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Saturday, July 20, 2019

Shake Down The Thunder: Storm Jolt the Mercury in a Game One Knockout

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Photo Caption: Tanisha Wright proved to be Seattle’s secret weapon in the Storm’s 80-61 Game-One rout of the visiting Phoenix Mercury. Wright posted a game-high 21 points, while pulling down five boards, passing out three dishes and grabbing three steals, and her lock-down defense on Diana Taurasi held the Mercury star to just three field goals on 11 attempts for the night.

Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Jeff Faddis©

By Matthew Zemek

There’s a reason why Seattle won all five regular-season games and both postseason games against Phoenix last year. There’s a reason why the Storm won three of four regular-season meetings this year. Last but certainly not least, there’s a reason why the Storm took the Mercury to the woodshed with an 80-61 drubbing in Game One of the 2011 WNBA Western Conference Semifinals.

The two-game difference in regular-season records between Seattle, at 21-13 the West’s second seed, and third-seeded Phoenix (19-15) doesn’t look that significant on paper. But on Thursday night at Key Arena in Seattle, the WNBA was reminded why the Seattle Storm have the Phoenix Mercury’s number: To wit, powerful length.  In a game that didn’t demand exhaustive brain work or require a painstaking dissection of a few layered crunch-time sequences, the defending WNBA champions delivered an old-fashioned backyard beat-down of an opponent that just doesn’t match up well.

Phoenix tries to run whenever it can, but the Mercury couldn’t hide from the size and strength of the Storm near the rim in an 80-61 rout that wasn’t even as close as the 19-point margin indicated. That combination of height and muscle, more than anything else, fueled a full-fledged blowout that not only gave Seattle the first game of a best-of-three series, but offered a substantial rest to Lauren Jackson. The Storm’s Australian superstar can’t afford to be overextended after an injury-plagued season; the ability to give Jackson a breather might not make all the difference in the world in Saturday’s Game Two, but it is likely to mean something if this series returns to Seattle for a decisive Game Three on Monday night.

It was a game billed as a match-up between the WNBA’s No. 1 offense (Phoenix, which averaged a league-best 88.97 points per game this season) and its No. 1 defense (Seattle, who held opponents to a league-low of 69.85 points per game). But in this meeting, it was Seattle who ruled on both ends of the court.

This was a distinctly uncluttered and uncomplicated contest in the Pacific Northwest, where the Seattle crowd was typically energetic, yet not as electric as it was in last year’s playoffs. In 2010, the entirety of the Storm’s postseason possessed a special buzz because of the team’s record-breaking regular season. When the 2010 playoffs began, the Storm – who had been unable to get out of the first round since 2004 – sensed the magnitude of the moment in front of them, as did the city of Seattle. The pressure to back up a brilliant regular season gave the Storm’s 2010 playoff journey a unique sense of urgency. When the ball was tipped in Game One against the Los Angeles Sparks (a longtime nemesis), the Storm and their fans spilled the tank in an attempt to re-write this franchise’s history. After seven wins in seven playoff games, the Storm completed one of the three best seasons in the WNBA’s 15-year run. (The Houston Comets and Detroit Shock would likely lay claim to the others.)

The Storm weren’t destined to reproduce last year’s magic carpet ride this season. In the rough-and-tumble world of professional basketball (gender doesn’t make a dime’s worth of difference in this regard), the ability to pace oneself as a defending champion creates a necessarily different tone in a locker room and on the court. The Storm’s 2011 campaign has been much like the Chicago Bulls’ 1993 and 1998 title runs. Regular-season dominance was no longer the focus; playing to peak in the playoffs has been the goal, and with a favorable match-up in Round One, neither the team nor the Seattle crowd seemed as tense or as nervous about the outcome as they may have been last year. They didn’t have to be. (This proves how much the locals know their women’s basketball in Seattle.)

Photo Caption: At least on this night, Seattle fans had it right: An injured Lauren Jackson was far better than a healthy Diana Taurasi.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Jeff Faddis©

After one quarter, there actually was some reason to think that the Mercury, who own two WNBA championship trophies of their own (2007 and 2009) would present a robust challenge to the reigning champs. The score might have been a modest 19-19 after 10 minutes, but the pace was entirely to the liking of the Mercury and head coach Corey Gaines. Phoenix committed a few early turnovers that led to Seattle run-outs and cheap baskets, but those easy scores served as bait that Seattle unwisely took.

The Seattle game plan should have been to slow tempo, but the Storm couldn’t settle the game down; even in half-court sets, Seattle began to slash to the basket with more than 10 seconds on the shot clock. Everyone in a white home jersey rushed shots to a slight degree, and Phoenix quite literally ran with that bit of good fortune. Stoppages in play were so rare that the two teams played over two uninterrupted minutes from the 4:11 mark of the period to the 1:54 mark. Supremely fit players on both sides were bending over and grabbing their shorts because of two minutes and 17 seconds of almost uninterrupted wind sprints. The Mercury couldn’t have been more pleased with the pace, but the Storm – with an average age of 30 years on their roster – had to wonder how in the dickens they got roped into such a tempo.

Something needed to change… and quickly.

Make that, not so quickly. In the second quarter, the Storm made requisite adjustments in a game that featured a lot of hard-nosed man-to-man defense.

Seattle’s defense was scattered and distracted in the first quarter. Phoenix didn’t shoot particularly well, but in addition to pushing the pace, the Mercury gained the spacing needed to make the Storm scramble on defense. Phoenix pried open the court, creating a number of gaps that opened up driving lanes. Even on occasions when the Mercury missed shots in the first quarter, two or three Seattle defenders tried to help late. This created offensive rebounding opportunities for the Mercury and, as a result, limited the Storm’s ability to establish a pace more to their liking.

In the second quarter, the key ingredient to a Storm surge was the second seed’s ability to play hounding defense at the top of the key. Guard Tanisha Wright was particularly instrumental in leading the charge for Seattle and head coach Brian Agler. Wright began to lock down Phoenix superstar Diana Taurasi, chasing over high ball screens at the top of the key to stay with the Mercury’s assassin. Seattle maintained a very tight, cohesive defensive structure which took away the Merc’s floor spacing and left Storm defenders in position to grab rebounds. Seattle sealed off driving lanes and dared Phoenix’s non-Taurasi players to knock down threes. It didn’t happen for the third seed from the Desert Southwest.

The Storm were particularly effective in shutting down the Mercury’s perimeter game. Phoenix’s DeWanna Bonner, who got the starting nod in this game after starting center Nakia Sanford was sidelined with a sore knee, hit a three-pointer in the first quarter, part of an early 10-point blitz that kept the Mercury even with Seattle in the early going. However, when the Storm tightened up their defense in the second period, Bonner succumbed to the fool’s gold she was being offered. Perhaps inspired by the New York Liberty, who fell in love with the 30-foot hoist in Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Indiana earlier on Thursday night, Bonner heaved up a few 30-footers of her own. They were open, but they weren’t high-percentage shots; moreover, those quick jacks are precisely the kinds of shots that have created such separation in this match-up over time. Seattle is able to work the ball to the hoop and use its combination of size and power to great effect. Phoenix might ride a hot streak of perimeter success for a brief period of time, but it often shoots itself out of games against the Storm. It happened in the WNBA season opener back on June 4 inside Key Arena, and it happened in this game as well.

Photo Caption: Two-time WNBA Sixth Player of the Year DeWanna Bonner got the start for Phoenix in lieu of an injured Nakia Sanford. Bonner finished with 10 points and eight boards and accounted for two of the Mercury’s three blocks, but netted just two of her six three-point attempts and went four-of-11 from the field.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Jeff Faddis©

When Seattle dramatically improved its defense on the wings, Phoenix needed to provide an effective counter based on ball movement. Instead, Phoenix panicked. The Storm had effectively closed down the driving lanes and were no longer chasing the Mercury on dribble penetration. But instead of moving the ball to find the gaps in coverage, the visitors resorted to one-on-one ball. With Wright sticking to Taurasi like glue, the Mercury didn’t take advantage of the one match-up on the floor in which they weren’t outsized. When Bonner tried to go to the rim, Jackson was there to erase her shot attempts. When Penny Taylor took the ball to the tin, Swin Cash stood in the way. Little and also Ashley Robinson – contributing the high-energy minutes of a role player – added to Seattle’s block party near the goal.

Photo Caption: It was a long hard night for Mercury superstar Diana Taurasi who was hounded by a relentless Tanisha Wright all evening. Tauarasi netted just three of her 11 attempts from the field, went an icy one-for-five from the arc, and settled for 11 points for the outing, four of which came from the charity stripe.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Jeff Faddis©

The result: After a first quarter in which Phoenix ran to its heart’s content, Seattle dramatically slowed things down in the second, conceding only 12 points in the period. The Mercury trudged to the locker room with a nine-point deficit and only 31 points to their credit.

Photo Caption: Camille Little (White, No. 20) did her part for the Seattle cause, though the Mercury’s DeWanna Bonner (Purple, No. 24) got a piece of this one. Little finished with a double-double of 17 points and 11 rebounds, second in scoring only to teammate Tanisha Wright.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Jeff Faddis©

Then came the third quarter.

Everything that happened in the second stanza was magnified and amplified in the third. Seattle generated tremendous defensive pressure at all spots on the floor, and when the Mercury failed to beat the Storm’s rotations with ball movement, a blowout quickly unfolded. Phoenix took the ball to the basket not with confidence, but with an air of desperation. Shots were forced rather than confident, altered instead of aggressive, hopeful instead of purposeful. Jackson and Company continued to swat shots within six feet of the rim, and when Phoenix took a long jumper, every Mercury player – even Taurasi – released it with an itchy trigger finger, not with the smooth and controlled release of an elite-level professional. Seattle grabbed miss after miss, ran the floor with a vengeance, and beat Phoenix in transition. A combination of fast breaks and lob feeds into the low post created a tidal wave of easy buckets for the Storm. Phoenix’s sense of panic only deepened as each long shot missed the mark, and Seattle – seeing the fear plastered on the faces of its opponent – went for the jugular with the awareness of a veteran ball club. After the carnage was over in the third quarter, Seattle had pushed its lead to 69-42.

Worse yet, for Mercury fans, while Jackson was resting her surgically repaired hip on the bench having finished a successful night with 13 points, six boards and three blocks in just under 19 minutes of playing time, Penny Taylor landed hard on the floor during one frustrated fast-break play in the third period, injuring her ankle and aggravating the back injury that has hampered her throughout the late season. Though she was cleared to return to action later in the third quarter, she was largely unproductive, logging more fouls than points in her remaining time on the floor. She finished with just under 26 minutes on the court, spending much of the fourth quarter on the bench with heat on her back.

Photo Caption: Penny Taylor led the way for Phoenix with 13 points and three assists, despite a third-quarter fall that injured her ankle and tweaked her sprained back.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Jeff Faddis©

Taurasi also watched much of the fourth quarter from the bench. But there is a difference in the rest one gets while celebrating a job well done as your team’s relievers finish the mopping up, and the demoralizing retreat to the sidelines after a frustrating night as your team goes down to a defeat you could do nothing to stave off.

The win naturally sets up the Storm well for the remainder of this series, but its biggest source of value is that it didn’t place a lot of pressure on the team’s Big Three. Agler was able to rest Jackson and Sue Bird throughout the fourth quarter. Cash, the other meal-ticket scorer for the Storm, played her customarily rugged defense but didn’t need to produce a big night on offense. She scored only 10 points, to which she added 11 boards for the double-double, but didn’t need to do more. With Wright and Little powering the Storm with 21 and 17 points, respectively, Cash and Bird, who finished with eight points, didn’t have to do the heavy lifting, and neither did Jackson, who posted a quiet 13 and saved her best stuff for the defensive end of the floor.

Photo Caption: Seattle star Lauren Jackson got the job done for the home team, powering her way to 13 points, plus six boards and three blocks, in under 19 minutes on the floor, leaving plenty of opportunity for her to rest her injured hip and celebrate the Seattle win from the sidelines.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Jeff Faddis©

Phoenix, which was held to its lowest point total of the season, didn’t get more than 13 points from any one player (Taylor was the one who tallied 13). Amazingly, each of the five Phoenix starters took exactly 11 field goal attempts over the course of the game; only Taylor hit as many as five, and Taurasi netted only three.

In a highly physical game that saw two technical fouls (one on Seattle’s Camille Little after she became entangled with Taurasi in the second period, and the other on a frustrated Taurasi, who appeared to throw out her leg in frustration tripping Wright who had just fouled her in the third), Seattle’s length and strength emerged in three realms: Blocked shots (six to just three for the Mercury); rebounds (a 49 to 35 advantage in favor of the Storm); and foul shots (24 attempts to just 13 for Phoenix). The Mercury hit only 29.7 percent of their shots (22 of 74), largely because they rushed anything and everything they threw toward the basket after the first quarter of competition.

What’s the key for Game Two? There’s no need to over-analyze things after a smack-down such as this one. Phoenix needs to sustain a faster tempo and find ways to free Taurasi from Wright. More than anything else, countering Seattle’s effective maneuvers and chases on high ball screens is the challenge to which Gaines and his staff will need to respond.

The particularly discouraging element of this game for Phoenix is that Seattle’s main stars will be fresh for Game Two on Saturday. Phoenix might start the first 15 minutes with tremendous energy and desperation, but as last year’s Game Two of the Western Conference Finals reminds us, Seattle is known for its furious finishing kicks. Long story short, the first game of the 2011 WNBA postseason couldn’t have gone any better for the defending champions. It couldn’t have been any worse for a team that found the wrong opponent in its first-round series.

Photo Caption: Unsurprisingly, the reigning WNBA champion Seattle Storm got it done at home in Key Arena, the toughest venue in the league for visitors. Now they must prove they can defend their title on the road as the series moves to Phoenix for Game Two on Saturday, September 17, with tip-off scheduled for 10:00 p.m. Eastern, 7:00 p.m. Mountain Standard Time (broadcast on NBA TV).
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Jeff Faddis©

Originally published Thu, September 15, 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.