Taurasi juggles Mercury duties, Olympic quest

PHOENIX — Every four years, the WNBA season offers a fun variable that really can affect a team.

Well, unless it doesn’t.

We’re referring to the Olympic break, a month-long (give or take) intermission that divides the WNBA summer into two potentially distinct parts.

“It’s like two seasons,” said Phoenix Mercury coach Corey Gaines, whose first campaign as the team’s head coach included an Olympic break in 2008. “It may hurt you … it may help you.”

Right, depending on how the Mercury perform from Sunday’s season opener through the final pre-break game on July 13, Gaines will have to wait and see what impact having 34 days between games might have on his team. Such a lengthy interlude has the potential to wreck momentum. It also could provide a struggling team with a period of renewal.

But what eventually occurs in Phoenix should have a lot to do with how Mercury guard — and Team USA Olympian — Diana Taurasi performs both before and after.

Entering her ninth WNBA season, the five-team All-Star and 2009 MVP will add a third consecutive Olympic run with Team USA. Taurasi, who collected a gold in Athens (2004) and another in Beijing (2008), helped lead the Mercury to WNBA championships in 2007 and 2009.

After spending another winter playing in Europe, Taurasi recently participated in the pre-Olympic camp before joining the Mercury on Monday.

“It’s a grind,” Taurasi said. “It’s a lot of basketball in a short amount of time, but we get to play basketball, so you can’t complain too much.”

A certified gym rat, Taurasi was able to slip in a couple weeks off between her season in Europe and the Team USA camp.

“It’s not ideal,” she said, “because you do need time to recover mentally and physically. I don’t like staying away from the gym for two weeks, but you have to kind of force yourself. It’s more mental … the grind of having to get up for every practice and every game. So for those two weeks, you try to step away from everything and hopefully try to take your mind off of basketball.”

That’s not exactly a breeze, because basketball is what she does, and she still does it very well.

During the 2011 WNBA season, Taurasi’s scoring average dipped by one point (to 21.6) from 2010, but her shooting efficiency was bumped up by two percentage points, both from three-point range and overall. With Mercury teammate — and Australian Olympian — Penny Taylor lost for the 2012 season with a knee injury, Gaines will be counting on Taurasi to continue her high level of production.

To help maintain an elite focus, Taurasi can embrace a recommendation given by Geno Auriemma — her coach at Connecticut and on Team USA — shortly before breaking camp in Seattle.

“He said, ‘Prove that you’re an Olympian when you go back to your team,'” Taurasi said.

Taurasi will have 19 games to demonstrate her on-court value before she and her Olympic teammates leave for London and the quest for more gold. In 2008, the Olympic break spanned most of August, leaving the Mercury with only seven games remaining in the regular season.

They were 12-15 before the ’08 break and won four of those last seven. It also should be noted that instead of cramming 34 games into the same time frame as last season, the WNBA regular season will start a couple of weeks earlier and end two weeks later.

“It’s a different dynamic when you have the Olympics,” Taurasi said. “Obviously, the hiatus when July hits … you just have to stay focused and stay in the moment.

“When I’m in Phoenix, all I’m thinking about is Phoenix. There’s nothing I can do or think that’s going to affect London.”

And what she’s thinking about in Phoenix is the challenge of striving to be as close to perfect as she and the Mercury can be each game. Losing Taylor and adding several new teammates with the potential to thrive presents Taurasi with enough to consider before shifting her focus to London.

“Every little play, every minute on the court is going to determine the outcome of the game,” she said.