By Alex Chambers, Oct. 9, 2014.
The road to glory has been a long one for the Phoenix Mercury. After winning championships in 2007 and 2009, the Mercury was poised to be the most dominant team in the league.
That status would come — just five years later than anyone expected.
The Mercury was no stranger to adversity in the years that followed the team’s 2009 victory celebration. But, in 2014, the Mercury traded their hard-luck past for the team’s third championship title.
The Mercury’s 2014 pursuit of the ever-illusive glory officially kicked off with the addition of new leadership in general manager Jim Pitman and head coach Sandy Brondello.
Then, the bench was revamped with new players and the X-Factor was introduced to Erin Phillips, Eshaya “Shay” Murphy, Mistie Bass, Ewelina Kobryn, Anete Jekabsone-Zogota and rookie Tiffany Bias. And, naturally, this meant parting ways with many familiar faces, including Sammy Prahalis and Charde Houston.
“There’s pride in that this team has really evolved,” said Diana Taurasi in a Mercury video interview. “As we changed, we changed basketball, too. And this year this team has just been unbelievable … and we’ve done it together and there’s no better feeling than that.”
Thanks to Brondello’s move to eliminate the run-and-gun style offense and new focus on a balanced offense and defense, the Mercury turned things around and was headed back to the finals for a long-awaited chance to bring home trophy number three.
First, however, the Mercury would have to face two Western Conference opponents, the Los Angeles Sparks as well as their archrivals, the Minnesota Lynx.
The Mercury would first dispatch the Sparks in two-game sweep, the second of which was capped by a two-handed slam-dunk from Griner that even had LA fans cheering. However, Minnesota would not go so quietly.
Phoenix took game one, but Minnesota would not be outdone and came back with a game two win.
The score at the end of the third quarter in game three was tied at 67 until Taurasi sunk a 50-foot shot to send a clear message to Minnesota: I came this far and I’m not going home.
The Mercury’s lock-down defense would keep the Lynx from scoring for the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter and Phoenix’s 20-point win over the Lynx (96-76) earned them the Western Conference Championship title and a trip back to the Finals.
The Sky’s the Limit
The Mercury went on to face the Chicago Sky in the WNBA Finals, a best of five series, but had no intentions of letting the series drag out that long.
In game one the Mercury took the lead from the opening tip and handily defeated the Sky by 21 points (83-62). The Mercury outscored the Sky 42-20 in the first half alone, and the Sky never caught up.
In game two the Sky fought back, somewhat literally. Brittney Griner took a hand to the face, which resulted in a cut above her eye. “I told [Griner] to get up,” Taurasi said jokingly post game. “You got another eye, you only need one.”
Later in the game Griner took an elbow to the face, knocking out part of a tooth. Undaunted, she pressed on the rest of the game, scoring 19 points, helping the Mercury defeat the Sky once again, this time by 29 points (97-68).
Glory was one game away, but adversity wasn’t done with Phoenix. Not yet.
After game two, it was discovered that the hit Griner took to the eye needed medical attention in the form of an outpatient procedure that kept Griner on bench for game 3. The Mercury went on to face the Sky without their most prominent defensive threat.
For game three Chicago came out swinging; the game had 12 lead changes, and the score was tied seven times. One such tie came with less than 30 seconds on the game clock, and it was up to Taurasi to make the tie-breaking shot and close out the series. With the game on the line, she drove around the paint and pulled up for a baseline jumper that hit nothing but net.
“It’s the kind of shot that a winner takes, and a winner makes,” said Rebecca Lobo, ESPN commentator. Taurasi then sunk a free throw, and that, as they say, was the ballgame.
After five years of adversity and missed opportunities, Phoenix not only earned its third championship Sept. 12, but they did it behind the best season the franchise had ever seen.
“There’s no better feeling,” Taurasi said. “To do it with this team that – for a long time has just gotten close and we always went home disappointed, to come out here tonight and show what kind of team we are, to have the support of the X-Factor here — there’s nothing better than it.”
The Mercury now stand on the edge of what they have been working for all these years; becoming the next WNBA dynasty. If they can keep this roster together and avoid injury, there’s no limit to the success they could achieve.
Just don’t expect it to come without adversity; the Mercury wouldn’t have it any other way.
A Championship Season Summary
The Phoenix Mercury’s 2014 season can be summarized a number of ways, but it’s the team’s collective and individual statistics that tell the story of what is arguably the most phenomenal run in franchise history.
Here’s a snapshot of this season’s records and numbers that set this Mercury team apart:
Wins and Losses
The team started the season off at 9-3 – the best 12-game start in franchise history – before going on to with 20 straight wins at home, a 21-1 home win record.
After only their third loss of the season, the Mercury went on to a 16-game win streak, the second longest in league history, and capped off the regular season with the all-time, league-best 29-5 record.
Diana Taurasi is undefeated (7-0) in games when the Mercury is facing elimination.
Phoenix turned up the intensity during the postseason, averaging 86.6 points per game and only allowing opponents an average of 72.8 points per game. The Mercury made it a habit to come out hot, which led to an undefeated record of 23-0 when the Mercury led at halftime.
The Mercury put up a 16-game win streak, the second longest in league history. Phoenix finished the 2014 season with an all-time league best 29-win record.
The Mercury also led the league with the best offense, averaging 83.5 points per game in the regular season, while only allowing opponents an average of 74.1 points per game.
Diana Taurasi let the league in assists, 5.7, improving her assist to turnover ratio from 1.70 to 2.13. With this honor, she is the first player to lead in scoring one season and assists in another.
In game one of the finals versus Chicago, Phoenix shot 58.5-percent from the field, a league finals record. Also in game one, the Mercury had the largest halftime lead (22 points) in Finals history.
Brittney Griner also saw a career playoff high of 21 points – in addition to what is being hailed as the best dunk in WNBA history – in game two of the Western Conference semifinals. She went on to break this record, scoring 23 points against the Minnesota Lynx in game one of the Western Conference Finals. In game one Griner broke the single-game Finals block record with 8.
Taurasi made WNBA finals history by becoming the all-time finals leading scorer, with 262 points, and the all-time finals leader in 3-point field goals made, 38.
Awards and Recognition
Taurasi, Griner and Candice Dupree (reserve) were voted onto the Western Conference team for the 2014 WNBA All-Star Game.
Taurasi was named the recipient of the 2014 WNBA Peak Performer Award for her assists.
Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello was named coach of the year and became the first former WNBA player to win a title as a head coach.
Griner was awarded defensive player of the year, a first for any Mercury player. She also led the league in blocks, averaging 3.79 blocks per game in the regular season and putting up 24 total blocks in the post season.
Both Griner and Taurasi were selected to the All-WNBA first team for 2014.
Taurasi became only the third player to be named the WNBA Finals MVP more than once time (2009 and 2014).
This team is laden with individually talented players, but it is the chemistry of this team that brings those talents together. Yes, when the Phoenix Mercury win, they win big, because they win as a team.