Style, pace will determine West winner
Sparks' D from opening tip held Mercury to fewer than 80 points for first time in '09
PHOENIX -- It makes total sense that this WNBA Western Conference finals should go to three games. In fact, it's too bad it can't go longer.
"This feels like a championship [series]," Los Angeles' Lisa Leslie said after the Sparks' 87-76 victory Friday at US Airways Center tied the matchup at 1-1. "We're working really hard; both teams are. The best team will win [Saturday], and the team that wins will win the WNBA championship. I believe that."
Leslie then added with a chuckle, "Of course, I'm from the West, so I have to believe that."
Well, either Indiana or Detroit -- which also are going the distance in the East finals, thanks to the Fever's series-tying 79-75 win Friday -- will have something to say about that. But it just takes a glance out on the floor when the Sparks and Mercury are playing each other to confirm why Leslie feels that way. Everywhere you look, there's a great player. They're all over the place.
What will make the difference is what style most of Game 3 is. The Mercury want the pace to be breakneck, and the Sparks want it to be more deliberate. The first game of the series went just like the Mercury prefers, as Phoenix won 103-94. Friday's contest was much more to the liking of the Sparks; it was just the fourth time this season that Phoenix was held to fewer than 80 points.
"We never got in our style of play," Mercury coach Corey Gaines said. "We'll be ready [Saturday]."
Mercury star Diana Taurasi, who had 25 points and five rebounds before fouling out, said that Phoenix's offense suffered because the defense just wasn't that good.
"When we're playing really well, we get opportunities on the defensive side," she said. "We find a way, and today we didn't find a way. When we did, it was a little bit too late."
The Mercury also just flat-out didn't shoot well, with Cappie Pondexter (5 of 16) and Penny Taylor (2 of 10) just seeming off most of the night. Pondexter seemed to be trying to get the right feel for her shots, but it was never really quite there for her.
Before the game, Leslie stressed that studying the mistakes the Sparks made against Phoenix on Wednesday gave them a clear view of what they had to do.
"We know we can't allow them to shoot that way from the 3-point line," Leslie said of the 14-of-30 performance the Mercury had in Game 1. "I feel our team can beat this team, but they are awesome. They shoot the ball so well, and they've played great basketball. But I think it's our motto this year that we've got to find a way to win."
Usually, the path that works for the Sparks is to get the advantage on the boards, pass for high-percentage shots and rely on the versatility of what's likely as good a collection of four post players as there has ever been on one team in the WNBA: Leslie, Tina Thompson, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Candace Parker.
The first three are longtime veterans who already have WNBA championship rings. Parker is looking for her first one to add to something she has that the other three don't (and won't ever again have a chance to get): an NCAA title. Parker has two of those.
There is an extremely high basketball IQ among those four, and that's what can frustrate all of them at times: when the Sparks don't play smart.
"I feel like this is a very smart team when we try to be smart," Parker said. "When we want to do it. We didn't do that as well [Wednesday]."
Still, as much as Game 1 went to Phoenix's preferred pace, the Sparks were in it until the end. Parker missed a game-tying shot with 1 minute, 22 seconds left that stuck in her mind.
"We had opportunities in that game," she said. "I was living that layup over and over in my head. I was thinking about all those 3-pointers where we came into help and didn't get back out. All the things we didn't do that we could have."
But that wasn't the case Friday, when the Sparks were sharp from the beginning and never let themselves get too far adrift.
"We came out and put the pressure on them, that was the key," Parker said. "We actually paid attention to detail -- and it's funny that when you have to, you pay attention to it.
"We have to run them off the 3-point line. We got a little sloppy at times, but we regained our focus and didn't allow that to keep happening."
Meanwhile, the Mercury know that it relies less on the details and more on letting its stars do what they do best.
"Basketball comes down to how many plays you make," Taurasi said. "We could talk X's and O's, but at the end of the day, it's how many plays you make."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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