Phoenix is center of WNBA universe


PHOENIX -- The crowd at the WNBA All-Star Game practice Friday afternoon roared, of course, for Diana Taurasi. They yelled with delight when Brittney Griner threw down a dunk. They called out to Candice Dupree. They joked with Western Conference coach Cheryl Reeve that they were rooting for her for one day only: Saturday, when West meets East.

"There's a lot of excitement surrounding the Mercury," said Reeve, Minnesota's head coach. "They're really good, and I think it's fun for their fan base. This is a great city and a great franchise that's been with [the WNBA] since the beginning. I enjoy being here."

Talk about the perfect place for the All-Star Game (ESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET) to be. The Mercury have won a dozen games in a row and have the best record in the league at 18-3. Taurasi is having an MVP-caliber season for Phoenix, and teammates Griner and Dupree are fellow All-Stars.

For that matter, Phoenix's other two starters -- DeWanna Bonner and Penny Taylor -- are having very good seasons, too. If Major League Baseball's All-Star Game on Tuesday was a celebration of  Derek Jeter, the WNBA's game is going to be a celebration of the Mercury.

The franchise that won WNBA titles in 2007 and '09 wants to add a third championship this year. And while it won't be easy -- it's not as if Reeve's defending champion Lynx are just going to hand over the trophy -- at this point, Phoenix might be the favorite.

"They're very deep. At every position, they're very versatile. They're really tall," said Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird about what it's like to face the Mercury. "And they have a really great mix. They have older players who have done it before. They have players who have experience but are eager to win a championship. And then they have the younger players, like BG [Griner], who bring a freshness to it all.

"Some teams, they may look good on paper, but they don't pan out. You look at this team on paper and you know it's going to be a tough team to play against. And right now, they are clicking."

Yet it was just two years ago this week that the Mercury were 4-15 overall and on a six-game losing streak. The 2012 WNBA season took a month-long break in mid-July and didn't resume until mid-August to accommodate the London Olympics.

The injury-plagued Mercury might as well have just stayed on the break and not returned for the rest of the season. They finished 7-27 and earned the ire of a lot of WNBA fans who thought the Mercury had "tanked" to try to win the Griner sweepstakes.

Phoenix -- which denied tanking -- indeed ended up with the No. 1 pick in the subsequent draft. Griner didn't win rookie of the year last season, and Phoenix didn't win the title, as the Mercury fell to Minnesota in the Western Conference finals. But the seeds had been sown. Now, the real blossoming is happening.

Taurasi, one of the many Phoenix players who had health issues in 2012, said that was a miserable season for her and the Mercury.

"It was hard to see the team struggle like that," said Taurasi, who played in the 2012 Olympics but competed in just eight games that year for Phoenix. "It puts a lot of pressure on the organization, the coaching staff. And, as players, you always want to represent your city the right way.

"Since then, we've turned it around. We're trying to get back to the top. It feels like a long time [since the 2009 title], especially because the WNBA season is just four to five months, so when it's over you have a lot of time to think about it."

Corey Gaines, who was coach of the Mercury for their 2009 title, was fired last August and replaced for the rest of the season by Russ Pennell. Then, Sandy Brondello, a former WNBA player who had a previous stint as a head coach in San Antonio, took over the Mercury for 2014.

Dupree said she thinks Brondello has been one of the biggest factors in Phoenix's surge this year.

"We've always had the players to get it done," said Dupree, who is in her ninth WNBA season and is averaging 15.3 points and 6.9 rebounds. "But we weren't necessarily put together the right way to win. Sandy has done a good job of putting people in position to succeed, playing them to their strengths.

"And she's also implemented defense. I feel really comfortable this year. The only thing Sandy has to tell me before every game is to be aggressive. Lots of teams switch [defenders] with ball screens with me and Diana, but that works to our advantage."

Indeed, because both players are so versatile and can burn defenders in different ways. The same can be said for Taylor and Bonner. Then, there's the 6-foot-8 center Griner, who has benefited from Taurasi saying to her, "I'm going to feed off you."

The veteran insisting that the second-year pro needed to be a leader? Yes, that's exactly what Taurasi did.

"I said, 'I've been here for 10 years. Now, it's your turn. When games get hard, when there's tough times during the season, we're going to have to look to you. Your growing-up gap just shut. It's time to do it.'

"She's the type of kid that needs challenges. When you challenge her, she goes to a different level."

And that's what the Mercury as a team have done so far. Three of Phoenix's players will be taking part in the All-Star Game, but the spirit of the entire squad and their delighted fans will fill US Airways Arena on Saturday.

"It's been one of those seasons where after every game, we just want to get back at it," Taurasi said. "After every practice, we want to get back in the gym to see each other.

"I'm sure if you spoke to anyone who's played in this league a long time, they'll tell you there are seasons where after a game, you're like, 'I don't know if I can do this much longer.' We don't have that weight this year. And the people here are really excited. [Saturday], it's going to be a pretty cool scene in here."