The Seattle Storm head into the WNBA playoffs as the second seed with an opportunity to defend their 2010 WNBA title.
With star center healthy and back in the lineup, they peaked at the end of the season and managed to overcome early-season shooting struggles and mid-season turnover problems to enter the playoffs playing relative well. But do they have enough to win it all once again?
The following is an overview of the four teams in the Western Conference field and a look at the Storm's chances.
First round: #2 Seattle Storm (21-13) vs. Phoenix Mercury (19-15)
Game 1: Thursday September 15, 10:00 p.m. EDT ESPN2
Game 2: Saturday September 17, 10:00 p.m. EDT NBA TV
Game 3: Monday September 19, 10 p.m. EDT ESPN2
Regular season series: Storm 3-1
Seattle Storm: Home court advantage is key
We could break this down in complex terms, but ultimately this series should come down to the Storm having the best home record in the Western Conference this season (15-2). The two teams that beat them at KeyArena - the Lynx and Atlanta Dream - are playing some of the best basketball in the league and emerged victorious by doing something that the Mercury are not particularly adept at: forcing turnovers.
Point guard Sue Bird has Storm fans clamoring for MVP consideration as she leads the team in scoring with 14.7 points per game after picking up the slack and carrying the team during 6-foot-6 center Lauren Jackson's 21-game injury absence this season. But Jackson's return is no less significant for the Storm going up against the Mercury: they still haven't managed to be the Storm with Jackson in the lineup since 2009 as she presents a matchup challenge that they don't have much answer for.
Yet while Bird and Jackson stand to be the focal points of this series and playoff run, coach Brian Agler is a defensive-minded coach and the Storm's top-rated defense might be the difference in this series. In their last meeting this past Friday, it was veteran guard Katie Smith who stepped up to help contain WNBA leading scorer Diana Taurasi in an 85-70 win. Smith, forward Swin Cash and guard Tanisha Wright will all be critical for the Storm on the defensive end in this series and however far they advance in this year's playoffs.
Phoenix Mercury: Trying to overcome history
While home court advantage is working in favor of the Storm, recent history is working against the Mercury - they have now lost 10 of their last 11 games to the Storm with their only win requiring an 18-point comeback at home without both Jackson and Wright in the lineup.
But it's not as if the Mercury are lacking firepower - the league's fastest team features the league's top scorer in guard Diana Taurasi, who averaged a league-high 21.6 points per game this season. But forward Penny Taylor was arguably more impressive as one of the WNBA's most versatile players, ranking in the top 10 in assists, field goal percentage, points, rebounds, and steals this season. Although the Mercury have been in the lower tier of defensive teams this season, Sixth Woman of the Year candidate DeWanna Bonner provides a versatile defensive option off the bench who has effectively pressured Bird full court and defended post players with her wiry 6-foot-4 frame.
It's nearly impossible to count out a team with Taurasi on it - for fans tempted to do so in light of the outcomes in those last 11 games, Taurasi just came into KeyArena and dropped 28 on the Storm in the first half on Friday and lost a competitive game with Taylor out due to back spasms. Taylor is back now, but the Storm ultimately have too many weapons at their disposal with Jackson on the court and the benefit of home court advantage.
First round: #1 Minnesota Lynx (27-7) vs. #4 San Antonio Silver Stars (18-16)
Regular season series: 4-0 Lynx
Game 1: Friday September 16, 8:00 p.m. EDT NBA TV
Game 2: Sunday September 18, 5:00 p.m. EDT ESPN2
Game 3: Tuesday September 20, time TBD
Minnesota Lynx: A historically good rebounding team
While the Storm got tons of hype entering the playoffs last season because of their 22-2 start and undefeated home record, it's not as if the Lynx are without claims to a place in history of their own.
And it's not just because Rookie of the Year front-runner Maya Moore plays for them either.
Among the myriad reasons for the Lynx' success this season, the most impressive has been their rebounding: the Lynx got defensive rebounds at a higher rate than any team in WNBA history this year, which helped them emerge as the second best defense in the league behind the Storm. At the core of that rebounding prowess is forward Rebekkah Brunson, who was in the top five in every one of the league's major rebounding categories and attacks the boards with an aggression that few can match.
However, another oft-overlooked reason for their success this season is point guard Lindsay Whalen, who was the most efficient point guard in the league this season by a significant margin. Whalen is not a fancy point guard, but she's decisive and beautifully balances getting the ball in the hands of the right teammates and scoring efficiently herself.
What makes the Lynx so tough is that highlighting those two players leaves out others like Seimone Augustus, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, and Candice Wiggins, all of whom make significant contributions to the team's success. They have an abundance of talent that overwhelms opponents who try to choose one focal point to take away.
San Antonio Silver Stars: As of yet unrealized potential
The Silver Stars are a fourth seed, but there are at least two ways to look at their current position: disappointing after an impressive 7-1 start or encouraging as they finished the regular season 4-1 once All-Star forward Danielle Adams returned from missing 11 games due to injury.
And that an injury to a rookie reserve appeared to have had such a significant impact on the team on the surface sort of illustrates why the Silver Stars might be able to pull off a first round upset after a pre-season GM survey gave them only an 8.3% chance to even make the playoffs. It's not just coachspeak to say that the Silver Stars haven't yet peaked: not only were they missing a key player, but they have a few young players who are still adjusting and finding their way in the WNBA.
While Adams' 12.2 points per game has created a buzz after she was drafted in the second round, fellow rookie Danielle Robinson has been among the most efficient point guards in the league and earned a spot in the starting lineup late in the season. We still might not have seen the best of Robinson, who finished the season with a 36-point performance against the Tulsa Shock. Granted it was against porous defense, but she's starting to find that balance between distributing and scoring that makes a great point guard. Second-year reserve center Jayne Appel is also still growing as a player after missing much of last year due to injury, but was second on the team in rebounding with 4.6 per game.
But the key for the Silver Stars is still All-Star guard Becky Hammon, who leads the team in scoring with 15.9 points per game and finished second in the league in assists with 5.8 per game. Hammon can single-handedly break a defense with a combination of driving baskets, getting to the free throw line, scoring from 3-point range, and finding open teammates once her scoring draws increasing attention from the defense. The team has won without Hammon having big scoring games, but is undoubtedly at their best when her scoring is setting up her passing.
The Silver Stars might actually be in the best position of any team in the league to topple the Lynx machine: although they were swept by the Lynx, they lost the first two by a combined three points and those were without the services of Adams. Then Adams' first two games from injury were against the Lynx. In other words, we haven't actually seen the Silver Stars play the Lynx while clicking on all cylinders.
But right now it's hard to pick against the Lynx and that's especially true when they're going up against the Silver Stars: while the Lynx are a historically good rebounding team, the Silver Stars are had the league's lowest rebounding rate, which will leave them at a major disadvantage.
Of course, the fact that the Silver Stars made the playoffs despite their rebounding struggles means they can win without rebounding. They rely heavily on their ball movement and having Adams' 3-point shooting ability helps spread the court and leave room for Hammon to drive and score. But the Lynx have so many weapons that forecasting a loss with home court advantage is difficult.
Western Conference Finals favorite: Lynx def. Storm
If things go as one might expect, this could be a fantastic series. Similar to the Silver Stars, you could argue that the Lynx haven't yet even seen the Storm at full strength: contrary to what their record might suggest, they were shooting very poorly early in the season when they faced the Lynx in their one meeting with Jackson and then beat the Lynx without Jackson at KeyArena. Since Jackson's return from injury, the Storm have been playing more fluid, if not more efficient, basketball than in her absence and that's important when they have have such a potent inside-outside threat that helped them win the title last year.
That said, the Storm have not been rebounding consistently since Jackson's return and up against a Lynx team that leads the conference in second chance points that could spell trouble. If the Storm can avoid committing the turnovers that hurt them in their three losses to the Lynx this season and find a way to contain Brunson on the boards - which they have done successfully in spurts this season - they could certainly make a return trip to the WNBA Finals. However, again similar to the first round series, it's hard to pick against a Lynx team this dominant with this much talent.
The Storm will undeniably have to play better to overcome the Lynx and while you never want to count them out as a veteran defending champ, it remains to be seen if anyone can beat the Lynx in a best of three situation.