Los Angeles, Calif. – The Mercury beat the Sparks, 78-77, in game three of the Western Conference semifinals Monday night. Phoenix advances to the Western Conference finals, where they will face the Minnesota Lynx beginning Thursday. It was the second year in a row that the Sparks were ousted from the playoffs by a single point.
The post-game press conference:
Mercury coach Russ Pennell:
Question: Was the last shot meant to go to Brittney Griner?
Pennell: She was option two, Diana (Taurasi) was option one. And all we did was run a little baseline screen and brought Diana to the corner. Diana lifted a little higher than what we’d intended. One of the things I like to do when you don’t have a lot of time is take all your players, put them above the foul line except the biggest one. Then you play a little one-on-one – it’s like a jigsaw puzzle, just throw it up. She had a big shot. She didn’t have a particularly great game, but you expect big time players to make big time plays, and she certainly did that.
Question: Was there hesitation to put her in that position?
Pennell: Not at all. Brittney’s a good low post scorer. Brittney needs an off-season in the weight room, and she knows that. Right now she’s not physical enough, and it hurts her sometimes trying to hold her position. But when she gets the ball somewhere around the block, she’s got such a good touch, and with her length, she can shoot over people. We knew LA didn’t want to foul her, either.
Question: What’s it like to coach Diana Taurasi?
Pennell: It is incredible – it really is. She’s as competitive an athlete as I’ve ever been around, and she’s infectious on the players around her. I know she has run-ins with the referees all the time, but her passion is incredible, and there’s not a selfish bone in her body. That’s one of the things people don’t understand is how team-oriented she is. It’s been a real treat coaching her, and I think it’s making me a better coach, because I see that not only can she make points and make our plays look better, but it should help me with other players to point to her as an example. I love her heart, and there’s no one that works harder than her. Tomorrow I’ll probably give them off, and she’s going to go to the gym somewhere and get shots up.
Question: How do you explain that both teams shot so poorly in the fourth?
Pennell: I thought our defense was good, I think they were tired – I knew we were. We were standing around…I’m tired from trying to get them not to be tired. I couldn’t get them to move the ball; the ball kept getting stuck again, which was our biggest problem in Phoenix two nights ago. But I think a lot of that was fatigue, like a heavyweight bout. We were going toe to toe and taking each other’s punches. We were just fortunate that we made one more play.
Question: Can you talk about Candice Dupree’s night?
Pennell: She was outstanding – particulary the first half……she got us off to a really good start. She’s an outstanding player in the pick and roll game; she’s got great timing. I think one of the underrated parts of the pick and roll is the person rolling has to have great timing. She and Diana had great timing tonight. Then we asked her to guard the MVP of the league, so we were asking a lot tonight. I thought she really got tired the second half.
Question: What changes did you make to your game plan after game two?
Pennell: The biggest thing was to rebound the ball better, and we did. We still gave up too many second chance points – especially in the first half. When we rebound the ball, we’re pretty good. But when we give others extra possessions off of turnovers….and tonight we limited both of those. There wasn’t anything LA was doing that I thought was giving us huge problems. It was more the mistakes we were making, and they were executing better. We knew the difference between these two teams was about what it was tonight: one point. So it’s just whoever can do it best on that given night, and we’re very fortunate to do it tonight.
Question: Can you speak about Griner’s leg brace?
Pennell:……She kept coming out because she wasn’t rebounding…..you know me – you have to do it right, or you’re coming out. Maybe that’s just my inexperience as a pro coach, but you have to do it right.
Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner:
Question: Can you describe what you were thinking during that last shot?
Griner: I really didn’t think too much of it. I just turned and shot, and prayed that it went in, and it did.
Question: Diana, what was your vantage point?
Taurasi: Well, we set up a little cross-screen, for BG to come get me. And the person on the ball took that away, so gave the ball to Brittney and then I cut to the basket. And literally, the minute she caught it, and made her move to shoot, I just knew it was going in. I’ve seen her make that shot all year. When she turns and shoots with confidence, you can’t contest it. For her to be up and down this whole series and to be able to take that shot when we need it the most, and have confidence, that tells you a lot about Brittney and how mentally strong she is. She’s willing to do anything for this team to win, and that was amazing.
Question: How did you guys stay so poised when Candace made that shot with only a few seconds left?
Griner: I turn to Dee. Honestly, I’ve turned to Dee for everything throughout this whole season. She’s our leader. She has a calming effect. She told us, it’s going to be OK, just keep playing, don’t stop…
Taurasi: When you score like that, it’s demoralizing, but we still had some time on the clock – I think it was seven seconds left. We got in the huddle and said, ‘this is what it’s about.’ If we want to win it, we have to get a score and a stop. That’s what a lot of games come down to. Sometimes it’s in the second quarter, and tonight it was the very last possession. We found a way to get a score….and we got a stop, so that was huge.
Question: Can you talk about your pick and roll rapport with Candice Dupree?
Taurasi: She’s the best player in the league at that: finding a way to get in the pick and roll with her, and she always finds the spaces to be open. We’ve been on the same team for five years now, and she’s one of my favorite players to play with.
Question: Can you all feed off of Taurasi?
Griner: Definitely – she’s been there, she’s done that. She’s seen everything.
Taurasi (laughing): I haven’t seen everything, I’m not that old.
Griner: You’re a little seasoned! But like I said, she’s seen it. I haven’t, so I have to look to her. She calms us. She’s Diana Taurasi.
Taurasi: That’s just being on the same team with a lot of competitors. You can’t just go out there and win the game on your own. It has to be a lot of good people with a lot of good plays throughout the game…..it’s a lot of effort from a lot of people to get you to this point.
Question: What was it like to take that shot, and to see the rookie taking it?
Taurasi: I’m sure that when she shot that ball, every single person in a Phoenix jersey felt like it was them shooting it. They were happy. It was a great shot. It’s going to go down as one of the best shots in the history of the WNBA.
Sparks coach Carol Ross:
Question: Both teams shot so poorly in the fourth quarter – what do you attribute that to? Was it defense?
Ross: I’d like to think so – either it was defense or fatigue. Sometimes in a series we get a little leg-weary or brain-weary.
Question: How disappointing is it to lose such a close game on your home court?
Ross: It’s dissapointing to lose in the playoffs, period. It’s definitely more dissappointing to lose on your own court. We’re very mindful of playing at home. It’s always a goal to defend our home court. It’s the second year in a row that we’ve come up short, and we’ve come up short at the worst time, and that’s playoff time.
Question: Were you dissappointed with the number of shot attempt by Candace Parker, or were you going with the hot hand in Kristi (Toliver)?
Ross: She touched the ball plenty, their defense was good. Candace wasn’t at her best tonight. They’re all wearing Sparks uniforms, and we don’t care where the points come from. It was great to see Toliver get hot, and we were OK with that.
Question: These teams are so evenly matched all season. What made the difference tonight?
Ross: Free throws make a big difference, and we didn’t hit near enough. When you’re in playoff time it’s critically important that you seize the moment, and take those opportunities. We missed seven, and that’s too many. I loved that we got to the line so many times, but you’ve got to cash in.
Question: Was that last play specifically designed for Candace, or for Toliver?
Ross: It was designed for Candace and Toliver. You’re always going to have multiple options. Lindsey taking the ball out of bounds to find the open person….we just made some mistakes, and it costs you at that point. You have to become smarter and be better in those situations.
Question: You weren’t playing Sparks basketball with regards to assists and rebounds. What was that due to?
Ross: Good defense by Phoenix.
Candace Parker and Kristi Toliver:
Question: Candace, after such a dissapppointing loss, can you take us to what’s going through your mind right now?
Parker: It’s hard because we put so much into this, and I’m sick of always being on this podium talking after a loss. You know? After this, we all head overseas. We have to regroup and play for our respective teams overseas.
Question: When you have a bad shooting night, do you become hesitant to shoot?
Toliver: No. I have my coaches and teammates telling me to shoot the ball. It was frustrating the first two games, not really having rhythm. That’s when you try to make up for it on the defensive end. Candace did a great job offensively getting us to this game. I went into this game thinking this could be my opportunity to help offensively. I was able to knock down shots that I usually make, and I missed some shots that I usually make…..on the defensive end I was trying to stay tough and gritty and help out in those areas.
Question: What did you talk about in the huddle when Candace scored with seven seconds left?
Toliver: That’s the shot that we wanted, so we were happy about that. And on the defensive end their go-to player is Dee, so we wanted to keep the ball out of her hands, and we did that. Unfortunately, we did all the right things and Griner was still able to make a contested shot. It was a nice turn-around. We did the right things to get back into position to win the game, but they just made one extra play that we did.
Question: What do you have to do to make it to the finals next year?
Toliver: Honestly, I’d take this team next year. That’s how much confidence I have in each and every one of us. I wouldn’t change anything; I’d take the same team, and I believe we can get to the Western Conference finals. I believed we could do it this year, and next year, obviously we all need to work on things and get better in certain areas……but we have the pieces, we have the talent. We just have to get over the hump.
Question: Candace, do you feel like you guys came into the game with the right mindset tonight?
Parker: Yes, I do. I wouldn’t change our mindset at all.
Sue Favor: Last year you guys lost by one point. On Sparks Media Day last May, you talked about the lessons you’d learned over the winter to not let a game like that break your spirit. How does that growth affect how you’re dealing with this loss right now?
Parker: When the same thing keeps happening over and over and over again, at some point, you know, Coach talked about looking in the mirror and figuring out what’s going on. There’s possessions that I wish we could have done differently – that I wish I could have done differently. So I guess it’s just, taking that into the off-season and trying to get as near-perfect as possible. Because I think that’s what it’s going to take. And clearly, we keep losing by one point at the end of the season, so it’s something we’re doing.
Question: How well did you execute the game plan?
Toliver: We did things right at times and we did things wrong at times. We just didn’t put it together for 40 minutes. Obviously in the second half we did a better job with Dupree…you’ve got to give them credit. Dee played great.