The Seattle Storm haven't faced an elimination game in the WNBA Playoffs with center Lauren Jackson active since they were swept in the first round of the 2007 playoffs by the Phoenix Mercury in the season before Brian Agler took over as coach.
Four seasons later, Agler's Storm find themselves in somewhat unfamiliar territory against a familiar opponent as the Mercury come to KeyArena tonight (7 p.m. PST, ESPN2) to face the Storm in a winner-takes-all Game Three.
And they forced the Storm to the brink of elimination in a fashion that's anything but familiar.
The rap on the Mercury - like their NBA counterparts - has always been that they're a potent offensive team that plays defense as though it's a short rest before getting another chance to race up the floor and put up another shot. But they made it quite clear in Saturday's Game Two win in Phoenix how good they can be when their defensive intensity matches their offensive efficiency.
For the first time in 2010, the Mercury outrebounded the Storm, essentially flipping the margin from the Storm's Game One victory. As part of that effort, they held the Storm without an offensive rebound for the first three quarters. Linked to the rebounding performance is Jackson's questionable health after suffering a mid-season injury, yet it's still impressive that the Mercury held her without a field goal inside the 3-point line in Game Two. But that three-time Sixth Woman of the Year DeWanna Bonner's 13 rebounds were one short of tying a Mercury post-season record and Candice Dupree's three blocks were one short of tying a career-high should also illustrate just how uncommon a total defensive performance this was for the Mercury.
By almost any reasonable standard, Game Two was an anomaly.
Really, it's not an anomaly because the Mercury showed they can play defense against the Storm; it's moreso that they showed they can do it for 40 minutes without the Storm exploiting mismatches as they did in Game One to diffuse the Mercury's defensive intensity. It's worth noting that in the two previous games against the Storm - and in three of their last four - the Mercury had outplayed the Storm in the first quarter, as they did on Saturday night. With both teams now staring elimination in the face, it wouldn't be surprising if the Mercury managed to muster up the will to match that 40 minutes of defensive effort again even with Jackson in the lineup.
But the Storm are better than what they showed on Saturday, particularly in KeyArena.
After their Game One win, the Storm are 37-2 at KeyArena dating back to 2010 (regular season and playoffs) and the Mercury are not one of those two: they still haven not won in KeyArena since September 10, 2009 and had lost 11 of their last 12 games to the Storm prior to Saturday, with their only win being a game in Phoenix on August 16 this season without Jackson and Tanisha Wright in the lineup.
Despite the Mercury's impressive performance on Saturday, the odds are in the Storm's favor. Even if the Mercury bring the same defensive intensity that they brought on Saturday, the Storm can win tonight if they just match it with the aid of homecourt advantage.