Although they're in different conferences, both the New York Liberty (12-9) and Seattle Storm (12-9) have identical records, are sitting in third place in their respective playoff chases, and are coming off a road loss.
And heading into tonight's meeting at the Prudential Center in the Liberty's temporary home at Newark, New Jersey's Prudential Center, both teams also need a win. But the Storm might want one more with each team having 13 games left in their season - while the Liberty are 2.5 games ahead of the fourth place Chicago Sky in the East, the Storm are only a half-game ahead of the fourth place Mercury and another half-game behind the second place Silver Stars.
With all 12 teams in the WNBA playing tonight (half of which will be on ESPN3) and their Western Conference rivals facing first place teams, the Storm have as good a chance as any to move back into second place as this game playoff positioning carousel goes through another iteration. And to put it best, tonight's game might game between the Liberty and Storm might have a grinding, playoff basketball feel to it. Or maybe just sloppy.
Both of these teams also pride themselves on their defense, although the Storm have been quite a bit better thus far this season. The Storm have the advantage of being more well-versed in coach Brian Agler's schemes whereas the Liberty are still familiarizing themselves with new head coach John Whisenant's aggressive man defense schemes. But as Ray Floriani of SB Nation's women's basketball site Swish Appeal described last week in his analysis of the Liberty's 59-49 win against the visiting Chicago Sky, the Liberty are "...learning and getting comfortable with his defensive 'package' or system."
The Liberty held the Sky without a field goal and only one point in the fourth quarter last Thursday, in a rather impressive defensive effort, that included something that has been a significant problem for the Storm this season, as described further by Floriani.
As has been the case very frequently this season, the Liberty were out-rebounded on the offensive end. But not enough to have a big difference as the numbers further attest to their defensive excellence. Chicago was forced into an absurdly high 31% turnover rate. That, coupled with a 35% effective field goal mark (1 of 9 from three did not help) spelled doom.
Over the past five games, the Storm have been turning the ball over a league-high 18.8 times per game, punctuated by 29 team turnovers in their ugly loss to the Atlanta Dream on Sunday. Although the Liberty have had somewhat erratic point guard play this season, they've also managed to have one of the better turnover differentials in the league.
On the other side of the ball, the Liberty feature an additional challenge in All-Star guard Cappie Pondexter, who is currently sixth in the league with 17.1 points per game and is among the most explosive one-on-one players in the WNBA. Pondexter's ability to drive and pass along with the Liberty's capacity to get hot from the 3-point line - as they did, coincidentally, in Atlanta last week - makes them an extremely difficult team to defend, particularly as they continue to apply intense defense.
In the post, the Liberty also feature third-year center Kia Vaughn who has to be considered among the top candidates for the WNBA's Most Improved Player award. Vaughn has finally realized her potential this season, averaging career-highs across the board, including 10.8 points per game and 6.9 rebounds per game.
Given the Storm's struggles on the road this season, this is not a particularly good matchup for them and will require much more efficient basketball than they played in either of their last two games to pull out a win.