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All that focus on getting homecourt advantage was about games like tonight.
With Game Three of a best-of-three first round playoff series tied with under a minute left, the odds would normally favor the Seattle Storm at KeyArena where they'd only lost twice in nearly 40 previous games.
But ultimately games are decided on the court and the Phoenix Mercury simply took advantage of the opportunity to make a play in the waning moments of the game to pull out a thrilling 77-75 win in Seattle and earn a trip to the Western Conference Finals.
"I think everyone fought so hard this season to get in this position, to have this third game at home and we didn't capitalize on it, we didn't maximize it," said Storm center Lauren Jackson. "I just feel sorry for my teammates, our coaches and all of our fans because everyone's given so much this year. It was just unfortunate."
Coming out of a timeout with 10.5 seconds left, Mercury forward Penny Taylor drove to the basket and missed a layup that was somehow tapped to Candice Dupree who hit a game-winning short jumper with 1.9 seconds left to pull out a win that left Storm fans stunned. The final shot was the biggest of Dupree's team-high 20 point performance to cap off another strong game against the Storm in this series.
"Penny missed," said Dupree, who shot 10-for-15 from the field. "Corey drew up a play for Penny to either shoot a jumper or attack the basket. I thought for sure her layup was going to go in, but it bounced out and everybody was tipping the ball around it happened to land in my hands. I put it back up as quick as I could."
With their sixth first round loss in the last seven years, the Storm fell short in their bid to become the first repeat champions in the WNBA since the Los Angeles Sparks won two straight in 2001 and 2002 after the Houston Comets won the first four titles in league history. Yet even if they didn't repeat, this wasn't exactly the timing most people expected: having beat the Mercury in 11 of the last 13 games entering Game Three, it's safe to say that most Storm fans felt that drawing the Mercury in the first round put them in the fast lane for a return to the Western Conference Finals.
"Not that we disrespect Phoenix or anybody else in this league, but we didn't expect to be in this situation right now," said Storm coach Brian Agler. "We thought we could win and we did a lot of good things tonight, but sometimes things aren't meant to be. That's sort of how this game was. It wasn't meant to be tonight."
All of the emotion and intensity that made this one of the most physical contests between these two rivals in recent memory came to a head in a frenzied final minute that the Mercury won by doing exactly what defined the series for the most part: rebounding and simply outworking the Storm in the paint, as surprising as that might sound to long-time WNBA fans. The Mercury came into KeyArena and outrebounded the Storm 39-35, winning in a grittier fashion than normal when it counted.
Losing the rebounding battle at home to one of the league's poorer rebounding teams only compounds the taste of disappointment that's unlike any Storm fans have felt in some time.
The Storm's two losses at home this year were generally lopsided affairs and their last loss before that was a first round exit against the Los Angeles Sparks in another lopsided Game Three result in 2009. Storm point guard Sue Bird did all she could in leading all scorers with 22 points - and more clutch shots for her portfolio - to keep the Storm in the game, but it simply wasn't enough tonight.
Losing a close game at home simply hasn't happened to the Storm in recent years, whether due to being outplayed down the stretch or just bad luck.
"I will say we made plays down the stretch," said Storm coach Brian Agler. "We had opportunities down the stretch. We had people hit big shots. There were a lot of things tonight that were just uncharacteristic of our team - missing free throws. We'd make plays and we wouldn't convert, whether it be to get back in the offense or whatever it might be. It was very tough."
For the Mercury, the win highlights the value of Dupree and Taylor who have been instrumental in their success this year but are often overshadowed by Diana Taurasi, who fouled out with 6:38 left in the game. As fortuitous as that final play was for the Mercury, it capped off a simply brilliant performance by Taylor who had a career-high 17 rebounds to go with 19 points.
With Taurasi having fouled out, Mercury coach Corey Gaines utilized the full extent of Taylor's ability to drive, pass, and score down the stretch as she knifed through the Storm defense in a back and forth final five minutes.
"I called Penny (Taylor) over and said, 'Penny, take as many shots as you can possible get right now.' I told her that," said Mercury coach Corey Gaines. "And I said I didn't care if they were 'threes, twos, let the ball go. I need you to take as many shots as possible.' And she did. She did. And she also got 17 rebounds which was pretty big."
The Mercury now advance to the Western Conference Finals to face either the Minnesota Lynx or San Antonio Silver Stars who will play Game Three of their Western Conference Semifinals game tomorrow night.
It's hard to remember a time when the Phoenix Mercury turned in a better defensive performance against anyone, much less the Seattle Storm.
But despite their 91 points, it was the Mercury's defense that ultimately defined Game 2 of the 2011 Western Conference Semifinals and helped them win 92-83.
And the Mercury's ability to push the pace began with their rebounding.
"It was a 13-rebound difference," said Storm coach Brian Agler, whose team was beat 37-24 on the boards tonight. "They did a good job. There was a big discrepancy at halftime regarding our offensive rebounds. I don't know if we had an offensive rebound in the first half. We are usually a little better that that."
In fact, the Storm didn't have an offensive rebound through the first three quarters and two of their four were long rebounds to guards. The Mercury's ability to control the boards helped them control the tempo as well by preventing the Storm from slowing the game down with second chance scoring opportunities. So after being crushed on the boards in their Game 1 loss, the Mercury's effort on the boards tonight was undoubtedly the single biggest - and probably unexpected - difference in Game 2.
2011 Sixth Woman of the Year DeWanna Bonner had a game-high 13 rebounds to match her 13 points and forward Candice Dupree added seven rebounds and a game-high 29 points. For Bonner, it was a demonstration of why she has been the Sixth Woman of the Year for three years running: her long 6-foot-4 frame and guard-like quickness make her among the most versatile threats in the league. Starting her second playoff game in place of Sanford just gave her the opportunity to showcase her talent.
"DB, she's been playing like that for a while," said Mercury coach Corey Gaines of Bonner, who also had three steals. "She's very active. She finds that ball and she really attacks the basket. She's just doing everything. Everything. Anything you can do on the court she's doing."
In the paint, the Mercury got outstanding defensive performances from both Bonner and Dupree who rotated to challenge shots in addition to hitting the boards. Among the most significant factors was the return of center Nakia Sanford who sat out Game 1 with a knee injury - without Sanford and Bonner starting, the Mercury were thin on the interior and struggled to defend the Storm in the paint. With Sanford back, even playing just 19 minutes, the Mercury managed to contain the Storm's posts inside.
"I think Nakia today, you know Pre (Candice Dupree) was ok, but I think Nakia played really well today," said Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, who bounced back nicely from a sub-par performance in Game One to score 26 points. "She just brings that toughness and a little bit of determination and we just feed off that."
With Sanford back in action in the rotation, Storm center Lauren Jackson never really found a rhythm inside. Still visibly recovering from her hip injury that caused her to miss 21 games this season, all three of Jackson's made field goals came from behind the 3-point line as she scored 14 points and had only three rebounds. Although Jackson's physical condition might be a concern for Storm fans, Sanford's defense played a part in stopping Jackson from getting anything in the post.
"We were just saying down in the locker room that she's a solider," said Gaines. "If you would have seen her up in Seattle, how much it hurt her. She just couldn't move. At shoot-around, she still couldn't move, so it was questionable if she was going to play. But she's a veteran and somehow she figured it out. She didn't just play. She helped us so much by putting a body on Lauren."
Tanisha Wright led the Storm with a team-high 18 points while point guard Sue Bird added 18 points and four assists. The guard tandem also accounted for two of the Storm's four offensive rebounds. The Storm now head back to Seattle for a decisive Game 3 meeting with the Mercury at KeyArena, where they had the best home record in the league this season at 15-2.
"We kind of were reacting to them as opposed to dictating things. With a team like Phoenix, you can't do that, you really can't," said Bird. "They were able to get off to a good start and once a team like this (Phoenix) is in that groove, it's difficult to get them out. With that being said, hopefully we can learn from this is what it comes down to."
The Seattle Storm's third quarter performance in their 80-61 win tonight was a perfect illustration of why getting home court advantage in the first round of the 2011 WNBA Playoffs was so important, whether against the Phoenix Mercury or any opponent.
The Storm were clicking on all cylinders in the third quarter, shooting 52.9 percent from the field and holding the Mercury to 4-for-22 shooting on the other end. The Storm used the lead established in the third quarter to cruise to a win, with point guard Sue Bird and center Lauren Jackson not even needing to set foot on the court in the fourth quarter.
"I don't know if we did anything in particular," said Storm coach Brian Agler. "It was what we were doing much of the game. We got some transition buckets. We got to the free throw line. I just thought we ran really efficient offense. A lot of it came from our stops defensively."
The decisive third quarter can be summed up most easily by looking at the assists and turnovers for each team: the Mercury had no assists and two turnovers while the Storm had six assists and one turnover; the Mercury's normally efficient offense had fallen apart while the oft-turnover prone Storm found their rhythm. From the 6:03 mark of the third quarter to the 9:03 mark of the fourth, the Storm outscored the Mercury 20-2.
And a large part of why the Storm were able to establish a rhythm was the balanced contributions they got from players other than Bird and Jackson. In fact, Bird and Jackson had sub-par games statistically.
"We just tried to post up multiple people," said Agler. "They did a lot of switching in their defenses and we got mismatches inside and tried to take advantage of that. We didn't all of the time, but we tried to when we had the opportunity."
Guard Tanisha Wright led the Storm with a game-high 21 points and five rebounds while both Swin Cash (10 points, 11 rebounds) and Camille Little (17 points, 11 rebounds) finished with double-doubles. Little continued to exploit matchups against the Mercury's defense. Cash had an outstanding game on both ends of the court to help the Storm lock down the Mercury throughout the game.
Phoenix's 61 points were the team's fewest since scoring 55 vs. San Antonio on Aug. 28, 2008. The Mercury never shot over 30 percent after their mediocre first quarter performance and for a less-than-stellar defensive team they wouldn't beat much of anyone playing basketball like that.
Perhaps most important, after getting lit up for 28 points in the first half by Taurasi on Friday night at KeyArena, the Storm held the WNBA's leading scorer to just 11 points on 3-for-11 shooting tonight.
"We couldn't get her open shots," said Mercury coach Corey Gaines about Taurasi's performance. "She's coming off of picks, and we couldn't get our run game going. They switched, swung the ball around, and the people who were open couldn't hit the shots."
Compounding problems for the Mercury tonight was the absence of veteran center Nakia Sanford, who did an admirable job on Lauren Jackson in their previous meeting. Penny Taylor came up limping during the game as well after missing the last meeting with back spasms, but led the team with 13 points on 5-for-11 shooting.
Game Two will be in Phoenix on Saturday at 7 p.m. PST on ESPN2.
"We get to go back to Phoenix for game two and take care of our home court," said Taurasi. "That's all there is to really say. They played really well tonight. We expected that. So now we have to find a way to regroup, take the things we did well today and do a little bit more of that on Saturday."
Tonight's game was yet another perfect example of why the Phoenix Mercury struggle to beat the Seattle Storm.
Put simply, it's a game of mismatches and the Storm managed to take a 40-31 halftime lead despite a sub-par first quarter performance.
The Mercury switched up their lineup to start forward and Sixth Woman of the Year candidate DeWanna Bonner, moving Candice Dupree over for her first start of the season.
And yet the Mercury still only found themselves tied after one quarter of play, despite the Storm shooting 25 percent from the field. That was probably the Mercury's best chance to establish an advantage.
In the second quarter, the Storm picked it up on both ends of the ball exploiting mismatches inside and inconsistent defense on the perimeter to shoot 56.3 percent from the field and outscore the Mercury 21-12. The biggest beneficiary of that offensive performance was forward Camille Little who was too strong inside for Bonner and too quick for Dupree. Little tied guard Tanisha Wright with a game-high 11 points. Wright was just too strong off the drive for the Mercury's guards to contend with.
Bonner did have a team-high 10 points in her start, but the Mercury will have to figure out how to defend the post with their adjusted lineup.
The keys for victory between the Seattle Storm and Phoenix Mercury haven't exactly changed since the two teams last met on Friday.
So naturally in a familiar matchup, Mercury guard Diana Taurasi already knows what to expect and isn't wasting time waiting until after the game to respond, as Seth Pollack of SB Nation Arizona wrote yesterday.
Taurasi also feels that the Mercury can't rely on their run and gun system as much on the road, "...because for some reason there's a little bit more whistles going on, especially there."
However, one major difference in this game is that it will be the first time that these two current rosters have met each other at full strength this season. The Mercury traded away center Kara Braxton to the New York Liberty at mid-season and center Lauren Jackson was injured during two of their four regular season meetings.
But the most significant wrinkle since Friday's meeting is the expected return of Mercury forward Penny Taylor after sitting out a few games with back spasms.
Three keys for the Seattle Storm:
After the Seattle Storm dominated the WNBA's regular season on the way to the franchise's second title last year, this year they enter the playoffs chasing the Minnesota Lynx like everyone else.
With a healthy and rested roster at coach Brian Agler's disposal, the Storm might have as good a chance as any to topple the 27-7 Lynx.
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