SB Nation Seattle
Stay connected for news and updates Follow @sbnseattle
Like us to subscribe
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."
Whatever has gone on in the past, Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi was not ready to lose tonight.
Taurasi scored 28 of the Mercury's 41 points in the first half to lead her team to lead them to a 41-35 halftime lead.
While on the one hand you can talk about how the Storm need to adjust their defensive strategy, there's not a whole lot you can do when a star like Taurasi is in a zone like this.
Taurasi was 6 for 8 from the 3-point line and it really didn't seem to matter whether how far she was shooting from or whether the Storm got a hand in her face. The best they can hope for is that Taurasi somehow cools off.
For the Storm's part, guard Katie Smith stepped up for 15 points off the bench to give the Storm a boost in a half that they shot 36.1 percent. If you're looking for a way they can get themselves going center Lauren Jackson is a good start: Mercury post players have done an admirable job holding her to no points on 0-for-4 shooting.
Swin Cash has helped the Storm keep pace on the boards with a game-high eight in the first half, but the Mercury are actually winning the rebounding battle 20-18 which is another problem the Storm must address.
The Phoenix Mercury have lost to the Seattle Storm in 9 of their last 10 minutes, but it's not as if they haven't come close a few times.
So how might they win?
Their win in Phoenix earlier this season came with the caveat that neither Storm center Lauren Jackson nor guard Tanisha Wright were playing. So it's not clear how much we can take from that.
And then there's that whole matter of anyone trying to win in KeyArena.
Most important though, the Mercury expect to have forward Penny Taylor back in the lineup after sitting out in Tulsa due to back spasms, according to Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com.
Penny Taylor did not play against the Shock, but is likely to return to the lineup tonight...Taylor missed two games last week with back spasms. She returned to the lineup Saturday against Los Angeles only to reaggravate her back shortly after halftime. Taylor has practiced this week, however, and should be ready to go after taking last night off.
That alone is big for the Mercury, given their biggest weakness.
Summary of three keys for the Seattle Storm (via Swish Appeal):
The Seattle Storm host the Phoenix Mercury at KeyArena for the fourth and final time of their regular season series.
With a win tonight, the Storm would clinch the second seed in the Western Conference and home court advantage in the first round of the 2011 WNBA Playoffs, which will begin on September 15 against the Mercury.
The game will tip-off at 7 p.m. on KONG and broadcast online at WNBA LiveAccess.
For a full breakdown of possible outcomes for today's game, visit our WNBA playoff storystream. For more on the Storm's season, visit our Storm section. For more on the WNBA in general, visit SB Nation's women's basketball site Swish Appeal.