- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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INDIANAPOLIS -- As breathtakingly obvious as it might sound, getting off to a strong start while keeping Indiana from doing the same could be extremely important to Phoenix in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals.
That's because one thing that has been consistent about this series is that the Fever have always started well. In the first quarter, Indiana scored 31 points apiece in the first two games, then 24 in Game 3. The Mercury were tied with the Fever after 10 minutes in Game 1, but trailed at the end of the first quarter in the other two games.
"That's been our struggle, coming out in games kind of passive and not being aggressive," Phoenix's Diana Taurasi said. "When you fall behind against a really good team, it's a struggle the whole game to get back in it."
Phoenix coach Corey Gaines has made a point all through the Finals of saying he doesn't need to do anything substantially different in the playoffs than he did while guiding the Mercury to the best record in the regular season.
And in regard to trying to ensure Phoenix has a strong first quarter Wednesday, Gaines thinks the Mercury just have to do what comes naturally to the team anyway.
"Probably just make the tempo a little bit faster," he said. "Make sure my players are in position to get to the line. I have to help them that way. That's my job. They've done everything I've asked. We have to do more attacking."
Fever coach Lin Dunn has a theory on why her team has gotten off to such good starts although she's not going to share it until the series is over.
"But I'll just say this: I think we come out very focused and we're really into the moment," Dunn said. "We know how high-powered they are, so we come out aggressive."
Just as Dunn kept that card close to the vest, Gaines opted not to divulge the specifics of why DeWanna Bonner played less than nine minutes in Game 3, an 86-85 loss for Phoenix. It was the shortest stint of Bonner's rookie season. She had averaged 19.4 minutes in Phoenix's eight previous playoff games.
Bonner's two points were her lowest offensive output since she also scored two back on June 23 in just the eighth game of her pro career. Asked whether Bonner was worn down and that had resulted in her limited minutes, Gaines shook his head.
"There was another reason for that, but she's fine now, so we're ready to go," he said. "She is a big factor for us. Something else was going on, but everything is good now."
Bonner said, "I think my teammates were playing well. So whether I play nine or 20 minutes, we still had the chance to win the game."
Yes, but considering Bonner won the Sixth Player of the Year award this season, a greater contribution from her could be essential for the Mercury.
"DB is our game changer; she gives us that energy, length, athleticism," Taurasi said. "In Game 1, she was a huge factor toward why we won the game."
Bonner played 25 minutes, scoring 15 points and grabbing five rebounds, in the Mercury's 120-116 Game 1 overtime victory. But she was 1-for-6 from the field and scored six points in Phoenix's 93-84 loss in Game 2.
Bench strength has swung in the favor of the Fever in their two victories. In the first game, Phoenix's bench outscored Indiana's 45-18. But over the past two games, the bench scoring edge has gone to the Fever, 55-40.
Certainly a big part of that for Phoenix is Penny Taylor. She had 23 points in the opener, but was knocked out of the second game in the third quarter after taking an elbow in the mouth from Indiana's Briann January, who was going for a layup.
"It really hurts when you don't get that bench production," Gaines said. "Penny usually does that for me. Our second game, when we lost at home, she was unfortunately in the bathroom. She had to go to the bathroom for some reason."
Yeah, that's a little tinder-dry sarcastic humor from Gaines, who is in his first Finals as a head coach. He was an assistant to Paul Westhead in 2007 when Phoenix came back from down 2-1 in the Finals and won the championship over Detroit.
"I just need to get all my scorers in the right positions," Gaines said. "We've been in these situations before. I'm pretty sure [the players] will bring back a couple of the memories of 2007 series, where we had to win the last two."
Meanwhile, the Fever know how tough the Mercury still are. Indiana's Ebony Hoffman said she expected Phoenix to be as dangerous as "a lion in the dark, creeping for food."
Now that's some imagery. Of course, the Mercury can't be quite as stealthy about it as the hunting lion can, but the "deadly" strike might be the same. That's what the Fever must beware of from Phoenix.
"We have to be even better than last game," Hoffman said. "Don't relax. We still think the series is 0-0. We haven't done anything yet. They've won before; they know what it takes to be down and come back."
Tamika Catchings, who is seeking her first WNBA title, says the Fever will again need a strong start but also have to tighten up a defensive effort that has been pretty good.
"The intensity and focus we start out with is a big reason for our success," Catchings said. "But not just starting it off -- maintaining it through the game.
"Of course, I'm excited about this opportunity, but trying to look at it well, not like it's another game, but keep the same routine I've had. My emotions throughout the whole playoffs have been a lot higher. The way I think about the game, watching tape, doing a lot of film breakdowns.
"It's like, OK, it's Game 4. What happened the first three games matters but also doesn't matter as we look at this game."
Because as much as this excellent series has been all-out, Wednesday's game will be all the more intense.
"Everyone on our team would have rather played straight after the last game," Taylor said. "We want to get back out there and get things done, correct the mistakes we made. That anticipation is as close to nerves as we get. That energy is good energy. You don't feel sore or tired; you don't feel anything other than wanting to play basketball the right way."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
As breathtakingly obvious as it might sound, getting off to a strong start while keeping Indiana from doing the same could be the key for Phoenix in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals.