#2 Seattle Storm (21-13) vs. #3 Phoenix Mercury (19-15)
Regular season series: Seattle 3-1
@ Sea 06/04: Storm 78-71
@ Pho 07/26: Storm 83-77
@ Pho 08/16: Mercury 81-79
@ Sea 09/09: Storm 85-70
Well this one feels like it’s been coming for a while, doesn’t it? Since Minnesota started pulling away at the top of the West and San Antonio and LA fell away, it became increasingly likely as the season progressed that these two would be running headlong into each other in the first round. It’s become an oft-repeated fact that the Storm have beaten the Mercury in nine of their last ten meetings, including the game that essentially decided home court advantage for this series last Friday. But most of those games came in 2010, when the Storm were a significantly more dominant force than they have been this season. Do the Mercury have what it takes to turn the tables and upset the team that dumped them out of the Western Conference Finals just last season?
While they ended up right next to each other in the standings, these teams are an exhibition in contrasts. The league’s slowest-paced team (and Seattle took it by a mile this year) faces its second-fastest (Atlanta once again finished just ahead of Phoenix in possessions per game). Seattle’s #1-ranked defense faces Phoenix’s #1 offense (it’s #9 offense vs. #10 defense at the other end, but that doesn’t sound nearly as impressive). And if you’ve watched these teams play in recent years, you really don’t need the numbers. The Mercury don’t change. They will charge up and down the court at every opportunity, looking for breakout chances and ideally layups before the defense can get set. They will then proceed to play some fairly lackadaisical, pathetic defense at the other end. The likes of LA and Tulsa have shown just how terrible defense can be in the WNBA this season, but the Mercury weren’t much better and they’ve been at this for years now. They’re experts in the art of playing barely any defense.
The Storm, on the other hand, will play physical, tough, hard-nosed defense. They’ll switch on screens when the switch makes sense, fight around or under when it doesn’t and recover quickly if they get caught in a mismatch. The rotation movement on help defense is some of the best you’ll see in the women’s game, and having worked in Brian Agler’s system for a while now, everyone knows where they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do on every possession. The defense is the central reason why they’ve beaten this Mercury team on so many occasions in recent times. Phoenix have a tough time pushing out quickly enough to get behind the Storm defense because Seattle work to get back in transition and shut off the opportunities. With those shots disappearing, most of the Mercury’s offense comes on jump shots from outside, and while they have some of the best scorers in the game in the likes of Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor, it’s hard to win a game firing away from the perimeter in halfcourt sets. Especially when the Storm are closing out on all those shots as hard as they can.
The problems for Seattle this season have come at the other end, where their offense has repeatedly sputtered. Losing Lauren Jackson for 20 games obviously hurt, but nothing was working before she went down with injury and it hasn’t all been sunshine and roses since she returned. Regardless of the calibre of defense facing them, the Storm have frequently been sucked into taking too many jumpers this season, and often very few of them troubled the twine. Combined with an unfortunate tendency to give the ball away far too cheaply for a slow-paced, veteran team that should understand the value of possession, it’s left them struggling to pull away or close out games even when their defense is working well. History does suggest, however, that they enjoy playing against what the Mercury generously call defense. If the Storm can turn the Mercury’s game back against them and find some fastbreak opportunities of their own – something which they often achieve against Phoenix – it’ll help generate rhythm for their offense and add those all-important easy points.
A key element to this series, unfortunately, is going to be health. While Seattle dealt with Jackson being injured for much of the season, she came back ahead of schedule with nine games left in the regular season. A stretch in which Seattle went 8-1. But while there’ve been a few impressive performances, there’ve been some occasions where her lateral mobility has looked suspect, or where she’s seemed tentative. She was virtually invisible in the game against Phoenix last week, after reportedly taking a hit to the hip that cost her over half the season. She sat out the final regular season game, so she’ll have had nearly a week off to rest and practice by the time this series tips off, but then the games come thick and fast. Seattle might’ve survived without her, but they need LJ’s presence in the paint on both ends of the floor if they expect to challenge for the title again.
Phoenix have their own injured Aussie to worry about. Penny Taylor was a legitimate MVP candidate over the first half of the season, and while she dropped off a little in the second half her distribution, scoring ability and all-around skills remained vital to everything the Mercury did. She and Taurasi were the blocks this team were built on this year. So when Taylor went down with back spasms in a game in Washington towards the end of August, it was bad news for the Mercury. She returned against LA less than a week later, but reaggravated the injury early in the second half and hasn’t been seen in a game since. Now this is Penny Taylor we’re talking about. She’d probably need to have actually broken her back, possibly in multiple places, to miss this series. But if her movement is restricted or she aggravates it again, the Mercury will be lacking a key piece of their puzzle. Whichever team has the healthier Aussie through two or three games may well come out on top in this series. And with all due respect to Storm guard Belinda Snell, she doesn’t count.
Considering both teams fought so hard for it, we have to consider home court advantage as a significant factor in this series as well. It came down largely to that game last Friday (yes, mathematically Phoenix would’ve finished 3rd anyway if we just flipped the result, but I think they would’ve tried harder against Minnesota on Sunday if home court was still on the table). Taurasi exploded in the first half, but a more balanced Storm effort and some shockingly accurate shooting (plus the best offensive game Katie Smith’s had in years) helped Seattle pull it out. The Storm have been a hugely better team at Key Arena this year than they have anywhere else. They finished 15-2 at home, 6-11 on the road, but you didn’t even need to see those numbers to understand the difference. You could see it on the floor. The turnover disease that has infected them all year hasn’t been nearly as much of a problem with their own crowd cheering them on, and they simply look more comfortable and composed on their own floor. Phoenix haven’t won in Seattle since 2009, and they’re going to have to achieve that feat in either Game 1 or Game 3 to win this series.
Matchup to watch: Sue Bird vs. X
The easy picks would’ve been Lauren Jackson vs. the Mercury frontcourt – if LJ’s close to healthy, it’s a mismatch – or Diana Taurasi vs. Tanisha Wright/Katie Smith – they’ll make her work damn hard for everything she gets in this series. Taylor vs. Swin Cash at small forward will be an absolute war as well. But Sue Bird likes playing against this team. She likes the freedom their defense often gives her; she seems more willing to look for her own offense in the freewheeling games the Mercury often create; and she’s hit more back-breaking shots down the stretch in games against Phoenix than they care to remember. Perhaps most of all, she just enjoys sticking it to her old UConn teammate Taurasi. While Jackson and her willingness to score in the paint rather than fire threes throughout the series could be the x-factor, if Bird takes control like she often has in the last couple of years against Phoenix they may not even need LJ at 100%.
The Mercury will defend her with practically everybody. Temeka Johnson will probably start games on her, as the natural point-vs.-point matchup, but via switch or by choice Taurasi, Taylor, Ketia Swanier and others will all take a turn. The most interesting is when they try to trouble her with DeWanna Bonner. The likely winner of the league’s Sixth Woman of the Year Award yet again for her offensive production, Bonner will defend everyone from Bird to Jackson throughout this series. Her length and activity makes her a pain on the defensive end, although she can sometimes get bullied by bigger players in the paint. Against guards like Bird, she can sometimes be disruptive, although usually as a change-of-pace for a few possessions, not a long-term alternative. With Kara Braxton shipped out of town midway through the season and Nakia Sanford the only real alternative in the paint – you don’t want Candice Dupree’s idea of defense taking on Jackson unless she’s literally in a wheelchair – they’re going to need Bonner inside most of the time anyway. It’ll just be interesting to see when Phoenix try to shake things up.
A tiny little niggling part of me thinks Phoenix can pull this off. The Storm have been so error-prone this season and their offense has disappeared on so many occasions that I think the Mercury have a pretty solid shot despite that 1-9 record in their last ten encounters with Seattle. Jackson’s not looked fully mobile since returning, and if Taylor’s back has recovered the Mercury have the weapons with her, Taurasi, Dupree and Bonner to simply outscore the Storm at times. But there are only two ways the Mercury can win this series – a 2-0 sweep, or by winning Game 3 in Key Arena. And I can’t bring myself to see either of those happening. Two in a row against a team that’s been finding a way to beat them in every kind of game for the last two years? A win in a deciding game with that deafening crowd cheering on Seattle? So if you gave me vaguely reasonable odds, I’d be willing to take Phoenix. I think they can win this series. But in a flat choice I just can’t see it. They’ve got Wright, Smith and Cash to throw at the wings, they’ve got Camille Little and Jackson as one of the best defensive post pairings in the league, and they’ve got a history of being able to shut the Mercury down enough to claw over the line. So with a reservation or two:
Seattle by the skin of their teeth, 2-1.