Commentary

High-scoring Mercury back on track

After losing six straight games, is Phoenix good enough to push Seattle in the West?

Originally Published: July 26, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

You know, it's kind of frustrating, but it's just one of those things I have to accept: I've never been too good at math. This became obvious to me in first grade. I probably would have figured it out in kindergarten, had I stayed there very long.

[+] EnlargeDiana Taurasi
Jennifer Stewart/US PresswireDiana Taurasi's 23.8 ppg leads four Phoenix players averaging double-digit points.

As it was, I got pneumonia during first semester and recovered, but my mom opted to keep me home the rest of the school year, giving my siblings the priceless opportunity to henceforth refer to me as "a kindergarten dropout."

So I've long known my arithmetic skills are lacking, but I still was embarrassed when I glanced at the Phoenix Mercury's scores the past two games, added them in my head and came up with 250.

Ha! Two-hundred and fifty points? For two games? How could even my math be that bad? I guess I need a calculator just to add two lousy numbers.

(Pause.)

OK, you might not believe this, but … the calculator says the Mercury really did score 250 points in their past two games. And 753 in their past seven. That's right -- the average Mercury point total in July, 107.6, tops even Phoenix's average daily high temperature for this month, which historically has been about 105.

You know you're in offensive overdrive when your low output for a month is 97 points. There are four teams in the WNBA -- Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Tulsa -- that haven't scored that many points even once this season.

But, hey, this is Phoenix, and we knew that even with the departure of Cappie Pondexter via trade, the Mercury were going to be able to score a lot. Candice Dupree came to Phoenix from Chicago in that deal, and she already was a proven offensive force to combine with the likes of Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor.

What was uncertain was how well the Mercury would adjust to losing Pondexter's defense. And that, actually, has been a problem. Sure, the Mercury are averaging a league-high 96.6 points. But they also are giving up a league-high 94.2. Even a math dunce knows that's called "little margin for error."

The average Mercury score in July, 107.6, tops even Phoenix's average daily high temperature for this month, which historically has been about 105.

That's not necessarily anything new in Phoenix. Hey, you only have to win by one point, right? But this 100 mph tightrope walk has become the team's style more than ever this season.

Phoenix was the WNBA's most confounding puzzle in June, losing eight of 11 games. Then the Mercury started out July with another loss, their sixth in a row. And it was looking as if the WNBA's defending champions were simply not going to distinguish themselves from the rest of the scrap heap behind Seattle in the Western Conference.

But something about that 107-104 loss to the Washington Mystics on July 1 seemed to invigorate the Mercury. Or maybe it just royally ticked them off. Because since then, Phoenix has won five of six. The Storm are the only team that has stopped the Mercury during that stretch.

And that was in a three-overtime epic July 14, won 111-107 by Seattle in Phoenix. On Tuesday (ESPN2/ESPN3.com, 9:30 p.m. ET), those two teams play again. This contest is in Seattle, which obviously favors the Storm … although we should point out that the Mercury's 123-91 victory over Tulsa on Thursday and 127-124 double-overtime win against Minnesota on Saturday both came on the road. (Yep, just added it up again: 123+127 = 250.)

Whatever happens Tuesday, the Mercury still get one more shot at the Storm this regular season, when they meet in Phoenix on Aug. 20.

[+] EnlargeKara Braxton
Jordan Johnson/NBAE/Getty ImagesKara Braxton is averaging 9.2 points, but her defensive abilities might best help the Mercury's postseason chances.

And Phoenix made another trade Friday. The Mercury brought in center Kara Braxton from Tulsa -- where she might have, at times, drifted into disinterested catatonia -- in exchange for Nicole Ohlde and a 2011 first-round draft pick. Braxton was part of two WNBA title teams in Detroit, and there's probably no player in the league who can look more different on court depending on whether she's really engaged in the matters at hand.

When she is, Braxton can help any team. And it's understandable if being in a playoff race with a high-scoring franchise that has also won a couple of titles would better motivate Braxton. She showed Phoenix the day before the trade what she could do, scoring 18 points in the Shock's 32-point loss to the Mercury on July 22.

Which is not to say that Phoenix needs a lot of offense from Braxton, since the Mercury already have that. At 6 feet, 6 inches and with a pretty good ability to run the floor when she's not overtaxed, Braxton can aid the Mercury where they most need a boost: defense.

Perhaps Braxton can help defend Seattle center Lauren Jackson, who has averaged 24 points and 10.7 rebounds in the Storm's three victories this season over Phoenix.

Even though the Mercury did have that June swoon, at this point it's difficult to imagine that Phoenix could nose dive like that again. Right now, the Mercury are 10-12 and look capable of securing not just a playoff spot, but staying out of fourth place and avoiding the Storm in the postseason's first round.

Phoenix appears to be the West team with the best chance to somehow defy this season's Storm-centric trend and slip back into the WNBA finals again. With the way Seattle has played all summer, that still seems like a long shot. But not as much as it did a month ago, when nothing was adding up for Phoenix.

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