Westhead hasn't slowed his game plan for WNBA

PHOENIX -- In coach Paul Westhead's frenetic basketball scheme, players press all over the court, shoot in four seconds or fewer and run until the opponent wilts.

It's exciting to watch and exhausting to play.

Westhead has employed his style in the NBA and in men's college basketball. But Westhead has never tried the approach with women -- until now. As the new coach of the Phoenix Mercury, Westhead is conducting a hoops experiment in the desert.

"I rarely get upset with an inappropriate shot. If you're doing our scheme, there aren't any."
Paul Westhead

If it works, the Mercury may return to the WNBA playoffs for the first time in six seasons.

It's a risk because the women's pro game tends to be methodical. Westhead shrugged when asked if his scheme can work with women.

"I don't really know the answer to that yet," he said. "That's part of the intrigue of why I came in the first place. I can simply say that this is not an easy task for men or women. And who knows? I may find out that the women are better."

Monday was media day for the Mercury, who open their 10th season May 20 with a nationally televised (ABC) game at Sacramento.

Though the team is still in training camp, signs of change are already evident. In the team's first scrimmage Sunday against Minnesota, the Mercury put up 96 points in a 96-90 overtime victory.

A year ago, the Mercury averaged 69 points per game.

One thing is certain: Westhead can't be accused of gender bias.

"I think he kind of forgets we're women sometimes," said Sandora Irvin, a 6-3 forward/center who likes to run.

Westhead acknowledged that he hasn't slowed his game plan in making the transition to the WNBA. He's using the same principles he tried in the NBA, with the Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago and Denver, and in the NCAA, with La Salle, George Mason and Loyola Marymount.

Star guard Diana Taurasi said she likes Westhead's style, although it has taken her time to adjust. She spent the WNBA offseason playing in Russia, where the pace is plodding by comparison.

"I was overseas for five months and I thought I was in the best shape of my life," she said. "I get here and I was sucking wind."

Many players like Westhead's system because there are, in his view, very few bad shots. What appear to be low-percentage shots can turn into easy put-backs if the Mercury can outhustle opponents for offensive rebounds.

"I rarely get upset with an inappropriate shot," he said. "If you're doing our scheme, there aren't any."

The toughest part of the system is on defense, which emphasizes constant pressure. It might be difficult to keep up the pace in the Mercury's demanding schedule, which has 34 games in 86 days.

Asked if the team could sustain the pace over the entire season, Taurasi said, "That's a good question. It's a lot of games in a short period of time. But practice is getting us ready. I think we have enough people where we can rotate and keep fresh. We'll see if we can sustain it."

Rookie Cappie Pondexter, who scored 18 points in the scrimmage, looks like a good fit with the system, as does Irvin.

"For the personnel we have, I think the system's going to work," Taurasi said. "And it's fun to play: Get up and down, shoot the ball. Make teams get out of their comfort zone."

Westhead noted that the WNBA's move to a 24-second shot clock, from 30 seconds a year ago, plays into the Mercury's hands, making it harder for opponents to slow them down by walking the ball up the floor. The league is also planning to crack down on hand-checking, which should create a more fluid game.

One hundred point games are relatively rare in the WNBA, but if Westhead's system clicks, they could become common in Phoenix. Perhaps it's fitting that the Mercury share the same home floor as the Phoenix Suns, the NBA's highest-scoring team.

"The women's league is only 10 years old, so there are probably a lot of things that haven't been tried yet," said Mercury general manager Seth Sulka, who hired Westhead last winter. "I think you can see it as an experiment."