Commentary

Taurasi, Merc look to tie WNBA Finals

Pressure doesn't worry Taurasi, but star needs to shoot better for Phoenix

Originally Published: October 6, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Phoenix's Diana Taurasi swears she actually prefers it this way: being on the road, playing in an arena of people cheering against her. Actually, she says she can't really tell that they are cheering against her. It's just the energizing noise of a basketball game to her.

[+] EnlargeDiana Taurasi
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty ImagesIn Sunday's Game 3 loss, Diana Taurasi was 6-of-16 from the field, including 1-of-8 from 3-point range.

That said, she understands that the circumstances make it feel as if the Mercury -- down 2-1 in the best-of-five WNBA Finals -- are really going against the tide.

"This is when you come in as a group, and it's you against everyone else," she said. "You're not going to catch a break, and you have to figure out how to win."

When Taurasi and the Mercury face Indiana in Game 4 on Wednesday (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET) at Conseco Fieldhouse, it will be one more "back-against-the-wall" moment in her career. She has had plenty, and things have gone her way most of the time.

She played in the NCAA Final Four each year of her career at Connecticut, and the only time the Huskies didn't take the national championship was her freshman season. She has played in two Olympic gold-medal games, and the United States won both. She has been in the WNBA Finals once before, and she came away with a league title.

The only high-profile disappointment for Taurasi other than UConn's loss to Notre Dame in the 2001 national semifinals was when Team USA fell to Russia in the semis of the World Championship in 2006.

Besides those rare instances, when she has been close to winning it all … she has won it all.

Now, though, it's Indiana that is closer to winning it all … and Phoenix has no margin for error.

"You can draw confidence from being in that situation a lot," Taurasi said, "and I think our team, in the last two weeks, has been in that situation a lot."

Indeed, the Mercury lost the opening game of their first-round series with San Antonio, then had to win two in a row. Phoenix lost Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against Los Angeles and had to wait for Game 3 to end Lisa Leslie's career.

"And [Wednesday] night will be the most desperate you'll see a team play," Taurasi said.

I don't think what people say affects her. I think she expects more of herself than anyone else could ever expect of her. There can be no harsher critic than what she is of herself. And more than anyone I've ever played with, she's able to back it up.

-- Penny Taylor on teammate Diana Taurasi

Yet, "desperation" has never been the word you'd use in describing Taurasi's career. She has always seemed James Bond-like; the more harrowing the situation, the sharper her performance.

However, she hasn't been particularly sharp in these Finals. That sounds harsh in light of her averages of 20 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists. But it's in reference to shooting percentage, which stands out as a concern. Taurasi has been significantly less accurate in the Finals than previously this season.

In the three games against Indiana, she is at 32.7 percent from the field (18-of-55). In the first six games of the postseason, against the Silver Stars and Sparks, she shot 52.1 percent (50-of-96). And she finished at 46.1 percent (200-of-434) in the regular season, when she led the league in scoring (20.4 ppg) and earned MVP honors.

In Sunday's 86-85 loss, Taurasi was 6-for-16, including 1-of-8 from 3-point range.

Is Indiana's defense a big part of this? Certainly. But what Taurasi doesn't talk about is that she has been bothered by back problems in the Finals and has gotten treatment during games.

"It's more of a pain in the neck than anything … well, pain in the back," she said, chuckling, not specifying the exact nature of what she has dealt with. "But I'm all right."

Playing despite soreness and lingering injuries is common for many in the WNBA Finals and not something Taurasi wants to draw any attention to. Nonetheless, it's likely to be at least a contributing factor to her shooting woes.

But she's not acknowledging that. She's thinking about ways the Mercury can play a little better than they did Sunday, when just a few moments made the difference between victory and defeat.

"Defensively, we were solid; we did the things we wanted to do," she said. "But it was a couple of those key situations that they took advantage of. Like, we get three stops in a row, but they get three offensive rebounds in a row and Katie Douglas hits a 3 in the corner. Things like that break your back as a team.

"We play a set perfectly: pick-and-roll, switch, they dive, we have it … [but] we leave Ebony [Hoffman] wide-open in the corner with a bad rotation. Things like that kill you at the end of games, and they're the things that stand out the most."

Taurasi described all that in almost photographic detail, having watched the entire game film Monday. The first sequence came in the third quarter and really was a momentum boost for Indy. The latter came in the game's final minute and provided the Fever's winning basket.

Taurasi understands how pivotal these moments are because she is both intellectual and instinctual about basketball. She'll talk often about how some games don't come down to X's and O's but rather to who can make plays. What she doesn't say is that she so often makes those plays because she really does excel at the X's and O's.

Plus, she doesn't ever shy away from being the person expected to get it done. Taurasi understands that whether the Mercury win or lose, a lot of the attention is going to be on how she played.

"You've got to take the good with the bad at all times," she said. "I can't worry about what anyone expects from me or what anyone says. Whether it's from here [in the media] or … shoot, even my parents."

She laughs at that because she knows the spotlight is on at all times. But one of the primary things she learned from coach Geno Auriemma at UConn was that no matter how much other people think about her, she needs to always be thinking about her team.

"I say this truthfully, I am only worried about what's good for this team," she said. "I never want it to be about me because it's bigger than one person. That's what Coach Auriemma ingrained in my head: 'It's not about you; it never will be. The minute you start making it about you is when you start worrying about things.'"

Teammate Penny Taylor believes that outside expectations -- high as they typically are -- really don't bother Taurasi.

"I don't think what people say affects her," Taylor said. "I think she expects more of herself than anyone else could ever expect of her. There can be no harsher critic than what she is of herself.

"And more than anyone I've ever played with, she's able to back it up. She's able to expect that of herself because she's capable of great things, and she's always shown us great things."

With all the big games Taurasi has played in, she doesn't necessarily get nervous in the standard sense of feeling butterflies. For a game that is a must-win the way Wednesday's will be for Phoenix, mostly what she feels is that she can hardly wait for tipoff.

"I think being a little scared is good. But it's not scared of the outcome or 'I might not play well,'" she said. "It's more an anxious nervousness. Like, 'Can we not do warm-ups and just play the game? Can we play the game at 9:30 in the morning instead of waiting until 7:30 [at night]?' It's this nervous itch I have of wanting to put my shoes on and just get out on the court."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.