The desert is a perfect place for this year's WNBA All-Star Game. It's where the most dominating basketball in the league has been played this season
The Phoenix Mercury enter the All-Star break on a franchise-record 12-game winning streak and have compiled a gaudy 18-3 record.
So the best players squaring off in Phoenix makes undeniable sense.
"It kind of matches the momentum of the team," said West coach Cheryl Reeve of the reigning WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx, "the excitement surrounding the team."
Mercury stars Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner are starters for the West in Saturday's game, with teammate Candice Dupree among the reserves. Taurasi makes her seventh All-Star appearance. Griner was supposed to start as a rookie last year but sat out the game because of injury. She enters the game off her second dunk of the season Tuesday night.
Taurasi said the game is a reward to the Mercury's loyal fan base.
"This is one of the only places where they'll never boo a player," Taurasi said, "because they respect everyone so much."
East All-Star reserve Chiney Ogwumike, a rookie with Connecticut, says the Mercury "are a great measuring stick" for the rest of the WNBA.
The Mercury drafted Griner No. 1 overall a year ago and were expected to dominate immediately. It didn't happen. The team played better down the stretch and made it to the second round of the playoffs before being eliminated by the Lynx.
This season, the Mercury have been virtually untouchable.
"I just think they're really, really good," Reeve said. "They've kind of established themselves back to the media darling, maybe what was expected of them last year. They're fulfilling those expectations."
Taurasi said there are some years when a player wonders after loss after loss whether it's worth it to keep playing.
This year, she said, has "been one of those (seasons) where after every game we just want to get back at it. "After every game, you want to get back in the gym and see each other."
Atlanta's Michael Cooper will coach the East team. The five-time NBA champion said women are better at the fundamentals of the game than their male counterparts.
"I think women have a greater understanding of the game," he said, "simply because it's played below the rim."
One player who can operate above the rim is the 6-foot-8 Griner. She has four dunks in her two WNBA seasons and blocked a league record 11 shots in a game against Tulsa.
"She might get out of here with a dunk," said Indiana's Tamika Catchings, who's playing in her ninth All-Star game. "The fans would be so excited to see that."
In the NBA All-Star Game, there's little defense and a lot of acrobatic showmanship. It's different in the WNBA, Catchings said.
"We have fun out there like the men do, but their game's a little bit different because they involve all the dunking and stuff," she said. "We come out, we play defense, we have fun, we shoot our jump shots, get layups, get up and down, the way the game is meant to be played."
The teams held open practices at US Airways Center on Friday, milling with the fans in between the two practice sessions.
"This is a great franchise," Reeve said of the host Mercury. "It's been with us since the beginning, so I think it's kind of a celebration for them."
Ogwumike and her sister Nneka of the Los Angeles Sparks are the first sibblings to play in an All-Star Game in league history.
In addition to Taurasi and Griner, the West starters are Skylar Diggins of Tulsa, Maya Moore of Minnesota and Candace Parker of Los Angeles. Moore led all players in fan balloting. Moore was the leading All-Star vote getter.
The East starters are Catchings, Cappie Pondexter of New York, Angel McCoughtry and Erika de Souza of Atlanta and rookie Shoni Schimmel of Atlanta. Schimmel leads the NBA in jerseys sold. De Souza will replace Elena Delle Donne in the starting lineup, who is sidelined with a recurrence of Lyme disease.