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Friday, July 19, 2019

Phoenix Fights Back: Mercury Hammer Storm on the Glass, Force Decisive Game Three

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Photo Caption: On the night she picked up her third consecutive WNBA Sixth Player of the Year award, DeWanna Bonner helped keep the Phoenix Mercury’s postseason hopes alive, pulling down 13 boards (more than half of the Seattle Storm’s cumulative team total) to go with 13 points for the double-double to fuel a 92-83 Phoenix Game Two win that evened the series at one apiece.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Phoenix Mercury

By Matthew Zemek

The first-round WNBA playoff series between the Phoenix Mercury and the Seattle Storm has none of the subtle strokes or cautious, probing tactics of a fencing duel. Rather, the battle between the teams who have won the last two WNBA championships has been a brawling, sprawling, up-and-down affair.

No, there haven’t been actual fights in this series – apart from a few technical fouls, it’s been a showcase of restraint and composure on both sides – but the point is clear: After Seattle decked Phoenix with a devastating roundhouse punch in Game One of this series, the Mercury, tired of hearing about the Storm’s mastery of this match-up, decided to do something about their situation. On Saturday night in the Valley of the Sun, a new 40-minute event created a 180-degree role reversal in this series.

Perhaps Phoenix didn’t land a sixth-round knockout in a 15-round bout the way Seattle did on Thursday, but the Mercury still hit hard and scored a 13th-round TKO in Game Two. Seattle flirted with a late comeback akin to Game Two of last year’s Western Conference Finals in the desert, but Phoenix parried that final thrust this time around and scored an appreciably decisive 92-83 win to send the series back to Seattle’s Key Arena.

Whereas some series are tense and even from start to finish, this best-of-three showdown has become a pendulum-swinging roller coaster ride marked by dramatic shifts in the flow of play. Seattle’s Game One blowout and Phoenix’s authoritative response in Game Two set up a Game Three decider (Monday at 10:10 p.m. ET in Seattle, ESPN2) in which unpredictability is the theme of the day.

Why does this series stand on such uncertain ground heading into the Game Three climax? Phoenix, which did not compete at all well in Game One, displayed a transformed mindset and put Seattle squarely on its heels. Mercury head coach Corey Gaines made some effective adjustments in his half-court sets to outmaneuver Seattle boss Brian Agler. But in the end, Game Two wasn’t decided by the coaches. It was decided by basketball’s lifeblood: Energy. Phoenix had it, Seattle didn’t, and the rest is just so much window dressing.

It’s easy to think that Seattle was unsettled by the fact that guard Tanisha Wright picked up her third foul of the game with 1:44 left in the first quarter. However, that seems like an easy out. It’s worth keeping in mind that despite an early and lengthy stint on the bench for Wright, her main defensive assignment, Phoenix superstar Diana Taurasi, netted just nine of 23 field-goal attempts. Nor did the Storm fall victim to a three-point blitz by the Mercury, who typically feast on the three-ball and make it a core feature of their offensive production. On this night, however, the Mercury landed just two from beyond the arc.

Instead, the Mercury comprehensively outclassed the Storm by hustling and attacking the basket with the verve and consistency that were so noticeably absent in the final three quarters of Game One. Though the Mercury are known for their racehorse style—and Phoenix did manage to set a pace far more to its liking in Game Two—than that of the final three quarters of Game One—in this game, the Mercury did plenty of their work out of half-court sets.

Rather, it was the Mercury’s board work that was the central catalyst of its potent offense in Game Two, and that rebounding prowess flowed into other aspects of the game. The key to the Mercury’s win was not so much the “up-and-down” of transitioning from offense to defense (or vice-versa). It was the more literal up-and-down of skying for loose balls and winning them in the air, ala the German national soccer team.

Candice Dupree led Phoenix on the stat sheet with 29 points on an eye-popping 12-of-14 performance from the field.

Photo Caption: The Mercury’s Candice Dupree led all scorers with 29 points on 12-of-14 from the field, to which she added seven rebounds and three blocked shots before fouling out with just under three minutes left in the game.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Phoenix Mercury

However, the tone-setter for the Mercury’s bold bounce-back in this series was DeWanna Bonner. In the first 16 minutes of Saturday’s game, Bonner played with the focused yet substantial ferocity Phoenix needed after its meek showing in the series opener. Bonner grabbed nine rebounds in those first 16 minutes, en route to 13 for the game. By comparison, no Storm player pulled down more than Swin Cash’s total of five rebounds for the game. Indeed, Bonner’s final total of 13 boards represented more than half of Seattle’s team total (24).

The Storm own more length and bulk – although that was somewhat mitigated by the return of Phoenix pivot Nakia Sanford, who played 19 high-energy minutes on Saturday – but Bonner owns something no one on the Storm can match: An explosive vertical leap. Seattle did not seal out Bonner on the boards, and on the whole, the Storm body the Mercury out of prime rebounding position. Bonner, with fresh and springy legs that never wore out, repeatedly made second and third jumps for loose balls while the Storm stood lead-footed on the floor.

Because Phoenix gained only six of its 92 points from three-point shots, that means 86 points came either from the foul line or close range. All told, the Mercury racked up 58 points in the paint, a truly astounding number against Seattle’s low-post size and depth. The avalanche of layups and wide-open short jumpers were partly a result of Gaines’s adjustments, but they primarily flowed from Phoenix’s energy and Seattle’s slow-footed response to it.

It bears mentioning that Phoenix’s 58 paint points might be slightly overstated. A number of those points came on 14-foot jumpers near the elbow, just inside the painted area on a shot chart. However, those looks were still open looks, and they were the high-quality kinds of shots that powered Dupree’s 12-of-14 night from the field.

Indeed, the major move Gaines made in Game Two – with great success – was to shift the focus of action in half-court sets from the top of the key to the wings. Phoenix shooters would make cuts near the elbows, rather than behind the three-point arc. Late in the game, Seattle’s attempts to thwart these elbow cuts freed up the Mercury for backdoor cuts that created a few final easy baskets for Phoenix.

Those late buckets helped stave off a 10-point Storm rally that cut a 15-point (81-66) Mercury lead to just five (81-76) with 4:10 left. Phoenix’s rebounding most centrally won this contest, but the Merc’s offensive adjustments also made a significant impact, enough to remove any appreciable amount of drama from the final two minutes of regulation.

A final detail puts Phoenix’s physical and flinty effort into perspective: While the Mercury didn’t need threes to crack the 90-point mark or to play the game at their desired tempo, the Storm became much more willing to be confined to the perimeter. Of course, a wide-open three for Sue Bird (three-of-six for the night from the arc), Lauren Jackson (also three-of-six from long range), Wright (three-of-four), or Katie Smith (four-of-five) is not a bad shot when viewed in isolation. Seattle hit 13-of-22 three-pointers to stay in contention, and that kind of stat line would generally allow the Storm to win quite handily.

However, the Storm’s reliance on the long ball was not a strength in this game; it was a weakness in that it was not complemented by a robust low-post game. Jackson, who got knocked around in the second half and did not look particularly strong when this game ended, did not establish a low-post, back-to-the-basket game.  Despite being the more physically imposing and powerful team in this match-up, Seattle shied away from low-post play, and that reality ran through the entirety of Game Two. Seattle’s long-distance shooting is formidable, but the Storm need to showcase their long-range marksmanship when it flows from an effective low-post game. The Storm thrive on inside-outside offense, but on Saturday, it was just outside and nothing else.

Phoenix’s appetite for combat greatly exceeded Seattle’s in Game Two. Coaching adjustments have their place in this series – they’re hardly irrelevant – but energy and loose-ball “want-to” are the elements most likely to decide Game Three on Monday. This series is up in the air… and no, that’s not just a figure of speech. The team that plucks more loose balls out of the sky is the team that’s highly likely to advance to the Western Conference Finals. 

Originally published Sun, September 18, 2011

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Week: February 7, 2012
1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
2 Notre Dame 23-1 2 2 2 743
3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
4 Stanford 20-1 4 5 4 685
5 Duke 19-3 6 8 5 650
6 Miami (FL) 20-3 7 7 6 604
7 Kentucky 21-3 5 15 7 584
8 Maryland 20-3 10 10 8 534
9 Wisconsin-Green Bay 20-0 9 24 9 530
10 Ohio State 21-2 11 NR-RV
10 483
11 Tennessee 17-6 8 3 11 476
12 Delaware 20-1 13 NR 12 434
13 Georgetown 18-5 15 11 14 379
14 Texas A&M 16-5 16 6 15 378
15 Nebraska 19-3 18 NR 13 309
16 Rutgers 17-4 14 12 17 372
17 Louisville 17-6 12 9 20 276
18 Gonzaga 21-3 19 NR-RV
19 234
19 Purdue 19-5 17 21 16 222
20 Georgia 18-6 20 12 21 202
21 Penn State 18-5 21 14 18 176
22 DePaul 17-7 23 18 NR-RV
23 Georgia Tech 16-6 22 NR-RV
22 104
24 South Carolina 18-5 NR-RV
NR 24 46
25 Vanderbilt 18-5 NR-RV
NR 45
Dropped Out: No. 24 North Carolina, No. 25 Kansas.
First-place votes: Total first-place votes received (if any) are indicated in parentheses following school name.
Others receiving votes: St. Bonaventure (22-2) 34; North Carolina (17-6) 19; California (17-6) 18; Florida Gulf Coast (21-2) 16; Middle Tennessee (19-5) 15; Texas-El Paso (20-2) 8; Texas Tech (16-6) 5; Brigham Young (21-4) 4; Fresno State (19-4) 4; St. John's (15-8) 4; Princeton (15-4) 3; Oklahoma (15-7) 2; West Virginia (17-6) 2; Kansas State (15-7) 1.
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Credit: Courtesy Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). The weekly Division I Top 25 Coaches' Poll, sponsored by USA Today and ESPN, is based on voting by a Board of Coaches made up of 31 head coaches at Division I institutions all of whom are WBCA members.