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You can imagine what Diana Taurasi was thinking after her Phoenix Mercury beat Los Angeles 103-94 in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
"We got Penny Taylor -- and you don't!"
Yeah, we're having a little fun here with what surely will be remembered as the signature line for Taurasi's great career, thanks to a certain Mr. Auriemma in Connecticut.
And in Wednesday's game, Taurasi was her usual "she's earned the MVP this season" self, with 28 points and six assists. The showdown with L.A.'s Candace Parker lived up to its billing, as CP3 had 28 points, too, plus 10 rebounds.
L.A. natives Tina Thompson and Lisa Leslie, playing in UCLA's Pauley Pavilion (where they once were the enemies from USC), had 25 and 19 points, respectively, and combined for 15 rebounds. DeLisha Milton-Jones had 10 and six.
It was the Sparks' largest point total this season yet they still fell nine points short. So what ultimately was Phoenix's X factor?
The same person whose absence last season was the biggest reason the Mercury went from the WNBA championship in 2007 to not making the playoffs in 2008. Taylor spent 2008 preparing for the Olympics with Australia's team and then wanted to spend some time back home with family.
|In four postseason games, Penny Taylor is averaging 15.3 points for Phoenix, including 18 Wednesday.|
This season, the Mercury added point guard Temeka Johnson in a trade with L.A. and selected DeWanna Bonner with the fifth pick of the draft. So the Mercury were a better squad than the one that fell short of the playoffs -- even before Taylor came aboard.
But, wow, was Phoenix ever happy to add her into the mix again. Taylor had surgery on her left ankle earlier this year, and so she still might have opted to not play in the WNBA this summer.
However, she has enjoyed her experience in Phoenix, and she decided this was a team she wanted to be a part of again. Taylor returned to action Aug. 1 and just dipped her toe in the water that game, scoring two points in 10 minutes of play.
Coach Corey Gaines didn't want to tax her too soon, and his decision to keep her coming off the bench was to maintain the continuity of the rotation he had been using since the start of the season. Besides, he knew that with Taylor's team-is-everything personality, it wouldn't make any difference to her whether she was a starter or a reserve.
After that initial re-entry, Taylor has scored in double figures in 12 of her 17 games, including 18 points against the Sparks on Wednesday.
Add that to Taurasi's performance and double-digit scoring from Cappie Pondexter, Le'coe Willingham and Tangela Smith, and the Mercury just had too much offense for L.A.
Taylor is playing with a broken bone in her left (non-shooting) hand. She has decided to ignore the pain she's feeling -- and inflict it on the Sparks instead. Taylor had four of the 14 3-pointers Phoenix hit Wednesday.
One of the obvious ways an undersized team can try to top a bigger opponent is to beat that opponent from the outside. The plan is simple, but it takes execution, which isn't always easy. It was for Phoenix, though, and the Mercury's making that many shots from behind the arc really hurt L.A., which hit just five 3-pointers.
The Mercury now have put the Sparks in a very rough position: They have to win two games in Phoenix, where L.A. lost by nine points in June and won by three points in the teams' last game of the regular season.
In that latter meeting, Taurasi didn't play, as she was resting for the playoffs. Instead, Taylor got her only start of the season. But then she easily returned to the bench for the playoffs. In the Mercury's four postseason games thus far, Taylor is averaging 15.3 points.
Vital difference-maker? You got it.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.