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Insider Preview - Storm vs. Phoenix

HEAD-TO-HEAD
19-13 RECORD 19-13
W-2 STREAK W-2
4-1 LAST 5 4-1
70.9 PF 89.5
98.1 Off. Eff. 110.4
69.8 PA 85.7
96.6 Def. Eff. 105.2
31.8 RPG 35.6
.505 Reb % .499
72.3 Pace 80.3
17.2 Exp. Wins 20.1

Storm (19-13) vs. Phoenix (19-13)
Friday, Sept. 11, 7:00 p.m.
KeyArena
TV: KONG 6/16
Radio: 1090 AM
Live Access: Live Video
Buy Tickets:
Promotion: Take Your Health by Storm presented by Group Health.

Kevin Pelton, StormBasketball.com


Three months after they opened the season at KeyArena on June 4, the Seattle Storm and Phoenix Mercury meet again with little more to separate them. With two games left in the 2011 season, the Storm and Mercury sport identical 19-13 records. As a result, tonight's game will go a long ways toward deciding which of the two teams will have home court advantage when they meet again in the opening round of the WNBA Playoffs starting next Thursday.

If the Storm wins tonight, that would guarantee the second seed. The best Phoenix could do would be to tie at 20-14, but the Storm would hold the head-to-head tie-breaker by virtue of winning the season series between the two teams. If the Mercury loses, the race will go down to the final day of the regular season. To finish second, the Storm would need to beat the Chicago Sky and hope the Minnesota Lynx - with nothing to play for - win in Phoenix.

Needless to say, winning tonight is the easier scenario, and that's why the Storm's motivation going into the game is clear.

"Our players don’t need a lot of pep talks and things like that," Storm Head Coach Brian Agler said after yesterday's practice. "They know what’s at stake. They’re great competitors and they’re hungry right now. Our job is to get them prepared and try to get them to game night healthy."

While the Storm was spending the week resting and practicing, Phoenix faces a difficult back-to-back scenario. The Mercury beat the Tulsa Shock 91-76 last night in Phoenix and flew to Seattle this morning. Corey Gaines was able to avoid overtaxing his players in the victory. No one played more than 30 minutes and Diana Taurasi logged just 23 minutes of action, scoring 21 points, as Gaines relied heavily on his reserves.

Penny Taylor did not play against the Shock, but is likely to return to the lineup tonight.

"I held her out tonight," Gaines explained to reporters.

Taylor missed two games last week with back spasms. She returned to the lineup Saturday against Los Angeles only to reaggravate her back shortly after halftime. Taylor has practiced this week, however, and should be ready to go after taking last night off.

No matter what happens in the last two games, Phoenix will finish in a familiar spot as the league's best offense. The Mercury is averaging 110.5 points per 100 possessions - nearly three points better than second-place Minnesota. What has been more telling of Phoenix's postseason success has been the team's performance at the defensive end of the floor. There, the Mercury ranks ninth, which is more than good enough to support the elite offensive attack. Phoenix's defense has been better than in 2009, when the team won its second championship.

Only one team has really had much success slowing down the Mercury's scoring - the Storm, which boasts the opposite philosophy when it comes to prioritizing defense over offense. In winning two of the three head-to-head meetings, the Storm has limited Phoenix to 76.3 points per game - more than 13 a night below the Mercury's usual average - and 41.7 percent shooting.

Phoenix did seem to find a more fruitful strategy during the second half of the last meeting on Aug. 16 at the US Airways Center. The Mercury used the Storm's tendency to switch against pick-and-rolls to set up mismatches in the paint which bigger players could utilize. The strategic change helped Phoenix rally from a double-digit deficit to win.

Of course, Phoenix did not have to deal with the size of Lauren Jackson in that game, which was her last before returning from hip surgery. The Storm was also without guard Tanisha Wright following the death of her mother. The remaining Storm players fought hard against the Mercury, but the absence of two starters severely compromised the team's depth in that game.

KEY MATCHUP
One key reason the Storm has had success against Phoenix this year has been the production from the team's bench. Katie Smith was a starter in place of Wright in the last meeting, but she's averaged 11.0 points head-to-head. Former Mercury starter Le'coe Willingham has also been effective, averaging 10.7 points. She came off the bench to score 15 in the last matchup. The Storm can use that kind of production because Phoenix boasts the league's top reserve in forward DeWanna Bonner, who is likely to win her third consecutive Sixth Woman Award. Bonner is averaging a career-best 6.9 rebounds per game to go with her 10.7 points this season.
LAST TIME

Over the course of winning nine consecutive games against the Mercury over the last two seasons, the Storm had come through in a variety of scenarios. In another close game Aug. 16 at the US Airways Center, the Storm was unable to make those kind of plays to extend the streak. After leading by as many as 18 points during a dominant first half, the Storm saw Phoenix come roaring back to take the lead in the fourth quarter. Two Camille Little buckets gave the Storm leads in the closing minutes, but the Mercury answered each time, tying the game with 30 seconds left. An awkward handoff between Sue Bird and Smith led to a Phoenix steal and Diana Taurasi paid it off at the other end with the go-ahead layup in transition. After a timeout, Swin Cash faked a pass and drove to the basket, but missed the possible tying shot before time ran out on the Storm.

Bird powered the Storm to an early lead, scoring 13 points in the first quarter alone. Thereafter, the Mercury defense cracked down on Bird, who finished with 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting. The Storm played without starting guard Wright, whose mother passed away last week. In her absence, Smith got the start and scored a season-high 16 points, knocking down four three-pointers. The Storm also got excellent offensive production from both Little and Willingham, who combined for 31 points on 19 shot attempts. Cash struggled offensively, missing six of her seven shot attempts, but did yeoman's work on the glass. Cash's 15 rebounds tied her career high, set July 18, 2002 at Washington.

INJURIES

Storm - Center Lauren Jackson (recovery from hip surgery) is probable.

Phoenix - Forward Penny Taylor (muscle spasms) is probable.

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