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."