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."