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Penny Taylor, Merc on verge of sweep

PHOENIX -- Two years of injuries, surgeries and setbacks had Penny Taylor wondering a lot of things.

Would she ever be able to recover the versatile, heady game that made her one of the best players on the planet? Would her knees hold up for long even if she did? Would she be able to contribute meaningfully to a Phoenix team that had been moving forward without her for the equivalent of a basketball eternity?

She can wonder a little less now. Taylor gave a vintage performance Tuesday in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals, scoring 14 points to go with eight rebounds and six assists in the Mercury's 97-68 win over Chicago that puts Phoenix one victory away from a third WNBA championship.

With ice bags attached to both of her surgically repaired knees, Taylor got emotional thinking about good fortune.

"I feel so lucky to be here," she said.

And to a player, the Mercury know they wouldn't be at this precipice without the 33-year-old guard/forward.

"There's a reason why we are on this championship pursuit this year," Diana Taurasi said. "It's because she's healthy."

Mercury coach Sandy Brondello played for four years with Taylor on Australia's national team. They have been friends for much longer. She called Taylor the "missing piece to the puzzle" in Phoenix's success this season.

"Once we put her into that starting lineup, we've only lost two games," Brondello said. "That's how important she is because of her versatility. It's great after two years out to see her playing the way she is."

Taylor's 3-point shot didn't fall on Tuesday. And it didn't matter.

Chicago challenged the Mercury early in a way that they hadn't in Sunday's Game 1. The score was tied at 31 with 4:09 left in the first half, but then the Mercury went on a 20-5 run to close the period and take a 51-36 lead into the break. During the pivotal early minutes of the third quarter, when the Sky knew they had to make a run to get back in the game, Taylor and the Mercury simply wouldn't allow it. Taylor pulled down three rebounds and scored eight points in a six-minute span that propelled the Mercury to a 23-point lead.

"We have that killer mentality ... we went up by six at one point and we said we have to build on this," Taylor said. "We stepped up our defense and we ran and that's really when we are at our best."

Taylor's journey back has been long and arduous. She missed the 2012 WNBA season (and the London Olympics) with a knee injury sustained overseas in Turkey, taking her out of the game for the first time since she was 15 years old. But setbacks marred her recovery from that surgery. She played in just 10 games in 2013, needing surgery again. During her long rehabilitation, her mother died of cancer.

Brondello said she talked to Taylor last January and February, unsure of Taylor's status.

"I didn't know. I knew if I could get my knees right, I could contribute," Taylor said. "I didn't think players lose their ability to play the game or know the game. I've never been the biggest jumper or the fastest runner, so to me that wasn't going to be an issue. I knew I could play if I got healthy."

"Once we put her into that starting lineup, we've only lost two games. That's how important she is because of her versatility. It's great after two years out to see her playing the way she is." Mercury coach Sandy Brondello on Penny Taylor

Taylor came to Phoenix and worked with Phoenix Suns strength and conditioning coach Mike Elliott to make sure her entire body was strong enough to support her knees. She joked that the Mercury's head athletic trainer, Tamara Poole, spent "90 percent of her time on me."

"She did everything she could possibly do to get back on the court," Brondello said.

But even as the season began in late May, the picture wasn't exactly clear. Taylor was a little tentative, out of basketball shape and being guided slowly, but steadily back on to the floor by her longtime friend, former teammate and new head coach.

Taylor didn't start for the first nine games. But once in the lineup, Taylor provided the glue that has held this talented, driven team together through a record-setting season.

"She's a veteran, a leader, talking to us on the floor," teammate Candice Dupree said. "When she subs out of the game, something is missing out on the floor. I think she knows deep down inside that her body isn't the same as it was a few years ago, but she doesn't let that stop her."

Taylor played 33 games during the regular season, averaging 10.5 points a game and shooting 96.3 percent from the free throw line. It was a milestone she admitted she thought she'd never reach.

"To be with this team, to compete with this group of girls, with this personality and the way we play, I couldn't ask for more," Taylor said.

Her teammates can't, either.

"Penny has been trying to get back on the court for two years," Taurasi said. "I've never seen anyone rehab as hard as she has to get back.

"To see her on the court and to see her play like that makes the whole city of Phoenix happy. It should make the world of basketball happy."