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The Seattle Storm's 85-70 win over the Phoenix Mercury was obviously an emotional boost as they head toward the playoffs with an opportunity to defend their title, but more importantly it gives them home court advantage against a team who they've had some success beating at home.
"We want to be at home," said Storm guard Katie Smith after scoring a season-high 26 against the Mercury last night. "Our record shows that being at home is big for us. We didn't want to go to their place. It was pretty much a playoff game and this is going to be the atmosphere when we see them again."
The Storm are 14-2 at KeyArena this season with one final home game against the Chicago Sky on Sunday and the Mercury haven't won in Seattle since 2009. Their only win in their last 11 games against the Storm came in Phoenix with center Lauren Jackson and guard Tanisha Wright absent.
Nevertheless, the Mercury do have reasons for hope, beginning with the return of the player who is arguably their MVP in 2011.
"We'll have Penny (Taylor) back so that will really help," said Mercury coach Corey Gaines about forward Penny Taylor, who missed last night with back spasms. "We'll be ready to go"
Perhaps an even more significant factor that was on display last night is the trade of center Kara Braxton to the New York Liberty that moved veteran defender up in the rotation as someone capable of contending with the 6-foot-6 Jackson in the paint. Jackson was held without a field goal until the fourth quarter last night and only finished with four points.
As familiar as these teams are with each other, their playoff opener on September 15 at KeyArena will likely be the first time their current rotations face off at full strength. Although there's plenty of reason for the Storm to go in confident, there's also more uncertainty to this series beyond the surface.
"Phoenix is a great team," Storm coach Brian Agler said. "It's going to be a very competitive series."
The Mercury aren't exactly intimidated by KeyArena either, as one would expect of any competitor.
"They have home court advantage, and I don't know about everyone else, but I enjoy playing here," Mercury forward Candice Dupree said. "The fans are great, but that should give us some motivation to come out and beat them."
Despite the Storm's dominance, Dupree's sentiment about KeyArena isn't that dissimilar from what you hear from players and coaches around the WNBA - the Seattle fan base is among the strongest in the league and, perhaps in some ways, what other cities are still striving to create. But as a team with veterans looking to bring the Mercury franchise its third WNBA championship, they also look forward to toppling the reigning champion.
"You have to beat the defending champions if you want to go anywhere," said Mercury guard Diana Taurasi. "That's just the bottom line in any sport. You have to beat the champions if you want to be champions. It'll probably be the toughest task we have all year."
The most immediate concern for the Storm now is resting up and making sure they're at 100% against a competitive Mercury team that is more than capable of scoring more than the 70 points they put up last night (a season-low) and can run a team out off the floor if they get caught up in trying to match their tempo. Yet rather than making an executive decision about managing minutes, Agler is approaching things more democratically.
"We talked with our team about it and if we feel like getting to 21 (wins) will help us down the road then my vote would be to try to play," Agler said. "I don't know what we'll do with Lauren (Jackson). We want her ready for the playoffs. We want to put ourselves in the best position. That's my philosophy.
"But I let the players sleep on it. When they ask me something and I'm unsure I always tell them that I reserve the right to sleep on it. So I asked them and they said that they, 'reserve the right to sleep on it.' I guess we'll know tomorrow."
Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com noted in his preview of tonight's game that each of the Seattle Storm's nine wins over the Phoenix Mercury since 2009 have been different.
In keeping with that pattern, tonight's 85-70 win at KeyArena was a game full of anomalies, both good and bad.
Storm reserve guard Katie Smith led the Storm with a season-high 26 points, including 5-for-7 shooting from beyond the arc. Center Lauren Jackson finished with only four points and didn't score until halfway through the fourth quarter, a testament to the Mercury actually playing rather good interior defense throughout the game.
"It was the same game plan as when she was playing early on in the season," said Mercury forward Candice Dupree, referring to the season opener in which Jackson recorded 15 points and seven rebounds. "We were trying to contain Sue (Bird) a little more and Katie. Obviously Katie didn't work so well. She's a great shooter and a great player in the league."
Mercury guard Diana Taurasi's season-high 36 points were the most by a Storm opponent this season, surpassing her own 31 on June 4. But adding to the strange flow of this game, she only scored eight points in the second half after scoring 28 in the first half and 20 in the second quarter alone.
Stopping Taurasi in the second half proved to be the key - nobody else on the league's highest-scoring team really picked up the slack as the Mercury only shot 7-for-29 in the second half.
"We didn't try to do anything differently, I just thought we played a little bit passive with her," said Storm coach Brian Agler of how they responded to Taurasi's hot first half shooting. "We gave her too much space. We changed a few things up at halftime, but nothing that should have bothered her a whole lot. We just gave her a different look. I was disappointed at halftime because I thought we gave her too much space to work."
But what's ultimately most surprising about this game is that the Storm managed to win a 3-point shootout with the Mercury with Jackson being a non-factor on the offensive end for most of the game.
With 13 three-pointers, the Storm tied a franchise record for most in a regulation game. Their 54.2 percent accuracy was also a season high. Meanwhile, the Mercury finished with tied with season-low 70 points after scoring 41 in the firt half.
And although it's surprising that a team that has steadily had to creep out of the league's 3-point shooting cellar won a game that featured 47 long-range attempts against the league's highest scoring team, it's also a sign of encouragement: they managed to weather a superstar performance from one of the league's best scorers while Smith stepped up after the majority of their starters struggled.
"I decided to not necessarily settle for jumpers as much, but just attack the hole a little bit and get in there and finish," said Smith of her season-high performance. "It's more of a mindset. It's not settling and trying to make them work. Other teams try to make us work on defense by attacking and trying to get us on our heels so we have to do the same thing."
Of course tempering that encouragement is the reality that the chances of the Storm winning another game in quite this fashion is unlikely when they meet the Mercury again in the playoffs, but the unpredictability of these matchups is part of what makes them so exciting.
"It kind of mentally tricks you a little bit because you know every little thing they like to do," Taurasi said about the familiarity between the two teams. "They know what we like to do. Most of these games have come down to the last two or three minutes. We have to find a way to get stops and good offensive possessions at the end."
Most importantly, the win clinched second place in the Western Conference and home court advantage in their first round meeting with the Mercury next week. Yet in addition to clinching second place, home court advantage in the first round of the WNBA playoffs, and winning the regular season series 3-1, the Storm also became only the second team in WNBA history to reach 20 wins for in four consecutive seasons (the Los Angeles Sparks hold the record, making the playoffs from 1998-2004).
A large part of that ability to continue reaching the 20-win plateau - even in seasons where Jackson hasn't been a full health - is the home crowd that cheered them on tonight. The reward for the team this season is an opportunity to use that to their advantage in the first round.
"This crowd and these Seattle fans love women's basketball," Smith said. "They love the players that are here, but they follow everyone. It's an honor to do it front of them because they really appreciate what we do and how hard we do it. It means a lot."
It has pretty much been a given that the Seattle Storm and Phoenix Mercury would end up facing each other in the 2011 WNBA Playoffs since about the moment the Mercury clinched their spot.
Tonight the Mercury made it official with a 91-76 win over a Tulsa Shock team that is approaching 30 losses this season, despite a game-high 22 points from Shock rookie center Liz Cambage.
With the win, the Mercury have assured themselves of finishing no lower than third place in the Western Conference and the full Western Conference semifinals schedule is set. The Storm will begin first round play against the Mercury on Thursday, Sept. 15 on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. PST.
Game 2 will be on Saturday, Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. and Game 3 will take place on Monday, Sept. 19 (if necessary).
All that's left to determine is where those games between the Mercury and Storm will be played, which could be sorted out tomorrow night when the Mercury travel to KeyArena tomorrow for the fourth and final meeting of their regular season series. With so much on the line, the Mercury aren't exactly worried about being tired either.
"I think our energy is going to kind of get us through it, we aren't even going to be thinking about how tired we are," said Mercury forward DeWanna Bonner, who is a strong candidate for her third consecutive WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year award.
So with the matchup certain, the possible outcomes of tomorrow night's game are as follows:
But the odds are certainly in favor of the Storm here.
In addition to the fact that the Storm have won 9 of the last 10 meetings against the Mercury, the Storm also present the Mercury with a difficult matchup challenge, as described by Seth Pollack of SB Nation Arizona.
The Storm are the best coached team in the WNBA and their defense has always managed to give Phoenix problems. On the other end, their two best players are at the Mercury's weakest defensive positions with point guard Sue Bird and center Lauren Jackson.
However, regardless of the past outcomes, the Storm and Mercury have always made for an exciting matchup making tomorrow night's game (7 p.m. PST, KONG) one worth watching. Mercury guard Diana Taurasi is ready for a chance to at least have home court advantage in the first round.
"We will just treat it like every other game, we will play the same way we have been all year," said Taurasi, who is currently second in the league in scoring averaging 21.24 points per game. "If you have to change things for a big game, than you aren't preparing the right way. So we will go to the airport early and go to Seattle and see what we can do that night."
The other semifinal matchup was also decided with the fourth place San Antonio Silver Stars now set to face the first place Minnesota Lynx in the first round.
The Lynx and Silver Stars will begin their series on September 16 at 6 p.m. PST on NBA TV. The Lynx won the regular season series 4-0, but to the Silver Stars' credit they lost two of those games by a combined three points without the help of then-injured rookie All-Star forward Danielle Adams. With Adams back in the lineup, the series might not be quite as lopsided as their records might suggest.
Behind 37 points from guard Becky Hammon, the San Antonio Silver Stars clinched a playoff spot with an an 82-65 win over the Los Angeles Sparks at the Staples Center tonight.
With the fifth place Sparks now eliminated from playoff contention, the Western Conference field is set but the final positioning will be determined over the course of the next five days.
Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com has already broken down what this means for the Seattle Storm with a simulation that has them almost assured of a first round meeting with the Phoenix Mercury.
So the obvious note here is that the Storm and the Mercury are now locked into second and third per our simulation. There is a scenario where Phoenix could slip to fourth by losing out with the San Antonio Silver Stars winning out, but our model regards this as impossible because the Mercury’s home game against Tulsa is statistically such a sure thing.
The Storm will definitely finish either second or third and has the inside track on second. A win next Friday against Phoenix would lock it up.
Although the Mercury are the Storm's likely opponent, a first round matchup with the Silver Stars would probably be more favorable with the added bonus of home court advantage as a second seed - the Storm won that regular season series 4-1 and have beaten them rather badly on two occasions.
Yet that's looking a bit too far ahead - the second place Storm are only a half game ahead of the third place Mercury with two games remaining on their schedule. The Storm can make it easy on themselves by clinching the second seed with a win over the Mercury at KeyArena on Friday. Roman Augustoviz of the StarTribune has the breakdown of what happens if they fail to win that game.
If Phoenix wins on Thursday and beats Seattle on Friday, the Mercury would have a one-game lead going into Sunday's game with the Lynx. Then a Phoenix win that day or a Seattle loss would clinch second.
If they somehow finish tied in the standings -- and that scenario has to include a Phoenix win in Seattle to even their series at 2-2, the first tiebreaker -- the Storm will be the second seed because of its better conference record.
That sets up an exciting potential playoff preview between the Mercury and Storm on Friday at 7 p.m. PST on KONG.
With their 70-60 win in San Antonio tonight, the Seattle Storm (19-13) remained in second place in the Western Conference even after the third place Phoenix Mercury (18-13) clinched a playoff berth with a win over the Los Angeles Sparks.
The Storm now have nearly a week off with a half-game lead over the Mercury for second place and home court advantage in the likely first round meeting. The Storm will resume play next week with home games against the Mercury and their regular season finale on September 11 against Gonzaga alum Courtney Vandersloot and the Chicago Sky.
The Mercury clinched a playoff berth for the third consecutive season and the fourth time in the last five years, including title runs in 2007 and 2009 and a trip to the Western Conference Finals against the Storm last season.
For both the Mercury and Storm, their wins tonight make Friday's meeting even more important as the two teams fight for who will have home court advantage in their increasingly likely first round meeting.
"You have to really focus on that (game)," Mercury guard Diana Taurasi said about Friday's game against the Storm. "They've been playing really well as of late. We fly out Friday morning and play Friday night so its not the best scenario but we'll go."
But for the fourth place Silver Stars (15-16) and Sparks (13-18) things are still unclear; with both teams losing tonight, the Silver Stars remain two games ahead of the Sparks.
The Sparks' schedule does still give them a shot to close the gap: with three home games remaining in their regular season, the Sparks get a chance to gain a game against the Silver Stars directly in a head-to-head meeting on Tuesday and follow that with a rematch against the 3-27 Tulsa Shock who ended their 20-game losing streak in L.A. on August 26.
But it won't exactly be easy for the Sparks.
"Win - we can't lose," said Sparks forward Candace Parker when asked what it would take to make the playoffs. "We have to bank on San Antonio losing another one. For us we just have to take care of our business and take care of San Antonio starting on Tuesday. We just need to win out and see what happens."
Even if the Silver Stars lose to the Sparks on Tuesday, they'll still have just as good an opportunity to get in, despite an extended losing streak after the All-Star break: they'll have a home game against the 6-25 Washington Mystics followed by their regular season finale in Tulsa.
Nevertheless, filling that fourth and final playoff spot is about the Sparks as much as whatever the Silver Stars do: if they show up and play defense, they could easily win out and at least put pressure on the Silver Stars. But if they have the type of defensive lapses they had at home against the Shock, it's hard to imagine them making it to the postseason.
"The next three games, we have San Antonio, which is head-to-head so that is important," said Sparks coach Joe Bryant. "After that we have Tulsa and Chicago and San Antonio has Tulsa and Washington. No telling what is going to happen. We have to play it out. That’s what I told the women. Make sure to keep our heads up high.
"It’s not over until it’s over."
After the Seattle Storm clinched their eighth straight playoff berth with a 78-72 win against the Tulsa Shock last night, coach Brian Agler understandably attributed the franchise's success to its two star players.
And it was a fitting tribute as point guard Sue Bird and center Lauren Jackson combined for 41 of 78 points.
"I've only been there for four so I can't take any credit for the eight, but I can tell you that there's two people in there that can take credit for a lot of them and they're two of the best, if not the best at their positions," Agler told Jessica Lantz of SB Nation's Swish Appeal after last night's game. "Lauren's not 100% right now, but she's working herself back into condition."
With Jackson not yet back to full health, there's a good chance that we haven't yet seen the best from her - or the team - in her return from injury. Although they haven't been rebounding well at all - and Jackson strangely has gone without an offensive rebound in five of her six games - they've been turning the ball over less in general, which helps an offense that has struggled at times this year.
So the team that we've seen thus far this season might not be the one that shows up when the 2011 WNBA playoffs begin on September 15.
"I think people look at our team and say we're down from last year and that might be true, but we lost her for 20 games and we played without her for 14 of our 17 road games," said Agler. "You need to have good players to go on the road and beat some of these teams and we didn't have her and that really set us back a little bit."
With the matter of getting into the playoffs settled, the Storm are now shifting their focus to playoff positioning. Their likely first round opponent will be the Phoenix Mercury, who they've won 9 of their last 10 games against. But they're still looking to put themselves in the best position possible, which is second place with the Minnesota Lynx having clinched first already.
"We want to get home court advantage," said Agler. "We want to put ourselves in the best position possible. I really think our team is getting better right now. Since Lauren's back we've won five out of six."
The Lynx were the only other Western Conference team in action last night and clinched home court advantage throughout the playoffs despite a 78-62 loss to the New York Liberty. The Lynx didn't needed either a win or an Indiana Fever loss to clinch home court advantage and the East-leading Fever gave them the help they needed and then some with an 83-55 road loss to the Connecticut Sun.
Sue Bird didn't exactly hit a game-winning shot tonight, but her 3-point shot with 37.4 seconds left essentially sealed a win and clinched a WNBA playoff berth for the Seattle Storm tonight against the Tulsa Shock.
Bird led all scorers with 21 points and tied for a team-high five assists as the Storm held on for a 78-72 win in Tulsa.
After being down by as many as 15 points late in the third quarter, the Shock used another strong rebounding effort in the fourth quarter to make a 6-0 run to get within four points with just under two minutes left. Bird's three stole hope from the Shock as it put them down by seven points with under a minute left. From there it was only a matter of time before the Storm got the win.
Storm center Lauren Jackson finished with 20 points and five rebounds, but the Shock's ability to contain her for stretches helped them stay in the game and actually prevented her from having a bigger game. A combination of rotating defenders on Jackson to keep her off her spots and Jackson starting to rush her shots a little helped the Shock hold her to only one field goal in a nine minute stretch spanning the third and fourth quarters. But once she adjusted and found her comfort zone she scored six in the fourth.
The Shock were led by outstanding shooting from their wings, with Jen Lacy scoring a team-high 18 points on 4-for-4 3-point shooting and Amber Holt adding 17 points, including 3-for-5 3-point shooting. The Shock were without guard Ivory Latta, who was in street clothes tonight after having some of her best point guard performances of the year in their previous five games.
The Storm now head to San Antonio tomorrow night to finish a three-game road trip a half game ahead of the third place Phoenix Mercury.
With the Phoenix Mercury's 86-68 loss to the San Antonio Silver Stars last night, the Seattle Storm moved back into a tie for second place as described by Seth Pollack of SB Nation Arizona.
The Phoenix Mercury failed to clinch a playoff berth and they dropped the season series to the San Antonio Silver Stars with their loss Thursday night on the road. The team was once again without Penny Taylor who's sat out the last two games. With the loss, the Mercury are tied with Seattle for second place in the Western Conference.
However, Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com suggests both an upside and a downside to last night's events.
In the West, San Antonio’s win helped and hurt the Storm. The upside is that the Storm is now much more likely to finish in second place in the conference. The downside is that there’s now a realistic chance the Storm finishes fourth and has to play Minnesota in the opening round. Phoenix has a higher chance of being fourth because the Silver Stars earned the tiebreaker against the Mercury, while the Storm would win a tie with San Antonio (as well as, by about any scenario I can envision, a three-team tie).
Although that is true, the Storm do have a relatively favorable schedule ahead of them with a game against the 3-26 Shock tonight and then a game against the Mercury - who haven't won in KeyArena in nearly two years - and the 14-16 Chicago Sky who are 4-10 on the road this season.
While Pelton also describes just how unlikely it is for the Storm to fall into fourth, the lingering possibility also means that the Storm have plenty left to play for with only four games left. The Storm can clinch their playoff berth tonight with a win against the Tulsa Shock tonight or a Los Angeles Sparks loss to the Phoenix Mercury.
For more, be sure to check out Pelton's blog at StormBasketball.com.
The Seattle Storm are only one win - or Los Angeles Sparks loss - from making the 2011 WNBA Playoffs, which begin on September 15.
And with two of their final four games at home and already owning the tiebreaker over the fourth place San Antonio Silver Stars, the Storm are likely to avoid a first round meeting with the first place Minnesota Lynx and face the Phoenix Mercury. Yet even though the Storm seem to have had the Mercury's number in recent years, getting second place would give them an even bigger advantage.
Click here for more on the Western Conference playoff race. For more on the Storm, visit our Seattle Storm section. For more on the WNBA in general, visit SB Nation's women's basketball site Swish Appeal.
With the Los Angeles Sparks needing every game they can get in their fight to make the playoffs, star forward Candace Parker turned in yet another strong performance in a 68-62 win over the Seattle Storm at Staples Center last night.
Parker dropped a season-high 27 points on the Storm (17-13) including 3-for-5 3-point shooting and seven rebounds to keep the Sparks (13-17) within 1.5 games of the fourth place San Antonio Silver Stars (14-15). The win also kept both the Storm and Phoenix Mercury (17-12) from clinching a playoff spot. The magic number for the Storm remains at one, with either a win or Sparks loss clinching their playoff spot.
The combination of the Storm's loss and the Mercury's 96-74 win in Tulsa also caused the two to swap spots in the Western Conference standings, with the Storm falling to third place. The battle for second place is particularly important as the two teams figure to matchup in the first round of the playoffs and are jockeying for home court advantage; given how well the Storm have played at KeyArena and particularly how well they've played the Mercury there, finishing the regular season in second would increase their chances of advancing to their second consecutive Western Conference Finals series and defending their title.
The Storm have a good shot at clinching their playoff berth when they travel to Oklahoma to play the 3-26 Tulsa Shock on Friday, but this weekend's back-to-back with the Shock and Silver Stars could go a long way to proving just how well prepared the Storm are to make another playoff run.
As for the Sparks, they definitely needed a win last night more than Storm just to stay in the playoff hunt with only four games left. After playing the Mercury in Phoenix, they get a chance to gain a game on the Silver Stars head-to-head at home before finishing the season with two currently sub-.500 teams. The Silver Stars will have a chance to win the regular season series in that game, which would give them a tiebreaker that could end up being significant between these two teams.
But if Parker finishes the season playing as well as she has against the Storm in the past two games and the Sparks continue showing a renewed commitment to defense after some poor efforts on that end of the ball, they'll be tough to eliminate from playoff contention.
With a thrilling 65-63 victory at KeyArena against the Los Angeles Sparks, the Seattle Storm not only remained a half game ahead of the third place Phoenix Mercury in second place in the Western Conference but also moved within a game of clinching a playoff berth.
The Storm will have an opportunity to clinch that playoff berth on Tuesday evening in Los Angeles, adding drama to an already intense rivalry after an intense game tonight. A win would would also win the season series for the Storm, giving them the tiebreaker with the Sparks if things come to that. If they don't win on Tuesday, the next Storm win or L.A. loss will guarantee the Storm a playoff spot.
But a loss on Tuesday would put the Sparks in quite a bind.
"We need to win," said Sparks forward Candace Parker after the loss at KeyArena on Sunday night. "If we play like that, I feel like we'll win all the games. Unfortunately we don't have a lot of games left, but I'm still hopeful."
The Sparks remain 1.5 games behind the fourth place San Antonio Silver Stars for the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs. Although people will look at the Sparks' loss to the Tulsa Shock on Friday night as a major setback, they still are not out of it - beating the Indiana Fever on August 18 still stands out as a big win for them and will give them some slack moving forward as four of their five remaining games are at home.
As close as they played Seattle at KeyArena, Tuesday's game at the Staples Center is quite winnable for them. Then after a game in Phoenix, their final three games are at home, including a head-to-head meeting with the Silver Stars for a chance to gain a game on them directly. Nevertheless, the Sparks' consecutive close losses could end up stinging even more if they miss the playoffs.
The Silver Stars have six games remaining, including their final two of the season against the 3-25 Tulsa Shock and 5-23 Washington Mystics. With Danielle Adams back, it's not inconceivable that they could go on a late-season run to create some space between themselves and the Sparks. But after losing consecutive games to the first place Minnesota Lynx, their trip to the playoffs might not be long or particularly pleasant.
With the Silver Stars' loss to the Lynx on Sunday in San Antonio, the Lynx clinched first place in the Western Conference and are now competing with the Eastern Conference's Indiana Fever - currently only 1.5 games ahead of the second place Connecticut Sun - for home court advantage throughout the playoffs. Their magic number currently stands at three.
Tonight was supposed to be the Los Angeles Sparks' night.
The Tulsa Shock were in Los Angeles coming off a physical 20th consecutive loss in Seattle last night. The fourth place San Antonio Silver Stars (13-14) fell apart in the second half against the Minnesota Lynx (22-6) earlier in the evening to leave an opportunity for the Sparks to move closer to a playoff spot.
While things seemed to be stacked in their favor on the court and in the standings, star forward Candace Parker had pledged to donate $10 to the Alzheimer's Association for every block, rebound, and steal she got in honor of Tennessee Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt who just announced that she has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia this week. At halftime, a brief ceremony was held to announce that Sparks legend Lisa Leslie has joined the team's ownership group.
Everything was in place for a Sparks' celebration after the final buzzer sounded.
But porous Sparks defense and a game-winning jumper by Shock wing Sheryl Swoopes reminiscent of her early years in the league instead led to a dramatic 77-75 loss that left the visitors jubilant in spite of all the other reason for L.A. fans to celebrate.
Despite another poor performance and the bitter taste of becoming part of an Oklahoman trivia question, the Sparks' (12-16) playoff situation is still not quite as in jeopardy as it might feel tonight. While they do have two consecutive games against the Storm - who they beat by 24 with Parker in the lineup earlier this season - the Silver Stars begin a difficult home stand with the Lynx in L.A. on Sunday.
But there was good news for the Storm tonight who moved into sole possession of second place with the Phoenix Mercury (15-12) losing to the Connecticut Sun on the road and falling a half game into third place. However, the Mercury have road games against the 5-22 Washington Mystics and Shock coming up as the Storm prepare for Parker and the Sparks. That puts added pressure on both teams as home court advantage in the first round - should they remain second and third - would be significant in a matchup that the Storm have dominated in recent years.
With the Seattle Storm's (16-12) win over the Tulsa Shock last night, they move into a virtual tie with the Phoenix Mercury (15-11) who are on the road to play the Connecticut Sun tonight.
The Mercury are technically a fraction of a percent ahead of the Storm, but a loss in Connecticut tonight would move the Storm a bit ahead. Given how well the Storm have played against the Mercury at KeyArena over the last two years, moving into second and getting home court advantage would be huge if the two teams have to face each other in the first round as the second and third seeds.
"There is still a lot of season left to play," said Storm guard Tanisha Wright after last night's win. "We just need to take care of ourselves and make a strong playoff push."
Independent of what the Mercury do tonight, the Storm's magic number to make the playoffs now stands at four with six games left in their regular season schedule - a combination of four wins and four Los Angeles Sparks losses would get them back to the playoffs with a chance to defend their title. And the fifth place Sparks' charge for the playoffs is yet another reason why Tulsa's 20th consecutive loss last night was significant.
After losing to at KeyArena last night, the Shock travel south for a game tonight against the Sparks, who sit 1.5 games behind the fourth place San Antonio Silver Stars. Although the Shock played have lost by only two possessions in their last two meetings with the Sparks, including a 71-66 loss in L.A. on August 9, it also seems unlikely that the Shock would suddenly snap their 20 game losing streak on the road in their third game in four days after playing a physical game against the Storm last night that left coach Teresa Edwards upset.
"I thought it was a very aggressive game," said Edwards after the game in which the Storm made a season-high 22 free throws. "I thought the officials let that game be very, very aggressive. The disparity in free throws pisses me off. This is a playoff, championship-contending team and we have to give them the respect for who they are, but we went, played hard and fought. I'm a little upset about (the fouls)."
Needless to say, the Sparks definitely have an opportunity to win again tonight after winning five of their last seven and make up another game on the Silver Stars, who are on the road to play the first place Minnesota Lynx. Tonight is just one more example of why it's quite possible that the Sparks could make the playoffs over the Silver Stars without even having to play that well.
Tonight was a very good night for the Seattle Storm (15-12), who are starting to find some offensive rhythm with center Lauren Jackson back in the lineup.
With their 63-55 win over the fourth place San Antonio Silver Stars (13-13), the third place Storm gave themselves 1.5 games of breathing room which could only increase over the next five days: while the Silver Stars play a pair of games against the first place Minnesota Lynx (21-6), the Storm will the last place Tulsa Shock (1-24) and fifth place Los Angeles Sparks (12-15) at KeyArena.
The Sparks also helped themselves tonight by winning an overtime game with the Washington Mystics' (5-21), whose ineffective late-game execution cost them the game as much as anything that Candace Parker's recent return to action might have. In any event, the Sparks are now 1.5 games behind the Silver Stars with their win and tonight is yet another perfect example of why the Sparks still have a chance to make the playoffs even as they play subpar basketball even with Parker in the lineup - while the Silver Stars are busy traveling to KeyArena and Minnesota, the Sparks get rewarded for a suspect performance against the Mystics with a home game against the Shock.
It's almost just bad luck for San Antonio that Danielle Adams is out for them in the middle of a rough patch while the Sparks get Parker back in the middle of one of the easiest stretches of games the league could possibly offer; it's not even that the Silver Stars are playing that poorly overall, they've just gotten a tough draw with a key player absent and need to do more to beat these teams.
"We competed and we're getting better, but getting better is not necessarily good," said Silver Stars forward Sophia Young. "We have to get there and win a couple games in the next stretch coming up because these games are very important to us."
In more good news for the Seattle fans, the Phoenix Mercury's (15-11) home loss to the New York Liberty means that the Storm are now half a game out of second place in the Western Conference with their next game also against Tulsa on Thursday.
There's room to debate whether Lauren Jackson or Candace Parker will make a bigger impact on their respective teams down the stretch after returning from injury this past week.
But suffice it to say that Parker has been rather impressive in her return from injury this week and the Los Angeles Sparks have needed every bit of what she's given them even just in earning a 2-2 record with their superstar forward in the lineup.
Yesterday evening against the Tulsa Shock, Parker stepped up with 16 points in the second half to help the Sparks come back from as many as 15 points down to win 73-67. For the Shock, the game is a WNBA record 18th consecutive loss, breaking the record set by the Atlanta Dream during their first year of existence in 2008.
With the win, the Sparks improve to 11-15 on the season and move within 2.5 games behind the fourth place San Antonio Silver Stars. Just the fact that the Sparks needed to come from behind to beat a team that now owns the record for consecutive losses could certainly cast a shadow of doubt over their chances to make the type of run needed to make the playoffs. Yet it's also a perfect illustration of why the Sparks have an opportunity to make a move.
While the Silver Stars (13-12) travel to Seattle to face the third place Storm (14-12) in KeyArena on Tuesday where they've lost twice in ugly fashion already, the Sparks will be in Washington to face the Mystics (5-20) who have lost five in a row and then head back to L.A. to face the Shock team they just beat. It's really not difficult to imagine a scenario where the Sparks have closed the gap on the Silver Stars - and Storm - almost entirely by the end of this week without even playing their best basketball.
While the losing streak alone puts the Shock at the forefront of the discussion about the worst team in WNBA history - or, as noted by Oklahoma's NewsOn6, among the worst in professional sports history - the Shock (1-23) are still playing to avoid compounding yesterday's milestone with the dubious distinction of owning the worst record in WNBA history. The Shock will need to find a way to win three of their remaining 11 games to pass the 1999 Washington Mystics, which finished 3-27.
While the Minnesota Lynx clinched a playoff berth with their big 87-68 win over the Los Angeles Sparks tonight, it might not even be the most intriguing news in the Western Conference tonight.
In a Seattle Storm win decided by only one point against the New York Liberty tonight, it's hard to dispute that center Lauren Jackson's return from injury had a significant impact and might continue to have a significant impact on the standings moving forward.
"She got a lot out of her minutes, didn't she? She played well," said Storm coach Brian Agler after the Storm's 63-62 win tonight. "We're a different team, obviously. I've got to give everybody credit for keeping us competitive without her, but we can be much better with her. She was a factor tonight."
And given the Storm's remaining schedule, Jackson's timing was perfect.
The Liberty were one of the toughest remaining matchups for the Storm, who entered the night in fourth place in the Western Conference. But even if they had lost tonight's game, they would have had a good shot at making the playoffs and even moving up in the standings.
"I'm sure as a unit they're 60 percent of what they'll be in three or four more games," said Liberty coach John Whisenant. "They'll be awesome in three or four more games. I just wanted to steal this one before they get that much better. Lauren was amazing."
So this win could be considered a nice bonus for the Storm that could give them a little more breathing room as the 2011 WNBA Playoffs draw near. With the win, the Storm improve to 14-12 and move up to third place in the Western Conference with the San Antonio Silver Stars' 87-81 road loss to the Phoenix Mercury.
Yet while a road loss to a second place team wouldn't normally be a big deal, the Silver Stars' loss tonight was somewhat discouraging for their playoff hopes and perhaps ironically the most significant outcome of the night.
As reported by Odeen Domingo of the Arizona Republic, Mercury star and WNBA leading scorer Diana Taurasi was a game-time scratch tonight due to back spasms; in a way, it was a great opportunity for the slumping Silver Stars to pick up a win. But having lost seven of their last nine, losing to a team missing its starter is not particularly encouraging with one more road game against the Mercury remaining.
"Obviously, Diana is a big part of their team and they won without her tonight, so that says a lot about their team," said Silver Stars forward Sophia Young, who had 11 points and eight rebounds. "But for us, it just says we need to work harder and we can't send them to the free-throw line like that. It's the little things we can and have to do to
Counter to what the final scores suggest, that Silver Stars loss actually makes the beating the fifth place Sparks took in Minnesota look mild: even though the Sparks do have to rack up a number of wins to make the playoffs, their remaining schedule could still offer seven or eight more wins and it would've been a stretch to assume that they would beat the first place Lynx on the road to begin with.
The Sparks are now three games behind the fourth place Silver Stars after tonight's loss, but they're also done with the Lynx for the regular season. In contrast, the Silver Stars have back-to-back games against the Lynx after playing the Storm at KeyArena, which was the scene of one of their worst losses of the season just before the All-Star break.
After those three games, it's not unreasonable to think that the Silver Stars might end up having lost 10 of 12 games. With the Sparks looking considerably better with Candace Parker in the lineup, tonight's blowout notwithstanding, it's not hard to imagine that it's the Silver Stars who are most in danger of falling out of the playoffs.
Seattle Times reporter Jayda Evans tweeted earlier tonight that Seattle Storm center Lauren Jackson will be making her return to the court tonight at KeyArena after being out due to a hip injury for about nine weeks.
However, it remains unclear whether Jackson will start or enter the game off the bench* - although Evans said she will come off the bench, the Seattle Storm have tweeted that Storm coach Brian Agler was unsure about whether start. Agler chatted with Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com earlier this week about the pros and cons of starting her compared to bringing her off the bench.
"That's part of the issue - is it better to get her playing when she's warm right after warmups?" said Agler. "Because it's easier to manage minutes when they don't start. She's going to have limited minutes. What that limit is, we're still gauging. If there's a plan on paper that I can give you, we don't have that, but there are a lot of generalities that we're discussing."
Jackson has been out since the second quarter of the Storm's first game in Tulsa on June 21 where she suffered a hip injury. After an initial evaluation, the word was that she'd be out 8-12 weeks so returning tonight is within that rather wide window of what the Storm expected.
Also as expected, Storm guard Tanisha Wright will be back with the team tonight after missing their previous game in Phoenix for family reasons.
*Update: Evans is now tweeting that Jackson will start tonight.
For more details on Jackson's injury, visit our storystream.
Another night, another opportunity for the Seattle Storm (13-12) to move up in the Western Conference standings.
While the fourth place Storm are hosting the New York Liberty (15-11), the slumping third place San Antonio Silver Stars (13-11) traveling to the U.S. Airways Center to play the second place Phoenix Mercury (14-10). One way or another, the Storm will gain an advantage with their two conference rivals going head-to-head tonight but a win against the Liberty combined with a Silver Stars loss would nudge the Storm into third place.
However, a Storm loss also has implications for the Western Conference playoff race, as described at SB Nation's women's basketball site Swish Appeal yesterday - it would make the first place Minnesota Lynx the first team to secure a playoff berth.
Obviously a win over the Sparks tomorrow would put them in. However, if Seattle loses it would put the Lynx in even if they lost to LA.
A Storm loss puts them at 13-13 while the Sparks would be at 11-14 with a win over the Lynx. Minnesota can't do worse than 19-15. Seattle and LA have two games remaining against one another, meaning they can't both finish at 20-14 or better. The Lynx own the tiebreak over both teams.
Nevertheless, while there will be focus on the Lynx' playoff berth tonight, a L.A. Sparks (10-14) win would be just as significant - the fifth place Sparks are currently 2.5 games behind the Storm for the fourth and final playoff spot and are looking impressive with the return of superstar forward Candace Parker from injury.
Of course, Storm center Lauren Jackson has also been cleared to play and she will obviously have an impact on this playoff race - tonight's game against the Liberty is far from the most winnable game on the Storm's remaining schedule, but her impact on the interior would be huge against their rugged visitors from New York and would give them a big advantage moving forward.
After looking at the playoff chances for the Los Angeles Sparks, I suggested they would have to win nine of their remaining 11 games to have a shot at making the playoffs.
And when looking over their remaining games, tonight's game against the Indiana Fever did not appear to be the most winnable on the list - not only are the Fever first place in the Eastern Conference, but they've also been playing some of the best basketball in the league lately.
But recently returned superstar forward Candace Parker had the type of game for the Sparks that illustrates what makes her such a major impact player.
Parker had 18 points, six rebounds and a game-high five assists to help the Sparks get a big 75-70 win against the Fever tonight as they try to make a playoff push. But beyond the balanced stat line, Parker's performance stood out for the number of ways that she impacts the game: rebounding and bringing the ball up court against stalwart defender Tamika Catchings, driving to the basket, setting up teammates, and hitting a three. The Sparks have a versatile roster without Parker, but with Parker creating such a matchup nightmare she takes this deep and talented roster of players to another level.
With the win, the Sparks move within 2.5 games of the Seattle Storm for the fourth and final playoff spot as well as three games behind the third place San Antonio Silver Stars.The win also prevented the first place Minnesota Lynx from being the first team to clinch a playoff spot after their 81-62 win over the Washington Mystics tonight. That sets up an intriguing opportunity for the Sparks to show how competitive they really are going up against the Lynx in Minnesota on Saturday with a chance to further delay clinching a seemingly inevitable playoff berth.
No Western Conference teams are in action on Friday night, but all five playoff contenders will be in action on an exciting slate of Saturday games with the Phoenix Mercury hosting the Silver Stars and the Storm hosting the New York Liberty at 7 p.m. PST at KeyArena.
With nine games left in their WNBA regular season schedule, the Seattle Storm (13-12) are currently in fourth place in the Western Conference but only 1.5 games out of second place as teams jockey for position in the 2011 WNBA Playoffs.
However, after a trip to the playoffs was all but certain by mid-season last year, there's a lot more uncertainty around making it this year, beginning with the return of superstar forward Candace Parker to the Los Angeles Sparks this past Tuesday.
With the playoff race just starting to heat up, a brief overview of where the Storm stand and which teams might have the inside track at making the playoffs.
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