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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.
To the Tulsa Shock's credit, they didn't play quite as poorly in their 20th straight loss as the 74-57 final score might suggest.
After being down only three points at halftime, the Seattle Storm used a strong third quarter to pull away and expand the lead to 15 points. The Storm shot 56.3 percent, shot 8-for-8 from the free throw line to match the Shock's production for the entire game, and only turned the ball over once against a Shock defense that provided little resistance around the basket.
"We feel like we work hard so we know that isn't the problem - we have to play a little smarter," said Shock forward Tiffany Jackson. "The fact that we put them at the free-throw line 20-something times and we only went eight ... those are things we have to recognize - to go harder and to not foul."
The Storm did go to the free throw line 26 times compared to the Shock's eight attempts, yet aside from that third quarter performance, the Shock stayed with the Storm. The fourth quarter was played pretty much even and the final margin of 17 points was actually the largest in the game after the Storm got a few baskets in garbage time.
Once again Storm center Lauren Jackson had a nice outing with a game-high 14 points and three rebounds in only 15 minutes as she continues to get into game shape after her extended injury-absence. One thing Storm coach Brian Agler wants Jackson to work on as she adjusts is spending a bit more time around the basket - tonight five of her nine shots were from beyond the 3-point arc, although she did have four free throws as well.
"She has to really want to be around the basket," said Agler when asked about Jackson's performance and progress. "Coming off injury, (it) is not something that she has a great desire to do although she's very effective doing it. My rule with Lauren is sort of 50/50 - fifty percent of her time around the rim and 50 percent of her time playing naturally. She likes to pick and pop, play facing the basket. She's very accepting of that and if fact she's probably more difficult to defend that way when she's moving around."
While Agler might want more from Jackson around the basket, guard Tanisha Wright showed off some nice post moves against the Shock's smaller guards and complemented Jackson with 12 points.
Shock wing and former Storm player Sheryl Swoopes played the second most minutes in the game and finished tied for a team-high 12 points with Tiffany Jackson, who added nine rebounds.
"We're warriors, we're fighting, but it's a test of character for us," said Shock coach Teresa Edwards. "We have a lot of young ladies with a lot of pride. Sheryl (Swoopes) is doing a great job being a leader. That's coming to the forefront and showing off more than anything. She's not going to let us die and sit around and accept where we are. It shows every day."
It wasn't a particularly dominant win and, quite frankly, not exactly the most engaging game to watch, but what's apparent as the Storm approach the playoffs is that with Jackson back in the lineup they have the ability to turn it on and put teams away almost at will.
"We missed a lot of shots - we had some opportunities to knock down shots we just didn't them down," said Wright of the Storm, who shot only 18.8 percent in the second quarter. "Our defense really held strong tonight even when we weren't knocking down shots, we were able to get stops."
With the win, the Storm improve to 16-12 and are only a fraction of a percentage behind the second place Phoenix Mercury who will be on the road against the Connecticut Sun tomorrow night, giving the Storm a chance to move into second place.
If the Tulsa Shock were happy just to be in the game against the first place Minnesota Lynx the other day, they should be about as happy with being down only three points at halftime against the Seattle Storm tonight at KeyArena.
After holding the Storm without an offensive rebound in the first quarter, the Shock committed eight of their 13 first half turnovers in the second quarter and only got up nine shots. But the shots they did put up went in at about a 45 percent clip and the Shock found themselves with an opportunity to tie at the buzzer before heading to the locker room down 28-25.
Shock forward Tiffany Jackson has been carrying them in the paint with game-highs of 10 points and six rebounds. Guard Ivory Latta complemented Jackson with six points and some admirable defense on Storm point guard Sue Bird, who tied center Lauren Jackson and guard Katie Smith with a team-high five points in the first half.
While the Shock struggled with turnovers in the first half, the Storm struggled with both turnovers and, more importantly, shooting: the Storm shot just 3-for-16 from the field in the second quarter after shooting 50 percent in the first quarter. Although the Storm's rebounding improved in the second quarter to make the halftime margin closer, they still allowed the Shock to get back 2 of their 5 misses, which marks the second consecutive game where a team has been able to outrebound them. But Tulsa outrebounding the Storm isn't particularly surprising either - the Shock have beaten the Storm on the offensive boards in each of their three meetings this season.
The Tulsa Shock have never won in KeyArena - never really even coming too close - and after losing their first three games to the Seattle Storm this season, ending their WNBA record 19-game losing streak tonight seems unlikely.
So with three fairly distinct blueprints for how the Storm can beat the Shock, Storm center Lauren Jackson back in action after a prolonged absence due to a hip injury suffered in Tulsa on June 21, and the standard KeyArena home court advantage, it's safe to say that the Storm are the heavy favorites in tonight's meeting.
There's little doubt that the Storm know how to beat the Shock, Jackson could be a "new" factor in this series, and there are a multitude of other ways the Storm can get the win and move into second place.
Nevertheless, you have to figure that the 1-22 Tulsa Shock are going to come into KeyArena highly motivated to avoid that uncharted 20 consecutive loss plateau (or canyon?) against the Seattle Storm tonight, which does make them a dangerous opponent.
So what would the Shock have to do to pull off a victory against the Storm?
Three keys for the Tulsa Shock:
The Seattle Storm host the Tulsa Shock tonight at KeyArena at 7 p.m. PST with an opportunity to move a half game into second place with a Phoenix Mercury loss tomorrow night.
The Shock come to Seattle struggling through a league-record 19-game losing streak and have not beaten the Storm in KeyArena since moving to Tulsa from Detroit. However, they still have to contend with 6-foot-8 center Liz Cambage, who recorded a career-high in her last game at KeyArena.
The game will be broadcast online at WNBA LiveAccess.