Tuesday, September 11, 2007 Updated: September 12, 1:53 PM ET
Mercury, Shock teach us to expect the unexpected
By Mechelle Voepel Special to ESPN.com
PHOENIX -- On one hand, Game 3 of the WNBA Finals -- an 88-83 Shock victory for a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series -- was about the clutch shooting of Detroit's Katie Smith and Deanna Nolan. On the other hand, it was about the lack of that from Phoenix, which went 5-for-31 from 3-point range.
On the other hand (if you had three arms), it was about how hard it has been to predict who has momentum in this series. And as long as we're adding extra arms, on the fourth hand, the game was about a simmering anger between these teams. That came out very clearly in the final minute -- and afterward, when Phoenix's Diana Taurasi said exactly what she thought in the postgame news conference about the skirmish between Plenette Pierson and Penny Taylor .
Ultimately, the game was about all this stuff -- it was entertaining, sometimes well-played and sometimes not, passion-filled and leaving you wondering what the next chapter is going to bring.
The Shock won because they played better -- and were able to cast aside a poor performance in their 98-70 loss at Auburn Hills on Saturday. But this isn't surprising. As Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer said, "That's who we are. If you watch us over the years, when it's time to do it, to lock in and get it done, we do it. And I'm proud of them for doing that. Because for the most part, we were there for 40 minutes."
Meanwhile, Phoenix shot itself in the foot with avoidable turnovers, missed shots from the field and 10 missed free throws.
The Mercury's game plan, we all know, is to push the ball. But at times, Phoenix forced passes it didn't need to. Phoenix had only 12 turnovers, but it would have had fewer with better decision-making.
And the only Mercury starter who made a 3-pointer was Taurasi (3-of-11). The other members of the Mercury starting five -- Penny Taylor, Tangela Smith, Kelly Miller and Cappie Pondexter -- were a combined 0-of-13 from long range.
Diana Taurasi was the only Phoenix starter to hit a 3-pointer -- and even she was a dismal 3-for-11 from downtown.
It was the exact opposite of what happened in the Mercury's Game 2 victory on Saturday -- when Phoenix hit 16 3-pointers.
But it wasn't just the long-range shots that wouldn't go down for the Mercury on Tuesday. It was all shots, period. Detroit has now beaten Phoenix four times this year -- twice in the regular season -- and this was the Mercury's worst shooting game of those four losses: 25-of-72 (34.7 percent).
There was one excruciating sequence for the Mercury with four minutes left in the game and Phoenix down by four points. Taurasi, Tangela Smith, Pondexter, Taurasi again and Taylor all missed shots. Four offensive rebounds, five misses.
"Everybody got a turn in that one, I think," Phoenix coach Paul Westhead said. "But that's the way we play sometimes it just doesn't turn productive for you."
Laimbeer thought his team "dodged a bullet that [Phoenix] didn't make some of those second-chance points."
Indeed, for the first time in their five meetings this season, Phoenix won the rebounding battle, 47-42. Considering that in the previous four games, Detroit had outrebounded Phoenix 196-130 -- an average of 16.5 per game -- the Mercury's success on the boards was quite notable and yet it didn't get Phoenix a victory.
The final minute highlighted the Mercury's frustration. Taurasi missed the second of two free throws with 1:05 left but Taylor grabbed the rebound. However, Tangela Smith then missed a 3-pointer.
When Pondexter was at the line with 29.6 seconds to go, Pondexter missed her second free throw, too, but the rebound went off Detroit and the Mercury had a chance to tie the game, needing a 3-pointer.
Pondexter almost got one to go down but it spun in and out, and Detroit's Cheryl Ford got the rebound. Katie Smith was fouled, went to the line and swished the final two of her 22 points.
During the ensuing timeout with 20 seconds left, "Grandmama" -- former Mercury player Jennifer Gillom -- came out on the court to whip up the noise factor from the crowd at US Airways Center. The only other time Phoenix played in the WNBA Finals -- in 1998 -- Gillom tried to help the Mercury beat Houston, but that didn't happen.
The Mercury fans responded to her -- and the game wasn't over. Tangela Smith hit one free throw, but darned if the Mercury didn't once again rebound a miss from the line when she didn't make her second.
This time it was Miller -- she went to the line on Katie Smith's sixth foul -- and she also made the first and missed the second. What do you know, Tangela Smith got that rebound but then turned the ball over on a steal by Ford.
That's when tempers boiled over. Pierson and Taylor tangled on the way down the court; Pierson appeared to knock Taylor in the face. They had words, and a double technical was called.
Pierson said there was nothing intentional about what happened, but things just got "heated."
"Everybody wants to win; a few elbows were thrown," Pierson said. "It's over. Move on to the next game and play like nothing happened. I think everybody was tussling. It was physical. It's lay everything on the line now or go home and wonder why you didn't give 110 percent."
The Shock held on for the victory, the crowd booed and Taurasi stewed.
Later, on her way to the news conference, Taurasi told Renee Brown, the WNBA's chief of basketball operations and player relations, that it was well, think of a term for the waste product of male bovines if the league did not investigate Pierson's actions. (Remember, Taurasi was suspended for two games back in June for "inappropriate conduct toward the referees" after the Mercury's 87-84 loss to Detroit.)
In the news conference, Taylor was asked what happened with Pierson but before she could answer, Taurasi said, "She threw a punch, easy as that. We just saw the film. If you get hit in the face and it's not a punch, I don't know what else it is.
"It's a cheap shot at the end of the game, and whenever that happens, you can hurt someone that way. But surprise, surprise."
Suffice to say, Taurasi and Pierson weren't exactly close when Pierson was with the Mercury before being traded. And they are, uh, even less close now.
Detroit fans will say that Phoenix engaged in some extracurricular body contact, too, during the game, that the officials pick on the Shock, and that everyone on earth is against them.
Then again, the Shock absolutely thrive on this. Under Laimbeer's leadership, the Detroit players embrace that "wink-wink" Bad Girls persona. If it gets in their opponents' heads, all the better.
Now, they will try to carry that over into Game 4 here in Phoenix on Thursday. Meanwhile, Phoenix will attempt to make the mojo shift one more time to force a Game 5.
It seems like we've seen it all so far in this series. But with these two teams, you just have a feeling there's something more.
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.