(AP) — The Phoenix Mercury's trip to a third straight Western Conference finals wasn't an easy one.
Both league-leading scorer Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor, the team's second-leading scorer, fought off back spasms late in the regular season as Phoenix positioned itself for another postseason run.
"We've definitely had some bumps throughout the year," Taurasi said after the Mercury were swept Sunday by Minnesota. "I think every time we hit a rough patch we came together as team, which got us to this point."
Coach Corey Gaines said Monday that missing key players down the stretch had an effect since the team finished a game behind Seattle and had to travel more in the playoffs.
The Storm routed the Mercury 80-61 in the postseason opener and it looked like Phoenix would make an early exit. But Phoenix bounced back for a 92-83 win in the second game.
Then, despite Taurasi fouling out with more than six minutes left in Game 3, Taylor and Candice Dupree rallied the Mercury for a series-clinching 77-75 win at Seattle.
On Aug. 4, starting center Kara Braxton was abruptly traded to New York for reserve Sidney Spencer, a day after Braxton was suspended one game for "conduct detrimental to the team."
Neither Gaines nor the organization would go into any detail regarding the move, although he and Taurasi alluded to it after the Mercury's season-ending loss to Minnesota.
"We lost our big," Gaines said Monday. "That really showed in this last series against Minnesota"
Braxton was averaging 10.6 points and 4.9 rebounds in 19.8 minutes a game for Phoenix when she was traded. Veteran Nakia Sanford stepped in and averaged 5.0 points and 5.7 rebounds after the trade.
"It turned into a whole different team," Gaines said. "She was a force in the middle. It took us time to readjust and it took me time to change the offense and change everything around again and the other teams don't care."
The Mercury have reached the conference finals four of the last five years, winning the title in 2007 and 2009. And although the 2011 version looked like previous editions, running the break and trying to outscore everyone, the Mercury were never quite consistent.
They led the league in scoring for the sixth year in a row, averaging 89 points a game. But without a big presence inside, the Mercury depended on Dupree to get more rebounds and three-time Sixth Woman of the Year DeWanna Bonner also stepped up her play on the glass.
"You look around our team and Candice had a great year," Taurasi said. "DeWanna really matured as a next-level player this year for us."
But it also meant a dependence on the perimeter whenever the Mercury couldn't get their fast break going. Phoenix was 8-7 after the trade with Taurasi missing two games and Taylor missing five of the last six to nurse their backs.
It was a far cry from the beginning of the year when, after losing their first three games, the Mercury won 10 of 11.
The future will include Taurasi and Taylor, both all-stars who signed contract extensions the day after the regular season ended.
"I like the core group we have," Dupree said. "Nakia stepped up big time for us this year battling down low against some of the bigger players in this league. Diana, Penny, DB (Bonner) stepped up huge this year and improved tremendously as a player. So I think our core group is great."
She added, "So who stays and who goes? It's tough."
"So we had a lot of good things happen to us throughout the year and to just focus on these last two would be selling ourselves short at little bit," Taurasi said, referring to the sweep by Minnesota. "But at the end of the day, if you don't win, there needs to be some improvements done by everyone on our team and throughout."