- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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This year marks a milestone birthday for Phoenix's Diana Taurasi: the big 3-0 is June 11. Although at certain times, she might feel you could add another 30 to that and more accurately reflect her fatigue.
"I'm going into year nine of my WNBA career," Taurasi said. "And walking into the locker room, I still feel like a rookie a little bit. I still want to do everything right and make sure I'm not taking anything for granted. It's a grind mentally and physically, though; it's a long process."
Not that she's really complaining; there's no other job Taurasi would want to have more than playing basketball. But the almost year-round playing schedules that so many of the WNBA's players keep does have its wear-and-tear factor. Taurasi shrugs. Everybody is in that same boat.
Right now, she is trying to overcome a hip-flexor strain, the kind of thing that happens when you not only have overseas and domestic seasons to play but U.S. national team responsibilities too. One other thing you can add to her plate is carrying an extra load for the Mercury.
Longtime teammate Penny Taylor -- an integral part of Phoenix's WNBA titles in 2007 and '09 -- will miss this season with a knee injury. Since Taurasi was drafted in 2004, the Mercury have been her team. But it feels even more like that with Taylor gone.
Which is not to shortchange Candice Dupree or DeWanna Bonner, the other returning key offensive threats. Or veteran workhorse post player Nakia Sanford. Or Charde Houston, in her first season in a Mercury system that seems well-suited for her. Or newcomer Samantha Prahalis, who has stepped in to start at point guard as a rookie.
But this is Taurasi we're talking about, and in the Mercury's "solar system," she is the sun that everything and everybody orbits around. And right now, she's kinda sore, kinda worn out, but just as fiesty.
In Phoenix's season-opening 105-83 loss at defending champion Minnesota, Taurasi had to sit out, but she was hardly uninvolved. She was encouraging teamates on the floor, talking to them on the bench. In the locker room afterward, she was pointing out that there was nothing that had gone wrong that couldn't be fixed.
"It's about getting on the same page, being a little more focused -- then you get rid of those turnovers," Taurasi said of the 17 giveaways, a deadly offense against a team as offensively potent as the Lynx. "We just have to be a little better each game.
"I think when we get to a point where we get all our people right, we can have a big impact on every game."
Getting the "people" right includes Tauras as well as Alexis Hornbuckle, a new face in Phoenix this season (from Minnesota) who is also dealing with a lingering injury from overseas. Unfortunately for the Mercury and the Australian national team, Taylor won't be able to recover for this summer's WNBA season or the London Olympics.
There is no way for any one player to replicate what Taylor does. It goes even beyond her statistics, which last year were 16.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.7 steals. Taylor is as fierce a competitor in her own way as Taurasi, she just has a different exterior.
"You can't replace her," Taurasi said. "You can do the math all you want: 'Well, if we get five more points from this person and four from this one ' No. A player like her brings so much to a team -- her leadership, her grit, winning championships."
Taylor, with her personality and her versatile talent, facilitates everything Phoenix does. Take that away and it's much harder for the Mercury to be that team that coach Corey Gaines wants to see on the floor every game.
Instead, they have to come as close as possible in as many games as they can. To that end, Taurasi's improved health is paramount, but so are the contributions of Dupree and Bonner.
"I think DB is really going to step forward this year as a starter," Dupree said of Bonner, who has been the sixth-woman extraordinaire her first three WNBA seasons. "We have someone like Charde, who can pretty much score whenever she wants. Those two alone will pick up a lot of slack with Penny being out.
"Sammy is a quick learner. [Alexis] Gray-Lawson is evolving well from the beginning of camp. Corey keeps telling me, 'Get out and run, because these guards will be looking for you all the time.'"
They certainly were Tuesday in Tulsa, when the Mercury needed all 31 of Dupree's points in an 89-87 squeaker over the Shock. Taurasi played just under 10 minutes in that game, but was obviously still limited in mobility, scoring three points. Bonner had 16; Houston 13 off the bench.
Such a close call against a team that won just three games last season might seem alarming for the Mercury, who reached the Western Conference finals in 2011.
But it's really not. To the contrary, the Mercury expect there will be plenty of nail-biters regardless of which team they are playing. This Phoenix season will be about some players trying to grow up quickly, some taking on bigger roles than they've had before, and the hope that everyone available can reach at least decent health at some point.
"Going overseas is not easy on your body, and then you come into the type of system we have here [in Phoenix] and it's a lot of running," Dupree said. "You tweak your hamstring or your quad muscles every now and then. But for the most part, I'm in pretty good shape.
"I think I try to keep people calm, in general, but this year I'm also trying to talk a little bit more with Penny not out there. Nakia Sanford talks a lot on both ends of the floor, and that helps us out. Diana does too, of course. But I do try to pull people aside sometimes and tell them things. Just trying to be a little more vocal."
That has never been an issue for Taurasi, but she doesn't want to have to do very much of it from the sidelines. Like most of the players in the league, she is used to giving 100 percent even if she doesn't physically feel 100 percent. As soon as she can possibly get back to her usual allotment of minutes on the floor, she'll grab them.
Taurasi doesn't begrudge the common external view of the 2012 Mercury: that Phoenix could finish outside the four playoff spots in the Western Conference this year. She understands why people think that. By the same token, though, she says that is irrelevant.
"The feeling within a team -- I've been watching a lot of [the NBA playoffs] and you don't know what's going on in any locker room," Taurasi said. "You can comment and share your opinions as much as you want. But you don't know what's really going with a team's feeling."
She's right. You can make educated guesses, and sometimes they are correct. But sometimes they aren't. We know Phoenix will be understaffed because of injury. And looking at the way the Lynx, for example, were able to beat the Mercury at whatever style the game was played Sunday makes you think that a lot must improve if Phoenix is to be competitive against the defending champs.
However, that's not necessarily the right bar with which to measure the Mercury this season.
"We've been working hard, and that's all we can base the season on," Taurasi said.
Birthday No. 30 will come soon, and Taurasi hopes to be feeling well by then -- or as well as she will feel this season. It will be a time to reflect on her career as a whole and her time with the Mercury specifically. Whether the season results in a playoff berth, Taurasi will keep grinding throughout.
"It makes you really thankful, because not everyone's career goes as they plan it," she said. "It doesn't always work out for whatever reason -- whether it's because of injury or fitting in the right position or right teammates or coaching staff. I've been really lucky to have a lot of good people around me, and that's really the only way you can achieve things."