Guru of Go
Desperate for anew look, Phoenix hired offensive mastermind Paul Westhead. Will he help DianaTaurasi & Co. take flight?
Members of thePhoenix Mercury might be surprised to learn that their new coach, PaulWesthead, is a Shakespearean scholar who wrote his master's thesis at Villanovaon the Bard's tragedy Titus Andronicus. But they'd hardly be shocked to hearthat one of his favorite quotations is from Macbeth: "If it were done when'tis done, then 'twere well It were done quickly."
In their brieftime with Westhead--because of injuries and overseas playing commitments,Phoenix was without five players for much of the preseason, and newlywed wingplayer Penny Taylor has yet to return from abroad--the Mercury has gotten thegist of the fast-breaking, full-court-pressing style Westhead made famousduring his 24 years as a head coach in the men's college and NBA ranks. "Hewants us to go 110 miles an hour, all the time," says rookie point guardCappie Pondexter, the No. 2 pick overall, from Rutgers. "His style is funto play and exciting to watch. It's a learning process, but once the fans seeus at our best, I think they will really like it."
Entertainmentvalue was one of the reasons that Phoenix, which hasn't made the playoffs forfive straight years, hired the 67-year-old Westhead last October to replaceCarrie Graf. The team also hoped that he would maximize the talents of itsAll-Star guard, Diana Taurasi. One of the league's best pure shooters, she willget loads of open looks in Westhead's system--especially with the addition ofPondexter and Kelly Miller, who allow Taurasi to move from the point to thetwo. "We need to turn our product around to recapture our fan base,"says general manager Seth Sulka. When the Mercury called, Westhead had justfinished a stint as an assistant with the NBA's Magic and was ready to trysomething new. "I was curious how my style of play would work with thewomen," he says. "The only way to find out was to try it."
It's far tooearly to say if Phoenix will be any better or any worse at "Paul ball"than some of the other teams Westhead has coached--such as the Lakers, whom heled to the 1980 NBA championship, and Loyola Marymount, which averaged an NCAArecord 122.4 points in '90 and reached the Elite Eight. "[Mine] is aneasy-to-learn, hard-to-do offense," he says. "It takes a while for yourbody and mind to think quicker, act quicker." For his system to work,players have to be committed to going pedal to the metal. "If you do it allthe way, the reward is immense," he says. "If you do it three quartersof the way, the reward could be zero."
In its seasonopener at Sacramento last Saturday, the Mercury learned the cost of letting upon the gas. After sprinting to a 14-1 lead on 5-of-7 shooting in the first 31/2 minutes, Phoenix struggled to find the basket in the second quarter,scoring only six points while the Monarchs went on a 20-0 run. Nor could theMercury thwart Sacramento's superior power inside; the Monarchs outscoredPhoenix 56-32 in the paint. Sacramento also had 23 fast-break points to theMercury's 12 en route to a 105-78 victory.
"We had spotswhen we pressed really well, and we had some pretty good runs, but we didn't doit for the 40-minute haul," said Westhead. "Our players have to learnhow long and hard you have to play to do this. And to do that you have to playgames."
Saturday's gamewas the first time three of the Mercury starters had played for Westhead,including Taurasi, who scored 14 points despite a pulled quadriceps muscle."This style is unorthodox--it's different from what most of us have beentaught since Day One," says Taurasi. "We've got to get used to it andbelieve in it. We'll be fine."
Monarchs coachJohn Whisenant agrees. "It'll work," he says. "Paul knows what he'sdoing. They played the world champions on their home court in their first gamewith a new coach. Two weeks from now they're liable to hand us thewhipping."