Paul Westhead's high-octane offense transformed Diana Taurasi and her teammates into unlikely champions
IN DIANA TAURASI'S first three seasons in Phoenix, the Mercury failed each year to qualify for the postseason, and Taurasi, a three-time national champion as a collegian at Connecticut, never tuned in a single game of the playoffs. "When the season ended, I shut [the TV] off," says the 6-foot guard. "I didn't want to know who did what." But after Phoenix's improbable 108--92 Game 5 victory over the Detroit Shock on Sunday to win the WNBA title, Taurasi was busy creating her own must-see TV. Watching her ham it up for the cameras during the trophy presentation and showering her euphoric teammates with champagne in the visitors' locker room at The Palace at Auburn Hills was like watching a rerun of her title celebrations at UConn.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft, Taurasi was an impact player when she joined the Mercury—averaging 16.5 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists in her first two seasons—but not a savior as Phoenix foundered because of inexperience and a lack of direction. That began to change last year, when Paul Westhead came aboard as coach and installed the same high-scoring, fast-break offense that powered his Loyola Marymount men's teams to three NCAA tournament appearances in the late '80s. The Mercury set a WNBA record by averaging 87.1 points last season, then upped that mark to 89.0 this year.
With her pinpoint passing, superb ball handling and preternatural court vision, Taurasi would seem to be an ideal player for Westhead, but she's actually an awkward fit in his offense. "It's really better if you're just a pure shooter, or you're a pure rebounder, or a 100-miles-an-hour-speed point guard handling that ball," Westhead says.
But by complementing the do-it-all Taurasi with a push-it-up point guard (Cappie Pondexter, who was named Finals MVP after averaging 22.0 points and 5.6 assists in the series) and a run-the-floor forward (Penny Taylor, who scored a game-high 30 points in Game 5, going 18 for 18 from the line), Westhead assembled the nucleus of a winner.
Still, virtually everything he did was unconventional. Phoenix started three guards, played religious zone defense and attempted more than 24 threes a game (including the playoffs), better than one out of every three shots the team took.
The Mercury's outlook wasn't too bright after it got off to a 7--7 start this season. But Pondexter was slowed by a strained left groin early on, and as she improved and the team gelled, Phoenix rallied to win 16 of its last 20 games, running away with the Western Conference's best record. The Mercury then outgunned conference rivals Seattle and San Antonio in the playoffs to set up a classic matchup of Paul Ball versus Hard Ball in the WNBA Finals, as the Shock and its physical half-court game awaited. The teams split the first four games in the best-of-five series before Phoenix flouted one more convention: that a team can't win a title on the road.
Whether the Mercury's winning ways continue in '08 will depend largely on whether Westhead, 68, bolts for the NBA. Close friend and new Seattle SuperSonics coach P.J. Carlesimo has reserved a spot on his staff for the basketball lifer. Will Westhead stay? Will he go? And if he leaves, can Phoenix repeat? With the WNBA season ending on this cliffhanger, no doubt Taurasi will tune in to see what happens next.
Great in '08
Expect big things from these four players when the WNBA resumes play next May.
ERIN BUESCHER, G, San Antonio
Was having a career year (11.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game) before tearing her left ACL in July.
DEANNA NOLAN, G-F, Detroit
Her pull-up jumper and smooth stroke coming off screens are reminiscent of another Motown baller: Rip Hamilton.
CAPPIE PONDEXTER, G, Phoenix
The sophomore star lifted her scoring by 6.7 points per game, to 23.9, in the playoffs.
ARMINTIE PRICE, G, Chicago
The league's Rookie of the Year (above) averaged 7.9 points, 6.0 boards and 2.9 assists.
NOAH GRAHAM/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (TAURASI)
FUN 'N' GUN Taurasi (3) has thrived under Westhead's unconventional approach.
D. LIPPITT/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (WESTHEAD)
[See caption above]
WARREN SKALSKI/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (PRICE)