Gaines playing his bigger center Nicole Ohlde for extended minutes at the end of the game. She had 12 of her 20 minutes in the 4th and over time periods.
- The Fever were going constantly to their talented post Tammy Sutton-Brown who was able to score effectively against either Tangela Smith or Diana Taurasi. Ohlde only had 2 points in the game but had a +/- of +24 which is second only to Penny Taylor's +25. She impacted the game defensively and forced the Fever to attack from the perimeter instead of in the paint where they had been so dominant in the first 3 quarters.
- Ohlde had the biggest play of the game with 30 seconds to go in over time. The Fever had the ball and were down by one. Katie Douglas at that point was virtually unstoppable driving left and finishing. Ohdle ended up on Douglas on a switch and was able to stay with her and use her size to force Douglas to miss. Taurasi grabbed the rebound and Cappie was able to hit a jump shot and seal the win.
- Without that stop from Ohdle this game very well could have turned out differently. She had this to say about that play, "She had basically just scored about 5 in my face right before that. I knew they were going to come off a pick and roll and switch. I was just trying to move my feet as much as I could. Obviously, I am not the quickest person out there but I just try and move my feet and bother the shot a little bit so she would miss it. Luckily she missed it and we got the rebound and it went on from there."
- There were a lot of great plays by both teams at the end of this game, but for me watching Nicole stay in front of Douglas and force that miss at that point was the best.
- Cappie Pondexter only had 2 points in the first half and perhaps even more shocking was her lack of composure. She threw the ball at Katie Douglas after an open court foul which earned her a technical and showed poor judgment in plowing into a stationary Briann January to draw a foul.
- In the locker room, Cappie was not a happy camper, "It was ugly but it's a win so I'll take it no matter what." I asked her about picking up the T and throwing the ball but she kind of dodged the question and simply said that it didn't impact her play. For whatever reason, CP was not herself in the first 20 minutes but fortunately for the Mercury she was able to regroup during half time and came out with more aggression. She also missed a relatively easy put back at the end of regulation that could have won the game but of course she also the biggest shot of the game to give her team a 3 point lead to win in OT.
- Perhaps the only thing to mar this game was the officials. It was a tightly called game, but without benefit of watching it again seemed to be called consistently going both ways. In the second half however the Mercury got to the line far more times. Fever fans will clearly notice that the Mercury had 38 free throw attempts compared to the Fever's 19. The teams combined for 48 made free throws which obviously impacted the high score in the game to some degree.
I actually am one for hyperbole and this obviously wasn't the "Best. Game. Ever." But it was the best game that I've had the privilege of attending live and hopefully that will bode well for the rest of the series.
The Fever don't strike me as a team that's going to let this loss hang over their heads. They are going to focus on doing better on the boards where the Mercury were able to outscore the Fever 24-15 in second chance points. They are going to perhaps try and slow the game down and keep the pace more in their favor. They are certainly not going to quit.
Post game audio (with press conference coverage provided by Sports 620 KTAR)