Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Western Conference Finals: "Anchoring" a rematch


As the Minnesota Lynx host the Phoenix Mercury in the Western Conference Finals for the right to play in the WNBA Finals, the anchors for both teams will ignite a fire that has smoldered for seven years. That was the last time Phoenix's Diana Taurasi and Minnesota's Lindsay Whalen played against each other in post-season play, when Taurasi's University of Connecticut Huskies and Whalen's University of Minnesota Golden Gophers dueled in the 2004 NCAA Women's Basketball Championship semifinal. Fans know it better as the Final Four.

In their first and only collegiate meeting, Taurasi scored 18 points and picked up six rebounds to lead UConn to a 67-58 win over Minnesota, paving the way to UConn's only "three-peat" in school history after winning the championship game over Tennessee. Despite scoring just 11 points on 3-of-11 shooting, Whalen previewed what she would bring to the WNBA with seven assists and six rebounds.

Up to this point, Taurasi has the edge in terms of overall success, winning two WNBA titles to go with her three college national championships. Whalen's career could fit the "bridesmaid" role, coming close to titles, but blocked by quality teams.

However, Minnesota has utilized their home-court advantage so far, winning both games in the Western Conference semifinal round against San Antonio. Phoenix won once at Target Center this year, but coming to the first sports arena with a green roof is no longer a "walk in the park."

"It has always been hard to play here. If you look back at our games, we have been blown out here probably by 30 every year, even in our two championship years," Taurasi said after a 90-73 Minnesota win at Target Center August 2. "They are physically hard."

Taurasi and Whalen have started all but one game they appeared in (Whalen missed a start in her rookie season) and brought talent and stability to whatever franchise they represent. Both were the faces of their respective colleges and credited for bringing widespread interest to their programs. Both will be revered when they end their playing careers, whenever they return from prime form.

The wait could go on for years. Although Taurasi's on-court persona makes her the player opposing fans love to hate, she is averaging 20.8 points per game in her career, two-tenths of a point behind Cynthia Cooper. Taurasi is one of eight WNBA players to score over 5,000 career points and is on pace to break 6,000 next year as she has led the league in scoring five times in the last six years.

Whalen led the WNBA in assists during the 2011 regular season, marking a career-high 5.9 per game. Critics who contend her body is not durable enough to sustain a long career may not notice she has missed only eight regular season games in her eight seasons. Whalen is one of six players to record at least 3,000 career points, 1,000 career rebounds and 1,000 career assists, highlighting the all-around versatility that opponents have a hard time neutralizing.

"When you have one of the best point guards in the league, you win games. That's what you need, people playing at a high level," Taurasi said about Whalen following Phoenix's 112-105 win over Minnesota in the first game of the regular season series on July 13.

Taurasi was the first overall pick in the 2004 WNBA draft, quickly revitalizing a Phoenix Mercury franchise that finished 8-26 in 2003. However, Taurasi would have to wait until her fourth season to make her first WNBA playoff appearance, doing so in 2007. Even though Phoenix won the title over Detroit in five games and became the first team to be crowned champions on the road, former teammate Cappie Pondexter took Finals MVP honors for the offense she created via points or assists.

Taurasi would wait another two years before she received MVP recognition, earning both regular season MVP and Finals MVP awards as the Mercury would defeat the Indiana Fever in five games to win their second WNBA title. Taurasi averaged 22.3 points per game and 5.9 rebounds per game in the 2009 post-season.

Whalen would be scooped up by the Connecticut Sun as the fourth overall pick, where she smoothly transferred her point guard duties from the collegiate to professional level. Whalen would make five consecutive playoff appearances from her rookie year to 2008, including two Finals appearances in 2004 and 2005.

However, Whalen's 13.1 points per game and 5.1 assists per game in the 2004 post-season were not enough against the Seattle Storm in the championship with the Sun losing two games to one in the final year of the three-game Finals format. Whalen would have no better luck the following year, as her Sun fell three games to one in the Finals against the Sacramento Monarchs, giving future teammate Rebekkah Brunson her first and only WNBA championship.

Guessing how Whalen will influence Minnesota's offense is no more accurate than Powerball numbers. Whalen scored 35 points in the first two games against San Antonio, yet the mood suggested Minnesota was outplayed and could have been swept. In game three, Whalen had just four points and three assists, shooting the ball only three times, but her "decoy" role set up an 85-67 blowout to make a Western Conference Finals date with Phoenix.

"The way Lindsay is playing right now, like in some of her Connecticut years where she just controls the floor, and now she has some pretty good weapons, that is pretty good," Taurasi said on August 2.

Taurasi has plenty of weapons in her arsenal too. In game 3 of Phoenix's playoff series with Seattle, Candice Dupree had a breakout performance as Taurasi fouled out with 6:38 left in the fourth quarter. Dupree scored 20 en route to a 77-75 win at Seattle's KeyArena. DeWanna Bonner picked up her third consecutive Sixth Woman of the Year award. There is also long-time teammate Penny Taylor, who got a career-high 17 rebounds with 19 points in game three, continuing the reputation that emblazoned her with one of George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" for a nickname.

The chemistry among them is strong enough that Taurasi refers to her teammates by shorthand form, and the Mercury's series-clinching win over the Storm signaled the team can play in long stretches without the league's top scorer.

"It really starts with Dupree and Temeka (Johnson) and how they can get the tempo going," Taurasi said on July 13.

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