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Storm's Intensity Meets The Challenge Of A Playoff Atmosphere In KeyArena

There wasn’t a whole lot of discussion in the Seattle Storm locker room at halftime, despite being down a season-high 18 points to the Phoenix Mercury at the normally safe confines of KeyArena.

“We’ve basically seen every kind of game,” said Storm point guard Sue Bird, who finished with 16 points and a team-high 7 assists. “We’ve been up, we’ve been down, we’ve had to comeback -- all that kind of stuff. We’ve also played crappy, hence the two losses.”

So perhaps it’s what didn’t need to be said at halftime that led the Storm to a 91-85 victory over the Mercury last night to clinch home-court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs, with a still-staggering 21-2 record.

“It was pretty calm when Brian [Agler] came in,” said Storm guard Tanisha Wright, as calmly as she described the halftime mood. “Sue came in and spoke her piece and Le’coe said something and mainly it was just those two who spoke. Sue said what she said just about us handling business and us getting things done. And then Le’coe spoke on something from previous. And then Brian came in and he was pretty calm — just told us, ‘You know what you need to do to get yourselves back,' and that we 'could get ourselves back if we did those things.’ So it was a pretty calm halftime.”

Although it might seem unbelievable that a team down so much could remain so calm at halftime, the business-like demeanor that was felt in the locker room during post-game interviews and heard in the almost matter-of-fact tone with which Wright described the halftime atmosphere only adds credence to the multiple accounts of halftime calm. It’s what one might expect from a veteran roster that has been focused on winning a championship since the preseason.

Outside the locker room, as one might expect, the 8,044 fans that filled the lower bowl in KeyArena could hardly be described as calm, but weren’t particularly demoralized either. They had seen halftime deficits at home in four previous home games this season. But never had an opponent so fluidly executed a game plan in the course of mounting a lead.  Although there was certainly anxiety in the air, there was also a measure of anticipation from a crowd unfamiliar with watching its team lose in person.

It was as though they didn’t know exactly what to do with themselves after withholding their normal fervor through an absolutely dismal second quarter, during which the Storm had zero assists and shot only 33% from the field. Storm play-by-play commentator Dick Fain commented that he “cleansed himself” at halftime by getting a drink of water and washing his hands, hoping for an 8-0 run to start the half and get things back on track.

Regardless of whether the fans followed Fain in his ritual cleansing, there seemed to be a combination of anticipation, anxiety, and uncertainty in the air that didn’t necessarily create a sense of defeat, but readied the crowd to explode during a run that made the game and the atmosphere worth far more than the price of admission.

“Our fans played a big role once they started getting into it,” said Storm forward Swin Cash, who finished with 10 points and 6 rebounds, all 6 of which came in the second half. "The first half, they were looking at each other like, ‘What is going on?’ Then the second half, you make a bit of a run and everybody gets into it. That momentum really helps us. You have to give them some credit as well."

When the poised Storm came out of the locker room in the second half in front of an eager crowd that has been unconditionally supportive all season, it didn’t take much to turn around the entire atmosphere in KeyArena.

On the Mercury’s first possession of the second half, Storm guard Tanisha Wright came up with a block and assisted forward Lauren Jackson on a fast-break layup, plus a foul that resulted in a missed free throw that dimmed the crowd’s fervor only slightly. On the ensuing possession, Wright made a play once again, getting a steal off a bad pass from Mercury guard Diana Taurasi and making a fast-break layup.

There was a noticeable difference in the Storm’s play right from the start of the second half that seemed most noticeable on the defensive end, given Wright’s plays. However, Wright clarified that it was more than the defensive intensity that she embodied on the first couple of plays that led to the comeback.

“I think we came out in the second half with intensity period, not necessarily just defensively,” said Wright, who finished with 14 points, 3 steals, and 3 assists. “Just more intensity. Any time you’re down 18 like that, you want to come out and show that you have some fight in you.”

The only thing that seemed to match the Storm’s second-half intensity was the playoff-level intensity of the crowd — not that a team as poised as the Storm needed an external boost, but it certainly didn’t hurt. They really seemed to get going after Jackson hit two free throws after a foul by Tangela Smith to cut the lead to 12 with 8:15 left, not only a more than surmountable lead, but also reason for continued hope. Unfortunately for Phoenix fans watching on ESPN, the Mercury were the ones who couldn’t keep up.

“The first half was great — up by almost 20 points going into the half,” said Mercury forward Candice Dupree, who finished with 12 points and 5 rebounds. “We came out sloppy in the third – not playing defense and not crashing the boards. Seattle is a good team and they made a run and we weren’t able to stop it.”

The Storm were simply dominant in the third quarter, going on a 24-8 run and outscoring Phoenix 14-2 in the paint. Meanwhile, Phoenix shot 2-22 in the third quarter and never seemed to find the rhythm that had helped them mount the first-half lead to begin with. By the end of the third quarter and into the fourth, it was by far the loudest KeyArena had been all season and probably the loudest in memory since last year’s first-round playoffs against the Los Angeles Sparks.

“Playoff atmosphere, yeah, of course,” said Cash, when asked about the crowd. “I felt it was going to be that coming into the game, though. These are two teams, obviously, that have respect for each other but know there’s a possibility of meeting each other come playoff time. So I didn’t expect anything less today and I don’t expect anything less the next team we see them.”

Of course, just as the Storm wanted to show their fight in the second half, the Mercury didn’t exactly back down — they went on spurts of their own, pushing the lead back to 17 with 6:49 left and trying to hold on to a 10-point lead with just under three minutes to go. Taurasi had 5 of her team-high 27 points in the third just by getting to free throw line a few times.

“We came out of halftime in the third quarter, we scored a couple of times, we stopped them a couple of times,” said Bird when asked about the back-and-forth progression of the third quarter. “I remember I looked up like, ‘Oh man — we’re still down 15.’ Like you felt like you chipped away and you really didn’t. So there was a moment of that but 20 minutes is a really long time. As a player when your team’s up 20 going into the second half, that’s not always the best place to be because it’s gonna take a lot to hold off another team from making a comeback.”

And yet again, the balance of the Storm is part of what made the game so impressive: with a lineup of their three All-Stars — Bird, Cash, and Jackson — plus reserves Willingham and guard Svetlana Abrosimova, the Storm cut the lead to six by the two-minute mark in the third. Then finishing the third quarter with their starters on the floor, free throws from Wright with just under a minute left cut the lead to two. The Storm just continued to remain calm and focused.

“We never talked about the score,” said Bird. “Once it got down to about 4 minutes left in the game, we never talked about the score. But yeah, it was a close game and it was constantly close. You never felt safe.”

The calm focus was impressive. And yes, it was impressive that Lauren Jackson scored a season-high 33 points to go with 11 rebounds, 8 of which were offensive. However, the response of the team as a whole — from both reserves and starters — to coming back and withstanding waves of resistance from the Mercury is what made this game particularly impressive for Coach Agler.

“It’s good that they can respond and come back,” said Agler. “It wasn’t a hard sell. I know that there were things said before I got in there; I know there were things said after I left. I don’t think it was just my conversation that made things change. I think it was a matter of us regrouping and being a little bit embarrassed. We didn’t talk about winning the game. What we talked about is trying to get back in the game and give ourselves an opportunity.”

From the fan perspective, a large part of what makes Storm games such an amazing spectator event is the atmosphere in KeyArena that almost seems to be a step ahead of the team in anticipation. It’s a feedback loop. The team starts to really get going, with each individual seemingly moving as a synchronized part of the whole, the crowd energy rises to match the synergy on the court, becoming positive reinforcement for the play of the team. There is undoubtedly something special about a 21-2 team in any sport, and it’s most palpable at KeyArena.

“I feel the chemistry and everyone is really humble and hungry to get a championship,” said Cash after the game when interviewed by a Czech television crew in town to do a feature of native Jana Vesela about the comparison between this season and their 2004 championship season. “It’s been a long time so I think the city of Seattle, the fans, everyone here is just waiting for it. So it’s one step at a time, but it’s definitely something that’s within our sights.”

For more on the game, Storm vs. Mercury Statistical Summary: "Money time comes later, true money time."