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Insider Preview - Storm vs. Phoenix

HEAD-TO-HEAD
20-2 RECORD 10-12
W-11 STREAK W-3
5-0 LAST 5 4-1
83.1 PF 79.4
110.7 Off. Eff. 111.2
73.4 PA 90.0
97.4 Def. Eff. 109.1
36.6 RPG 32.5
.552 Reb % .471
73.5 Pace 83.8
18.1 Exp. Wins 12.7

Storm (20-2) vs. Phoenix (10-12)
Tuesday, July 27, 6:30 p.m.
KeyArena
TV: ESPN2
Radio: 1150 AM KKNW
Buy Tickets:

Kevin Pelton, stormbasketball.com


Don't look now, but here come the Phoenix Mercury. Since losing at home to the Washington Mystics on July 1 - the last game of an improbable six-game losing streak - Phoenix has won five of its last six games. The only loss in that span came in triple-overtime against the Seattle Storm. The surge has helped the Mercury solidify the second spot in the Western Conference standings, with a two-game lead over San Antonio in the race for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

That Phoenix would put it together was probably inevitable. The defending WNBA champions are, as Storm Head Coach Brian Agler puts it, "as talented a team there is in the league." Even after the departure of star guard Cappie Pondexter, who requested a trade over the winter and was dealt to New York, the Mercury boasts three veteran All-Stars in reigning MVP Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor and Candice Dupree (the return in the Pondexter trade). DeWanna Bonner, last year's Sixth Woman Award winner as a rookie, has also continued her development into an All-Star-caliber player.

There's also this key fact: Phoenix was never playing nearly as poorly as its record (which bottomed out at 5-11) indicated. The Mercury lost a series of close games; four of the six straight losses were by three points or fewer. Phoenix was really close to a .500 team all along that was on the wrong end of several breaks.

The schedule has also evened out for the Mercury a bit. Most of Phoenix's games against more challenging Eastern Conference foes came at the end of June and start of July. Five of the Mercury's last six games have come against West rivals, giving the Mercury the chance to both win and hand the other teams battling for playoff positioning behind the Storm a loss. Phoenix has done just that.

Still, make no mistake, the Mercury's offense is clicking much more now than at any other time this season. For the first time all year, Phoenix has returned to its familiar perch atop the WNBA's Offensive Rating leaderboards, just edging out the Storm in per-possession scoring. StormTracker's weekly updates trace the uptick in the Mercury's famed attack. Over the last month, Phoenix has gone from averaging 108.9 points per 100 possessions to 111.2.

In more conventional terms, the Mercury's numbers are even more eye-popping. Three teams this season and twice in the last week, Phoenix has set the WNBA record for scoring - twice in matchups with Tulsa (116 points on June 12 and 123 points on Thursday) and then in Saturday's wild double-OT win over Minnesota (127 points; the Lynx had 124 to also break the record in a losing effort).

Early on, the Mercury struggled to integrate Dupree into the attack. A legitimate post scorer was something Phoenix had never had before, so it took some time for Coach Corey Gaines to adjust the Mercury offense. Now, the results have been remarkable. Dupree is averaging 24.4 points in the month of July, and her 66.1 percent shooting is second in league history among players qualified to lead the league.

The other key adjustment for Phoenix has been going to a bigger lineup that allows Gaines to get his best scorers on the floor down the stretch. The Mercury has put the 6-0 Taurasi at point guard - where she began her WNBA career - for crunch time, with the 6-4 Bonner alongside her in an enormous backcourt that gives Phoenix size and length at every possession without sacrificing anything in terms of shooting.

Phoenix and Seattle have had an interesting season series. In the lone matchup at KeyArena, the Storm won in lopsided fashion. Agler says that's not a typical result between the teams, and the history certainly bears that out. The teams went to overtime in both meetings at the Key last year and have played extra sessions twice in Phoenix this season. They needed three overtimes to decide a winner when they met at the US Airways Center on July 14.

The Storm is the rare team that can match the Mercury point for point, despite the team's defensive mindset. Seattle has averaged more than 100 points in the three meetings, setting a franchise scoring record with 111 points in the triple-OT game.

For the Storm, tonight's game represents an opportunity to clinch the No. 1 overall seed in the Western Conference. The Storm needs either two wins or a win and a Phoenix loss to secure that spot, having already clinched the head-to-head tie-breaker against the Mercury with three wins so far out of five games. A win tonight would meet both qualifications for the latter clinching scenario. Meanwhile, Phoenix would surely like to get a victory against the Storm in the regular season with an eye toward a potential playoff matchup.

KEY MATCHUP
The Mercury pulled off one of the two trades in the week leading up to Monday's deadline, acquiring center Kara Braxton from Tulsa in exchange for little-used Nicole Ohlde and a 2011 first-round pick. The talented Braxton, twice a WNBA champion in Detroit, gives Phoenix a very different look in the frontcourt with her 6-6 size. Braxton is also more of a bruising presence than the Mercury's other post players - something Le'coe Willingham provided Phoenix as a starter last season before signing with the Storm. Willingham has been excellent in the month of July, averaging 7.5 points and 5.7 rebounds on 65.4 percent shooting.

LAST TIME

The Storm and the Mercury just love giving fans free basketball. Last year, the two teams played a pair of overtime games, and the Storm needed the extra session to win at the US Airways Center in May. That was just a prelude to Wednesday afternoon's three-overtime thriller. It was the visiting Storm who finally pulled away, with a Sue Bird three-pointer with 5.4 seconds left in the third OT putting the Storm ahead for good in a 111-107 win.

Several times before that, the Storm appeared headed to an eighth straight victory, which set a new franchise record. Seattle led by as many as nine in the fourth quarter and was up four with 1:21 left before Candice Dupree's late score forced overtime. In the first OT, it was the Storm who had to rally, with Lauren Jackson's pair of free throws with 2.6 seconds remaining equalizing. Up three in the closing seconds of the second overtime, the Storm intentionally fouled Diana Taurasi, who put up a shot and got to the foul line for three shots to tie the game. Even after Bird's three, the Storm had to sweat out a tying attempt from Penny Taylor before finally winning.

Jackson's 31 points led the way as the Storm matched the franchise scoring record set against Phoenix on Aug. 4, 2007. She added a season-high 18 rebounds. All five starters scored double-figures, with Tanisha Wright adding 20 points. Swin Cash grabbed a season-high 12 rebounds for her second straight double-double while also handing out a season-high seven assists. Taurasi was unstoppable for the Mercury, scoring a WNBA season-high 44 points.

INJURIES

Storm - None.

Phoenix - None.