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"MVDee" Taurasi Shines, but Willingham Deserves Credit For Mercury Victory

It was an outstanding day of sports yesterday, but if you missed the Mercury-Comets game yesterday, you missed yet another MVP performance from Diana Taurasi.

But don’t worry – there will probably be at least a few more of those this season.

Honestly, I thought Diana Taurasi’s had one of the best individual performances of the day in the Mercury’s 99-74 victory over the Comets.

Perhaps Taurasi’s 33 point, 5 assist, 4 rebound, 3 block, and 3 steal performance in a must-win game was not quite as good as Serena Williams winning the U.S. Open without losing a set. But Taurasi looked as dominant yesterday as Williams looked in the U.S. Open.

In fact, Taurasi was absolutely unstoppable at times. The reason she ended up with 18 free throw attempts (of which she hit 17 of them) is that the Comets had to foul just to try to contain her. But she’s just so strong and plays with so much tenacity that it seems impossible to stop her at times. And yet she’s so balanced and controlled that she just seems to be a step ahead of the defense.

There were consecutive possessions around the 5:00 mark in the third quarter – when the game was still close – that exemplified how Taurasi’s dominance over the Comets. On the first possession, Taurasi took the ball from the right corner, dribbled around a screen to wing, drove past Tina Thompson who had switched on to her, and then literally drove through all five Comets players before getting fouled on a reverse lay up attempt.

On the very next possession, she took a fast break pass from Kelly Miller, changed directions at full speed to freeze Tamecka Dixon, and then jumped off the wrong foot to put a little floater off the backboard from just outside the key…and drew the foul on Dixon.

It was a series of plays that just made me shake my head in disbelief.

Yet while Taurasi will get the headlines for this game, it was clear from watching the game that Le’coe Willingham might have been the reason they won the game, as Taurasi acknowledged in her post game comments:
Le’coe was great today. When you have a spark like that off the bench, it changes the game. And today she changed the game today with energy, with rebounding. So a lot of credit to her.
In fact, were it not for Taurasi’s other-wordly performance, Willingham might have deserved most of the credit for this game. When she entered the game with 6:43 left in the third quarter, the Mercury were actually down 55-54. When she left the game with 6:37 left in the fourth quarter, the Mercury were up 83-67. That’s a 17-point swing…and yes, I think it was due to more than coincidence.

Making up for weaknesses

All season, one of the Mercury’s biggest weaknesses has been defense, particularly defensive rebounding. They’ve allowed an opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage of 33.86%, which is second only to the expansion Atlanta Dream.

They didn’t exactly stop the Comets from getting offensive rebounds, but they did do a better job on the offensive boards than usual and it was a huge help – they had an offensive rebounding rate of 44% which is rather unusual for them and a number you’d expect to see from a bigger team like the Sparks. Willingham’s play exemplified that.

There was a play with 2:22 left in the 3rd quarter where Miller shot up a three while Willingham was standing on the wing. As the ball went up Willingham followed, snuck in between two Comets players, seemed to almost fly through the air fully extended to grab the offensive rebound, and then had the presence of mind to quickly make the open layup.

It’s that kind of play that the Mercury have lacked this season – just pure effort and grit to fight to do the little things that don’t draw the big headlines or show up in the stat sheet. Willingham on that and so many other plays was just consistently alert and in position to make a play that helped her team. And that’s what it will take for them to win out and make the playoffs. From the Arizona Republic:

"Right now, everybody is contributing huge, whether it's an offensive rebound or a stop," Willingham said.

And another way that’s showing up right now is with the Mercury’s ball movement.

Despite Taurasi’s presence, the Mercury are always better when they move the ball

In her post game comments, Kelly Miller said, "We’re looser now and we’re playing well together." And even with Taurasi putting up big numbers lately, that shows up in how the Mercury have been playing.

The Mercury had a synergy score of 76 for the game, which is indicative of very good ball movement. For an uptempo team that relies so heavily on transition points and quick shots to keep their opponents off balance, the increased ball movement is especially noteworthy.

One reason for it is that Kelly Miller has done a great job of distributing the ball and facilitating scoring opportunities for others. She’s playing like much more of a facilitator rather than a point guard who just initiates the offense. Her assist ratio was 30% for the game and her pure point rating was an amazing 12.26. She’s looking to create for others more lately and doing what it takes to capitalize on those opportunities. But she’s not the only one moving the ball.

With less than a minute left in the third quarter, Willingham got the ball in the post, wrapped a pass around Mistie Williams as a double-team converged on her and found Barbara Farris open for a layup. When they can get that kind of interior passing from their post players they become a much more difficult team to defend.

The Mercury need balance to win

What the Mercury need to win out and have a shot at making the playoffs is more balance. Offense with defense. Shooting with rebounding. Perimeter play with post play. All season they’ve been out of balance and it has lost them games. But so often they show flashes of balance like during the 17-point swing across the third and fourth quarters of yesterday’s game.

The way they’re going to get that balance is from players like Miller and Willingham continuing to complement the play of their Olympians – Miller as a facilitator and Willingham as a hard-nosed player off the bench who can do the dirty work, along with Barbara Farris, LaToya Pringle and Olympia Scott.

If they keep playing this way, what will end up being most impressive about them is the way they came together after the Olympic break when all seemed lost. From Willingham in her post-game comments:
There’s been a sense of urgency for us, we have to try and win out from here on out. After that San Antonio game we all came together and figured out what we could do individually and collectively to make this a better situation for all of us. And right now everyone is contributing huge. It’s been really big because we’re getting it from everyone.
If they can keep that up, they’ll be an even more dangerous team next summer when they’re back to full strength, regardless of whether they make the playoffs now.

Transition Points:

Another thought on MVDee: I do think the MVP should be able to lead their team to some level of success or else it would be difficult to justify giving them the award over a good player who contributes to a winning team.

Originally I said Taurasi should be a lock for MVP if she could lead the Mercury to the playoffs. But now I’m rethinking that threshold -- Taurasi should be a lock for MVP if she’s able to lead her team to one of the top 8 records in the league or good enough to make the playoffs if the Mercury were in the Eastern Conference.

There is no minimum threshold for me assuming a player has been among the most productive in the league. But I think it would be considerably harder to justify her as the most valuable player if her value didn’t translate into some significant number of wins and being a playoff caliber team is the best indicator we have of success. Given the strength of the Western Conference, being in the top 8 is quite an accomplishment.

Relevant Links:

Mercury Spreading the Floor on Fast Breaks
http://coachingbetterbball.blogspot.com/2008/09/mercury-spreading-floor-on-fast-breaks.html