Although it seems slightly overstated, there's a reason the upcoming Western Conference Finals series between the top-seeded Seattle Storm and second-seeded Phoenix Mercury has been called the most anticipated playoff series in WNBA history.
Aside from the basics of increased broadcast television exposure and whatever additional attention to the league that has carried over from last season, it's a matchup between a team that tied the record for most regular season wins and the defending champion with an uptempo style that has been arguably the most exciting team for a mainstream audience that the league has ever seen.
"I expect it to be a good series," said Storm forward Swin Cash after practice today. "Get your popcorn out -- I think it's going to be something for the fans to really enjoy and watch and I'm happy that it opens up at the Key. I mean, what better place to open up and for our fans and the sixth man to really be out there and supporting."
It would seem that the regular season series that included two overtime games -- including a triple overtime -- and an 18-point Storm comeback at KeyArena would only add to that excitement. And although the Storm won all five of their regular season contests with the Mercury, the Storm -- as could be expected -- aren't coming in cocky either.
"Well they're the defending champs and you can't take them lightly," said Cash. "They're playing some of their best basketball right now and they have one of the best basketball players in the world in Diana Taurasi. And the style of play they want to come in and implement, we're just going to have to be ready to take that and impose our will on the defensive end."
But for all the excitement the regular season series might generate, as Cash said the Mercury are playing some of their best basketball right now and the Storm have really only played them once with mid-season acquisition Kara Braxton, who has added some additional muscle to their post rotation. In other words, the Storm aren't exactly looking back at the regular season matchups, no matter what that might say to fans about how exciting this series could be.
"Nothing - you can't actually take anything from them," said Storm center Lauren Jackson when asked about how much the team could take from the regular season series with the Mercury. "We've just got to go out there and play our best basketball and we know they're going to be on top of their game and we have to be as well. So we're not complacent at all."
On the other hand, Mercury coach Corey Gaines might suggest that those past five games do have some relevance. Although the Storm swept the Los Angeles Sparks in two games after beating them five times during the regular season, Gaines pointed out earlier in the season that beating a team seven times in a row can be difficult.
"If I remember correctly, every time we've won it, they've swept us in the regular season," said Gaines after the Storm's 91-85 win in which they came back from 18 points down. "Hmmmm. Not that I was trying to lose on purpose or anything [but] percentage-wise, it's hard to beat someone 7, 8 times in a row. I would hate to be the other way around."
Either way, if you haven't been following the Storm closely, here's a quick review of that regular season series.
Game 5 (Phoenix - post-Braxton trade): Storm 78, Mercury 73
If the regular season series meant nothing, the final meeting of the regular season between the two teams was almost a complete formality -- both teams were locked into their playoff position and rest starters.
"The last game down there I wouldn't consider five because the fifth game was sort of a wash," said Storm coach Brian Agler. "Both teams were sort of manipulating their lineups and things like that."
Game 4 (Seattle - post-Braxton trade): Storm 91, Mercury 85
If there is a game that holds any insight into what each team has to do to win this series, this one might be it.
Storm vs. Mercury Statistical Summary: "Money time comes later, true money time." - Swish Appeal
"We've been close a couple of times, but every team is different," said Gaines. "Some teams break first quarter, some teams break in the second quarter. Some great teams like Seattle, great teams. It may be the last three minutes of the game. Somebody may say, 'Hey, it's my time to shine, I'll take this shot' and get you into that wrong [mindset]. We practice it so it's nothing for us, we practice it. We don't practice coming down poised, taking your time."
In last night's game, the Storm actually "broke" in the second quarter -- the Storm had no assists, went 0-for-7 from the three point line, and shot 33.33% from the field, in addition to having a higher turnover percentage. Nothing went right for the Storm and they lost the quarter 31-18. Meanwhile, the Mercury were off to the races, beating the Storm 8-2 on fast break points in the quarter and 18-10 in points in the paint, not to mention beating the Storm on the offensive boards.
Then the Storm responded and came out of the locker room more poised in the second half to come back and Bird was no small part of that.
Game 3 (Phoenix): Storm 111, Mercury 107 (3 OT)
Sue Bird's Late Three Sinks Mercury in Third Overtime - SB Nation Arizona
We came into the game expecting a fight, and we left finding an instant classic. Three overtimes. More ties and lead changes than I've ever witnessed. Determination and grit in every possession. Clutch shots galore. Nobody wanted to lose this game, but when all was said and done, the Storm came away victorious.
"Sometimes there are good losses," commented Mercury head coach Corey Gaines. "We'll take it as a good loss. They fought hard and didn't quit when we were down 10; that's a good loss."
Diana Taurasi didn't quite feel the same way. "You lose the game, but it doesn't really matter if you go into ten overtimes. I don't know what to say."
On the other side of things, the Storm were extremely impressed with the way the team was able to overcome their early misfirings and claw their way back into the game. "I think that's just the character of our team. That's how we've played all season, no matter what's happening out there," said All-Star point guard Sue Bird. "We don't stop."
Game 2 (Seattle): Storm 97, Mercury 74
Storm vs. Mercury: Statistical Summary...of Three Quarters - Swish Appeal
No matter which side you look at this game from, it was pretty much over after three quarters, whether it be because of poor play from the Mercury or outstanding play from the Storm.
As a veteran team, Gaines said the Mercury know it's just one game and that there will be plenty of others, especially against a team like the Storm who Gaines said they will have to go through if they expect to repeat.
On the other side, there would seem to be a risk of complacency for the Storm with it starting to become apparent that the rest of the league is chasing them. However, they know as veterans too that it's still early in the season.
"I still think it's too early in the season," said Storm forward Lauren Jackson. "I really think every team is going to get better. I really want to be excited, but it's too early. It really is."
Game 1 (Phoenix): Storm 95, Mercury 89
Phoenix Mercury Can't Hang On To Beat Tough Seattle Storm - Swish Appeal
Candice Dupree finished with 14 points and 6 rebounds to go along with her 7 turnovers.
Storm Coach Brian Agler explains his team's defensive strategy against Dupree in the post, "They're so good, if you do it like in an organizational way they will find the open people. So you almost have to convince your team that you've got to jab at them and change things up and do some things that way and not really be consistent on how you send the help."
Agler obviously also had the luxury of Lauren Jackson to defend the rim. LJ finished with two blocks and four steals.