Following a night of fast breaks, fun and franchise firsts, Phoenix Mercury coach Paul Westhead allowed himself a few moments of recognition that his team had, in fact, nearly played up to his master basketball blueprint. Nearly.
Phoenix didn’t shoot very well and hoisted plenty from outside, but that was all the nitpicking one could find from its 100-83 victory Saturday against Los Angeles at US Airways Center.
Now the Mercury have a new team record for wins (21), stayed one game ahead of San Antonio for first place in the West and lowered their home-court magic number to 1.
They’ve done well enough to earn consecutive days off, a rare jewel with Westhead.
How deep this playoff run will go won’t be evaluated for two weeks, but a confident locker room didn’t view an end in sight.
“Far,” was Tangela Smith’s answer.
Smith has abundant playoff experience throughout her 10-year career, including three deep runs with Sacramento earlier this millennium.
“This is the time we need to be winning games, especially close ones,” Smith said. “That’s crucial.”
Though not the blowout that seemed possible given the Sparks’ depleted rotation — no Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Temeka Johnson and 26 seconds from Mwadi Mabika — the Mercury never trailed and weren’t seriously threatened after halftime.
Smith (14 first-half points), Cappie Pondexter (21 points, five rebounds, five assists) and Diana Taurasi and Kelly Miller had their moments, including some Globetrotter-esque exchanges on the fast break, most of which didn’t pan out.
But they didn’t need to, as the Mercury (21-11) went full speed on Sparks misses, and makes, en route to their seventh 100-point night of the season.
“Fast-breaking off their baskets; if we get that down, that’s trouble,” Taurasi said.
They finished with 26 points off the break, and by Westhead’s estimation it could have been 40.
“The ingredient was there for some spectacular fast-break offense,” Westhead said.
Opposing teams have had trouble with Phoenix for the past month. Saturday mixed in something new (27 consecutive made free throws to start the game), with the routine (28 points, seven rebounds, two assists and three steals from Penny Taylor).
The Mercury have five days until ending the season with consecutive meetings against Sacramento. Until the Monarchs lose or the Mercury win, home court isn’t sealed. But they’ve licked the stamp.
“It’s taken three months of finally understanding what works,” Taurasi said.