- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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PHOENIX -- For WNBA fans in this desert city, it wasn't just about going to the league Finals. It was about defeating Los Angeles to do it.
At one point in Saturday's decisive Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, Phoenix's fuzzy purple mascot, Scorch, rose above the crowd on a crane that carried a message.
You can guess what it said: "Beat L.A.!"
Which is what the Mercury did, 85-74, in a game that wasn't the back-and-forth battle many expected but instead a case of Phoenix getting out to a big lead and refusing to be caught.
A lot of the angst and irritation in Phoenix toward Los Angeles comes, of course, from the Suns-Lakers showdowns throughout the decades. The WNBA fans here pretty much just transferred that rivalry into the women's game.
The crowd managed to give the retiring Lisa Leslie a decent round of applause when she walked off the court waving after the game. But of course that was after it had whooped it up over her fouling out near the end. The Mercury won by 11 points, but the fans would just as soon have it been three times that many. Beating L.A. is a big, big deal here.
But it's not enough to bring Phoenix a championship. If that's to come, it will have to be over Indiana, which defeated Detroit earlier in the evening and advanced to that franchise's first WNBA Finals.
"We didn't necessarily play great basketball on either end of the court," Phoenix's Diana Taurasi said. "But we came out and took the game. Sometimes, it's as simple as that."
Leslie, however, credited the Mercury for coming up with better ways to counter what the Sparks were doing defensively.
"I think they pretty much figured out our defensive scheme," Leslie said. "They knew exactly what we were doing. It's a chess match. Once [they] figure that out, that's all we had. Once they started penetrating and recognizing we weren't helping, that's what they did. And it cost us."
In the teams' seventh meeting this season, the Mercury's brisk pace and speed prevailed over the Sparks' pound-it-inside game.
"They got off to a quick start, and we, the whole game, were digging ourselves out of a hole," Sparks forward Tina Thompson said. "That's hard, especially against a team like Phoenix that has so many weapons. Every time we made a run, they had one to counter ours.
"This was a tough season, with injuries and just us trying to find our personality and getting our chemistry together. It wasn't easy, but nothing worth having ever is. If it's worth it, then you've gotta work at it."
The Sparks did that, but it wasn't enough against Phoenix during the course of this series. Saturday, Leslie had 22 points and nine rebounds. Betty Lennox had 19 points and Thompson 13. Candace Parker, though, after excelling in the first two games, struggled Saturday with six points. She did have nine rebounds, but she was irritated by how she played.
"This isn't how we wanted to end it by any means," Parker said. "I think after games like this, you have to close your eyes and make sure you remember how it feels. That gets you through being in the gym by yourself working for next year.
"Fortunately for me, I have other days. I just was really upset today for Lisa."
Afterward, the Mercury players paid their respects to Leslie, but she had a lot of praise for them, too. Especially for Taurasi, who finished with 21 points and seven rebounds.
"The fact that she can catch the ball and shoot it faster than you can get a hand in her face, the fact that she can run full speed and then knock down a jumper from anywhere on the floor -- it's pretty amazing," Leslie said. "And then she can beat you on the drive. She's just an awesome player.
"She will continue to be the best in the world because she just is. I don't think I've seen a man or a woman shoot the ball like Diana Taurasi does. To try not to watch her while you're playing against her is difficult to do. As long as you have Diana Taurasi on your team, you have a great chance to win. She's the truth."
That said, the Mercury's multithreat nature ultimately is what has gotten the team this far, and that was on display Saturday, too. Phoenix scored "only" 85 points -- for the Mercury, that's kind of a low total -- but the essence of the Mercury's strength was evident.
Le'coe Willingham had her best output since late July, as she scored 17 points. Cappie Pondexter and Penny Taylor each had 12 points, Temeka Johnson nine and DeWanna Bonner eight.
"I thought they did a good job attacking the basket," Sparks coach Michael Cooper said. "I think last night's game took a little more out of us than I thought it did."
Of course, that's exactly what playing Phoenix -- especially on back-to-back nights -- can do to an opponent. The Sparks shot 35.4 percent from the field. And although they still outrebounded the Mercury, the 40-29 margin didn't really bother Phoenix. It wasn't like Friday, when the Sparks so dominated the glass that they were the ones who built an insurmountable lead early.
Leslie said her farewell Saturday, but it was an ending for Cooper, too. He will move on to take the head-coaching job of the Southern California women's program. And Thompson is not certain whether she'll keep playing in the league, saying after the game that she would have to think it over during the offseason.
So while L.A. goes home with some frustration and uncertainty, the Mercury move on to try to win the franchise's second WNBA title. Phoenix beat Detroit in 2007 and did it the hard way, because the Shock had home-court advantage in that series. Phoenix ended up winning the championship on the road in the fifth game.
This time, the Mercury will have that advantage and will be here in Phoenix when the Finals start Tuesday. The Fever and Mercury split their regular-season meetings, each winning on the other's home court.
"Indiana plays a different style of basketball; they are more defensive-minded," Pondexter said. "I think it's going to be great basketball."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
In Saturday's decisive Game 3, the Mercury's brisk pace and speed prevailed over the Sparks' pound-it-inside game. And now, Phoenix moves on to try to win the franchise's second WNBA title.