Phoenix 94, Indiana 86 (Phoenix wins series 3-2)
Offensive Ratings: Phoenix 125.5, Indiana 104.4
The WNBA Finals were a matchup of contrasting strengths, pitting the Phoenix Mercury’s high-octane offense against the Indiana Fever’s disruptive defense. Sorry, believers in defense winning championships. Ultimately, offense won out. The Fever could not get the stops it needed down the stretch of last night’s Game 5, allowing Phoenix to pull away late to win the game, the series and the franchise’s second championship in three years.
For one quarter, the Indiana defense controlled the game. Using crisp rotations and traps that took the ball out of the hands of Cappie Pondexter and Diana Taurasi, the Fever limited Phoenix to 16 first-quarter points. With Tammy Sutton-Brown crushing the Mercury’s interior defense at the other end, Indiana took a seven-point lead after one quarter.
Then, without warning, the Phoenix offense reached nirvana. The Mercury made its first eight shot attempts in the second period and finished the quarter 13-of-17 from the field, a dominant display of offense the likes of which we’re not likely to see again any time soon. The Fever was nowhere near finished – and would in fact go on to tie the game deep into the fourth quarter – but the visitors’ best chance at victory vanished in 10 minutes.
Down the stretch, Phoenix relied as much on defense as offense, surprisingly. Over the final 3:30 of the game, Indiana shot 2-of-11 from the field with a turnover. Perhaps the Fever ran out of gas – the team got some makeable looks but simply could not finish. Meanwhile, the Mercury was relying on spreading Indiana out and making use of its incredible talent for playing one-on-one basketball. Penny Taylor may not have Pondexter’s dynamic crossover or Taurasi’s ability to score on an opponent with a hand in her face, but she has an incredible knack for finding her way to the basket and scoring or getting fouled (as she did with 37 seconds left in what was at the time a two-point game).
Taurasi, the Finals MVP, and Pondexter (my pick for the honor) deservedly got the bulk of the headlines along with Taylor. They combined for 64 points, including a game-high 26 from Taurasi, shaking off a series-long shooting slump that probably had more than a little to do with Tamika Catchings‘ defense. That said, Phoenix doesn’t win this game or the series without two timely three-pointers from center Tangela Smith and 13 points in 14 minutes from DeWanna Bonner, emerging from her own rough stretch. When the two starting lineups were on the floor, the teams were roughly even. It was the Mercury’s bench advantage that went a long way toward deciding this game.
While Corey Gaines ended up cutting his rotation, benching Ketia Swanier the final two games in favor of more minutes for his stars, Lin Dunn trusted her bench, going 10 deep in the season’s final game. That paid off in the cases of Jessica Davenport (18 points in as many minutes on 8-of-11 shooting against overmatched Phoenix defenders) and Christina Wirth (who had a timely shot in the fourth quarter), but was a dismal failure with Tamecka Dixon. The WNBA veteran was a -37 in the series in terms of plus-minus despite playing just 28 minutes. Indiana was outscored by more than a point per minute with Dixon on the court, and she was in for the Mercury’s series-changing run at the start of the second quarter.
It was tough to see Catchings get so close to the WNBA title she covets only to fall short again. Certainly, the Fever’s loss had nothing to do with anything Catchings did or failed to do. She nearly averaged a double-double (16.6 points and 9.2 rebounds), while handing out 6.6 assists per game, coming up with 3.2 steals a night and chasing Taurasi around most of the time. However, Catchings did not get enough help on offense, and Taurasi was a big reason why. Her defense helped limit Katie Douglas during a tough series for the MVP candidate. Douglas shot 37.0 percent from the field and just 28.6 percent from downtown, good for a subpar 49.4 percent True Shooting Percentage. The contributions the Fever got from Davenport and Sutton-Brown, as well as Ebony Hoffman and at times Briann January, were unable to make up the gap.
Game 5 capped a WNBA season that was, in my objective opinion, the best in league history. (As far as my subjective perspective goes, 2004 will be tough to top.) The quality of play on the floor, especially during the Finals, inspired positive press and has created a tremendous amount of momentum as we look ahead to the league’s 14th campaign. 2009 is in the books. Now it is time for the Storm and everyone else to set to work trying to knock off the Mercury.