Bonner essential in Mercury win

PHOENIX -- Around the time of the WNBA All-Star Game in mid-July, Phoenix Mercury forward DeWanna Bonner was feeling just a little unsure.

Not about the team. They were doing great then. And still are, as was on display Friday in an 85-71 victory over the Minnesota Lynx in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.

But what concerned Bonner was figuring out exactly how she fit into what was looking like a very special 2014 Mercury mosaic. It's understandable why she might be uncertain, given that Bonner already has had some different roles in her six seasons in Phoenix and had a new coach this year in Sandy Brondello.

Then the two met to talk specifically about what the Mercury needed most from Bonner.

"It helped me out a lot," she said. "I think I get now where I fit to help the team win."

The way she played Friday was a perfect example of that: 16 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and success hassling the league MVP, Maya Moore, into her worst offensive game of the season.

On a night when all the Mercury starters were clicking, Bonner deserves special notice for all she did to contribute to Phoenix controlling most of the game.

This wasn't a back-and-forth nail-biter the way we might have expected from a matchup of the teams with the league's two best records. On an electric Friday evening at US Airways Center, the Mercury fans in their "white-out" T-shirts really didn't need to go full-on X-Factor crazy, although you could tell they were prepared to do so.

Instead, they mostly just roared pleasantly throughout the game, as the Mercury looked better at everything Friday than did the defending-champion Lynx.

Phoenix ran its offense with more precision, getting pretty much exactly its preferred shot distribution among its starters. Mercury center Brittney Griner scored a team-high 23 points, and she has hit a combined 78.3 percent of her shots from the field in the past two games.

Griner (11) and Penny Taylor (13) led the way on the boards, as Phoenix outrebounded Minnesota 45-31. Taylor also had 16 points and seven assists, and Diana Taurasi scored 17 points and Candice Dupree 10.

The Mercury held the Lynx to 39.7 percent shooting from the field and limited Moore to nine points, the only time this season she hasn't scored in double digits. Bonner was the primary person guarding Moore, but she wasn't taking any bows afterward.

"Credit to my teammates -- when she came off picks, everybody was there to help me," Bonner said. "I didn't do it by myself; she is a tough player to guard. I just tried my best to try to make it hard for her."

That's a big part of the answer to what was bugging Bonner early in the season. What was her role? Typically, it's to be the Mercury's most versatile defender.

"She's been the defensive stopper all year," said Brondello, who has made note of being disappointed that Bonner didn't make the WNBA's all-defensive first or second teams. "Maybe people just don't see her in that regard, but she is. Whoever I think is the most dangerous, that's who she guards. That's how critical she is to our success.

"She's got that length, she's mobile, she's athletic, she's intelligent, she can execute a scout. She has the ability to close out on a shooter quickly. She doesn't get stuck; if someone gives her a little jab-step, she can recover quickly. Part of that is just her physical talent. But it's also, 'OK, that's my role.' And she also can do other things for us."

Bonner has done a lot, in fact, for the Mercury since being drafted out of Auburn in 2009. At 6-foot-4 and (supposedly) 137 pounds, Bonner initially had to prove she was up to withstanding the physicality of the league. That question has long since been answered.

"I just try to use my quickness," Bonner said. "I can't really bang with people, but I try to run well and 'skinny up' as much as I can through screens."

In fact, Bonner slipping quickly past picks is a bit like a sheet of paper sliding under a door. As a shooter, you might think for a microsecond that you've lost her, and then she's right there with those long arms in your way.

And, of course, it's been much-discussed this season that the Mercury under Brondello play team defense better than even in their two previous championship seasons of 2007 and '09.

The latter was Bonner's rookie year, and the role she established then -- and kept for two more seasons -- was as one of the league's best off-the-bench players. But in 2012, when the Mercury were dealing with so many injuries and eventually seemed to throw in the towel, Bonner carried more than her share.

She led the Mercury in scoring that season at 20.6 points per game. And that's something opposing coaches have pointed to this season when listing reasons Phoenix is so hard to beat. Bonner, who has shown she could be one of the top scorers in the league when she had to, is the Mercury's fourth or fifth option. Yikes.

And this is what Brondello made clear to Bonner: We need you to be our defensive whiz, but we don't want you to think your offense isn't still valuable to us. Be aggressive, and capitalize on what that might give you.

Bonner did that Friday, and so did the Mercury. Wow, did they capitalize. And the Lynx didn't.

"We weren't persistent enough," Moore said. "I know I was a big part of not helping with the flow of the offense, especially in the first half. And that put us in a tough position towards the end."

In the Mercury locker room, everyone was quick to point out that they are still one game from winning the Western Conference finals -- the teams meet again Sunday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET) -- and that their last trip to Minneapolis didn't go well.

Still, that 75-67 loss to the Lynx on July 31 seemed pretty distant to the Mercury on Friday. The chance to move on to the WNBA Finals seemed close.