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Phoenix Mercury Enter Final Stretch, Playoff Berth At Hand

The Phoenix Mercury can clinch a playoff berth with a win Thursday in San Antonio. Beyond that, seeding and home court advantage won't matter nearly as much as getting rested and healthy for the postseason.

The NBA is locked out with only the slightest hints of a resolution coming any time soon. Meanwhile, the Valley's only professional basketball team to win a championship (two, actually) is in the midst of a playoff hunt. The Phoenix Mercury are 17-12 on the season with five games remaining. They currently hold a half-game lead in the Western Conference over the 2010 WNBA Champion Seattle Storm.

The Mercury are in Texas to face the San Antonio Silver Stars for the fifth and final time on Thursday night. The two teams have split their season series so far. With a win, the Mercury can clinch a playoff berth for the 2011 season and win the regular season series against the Silver Stars for the first time since 2007.

The Mercury have had an up and down season with some internal issues that led to a mid-season trade that sent away starting center Kara Braxton and returned a seldom-used player, Sidney Spencer. The team is 6-4 since the early August trade.

The regular season record isn't nearly as important for this veteran team. They are not going to catch the Minnesota Lynx (24-6) who ran away with the conference so home court advantage or seeding in the playoffs is less important than being rested and healthy going into the postseason.

We've seen both of the team's stars, Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor, miss time recently with "back spasms". While both were likely banged up a bit, resting them was likely part of a larger plan for this team that still considers itself a contender for the WNBA title.

They felt last season's Western Conference loss to Seattle was as much to do with the team's health as anything else. All season, coach Corey Gaines has limited the minutes of his key players and used his bench generously.

We can expect those rotations to tighten up in the playoffs and with the point guard position being the biggest weakness on the roster, Diana Taurasi might end up playing almost 40 minutes per game to keep the team's strongest unit on the floor.

The Mercury will likely use more of a line up that has talented forwards DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree playing together with Taurasi and Taylor who can both initiate the offense from the wing. Either guard Marie Ferdinand-Harris or center Nakia Sanford can then bring an added measure of defense either inside or on the perimeter depending on match ups.

Gaines has said all season that they will have to go through Minnesota at some point so playing them without home court advantage in the first round or Western Conference Finals won't matter much. Having to face both Seattle and Minnesota, however, would be a tough task. Ideally, either San Antonio or even Los Angeles will be the first round opponent while the Lynx and Storm face each other.

In the meant time, the first goal is to clinch a berth and then to get ready physically for another postseason run that will put a lot of pressure on the team's stars. We'll see if the plan to keep them rested during the regular season pays off.