Depth, cohesion carry Mercury, Fever

Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas helped lead the Fever to their first WNBA Finals appearance. Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty Images

PHOENIX -- Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter have been the Phoenix Mercury's dynamic duo, leading the team to the 2007 WNBA championship and now a second trip to the WNBA Finals.

Meanwhile, since Katie Douglas came to Indiana in 2008, she and Tamika Catchings have formed their own "terrific twosome" for the Fever.

Asked about the comparison following the Mercury's 85-74 victory over the Los Angeles Sparks in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals on Saturday, Taurasi, of course, had a quip.

"Cappie's the 'kick' and I'm the 'push,'" she said, referencing Lupe Fiasco's hip-hop lyrics about skateboard "rebels." "I don't know what they are, but I know they're great. They're two amazing basketball players that we've played with and against on U.S. teams and overseas.

"They are so good at what they do. Catch is the perfect basketball player. If you were to draw up a player, it would be Tamika Catchings. Katie Douglas has all the intangibles of being a winner."

Yet as much as each duo -- the leading scorers of their teams -- are "signature" players for the Mercury and Fever, it is the overall depth and cohesion of both squads that has helped each win the regular-season and postseason titles of their respective conferences.

"I think the two better teams are in the finals right now," L.A.'s DeLisha Milton-Jones said. "I stress teams -- meaning the way they play on both ends of the floor and how they've jelled together throughout this entire season."

In the Sparks' locker room after Saturday's loss, there was the definite sentiment that their talent was enough to win the WNBA title this season -- but that they had not been a good enough team.

Pro ball is a business. And players, as they mature and develop other interests and commitments, go their separate ways much more off the court than they did in college. That makes the camaraderie and esprit de corps of the college game harder to replicate in the WNBA.

Yet those intangibles, which helped Taurasi win three NCAA titles while at UConn, are still essential to her pro success.

"It's the feeling of being around people you want to keep being around for as long as you can," Taurasi said. "You're going to turn the ball over, you're going to miss shots. The other team is going to make great plays. But the ability to stay locked in together over 40 minutes is what hopefully gets us over the hump.

"You have to find that sense of responsibility toward each other. And if you can do that, and be happy with it, you can live with the results."

Pondexter seconded that, saying, "If you're not together, there is no way you can get to the finals. In 2007, we were together, and here at this moment, we are unified, for sure."

The Fever seem to have the same team dynamic as the Mercury, both in personality and attitude. The Phoenix franchise has won a title before, while Indiana has never previously been in the WNBA Finals.

But the Fever do have players with previous WNBA Finals and championship experience. Tamecka Dixon, who has been in the league since its 1997 inception, won two titles with Los Angeles. Tully Bevilaqua won one with Seattle.

Tammy Sutton-Brown was a rookie on the Charlotte team that lost to Dixon's Sparks in the 2001 finals. And Douglas played on two Connecticut teams that went to the finals, losing in 2004 to Bevilaqua's Storm and in 2005 to Sacramento.

Meanwhile, five members of the current Mercury squad were also on the 2007 title team: Taurasi, Pondexter, Penny Taylor, Tangela Smith and Kelly Mazzante. Paul Westhead ran the show in '07, but current coach Corey Gaines was an assistant then, and assistants Bridget Pettis and Julie Hairgrove have remained in their roles.

The key players the Mercury have added since are: Le'coe Willingham, who came in 2008 from Connecticut where she'd been on the '04 and '05 finals teams; Temeka Johnson, acquired in March '09 in a trade with L.A.; and DeWanna Bonner, selected No. 5 overall from Auburn in April's draft.

Willingham and Johnson are starters, and Bonner won the WNBA's Sixth Woman of the Year award.

"The team that we had last year, I'm still proud of," Mercury general manager Ann Meyers Drysdale said of the squad that fell short of the playoffs. "But we had to dismantle a lot from '07, which is very difficult. A lot of different reasons, many changes -- not just what people saw from the outside, but on the inside, too.

"Last year, Corey was a new [head] coach, Penny didn't come back in the Olympic year, and we had some new players. But even through those changes, I never lost faith or confidence in the staff we had. Certainly, Diana and Cappie grew a lot because of the changes."

Taurasi and Pondexter see another challenge ahead of them in Indiana. The teams split their regular-season meetings, with the Fever winning 90-83 in Phoenix on Aug. 8 and the Mercury winning 106-90 in Indianapolis on Sept. 2.

"They have every piece you need to win a championship," Taurasi said of the Fever. "Catch and Douglas, Tully who runs the show, Ebony [Hoffman] and Tammy, who've had unbelievable years. Off the bench, they bring in Dixon, who knows what the big stage is about. They have the rookie [Briann] January -- so they have all the pieces.

"For us, it's going to come down to executing on both ends. When we do that, we feel good about ourselves. But against them, it's going to be very difficult."

For Fever guard January, coming back to Phoenix will provide her own personal "home" advantage, as she spent her college career in nearby Tempe at Arizona State. But the Mercury -- who went 23-11 to Indy's 22-12 in the regular season -- have home-court advantage for the series, hosting Games 1 and 2 and, if necessary, Game 5.

In 2007, however, Phoenix did not actually have or need home-court advantage to win the title over Detroit.

"It's huge to start out at home," Taurasi said of the series beginning in Phoenix. "But if you don't take advantage of it, it goes to waste. We can talk about home-court advantage all we want, but until you take care of it and defend it, it doesn't count for anything.

"We can't just rely on, 'Oh, we're at home.' Indiana is going to try to come out here and bust us up."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.