Phoenix off to fast, solid start
Team chemistry, having Taylor from the start, plus addition of Dupree all big keys
TULSA -- Even when things are going very well, the wisest folks know you still have to be wary of trouble. Because that's when it's often hardest to see -- like the tiniest crack, barely perceptible in the farthest corner of the windshield on a Bugatti Veyron.
You might be so smitten with how spectacularly swift the vehicle looks -- even when sitting still -- that you might not spot such an imperfection. But if you concentrate hard enough on looking for flaws, you probably would see it. And then take care of it before it ever had a chance to get bigger.
Now it might be overstating the case that the Phoenix Mercury are like a high-performance Italian sports car that can hit speeds of 250 mph. The Mercury don't go quite that fast.
Still, as the WNBA's defending champion and led again by 2009 league MVP Diana Taurasi, the Mercury are the favorites to win the title again, and do it in their customary "eat our dust" style.
But they will also be on the lookout for what could go wrong. The Mercury won the 2007 WNBA title, but then missed the playoffs in 2008. After winning it all again in 2009, Phoenix wants very much to show there's not going to be another '08 stumble.
"Coming back from a championship, we don't want to be complacent. It's something we all have to be very careful of," Taurasi said. "In 2008, I think we just weren't good enough. But sometimes you do lean on the crutch of, 'We won it last year.' Well, that doesn't mean anything. Because it's not like you automatically get five wins the next season just because you won it last year. You start zero-zero, and you have to earn it back."
Through the first week and a half of this season, coach Corey Gaines' Mercury squad certainly has looked like a team with the capability of repeating. This despite losing one of the league's top stars in Cappie Pondexter, who wanted to be traded to New York and got her wish. Even so, Phoenix -- which moved to 2-1 on the season Tuesday with a 110-96 victory over Tulsa -- can still fill up the basket.
Most of the scoring against the Shock was from Taurasi, whose 35 points included eight 3-pointers, and Penny Taylor, who made six treys on the way to 29 points. The Mercury's 16 3-pointers tied the league's single-game record and Taurasi's eight also tied the individual single-game WNBA mark.
I've never played on another team that included everyone, where everyone cared so much about each other on the court and off ... And the reason, I think, is the leadership of Diana. The way she acts, how she works hard, and how she treats everyone well. That's filtered down throughout the team.” -- Phoenix's Penny Taylor on teammate Diana Taurasi
Candice Dupree, who came to the Mercury from Chicago in the three-way deal that sent Pondexter to New York, had 14 points and 14 rebounds.
"The reason that Diana and I have so many points is that [the Shock] had to focus on Candice," Taylor said. "They weren't able to leak out on defense as far on us. And a lot of times when the ball would go inside, it would come back out again, and we were wide open."
And right there, you see another element of what makes the Mercury so successful. Taurasi and Taylor are superstar-level players who already have won two WNBA championships. And yet you hear them credit a player who has played in just three games for Phoenix. That's how welcoming they've been to Dupree, who had become unhappy with the Chicago Sky but felt at home in Phoenix right away.
"I was ready for a change," Dupree said. "I asked to leave Chicago. I wanted to go another direction, and I thought Phoenix was a great place to do it. This style of play here is different than anything I've done before. I was used to playing with teams that pretty strictly used half-court sets. But with Phoenix, the main goal is to push the ball.
"There is more opportunity with Phoenix for me to utilize my post game a lot more. My first year in Chicago, I used it a lot. But when we drafted Sylvia [Fowles], that had me playing outside a lot more. Coming here to play on the block so much is something I enjoy."
That has definitely contributed to the comfort level she's feeling in Phoenix. But so have her Mercury teammates.
"When I got here, some of the players asked me why I was antisocial," Dupree said, grinning. "And I was like, 'Not all organizations are like Phoenix.' I didn't hang out, really, with my teammates off the court [in Chicago]. Here, everybody wants to eat lunch together after practice or go to dinner, just hang out. I think that's part of why they've done so well on the court. Because they have that chemistry."
Indeed, there is talent on every team in the WNBA. But there's not the same kind of atmosphere that has been created and maintained by the Mercury's top players.
"I've never played on another team that included everyone, where everyone cared so much about each other on the court and off the court," Taylor said. "And the reason, I think, is the leadership of Diana. The way she acts, how she works hard, and how she treats everyone well. That's filtered down throughout the team. She's the person who sets the tone.
"And it's why I was so disappointed when Cappie wanted to leave -- it's so rare to have a team like this. And to win as well, with this atmosphere? It's really rare. We play all over the world on lots of different teams over the years, and this is what you play for. You want to win and play with good people."
The person Taylor doesn't mention, of course, is herself. But everyone else does. Now she has dark brown hair instead of the blonde we're used to seeing. But everything else about her game looks the same as when she has been at her best in the WNBA. She was very happy with how she played in Turkey this winter, and she's feeling good physically.
Because of her commitment to the Australian national team for the Olympics, injuries and the need to rest, Taylor didn't play for the Mercury in 2008. Which surely contributed to why Phoenix didn't make the postseason then. Taylor didn't join the Mercury last season until August because she had to have ankle surgery. This season, she has been with Phoenix from the beginning.
"It's a huge difference," Taurasi said. "It means the progress we make starts a lot earlier this year, thanks to her.
"We've got a lot of the same people as last year, but we are a different team. And we're still finding where everyone is comfortable in different spots on the court. The goal is to win even while we're figuring it out."
Other than an overtime loss to Seattle on Saturday in which Taurasi had just 13 points on 4-of-16 shooting, the Mercury have been winning. Phoenix meets another team that has been doing that -- 4-0 Atlanta -- on Friday.
"It's human nature to let down a little; to be at the top and feel really good about yourself," Taurasi said. "Corey and the team have talked about it -- you may get too confident and not look after the details as much. But we remember what got us the championship is looking after the fundamentals. And the atmosphere in here has to be built from the ground up again. You have to do that every season. Because we know how important that is."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.