After slow start, Mercury on cusp of playoffs

Updated: July 24, 2006, 11:47 AM ET
By Nancy Lieberman | Special to ESPN.com

Sometimes, timing is everything.

Paul Westhead
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty ImagesPaul Westhead is trying to help Phoenix return to the playoffs for the first time since 2000.

And that seems to be the case right now for Paul Westhead and the Mercury, who just a month ago were 4-7 and looked to be on their way to another season without a playoff appearance.

Instead, the Mercury (11-12) have won seven of their past 12 games to move within one game of fourth place -- and the final postseason bid -- in the Western Conference. And as the season winds down (most teams have just nine or 10 games left), Phoenix's shot at its first postseason appearance since 2000 seems to be heating up.

Early on critics, myself included, were counting out Phoenix -- but not because the Mercury lacked talent or Westhead's reputation and résumé lacked our confidence.

Rather, implementing a brand-new system and finding continuity and trust -- not to mention adjusting to a franchise's sixth coach in 10 seasons -- takes time. That's something that's hard to come by in the WNBA, where the regular season lasts just 12 weeks. And something that's tough to accomplish for a team still rebuilding after a makeover between the 2001 and '02 seasons that pretty much cleared the roster of players from the inaugural year.

But it's also especially hard when your key players are already battling injuries when the season tips off -- Westhead's system requires a smart, steady leader, but point guard Kelly Miller was nursing a strained hamstring -- and when your early schedule is especially grueling (nine of the first 11 games were against opponents that would make the playoffs if the season ended now). And that all combined for a slow start. Phoenix opened the season 0-4, giving up a league-worst 94.5 points per game and ranking last on the boards with a minus-14 rebounding margin.

Still, the biggest hurdle wasn't just implementing Westhead's system, but essentially reteaching his players to throw out some of their most basic tactics. Whereas they've been taught not to take a quick shot or been told to make an extra pass, Westhead's system encourages players to take the first shot. It's what players love to do but have been taught not to do. There are no plays to forget; just hustle, compete with intensity, get to the glass, run the floor, keep your spacing -- and score.

HIGH-SCORING MERCURY
In addition to Diana Taurasi averaging a franchise-best 23.1 ppg (the previous best was Jen Gillom's 20.8 ppg in 1998) and Cappie Pondexter (along with Minnesota's Seimone Augustus) crushing the rookie scoring record, the Mercury have set a new high this season for points per game:

POINTS PER GAME
YEAR PPG OPP PPG
1997 69.2 65.2
1998 73.9 67.5
1999 68.0 68.2
2000 70.1 65.7
2001 64.5 67.8
2002 65.3 71.6
2003 61.7 66.8
2004 67.6 65.7
2005 69.4 69.2
2006 83.5 84.1

"I love his style of play," Phoenix star Diana Taurasi said. "It's really enjoyable."

It took time, and some growing pains, but Phoenix is having fun and winning again. Through Sunday, Phoenix is averaging a league-high (and franchise-best) 83.5 points per game, which is about 3.0 points higher than the next-best team -- and 14 points more per game than the Mercury averaged last season. In fact, it's only the third time Phoenix has averaged more than 70 points per game for a season, which the Mercury haven't done since 2000 -- the last time they reached the playoffs.

For Westhead's up-tempo system to work, you need depth and good shooters. Phoenix ranks seventh in the WNBA in overall field-goal percentage (42.7 percent) and third in 3-point percentage (35.5 percent). And of course it hasn't hurt that Westhead's first season coincided with the first season the league went from a 30-second shot clock to a 24-second clock, which has resulted in higher scoring than ever before.

As for that depth, the Mercury's personnel got a huge boost at the end of June when Penny Taylor returned after missing the first half of the season. Taylor has played 10 games, really coming on in the past four, and combines with a healthy Miller for 21.5 points from the perimeter.

Miller also provides an impressive 5.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, and at 10.4 points per game, she gives the Mercury five starters -- a very talented group, by the way -- in double digits. That means the pressure's off the reserves to be anything more than role players, and when players like Kristen Rasmussen or Jen Derevjanik come in, they're giving quality minutes.

Defense, of course, remains an Achilles' heel. While nobody expects Westhead's team to have the league's best defense -- in his system, you're supposed to outscore your opponent, not necessarily be known for stopping them at the other end -- the Mercury are giving up a league-worst 84.1 ppg. Opponents shoot 43.8 percent from the field, which ranks fourth in the league.

So will the Mercury make the playoffs?

Right now, I'd pick Los Angeles, Sacramento and Houston for three of the four playoff spots in the West, with Phoenix, San Antonio and Seattle vying for the final bid (the Storm are one game behind Houston in the standings, but just 1½ games separate the Storm, Mercury and Silver Stars). And while my gut says to pick Seattle, the Storm are playing too inconsistently, especially as Lauren Jackson continues to play with so much pain due to injuries.

Also, neither Seattle nor Phoenix play great defense -- but San Antonio does. And that could be an X factor down the stretch.

Cappie Pondexter
Kent Smith/Getty ImagesRookie Cappie Pondexter's 20.6 points per game has helped Phoenix become a playoff contender.

However, Phoenix has the most favorable schedule. During the last dash before the playoffs, the Comets, Storm and Silver Stars all have much tougher schedules, particularly Seattle. Both the Storm (road win at Washington on Sunday) and Mercury (a down-to-the-wire win at Charlotte on Saturday) scored big road victories over the weekend.

A look at the remaining games for each:

Mercury 11-12 (11 games):
Home: Seattle, Houston, Charlotte, L.A., Minnesota, Sacramento
Road: Houston (twice), San Antonio (twice), Chicago

Silver Stars 11-13 (10 games):
Home: L.A., Phoenix (twice), Charlotte, Sacramento, Seattle
Road: Connecticut, Indiana, Minnesota, Washington

Comets 14-11 (nine games):
Home: Los Angeles, Phoenix (twice), Connecticut, Seattle
Road: Phoenix, Sacramento, Minnesota, Charlotte

Storm 13-12 (nine games):
Home: Detroit, L.A., Washington, Charlotte
Road: Phoenix, Minnesota, Detroit, San Antonio, Houston

Tuesday's game between Seattle and Phoenix in the desert is clutch. If the Mercury win, they'll move within one-half game of the Storm. Who would have thought that was possible?

Of course, no one will be quick to forget that the Mercury have just barely missed the playoffs the last two seasons.

But regardless of what happens, I hope the excitement rekindles the magic for Mercury fans. This has been a tough year on fellow WNBA original franchise New York. But in the West, L.A. has resurrected itself, Houston is playing better and Sacramento is still trying to win a second straight title. It's good to see them flourishing in this 10th anniversary season.

Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.

Nancy Lieberman

Basketball analyst / Writer
Nancy Lieberman, one of the most recognized individuals in women's basketball, is a men's and women's basketball analyst for ESPN. She works on ESPN and ESPN2's coverage of men's and women's college basketball, plus the WNBA and writes for ESPN.com.