Taurasi hopes '07 is year Phoenix returns to playoffs

We know what Phoenix's Diana Taurasi has not been doing during the postseason since she joined the WNBA: playing. So what has it been like as a spectator?

"I've watched my friends," she said. "But it's hard to watch the playoffs when you're not in them. It really is."

Hard for Taurasi and … hard for WNBA followers, too. Who wants to watch Taurasi watching? That's like having Kate Winslet on your movie set handling the props.

But it has been the WNBA's lousy luck that one of its most marketable superstars has been off stage when the spotlight is turned on the brightest. Which is why very high on the list of "What would do the league good in 2007" is this: Phoenix getting back in the playoffs.

The league's 11th season opens Saturday, and perhaps it seems a bit of a leap to open up by talking about the playoffs. However, this Mercury season has a "to be continued" feel from last season's disappointment, when Phoenix went 18-16, but wasn't good enough.

"This is a huge year," Taurasi said. "The most frustrating part about it is that we've had the types of teams that should be in the playoffs and be contending. And this year, we're even closer to that."

Of course, Taurasi won three consecutive NCAA titles with Connecticut and an Olympic gold medal with Team USA from 2002-04. For the next three years, who else seemed less likely to be out of the action when WNBA games were most meaningful?

Then again, Taurasi points out that there aren't any games that don't matter in the WNBA's relatively short season.

"The last three years, we've been about one game short of the playoffs," she said of the Mercury, who posted records of 17-17, 16-18 and 18-16 from 2004-06. "That just shows you how important each game is in the WNBA. This year, more than anything, we have to concentrate on the beginning of the year and coming out of the gate strong."

The Mercury's problems predate Taurasi. Phoenix hasn't played in the postseason since 2000, when Taurasi was just a freshman who'd yet to go through her first practice at UConn. Yeah, it was that long ago.

Then Cheryl Miller left the Mercury helm. In the seven seasons since, Phoenix has been coached by Cynthia Cooper, Linda Sharp, John Shumate, Carrie Graf, Glen Campbell and Paul Westhead. OK, just kidding … Glen Campbell only sang "By The Time I Get to Phoenix." He hasn't actually coached there. Yet.

Westhead's system seems to have suited Taurasi well. She led the league in scoring last season and became the first WNBA player to break the 800-point mark in a single season (860). Then again, Taurasi would make any system work. But 2006 ended in frustration again, with Phoenix the odd team out in a tiebreaker in the West. Then at the World Championship, Taurasi and the Americans were upset by Russia in the semifinals and ended up with the bronze medal.

Taurasi said it was "a little bit of humble pie" -- previously thought of as something that never even appeared on her menu.

"I learned a lot from last year with the Mercury and then the USA Team," she said. "When you put on that USA jersey, the gold medal is the only thing you strive for. As a group, we worked hard. But it was one game where we didn't execute or play the type of basketball we're used to. That's all it takes is one game in a setting like that to, well … have our dreams go down the toilet. That's what it felt like.

"But we came out and played well against Brazil the next night, and that hopefully will set the tone for the next two years."

The culmination of that, of course, is the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But this 2007 WNBA season is a big part of setting a tone, personally, for Taurasi. She just arrived in Phoenix's camp this week, having won championships in Russia, where she played in the winter and early spring.

"People will ask, 'What do you want to improve on?' At this point, I don't know that I can become a 'better' shooter, dribbler or passer," Taurasi said. "My physical skills are what they are. But that mental strength and leadership is something I hopefully can add more to the team."

She won't have to do it alone. Cappie Pondexter, who'll be in her second season, did just about all that could be asked for as a rookie in 2006. She averaged 19.5 points and 3.1 assists to Taurasi's 25.3 and 4.1. Penny Taylor's 13.9 ppg and Kelly Miller's 11.0 ppg also were key factors in the Mercury's "almost, but not quite" season.

For 2007, the Mercury hope they filled their need for a swift and experienced post player who can keep up with Westhead's style when they acquired Tangela Smith by trading No. 1 draft pick Lindsey Harding to Minnesota.

"I think we've made great moves this offseason," Taurasi said, "bringing in Tangela, Kelly Schumacher, Olympia Scott. Having veterans means a lot.

"We want to play basketball the way it should be. And we like each other on and off the court. I'm raring to go."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.