Commentary

Phoenix, Finals even better in 2009

Fantastic 2009 WNBA Finals will be remembered for a lot of reasons

Originally Published: October 9, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- Cappie Pondexter had just been talking about how much it meant to Phoenix to have Penny Taylor back this season. Taylor, who sat out the 2008 WNBA season as she prepared for the Olympics with Australia and tried to get some rest, got teary-eyed when Pondexter said, "Thank you, Penny."

A voice came from the back of the room: "Hey, there's no crying in basketball!"

[+] EnlargeCappie Pondexter, Diana Taurasi, and Penny Taylor
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinPhoenix's Big Three of Cappie Pondexter (24 points), Diana Taurasi (26) and Penny Taylor (14) were too much for Indiana on Friday.

That was Diana Taurasi, waiting her turn for the postgame news conference and chatty as always.

"Never stops talking," Pondexter said with feigned annoyance. Taylor then laughed, as the "Big Three" of the Mercury once again finished a season as the best in the WNBA.

Taurasi had 26 points, Pondexter 24 and Taylor 14 in the decisive Game 5 on Friday night, a 94-86 Mercury victory over Indiana for a 3-2 series win.

This time, the Big Three was part of a team they believed was probably even better than the group that won the league championship in 2007. And they believed they went against a team that -- save a few plays here and there over the course of the series -- was their equal.

"In the locker room, I said I don't think I've played a better team than the Fever," Taurasi said after a remarkable WNBA Finals ended. "Composed, staying in it no matter what the circumstance.

"And I think the same could be said about our team. That was probably the biggest pride in being in the series."

From a 120-116 overtime victory for Phoenix in Game 1 to the fact that it was a two-point game in the last minute of the final contest … this was a series that will be remembered for a lot of reasons.

• It was the first time since 2001 that the regular-season MVP -- Taurasi -- was competing in the Finals. The championship series back then was best-of-three. With the additional exposure the WNBA has in 2009 and the fact that the Finals is now best-of-five, having the spotlight on the league's top player for so long is important to the continued growth of women's basketball.

Taurasi was also named the Finals MVP, and she became just the second player to win the regular-season scoring title, both MVP awards and the league championship in the same year. (Houston's Cynthia Cooper did it in 1997 and '98.)

• Indiana, a franchise that started the season with questions about its continued existence, won over the city of Indianapolis with its inspired grit through the playoffs and the franchise's first Finals appearance (Games 3 and 4 drew more than 18,000 fans). If ever a team responded valiantly to the pressure of needing to perform to preserve its future, the Fever did.

[+] EnlargeCappie Pondexter
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty ImagesScoring at least 20 points in four of the five games, Cappie Pondexter could have just as easily been named WNBA Finals MVP.

• One of the league's most popular and hardest-working players, Indiana's Tamika Catching, competed in her first Finals and -- among other stellar feats -- came within one rebound of a triple-double in Game 2.

• Two of the league's best rookies, Phoenix's DeWanna Bonner and Indiana's Briann January, showed their skills, and both had key contributions for their teams. Indiana couldn't have won Game 3 without January's 17-point outburst, and Bonner scored in double digits in both the first (15) and last (13) games of the Finals.

• Television ratings and attendance were up, with the last three games of the Finals being sellouts. The total attendance for the series was a record 82,018. Upper-deck seats were bought and distributed by members of the Suns organization for the contests in Phoenix, which no doubt helped. But both games in Indianapolis sold out with no freebies.

"I definitely felt it," Catchings said of the sense that this Finals was something particularly special for the league. "I think the reason is they were two great teams. And different people stepped forward."

That happened for the Fever on Friday with Tammy Sutton-Brown's team-leading 22 points and Jessica Davenport's 18 off the bench. And role players had an important part for the Mercury, too.

Indeed, when asked what she would remember from Game 5, Pondexter said, "Tangela Smith had two crucial shots, and that's what gave us our momentum back."

Smith was one of five players -- along with Taurasi, Pondexter, Taylor and Kelly Mazzante -- who were also on the 2007 squad that won the WNBA title in five games over Detroit.

The Mercury did that on the road at The Palace at Auburn Hills in Michigan. And while that was certainly a great experience, having a chance to celebrate with 17,313 at US Airways Center this time was even better.

"It is so special," said Taylor, who came back from ankle surgery earlier this year, joining the Mercury the first of August. "To have that crowd here cheering for us and being so happy we won and being such a part of it. We missed that in 2007, and they missed it, too, because they didn't get to celebrate it with us how they would have liked."

In the locker room, I said I don't think I've played a better team than the Fever. Composed, staying in it no matter what the circumstance. And I think the same could be said about our team. That was probably the biggest pride in being in the series.

-- Phoenix's Diana Taurasi

Elated as she was, Taylor doesn't have a lot of time now to celebrate. Her next stop is the dentist's office, as she will have some further work done on the front tooth that was knocked backward when her mouth collided with January's elbow in Game 2.

Then she'll fly home to Melbourne, Australia, to see family for a few days. Then it's off to Turkey to start her winter play. Most of the players in the Finals will also soon head overseas to keep on competing.

Because the United States is not "home," Taylor has an extra trip down under -- but one she looks forward to taking.

"My family and my friends back home in Australia have watched [the Finals]," Taylor said. "And I don't know how many texts and e-mails I've gotten saying this is the best basketball they've seen. They love watching it -- the fight that we've shown on both teams and the level of talent that has been on display."

Catchings, who had 16 points, nine rebounds, six assists, five steals and two blocked shots on another she's-everywhere night, is one of the few who will take a couple of months off to rest and rejuvenate her body. She then will go play in Poland in January, and in the meantime she will agonize to some degree about falling short of the WNBA title.

"Our defense broke down, and in a game like this you can't afford to have that," Catchings said, especially in reference to the Mercury's WNBA Finals record-breaking 76.5 percent shooting in the second quarter. "They put their heads down and drove the ball right at us. For us, we have to … well, you can't talk about what you have to do now. Because we've got eight months before things start again."

Meanwhile, Fever teammate Katie Douglas sat red-eyed at her locker after another tough shooting performance. The Indianapolis native, who asked for the 2008 trade to the Fever so she could play at home again, struggled from the field in the last three games of the series.

[+] EnlargePhoenix Mercury Win
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAfter falling behind 2-1, the Mercury won back-to-back elimination games to win their second WNBA title in three seasons.

She was a combined 12-of-45 (26.7 percent), including 5-of-24 (20.8 percent) from long range, in those contests. Douglas did have 13 points and a team-high nine assists Friday.

"I don't think there's anything technically wrong with my shot," Douglas said. "It's just one of those things. I feel like I got some good looks, but we didn't get as many great looks as we wanted."

Douglas isn't certain about her immediate future because the Russian team with which she was under contract has had severe financial problems. She said now she'll have to figure out where she goes next … plus wait for the definitive word that the Fever are solid for next season, as is now expected.

"I honestly have no idea; it hasn't been a priority because my attention was 100 percent on the Finals," Douglas said of her next overseas team. "Obviously now I have to turn my attention to that situation. There are a lot of things that are going to come at me in the next few weeks.

"I'll look back and remember the good times we had this season and the way the city embraced us. It was amazing to see my hometown come together and want this so bad for us. I am hoping that we proved that we are viable in the Indianapolis market."

Meanwhile, the Mercury were able to hoist their second WNBA trophy in three years, and savor that they did it the hard way: going down 2-1 in the series and ultimately prevailing against a very difficult opponent.

"I said I would be able to compare if this team won a championship," Pondexter said of 2009 versus 2007. "This is probably the best group we've put together, skill-wise.

"Every day, everyone worked hard after practice. And I believe that's the reason why we're here celebrating."

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.

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