Photo: Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images
Preview: Phoenix Mercury (1) vs. Seattle Storm (4)
Familiar Friends and Foes Meet Out West

The Phoenix Mercury and Seattle Storm feature several of the best players in the world and should be a real treat for fans to watch. The Storm have been here before, but it has been awhile since we've seen the Mercury in this position. With the amount of talent they have been amassing over the past few seasons, it was only a matter of time before they returned to the postseason. Phoenix had not made the playoffs since 2000 and narrowly missed out a year ago despite winning their last seven games to finish 18-16.

But this season, the Mercury left no room for doubt, getting out to a solid start and really turning it up in the second half of the season. They clinched a postseason berth with over a week to go. With three All-Stars who finished in the top 10 in scoring (something never done before in the history of the WNBA), the Mercury averaged a WNBA record 88.8 points per game. They are capable of scoring 100 points a game on any given night, outrunning and outscoring their opponents on a regular basis.

Gm 1: at Sea., Fri., 8/24, 10 p.m. ET, NBA TV
Gm 2: at Phx., Sun., 8/26, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Gm 3*: at Phx., Tues., 8/28, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Guard Diana Taurasi led the WNBA in scoring last season and came on strong to finish third in 2007. She scored more than 20 points in 14 games, though she was not relied upon to score as much as last year. That's because teammates Cappie Pondexter, Penny Taylor and Tangela Smith all also averaged in double figures. Having them all together in the lineup for the entire season was the key to the team's success. The Mercury were able to stay healthy and kept their regular starting lineup intact all season long.

The continued development of Taylor is one of the primary reasons this team was able to take it to the next level. Taylor missed much of last season, yet was the MVP of the World Championships and is one of the most underrated players in the WNBA. She finished the 2007 regular season with career-best averages in scoring and rebounding (17.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg). The draft-day trade that brought Smith to Phoenix in exchange for the first overall pick has been paying big dividends for the Mercury. The ten-year veteran had another fine season, averaging 12.6 ppg, leading the team in rebounds and playing the most minutes of any player on her team. Point guard Kelly Miller was the only starter not to average double figures in scoring (she narrowly missed out), but she helps keep things organized, distributes the ball and was among the league leaders in assists. Off the bench, Kelly Mazzante is capable of knocking down shots and Kelly Schumacher gives the team another big body to rebound and start the breaks.

The Mercury's only potential liability as they enter the postseason could be their defense. Despite scoring more than any other team this season, the Mercury also gave up the most points in the WNBA. There are also rumors circulating that Mercury coach Paul Westhead might depart to the NBA after the season ends, but that was not a distraction in the regular season and should not be one in the postseason.

By their own admission, the one team that gave Phoenix the most trouble all season long was the Seattle Storm. The Mercury lost two of three games to the Storm, including a 111-101 loss in early August. The Storm were three games above .500 in mid-July, but lost traction after the All-Star break and spent most of the second half of the season with a losing record. The Storm may have been one of the bigger disappointments from the WNBA season, but finally put together a strong run of games in the final two weeks of the season and appear to be coming together at just the right time.

Injuries and other factors have plagued the Storm all season long and they were just never able to build any momentum. All-Star playmaker Sue Bird missed time after having midseason knee surgery and took several weeks to get back to playing strength. They also lost center Janell Burse in the final few weeks of the season and she is gone for the postseason. Even MVP candidate Lauren Jackson missed some time down the stretch to attend to personal matters at home and the Storm were unable to win without her in the lineup.

But when they do play together, the Storm are a formidible foe. Like the Mercury, the Storm also had four players finish with double-figure scoring averages. Jackson is probably the leading MVP candidate after topping the league in both scoring and rebounding. While LJ fought through pain and injuries in previous seasons, she was at the top of her game in 2007 and only missed a couple of games late in the season after the death of a relative. Guard Betty Lennox also found her scoring groove late in the season and forward Iziane Castro Marques had the best season of her career. Bird, a perennial All-Star, had another productive season and will lead the Storm's lethal offense. There were just too many games where they weren't able to put it all together at the same time.

Another reason for the Storm's struggles is the lack of offensive consistency from the bench. Tanisha Wright was serviceable in fill-in duty when Bird was out and veteran forward Wendy Palmer has been filling in for Burse since she had season-ending wrist surgery. Luckily, the Storm built up enough equity early in the season to withstand their late-season struggles and a challenge by the Houston Comets for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Burse is out for good, but the rest of the team is healthy again and has the talent to beat any team in the WNBA, including the Mercury.

2007 Regular Season: Seattle Storm 2 - Phoenix Mercury 1
Some fast facts about the Mercury-Storm first-round matchup:

Mercury All-Stars Diana Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter and Penny Taylor combined to average 54.2 points per game. That's a lot, but not a record. The top-scoring trio of teammates in WNBA history is Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson, who combined to score 55.3 ppg in 2000.
Taurasi led the WNBA in 3-pointers made for the second straight season. She shattered Katie Smith's record last season by connecting on 121 shots from beyond the arc and knocked down more than 90 this season
After six seasons with the Storm, Sue Bird has already tallied 1077 assists. She remains more than 700 assists behind all-time leader Ticha Penicheiro, who keeps racking up assists of her own, but is closing the gap.
Lauren Jackson is the first player to lead the league in scoring and rebounding since Chamique Holdsclaw accomplished the feat in 2002.


Wednesday, May 23, Key Arena, Seattle, WA: Storm 100, Mercury 87 | Box score
Seattle Leaders: Lauren Jackson (31 pts., 7 reb.), Janell Burse (13 pts., 19 reb.)
Phoenix Leaders: Cappie Pondexter (31 pts., 5 ast.), Kelly Miller (7 pts., 7 reb.)
NBA TV Highlights: Play

Tuesday, July 17, US Airways Center, Phoenix, AZ: Mercury 89, Storm 79 | Box score
Seattle Leaders: Lauren Jackson (33 pts., 11 reb.), Betty Lennox (22 pts., 7 reb.)
Phoenix Leaders: Penny Taylor (32 pts., 7 reb.), Tangela Smith (10 pts., 11 reb.)
NBA TV Highlights: Play

Saturday, August 4, Key Arena, Seattle, WA: Storm 111, Mercury 101 | Box score
Seattle Leaders: Betty Lennox (25 pts., 5 ast.), Lauren Jackson (23 pts., 12 reb.)
Phoenix Leaders: Diana Taurasi (29 pts., 3 ast.), Penny Taylor (16 pts., 8 reb.), Tangela Smith (8 reb.)
NBA TV Highlights: Play